Thursday, April 30, 2009

Monster Vs. Aliens (2009)

I'm going to be honest with you: I watched this with German dubbing, so I may have missed one or two or several jokes. However, I feel my understanding of the general plot and type of humor warrants a review (unlike some other dubbed films I've seen recently that I don't feel I understood enough to write about). This means I can't offer any comment on the voice acting, though. And I didn't see it in 3-D, because (as maybe I've mentioned before?) I hate 3-D and it hurts my head. Monster vs Aliens tells the unfortunate tale of Susan Murphy, whose clash with a radioactive space rock causes her to grow several stories higher than the church in which she's being wed. She's immediately contained by the government in a secret facility for other "monsters": a scientist-turned-oversized cockroach, the half fish, half human Missing Link, an amorphous blue jello-like creature called BOB, and the giant, mutated larvae Insectosaurus.

Susan is petrified at first, but eventually acclimates to her teammates, though she and Dr Cockroach work persistently to return her to normal size. When the malicious alien Galaxhar finds out that his planet's super powerful Quantonium (the substance that affected Susan) is in California, he lands in San Francisco and attacks the President despite his friendship greeting. Military leaders in Washington decide to give the monsters their freedom if they can stop the alien invasion. As she works together with the group to fight Galaxhar, Susan becomes more accepting of her "freak" status and doubts her former resolve to work tirelessly to regain her normal size and normal life (including the asshole fiance).

Story-wise, the movie was ok. It's a great premise, though structurally and developmentally it was a little lacking. For example, I agree with Nick's point that he'd have liked to see the monsters bond more, instead of just making a several-month jump from Susan arriving and being way freaked out, to being best friends with everyone. And for a movie with a scintillating title, there was not enough action. I know it's a kids' movie, but come on. There totally could have been more giant robots or something. And the periods in between the action sequences often seemed too low-key. It was nice to see a woman as a main character though, and I liked the fact that Susan came to own her mutation and even prefer it over her regular size. Even better was when (spoiler alert) she lost her power and was still able to go head to head with Galaxhar. Yay for a lady being capable of world-saving without the help of a dude and/or superpower.

Monsters vs Aliens is pretty funny, with much of the humor coming from BOB and his adorability. However I was tickled the most by the President character, who was just so silly and over the top. Also everything he said became funnier because it was in hysterical German. They even had a "Don't press the doomsday button!" "Oh I thought it was for coffee" kind of joke. I imagine with the stellar American voice cast I would have really dug a lot of the dialogue more, so it's too bad I had to see it dubbed. That didn't stop me from noticing the sub-par animation, though (sorry but the "huge head, incredibly tiny feet" character design just looks ten times worse on a building-size woman). Overall this movie is amusing and has a good message, though nothing groundbreaking in terms of story or animation. Good for the kids, enjoyable for adults, easily merchandisable, etc.

3.5/5

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Memorizu (Memories) (1995)

Memories is actually a compilation of three short science-fiction-oriented films directed by three accomplished anime filmmakers, each based off of a manga by Katsuhiro Otomo.

"Magnetic Rose", directed by Koji Morimoto and written by Satoshi Kon, follows an astronaut salvage crew as they explore a rogue abandoned spaceship. The more they investigate, the more they discover about its now-deceased owner, Eva. She was a successful opera prodigy until her voice gave out, and after the murder of her fiance she became obsessed with preserving her memories by recording them into the ship's computer. Each room unlocks different video projections of the woman, whether it's part of a performance or a recollection of time spent with her lover. She lived out the rest of her life surrounded by nothing but her memories. Her personality became ingrained into the ship, and now will stop at nothing to manipulate the new visitors into staying there forever.

This was beautiful in all of its aspects, with intricate set details, cinematic presentation, and excellent attention to movement. The premise is fascinating and haunting, and very well-executed visually and script-wise. The story is a little slow-moving, but that didn't bother me too much. It's an interesting, futuristic take on the Emily Grierson and Miss Havisham archetypes- a very sad rumination on obsession and loss. And as an awesome side note, the score is by Yoko Kanno, the extremely gifted composer of Cowboy Bebop's soundtrack.

