Thursday, February 26, 2009

The 2009 Boston Science-Fiction Marathon, Pt II

After Logan's Run, it was totally time for some food. Unfortunately McDonald's was about the only fast option. While munching on burgers and a tasty parfait, I took in the next few films of Boston's 24-hour science fiction marathon. (Read Part One.)

5. Alongside the "Aliens Attack" theme, the marathon also honored Michael Crichton (who passed away in November) by screening Runaway (1984). It's the future, robots are everywhere, and Tom Selleck stars as Sgt Jack Ramsay, who specializes in robot-related crimes and has an intense fear of heights (prepare for several moments reminiscent of Vertigo), as well as being a single parent. Karen Thompson (Cynthia Rhodes) is his pretty new partner. Together they uncover a conspiracy involving the evil Dr Charles Luther (Gene Simmons- yes, that Gene Simmons), who has been tampering with domestic robots and turning them into ruthless killing machines, while persistently maintaining a dastardly glare. Ramsay enlists Jackie Rogers (Kirstie Alley) to help find Luther, but in the end it turns into a personal death-defying, high-heights battle between the two men. This movie is awesome. I mean, come on. The synopsis alone is enough. Pure, robotic, mustachioed, futuristic fun. 4.5/5

6. Alien Raiders (2008) is a new film that unfortunately will be straight to DVD. Almost the entirety of its action takes place within a large grocery store which has been taken over by a group of supposed thieves. Led by Aaron Ritter (Carlos Bernard), they kill a few of the shoppers- including a cop- and let several others go, while two of their own are killed in the initial struggle. They stuff the bodies in the meat locker and the hostages left are subjected to a special test, meant to sniff out a certain disease (aka alien infestation) that they've tracked to the store. This test is fairly menacing and painful, and the hostages make various attempts to escape their fates. There are a lot of setbacks and deaths, police interference, and then a big alien monster attacks everyone! It's a really entertaining, well-done movie. My main issue is that the "surprise" ending is pretty foreseeable, but it's still a fun way to end it. Plus, Ben Rock, the director, was there for a Q & A and he was really cool. 4/5

7. During The Thing From Another World (1951), I was starting to get a little sleepy, but I still really enjoyed it. While stationed at the North Pole, a bunch of scientists and military-types encounter a mysterious metal craft buried in the ice. They find an alien creature frozen inside and take it back to their base, guarding it to keep from thawing. Dr Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) thinks it's a super-intelligent higher being that can impart wisdoms to humanity, while Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) is all "we can't do anything until 'Washington' tells us to". Of course the creature thaws accidentally and starts terrorizing the inhabitants of the small base, who must use every resource available to stop it. I dug the arctic setting of the story, and the writing was tight, building up a good amount of tension. I was annoyed by the "science vs military" thing, with Carrington portrayed as cold-hearted and impractical, and Hendry as heroic and commanding, but I think that's more an indicator of its time. 4/5

8. Another movie I was really excited for was Repo Man (1984), which was really weird but really fun. Emilio Estevez is Otto, a recently unemployed punk who gets roped into being a repo man by Bud (Harry Dean Stanton). In learning the ropes of car repossession, he runs into an attractive UFO conspiracy theorist, rival repo men, lots of violence, his friends' crime sprees, and a much-sought-after 1964 Chevy Malibu with mysterious forces in its trunk. I dug the surreal, wacky world Alex Cox created. Lots of ambiguities and silly characters, like a more punk rock Gilliam film. I didn't like Otto that much though- he was a jerk and sort of annoying. It was hard for me to really care what happened to him. I also thought the story was a little too all-over-the-place, as if the alien element was an afterthought when it could have been a more exciting part of the plot. Still very good, just not quite as good as I had expected. 4/5

All right, kids, I'll have the final part of the Boston Sci-Fi Marathon coverage next time!


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The 2009 Boston Science-Fiction Marathon, Pt I

24 hours of straight science-fiction, hell yes. That is what happens at the historic Somerville Theatre every President's Weekend. This was my first time at the so-called "'Thon" and it was pretty rad. The theme was "Aliens Attack!" and 13 films were shown. I sat through them all except one. Lots of trailers and shorts were placed between them, which I really dug. Now, watching so many movies in a short period of time means it all sort of runs together, so I'm not going to give like 12 in-depth posts dedicated to each individual film. Instead you'll get short reviews based on what I can remember/decipher from the sleepiness-induced hallucinations.

1. First up was Alien Trespass (2009), which hasn't actually been released yet. It's a very well-done send up of 50's alien invasion movies. Eric McCormack plays Ted Lewis, a happily married astronomer who is perpetually smoking a pipe. His body is taken over by Urp, a recently-crashed alien who must stop the replicating, man-eating creatures that followed him to earth. He enlists the aid of Tammy (Jenni Baird), a surprisingly capable waitress, to defeat the imminent invasion. The story also follows Lewis' wife, some curious teenagers, and the inept police department (one of whom is played by Robert Patrick aka T-1000). It's very funny, with some great sight gags, allusions, and misunderstandings. Definitely one of my favourite movies shown at the marathon. It gets a limited release on April 3. 4.5/5

2. Then came It Came From Outer Space 3-D (1953), which I've wanted to see for a while ever since resolving to watch every movie referenced in the opening song to Rocky Horror. It was pretty good, but I hated the 3-D thing. It was with those old school red/blue cellophane deals, and it hurt my head to wear over my regular glasses. The 3-D wasn't used particularly well in the film, either, but there were some times I thought I might be hit by falling debris. Based on a Ray Bradbury story and directed by Jack Arnold, it follows John Putnam and Ellen Fields as they investigate a supposed meteor crash and several ensuing missing persons cases. Putnam discovers that aliens have landed and are trying to inconspicuously repair their ship by taking on the appearances of various townspeople. They're willing to be peaceful, unless someone tries to interfere. A good premise, but a little slow-moving. 3.5/5

