Monday, July 27, 2009

Two-Week Break

Alas, my fair compatriots, I am today departing for the magical lands of "Munich" and "Frankfurt" and "Dublin" with several family members in tow for a period of two weeks. I don't think it will be one of those hilarious movie-worthy road trip family vacations, but we'll see. I have no idea what my access to the internet will be, but suffice to say I will be neither watching movies nor blogging about them. I hope you all have lovely experiences in these upcoming days and will not find your lives too lacking without my grandiose and perfectly-penned cinematic observations. I believe in you!

Anyway, next time you hear from me, I'll be back in America! Hurray!

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Friday, July 24, 2009

America's Sweethearts (2001)

Needing something uncomplicated and light-hearted to ease my mind from exam preparations, I remembered America's Sweethearts, which I hadn't seen since maybe middle school. It is not as entertaining as I remember, but still works pretty well as a parody of the movie industry with a little romance in the background. It's also where I first learned the word "junket", so it's instructional. Billy Crystal (who also co-wrote the script) plays Lee Phillips, recently-fired publicist for sensational on- and off-screen couple Eddie Thomas (John Cusack) and Gwen Harrison (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who separated 6 months ago. Gwen now dates Spanish performer Hector (Hank Azaria), while Eddie is experimenting with herbal medication in a new-age wellness center.

Their latest (and last) movie is being held hostage by its eccentric director, Hal Weidmann (Christopher Walken), and the studio head (Stanley Tucci) convinces Lee to get the two of them together again with hints of rekindled romance for the junket, hoping the press won't notice they haven't seen the film yet if they're focused on this behind-the-scenes relationship. They resent one another but smile for the cameras, while Gwen debates giving Eddie divorce papers. Meanwhile her downtrodden sister and assistant Kiki (Julia Roberts) is harboring a long-time crush of her own.

This is a decent send-up of pampered movie stars and the people who work behind them in production and publicity. Gwen is very self-absorbed, but live off the attention of others. She sees herself always as the victim, not comprehending how she affects anyone else. Eddie is pretty spoiled too, but is an ok guy to be around despite his unhealthy obsession with Gwen. Lee and Kiki give them everything they want, feeding their egos and waiting on them hand and foot. However, Lee will exploit them in almost any way possible, seeing them simultaneously as friends and marketing ploys. There is a great repartee between Lee and his young replacement Danny (Seth Green), with the former constantly chiding the latter for knowing nothing about the ins and outs of his chosen business.

The thing about this movie that gets to me is that despite an interesting premise and some great lines and performances (especially Catherine Zeta-Jones, who just nails it as the gorgeous, quick-witted, and self-obsessed Gwen), it fails to live up to its potential. There would be some great jokes followed by something boring or cliched, which would instantly quell my laughter. Jokes like "dog licks Billy Crystal's crotch" and "John Cusack appears to be masturbating in cacti" are just not in keeping with the rest of the movie's tone. I'm not saying it's otherwise a biting, hilarious satire, but it does a pretty good job script-wise, and certain humor feels out of place.

The romance part of this romantic comedy was also the most boring. Yeah sure I want the once-chubby, now-thin and possibly eating-disordered (and therefore finally able to have a relationship, since god forbid a leading man be attracted to anyone over 120 lbs) Kiki to be all cute with John Cusack. Who doesn't? But I think this movie could have stuck more to the press and behind-the-scenes studio stuff, keeping the idealized Hollywood couple bickering like crazy, and it would have been more interesting. As it is, it just sort of falls flat. But still, America's Sweethearts has some really great moments and good performances (hello, Hal Ashby-ed Christopher Walken and hi, lisping overly-macho Hank Azaria!). And John Cusack is there, so I'm content enough. It's better than a lot of other romantic comedies but that's not saying much, is it?

3/5

PS I'm not sure why, but something about this struck me as being one of the whitest movies I've ever seen. And I feel like I watch a lot of really white movies. Huh.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Accepted (2006)

Maybe it's because I caught this at the right time in my life (it came out the summer before I entered college), but I actually really dig this movie. Directed by Steve Pink (who co-wrote the High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank screenplays), Accepted is the tale of underachiever Bartleby Gaines (Justin Long), who after several rejection letters feels forced to create a fake college to appease his parents. Some of his similarly-afflicted friends join in on the action: Hands (Columbus Short), the laid back football player whose leg injury cost him his scholarship; Rory (Maria Thayer), the overworked student who was so certain she'd get into Yale she didn't apply to any other schools; and Glen (Adam Herschman), who got a "0" on the SAT's and was recently fired from his convenience store job for making a shrimp smoothie.

Bartleby's best friend Schrader (Jonah Hill) helps them out with renting and renovating an abandoned mental hospital for a "campus" and setting up a bank account for tuition checks to go, despite the fact that he is actually attending a real school, the nearby snooty Harmon College. His uncle, former lecturer Ben Lewis (Lewis Black), poses as the dean for parents.Their fake website features an "acceptance is just a click away" button, causing between 100 and 200 college rejects to show up at their door and move into this fabled "South Harmon Institute of Technology" (S.H.I.T.). (hehe.)

Bartleby doesn't have the heart to send them all back after hearing their rejection stories, so he facilitates the creation of an experimental place of learning. They make up their own classes and teach each other about music, meditation, cooking, clothing design, skateboarding, etc. But uh oh: Harmon College wants to build a prestigious yard on the stretch of land housing South Harmon, and their investigations into the building's lease holder might prove its undoing. Also playing into the story is Monica (pre-Gossip Girl Blake Lively), Bartleby's long-time crush.

Accepted is highly unrealistic, clearly, and sometimes plays into some obvious or bland jokes, but overall I find it to be a really entertaining, laid back little chunk of teenage escapism. It has a really casual, likable atmosphere: there is little drama between most of the diverse characters, who are all easy friends despite their different high school student cliches; everything flows nicely and nothing bad really happens. It's almost a relief to watch something that I can just sit back and enjoy- a movie without complicated or ambiguous relationships or events, but not unintelligent. The premise is a little silly, yes, but the filmmakers and cast have a lot of fun with it while managing to take it seriously enough that it isn't stupid or unrelatable. Some interesting points about the standard American university system are made, and college-age teenagers are shown a decent level of respect.

I think the cast is really a selling point on this movie. Justin Long has wonderful comedic timing and fast-paced, sarcastic delivery. Mostly-pre-Apatowed Jonah Hill is a little too over the top for me but still funny as dry-witted, complainy Schrader. Maria Thayer is underused, but adorable, and naturally Lewis Black steals every scene he's in (often with sheer loudness) as the cynical former educator rediscovering his love of teaching. Blake Lively does this weird thing with her lips all the time, but maybe that's just the way her mouth is? I've never seen her in anything else. Whatever, her character is pretty boring: you know, that hot, sweet girl who dates a butch jerk but doesn't realize he's an asshole until he's caught being blatantly awful? And then suddenly decides she's into the dorkier dude who's liked her this whole time? Yeah, that's who she is. Yawn. At least she likes photography, I guess. And she's not a big part of the story.

Anyway, fun movie all around. Nothing earth-shattering, nothing especially gripping or impactful, but I think it's hard not to just have a good time watching. It has some great characters, funny writing, and an interesting concept. It will make you nostalgic for a college experience you know you can never/couldn't ever have, but in a good way (for the most part).