"Stink Bomb", directed by Tensai Okamura, is a comedic large-scale disaster tale. Suffering from a cold, Tanaka, a research assistant at a powerful pharmaceutical company, accidentally takes a new drug thinking it's fever medicine. He quickly falls asleep, waking up a few hours later to find everyone in the building knocked out. After calling the police, he contacts the company executives, who, fearing a new experimental drug they'd been developing for the government is the cause, instruct him to covertly bring the drug to headquarters in Tokyo. As he makes his way there, he witnesses more and more people collapsing in the middle of a thick yellow fog. It is quite obvious to everyone but Tanaka that he himself is the cause of this destruction, so he continues his trek to Tokyo even as the army moves in to stop him.

This was another excellent premise with great animation. Tanaka's cluelessness was adorable but also sort of depressing- he seemed incapable of comprehending the wreckage he was causing, perhaps as an instinctive defense mechanism. I like that concept a lot. "Stink Bomb" is exciting and funny, and I think it'd make an awesome full-length film.

"Cannon Fodder", directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, presents a day in an industrial Russian-esque communist society committed to war with an unknown enemy. A young boy wakes up and breakfasts in a dank, metallic apartment with his downtrodden parents. He attends class but dreams of being a part of the battle. His father and mother are shown working in factories brandishing "No Conquest Without Labor". After much preparation, an impressively outfitted, portly general slowly makes his way to the button that fires the main cannon. The day's hits and damage statistics are read off to the citizens at the end of the day. After drawing himself as a war general, the boy asks his father who they're fighting, only to hear "You'll understand when you're older" in response.

This was the shortest of the trio, as well as the most stylistically daring. I loved the muted, washed out color palette and sketchy details, but really disliked the character design. The tale itself was sparser than the others, and less engaging. I liked it, but not as much as the first two. As a statement on extremism it felt a little empty, but it was still an interesting short with great animation. It also has a really cute segment of the boy's doodle coming to life.

4.5/5

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Barfuss (Barefoot) (2005)

This is the first time I watched a film completely in German, and I understood about 90%! Admittedly there were German subtitles, which helped a lot, but still: I scored major points with the German language that day. And for the first time, I can review a non-English-language film with full knowledge of the original script. Directed and co-written by Til Schweiger, Barfuss focuses on Nick Keller (also Schwieger), a newly hired janitor at a mental health clinic with various family issues: his brother is about to marry his ex-girlfriend, he hates his smug step-father, and due to the family's wealth, he feels the need to lie about his inability to hold down a job. After being fired from the clinic he spots Leila (Johanna Wokalek), a quiet young woman residing there who never wears shoes or socks, and is about to hang herself. He catches her in time, but is still fired. When he gets back to his apartment he discovers that Leila has escaped and trailed him home, and now refuses to leave. She insists on staying by his side despite his numerous attempts to trick her into returning to the clinic.

She has lived with her now-dead mother in almost complete isolation for her entire life, and her naivete regarding most common place experiences (public transportation, bathroom etiquette, etc) is absolute. Nick, finding it impossible to detach himself from her, decides to take her with him to his brother's wedding, hoping she can pose as his girlfriend. Along the way (mixed with many a musical montage or comic transpiring) he warms up to her, finding her intense loyalty touching and swept up in the genuine thrill she feels for each new experience. She quickly and childishly develops intense feelings for him, and he finds himself surprised as he begins to reciprocate some of that love, despite maintaining his belief that she belongs at the clinic. Meanwhile Leila's caretakers have involved the police in a search, and it's only a matter of time until they find her.

In general I found Barfuss very enjoyable. It was an interesting and quite funny love story, though not without its dramatic moments. There was some excellent use of music and very nice visual moments. I really loved Johanna Wokalek's performance- she wasn't over the top or overly complex, instead spending most of her time being adorable and achieving optimal comedic timing. Though I wouldn't know much about how a person in her situation would act, the portrayal didn't seem exploitative or exaggerated. Til Schweiger was good too, but his character was kind of a jerk and his face a bit too square to take entirely seriously.

