Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

You may remember my brief mention of this in my Top 5 Play Adapations. Now here it is in all its glory! I got to see it in both English (thanks to Netflix Instant) and German (thanks to the local theater's classic film series) in one day, meaning it was a pretty great day. Based on the play by Joseph Kesselring, Arsenic and Old Lace stars Cary Grant as well-known drama critic Mortimer Brewster, a notorious bachelor who tries to inconspicuously marry childhood next-door neighbor Elaine (Priscilla Lane). On their way to a Niagara Falls honeymoon, they drive to Brooklyn, so Elaine can tell her disapproving pastor father about the marriage, and Mortimer can tell his aunts Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair).

Unfortunately his happy news is undercut with a shocking discovery: his dear, sweet aunts- who raised him as child- have murdered 13 men and buried them in the basement with the help of his brother (John Alexander), who believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt. It is quite a revelation, especially when the women seem so gleeful about it. They truly believe they're bringing peace to lonely old men by poisoning them. Mortimer is worried that they'll be found out, so he goes about getting the papers ready to have Teddy committed, hoping to blame him for the murders in case anything ever comes to light.

The sudden arrival of his long-estranged, escaped convict brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) with his sidekick and personal plastic surgeon Dr Einstein (Peter Lorre), puts a major damper on things, as they have a body of their own to dispose of, not to mention Jonathan's intense, fratricidal hatred of Mortimer. Through all of these crazy antics, poor Elaine is stranded next door unable to understand why her new husband brushes her off distractedly whenever she tries to remind him that they're totally married and have a honeymoon to get to. Not only is he caught between murderous aunts who are trying to hold a funeral for their most recent victim and attempting to force his brother out of the house before he is found by the police/discovers the bodies in the basement, but Mortimer is also slowly realizing that mental illness must run in his family, meaning it's only a matter of time before he cracks.

This movie is pretty darned hilarious, thanks in large part to the delightful performances of all involved. Cary Grant is naturally the stand out, playing it over-the-top but inherently likable. He's got these great mumbly side comments and incredible bewildered facial expressions- just very silly and fun. The aunts are adorable, approaching everything with the same illusory innocence underscored by a sometimes-surfacing keen awareness. Josephine Hull is especially enjoyable, though she's been always dear to my heart for her part in Harvey. Raymond Massey does his best Boris Karloff impression (who wasn't available for the film due to his role in the still-ongoing stage production), and Peter Lorre is spineless and self-deprecating (in a good way). Besides Grant, my favorite performance is John Alexander as the Teddy Roosevelt-wannabe brother. He completely owns the role, "bullly"-ing everything he can and storming up the stairs as if in battle. He steals each scene he's in, but is cleverly used sparingly, as his character would likely become annoying or repetitive after too much screen time.

The biggest issue I have with this film is poor Elaine's role in the story. She is a very flat character, blindly devoted to Mortimer despite his publicly stated opinions on love and marriage and initial desire to marry secretly to protect his image. He later treats her pretty badly, shooing her away at every turn and refusing to even think about her while he has everything else on his mind. She gets sort of angry but forgives him very quickly after a brief apology and little explanation. I know it was written in 1939 but that doesn't stop it from bothering me. I also find Priscilla Lane very likable, and thought it too bad that she didn't have more to do. I haven't seen her in anything else except The Roaring Twenties with James Cagney. For some reason she retired quite early (no clear answer from imdb, but possibly to "follow her Air Force husband around the world from base to base"). I will probably check her out in Hitchcock's Saboteur though.

Elaine's characterization aside, this movie is totally rad. The script is engaging, with fast pacing and excellent dialogue. It feels very stage-like, but I don't think that's a detriment in this case. It balances very well the hyperbolic comedy with more sinister themes, creating a more interesting and impactful story than many lighter comedies of the era. Jonathan is honestly a scary, intimidating character, and at various parts the aunts and Mortimer seem to be in real danger. I like that element of uncertainty and tension- it really gives the film a different feel. I always forget that this is directed by Frank Capra, since I first saw it before I was familiar with him. It stands apart from the other Capra films I've seen, with less emphasis on the "basic human decency" or "at-odds love story" themes, but was still handled very well by the influential director.

Unrelated comment: I like the German poster better than the American one.

4.5/5

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Nichts Als Gespenster (Nothing But Ghosts) (2006)

See the look on the guy's face? A mix of confusion and utter disgust? That was me throughout the entire film.Don't see this movie. It's so terrible. Just don't see it. I can barely write about it because there's just nothing, nothing at all worth talking about. It's based on some Judith Hermann stories. It's a bunch of despicable, boring white people traveling to different parts of the world. There are too many characters, none of whom have any kind of development or realistic motivations. They do boring things. The do asshole things. They have sex. They have empty conversations. Clearly the people making this film thought they were creating some deep, meaningful rumination on life and love, but there is no substance here. It's just nothing. It's just really, really awful. And you have probably noticed I rarely straight-up hate a movie. I hope you can understand how truly bad this must be for me to have such strong feelings of revulsion.

Luckily I don't think this is available in America. You really dodged a bullet there, guys. Great job for living in that place.

1/5

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JCVD (2008)

For some reason I went into this thinking it was a comedy. It totally wasn't! But still, it is quite good. In JCVD, Jean-Claude Van Damme plays himself: an aging action star, beloved in his native Belgium, but struggling financially due to a vicious custody battle and tax issues. He returns to his home country for some peace of mind, but still has to deal with lawyer payments in America. His cards have been cut off so he tries to access a bank account to wire the money. After snapping a photo with some fans on the street, he enters the local post office, only to become part of a major hostage situation with three ambitious and bickering thieves. At first we are only treated to an outsider's point of view: Jean-Claude is seen going inside, gunshots are heard, the police try to get in but the entry ways are closed off. They call the post office and Jean-Claude answers, telling them someone is injured.

The police chief and a medic enter the building, but the atmosphere is tense and confused, and for some reason Jean-Claude violently sends them away. There are some more calls made, and attempts to secure the one child hostage. Later the perspective flips and we learn that of course, Jean-Claude is not the mastermind of this plot, and merely a puppet. The criminals have physically forced him to pretend he is taking over the post office, in the hopes that they can get even more money as well as a clean getaway with him as their fall guy. Jean-Claude does his best to keep them calm to avoid any harm to the hostages. He sees a possible end to the madness in the obvious fandom and wannabe camaraderie of one of the criminals, but with an increasingly agitated atmosphere and the cops closing in, he'll have to tread carefully.

This is a great premise for a film- I love when movie stars take parodic or self-aware roles. Admittedly I have never seen a Jean-Claude Van Damme film. I kind of confused him with Steven Seagal, actually (which I felt ultra-sorry for when Van Damme loses a role to Seagal in JCVD. Heh). But he's really cool in this movie! He gives a very sympathetic, heartfelt performance that I wouldn't have expected from an action star. He is terse but intriguing, with a wonderfully expressive face. And it really is his movie, perhaps a little bit too much, in the sense that the other characters are barely developed. It's not a huge fault, but there was some potential for interesting side characters that sort of fell away pretty quickly after serving their purpose.