4/5

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Top Five: German Movies

All right, as some of you are aware, I have been studying in Germany for the past several months. But I'm leaving quite soon! As much as I like Europe, I'm ready to be back in America, doing American things like eating Taco Bell and seeing movies in their original languages. But as a little tribute to my current home, here are some of my favorite German movies. Most of my education on the matter comes from a German Film class I took freshman year, but I have been building up from there, and I'd like to say I've seen quite a few. Lots more I still need to see though!

I have observed that a good portion of German films (especially the more lauded ones) deal directly or indirectly with WWII or the GDR (which was a direct consequence of WWII). It made me a little sad that these topics are so prevalent, as if they can't escape their history, but at the same time I find them to be really interesting themes. Read on for the list.

M (1931)
Absolutely classic noir thriller from Frtiz Lang, detailing the mind of a child killer and the alternative methods utilized by both the police and a group of criminals to catch him. It's just really, really good. I wish I could re-watch it right now. Dang.

Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire) (1987)
Yeah, I'm kind of a sucker for this movie. It's filmed so beautifully, and words are used so poetically. It gets a little wrapped up in itself by the end, with an extended and meandering monologue from a gymnast, but I can look past that. It is a film made up of many small, wonderful moments. And star Bruno Ganz is excellent (some people might know him from Der Untergang, a movie about Hitler's last days that has a lot of weird dubbed parodies on youtube). One day I'll finally see Paris, Texas, also from Wim Wenders.

Lola Rennt (Run Lola Run) (1998)
Such a fun movie with a pretty badass lady at the forefront. It's very stylized and visually interesting, with a fast-paced plot and nice "what if?" storytelling device. Plus it introduced me to Moritz Bleibtrau, who is a pretty big actor here I believe. From my experience it's the most popular German movie for Americans of my generation, and I can see why. It is a good time.

Sonnenallee (Sun Alley) (1999)
Unfortunately this isn't available in America, but I was able to see a grainy bootleg version with English subtitles a few years ago. I found it in Germany but it has no language options so I can't share it with my friends at home. If you happen to speak German, I highly recommend this interesting look at youth culture in the GDR in the 70's. It's got, like, rock 'n roll and cute girls and stuff.

Das Leben Der Anderen (The Lives of Others) (2006)
More life in the GDR in this amazing debut from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. This is a fascinating look into the day-to-day trials of both a secretly subversive playwright and the Stasi spy monitoring his apartment. The American posters make it look kind of kinky, but it is a truly gripping drama of a unique way of life and an important time in Germany's history. Also: pretty depressing.

Honorable Mentions
Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform) (1931)
Die Mörder Sind Unter Uns (The Murderers Are Among Us) (1946) The first movie made in Germany after WWII.
Good Bye, Lenin! (2003)
Gegen Die Wand (Head-On) (2004)
Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters) (2007)

What did I miss? I know I still have several classics to see like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and The Testament of Dr Mabuse, as well as more from Fassbinder, Herzog, Tykwer, and Wenders.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Iron Man (2008)

Oh Robert Downey, Jr, it's been so long since you first stole my heart as a re-incarnated district attorney being courted by both Mary Stuart Masterson and Cybil Shepard in 1989's Chances Are. Now look how far you've come! Finally everyone remembers that you are one of the best, most enjoyable actors ever. And all thanks to Iron Man. Admittedly I haven't read any Iron Man comics, knowing him more from occasional appearances in issues of X-Men (my main comic love), but being a general geek I knew enough about him to be worried for this movie's representation of the character. And thank goodness, Marvel Studios really got it right. The film stars the perfectly-cast Robert Downey, Jr as billionaire weapons manufacturer, womanizer, and genius Tony Stark, who is kidnapped by a multi-national terrorist group when in Afghanistan for a weapons demonstration.

They want him to build them a special missile with various parts of his own weapons stolen from the US military, but he instead builds a large armored suit powered by a small "arc reactor" (a special energy source contraption) installed in his chest to keep him alive (he was injured during kidnapping, and needs the device to keep metal shards in his system from migrating to his heart). He busts out guns ablazin' and fire afirin', and upon returning home he shuts down the weapons production branch of Stark Industries, hoping to bring more than destruction to the world.

His devoted assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) helps him install a new, super-strong arc reactor which will power his secret project: creating a streamlined version of his escape suit, with incredible flight and offensive abilities. His business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) is a little rattled with Tony's new direction, knowing the company will lose a lot of money. Tony's best friend Rhodey (Terrence Howard), who works for the military, is also pretty pissed and personally offended. When Tony finds out his weapons are still finding their way into terrorist hands overseas, he uses the suit to destroy them and their handlers. But someone else has been developing his own armored suit, and hopes to take all power away from Tony.

Iron Man is exciting, hilarious, and visually stimulating. It owes much of its success to Robert Downey, Jr's impeccable portrayal of lovable prick Stark, with tons of mumbly one-liners and those adorable puppy-dog eyes. He carries the film completely, dominating almost every scene, and is just a joy to watch. A lot of the dialogue was improvised, and it's apparent in the casual, off-kilter conversations he leads, highlighting his embodiment of the character and ease of improv. I hope he can finally star in every movie ever from this point on. Literally. Paltrow, Howard, and Bridges do their thing well, too, but nothing is particularly standout. Mostly I was impressed with Paltrow's ability to run around in her very tight, below-the knee skirt and heels.

The story is really well-handled: often a superhero origin story can be boring or weirdly paced, with too much/too little time spent on pre-superpowered life or "getting to know my powers" montages, and a rushed climactic battle scene tacked on to appease the masses (I'm looking at you, Spider-Man and Fantastic Four). Here, a lot of time is indeed devoted to pre-Iron-Manned Tony, but it's all awesome time. He's shooting out hilarious quips and drinking up a storm and building crazy weapons in the desert and hanging out with robots: it's not boring or dragged out, and just allows us to really appreciate this character. This is not really about Iron Man, this is about Tony Stark. Though that's not to say there's no action- the suit looks great and I totally dig the many flying/fighting/blowing shit up scenes.

Iron Man is what non-dramatic superhero movies should be: engaging, well-acted, funny, action-packed, sharply written, and just a lot of fun. It doesn't take itself too seriously, but isn't a piece of fluff either. The characters and situations are fairly realistic and the filmmakers aren't afraid to bring attention to Stark's many flaws and day-to-day challenges (like loneliness, alcoholism, recklessness, and obsessive tendencies). It's clear a lot of work went into it, incorporating some great details and wonderful effects. It's got a smattering of romance and topicality to bring everything together into a delightful comic book adventure. Finally, Marvel has been able to top X-Men 2. I can't wait for the next installment.

4.5/5

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Better Off Dead (1985)

I honestly think this is one of the funniest movies I've ever seen, and it frustrates me that every one in the world isn't always in a position to act out scenes from it, which is often a state of mind in which I find myself. It is also the movie that kicked off my John Cusack obsession, meaning I spent a good chunk of middle- and early-high school watching anything this guy was in. I even sat through the goddamn Andrew McCarthy/Rob Lowe vehicle Class, to see his first onscreen appearance. The things I do! Anyway, Better Off Dead is writer/director Savage Steve Holland's ode to his own attempted suicides after his heart was broken. John Cusack stars as Lane Meyer, a daydreaming teenager who gets dumped by long-term girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss) for the asshole captain of the ski team Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier).