On the negative end, the story was a little too "knight in shining armor must save helpless maiden", but also managed to be engaging and touching. The character development was done pretty well, and the emphasis on teaching Leila to do things for herself sort of evened things out. It's not a terribly complicated film, nor is anything shocking or groundbreaking presented; I just really liked it- a well-written, and well-acted idiosyncratic romance. Unfortunately I don't think it's available in the US (not through Netflix, anyway), but keep an eye out for it!

4/5

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Barbarella (1968)

For some reason, while I was stuck in my new student apartment in a foreign country and without internet for over a week, this movie was the main thing I felt like watching. Based on the comic by Jean-Claude Forest, Barbarella chronicles the adventures of its titular character (Jane Fonda) on a savage planet, tracking down the familiarly-named mad scientist Durand-Durand (Milo O'Shea). In this version of the future, peace has enveloped the human race for centuries. They know nothing of war, weaponry, or violence. Their conception of pleasure has also changed, with food and sex boiled down to pill-form.

Loaded with her government-sponsored mission and an armful of outdated firearms, Barbarella crash-lands on Durand-Durand's planet. When a hairy-chested local comes to her aid, he seeks a form of payment. This is Barbarella's first physical sexual experience, opening her mind to the "uncivilized" way of things. She proceeds to SoGo, city of sin (like Sodom and Gomorra, get it?!), in which the scientist is said to reside. She seduces Pygar (John Phillip Law), the last of the ornithanthropes (winged men), so that he can fly her to the city center while his friend Professor Ping (Marcel Marceau, who for some reason is in this movie) fixes her spaceship.

They are both taken in by The Great Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg), ruler of SoGo and a smirking pleasure connoisseur. When Barbarella refuses her advances, she sentences the heroine to death by birds ("such a poetic way to die!"), but is saved by the city's underground rebel forces. After showing their leader how "civilized" earth people have sex, she's off to save Pygar and overthrow The Great Tyrant while still on the lookout for Durand-Durand. Hopefully she won't be defeated by the infamous Excessive Machine, which can kill by an overdose of pleasure. Gulp.

This movie is really, really silly, and that's what I like about it. You can tell the filmmakers were just having a lot of fun with it. Visually, it's quite impressive, as well as a testament to its time period: the sets are fanciful and detailed, with sprawling use of intense colors; Barbarella's costumes (notorious in number- it's amazing how often she is able to change outfits) are imaginative, dramatic, and highly impractical. But she always looks so good!

Barbarella is also just really funny. I'm not sure how tongue-in-cheek the comic is (it's so hard to find!), but the film fills in the gaps of its thin plot with lots of sex jokes and ludicrous dialogue. Camp heaven. The cast features a lot of European actors (it was filmed in Italy), with some voices dubbed over, but everyone worked well in their roles. Jane Fonda is quite adorable, playing it wide-eyed and innocent. I also really liked Anita Pallenberg as The Great Tyrant, though her voice was dubbed. And John Phillip Law is appropriately stoic and persistently shirtless as Pygar.

This is how civilized people have sex.To me the biggest drawback of the film is Barbarella's passivity, which often leads to helplessness. She is the heroine, but needs to be saved by someone else (usually a man) to get out of most situations. Admittedly her character has grown up in a world without violence, so I guess she can't be expected to know karate or anything, but still. I've heard that in the comics she is more capable, and that would have been nice. It could have used a little more action, anyway. If it ever is actually remade (who the hell knows what's going on with that, though), I hope they'll make the character more badass, or clever, or something. For this version it's not a huge deal though, as the film is so over the top I would not have expected any serious attempts at characterization. The fact that Barbarella is a master of her own sexuality is a good start, anyway.

4/5

Also! It's got a mad catchy theme song! And anti-gravity stripping!