Visually the film is lovely. Everything is hushed and slightly greyed, giving it a look both grimy and dreamlike. I really like when filmmakers play around with color and tone. However, it felt a little out of place here- it didn't add anything to the atmosphere of the story, it just made everything feel a bit removed. Perhaps this was intentional, as the whole film is a mysterious blur between reality and fiction, so giving it a slightly surreal tint speaks to its ambiguous pseudo-realism.

JCVD is very enjoyable, and unexpectedly intense. It's a bit slow at parts, surprisingly funny at others, and overall an interesting story with a really cool premise. I dug it. It kind of makes me more curious about the similarly-themed Bruce Campbell comedy My Name is Bruce that came out last year. I had really wanted to see it (duh, Bruce Campbell!) but then read about it being weirdly racist and not particularly enjoyable. Have any of you guys seen it? Thoughts?

4/5

Wonderful, fourth-wall-breaking monologue near the end. A little rambling, but really engaging and touching.


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Saturday, June 27, 2009

2046 (2004)

It's not a year, it's a place. In 2046, his loosely connected sequel to In the Mood for Love, Wong Kar Wai highlights several years in the life of bachelor journalist Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and his various romantic entanglements. Many of his experiences are written into the erotic science-fiction stories he writes on the side, about a futuristic city called 2046 and one man trying to leave it. In the early 1960's (I saw this a couple weeks ago so I'm a little shaky in my memory of the dates/chronology, sorry), Mr Chow moves from Singapore to Hong Kong, where he runs into an old friend, Lulu (Carina Lau), who for some reason pretends not to remember him. He later visits her apartment to find she's abruptly left after a brutal quarrel with her boyfriend. Finding himself inexplicably attached to her room (2046), he decides to move in to the next door while it's being refurnished.

When not writing freelance pieces for newspapers, he spends his time romancing random ladies, who find him quite the charmer, but of course for all his popularity he is actually quite detached. He develops a friendship with the beautiful prostitute who moves into room 2046, Bai Ling (Ziyi Zang), which eventually grows into a weird romantic, sexually charged relationship. She loves him and therefore allows him to pay her menial amounts of money when he sleeps with her (so he won't feel tied down? I guess? Since he has such a fear of commitment?) so that he'll keep seeing her.

She ends up leaving after realizing he will never feel the same for her, and soon he strikes up a writing partnership with his landlord's (Wang Sum) daughter, Wang Jing-Wen (Faye Wong), who has been forcibly estranged from her Japanese boyfriend (Takuya Kimura) because her father disapproves. Mr Chow starts to fall for her, but quickly realizes she is inextricably attached to her old flame. At the end Mr Chow tells of his last days in Singapore, during which a mysterious one-gloved woman named Su Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung) helps him win enough money at the poker table for his trip to Hong Kong. She reminds him of another Su Li-Zhen, with whom he had had an affair, and he struggles with the memory. All of these instances are somehow worked into his "2046" stories, parts of which are intermittently shown in the film.

Much of the 2046 feels like a series of short stories involving Mr Chow, instead of one cohesive narrative. It is meandering and seemingly without a goal. This turned me off a little, hindering my total enjoyment of the film. I think Wong Kar Wai wanted to say too many things, wanted to include too many examples of unrequited or unfulfilled love. The narrative structure of the film also resulted in time flowing strangely. Years would pass, but I would have no idea until Mr Chow narrated the date, and it was always a surprise. This movie covers like a decade, but feels like it all happened within a year.

Aside from that it is an exhilaratingly gorgeous, slightly epic tale with a beautiful sense of longing permeating throughout. The color palette is lovely and the shots exceptionally well-placed. I liked the references to In the Mood for Love- this isn't so much a sequel as it is a reimagining of one of the main characters. Mr Chow remembers his romance with Su Li-Zhen, collaborating on an action novel, their trystes in hotel room 2046, and his ensuing heartbreak, but he is not the same character. He is outgoing and carefree, unconcerned with finding love or meaningful relationships, and more wrapped up in himself. As the film progresses we see him evolve upon his realization of how his demeanor has affected those around him. He pours himself into his writing, hoping to find some kind of new truth or understanding in the process, but for the most part he only discovers more about his own fantasies.

The performances were wonderful. I really enjoyed all of the female actors here, from Maggie Cheung's too-short appearance as the strong but sad Su Li-Zhen, to Zhiyi Zhang (whom I had never seen before) bringing incredible passion and liveliness to the potentially-annoying Bai Ling, to Faye Wong's adorable and subtle turn as Wang Jing-Wen (as well as an android character in one of the futuristic segments). I have mixed feelings about Tony Leung. It's not that he isn't good in the role- he's great- but I often found his character too sleazy to redeem, and I wasn't sure if it was in the writing or his characterization. But his emotive and thoughtfully-written narration gives Chow more depth and relatability.

I wish there had been more of the fictionalized 2046 world of Chow's stories. I guess for some reason going into this, I thought it was wholly a futuristic sci-fi film, and not just partially one. I still really enjoyed the stories of Mr Chow in 1960's Hong Kong, but I think because of my geek expectations, I was a little let down. But legitimately it felt a little like the 2046 segments could have been woven in more with the major narrative. It only really became a thing at the end, in a short story Mr Chow writes for Wang Jing-Wen.

All in all, this is a really wonderful movie, but I didn't quite enjoy it as much as In the Mood for Love. It didn't affect me in the same way. But it was still breathtaking visually and full of heartwrenching stories of love and loss. Also it was surprisingly sexy. I have yet to see the initial installment of the trilogy A Fei zheng chuan (Days of Being Wild) but I'll definitely get on that when I get home in August.

4/5

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Melvin Goes to Dinner (2003)

Hey, Bob Odenkirk directed a pretty good movie! Great job, guy! (I don't mean to be condescending, but considering his other two films are Let's Go To Prison and The Brothers Solomon... you know.) Based on the play by Michael Blieden (who also stars), Melvin Goes to Dinner is essentially just one long conversation between four 30-somethings over dinner. Melvin (Blieden) has been sleeping in the real estate/survey office where he works with his sister Leslie (Maura Tierney), avoiding most other contact with the outside world until he unexpectedly is invited to dinner by his old friend Joey (Matt Price). Joey is meeting a former business school classmate Alex (Stephanie Courtney) while she's in town for the night. She in turn runs into her old friend Sarah (Annabelle Gurwitch) on the way to the restaurant, and ends up inviting her to join the meal.

So now it's two women and two men who don't have relation to each other as a group, but are loosely connected through mutual friends. The film focuses on their meandering conversation, starting off slow and light with a discussion of ghosts and the possibly drunk waitress. It goes deeper with each new bottle of wine and soon the talk incorporates flashbacks with cameos from the likes of David Cross and Jack Black, as well as surprises and insights into the motivations and backgrounds of these characters. In the end, Melvin uses his experience at dinner to help him make an important decision, finding honest social interaction conducive to a newly developed maturity.

Though it starts off slow and a little dull, Melvin Goes to Dinner is a pretty good film. The dialogue is well-written and realistic, aided by the casual style of the actors. At first it seems too directionless, but eventually several of the characters' stories find new significance later. The cast is pretty likable: Stephanie Courtney has this great enthusiasm and passion in her speech, and Michael Blieden is honestly so super adorable. Matt Price is kind of annoying, but I'm not sure if it's the actor's delivery or the way the character was written. I just didn't care about anything the guy had to say, and was kind of frustrated about his indifferent view of adultery.