Unable to imagine living in a world in which his perfect girl would date a jerk, Lane half-heartedly tries to kill himself several times. In between he has to deal with his irritable father (David Ogden Stiers), clueless mother (Kim Darby), drug-obsessed best friend, Charles De Mar (Curtis Armstrong), and various other wacky characters. He befriends Monique (Diane Franklin), the adorable French exchange student staying with his socially-inept neighbors. She doesn't speak English but is happy to get away from the groping hands of her host brother Ricky (Dan Schneider), and Lane's happy to have someone who'll listen to him. Maybe soon he will lose his suicidal tendencies and finally master the K12, the most challenging ski trail in the area!

Really, the story isn't especially important here. I mean, it's engaging and everything, but on paper it's not like this amazing, laugh-out-loud premise. And making fun of suicide sounds inappropriate. But seriously you guys: Better Off Dead is so incredibly awesome. It's one of the most ludicrous films I've ever seen, chock full of unexpectedly surreal moments and idiosyncratic supporting characters. I remember when my cousin first recommended this to me, she kept telling me about these really funny scenes and would act out the conversations, and I assumed she was exaggerating because no way would an 80's teen comedy be so out there and so perfectly fitted to our sense of humor. But hey, this one totally is! The dialogue is silly and memorable, with most of the best lines going to Curtis Armstrong. It's a very dense movie- loaded with weird little sight gags or throw-away lines so that each time I watch it I've caught something new. I really enjoy the fantasy/daydreaming sequences too.

John Cusack, obviously, is very likable and cute, playing it a little over the top (he's got some great facial expressions going on). It's nice to remember his wacky side. The whole cast is excellent, right down to little Scooter Stevens playing Lane's silent brother who builds a spaceship out of common household items (good times). I'm not sure why this movie didn't do better when it came out- maybe it's a bit too strange- but it has since developed a devoted following for a reason: it's kind of genius. I could not compare it to any other movie; its humor is unique and immensely enjoyable. Though it has the trappings of 1980's high school comedies in its fashion, character archetypes, and claymation musical sequence, it is not hindered by its decade. Meaning I'm free to watch it an unhealthy amount of times for the rest of my life.

5/5

"One Way Love (Better Off Dead)"- Elizabeth Daily (excellent song sung by Ms Daily during her performance at the school dance. If she sounds familiar, you might know her as Tommy Pickles' voice in Rugrats or Buttercup in The Powerpuff Girls. Or of course, Dottie in Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Susan in Jon Cryer's first movie No Small Affair)

And if you're interested, here's a cool interview with Savage Steve Holland in which you can hear details about John Cusack's irrational hatred for this movie.

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Star Trek (2009)

I know I'm a bit late to this. I actually saw it twice when it first came out, but with German dubbing, so I wanted to wait until I caught it in English to talk about it. And a good thing, too. I have never seen the show, so most of my knowledge of Star Trek comes out of Wrath of Khan and Galaxy Quest viewings. This means various references went over my head but whatever, it's a pretty cool movie either way.

Star Trek is the origin story of James Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), who both end up working on the Starship Enterprise for their first mission. The day he was born, Kirk's father died piloting the USS Kelvin during an attack from highly-advanced Romulans led by Captain Nero (Eric Bana). He grows up to be extremely cocky and irreverent, but also intelligent and likable. Spock grows up dealing with his dual heritage- his Vulcan side is all "Don't show your feelings! Just study all the time!" and his human side is like "Dude, go punch everybody in the face". It's tough. He becomes first officer on the Enterprise while Kirk sneaks in with the aid of his best friend Dr Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban). Also along for the ride are inexperienced pilot Hikaru Sulu (John Cho), Russian prodigy Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Uhura (Zoe Saldana), the lady. Just kidding, she does communications stuff or something cute like that.

When a gigantic, hostile Romulan ship asks the Enterprise's Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) to come aboard and negotiate, Kirk realizes it's the same situation as the USS Kelvin, and warns against it. Despite breaking regulations to be aboard, Pike makes him first officer after promoting Spock to captain, unsure of his chances of getting away alive from the Romulans. Turns out those guys are totally destroying planets (not like Dark Phoenix, more in a Death Star way), so it's up to Kirk, Sulu, and some other guy to stop them from blowing up Vulcan while Spock goes to rescue his parents and Pike boards their ship. Many exciting things happen, as well as some sad things. Kirk thinks they should go rescue Pike right away because he is probably being tortured for Starfleet secrets, but Spock thinks they should go back and regroup with more ships, which would take much longer. They get in a fight, Kirk goes to Hoth, gets help from a highly unlikely source, meets tech wizard Scotty (Simon Pegg), and soon enough it's time to take charge and fight the bad guys! Yeah!

I found this movie so fun. It's not mind blowing or groundbreaking, but it's really just such a good time. I didn't have to think too much, but I didn't have to "shut my brain off" either. Everyone is really likable, the dialogue is sharp and fun, and of course the effects are spectacular. I can't remember any boring moments. Chris Pine is super attractive and has a great swagger, while Zachary Quinto makes good use of his "pretentiously inquisitive" look. Anton Yelchin remains absolutely adorable no matter what his accent is, and I really liked John Cho as Sulu but unfortunately he's really only in one big scene. Naturally, Simon Pegg rocks the Scotty thing, and Leonard Nimoy fights the North Pole version of the Cloverfield monster.

Then there's Uhura, who starts off pretty awesome with her obvious intelligence and disdain for Kirk's flirty womanizing. I was excited to see what interesting and helpful things she'd be doing on this mission, and how she'd fit in with the otherwise almost completely-male cast. But then she just sort of... fades away. She shows up once or twice to ask Spock if he needs any sexual favors or to wear a headset, and that's pretty much it. And all of this is done in a mini-skirt and go go boots. Really? Everybody else gets to wear pants and long-sleeved shirts, I even saw some background female crew members in pants, while she has to run around in such a dated and (I'd imagine) uncomfortable outfit? I understand it's like a reference to the 60's outfits of the show or whatever, but jesus this is supposed to be an "update". It is not progressive to just have a black woman in your "mixed-ethnicity" crew. She should also not be the sexualized, girlfriend character (or at least be more than that). Sigh.

Aside from issues like that which maybe didn't bother the bulk of Star Trek viewers (though I know I'm not alone), it's a really rad movie. I've heard complaints of Captain Nero's lameness, and I guess that's pretty true, but it didn't affect me too much when watching the film, since the focus is more on the Enterprise and the relationships and trials of the main characters. Plus the Romulan Ship was awesome with a very interesting design. The movie's got spaceships, time travel, a green lady in her undies, a car crash, explosions, a sword fight, and an aged Winona Ryder, for some reason. Lots of fun, a great theater experience, and I have hopes that it will only improve with the next installment. Now that these main characters have been introduced, I'm ready to see more stories with the secondary cast members, and perhaps some new people who aren't so pale. Or (gasp!) a female script writer.