Also! My original poster design for this film is available for purchase. I worked really hard on it. I think you'll like it.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ong-bak (2003)

Awww Yeeeeah. That's the best description of Ong-bak, I think, having been spurred to finally see it after experiencing Prachya Pinkaew's newest film, Chocolate. It follows Ting (Tony Jaa), a man with superior martial arts skills but a belief in pacifism, who is on a quest to reclaim the head of a sacred Buddha statue that was stolen from his village by a jerky gang member. He travels to Bangkok and meets up with Humlae (Petchtai Wongkamlao), a con artist who grew up in Ting's village but now goes by George as part of an effort to disguise his poor rural background.

George and his partner Muay (Pumwaree Yodkamol) are in debt to some thugs, so he steals the cash Ting had brought with him- essentially the fortune of the entire village. Ting tracks him to an underground fight club run by that jerky thieving gangster's boss, where George has gambled everything away. To win it back, Ting bests the reigning champion in a super awesome fight. The rest of the movie is mostly Ting fighting in the club to help George make money, engaging in thrilling chase sequences, and working to take down the gang boss and get back the sacred Buddha head. I saw this awhile ago so admittedly the exact plot is a little fuzzy in my memory.

Tony Jaa does not pay any heed to the flames engulfing his body. He sees only Opportunity.This movie was just flippin badass. And kickass. And... coolass? Yes. The fight scenes were extraordinary- exciting, well-filmed, and very well-choreographed. Tony Jaa is so awesome, it's ridiculous. I didn't even understand how he could do have of the things he clearly did (it's a no wires, no stunt doubles kind of production). And even though Yodkamol and Wongkamlao do great jobs in their supporting roles, it's totally Jaa's movie. There is no great focus on character development or plot complexity, but that's totally ok. The filmmakers know we just want to see Ting battle villains in various urban (and one underground cave) locations. Like Chocolate, it gets sort of suddenly tragic at the end, which, while sad, does give the film a little more depth, I think. It's not all high kicks and running around dodging bullets- these are actual, capable bad guys that aren't hesitating to kill anyone in their way. But in general Ong-bak is a really fun, and very impressive action movie with good characters and excellent fight choreography. Check it out already!

4.5/5

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Favourite Movie Characters

Napier's News tagged me with this meme, and I have to say I find it a really difficult list to make. The main reason for this is probably the fact that I've never really thought about it before. I can make lists of favorite movies, favorite directors, favorite actors, favorite soundtracks, sure, but this is new ground for me. So here are some favorite characters, but I would not at all say it's the definitive, all-time list, since I'm sure I missed some very important people. This is more of a "how I'm feeling right now" kind of list. No particular order. Also I guess I watch a lot of movies with white people. Huh.

Tank Girl (Lori Petty) from Tank Girl
Though her character changed a lot from comic to screen, I still really dig the movie version. She's funny and super tough, with a rad fashion sense and hair that defies logic. Plus she's got a totally badass tank. I mean really, that's the only reason one should need.

Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) from Singin' in the Rain
If pressed, I'd probably list him as my number one favorite character, which is fitting considering this is my favorite film. Cosmo is one of the main reasons I fell in love with the movie, with classic musicals in general, and with Donald O'Connor. He's one of those great best friend characters whose constant stream of witty side comments could get lost amidst the main characters' issues if they weren't so much better than anything else being said. He's also handsome, instantly likable, and a phenomenal dancer. His slapstick and gymnastic skills continue to amaze me. Every time he's not onscreen I wonder what he's up to, proving his lasting impression on my mind. Also if he was real I would probably date him.

Walter Mitty (Danny Kaye) from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Another book to screen character who changed a fair amount in translation, but I can't help still really loving the movie version. A lot of it I'm sure has to do with Danny Kaye's amazing performance. Mitty is a mild-mannered pushover, constantly imagining scenarios in which he can be courageous, romantic, intelligent, and beloved. I have always found daydreamers very endearing, and he is one of the best.

When I was a kid, this was my favorite movie, and Belle was my role model. She's a bookworm and an outcast, and doesn't apologize for it. She is independent to the point of stubbornness, and fights fiercely for those she loves. Plus she gets to wear lots of pretty dresses!

El Mariachi (Carlos Gallardo and Antonio Banderas) from the Mariachi Trilogy
He's got bewitching musical ability and a guitar case full of guns. Plus he becomes a Man With A Past On A Quest For Vengeance and that's always something I like. I'm more into the Banderas version, who's got more of an edge and better special effects, but it's just a great character overall.

Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from Brick
Ok so admittedly his incredible good looks are a factor, but also Brendan is a super awesome character no matter what he looks like! I'm not that superficial! He's a high school misanthrope who's too smart for his own good and talks like he's a PI from the 40's. He stops at nothing to solve the murder of his former love and successfully takes down several local drug dealers in the span of a few days. He's resourceful and cunning, and doesn't take shit from any of the jerks he's forced to deal with.

Columbia (Little Nell) from The Rocky Horror Picture Show
She's so adorable! She's one of the most sympathetic characters in the film, I think. Plus she has one of my favourite lines: When Frank has unveiled his sex-slave creation Rocky, his assistants crowd around and exclaim what a wonder he is (a testament to your genius, etc). Columbia leans over, pauses, and matter-of-factly states, "He's OK!". Love it.

Harold (Bud Cort) from Harold and Maude
He's imaginative, macabre, and unwilling to change who he is to adapt to anyone else's projected image of him. He's also quite funny, in an idiosyncratic way, and very gentle. I've always felt we'd be friends if we met in real life.

Macaulay Connor (James Stewart) from The Philadelphia Story
Snarky and well-read, Macaulay Connor takes self-satisfying pride in his working-class position and pursuit of literary creativity. He's outspoken and outraged, but willing to see beauty in the things around him. He can be quite poetic when he wants to be. This is also the role that really made me fall for Jimmy Stewart, as it makes good use of his mesmerizing drawl and ability to wear three-piece suits so well.

Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow) from The Royal Tenenbaums
Wes Anderson films are filled with so many incredible characters, but I think Margot is my favourite. There's something so intrinsically sad about her (even more so than everyone else in this movie), that I can't help but feel for her. She's mysterious and cold, but not cruel. I found her sense of failure and apathy at such a young age oddly relatable. She is part of one of the best music-centered scenes of any film (walking in slow motion to "These Days"- it's just perfect). And for some reason I really like when a character wears the same thing all the time.

Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from the Star Wars Trilogy
The smirk, the quips, the rough-around-the-edges-ness, the mad piloting skills... does this one really need an explanation?


Honorable Mentions


The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo) from Mystery Men






Lane Meyer (John Cusack) from Better Off Dead




Gail (Rosario Dawson) from Sin City





Randall Graves (Jeff Anderson) from Clerks I and II




Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) from Henry Fool and Fay Grim



And I'm not sure who's done this already, since I think it's been around for several weeks, so anyone who wants to continue should go ahead! I guess I'm tagging you.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Grace of My Heart (1996)

This is one of those films I was excited to see despite not knowing much about it, mostly due to the director and main star. The other Allison Anders works I'd seen- Gas, Food, Lodging, and the short "The Missing Ingredient" from Four Rooms- I liked, and I'm always ready to give female directors a chance. And Illeana Douglas was swell in the few films I'd seen her in (mainly The New Guy and Dummy). Unfortunately Grace of My Heart was not an especially good film. Set throughout the 60's and 70's, this pseudo-biopic of singer-songwriter Edna Buxton aka Denise Waverly (Illeana Douglas) begins with her winning a recording session in a singing contest, and therefore successfully escaping from her narrow-minded and overly-wealthy family. She has trouble making it as a singer (women voices are not in vogue), however, and instead winds up writing a hit single for a male doo-wop group. She is prompted by her new agent Joel Millner (John Turturro) to turn completely to songwriting, and helps spur the girl group craze by supplying her friend's band with songs.

She marries asshole beatnik-wannabe Howard Cazsat (Eric Stoltz) for some reason and collaborates with him, but a few months after their baby girl is born they divorce when Denise catches him cheating. She continues writing songs, releases her own recor
d- which fails- and after a time (there is no clear timeline really), the agency closes down. She moves to California to be with popular experimental musician Jay Phillips (Matt Dillon), who encourages her to use her "gifts" in non-commercial/mainstream ways. His mood swings and drug use lead to disaster, of course, and she, her daughter, her babysitter, and her babysitter's son move to a hippie commune (I think?). Denise seems to have given up on relationships and creativity, never "finding her own voice", as it were. Perhaps someone from her past will show up to give her another chance to sing for herself. Who knows.