3. Chrysalis (2008) is the only movie I really didn't like, and most of the audience agreed. Taking place in an ambiguously chaotic, military-regime future and also based on a Bradbury story, it details the events of a botanical research facility with only three residents. When Smith (Glen Vaughan) suddenly sinks into a coma and begins to form a moss-like cocoon around his body, Dr Rockwell (Darren Kendrick) is called in to find a cure. They all stand around watching for a few days and at some point military people come. Rockwell thinks he'll wake up to be some sort of savior, while Hartley (John Klemantaski), the head of research, thinks he'll become a monster and constantly tries to kill him. The movie was really slow moving and overall pretty dull. I think it would have been more interesting as a short film, or they could have expanded upon the events of the outside world, which seemed to be experiencing some sort of epidemic and lots of rioting. It's labeled as being in "post-production" on imdb, so maybe they're still tweaking it. I just don't think this story warranted a full-length movie. It looked pretty good though, considering this (presumably) had a very small budget, as a first-time directing/writing/acting situation for several main players. 2/5

4. One of the movies I was most excited for was Logan's Run (1976), which overall I really enjoyed, but found way too lengthy. Based on the book of the same name, it chronicles the trials of Logan 5 (Michael York) as he discovers his seemingly utopian world is decidedly sinister. Everyone (on earth? in America? it is unclear) resides in a technologically advanced, hedonistic city that is completely walled off from the outside. Its residents are all quite young (and for the most part, quite white) because when they hit 30, they sacrifice themselves to be "reborn" to maintain equilibrium. No one knows what old age is, and no one really understands actual death. Logan is a "Sandman", hunting down any who try to run away from the city when their time comes. He is charged with finding Sanctuary, the alleged safe haven for escaped runners, and enlists Jessica (Jenny Agutter) for her connections to the underground rebels to help him find it. As he learns more about the inner workings of the system, Logan desires to actually run away. But even if he and Jessica make it, they may find the outside to be much different than they expected. It's a well-done dystopian tale that manages to be consistently engaging despite its length, though it does drag at the end. I haven't read the book so maybe the filmmakers just wanted to keep as much of the original tale as possible. Visually it was grandiose and imaginative, except some of the female fashions were revealing to the point of making me nervous. 4.5/5

That's it for now. You'll discover the following four films next time!


Monday, February 23, 2009

Post 100: We Made It!

All of Denton is celebrating!Or at least, I made it! Me, Alexandra Kittle! 100 posts: I guess this is some sort of achievement worthy of mention, right? I am pretty proud of myself for keeping up with this here blog thing. It makes me feel like I'm maybe being slightly productive by writing about the tons of movies I'd be watching anyway. And it's been really nice that people read it sometimes and comment! And by "really nice", I mean "life-affirming". Perhaps someone is getting something out of this besides me, but if not that's ok. I'll probably keep doing it for a while- it's kind of addictive.

We'll resume to our regularly scheduled movie ramblings in the next post! I just wanted to vaguely commemorate this important time in all of our lives.


Casablanca (1942)

I've been trying to establish a tradition of attending the Valentine's Day screening of Casablanca at the Brattle Theatre ever since I started college, but have since only been able to go once. This year it was totally sold out because I guess we didn't plan ahead plus it was a Saturday. Dang. Luckily one of our group had a super awesome deluxe box set situation of the film, so we settled in for a viewing with the additions of beer, Chinese food, and outspoken commentary.

Based on the then-unpublished play, Everybody Comes to Rick's, the basic plot of Casablanca centers around Rick (Humphrey Bogart), a cynical American bar owner, and his former love Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). Set during the earlier years of WWII in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, the film highlights the myriad European refugees attempting to gain exit visas so they can escape to America, only to be thwarted by the Nazi soldiers stationed there to ensure the citizens answer to Vichy France. Rick's club sees all kinds of kooky frequenters, many biding their time until they are able to leave, others trapped indefinitely. He is a mysterious figure to all, maintaining an aloofness from even the inquisitive and immoral Captain Renault (Claude Rains) who desperately tries to figure him out. Unexpectedly, Rick agrees to temporarily hold important exit papers for the crooked Ugarte (Peter Lorre), only to see him shot by soldiers minutes later.

Enter the famous rebel leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his alluring wife Ilsa, and Rick is, seemingly for the first time in his life, floored. Through ambiguous conversations and a telling flashback, their love story is revealed. They had been together in Paris for a short while and had plans to leave when the Germans began invading, but Ilsa never showed up at the train station, leaving Rick devastated as he rode away along with piano player and bff Sam (Dooley Wilson). He's never forgiven her and hoped to never see her again. Victor is wanted by the Nazis and must make it to America as soon as possible, and it is widely suspected that Rick holds the missing exit papers. Therefore, it's up to Rick to decide who can leave, while the Nazis plan their move against Laszlo and whoever has the papers.

Casablanca is rightfully considered a classic: everything from its story, cinematography, music, and performances is just top-notch. It's a star-crossed-lovers tale with much more depth and realness than anything Shakespeare concocted (whatever, Romeo and Juliet sucks). Bogart and Bergman ooze chemistry, creating naturally riveting scenes every time they are together. Rick is confident, inscrutable, and immovably cool. Ilsa is magnetic and strong, but sympathetic. Even though comparatively little screen time is actually devoted to their romance, I would still easily label it one of my favourite romantic films. That's just how good they are.