While I enjoyed the movie, I wasn't completely engrossed. It took too long to get going, I guess- while the way the stories connected or expanded in the end was cool, it wasn't an especially interesting road getting there. I also didn't really get into any of the characters- they were well-written and developed, but for some reason I just didn't particularly care about them. I don't want to give the impression that the movie isn't good- it is- but it didn't affect me any special way. It's a very good exercise in realistic conversational dialogue and character studies, and a good mix of drama and comedy. If that sounds like your thing, definitely check it out!

3.5/5

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Blackballed: The Bobby Dukes Story (2004)

Hey, Rob Corddry starred in a movie! Let's watch it! In the tradition of Dodgeball and The Mighty Ducks, Blackballed tells the story of an underdog team fighting against all odds to rise to the top. But this time it's a mockumentary and involves shooting people, yay! A film crew follows around Bobby Dukes (Corddry), paintball's first superstar, who's been out of the game for a decade after being caught cheating. He's back and ready to play in the championships but first he needs to put a team together, which proves difficult given his nefarious past and out-of-date connections to the game.

He manages to wrangle his adorable and steadfast (but totally unskilled) sister Erika (Dannah Feinglass), geeky paintball referee Lenny Pear (Paul Scheer), aggressive Eddie (Rob Riggle), inexperienced but deft-at-videogames Showtime (Curt Gwinn), and eventually the talented and laid back Crosby Peters (Seth Morris), who originally played on an opposing team comprised of Canadian white rappers, if I remember correctly. Team assembled, now the training begins. Each member contributes his own workouts and techniques to help get everyone ready for the tournament. The main event will pit Bobby against his former teammate/sidekick Sam Brown (Rob Huebel), who is now married to Bobby's old girlfriend Jill (Jamie Denbo) and has developed a bit of a superiority complex. I guess it will be intense.

This movie is rather silly, as its premise suggests. The cast is pretty great, with excellent but too-brief appearances from Ed Helms and Jack McBrayer. Rob Huebel is fantastic and over the top and just really ridiculous. I really liked Rob Riggle as well, whom I had only seen in smaller roles. The more I watched him the more I came to realize he is quite possibly related to Patrick Warburton (who I kind of think is the best despite his oft-crappy choice of roles). He just dominates every scene he is in, but in good way.
And Dannah Feinglass is super cute! I wish she was in it more! Rob Corddry is always likable, though here he is fairly understated and not especially interesting- playing more of a straight man to his crazy surrounding cast.

I love the fake documentary style in general, and it was used pretty well here, though some of the mini-interviews were pointless. I feel like the script could have pushed things a bit further, been a bit more ludicrous in its action or dialogue, and then it could have been really great. As it stands it's funny at parts, but not as a whole. It's still a good movie, and worth it for any fan of the cast or sports comedies, but it was frustrating to sense how much better it could have been. Kudos to not having a completely cliche ending, though! Also thanks for teaching me more about paintball! (I haven't played it before.)

3.5/5

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Killshot (2008)

Sigh. In Killshot, Mickey Rourke plays mob hitman Armand aka "Blackbird", taking the name as a nod to his Native American heritage. After botching a job, he meets young Richie Nix (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a psychotic amateur bank robber who never shuts up. Armand agrees to help Richie with an extortion scheme if he can stay with him for a few days (he lives with his Elvis-obsessed girlfriend Donna [Rosario Dawson]). They break into the real estate agency where Carmen Colson (Diane Lane) works, mistaking her currently-separated husband Wayne (Thomas Jane), who's applying for a job, for her boss. He knows nothing of the threats Richie had been making and his confusion leads to unplanned violence. The two criminals escape, but Armand is paranoid about being found by the police or mob after Carmen saw his face. Now the estranged couple is being hunted down and are placed into witness protection program, forcing them to re-evaluate their marriage and fears while hoping for safety. But Richie and Armand won't give up.

This had all the makings of a cool movie: the cast is swell, the script is based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, it's directed by John Madden (who was like... nominated for an Oscar), and it's got assassins! What could go wrong? Oh wait... a lot of stuff. The story is surprisingly kind of lame. Not much actually happens and not much makes sense.
I haven't read the original book, so I don't know if it's an adaptation problem or not. Plus that whole subplot about Carmen and Wayne's relationship was boring and dumb. And it seemed pointless to include all these references to Armand's Native American background- it didn't affect the story or the character. I think it was supposed to hint that he thought he was superior because of his heritage? But I'm not sure.

Almost every character was annoying in some way, or under-developed. Poor Rosario Dawson spent her few scenes being yelled at by Joseph Gordon-Levitt or talking about Elvis. I'm not sure why she was even in this movie- her character served little purpose. Richie was just a dick (and usually I'll love Joseph Gordon-Levitt in anything). Armand felt like he was so wise, subscribing to his own personal brand of morality, but that didn't make him engaging. Wayne was pitiful but not sympathetic. As a regular lady simultaneously thrust into life-threatening situations and her husband's desperate advances, Carmen was probably the most interesting character. But not interesting enough to really save this movie.

Basically, Killshot is not very good. The story is rather meandering and poorly structured. There are some good comedic bits, with Gordon-Levitt and Rourke playing well off of each other, and the ending has some good pacing, but otherwise it's definitely passable. Oh well, it would have been much worse with a different cast.

2.5/5

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)

All right let's get into it. Rambo: First Blood Part II. After the one-man war of the first movie, Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) has been spending time in jail. His old superior Colonel Troutman (Richard Crenna) busts him out for a special rescue mission in Vietnam, hoping he can use his crazy skills to find a camp of POW's who were captured during the war. According to Marshall Murdock (Charles Napier), who's in charge of the operation, he is only supposed to take photographs, and in no way engage the enemy. The whole point of the mission is to appease naysayers at home who are still fussing about that whole Vietnam War-thing. Of course Rambo does not heed these orders and decides to try to free the prisoners after meeting up with his Vietnamese contact Co Bao (Julia Nickson-Soul). Now it's one man and one woman versus both the Vietnamese and Russian military, with no help from Murdock and his men (despite Troutman's efforts). There's lots of torture, explosions, and of course, brutal killing.

I was surprised by the first Rambo, in its legitimate attempt to question how a traumatized soldier might cope after coming back from the Vietnam War with nothing real to cling to after his horrendous experiences. It was an interesting story, while still being very action-packed and thrilling. With the sequel they took it to the next level action-wise, but sort of forgot about having a story. Usually that's not a big deal for this kind of film, but I guess I was set up by the first movie to expect something more. I didn't really understand who anyone was here, aside from Rambo = Good Guy, Vietnamese and Russian soldiers = Bad Guys, and Charles Napier = Asshole. It seems the filmmakers just took the easy way out. Again, not a big deal for your standard action fare, but it was frustrating in this instance.

Ok the main real thing that bothers me about this movie is the goddamn "love" angle they tried to throw in. The second a female character was introduced I was like hmm... she is probably just there to help him out since there's really no time for any serious relationship to form here and also Rambo is hell of traumatized and in many ways like a child and should not be dealing with these kinds of emotions in his current state. But of course like two thirds of the way in they're suddenly kissing and then he has to do a whole revenge thing. Buh. Angry!