Like so many biopic-type films, this movie felt sooo looong. It's only about 2 hours, but the way the chronology and transitions worked out, it just dragged. That, and the story wasn't particularly interesting. I liked the recording sessions and discussions of musical and cultural trends during that time period, but for the most part it was just watching a capable and talented woman make lots of stupid relationship mistakes. It was annoying, really. Denise was sympathetic, but only to a point, due to how dumb she could be with her life decisions. It's too bad. Illeana Douglas did the best she could, but she couldn't change the plot. John Turturro put in the best performance, as expected, while the rest of the cast just sort of hung out.

There were things to like, though. The music was very good- mostly 60's-esque pop songs reminiscent of and often directly alluding to the likes of Ellie Greenwich and Carole King (the latter's own life shares some parallels with the film's story). There are a lot of references to and parodies of real people from that era, though I didn't always get them. It was also an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the creative musical process during this period, with various scenes dedicated to the writing or recording of specific songs. And it's always nice to see a strong female protagonist, even if it does take her forever to make a good decision. Overall, Grace of My Heart is ok, but definitely skippable. It has a good premise but drags due its structure.

3/5

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Traveling This Week

Hey everybody, I'm going to be doing a little Eurotripping this week, so no updates for eight days or so. First I'll be going crazy visiting every art museum in Paris and trying not to offend anyone with my English-speaking.

Next up I will see just how sexy people in Barcelona really are. Have a lovely week!

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Cake Eaters (2007)

So apparently now that Kristen Stewart is famous or whatever, a little-known movie she made a few years ago is suddenly getting more recognition. I didn't realize this, as I only wanted to see it because Mary Stuart Masterson directed it (you know, from Some Kind of Wonderful? Benny and Joon? Chances Are? Bad Girls?). Anyway, one of the like 3 theaters it's playing in happened to be Somerville Theatre the weekend before I left for Germany.

The story focuses on two interconnected families in a rural town and their various relationships. The shy, 20-something school cafeteria worker Beagle (Aaron Stanford) still lives at home with his recently-widowed father, Easy (Bruce Dern). His estranged brother Guy (Jayce Bartok, also the scriptwriter), who'd been working in NYC as a musician, comes home for the first time in several years after learning of his mother's death. Naturally this promotes conflict between the brothers, as well as between Guy and his former girlfriend, Stephanie (Miriam Shor). Meanwhile, Beagle hesitantly romances/is romanced by Georgia (Kristen Stewart), a teenager suffering from Friedreich's ataxia, a terminal degenerative nerve disease that inhibits her movements and speech abilities.

Her mother Violet (Talia Balsam) is a photographer, and she often uses Georgia as a model to promote awareness of the disease (though some townspeople feel it's exploitative and/or pornographic). Her grandmother Marg (Elizabeth Ashley) is her closest friend, and has also been conducting an a
ffair with Easy for several years. Everyone is pretty upset about Beagle and Georgia dating (especially with her serious desire to lose her virginity while she still can), but they might be more upset when they find out about Easy and Marg's ongoing secret relationship.

Um I thought this movie was ok. It had some funny moments and some good characters (I liked the grandma a lot). Some of the acting wasn't so good, unfortunately- mostly Jayce Bartok. Despite having a super badass name, he was not meant to be an actor. I liked Aaron Stanford. Kristen Stewart was alright; I hadn't seen her in anything before so I didn't really have any expectations. The role was definitely a challenge physically, which she handled very well, but I didn't see anything special otherwise. She's sort of annoying, really, but maybe that was just the character. Or the awful, awful wig they gave her halfway through.