This is an intricately crafted film, filled with entertaining side conversations and affecting characters. It's a portrait of the city during a specific time period, fraught with tension and desperation. It's not action-packed or thrillingly paced, but never dull. Each moment has significance in some way. Casablanca manages to be funny and whistful, hopeful and hopeless all at the same time. It has its flaws like anything else, but nothing could detract from its iconic themes of enduring love and the fight for freedom. Let's just hope nobody tries to remake it.


Sing along!

The most moving scene in the film. I have no particular national pride for any country, but this somehow manages to get to me every time.


Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Craft (1996)

After her family relocates to Los Angeles, shy Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney) finds herself falling into a group of outcast girls who practice witchcraft. Nancy (Fairuza Balk) is their intense and cold-hearted leader, suffering from an abusive step father at home. Bonnie (Neve Campbell) is soft-spoken and highly self-conscious about severe burn scars running down her back and arms. Rochelle (Rachel True) is constantly terrorized by the racist and pompous Laura (Christine Taylor). Once Sarah joins their group, her innate powers boost their spells so that suddenly the girls' wishes start coming true. Bonnie's scars disappear and she gains self-confidence, Laura starts to lose her hair and as a result lays off the bullying, and the asshole (Skeet Ulrich) who badmouthed Sarah when she first arrived becomes obsessed with her and treats her like a queen.

Nancy desires ultimate power over the elements, and calls to the highest nature god to give her this gift. After gaining mastery, she sort of kills her step father, whose substantial life insurance policy goes to her and her mom. Of course, nothing this good can last long. Bonnie becomes a self-centered bitch, Laura is horrified by Lizzie's suffering but ignores it, and Nancy goes mad crazy with power. Sarah sees the changes in her friends and tries to curtail their magical doings, but the three of them turn against her. Now it's an all-out war on both physical and psychological levels.

The Craft is the kind of movie I would have really really been into in middle school or early high school. It's got girl power and magic, what else could one want? Seeing it now at 20 (almost 21!), I wasn't so engrossed. I like Fairuza Balk a lot, and here she was perfectly cast: she naturally has the look- especially the wild eyes- necessary for the part. Robin Tunney was really good too, playing the vulnerable but powerful high school girl very well. It was really nice to see such a female-heavy cast, especially in a story that didn't center around romantic escapades. It was more about the relationships girls form in high school and the mistrust that surrounds them constantly. And bullying is wrong, magic is awesome, etc. My main issue is that I couldn't take a lot of it seriously, but it wasn't campy enough to laugh at. I don't know if it's the writers not knowing the mood they wanted, a poorly executed screenplay in general, or just my own "maturity". Dig the hip 90's soundtrack, though, plus the effects were well-done. See it if you like witches in private school uniforms.


"How Soon is Now?"- The Smiths (also the Charmed theme song... coincidence?)


Friday, February 20, 2009

Coraline (2009)

Oh goodness, Henry Selick and Neil Gaiman teaming up: what a perfect pairing. Based on Gaiman's young adult novel, Coraline is a stunningly beautiful stop-motion film focusing on Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning), a curious pre-teen who has recently moved to an odd pink apartment complex with her gardener/writer parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman). Dismayed by their workaholic tendencies, she explores the dismal surrounding area, which includes a dead garden, meeting the weird kid next door Wybie (Robert Bailey, Jr) and the acrobat Bobinsky (Ian McShane) upstairs who trains a mouse circus. She discovers a secret knee-high door, presumably existing as a link to the unoccupied apartment connected to theirs, and convinces her mom to give her the key, only to find it opens to a brick wall. Following this incident, Coraline begins dreaming of a perfect world beyond the door, an ideal version of her own life.

It's just like her apartment, but more magical, and eventually turns out to not be a dream. Her parents are just like her parents, but doting and perpetually in good moods. Wybie's there but unable to speak and therefore less annoying, and Bobinsky is the ring leader of an exciting circus. Her downstairs neighbors, the Misses Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Forcible (Dawn French), relive their stage days by transforming into their younger selves and performing for Coraline and a host of yappy dogs. There's even a huge fanciful garden in the shape of her face. Everything is pretty wonderful, until the Other Mother insists that Coraline sews buttons into her own eyes so she can match everyone else there. She refuses and escapes, only to find her real parents missing. In a desperate attempt to keep Coraline, the Other Mother kidnapped them. Now our heroine must fight to save her parents as well as the souls of the children Other Mother has stolen in the past, with the aid of Wybie and a mysterious omniscient cat (Keith David).

This movie is awesome all around. It's a decent adaptation of the novel, even (I thought) improving the plot in some ways. It doesn't seek to change too many things (often the downfall of a book-to-screen situation), only adding one new and minor character (Wybie) and slightly shifting some of the chronology. Anything else extra is an exciting visual additive such as the garden. I liked that they gave Coraline more of a personal struggle. In the book, she quickly realized that this world was ominous and it was more about saving her parents. In the film, she was completely taken in by the Other Mother's playland and had to fight against the temptation to stay there. It made the story more dramatic. The main adaptation-related aspect that bugged me is the way the ghost children were done. I don't want to be completely spoilerific here but let's just say a certain segment that was really interesting in the book was just weird and irritating in the movie.

Visually, Coraline is perfect. I didn't see it in 3-D because I actually kind of hate 3-D (it's really uncomfortable for a person who wears regular vision-correcting glasses, and I don't think it adds anything special to my viewing experience), but I'm sure it's just as good. It's the kind of movie during which I reveled in every detail. I was literally staring agape for the entire opening scene, completely beguiled by the imagery before me. I have long thought stop-motion to be one of the best forms of animation, and this film is probably the best example I've seen. The world Selick has created is intricate and imaginative but still believable. The character designs are over-the-top but relatable, and their movements are natural and precise. The care that went in to creating each piece of the set and figures is incredibly apparent, and I found myself constantly wondering how they achieved certain effects. It's so much better knowing that each action was hand-crafted and not done by computer- it looks better and it feels better, too!