Anyway it's still a decent gun-shooting, knife-wielding, things-exploding kind of movie, but not especially impressive. I'll still be seeing the other Rambo's, to be sure, and now that I have more of an idea of what to expect, I'll probably enjoy them more. I hear Rambo IV has like 1 kill per second on average, or something crazy like that. Which is seriously rad.

3/5

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Limits of Control (2009)

It's nice to see a movie like this in German, since there's not much talking and the dialogue that is there is not usually important for the plot (what little plot there is, I mean). So hurray for being able to see and understand an indie movie in small-town Germany. Jim Jarmusch's latest work, The Limits of Control, focuses solely on a Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé) as he makes his way through various regions of Spain on a secret mission. He has been hired by some sort of gangster/criminal-type, presumably to assassinate an unidentified figure. He moves through different towns, meeting different operatives who feed him coded slips of paper in match boxes.

These brief meetings usually involve a silent Lone Man listening to the operative indulge their enlightened interests, with Violin (Luis Tosar) explaining the importance of music, Blonde (Tilda Swi
nton) recalling her favorite movie scene, Guitar (John Hurt) explaining his love of art, et cetera. There's also the audacious spy Nude (Paz de la Huerta) who haunts his bedroom for several nights, declining to kill him just as he declines sleeping with her. Many of these characters relate to specific works of art he visits in a large museum in Madrid (sorry I'm not sure which one- the Reina Sofia?). He makes it from the city to a secluded, desert-like area housing a heavily-guarded compound. His unknown target sits inside.

Like most Jarmusch films, The Limits of Control is incredibly, painstakingly sparse. But it still manages to be very interesting and beautiful, taking full advantage of the gorgeous Spanish landscapes. Rich colors and carefully-placed shots abound to create a visually intriguing piece of cinema. It's hushed and mysterious, but not without meaning. Each conversation seems to hold some kind of key, but the door is never quite opened. Several phrases and actions are repeated throughout, hinting at a kind of universal significance, perhaps suggesting the importance of everyday experiences.

The cast is great- with Gael Garcia Bernal and Bill Murray popping up along with the people mentioned above. Really this is completely
Isaach De Bankolé's film, though. He has very few lines, but manages to portray his character with such stoicism and mystery, mostly through his incredible presence and wonderfully interesting face. (I was even moved to do a quick sketch of him last night... possibly it will be a painting later). I could see the character becoming boring or pointless in the hands of a different actor, but in this case I was compelled by De Bankolé and took him completely seriously, even in those adorable shiny, color-coordinated suits.

I completely understand that this is an art-for-art's-sake kind of movie and nothing really happens in it and everything is super ambiguous and it's definitely not the kind of film most people might enjoy. Taking all that into account, I still really liked it, probably because I'm such a sucker for visual artistry. It's the kind of film I'm really glad I got to see (especially on a big screen), but probably won't need to see again. Well, I guess it'd be nice to hear everyone's real voices, instead of hearing everyone dubbed in German with pseudo-Spanish accents or speaking Spanish with German accents.

4/5


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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Criminal (2004)

I find it so easy to like movies about con artists. They're just so cool, I'm more inclined to be impressed with them than offended. With Criminal, long-time Soderbergh assistant director Gregory Jacobs goes solo for the first time with a remake of the Argentinian film Nueve Reinas (though Soderbergh co-wrote the screenplay with him- with a Brazil reference pen name! Eep!). John C Reilly stars as Richard Gaddis, a smooth and untrustworthy con man who picks up Rodrigo (Diego Luna) trying to short change a casino waitress. Having recently lost his partner and sensing in the kid a natural ability for deceit below his desperation, Richard takes him on for the day to teach him some basics and see if he'll work for a long-term partnership. Rodrigo is seriously in need of a large sum of money in a small amount of time due to his father's debts, so he's keen to listen to everything his new mentor says.

They do some small-time stuff, getting some cash from a restaurant and an old lady, until Richard's sister Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) calls him up for help ridding her hotel of one of his disreputable
friends, counterfeiter Ochoa (Zitto Kazann). He tells Richard about a rare historical form of currency that he's perfectly replicated, which can be sold for mad monies, if he can find someone to sell it for him. Richard accepts and begins laying down plans to sell it to wealthy Scottish business tycoon William Hannigan (Peter Mullan), an avid collector who's leaving the country the next day and therefore won't have time to check its validity properly. He's also staying in the hotel where Valerie works. And Valerie is in the middle of a heated lawsuit with her brother, and never happy to have him around. There are various mishaps and twists to keep the new partners on their toes throughout their big-time con, as well as several people forcing themselves in on the cut. We'll see who wins.

I really enjoyed Criminal. It's not particularly special, but it's funny and well-plotted, with a great cast and cool, grainy shooting style that feels a bit voyeuristic. It's so nice to see John C Reilly starring in something, especially something that isn't completely over the top. He has great natural timing and a rough-around-the-edges persona that really fits the role. I hadn't seen Diego Luna in anything besides Milk and Mister Lonely (yeah, yeah I know Y Tu Mamá También- I'll get to it eventually), but he was pretty cute and funny here, playing the seemingly innocent and ambitious Rodrigo with warmth and wit. And naturally Maggie Gyllenhaal is excellent, though I wasn't a fan of her haircut.

It's a good story, written well enough to keep the viewer engaged as well as on edge concerning just how much anyone can trust Richard. I certainly wasn't sure whom to root for. It gets surprisingly exciting at parts, too. The ending is a bit too sweet and overwrought, I thought, but I can see why the writers chose to end it the way they did. I'm not sure what the differences are between this and the original, but I'd like to see it at some point, since imdb commenters are all "The original is so much better!!!111lol", etc.

4/5

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Terminator Salvation (2009)

Despite the various lackluster reviews, I couldn't help being kind of psyched for this movie (hence my recent re-viewings of the first three). Terminator Salvation starts off in 2003, showing us new character Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) sitting on death row and signing his body away for cancer research to Dr Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham-Carter; yeah I was surprised, too). Flash forward to 2018, and John Connor (Christian Bale) is fighting in the war against the machines. He is not yet the head general or whatever, but a lower-level leading officer because apparently in the future there will still be a military hierarchy in times of trouble, run by a bunch of mostly-white dudes. They discover an underground laboratory with various pallid prisoners, but it blows up and only John survives. (Or so he thinks!) John heads to the underwater submarine base and is told about a recently-discovered sound wave that can disable machines. He volunteers to test it out. He also learns that Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) is number one on the Skynet hit list, and tries to figure out a way to find his now-teenage father.

Meanwhile Marcus has suddenly woken up after being dead for 15 years, and is understandably a bit flustered. He runs into Kyle and wordless kid sidekick Star (Jadagrace Berry) and learns about the whole Judgment Day thing, and the three seek out John Connor, with Marcus hoping he can find out how he got here. Soon enough a giant robot comes sort of out of nowhere and kidnaps Kyle and Star along with several other humans they'd encountered. Marcus avoids capture an
d meets up with Resistance pilot Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood), who leads him to John's headquarters. Though John is incredibly suspicious of him, he trusts Marcus to help him find Kyle, as the Resistance leaders plan an attack using the machine-disabling signal on the big Skynet base where he's being held.