4/5

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Friday, July 17, 2009

State of Play (2009)

Adapted from the British mini-series of the same name and directed by Kevin Macdonald (no, not the wide-eyed kid in the hall Kevin McDonald, like I at first confusedly thought), State of Play is an engaging and well-acted political mystery from a journalist's point of view. Cal McAffrey (Russel Crowe), a messy, experienced, and well-connected DC journalist, arrives at the murder scene of two unconnected men, one a small-time crook and the other a pizza delivery guy who happened to be biking past. The same day a young red-headed congressional research assistant, Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer), apparently kills herself by jumping in front of a moving subway train. It is soon discovered that while working for Representative Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), she also became his mistress. Devastated, he is encouraged to pull out of a committee hearing he's organized against the expansive company PointCorp's possible war profiteering.

Fellow Post reporter Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), a young and ambitious blogger, seeks answers about Collins' affair through Cal, who was his college roommate. At first he tells her to bugger off (but in a less British way), but eventually they end up working together when Cal realizes that both deaths could relate back to PointCorp. They dig deeper and deeper through Cal's various connections (including Collins and his wife, Anne [Robin Wright Penn]), finding more and more levels of corruption and secrecy. Both of their lives are threatened, but they continue seeking the truth, going so far as to withhold evidence from the police for the sake of getting the whole story.

I thought State of Play was pretty cool. It's fast-paced and well-plotted, though a little confusing because the mystery has a lot of small elements that added up. I've only seen a snippet of the titular British miniseries, so I'm not sure how it stands as an adaptation. I'd imagine they had to cut a lot out to make it movie-length, and I know that the "death of the print newspaper" subtext was created for the film. At times it felt too dense, which can happen in a book- or miniseries-adaptation, but overall I think the filmmakers did a nice job with the story.

The cast is great- it's always nice to see Rachel McAdams, and I dug the smaller appearances from Helen Mirren as their head editor and Jeff Daniels as Collins' senior Rep. Two best surprises: Jason Bateman (I know right!) as a sleazy connection between Sonia and Collins, and Ben Affleck, who was like... acting. And not pissing me off every time he opened his mouth. Huh. Of course everyone had to take a back seat to Russell Crowe, whom I think is ok, but not particularly special, and kind of annoying. He's fine here, I guess. My biggest issue is that I will never believe Crowe and Affleck are close enough in age to have been college roommates. Plus you can feel Crowe's ego seeping into almost every scene he's in... which is every scene.

State of Play is good, but not mind-blowing. It's an engaging and fun mystery with some good twists, and doesn't take itself too seriously. Some of the plot points were a little too convenient, like how Cal always had some source or insider for whatever he needed to know. I understand that it showcased his "experienced and respected but slightly amoral journalist" persona, but really it just made some things too easy. And I could have done without the little reminiscing dates between Anne and Cal- they weren't necessary except to stir some later conflict between him and Collins. Also there was something about Jeff Daniels' character that I found really obvious from the start, but is revealed later as if it's a big deal. Still, good times and a few nail-biter scenes so definitely worth the watch if you're into it.

One thing I wished for: I had this crazy hope that at some point Cal would call Della and say "That's right! Your case, and my case, ARE THE SAME FUCKING CASE!" a la Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Sadly... my dream did not come true.

4/5

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009)

You're probably thinking "?" right now and yes, I was too. A little context: I was in Berlin alone last week, and met up with a friend who works at an English-speaking movie theater at the gorgeous Sony Center. While waiting for her to finish her shift so we could see State of Play together, I decided I could use some air-conditioned sit-down time, and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs was the only thing playing at that time. I've never seen the first two, so this review comes with absolutely no knowledge of this film's relation to the others, no initial ideas of the characters' relationships, and no clue as to how this franchise is popular. I doubt it would have helped.

The premise of this movie is... insultingly dumb, I don't even feel like saying it. But I shall press on, for the sake of blogging (you're welcome). It's the Ice Age, right? Right. And a ragtag group of animals have settled as an improbable herd somewhere... cold. Woolly mammoth Manny (Ray Romano) is all nervous because his wife Ellie (Queen Latifah) is due to give birth any day. He's built a playground and stuff. His friend Sid (John Leguizamo), a supremely annoying, clumsy, and selfish sloth, hopes to get in on the parenting action when he finds three huge eggs under the ice and takes them back to the herd. They hatch into baby T-Rexes, whose mother soon comes bounding out of nowhere to bring them home, snatching up Sid along with them. "Home", it turns out, is a magical, unexplained jungle under the ice in which dinosaurs are still the dominant fauna. Though they are under the ice, they appear to have their own atmosphere and, I guess, sun, since it's a kind of warm tropical paradise. Despite the thin layer of ice that is shown multiple times as its "ceiling". I can't make this stuff up.

Now that every child in the audience is either wicked confused or just blissfully happy to have their dream of sloths interacting with dinosaurs come to fruition, it's time for Manny, Ellie, their tiger friend Diego (Dennis Leary), and two weasly/rodent brother things (I'm not very good with animals, sorry) to save Sid. They soon meet Buck (Simon Pegg), a one-eyed British weasel who's been living alone for a long time among the dinosaurs (who, despite almost every other creature's considerable vocal abilities, can't speak; I guess they are descended from the same silent animals as those squirrels who keep popping up for no reason). He's gone a bit crazy but knows how to survive, so he helps them out and it's all adventurous for a bit, except when Manny is a total killjoy all worrying about his unborn child. Meanwhile Sid is still trying to mother the baby T-Rexes, as their actual mother shows them that she's way more fun. Soon they're all reunited and they fight the biggest dinosaur of them all and a baby pops out and at the end there's a dance party.

This movie is stupid, but has some saving graces. I really liked the character of Buck: he's funny in a non-cliche/safe way, plus he's got mad skills with a tooth knife. I wish he'd been given more to do though. He's really just there to lead the main characters along since they're completely useless. None of the other characters were very interesting, and some were downright aggravating. Diego didn't do anything, Manny just worried all the time and made sarcastic comments meant to amuse... someone. Sid disturbed me. Ellie, as essentially the only female character, mostly just ignored her husband's complaints and carried a baby inside her. Oh and she saved the guys when they got high off poisonous gas in the middle of a cavern and were about to die laughing. Great job, lady, I hope you are starting to re-evaluate your life choices up to this point.

The story, clearly, leaves many things to be desired, but at least it isn't boring. There's always something going on. Unfortunately one of those somethings is this thing with the silent squirrel, whom I recall from the previous Ice Age trailers. At first I was like, hey, I guess it's nice to introduce some purely visual comedy, as that certainly is a challenge. But it went from a cute little 3-minute segment to a recurring sideplot of the film, which I did not expect, and it felt irrelevant and pointless. It's pretty much the "squirrel wants an acorn, but oh no lady squirrel wants it too and will use her vicious feminine wiles to get it!" joke 7 times over. Then (spoiler alert) they move in together and suddenly, being a woman, she is all "move the sofa for me, no not there, there! Time to make your life miserable!" and he's having weird lovesick reminiscences about the acorn. Har.

The animation is so-so. Some of the details were beautiful, especially in the fur of the woolly mammoths and some of the scenery. But the character design rode a strange line between realistic and over-exaggerated, which I found frustrating and unappealing. I know this is a kids' movie, and kids are too stupid to know about anything, so I guess it's not a big deal. Nobody seems to expect impressive animation (or, you know, intelligent family films) from a studio that isn't Pixar. Overall Ice Age 3 is enjoyable enough if you don't care about anything I mentioned here. I'd imagine some kids would like it because it has dinosaurs and characters they recognize and a guy with an eye-patch. I can't say it's horrible because it didn't affect me enough. It just struck me as very dumb, which kept it from being entertaining when Buck wasn't around.