Overall this is a really fun, creative fantasy. The heroine has moxie and the soundtrack is swell. It's darker than your average kid's film, which I always like to see. Most exciting of all, there's a musical with a score by Stephin Merritt! Eeeee! I wish I wasn't out of the country in May.


"Other Father Song"- They Might Be Giants


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

I've seen this movie a bunch of times but I feel like I haven't actually watched it from start to finish in one sitting before, so I caught a lot of things I hadn't the other times it was my television screen. Joss Whedon's first big writing job, Buffy the Vampire Slayer incorporates elements of horror, combat, and satirical comedy to tell the first story of teenage cheerleader-turned-vampire-killer Buffy (Kristy Swanson). She's vapid, privileged, popular, and carefree; most of her conversations revolve around fashion and planning the upcoming school dance. After some suspicious disappearances in the area involving bloodsucking, a strange man named Merrick (Donald Sutherland) appears to Buffy, explaining that the time has come for her to claim her birthright and start killing some vampires already.

She reluctantly believes him after witnessing the horror for herself, and begins hardcore training in a fighting montage. She loses interest in her old friends, boyfriend, and cheerleading as she becomes embroiled in defeating the deadly leader vampire Lothos (Rutger Hauer). She befriends outcast Pike (Luke Perry), who had seen his best friend Benny (David Arquette) being vampirey and is now committed to helping the slayer out. Maybe a romance will also form. It all culminates at the big dance, with Buffy attempting to maintain some semblance of normal teenage life until of course her night is ruined by vampires trying to take over the school. We know she'll win, since she continued to do her thing for like seven years on the small screen.

This is one of those rare instances in which a television spin off of a movie is way better than the source material. I like this movie, but it really pales in comparison. One of the problems for me is definitely Kristy Swanson, who just doesn't seem to own the role as much as Sarah Michelle Gellar did. She just falls flat in many scenes. There are a lot of great smaller performances though, including Paul Ruebens as Lothos' wise-cracking sidekick and Stephen Root as the silly principal. An uncredited Ben Affleck and young Hilary Swank are inexplicably there too for brief periods. Add in David Arquette and it's like hey, how many careers did this help launch?

Buffy is fun and imaginative, with a cool premise and a lot of great dialogue playing around with "teen speak", but it's hard for me to have an opinion that doesn't hold it up against the tv show. According to IMDb, a lot of changes were made to lighten up the original script, and Joss Whedon eventually disowned the project. I can definitely see that being true based on certain plot points. It's interesting to see how the concept developed from the movie to the show, but not a particularly great film. It's the kind of thing I'll watch whenever it's on though, just because, why not?



Transsiberian (2008)

This is one of those movies that I know a little about beforehand but then takes a turn and goes into completely unexpected territory. Directed and co-written by Brad Anderson, Transsiberian tells the thrilling tale of married couple Jessie (Emily Mortimer) and Roy (Woody Harrelson), taking the train through Russia on their way home to America from a missionary trip to China. Jessie, an amateur photographer, goes around the train with her camera while Roy, an aw-shucks, friendly kind of guy, makes friends with their bunkmates, Abby (Kate Mara) and Carlos (Eduardo Noriega). As the couples warm up to each other we learn some interesting facts about each everyone's pasts.

Jessie, who refuses all alcohol, used to live a pretty wild life after she ran away from home as a teenager. She met the religious Roy when she crashed into him while driving drunk. Abby is also a runaway and hoping to make enough money to buy back a lake house in Vancouver that used to belong to her uncle. Carlos claims to be transporting babushka dolls to sell in Europe, but almost any time he is in a conversation there is a feeling of uncertainty and looming terror in the air. It's like a clue or something. After Roy get left behind and Jessie waits at the next station with Abby and Carlos, the story really takes off, involving things like sexual harassment, drug trafficking, photography, murder, torture, and a good amount of running. I don't want to spoil it though, except to say that Ben Kingsley is involved.

Without giving too much away I can say that this is a really exciting film that does some interesting things with its characters and premise. I didn't expect it to explore the themes it did, and I liked being surprised at various turns, although a few plot points were predictable. It is a great example of ordinary people thrust into an extraordinary situation and their resulting life-changing decisions. Emily Mortimer carried the whole thing, which was nice since I haven't seen her really star in anything, and she was quite good. She played the duplicitous but well-meaning Jessie with grit and skill. Woody Harrelson was his adorable self but wasn't in it very much (I guess I expected more of a lead role). Ben Kingsley was creepy, Russian, and badass.

Overall I really liked Transsiberian. It is intense and creative, but oscillates between being slow-moving and really well-paced. It took a while to build up to the direction it wanted to go, if that makes sense. It's the kind of film I enjoyed a lot but don't really feel the need to re-watch. Also maybe it has given me a Fear of Trains.



Thursday, February 12, 2009

What a Way to Go! (1964)

Apparently this was one of those movies set up to be a big deal with a notable cast and grandiose budget, but nobody really liked. I'm not sure why. Shirley MacLaine stars as the recently widowed Louisa May Foster, who tries to give a multimillion dollar check to the IRS. She is sent to a psychiatrist, Dr Victor Stephanson (Robert Cummings), to whom she unveils her tale of numerous and woeful marriages. She was raised humbly in a small town run by the wealthy Leonard Crawley (Dean Martin), who was dead set on marrying her. Louisa denies his advances and instead marries Edgar Hopper (Dick Van Dyke), a laid back storeowner who'd rather fish all day than run his store. She lives happily with him for awhile until Crawley intimidates Hopper into becoming a huge success. He buys out all of Crawley's stores and becomes rich but also a workaholic, eventually working himself to death. Heartbroken, Louisa moves to Paris, where she meets Larry Flint (Paul Newman), a starving expatriate artist. They marry and live blissfully simply until Louisa inadvertently invents a special machine that creates paintings through music. Flint becomes an overnight success, makes tons of money, and tirelessly works with these machines until they backfire and kill him.