All right I guess I have a lot of conflicting feelings about this movie. It is all pretty emotional right now, you guys. I'm going to do a "Things I liked/Things I didn't like" break down. It's seems easier to just polarize it.

I Liked:
-Everything about Sam Worthington and his character Marcus. His story took up about half of the film, and it was easily the more interesting part. We don't know much about his past except that he committed some crime that ended up killing his brother, but his mixture of anger, competence, regret, and pseudo-time travel makes for a fascinating dude. He's kind of an asshole,
but I couldn't help feeling for him. *Spoiler Alert, Seriously* Also the whole robot thing? My goodness that is such an interesting development! Waking up 15 years after you died and eventually finding out you've been turned into a robot? Hell, this whole movie should have been about this guy. Much more intriguing. Also I hope Sam Worthington stars in more (better) movies.

-Anton Yelchin. This kid (I can totally say that since he's almost exactly a year younger than me) has been really great and super likable in everything I've seen him in so far (mainly just Star Trek and Charlie Bartlett. And I just realized he was the kid in Delivering Milo). He's too freaking adorable to be in a dirty action movie, but still managed to be awesome. I really like the character of Kyle Reese and I think he did a good job interpreting it for a teenage version. He felt very
genuine.

-That big robot with the motorcycles coming off its legs. Hell yes.

-The overall look of the film. It was a bit washed-out, and very gritty. The wasted landscape and hordes of abandoned cars and buildings are very effective visually. It's actually almost exactly how I pictured the setting of The Road looked as I read it. So great job, cinematographers.

-Arnold's return. I thought they did a really good job with the effects here. And it was pretty
intense!

I Did Not Like:
-The ridiculous portrayal of women in the film. I get that the important characters here are John Connor and Marcus, and that's totally fine. But as Connor's wife Kate, Bryce Dallas Howard has about three lines and just sits around looking worried and pregnant for the entire movie. Really? In T3, Arnold was all "Kate will be one of your main generals", etc. Some military leader this is. Plus the chemistry between the two was nonexistent. When they shared a brief kiss at the end it was like, "Oh yeah, I guess you guys are kind of in a relationship or somethin
g. Huh." The only other notable female in the movie (not counting Star, who didn't do much except add some out-of-place sweetness in the tradition of quiet children in post-apocalyptic stories) was Blair. And she had the makings of a capable woman, what with her piloting skills and ability to hold a gun. When a few men threaten her while she is unarmed, she eggs them on, letting them know they'll be needing medical aid when she's through with them (or something along those lines). So I'm like cool, she's in the Resistance, she has mad fighting skills, here will be an interesting 3 on 1 fist fight. Instead, she falls with one punch and it's up to Marcus to beat up the entire group of dudes. Come on, I mean they could have at least had the two fight together against the men or something. Then she gets all huggy and "Your heart is so strong!" five minutes after meeting him? Sigh. Siiiiiigh.

-The ending. *Another Serious Spoiler* Oh my god, so here we are in some ambiguous medical facility that is really just an open tent in a desert. There is, I would assume, limited equipment and skills (how many heart surgeons could have survived the apocalypse and then happened to wind up with John Connor's group? I don't know, I'm not really into statistics). But when John's heart is giving out and Marcus heroically offers his, they just set right down and perform a heart transplant? Really? The place didn't even have walls, for goodness sake. It was laughably dumb and so ridiculously cloying. Plus now the best character in the movie can't be in the next one.

-John Connor. It's not so much that I didn't like Christian Bale in the role, it just seemed like the character had become really boring all of a sudden. I'm not sure if it was Bale's performance or just the shoddy writing that did it. Probably the latter. They didn't really give him much to do, either. For a while he was just sort of hanging out worried about Kyle Reese while testing out the signal. He had his heroic moments at the end, of course, but it seemed whenever there was actual work to be done it was Marcus doing it. Reminding us that robots have always been the main stars of this franchise, I suppose.

-The hasty explanation of Marcus' background. The flashing-news-headlines technique didn't work well here.

So yeah, I thought it was ok. It had an interesting enough story and featured some good action scenes, so I was never bored. There are lots of robots and self-piloting vehicles. I think the movie took itself a bit too seriously, so it couldn't be as fun as the other films (even T3). The half focusing on Marcus and Kyle Reese was pretty awesome, so most of my good feelings come out of that. I'm a tool, so I'll see the sequels they'll keep making. Whatever.

3/5

But don't listen to me! Let's hear what JD Salinger has to say about it.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Bowfinger (1999)

My boyfriend is really into Steve Martin, so this was an easy choice to make when deciding what to watch. It is a pretty funny movie, you guys, take it from me. Written by Martin and directed by Frank Oz, Bowfinger tells the underdog tale of Bobby Bowfinger (Steve Martin), a very small-time producer and director, and his motley crew (hehe I almost spelled that "crue") of filmmakers, including: the supposedly innocent Daisy (Heather Graham), willing to sleep with anyone who beefs up her part, over-dramatic actress Carol (Christine Baranski), camera-man Dave (Jamie Kennedy), a collection of inexperienced day-laborers, and "genius" writer/accountant Afrim (Adam Alexi-Malle), who has penned the alien invasion script Chubby Rain.

Bowfinger claims he can land big-time action star Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) as the lead, attempting to scam his way into the actor's home. Unwilling to admit his failure to the others, he lies and says Kit's on board, but has a weird method acting thing and doesn't want to interact with his costars and will only shoot at odd, specific times. Which basically means they're going to stalk him and film around him, hoping he won't notice. So now Kit, who's
part of an ambiguous religious cult called Mind Head (sort of Scientology-ish), is being driven insane by strangers constantly popping up in his life yelling at him about aliens and imaginary sexual relations. Eventually they cast lookalike Jiff (Eddie Murphy) for close-up shots, but really he'd rather just be running errands.

I love movies about making movies, and this is a great parody of the Hollywood system. The concept of a nervous actor unknowingly starring in a movie about aliens and consequently driven to believe he is living the life of his assigned role is pretty out there and seriously amusing. The cast is swell, with silly turns from Heather Graham and Steve Martin, and a standout performance by Christine Baranski, who is sadly under-used here (and in general, it seems). I loved Eddie Murphy's dual role, from paranoid and defensive action star to a socially awkward errand boy with braces. It's like wow, I remember why I liked this guy. But best of all is obviously the fact that Robert "Best Actor Ever" Downey, Jr shows up for a bit. It has been clinically proven that the addition of RDJ to a movie will automatically increase my enjoyment of it, in a percentage correlating to his amount of screen time. So congratulations, Bowfinger, you really know how to gain my patronage.

Bowfinger is quite over the top, but in a good way. It just keeps throwing more ludicrous things at you until the very last scene, in which it reaches new, never-before-seen levels of silliness. And that's cool. It's a very enjoyable movie, but perhaps not the most memorable. I don't feel the desire to watch it over and over or anything. But it's nice to sit down and see a film that you know was such fun to make- it seems to say, "Everyone's just having a good time, so you should too!"