2/5

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother) (1999)

I've been meaning to see more Almodóvar films since watching Bad Education two years ago, but somehow never got around to it. But now the times, they are changing. Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother) focuses on single mother and nurse Manuela (Cecilia Roth), who has long kept from her son Esteban (Eloy Azorin) her own past and the identity of his father. After he is suddenly killed in a car accident while seeking an autograph from his favorite stage actress Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), she despairingly returns to Barcelona, where she lived before Esteban was born, to find his father. She meets up with old friend Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a streetwalker trying to keep up with the latest cosmetic surgeries while still keeping her penis for business reasons.

Agrado introduces her to Sister Rosa (Penélope Cruz), a young nun who tries to find Manuela a job, but instead ends up staying with her because she's secretly pregnant and doesn't get along well with her parents. The transgendered drug addict Lola (Toni Cantó), who had been in Rosa's care, is the father, but she robbed Agrado and disappeared. Lola also happens to be the unknowing father of Manuela's son. Soon enough Manuela gets a job working for Huma (the actress her son died for) as her assistant, helping to deal with her drug-addicted costar/lover, Nina (Candela Peña). All of these women interact in different ways, forming new friendships or rivalries over the course of several months. Manuela finds herself taking care of multiple people and is derailed from her mission to locate Lola, but many facets of the story come together by the end.

I have mixed feelings about this film. It is definitely interesting and creative in its story and visual style, with terrific performances all around and some fun dialogue. The colors pop, the settings are detailed and intimate, and shots are deliberate and well-executed. I loved Cecilia Roth, who imbues Manuela with an outer warmth and innate strength. Antonia San Juan is wonderful as talkative and straightforward Agrado, who talks very openly about her various operations and living as a woman with a male sex organ. I like how connected everyone is, and how the story almost solely focuses on female and transgendered characters. I also like the references to All About Eve. Todo Sobre Mi Madre has a lot of things going for it.

Then again, for some reason, I just couldn't really get into it. I'm not sure why. It might be the structure of the story: a lot of time passes but I didn't always feel it happening, so it'd be confusing to see characters' relationships at a certain point; the feel and seeming "goal" of the story changes several times, so I never got a handle on where the film wanted to go; there are a lot of characters given about the same amount of screen time (except for Manuela, of course, who remains the focal point), but I felt like I never really got to know most of them because their conversations were repetitive or didn't give much insight into their personalities or histories. I'm sorry I can't be more specific in my criticism, but there was just some ambiguous thing in the film's atmosphere that kept me from loving it. Still very good, just maybe not something I'd see more than once.

4/5

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Monday, July 13, 2009

28 Weeks Later (2007)

Continuing zombie times with the follow-up to 28 Days Later. I hope to squeeze Zombie in there some time, too. 28 Weeks Later is made by completely different people, so it has a different feel from the first film, with less focus on characters and more on scare tactics. England has been declared free of all infected persons (most of them starved to death), and with the aid of the US military, is being re-populated sector by sector. After abandoning his wife to zombie attack months earlier, Don (Robert Carlyle) has moved back to London and is reunited with his children Tammy (Imogen Poots) and Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton), who had been in Spain during the outbreak. At 12, Andy is the youngest person in the country. The siblings sneak out of their residential area despite its heavy surveillance and venture into the sectors awaiting reconstruction and still showing all the signs of violence and abandonment.

They make it to their old house and inexplicably find their mother, Alice (Catherine McCormack), who has been in contact with the Infected but somehow has a genetic immunity to the disease. Scarlet, an American soldier and physician, wants to study her so a cure can be developed. Her superiors, seeing her as one of the Infected even though the symptoms lay dormant, just want to kill her. Neither wins the argument, since when Don visits Alice to apologize for leaving her, he is totally infected and all hell breaks loose. The whole place is under lockdown, soldiers are killing everyone in the chaos, and Scarlet devotes herself to saving Tammy and Andy, whom she believes may carry the same immunity as their mother. Now they're running away from both soldiers seeking to eliminate any possible trace of the virus, as well as the newly multiplied Infected themselves.

Hmm. 28 Weeks Later is definitely scary, in a more overt and consistent way than its predecessor. I'll admit to keeping the light on longer than usual before going to bed. The effects are done well and believably, with the red eyes and jagged shooting style maintained from the first film. There is also some great use of darkness, specifically during a Cloverfield-like scene in which Scarlet, Tammy, and Andy are walking in complete darkness through piles of corpses in the subway, but it is shown from Scarlet's point of view as she looks through the nightvision thingie in her gun (does that have a name?). It is very, very tense.

Unfortunately the pacing is completely off. It took a while to get going, but I was ok with that because I was interested in the re-population idea. Then once it did get into the zombie-apocalypse-part-II part of the story, everything moved extremely quickly with characters dying left and right, and no real goal or narrative except "run faster!". Then suddenly it was over. I did not at all expect it to end at the point that it did, so I was left feeling unsatisfied. It seemed to be building to something that never happened. However, I also went into this expecting something akin to the first film, which had less running from zombies and more of an overarching story and characters we can actually get to know. My expectations definitely affected my overall feelings about the movie.

28 Weeks Later has a great premise with a less-than-stellar execution. It is a bit more generic than the first one, but stands on its own as an interesting and scary zombie thriller. It seems a possibility Boyle might return as writer/director for 28 Months Later, which could be cool.

3.5/5

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Keinohrhasen (Rabbit Without Ears) (2007)

Having really enjoyed Barfuss, and after seeing a funny clip in one of my German classes, I was pretty intrigued by Til Schweiger's more recent writing/directing venture Keinohrhasen, aka Rabbit Without Ears. I'm sorry to say it didn't live up to my expectations. Schweiger stars as tabloid journalist Ludo Dekker, a cocky womanizer who believes his honest approach to one night stands makes it ok to ignore women's feelings. He initiates an elaborate scheme with his friend and photographer Moritz (Matthias Schweighöfer) to get the scoop on a politician's wedding proposal at a private dinner. He ends up crashing through a ceiling and spoiling the entire party, and is sentenced to community service for destruction of property/spying/general stupidity.

He is assigned to work at a small daycare center run by best friends Miriam (Alwara Höfels) and Anna (Nora Tschirner). The latter was seriously bullied by Ludo when they were children at school, and upon seeing that he is still an overconfident jerk, she does all she can to make his life hell while he works for her. As they become reaquainted, they acclimate a bit- mostly Anna tries not to be so stiff and Ludo shows a more caring side to his personality. After a drunken hook up, they decide it was a one-time mistake, and in fact their friendship only deepens from there. Of course Anna realizes she's falling for him and Ludo is completely oblivious to her feelings (seeing her as a "sister" figure), and ends up screwing her over. Actual German movie star Jürgen Vogel, playing himself, pops up here and there and helps or hinders the situation.