Intending to head back to America, Louisa meets the affluent playboy Rod Anderson, Jr (Robert Mitchum) and accepts a plane ride home. They fall in love and marry, with Louisa hoping that since he was already rich before she met him, her apparent curse won't have an effect. She suggests they return to the humble farm life he knew before he made his money, but he's soon killed by a farming accident. By now Louisa is pretty averse to love and especially marriage, but ends up falling for comedian/dancer Pinky Benson (Gene Kelly), who maintains a desire to never become famous and whose hokey act ensures he never will. Of course one night she persuades him to put on his show without his over-the-top clown costume and props, and it turns out he is very talented as a straight dancer/singer and becomes a huge, self-obsessed film star. He is crushed by his fans and leaves Louisa the huge check we saw in the beginning. Will the jaded and cursed Louisa ever find love without becoming rich and killing it?

This was a surprisingly clever black comedy (well not that surprising when I saw the screenplay was by Betty Comden and Adolph Green). It sets up a formula and reuses it four times, but I really like the formula: for each marriage there's a film genre parody to illustrate how Louisa saw her married life. With Hopper it was a slapstick silent film, with Flint, artsy French erotica, with Anderson a big-budget fashion-focused Hollywood romance, and with Benson a fluffy Astaire-like musical. I loved seeing these self-effacing homages to classic film styles, and they also made the character of Louisa incredibly endearing for her vivid imagination. Though I'm prone to adore Shirley MacLaine in any role, she truly led the show here, soaring high above her well-known male costars as she rocked hundreds of crazy outfits and narrated Louisa's tale with unassuming humor. Of course her male counterparts were incredible as well; I especially enjoyed seeing Dick Van Dyke being his likable self and Gene Kelly dancing around with exceptional flair even at 52.

What a Way to Go! was nominated for its art direction and Edith Head costumes and wow, that is so apparent. The visuals are really impressive, often involving heavy colour saturation amidst grandiose and unreal sets. It is pretty cool. MacLaine's warddrobe is often laughably complex or over-styled, feeding into the lampooning of big-budget romances. That being said, I think the film sometimes ventured into being too over the top, but considering its silly story and visual surrealness I guess it's not really a fault. It's just a really entertaining film, especially for fans of classic comedies.



Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)

I'm one of those people who went into this wanting to love it, even though I had already read tons of mediocre reviews. Even with this predilection to enjoy it I will say it's fairly mediocre, though not without merit. Directly adapted from the stage musical and set in an unknown future, Repo! The Genetic Opera musically tells the tale of the corrupt organ donar company Geneco and its effects on Shilo (Alexa Vega), a teenager with an incurable blood disease, and her overprotective father Nathan (Anthony Head), who quarantines her away while secretly employed as a Repo Man. Geneco's policy is to cheaply organize organ transplants and cosmetic surgeries, but if anyone skimps on a payment, his or her body part will be repossessed in a violent mode that usually ends in death. The head of Geneco, Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino) holds a secret regarding Shilo's mother, who died in childbirth, and entices Shilo to disobey her father's wishes and leave the house.

She meets the Geneco spokesperson and opera singer Blind Mag (Sarah Brightman) but ends up amidst unruly Zydrate addicts (a drug gathered from the dead bodies of people who've had surgery... I think). She has to figure out who to trust while discovering the truth about her family and her disease. Simultaneously, Largo's children have been fighting to be named his successor but they're all pretty inept. Luigi (Bill Moseley) has anger management issues/homicidal tendencies, Pavi (Nivek Ogre) is constantly stealing people's faces to wear as his own, and Amber Sweet (Paris Hilton) is addicted to cosmetic surgery and Zydrate. It all culminates at the Geneco Genetic Opera, a grand affair with lots of climactic confrontations. And every single word of the film is sung (I was a little surprised by this; I didn't realize it was literally an opera since that term is sometimes used loosely).

Ok, first the good: Visually, it was really lovely. These guys did not have much of a budget, to be sure, but the dismal futuristic setting was truly impressive and well-executed. It moved back and forth between cool, seedy exteriors and lush, detailed interiors. I really enjoyed the comic book-style sequences sprinkled throughout to show flashbacks in a way more interesting than putting everything in black and white or something. A cool technique. I was digging the costumes as well, composed mainly of Victorian-inspired women's wear and slick men's wear: lots of lace and corsets and dark colours and thick fabrics, mmm. The performances were ok. I really liked Anthony Head, who is quite fit for his age and sang very well, shifting between the ruthless Repo Man and caring father with flair. Alexa Vega was all right but wasn't always able to negotiate singing her more conversational lines without awkwardness. I liked Terrance Zdunich (the co-writer) as the narrator-type Graverobber character.

The not-so-good: The plot was confusing and sort of thin. Some of the ideas were really interesting but the execution and various layers did not always work out. The construction wasn't as dramatic and well put-together as the writers seemed to think, based on the placement of certain songs. Which brings me to the music: it was... ok? I'm impressed with anyone who can write an opera because man it must be hard! But the music itself often strove into the Evanescence side of things, heavily laden with exaggerated gothy guitars and laughably angsty lyrics. But sometimes it was pretty good. The main problem was, I honestly couldn't tell if they were being campy and over-dramatic on purpose or not. I thought a lot of it was funny but was unsure if I should be laughing at how silly and sometimes lame it all was or how actually purposefully funny it was, if that makes sense. It just sat on that line.