4/5

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Enchanted (2007)

The more I watch this movie, the more I fall in love with it. Enchanted begins as a typical, super twee animated Disney fairy tale. Giselle (Amy Adams) lives in a treehouse with a bunch of talking animals, constantly fixating on her dream husband. Prince Edward (James Marsden) roams around his kingdom hunting goblins with his sidekick Nathanial (Timothy Spall), encouraged by his Maleficent-esque step-mother Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon), who hopes he'll be too busy to meet and marry a girl (thereby upseating her right to the throne for some reason). He hears Giselle singing about love (what else is ever on any girl's mind?) and rescues her from a troll, declaring "We shall be married at once!" three seconds after learning her name. Minutes before the wedding, Giselle is coerced by an old woman (like the one in Snow White) to look into a wishing well, and is consequently pushed in. She changes from animated to actual, and arrives terrified and confused in Times Square through a pot hole. Wandering around in a beyond-poofy wedding dress searching fruitlessly for the local castle, she luckily runs into Robert (Patrick Dempsey), a cynical single-parent divorce lawyer, and his daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey). They take her to their apartment and she instantly falls asleep on the couch, waking up to notice the place's messy state and calling upon her animal friends (rats, bugs, pigeons, etc) to help her clean it up while she sings "a happy working song".

When Robert's new fiancee Nancy (Idina Menzel) shows up to take Moran to school, she's shocked to find Giselle in a bathrobe and stomps out. For the rest of the day Robert is sort of stuck with Giselle, who persistently alleges that her Prince Edward will be coming for her soon. He assumes she's a bit crazy, but can't bring himself to leave someone so naive and trusting alone in the city. They walk around Central Park to a grandiose self-aware musical number as she gives him advice on getting back with Nancy. He tries to explain that marrying someone one day after meeting him/her is not really a good basis for a relationship. Meanwhile Edward has come up through the pot hole to find her, slashing away at "dragon" buses and proclaiming majestically his own perfect attributes. Nathanial, who is secretly working for Narissa, follows him with three poison apples meant to kill the future bride. When Edward and Giselle meet up again, Narissa takes it upon herself to enter our world, holding Robert as hostage and forcing Giselle to take serious action. For the first time in her life, she gets to do the heroic rescue.

Armed with a killer premise, Enchanted is romantic, adventurous, and incredibly funny, taking sharp aim at the fairy tale archetypes Disney has consistently employed in most of its previous films. The painfully sweet girl who talks to animals and is good at cleaning, always a victim, always talking about love; the self-confident prince who falls for the first pretty girl he sees and doesn't really understand what it's like for a lady to have a personality; the sniveling, easily-manipulated side kick; the jealous step-mother inexplicably imbued with magical powers (magic=evil I guess, unless it's the controlling-animals kind): all are turned on their heads (well, except the villain, I suppose) when they are dumped into our all-too-real and scary live-action world. Giselle learns that it's actually good to have, you know, a conversation or two with a person before you determine if you love them. The prince gets knocked down a peg or two. The servant stands up for himself. And a woman saves the man from the fire-breathing dragon. (Can you believe it? A lady saving a man? Holy equal-opportunity, Batman!)

Aside from its excellent satirical qualities, this movie gets me with its wry humor and impressive performances. The self-aware singing is hilarious: Patrick Dempsey is all, "you guys know this song, too? I've never heard this song!" Amy Adams is amazing as Giselle, propelling forward with gleeful innocence and light-fingered grace. Her genuine wonder and eagerness
make her easily likable, and her gradual transformation and awakening of independence are perfectly portrayed. That scene in which she feels anger for the first time and it kind of turns her on? Daaaang. Also I have to mention James Marsden's spot-on performance. My god, he is so perfect in this role. He commits himself wholly to this over-the-top, laughably self-absorbed persona yet somehow remains sympathetic. His august and bombastic way of speaking on any subject combined with excellent comedic timing really create the quintessential princely parody, reminiscent of Sondheim's narcissistic princes from Into the Woods. His inquisitive and confused delivery of "Think-ing?" in itself deserves an award.

The main thing that frustrates me about this film is Idina Menzel's character, Nancy. She just seems incredibly flat, especially compared to everyone else. She throws the word "romantic" around left and right, and it seems unlikely that someone who does that would be up for marrying a cynic like Robert, who often scoffs at Giselle's "love-dovey version" of love. And (*Spoiler Alert*) the way she runs off and marries the prince at the end seems to defeat the whole point of Giselle learning about true love and having an actual basis to a relationship. I understand they wanted to give everyone a happy ending, and she wasn't a major character so there's no time to devote a real resolution to her I guess, but it's bothered me every time I've seen the movie. However, I like to think that the way she grabs Edward and kisses him is supposed to hint at a more egalitarian relationship? Like he won't be in control of everything, as he would in a typical fairy tale ending? Maybe? Also putting Idina in a movie with musical numbers and not having her sing seems a bit criminal.

Otherwise, great job, everyone! Disney has effectively pnwnd most of its own movies. Maybe now we can take the next step: a story in which there's a woman who does stuff for herself and isn't a princess. And also maybe doesn't have to get married in the end. But that's too much of a stretch, I guess- unless of course our heroine wants to get together with another lady (gasp) in which case marriage is naturally out of the question. I guess we can all sit back and see what ways they find to mess up The Princess and the Frog before watching more wonderful Pixar movies without any female leads (though this might be a good start).

4.5/5

Honestly this is probably one of my favorite musical sequences in a film. It just fulfills all those fantasies I have about one day having my life turn into a full-blown, sing-along musical.


"Happy Working Song" mp3


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Friday, June 12, 2009

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

Final stage of refreshing my memory of the Terminator series before catching the new film, which turned out to be extremely helpful since I didn't at all remember this one. I spent most of the time trying to figure out why everyone hates it so much. I thought it was pretty ok. In Rise of the Machines, once again two terminators are sent back in time to change the future. The TX (Kristianna Loken) is an outwardly female robot with extremely advanced, nigh-indestructible assets, sent to kill the teenagers who would grow up to be John Connor's deputies (John has been living off the grid for years and has become untraceable). Arnold is back as the T-800, hoping to locate John Connor (Nick Stahl) and protect his future compatriots, including his future wife Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), a veterinarian.

Arnold and John kind of kidnap Kate, and after loading up on some guns the three set out to try to stop Skynet again, but for reals this time. It turns out that the events of T2 (destroying Dyson's research and equipment, etc) just postponed the inevitable Judgment Day. Skynet is now in the hands of Kate's father, who works for some secret technology branch of the military. Most of the movie has the group being chased by the TX, as Arnold tries completely ineffectively to even briefly detain her. There's a big virus spreading around America and no one knows who started it, but it's actually Skynet slowly setting up for the big nuclear attack. I sure hope John
and Kate can stop it, somehow, with their puny non-machine human brains.