Storywise, The Cake Eaters was average. It was slow but engaging, with a good mix of drama and comedy and nothing veering too far into either category. The estranged-artistic-family-member-coming-home-and-causing-problems cliche didn't bother me too much, because it really wasn't the focus of the film. It's more about the relationships between Georgia and Beagle, and Beagle and his family. The terminal disease theme was a little overdone, but it might just have felt that way because it's fairly common in modern movies. I didn't know anything about Friedreich's ataxia before this, so it was interesting to see its effects on someone so young and her concerned family. I think this film was a little too meandering and unsure of itself- I feel like it wanted to make some sort of statement, but fell short. It just didn't do much for me. With better actors and more involved character development, it'd be improved. I'm still looking forward to Mary Stuart Masterson's next directing stint, though.

2.5/5

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Dante's Inferno (2007)

This is definitely one of the more idiosyncratic films I've seen recently. A modern version of Dante's Inferno (lifted from the Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders adapation), this movie is told completely through the use of paper puppets controlled by sticks or string. It's pretty impressive, actually. The script itself was just ok, though. Boozing young slacker Dante Alighieri (Dermot Mulroney) wakes up in a bad part of town with no memory of how he got there, no money, and no idea how to get home. He meets Virgil (James Cromwell), whom at first he mistakes for a homeless man, and is coerced into following him through the many circles of hell for the rest of the story.

He runs into several famous historical figures as well as some people from h
is personal past. The landscape of hell is composed chiefly of familiar, albeit decrepit, trappings of mortal life: used car lots, gated communities, airports, and the Capitol Building. They have run-ins with lustful politicians, greedy salesmen, sacrilegious men of the cloth, and various other sinners suffering through imaginative tortures. They even meet the devil in the final circle, a gargantuan and quiet man perpetually eating the worst of hell's inhabitants. Eventually Dante is led back home, left to sort through what he has seen and experienced in a way that will encourage self-improvement.

The most I know about Inferno comes from the X-Men version, so I guess I can't say much about its merits as an adaptation. From what I can tell, the story is very close to Dante's original, with aspects of speech and specific people they meet changed a bit. Considering the contemporary setting, that makes a lot of sense. It's probably funnier than the original as well, with much of the script poking fun at various public figures (especially the overly-conservative). I liked the more colloquial conversation and familiar historical faces, but sometimes it seemed the writers were being overly critical or overly political. There's nothing wrong with satire, but the way it was handled here was uneven- either it wasn't really mentioned, or it was very in-your-face. It seemed like they had to go out of their way to make certain points they wanted to make. I thought some of the jokes fell flat, too. It was humorous, but nothing felt new.

While the script isn't especially engaging, the animation more than makes up for it. I'd never seen anything like this before, and I wonder if I will again any time soon. The sets were beautiful and meticulously drawn; the figures were surprisingly expressive and dynamic. I really enjoyed seeing the innovative ways their movements were described. Visually, everything was just really impressive. Overall it's a decent film: an ok retelling of a classic story with gorgeous modern settings and excellent animation. It's worth it if you're a sucker for cool visuals or dig the original tale, but probably passable otherwise. Also: There's a musical number.

3.5/5 (extra .5 for the animation alone)

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Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Wrestler (2008)

Now that I finally got around to seeing The Wrestler, I'm even angrier at Sean Penn's win and the Best Picture and Best Screenplay snub. Sigh. The film chronicles the times of Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke), a once-popular professional wrestler who is way past his prime. He spends his week days exercising and working in a grocery store back room/loading dock area, and his weekends playing in small-time fighting venues and meeting with old fans. He lives in a trailer park and struggles to pay rent, as much of his money goes to steroids and his favourite strip club, wherein he attempts to romance aging dancer Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). After suffering a heart attack during a particularly nasty, pointy-prop-laden match, Randy begins to take stock of his current situation.

He seeks more human interaction, from playing video games with his young neighbor to going shopping with Cassidy, who encourages him to reconnect with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). Attempting this reconnection makes him realize how little he knows about her, except that she's in college, liked the boardwalk when she was a kid, is maybe a lesbian, and wants nothing to do with him. He pushes forward however, trying to make up for his lack of participation in her life, and hoping his lifestyle won't interfere again. He even retires from the wrestling circuit and gets a day job at the butcher counter of the grocery store. But he might not be able to cope with so many drastic changes in his life- especially the sudden responsibility of having people who care about him.