Final verdict: Repo! was just ok. I couldn't help liking it for some things, especially with my fondness for idiosyncratic, darkly comedic musicals and anything set in the future. As much as I wanted to love it, it really missed the mark in some places. Apparently it's meant to be part of a trilogy, in which this is the middle film. A sequel or prequel is being talked about but I'm not sure this did well enough to warrant them getting more funding. I'd probably still see either one, in a desperate attempt to foster more weird musicals being made into movies and with the hopes they do a bit better the second time around.


Also: I don't know who their graphic design people were, but the promo posters are absolutely awesome, as well as plentiful. Excellent, eye-catching propaganda-type silkscreen style. Check it out.


Friday, February 6, 2009

Top Five: Play Adapations

... from plays I've seen or read, that is, which limits our choices, but oh well. I've always been more of a musical person, anyway. I've seen some really great movies based on plays and seen/read some really great plays that don't have movie versions/that I haven't seen the movies of. But based on what I know, here are some of my favourite play adaptations, inspired by watching An Ideal Husband the other day. It would probably be different if I spent more of my time at the theatre, as it were.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

I just realized that maybe this doesn't count, since I've only seen the musical version of the original play (Parfumerie, by Miklos Laszlo). But I went to all the trouble of finding the poster and it's such a great movie, so... whatever.

His Girl Friday (1940)

Basing this film on The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, Howard Hawks chose to switch the gender of one the main characters, turning a tale of friendship into one of competitive romance. What resulted is a smart and funny "battle of the sexes"-type movie with excellent performances from Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. My high school even did this version when I was in stage crew, lo those many years ago.

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

I really dig both the play by Joseph Kesselring and the Capra-directed movie version. It's an excellent slapstick comedy with delightfully sinister undertones, incorporating homicidal tendencies and fear of madness into the familiar "kooky family" subtext. Another top-notch Cary Grant performance (though I'm not sure if he was ever less than that?).

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

This is probably my favourite play. It has one of the best concepts I've ever heard: two minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet roam around aimlessly in between their scenes, unsure what to do when their lines are not written for them and without any sense of self or purpose or even memory. It's funny, surreal, philosophical, and tragic. The movie is excellent, with the fantastically-cast Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, and Richard Dreyfuss. Tom Stoppard, the original playwright, directed it, making it a very personal project.

The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)

My other favourite play, I guess (so hard to choose these things!), and a surprisingly near word-for-word adaptation with a great cast. It's just really fun and silly, as long as you don't think too hard about the cousiny incest. They took advantage of moving from stage to screen by incorporating different settings and certain visual gags that couldn't have been done in a theatre. I think some play adaptations either don't make good use of screen techniques or try to do too much.

Honorable Mentions
12 Angry Men (1957) (this should probably be higher on the list but I haven't seen it in so long that I felt weird having in a top 5; I remember it being totally awesome though)
The Children's Hour (1961)
Deathtrap (1982)
Noises Off... (1992)
Peter Pan (2003)


Wendy and Lucy (2008)

I didn't have a particular interest in this movie, but not much else was playing and I wanted to see how Michelle Williams was doing. In Wendy and Lucy, she plays a young girl driving from Indiana to Alaska with the promise of a lucrative seasonal job, accompanied only by her dog, Lucy. She has what she hopes will be enough money for food and gas along the way, but not much to spare. After getting kicked out of a Walgreens parking lot outside of Portland (I think? it's in Oregon, anyway, and the credits said it was filmed in Portland) by a well-meaning, elderly security guard (Wally Dalton), her car breaks down. While waiting for the repair shop to open she gets caught stealing from a local grocery and is forced to leave Lucy tied up outside the store while she's held at the police station.

After being released hours later, her dog is gone. She walks around the town calling her name before checking at the pound, which has no record of picking her up. With no phone and no permanent address (she gives her sister's place as a previous address), Wendy has to constantly check up on the pound herself, borrowing the security guard's cell phone. Meanwhile the auto mechanic suspects her car needs completely new parts, totaling a few hundred dollars depending on supply, but holds it in the shop for a close inspection. With nowhere to sleep, she camps out on some cardboard sheets in the woody area near train tracks. The fate of the two most important things to her- her dog/best friend and her means of travel/shelter- hangs delicately before her. We learn very little about her past, future, or character, focusing only on these pivotal few days.

This is a sparse, uncomplicated film that demands a lot from its star. Williams was understated in her performance, with no big shows of Acting! but instead creating a poised, pragmatic woman who resides constantly on the brink of despair without ceding to it. Wendy held herself together well and seemed very much a master of her own destiny, which made me feel more sympathy for her than I might a less independent or driven person. She is doing the best she can with what she has and trying to make it a little better, but outside forces are not on her side. She doesn't seek aide, but accepts it when it's offered. Her only real joy seems to come from Lucy, appreciative of the love her dog unabashedly gives and the small escape from day-to-day troubles she offers.

I am usually not affected by a-person-and-his-or-her-dog stories, I guess because I never had a dog and am not even really a fan of dogs. I never had an intense connection with any pet and today the hairier kind just serve to ignite my allergies. So it's not something I'm able to relate to or fully appreciate. For some reason, this one got to me a lot more than I thought it would. It's the main thing I have to say about the film: I was totally affected by the relationship between this girl and her dog. That being said, as a whole Wendy and Lucy was just sort of eh. Williams was very good, and the concept is very relevant to today's economy, but the execution was too minimalist for me. It's slow-moving and dragging, with several unnecessary scenes to fill up time due to the scant plot. Not much really happens, there's very little dialogue, and it's all pretty hopeless and gritty. It's interesting and well-done but not really my thing. I like it more when movies offer an escape from real life, but I guess that makes me sort of shallow.