This is a fairly straightforward, formulaic romantic comedy. It's got the whole opposites-attract, friendship-building-montages, overt-sexual-tension thing going on. Throughout the film there are some very funny or cute moments that had me engaged, and there are some likable characters, but Schweiger and co-writer Anika Decker messed up the binding theme: the central relationship between Anna and Ludo. It's really not believable or interesting. Anna starts off really, truly hating Ludo, holding tight to the grudges of her childhood abuse and constantly shocked by his continued immaturity. Then she suddenly starts feeling sorry for the way she's acted (and yes, it was petty to hold onto her anger, but whatever, Ludo is a dick in the present as well as the past). And yeah, I understand Ludo's not a bad person and he made her laugh and they got along well as friends, ok. But I really didn't see the "falling in love" thing. And I think by the end we were supposed to see Ludo's transformation into a sympathetic hero character but... I never saw that. He was still primarily a selfish jerk, with some lapses into sweetness or kindness here and there. Also he totally took advantage of Anna's drunkenness. Not ok at all.

Another thing that frustrated me was Anna. For the most part I liked her, and I understand what kind of character they were trying to write and I am on board with the idea. But then there were all these little things that didn't seem to mesh with the rest of her personality and it was annoying and often stereotypical. She seems a smart, independent woman who, after several failed relationships, is not optimistic about finding love, but would still like to try something serious. She disapproves of Ludo's one-night-stands or purely sexual relationships, no matter how honest he is with the woman, believing that it's likely some women may be unable to separate emotions from sex, and indeed some might listen to his proposal, be outwardly ok with it, but secretly wonder if maybe this time he'll want to have a real relationship because she's so great.

I thought Anna was pretty cool. But then there are a lot of cracks about her glasses ("Four eyes"? Really? Are we in 3rd grade? Is that still a legitimate insult?), and she lets them get to her for some reason. She takes them off while driving, insisting she doesn't really need them. When she goes on a date she doesn't wear them. Throughout the film she'll just inexplicably not wear them sometimes. It's not a big deal, but as a glasses-wearer it's something I pay attention to, and I hate this re-enforcement of the "girls can't be pretty if they wear glasses" concept. And it seemed out of character for her to even care about it. There were a lot of little contradictions like that, making her awkwardly developed and never fully realized- I could never get a real handle on her character.

Keinohrhasen is pretty popular in Germany (it's not available in America at the moment), and in many respects I can see why. It is at parts very funny. There are a lot of jabs at celebrity and American entertainment specifically, with various scenes of Ludo on the job. The kids are cute (the two main girls are played by Schweiger's daughters) and I liked seeing Ludo hanging out with them, since it really did humanize him as well as make for some silly moments and great visual gags. Anna's friend Miriam is also quite amusing and likable, with some overly blunt sexual conversations. I think Schweiger has an imaginative and enjoyable comedic writing style, but isn't as adept at character development or meaningful relationships (though he did a better job with these concepts in Barfuss). Like many romantic comedies, if you don't think too much about it, it's a fun time. But I have the feeling Schweiger might have been aiming for something slightly more meaningful or well-rounded (maybe?), which makes it more disappointing that he missed the mark. I wonder if it will get better or worse in the sequel.

3/5

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Not Another Teen Movie (2001)

Yeah, I can get drunk and watch stupid comedies, so what? Don't act surprised, you already know I think BASEketball is one of the funniest movies ever. I sat down with a good buddy to watch Not Another Teen Movie, which I hadn't seen in years and even then only highly edited on cable. In the vein of all those other movie parodies, it takes various stereotypes from teen comedies and messes around with their characters, exposing the stupidity and predictability of these kinds of movies. She's All That, Cruel Intentions, Can't Hardly Wait, and especially John Hughes films are the main ones drawn upon for the overarching story. It's pretty much on target. You've got Janey (Chyler Leigh), the artsy rebel with glasses who lives with her single alcoholic dad and annoying younger brother. She's got a dorky best friend, Ricky (Eric Jungmann), who completely dotes on her but she doesn't realize he's in love with her.

Jake (Chris Evans), the popular football player who's being pressured by his dad to go to Princeton, makes a bet with asshole blonde preppy Austin (Eric Christian Olsen) that he can make any girl prom queen, after girlfriend and head cheerleader Priscilla (Jamie Pressly) breaks up with him. They pick Janey as the biggest challenge for her "glasses, ponytail, and paint-stained overalls". Jake's beautiful and cold sister Catherine (Mia Kirshner), who wants him in the weirdest way, helps him out but if he loses the bet he has to sleep with her. Meanwhile, Janey's brother Mitch (Cody McMains) and his dorky pals are dead-set on getting laid for the first time. He specifically has his eye on the quiet and idolized Amanda Becker (Lacey Chabert), who was recently dumped. These stories and more are explored in pretty ridiculous, but often incredibly true-to-their-roots ways.

It's a bit convoluted, because the filmmakers wanted to fit in so many different stereotypes and specific character references, but generally I think Not Another Teen Movie got it right. There's the token black guy who only serves the purpose of saying "That is whack!" even though he tries to assert his independent personality. There's a non-specifically foreign exchange student who is (literally) only seen as a sexy body. There's a 60-something-year-old reporter posing as a high school student. There's a cheer-off, a makeover, a dramatic airport scene, awkward sexual moments, and even a musical number. I love the exaggeration of everything, and the great appearances from actors who were in some of the movies being parodied (Jamie Pressly was in Can't Hardly Wait, Cody McMains was the little brother in Bring it On, and of course John Hughes darling Molly Ringwald has one of my favorite cameos ever).

I think it does a good job bringing to light how stupid a lot of these stereotypes really are. The "ew that girl with glasses?" remark gets me every time, even though it's sadly still quite true that a female character in a movie cannot be considered traditionally pretty whilst wearing glasses. Sigh, I'll never be a big star! And there are a lot of little things in the background- often on printed signs- that are really great if you catch them. Not Another Teen Movie's main failing is that it tries to do too much, and include too many references and story lines, that it sometimes feels more like a string of parodies than one cohesive one. It also gets overly lewd at parts, but hey, whatever, it knows its audience, and it's not like regular teen comedies aren't over-sexed anyway. Overall it's an entertaining, irreverent look at how comedies treat high school students, and it's pretty funny, but not amazing. It helps if you've seen the bulk of the films being parodied, though. As I realize I have seen almost every single fluffy teen film they referenced (except American Pie).

3.5/5

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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Planet Terror (2007)

You guys are lucky I didn't have a blog when Grindhouse first came out, because guess what is the only movie I would have wanted to talk about for at least a month? I would have gone on and oooon about how fantastic the concept is, how spot-on the fake trailers are, how cool Zoe Bell is in Death Proof, how Rodriguez has awakened my love of the zombie genre, how Rose MacGowan has a goddamn machine gun for a leg. It would have become quite tiring, surely. Lucky for you, the films were released on DVD separately, and the trailers weren't included in either release, meaning I can not truly re-live that amazing theater experience. But I will talk at length about everything that's awesome about the first half, Planet Terror.

My friend and I have been educating each other on zombie movies (hence my recent viewing of 28 Days Later and yes, I understand it is not a "true" zombie film) so I immediately snatched up the opportunity to see Planet Terror again. It kicks off with a silly faux-trailer from Rodriquez for Machete, starring Danny Trejo as a vengeful, blade-wielding Federale and Cheech Marin as a priest with a gun. Awesome. When the movie really begins, it's just Rose MacGowan go-go dancing in a dim bar and crying silently before leaving the stage, all to a killer main theme. Her character, Cherry Darling, quits the job immediately after, citing a need for "a drastic change" in her life. Meanwhile, there is a top-secret military deal going down nearby. Scientist Abby (Naveen Andrews) is selling some kind chemical substance to soldier dudes led by Lt Muldoon (Bruce Willis), but things go wrong and some testicle-chopping is followed by a poisonous gas leak and melting faces. It is pretty ambiguous at this point.