I completely understand that this is not at all as cool as the first two films, and I imagine a big part of its unpopularity might ride on the fact that it didn't really need to be made. However, looking past that I really don't think it's a bad movie, just the weakest in the series. It didn't just stick to a "here are some robots, look at them go" formula like it could have, but added to the series' story as a whole with the addition of Kate's character as well as the reality of Judgment Day. We also find out what happened to Sarah Connor after she worked so hard in the previous film. I was ok with Nick Stahl as John- not as likable as Edward Furlong but he had the right look to him and certainly took the role seriously. Arnold is getting on in years (this was his last big movie before becoming governor), but is so iconic as T-800 that I wasn't complaining. He still rocks a leather jacket and huge gun. Claire Danes seemed out of place, but did a good job with the all the screaming and anger she had to constantly emote (ladies are like that, you know).

I think the TX is a bit much, really, in a few ways. I understand that they needed to sex things up a bit so casting a former model as an ice-cold android in a tight leather suit is just good business, but the bigger boob thing at the beginning was too stupid. She was also too advanced. The whole time I just felt bad for Arnold, who could barely dent her. She had all these bendy tricks and secret arm guns plus she could talk to machines. Then after all these examples of how unstoppable she is, (and I don't think this is a spoiler is it? she's the villain, after all) we get a pretty anti-climactic final showdown. Over way too quickly, I barely registered it happening. Oh well.

But it has good things too! Like the first two, it is a rousing and well-paced chase movie with lots of explosions. And shooting! And car crashes! It is never boring. I also think the ending is pretty cool. It is not a cop-out "we need to make a hundred more of these so let's end it like the first two" ending. It comes at you with a scary realness, suggesting that despite Sarah Connor's favorite adage, no one really can make their own fate. It's not a great film by any means, but I still think it's a legitimately exciting action thriller that takes the original story and adds to it in interesting ways, and I didn't expect more. I wouldn't watch it over and over again but I'm not going to join the "this movie totally sucks" club. And I'm definitely glad I watched it before the new one.

3.5/5

Here is a good take on T3 at Flounders on Film. It is pretty much how I feel.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Carefree (1938)

I don't think I've ever talked about them here, but I am a big fan of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films. They're light, fun, exquisitely performed, and just always a joy to watch. I didn't know much about Carefree going into it, but it's on Netflix Instant so I figured, why not? The film focuses on Dr Tony Flagg (Fred Astaire), a cynical Freudian psychologist and misogynist (though I guess those two things are bound to go together?) as he treats singer Amanda (Ginger Rogers), the girlfriend of his best friend Steve (Ralph Bellamy). Though she doesn't want to break up with Steve, she doesn't want to marry him, so naturally he assumes she has a mental problem and encourages her to be psychoanalyzed. She realizes Tony is a woman-hating jerk and acts coldly toward him. Steve keeps trying to get her to cooperate though and sets up instances for the two to meet outside the office.

Eventually she warms to him and agrees to eat dream-inducing food so he can analyze her dreams and hopefully help her get over the not-marrying-Steve thing. She dreams a lovely dance sequence with Tony, and wakes up realizing she's falling for him. Now Amanda doesn't know how to act around him or Steve, and confides her confusion to her aunt and best friend Cora (Luella Gear). After wandering around the city under heavy drugs administere
d by Tony, she gets into a lot of trouble with the law. Tony covers for her, and thus she finds a way to keep him close by threatening to act out if he doesn't do what she wants, like dance with her. Eventually Tony finds out how she feels and hypnotizes her to believe she is in love with Steve, though in doing so he realizes he is in love with her too. Now he has to unhypnotize her before she marries the wrong man!

Ok so my threshold for silliness, especially in old musicals, is pretty high. I've seen a lot of them over the years and I definitely have a soft spot for those nonsensical screwball musical comedies with more song than substance. However Carefree was a bit too much for me. I know it's the 30's, but the ridiculous concepts and no-holds-barred sexism made it less fun than it could have been. That and the fact that there were only four musical numbers (meaning more time for Astaire to wax on about tenets of psychology). Seeing my beloved Ginger Rogers, who shines in absolutely any role she's offered, stooping to stupid tricks to snag such an asshole was quite frustrating, and Astaire's usual charm was no match for the pretentious dialogue. I don't know much about psychology, to be sure, but it's pretty easy to catch on to the unethical and unrealistic practices going on here. It just seems pointless to use that as the center of a story.

Of course Carefree isn't without its good parts. Rogers wandering around drugged up and giggling like a school girl was adorable and expertly comedic, reminiscent of her delightful turn in Monkey Business. I also thought Luella Gear was quite funny, lucky enough to be handed some of the better sly one-liners ("Oh Joe, you know I don't dance at your age"). Of course the dance sequences were lively and lovely, set to Irving Berlin songs. I read that the softly-shot dream scene "I Used to Be Color Blind" was supposed to be shot in color originally, but didn't film well or something, which is too bad since it's a great idea and would have been an interesting novelty. "The Yam", which to my pleasant surprise Ginger sang alone, is a little over-the-top but still quite fun and of course the ensuing dance number is excellent. If you're a fan of the genre or of Fred and Ginger, it's not a must, but it's sure to be enjoyed if you can get past the central theme. I know if I wasn't such a big fan of the pairing, there'd be no saving it.

3/5

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No Fate But What We Make Double Feature: The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

The new Terminator film came to Germany this weekend, so I re-watched the preceding three films to get ready for it, wanting to refresh my memory of the franchise's time-travel-heavy chronology. In The Terminator, the story starts with two naked men appearing separately and mysteriously in flashes of blue lightning. One is large, quiet, and ruthless (Arnold Schwarzenegger); the other regularly-sized and in a rush (Michael Biehn). After the big one (can I just call him Arnold from now on? Because that's happening) kills two women with her name, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is put on alert by the police. Arnold attacks her at a club and she is convinced to follow the newly-clothed and armed Kyle Reese, as his "Come with me if you want to live" schtick seems completely serious.

They escape (narrowly) the relentless killer and Kyle frantically explains his situation: he has been sent from a hellish machine-controlled future to save Sarah, who is
being targeted by the humanoid terminator T-800 so that she can't give birth to John Connor, a prophetic leader in the war against the machines. Sarah is unsure what to believe, and when both are taken into police custody she is haltingly persuaded that Kyle is just crazy. Of course when Arnold drives a car through the precinct entrance and does some pretty non-human things, she's swinging over to Kyle's side fairly quickly. The two make a break for it, allowing for violent reminiscences of the future, worries over an as-yet-unconceived savior son, and halting romantic confessions. Despite this well-deserved break, it's clear they won't be free until the terminator is destroyed, so they work hurriedly to stave his new advances with some home-made explosives and good ol' determination.

I had misty recollections of this movie, probably since it's always overshadowed by the sequel, but honestly: it's really good. It's essentially one big chase movie, yes (as are the next two), but it's an imaginative and extremely well-paced one. It's a good mix of post-apocalyptic lore and down-to-earth characters, with enough thrills, guns, and explosions to be consistently engaging. I really think the final sequence is one of the most nerve-wracking, on-the-edge-of-my-seat moments in film I've seen. It's just really well-done.

Admittedly Sarah Connor is kind of lame and annoying with absolutely horrendous hair, but seeing this with the knowledge of how unbelievably hardcore she will become later makes it better. Arnold is appropriately stoic and taciturn, and I dig Michael Biehn as Kyle Reese (primarily because he's remarkably attractive and often shirtless). The effects are pretty good, especially for the time. The terminator's movements are a bit too stilted (I assume it was done with stop-motion?) but its seeming indestructibility and tenacity are clearly and believably conveyed. Also all of the main chase scenes include pumping 80's synth music. Oh yeah. Overall, it's a fun and interesting chase movie with an intriguing premise involving time travel, robots, and a dystopian future: three of my favorite things!