Thursday, February 5, 2009

Vals Im Bashir (Waltz With Bashir) (2008)

Using Flash animation to surrealistically describe the horrors of the 1982 Lebanon War, Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir has been assigned the niche category of animated documentary. This is a topic I know very little about, so my opinion on the movie is very ill-informed. I saw it mainly for the animation, as I was extremely interested to see how Flash would translate into a feature-length dramatic film. My feelings are... mixed.

Upon the realization that he doesn't remember most of his time as a soldier during the war, with exception of a recurring vision of the Sabra and Satila massacre in Beirut, Folman embarks on a series of interviews with former comrades in an attempt to fill in the blanks. The film therefore unfolds as a collection of short stories: remembrances conversationally narrated by former Israeli soldiers. One man was stranded in enemy territory after his tank was attacked. Escaping to the shore, he swam for hours until he spotted the other tanks from his unit making their way down the beach. Another recalls a fearless, unarmed reporter walking calmly down the street amidst copious gunfire as his terrified cameraman crawled in front of him. The stories all lead up to the massacre, ending with gruesome live-action footage from the event. It is a pretty unsettling experience.

Like I said, I don't know anything about this conflict. My more-informed friends have told me this film is a great stride for Israel because it doesn't really choose sides or glorify war as a necessary action. This I commend. Unfortunately I think that a lot of it assumed a knowledge of both this specific conflict as well as the soldiering life in general. I understand that it was all based on real events and memories, and the interview style resulted in conversational, non-expository storytelling, but I felt a little lost at parts or unable to fully grasp what was going on or who certain people were. This has happened to me often with war stories- I could not get a handle on A Farewell to Arms because the narrator kept changing locations and nothing was ever explained (ugh I hated that book). I would assume that anyone who could relate to it or just has more interest in war would have been much more engrossed by the plot (as opposed to someone like me, who has avoided most war-related movies or books). It was still a very affecting film- intense and real.

I was there for the animation, anyway. The backgrounds were excellent, composed of fiery skies and detailed buildings, with good textures. The direction was good, especially the opening scene in which rabid dogs careen through the streets and the fantasy involving a young man sailing atop a large blue woman. The character design and movement, though, were less than exceptional. There was often not enough detail to tell people apart (which is important when the only characters in your movie are dark-haired white guys). I think a lot of it has to do with Flash as an animating platform, not the artists themselves. It gives everything this weird flat sheen and the colours don't seem to fit. The lines are too thick. When shown closeup, no one's movements look natural enough, though for this film they seemed to be attempting a rotoscope affect with the interviews. It's a lot of little things, and to me it was very noticeable and did detract a bit from my overall appreciation.

I'm sure the animation defects wouldn't bother most people, and I definitely applaud Folman for experimenting with the art form when most animated movies are CG and for kids. I hope the animated documentary becomes a viable form of the genre (I still have to see Chicago 10, but that's the only other one I know of). Waltz with Bashir remains a very powerful documentary about a terrifying and ever-present conflict as well as the mental after-effects of battle. I haven't seen the other Best Foreign Film nominees and since obviously Let The Right One In isn't getting the respect it deserves, I hope this wins for its show of uniqueness.



Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Los Cronocrímenes (Timecrimes) (2007)

Let's do this: Nacho Vigalondo's Los Cronocrímenes starts out as a slasher film until suddenly it turns out to be all about time travel! Wowee! Hector (Karra Elejalde) and his wife Clara (Candela Fernandez) have just moved into their new home, a large semi-secluded house in a woody area of Spain. While Clara is out shopping, Hector makes good use of his binoculars in a sweep around the forest surrounding his backyard. He glimpses a beautiful young woman undressing and wanders around in the forest trying to find her, only to be attacked by a man with a bandaged head and black coat. He flees and breaks into a large laboratory complex, finding a walkie talkie with which to communicate with the one person working there.

He makes it to the small isolated lab where the other man, a young scientist (Nacho Vigalondo), has barricaded himself. He persuades Hector to hide from the assailant in a circular vat of goo, locking him inside. When the lid opens, Hector discovers that he has been sent back in time a few hours to around the time the movie started. He is confused, frightened, and understandably angry at the scientist for secretly experimenting on him. He returns to the woods and slowly comes to the realization that everything that had happened to him earlier was by his own doing. Now he must make sure the same chain of events occurs, for fear of his past self never getting into the time machine, resulting in multiple Hectors.

This was a very well-thought-out, surprisingly simple time travel tale. It took one event and examined the possibilities if time travel were added to the mix. Vigalondo didn't try to overcomplicate it with multiple storylines or interconnected characters or splashy special effects or sciencey explanations. The film is very straightforward and respects its audience's intelligence, which I appreciated. It did have some holes, though, like most time travel-related stories. The main issue my cohort had was that there was no "original" Hector. He gets into the time machine because his future self went into the past to make sure he got into the time machine in the first place. (Did that make sense?) This didn't particularly bother me, but I can see how in certain views it is a problem.

The biggest issue I had with Los Cronocrimenes was its protagonist. I found Hector annoying and unlikeable, and didn't feel much need to root for him. He was unexpectedly violent and unreasonable. His hatred for his past self was an interesting development, but mostly seemed dumb. He was repulsed to see his past self kissing his wife, as if she was with another man, but it was just him. It's something I've never thought about before, I suppose. If his character had been written a bit differently I think I would have been more engrossed, more involved in the fate of hero. The fact that he became so beat up throughout the movie also really grossed me out, as I am quite squeamish. Otherwise I really enjoyed this film: a solid and straightforward sci-fi tale that takes a fairly simple premise and twists it into a fascinating story.

Also I guess there's already an American remake being planned. For some reason. Whatever, I'll still see it.



Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Reader (2008)

Set in Germany and New York during several time periods, The Reader's story begins with 15-year-old Michael Berg (the adorable David Kross) suffering the effects of scarlet fever in the street, aided only by the curt Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), on her way home from work. Months later after he has recovered, Michael returns to her apartment to thank her, clearly captivated by the 30-something lonely woman. They start sleeping together, with Michael forgoing time with his friends and family to spend afternoons at her apartment (she works during the day on a trolley). Between some sex scenes Michael reads to Hanna at her request from various books he's studying in school. He quickly falls in love with her, but her cool and reserved nature remains a wedge in their relationship. After a few months, she leaves unexpectedly upon receiving a promotion to an office job and unwilling to take it.

Years later we see Michael at law school in a small lecture class taught by Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz), who brings them to the trial of several female Nazi war criminals. To Michael's horror, the woman charged as the lead guard and instigator of the murder of 300 prisoners is Hanna Schmitz. He is now forced to observe as the woman who broke his heart tries to explain her appalling actions during the war, encapsulated in a memoir by one of the survivors. He spends the better part of his life trying to reconcile his feelings for her with the truth about her past, maintaining a closed-off persona into his later years. Throughout the film this older Michael (Ralph Fiennes) is seen dealing with the effects of Hanna's power over him, even after her death.

I found this movie incredibly interesting, intrigued as I am by German culture and the concept of German guilt. The story was engaging and fairly well-constructed, though admittedly I found some of the intermittent older Michael stuff unnecessary or ill-placed. I'm not sure what the structure of the book is like, so maybe it's a problem with the source material and not the screenplay. It was overlong, too. I liked that the film didn't really pass judgment on Hanna (aside from the judge's sentence), but allows the viewer to decide for him- or herself. Many questions arose in my mind regarding her station, personality, and options and I found myself thinking about her situation several times after it ended, wondering just how guilty she was and why she allowed her pride to effectively ruin her life. Michael's feelings are understandably complicated but not much is actually stated. So much of the movie was understated that I wasn't surprised how little we learn about him but I did find it a bit frustrating, a bit too minimalist I guess.

This served as an intriguing character study for both the former concentration camp guard trying to shut herself off from strong emotional attachments and the young man prone to infatuation and forced to reevaluate his moral code. The performances were excellent. I really enjoyed David Kross, and was impressed with how much he resembled Ralph Fiennes. Kate Winslet was exceptional, handling this very complex character with nuance and depth. She was able to make Hanna strong, coarse, unflinching, yet somehow a little sympathetic. It was nice to see some familiar German actors in the smaller roles, especially Bruno Ganz as Prof Rohl and Burghart Klaussner as the main judge.

The Reader is engaging and well-acted, but definitely not Best Picture material. Just because something deals with the Holocaust does not instantly qualify it for an Academy Award. But I guess I feel that way about a lot of the nominees this year (not the Holocaust thing, but the not deserving an award thing). I just hope Kate Winslet finally wins something because sheesh, she is talented.



Monday, February 2, 2009

An Ideal Husband (1999)

Every time I see or read one of Wilde's comedies I'm consistently impressed with his ability to play with language in unexpectedly funny ways. The guy had mad skills. That doesn't mean it will always translate well in modern Hollywood adaptations, though. In this version of An Ideal Husband, Jeremy Northam stars as Sir Robert Chiltern, a highly respected government official. His steadfast, intelligent, moralistic wife Gertrude (Cate Blanchett) is very involved in both his work and women's politics. Their best friend is Lord Arthur Goring (Rupert Everett), the typical Wildean, irreverent bachelor and dandy whose main activity is spouting witticisms. Robert's sister Mabel (Minnie Driver) has the hots for Arthur but he seems immune to/ignorant of her advances.

When the mysterious and (supposedly) alluring Mrs Cheveley (Julianne Moore) shows up, their sturdy lives are suddenly on the verge of falling apart. She knows the illicit origin of Robert's fortune and attempts to blackmail him into supporting a fraudulent canal scheme in which she's invested money. She's also an enemy of Gertrude's from their school days and has romantic designs on Arthur. Now Robert must choose between protecting his secret (of which even his wife is unaware) but losing his dignity, or staying true to his beliefs while seeing his career and marriage ruined. Arthur tries to protect his friend while warding off Mrs Cheveley and realizing his feelings for Mabel. There are various misunderstandings and fateful run-ins, all populated with witty banter, but you know it will all end with some happy couples arm in arm.

Oh my god I love her glassesI really enjoy Wilde's comedic plays, though I admit I haven't yet read this one. Thus I can't make much comment on the film's merits as an adaptation. From the Wikipedia summary, I've gathered that there are several plot changes but nothing major. Wilde's plays are all about the dialogue, anyway, which wasn't always in top form here. Rupert Everett, born to play the Wildean dandy, got in some well-timed one-liners and topsy-turvy philosophical comments, but not all of the other actors seemed up to the task. Cate Blanchett felt very out of place and sort of flat, though I've never been the biggest fan of her anyway. I really dislike Julianne Moore in any context, even when playing a villain. She just came off as someone who thought she was slyer than she was, and delivered almost every line the same way (that is, annoyingly). I liked Minnie Driver though- Mabel's self-assuredness and often nonsensical lines reminded me of Reese Witherspoon's Cecily in the fabulous The Importance of Being Earnest. She wasn't in it very much, though.

All in all it's a fairly well-done upper-class farce but missed some of the marks with casting and writing. It's still an interesting story with some great characters and comedic moments. Everett is perfect and the real star, despite Northam's hero status, and almost completely carries the film. And I guess it doesn't matter much but some of the costumes were either atrocious or not period-appropriate. Basically, t's the kind of movie I'll pull out every once in a while and watch with my mom because we both like British literature, but wouldn't think too much about otherwise. Anyone who's read or seen the play can give a more helpful review, I'd imagine. I'll get around to it eventually.