Meanwhile still (meanwhiler?), Dr Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) and her husband Dr William Block (Josh Brolin) awake for their night shift. Dakota is secretly trying to leave her controlling husband, taking their young son Tony (Rebel Rodriquez, one of the director's kids) with her and former girlfriend Tammy (Stacy Ferguson aka Fergie from that band). While at the hospital, myriad cases of highly contagious viral infections come pouring in, as well as multiple violently torn-apart DOA's. Cherry soon becomes a patient, after she gets in a car accident with her ex-boyfriend Wray (Freddy Rodríquez), who was giving her a ride, and her leg is torn off by freakish humanoid creatures.

Wray is arrested for carrying a gun (he has done something criminal in the past that resulted in some measure against his gun-holding), but when Sheriff Hague's (Michael Biehn) office is attacked by these crazy infected people, Wray and what's left of the police force head to the hospital so he can get Cherry. Of course this is the center of the outbreak, where everyone had gone for infection treatment before turning into brain-eating zombies (again, I know they're not technically raised-from-the-dead zombies, but please, let me use the term). Wray slices up a bunch of zombies, finds Cherry, gives her a table leg to walk on, and the group makes it to the BBQ restaurant owned by JT (Jeff Fahey), the sheriff's brother. It is surprisingly well-equipped with transportation and guns.

Meanwhile again, Dakota finds Tammy killed by zombies and is almost killed by her husband, so she breaks out of the hospital and picks up Tony before driving to her father's (Michael Park) house. Eventually everyone winds up at JT's place, hoping to make it out of the area. They're taken in by the group of soldiers from the beginning to be "quarantined". Some gross things happen, some badass things happen, some explosions happen, and the gang does their best to make it to Mexico alive, hoping to "put their backs to the ocean and protect themselves there".

Wow that was long, sorry. But I wanted to give a clear picture of how interesting and inter-connected the story is. It's legitimately really well-plotted, with lots of great characters and unexpected developments. It sounds too character-heavy from a written summary, but Rodriguez does a really good job introducing everyone and giving them each the right amount of attention. Cherry is the main star, I'd say, along with Wray and Dakota to a slightly lesser extent, so it's not like a big confusing ensemble with no one as a focus. The dialogue is excellent, riding the line between self-aware cheesiness and downright hilarity. It's a great nod to the often overly dramatic or poorly structured writing of some B-movies.

The performances are top-notch, with the actors taking their roles seriously enough for the audience to care and lightly enough to keep it from being overdone. Rose MacGowan is adorable, foul-mouthed, sexy, and independent as Cherry Darling. It takes a while for her to be truly aggressive and machine-gunned, but she's still very entertaining until then. I also really enjoyed Freddy Rodríguez as "El Wray", a bad-boy-with-a-mysterious-past-type character. He's very gruff and commanding, with awesome battle skills and a charming bluntness. Oddly enough, Dakota Block is probably the most badass character in the film. She's a regular but very determined suburban lady thrust into a highly intense situation. She goes through a lot to protect herself and her son, and it's really impressive. She's all breaking through glass windows and shooting anesthetic needles at asshole cameo zombies and stuff. And I took her completely seriously, which I think is a testament to Marley Shelton's great performance. She should star in more/better movies.

But really, everyone in this movie is swell. It's one of the best casts ever, except of course for two appearances: Stacy "Fergie-no-not-the-Duchess-of-York" Ferguson and Quentin "Douchebag" Tarantino. Both roles are small, but irritating. Especially Fergie's. I mean, what is she doing there? She can't act, so that's not the reason. She delivers her lines like she's unsure of the meaning of the words. She wears a tight-fitting, low-cut shirt so I guess that's the main reason. But aren't there many other, more talented women out there who could fulfill the same function? As for Tarantino, yeah I know he's Rodriguez's bffl and they're always doing things for each other's films. I get it! But jesus couldn't Tarantino just have filmed a small scene like he did for Sin City? Isn't it good enough that their Grindhouse contributions are set in the same world (which was a nice touch, I thought). I refuse to believe anyone ever wants to see his face in any con
text, especially when coupled with him (shudder) speaking. And of course he drops some movie references just in case we have forgotten that he is, indeed, Quention Tarantino, A Person Who Knows About Films. The good thing is his screen time is fairly short, and ends in gunfire. Finally.

Anyway, aside from those little hiccups, I completely in every way enjoy this movie. It's exciting and perfectly paced, with good moments of action and character development/interaction. The story is contemporary and inventive, while still paying fitting tribute to the grindhouse films Rodriguez sought to emulate. It's filmed in a gritty, dark style so it feels kind of like the 70's (in a good way). I really love the idea of making grindhouse films for a new generation. Planet Terror is similar in its concept and shooting style, but incorporates better effects and better writing. It's a great mix of two eras into one genre. It's just a really cool piece of cinema.

5/5

"Grindhouse Main Titles"- Robert Rodriguez. Love the film's score, primarily composed by the director himself.

Also please check out the fake trailers created by Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth. Really funny! Plus Roth has plans to actually make Thanksgiving as a feature-length film, which I find so awesome.

*A Note on the "Missing Reel" Moment (Some Spoilers)*
This is something I'm not sure is common knowledge, and I know people I've shown it to have questioned me about it. About two-thirds into the film, as Wray and Cherry are going at it, there's a sudden pause and the message "Missing Reel, Apologies from Theater Management" appears. Suddenly the story skips ahead several points and we have no idea what happened in between. This comes from an experience Rodriguez and Tarantino had while watching an old b-movie in Tarantino's home theater. The film was missing a reel in which something important about a character was explained, and they found that it made the movie that much better not knowing this mystery. They could try to predict themselves what happened during those missing scenes. So each of them have a "missing reel" moment in their grindhouse films. In this one, Wray's past is explained and Dakota somehow makes it to JT's along with several other minor characters we'd met earlier. It's a cool idea (though not one I'd like all the time- I want to know the secrets!), but kind of a weird thing to happen if you're not expecting it. Just fyi for all you fine trivia-digging folks out there!

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) (1997)

Here is a film that really went places I never expected. Alejandro Amenábar's twisted Abre Los Ojos combines aspects of drama, thriller, science-fiction, and romance to create something really interesting and surprising. Most of the story is told by César (Eduardo Noriega), a mysterious masked figure held in a mental institution, being questioned by psychiatrist Antonio (Chete Lera) for an unexplained murder. César starts out a laid back and quite wealthy womanizer who looks exactly like a younger, handsomer Peter Gallagher. He's been sleeping with the fiery Nuria (Najwa Nimri), but feels she's getting too attached and wants to move on. She crashes his big birthday party, so he uses new acquaintance Sofia (Penélope Cruz) as cover from her advances. César finds himself really liking the beautiful actress and ends up hanging out with her at her apartment all night, despite the fact that his best friend Pelayo (Fele Martínez) is interested in her. The next morning he goes to leave, only to find Nuria parked outside.