4/5

Ok next up, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Hot damn. This movie is so awesome, you guys. It's about 10 years later, and once again two naked dudes appear in flashes of electric light. The familiar T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger, duh!) is back and immediately sets a course for young John Connor (Edward Furlong), leaving a course of destruction in his wake; the new figure (Robert Patrick) poses as a cop and embarks on a similar mission. They both catch up with the kid around the same time, but Oh Snap! it turns out Arnold has been reprogrammed as a good guy! And now the advanced model T-1000 is after John, and Arnold is the only one who can protect him! Daaaang! The T-1000 is made of liquid metal reminiscent of Alex Mack, and possesses heightened adaptive skills including the ability to completely replicate any human being it touches.

After learning that Arnold has to do whatever he says, John enlists him to break Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton again) out of the mental institution to which she's been confined for several years. She doesn't really need the help, however, as she has managed to get through most of the facility's security with the aid of a paperclip and no hesitation. So. Bad. Ass. Though she's seriously distrustful of Arnold after her nightmarish experience with an identical model years prior, she sees how her fatherless John instantly connects with him and understands his need for something stable in his chaotic life. She then makes it her mission to change the future by killing Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), t
he scientist whose work serves as the basis for Skynet, the military computer network that takes over the world through its control of nuclear weapons and desire to eliminate humanity. Now it's up to John and Arnold to try to find a less violent way of changing things, all while on the run from the formidable T-1000.

Yeah so this one, while still on one level a basic chase movie, has so much more going on. It takes the concepts and format of the first film and just goes to town. An action-packed, explosion-riddled, time-travel-enabling town. I love it. The cast is great, with Arnold getting a lot more lines and some great butt-kicking moments, and the totally adorable Edward Furlong really owning the vaulted role of John Connor. But mostly: Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, Holy Shit. She is so, so badass in this movie. It's ridiculous. Hamilton puts all of herself into the character, effortlessly convincing me that the nervous, frazzled woman of the first film could thoroughly and irreversibly harden herself for the sake of her son. She's completely transformed, but still lets the old loving, prone-to-worry Sarah shine through at times. She is easily one of my favorite action movie heroines, and really helps make the movie for me.

I don't think I really have anything bad to say about Terminator 2... some of the time travel stuff doesn't make sense, but that's bound to happen in any movie breaching that subject. I like that they branched out from being just a chase thriller to go into the possibility of changing the future, as well as some moral questions regarding what, if anything, can justify murder. The T-1000 is super cool and very, very intimidating (helped greatly by Patrick's deadly gaze), and works well as a villain due to its obvious advantages over Arnold, which make the viewer seriously question whether he can be stopped. The film is action-packed and better-budgeted, with a complex, well-paced plot and excellent characters. I'll be talking about the third and fourth installments soon enough, but I suspect the series will never top this one.

4.5/5

My original art for this film is available for purchase.

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Probable Week-Long Break

Hey everybody! I will be entertaining a very special visitor until June 11 so it's unlikely I'll be posting anything. I can, however, guarantee a lot of movie viewing during this time, so stay tuned for future reviews and have a nice week!

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Monday, June 1, 2009

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)

Ah, the final phase of the Star Wars nostalgia/homesick trilogy viewing: Return of the Jedi. And as usual, it's pretty great, though filled with some unnecessary silliness. Luke, Leia, and Lando (mmm alliteration) hatch a brilliant (?) plan to set Han free from his carbonite prison within Jabba the Hutt's lair. First C-3P0 and R2-D2 are hired by the giant slug as servants. Leia dons the golden slave costume and is chained to Jabba after freeing a temporarily blind Han from containment. When Luke tries to be all mysterious and Jedi-mind-tricky, he's forced to battle a gruesome creature in the rocky cells beneath the main floor. Soon they're all being sent to their deaths in the Sarlacc's Pit! But don't worry, Luke actually did have a plan, despite appearances, and with Lando's and R2's help they manage to escape, with Leia choking Jabba to death (it's like, remember how badass she can be?) and Boba Fett plunging into the pit (did he really die?!?! we'll leave the fan fiction writers to determine). Luke goes back to finish his training with Yoda, who's about to die and spends most of the scene ambiguously telling Luke secrets about his family between coughing fits.

Meanwhile, the Rebel Alliance has been working on destroying the new Death Star currently under construction, planning to disable its shield generator positioned on the small woodland moon Endor. Han leads a small force (including, of course, Chewie, Leia, Luke, and the 'bots) there while Lando commands a squad of pilots ready to blast through the space station when the shield is down. Vader sends lots of Storm Troopers and Chicken-Walkers, so a battle and fierce speeder bike chase ensue. Leia is separated from the group and ends up in the camp of Ewoks, small teddy-bear-esque creatures with a primitive and childlike culture. Eventually the whole gang teams up with the Ewoks to fight against the infinitely better-equipped and strategically-experienced Storm Troopers. Luke is taken to the Death Star to meet the Emperor, in hopes he can be converted to the Dark Side, but he instead fights to make his father good again. A lot of intense things happen and for a while it seems no happy ending can be achieved, but come on, the good guys have to win, don't they?

A lot of my favorite Star Warsy things happen in this movie: the infiltration of Jabba the Hutt's base and his collection of different alien servants, Leia ruthlessly choking him with a chain, Luke finally coming into his abilities to be awesome, the speeder bike chase, the appearance of another female character in a position of authority (even another female character with lines is a plus) in the form of Mon Mothma, the Emperor putting his electricity powers to good use, and the great reverse "I love you" "I know" moment on Endor. Lots of things to like here.

Unfortunately there is also a good chunk of the film populated with Ewoks, creatures far too twee and cuddly to fit comfortably into a potentially deathly and thrilling battle with Storm Troopers. Yet somehow Lucas thought it was a good idea? And there's a drawn-out segment involving the gang being taken
captive by Ewoks, who make C-3P0 their god, later decide to be friends with everyone, and listen gleefully to the robot's stories (he speaks their dialect). I'm all for giving our heroes a little downtime after such a slew of harrowing experiences, but chilling in a tree house with unintelligible teddy bears while Vader and the Emperor are hatching an evil scheme is really not the best use of time. Which reminds me of my other big issue (spoiler alert here): the Emperor is defeated way to easily. Vader just lifts him up and throws him into a pit. Kind of anti-climactic.

Otherwise though, it's a rather swell film. The final showdown between Luke, Vader, and Emperor is pretty neat, and they gave Leia a lot more stuff to do, which I appreciate. You can really see the full development of the three core characters, and everything rounds out nicely. It's an epic and slightly bittersweet ending, with the feeling that while the big fight is over, there's still a lot more story to tell.

4.5/5 (though I hope it's obvious that the trilogy as a whole gets 5/5?)

And here is a hilarious retelling of all three films by a girl who's never seen any Star Wars movie.

Star Wars: Retold (by someone who hasn't seen it) from Joe Nicolosi on Vimeo.



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