Just as I suspected, this movie was pretty spectacular. Even though its subject matter isn't something I could relate to, everything was just so well done that I couldn't help but be totally engrossed. As I'm sure you've heard, Mickey Rourke's performance is excellent. Randy is self-absorbed and pretty clueless, but Rourke infuses him with this incredible likability. He can be shy and unsure at times despite his outward confidence and intimidation, making him a more sensitive and nuanced character. Tomei was very good as well, her body questioning the line between age and sex appeal while her face consistently hung heavy with dissatisfaction.

Robert Siegel's script is very well put together, mixing humor and slice-of-life scenes with the drama of human relationships and the desire to renew fading glory. The plot itself was not very complex, as it was more an examination of a specific time in this character's life, but the story never dragged or seemed too thin. And it had a perfect ending. I was also impressed with Aronofsky's directing, mostly for the seemingly extreme turn he's taken away from his prior works (not in theme so much as in style). It was all very straightforward- sometimes documentary-esque, with lots of shots following Randy around from behind. All in all, The Wrestler is pretty great, and I'm sorry it didn't get more recognition from the Academy, but really, when you think about it, fuck the Academy. There, I said it.

4.5/5

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Chocolate (2008)

Fighting! If there's one thing to be learned from Prachya Pinkaew's Chocolate, that's pretty much it. Awesome, I know. Zen (JeeJa Yanin) is the result of an unprecedented and unsanctioned romance: a powerful Thai crime family's daughter, Zin (Ammara Siripong), and an unwelcome yakuza member, Masashi (Hiroshi Abe). After Masashi is exiled back to Japan, Zin escapes her family and raises her daughter alone. As she matures it is found that Zen is autistic, giving her limited understanding of the world's complexities, simplified communication abilities, and an incredibly useful hyper-awareness that allows her to catch anything that's thrown in her direction and naturally fight really well. I wonder what kinds of shenanigans could these skills produce.

Zin is going through chemotherapy but can't pay her medical bills. Zen's best/only friend Mangmoom (Taphon Phopwandee) finds a list of people who owe Zin money, and so embarks on a quest to get it all back. Zen accompanies him, often utilizing her mad fighting techniques to get it, and sometimes going out on her own at night. Eventually their activities get back to Zin's family, who seek revenge on their estranged daughter and her former lover. It all comes to a head with lots of minions and swords and guns and elbow jabs and high kicks and... autism?

I hadn't seen Ong-bak or anything else by Pinkaew, so I didn't really know what I was in for. The action is absolutely amazing- so well-choreographed, and surprisingly engrossing. The fights all took place in different settings, from a butcher's back room to an urban rooftop. It was fluid and fast, incorporating both humor and gore at varying intervals. So great! And scarily it was all real- no stunt doubles, no CGI, no wires. Yeesh. JeeJa Yanin was so kickass as Zen, and it was just really nice to see such a capable female action hero who never had to fall back on sex appeal. And it was good to have Mangmoom there providing that chubby-best-friend comic relief, an archetype which apparently transcends nationality. The screenwriters handled the autism aspect pretty well, too, I thought (though I am far from an expert). It wasn't gimmicky or overly dramatic, but more like "Yes, she has a different way of perceiving things, but let's not dwell on the negative side of that and instead highlight her really cool skills. On to the fighting".

My biggest issue with Chocolate is the structure of the exposition and generally how the plot was presented. The opening portions of the movie were very confusing for me, and I didn't really know who anyone was or how they related to one another for a while. I still don't really know how Mangmoom played into their family. Maybe he lived with them? Maybe they adopted him after they saw him being beat up in the street one time? Question mark. Various other small things were never explained. The film is definitely not meant to be plot-heavy, so it wasn't a huge drawback; it was just frustrating sometimes. I think the script was overly ambiguous on some subjects while remaining fairly complex, a combination which felt out of place in a pretty fun action movie. Also, be warned: This movie is indeed pretty damn rad, but there are several times when it gets way serious. I didn't expect the ending to be so death-laden, I guess.

4/5

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