She convinces him to get into the car, so she can show him something at her apartment. Obsessed with him and angered that he should want to stop seeing her, she intentionally crashes the car and is killed on impact. C
ésar survives, but his face is severely disfigured. His lifelong self-confidence from his good looks is shattered. He spares no expense (he inherited his family's successful business when his parents passed away years earlier) on reconstructive surgery, but nothing can be done to completely restore it. He tries to go after Sofia again, hoping to re-establish their connection from months before, but feels so self-conscious and fearful of his impact on those around him that he instead lashes out at her and Pelayo. After passing out drunk in the street, hoping to die, his luck takes a turn for the better, awoken by an apologetic and loving Sofia and soon contacted by surgeons to undergo revolutionary reconstructive surgery. But of course all is not what it seems.

I really liked Abre Los Ojos. It's very engaging, with the story constantly changing and adding more unexpected and mysterious elements. It was nice to be consistently surprised- no matter how much I tried to predict what was happening, I was never quite on target. However, I think that this fluxuating aspect of the narrative caused it to feel a bit uneven. The tone completely shifted multiple times, which gave it a lack of cohesion. I liked the fact that it just got weirder and weirder as the story progressed, but the change to total sci-fi was so sudden it felt a bit untrue- like it didn't quite fit with the rest of the film. It's not a huge problem, and probably not one that would affect most viewers. I think it's more the way I personally experienced the movie.

The cast is excellent, with Pen
élope Cruz bringing vibrancy to a role that could have been flat. I also really liked Chete Lera as the psychiatrist. He doesn't get a lot of screen time, but he does a great job as a regular guy realizing his place in the world, and instantly denying it. I have mixed feelings about Eduardo Noriega. He turned in a varied and dynamic performance, but a lot of his reactions were too extreme. César never become wholly sympathetic to me: he is too full of himself, or too furious, or too needy, or too dramatic. Perhaps that's how the character was written. Either way, it's frustrating to be unable to connect with a character who is completely central to the story. He isn't despicable or anything, but just sort of selfish and rude, and didn't feel real to me.

I feel like I'm only talking about negative aspects of the film. Really, it's quite good: incredibly imaginative and gripping in its narrative, and generally well-acted and paced with a lovely, slightly surreal visual style. At once terrifying, suspenseful, and touching. Definitely an "expect the unexpected" kind of movie. I can see why it has had such a strong affect on so many people.

4/5

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Monday, July 6, 2009

MovieBlips Article

Hello everyone, I'm sorry I've been dormant these past few days but I was a bit preoccupied with art museums and non-dubbed American movies in Berlin this weekend (so great!). Many reviews forthcoming, but if you're at all interested, there's an article about live-action film adaptations of animated projects at MovieBlips, to which I contributed with attempted eloquence. This is the first time anyone has ever asked me to do any kind of interview or article so it was kind of exciting for me! Nick from R2D2 was also involved, and some other bloggers with whom I'm unfamiliar. Anyway, check it out if you like!

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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Brothers Bloom (2008)

After multiple delays in its release, The Brothers Bloom, a personally highly anticipated film from Brick's Rian Johnson, was finally released. In America. A place where I am not. I found it pretty depressing that I wouldn't be able to see this on the big screen, or indeed for several months until it comes out on DVD (I am overly affected by things like this). But then I went to Amsterdam for a weekend, and was left alone for a day after buying the wrong bus ticket. Lo and behold, a large multiplex, the likes of which I have not seen in months! And they play everything in its original language, with Dutch subtitles. And they are playing The Brothers Bloom! "Fantastic!" I think to myself. "Just because I'm on vacation does not mean I can't see a movie!" So I did. My life is riveting, I know, but let's talk about the film.

The Brothers Bloom starts off with a flashback in the lives of two orphaned brothers, Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrian Brody). As kids (played by Max Records and Zachary Gordon), dressed in matching over-large suits and hats, they engage in their first con. Stephen writes an overly-detailed flow-chart-like plan that ends in the local children giving the brothers $30, but also gets them kicked out of town. Flash forward two decades later to the well-known con men's latest success, and Bloom is decidedly unhappy with his situation, sick of living a "scripted life" as the anti-hero of Stephen's con stories, and opts to abandon the partnership, leaving his brother with their mysterious and taciturn sidekick Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi). Stephen reels him back with a "one last con" scheme involving lonely NJ heiress Penelope (Rachel Weisz).

Bloom will coyly entice her to travel with them on an "antique transport" trip, which morphs into an adventurous smuggling mission from Prague to Mexico for the Belgian "Curato
r" (Robbie Coltrane) with a rare ancient tome, using her money for various transactions. Stephen sees it as an opportunity to show a bored woman the adventure of a lifetime, so that taking some of her money really isn't so unwarranted. Of course Bloom and Penelope start to fall for each other, and he struggles with his loyalties. When the plan takes an unexpected turn, it's up to Bloom to finally cut through the lies of storytelling he's been living out since he was 10 and make his own way.

The performances really make this movie. Rachel Weisz is too freaking cute as shut-in Penelope. She reminded me a bit of a more socially-awkward Chuck from Pushing Daisies (you know, possibly the best show ever? Yeah, that's the one), with her penchant for referencing literature and extensive knowledge of foreign languages. She's highly intelligent, surprisingly motivated, and very likable. Adrien Brody also turns in a great performance (as usual) though I found his character slightly too whiny. Bloom is still pretty cool, but he sort of complains about the same thing multiple times, when it could have just been said once. That's more of a script issue, though.

I really like Mark Ruffalo, despite the weird or lackluster roles he often gets, and he is excellent here but underused. I feel like we never really get to know his character, which became frustrating by the ending. There's nothing wrong with a little mystery, but Stephen comes off as being a bit flat for most of the film. I'm not sure what the deal is with Bang Bang. She doesn't speak English so she just gestures emphatically when she isn't blowing stuff up or dressing adorably. I read one review that called her "nothing more than a hip, Japanese accessory" or something along those lines, and I can see from whence that notion stems. I think that despite her lack of lines she is still important to the story and has her own trajectory to follow. I wish we'd learned more about her, but so do the rest of the characters.

The Brothers Bloom has all the trappings of a movie I would really, really love, but falls slightly short. It's got eclectic clothing, three-piece suits and bowler hats, European travel, con artists, Adrian Brody, offbeat humor, Japanese karaoke, anachronisms galore, cool music, an unpredictable mixture of comedy and drama, and a really smart female character. These are all awesome things. However, the overall film just didn't add up to the amazing event it could have been, probably because it tried to do too much. It's still really good and definitely entertaining. Visually it's quite engaging, with some wonderful shots of the characters just interacting, combined with elegant exterior and interior locations. I also liked the concept of Stephen's addiction to writing stories for everyone around him to live out, and Bloom's seeming inability to escape a pre-thought-out life. Basically the film has a lot of cool stuff going for it, and hits the mark sometimes, but overall isn't as mind-blowing as I'd hoped. That's ok, though. Just sit back and enjoy it for the adventure and cute romance.

4/5

"The Fabulist" from the excellent soundtrack by Nathan Johnson, who also did the music for Brick. Which reminds me, watch out for cameos from Brick-alums Norah Zehetner and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the latter's is very hard to catch)

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