Monday, August 31, 2009

Moon (2009)

Sorry for the unannounced break in posts. I just moved back to school and it's been a time of unpacking, buying furniture, seeing some new movies, and lots of cleaning. Also my internet is kind of shoddy. Anyway.

Even 2 weeks after seeing Moon, my general thought is still just, "Wow". The first feature from Duncan "David Bowie's son" Jones, this is a gripping look at a not-too-distant future in which the majority of Earth's energy is produced cleanly and efficiently by special turbines on the moon run by Lunar Industries. The machines are maintained by one person for a three years at a time. The current lone operator is Sam Brown (Sam Rockwell), who is set to return home in two weeks. He is kept company by the ship's seemingly-sentient computer GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) as well as videos from his wife (Dominique McElligott) and baby (the live communication feed has been broken). While out in a moon-cruiser-vehicle (did they have names?), Sam accidentally drives into one of the machines and is badly injured.

He wakes up in the infirmary with no memory of the crash, and his bosses on Earth regulate him to the space station until help arrives. Feeling patronized and frustrated, he tricks GERTY into letting him out only to discover an injured astronaut in a broken-down cruiser... who looks exactly like him and also claims to be named Sam Brown. The two Sams hang out at the space station for a while, skirting around one another in confusion and unpleasant eeriness before deciding to work together to uncover the truth about their origins and thereby, the secret of Lunar Industries.

This movie. Is so. Good. For one thing, it's gorgeous. The sets are intricate and believable, and the use of models for the exterior shots and machinery is very well done. Nothing is too weirdly futuristic and everything is so fully realized. Clint Mansell's metallic score contributes to the hushed and nervous atmosphere elicited by the setting.

The entire movie is pretty much just Sam Rockwell, and he is completely capable of carrying it. He's a mixture of snarky, outraged, and terrified that completely resonates with the audience as a realistic, multi-layered character. He keeps his sanity through interactions with GERTY, whose passive voice and changeable smiley faces make for a slightly creepy technological marvel whose loyalties are questionable for most of the film. I think it was a reference to 2001, which I have never seen (I know, I know, don't worry I'll get on that).

The story is unique and fascinating, with a gradually escalating pace and tendency to respect the audience's intelligence, which I appreciated. The script leads from one plot point to another with subtlety and never veers into the over-dramatic. Moon is a film in which every element- the visuals, the acting, the direction, the music, the screenplay- all come together effortlessly to create a wholly enjoyable, intriguing, and twisted piece of science-fiction.

5/5

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

District 9 (2009)

Oh shiiiiit. Neill Blomkamp's first feature-length, District 9 envisions an alien landing that leads to segregation instead of invasion, with insect-like creatures stranded in Johannesburg, South Africa and forced into militarized slums so that humans don't have to interact much with them and their advanced weaponry can be studied. They're held there for 20 years before the government decides to move them to a more isolated location (District 10). Nerdy pencil pusher Wikus Van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is assigned to go through District 9 and get each alien ("prawn") to sign an eviction notice. While going through the area, he also investigates various shacks for weapons or other illegal items, and finds a mysterious canister that sprays a brown liquid into his face before having his arm broken by one of the prawns.

He shrugs it off but as time progresses he begins experiencing various sickening side effects, including fingernails popping off and vomiting black liquid. When doctors remove his arm wrappings, they discover it's turned into a prawn hand, and the transformation will slowly take over his body. Hoping to use this amalgamation of human and alien to utilize their weapons technology, government scientists hold Wikus for experimentation. He escapes and finds shelter in District 9 with Christopher Johnson, the alien to whom the brown liquid belonged, and the two reluctantly work together in an attempt to enact some changes in the status quo.

This movie is interesting in both its inventiveness as well as its intelligence. The story is told through a mix of documentary-style footage, interviews, news coverage, and more conventional shooting. There's a lot of hand-held camera work coupled with a gritty visual style and impressive special effects (especially considering its budget). It's very graphic (sometimes too much for squeamish me), which gives it an extremely personal feel. I felt like I was going through everything Wikus was going through, making it an intense experience that stuck with me after the movie ended. Copley's absolutely amazing performance contributed to this effect as well. The fact that he's not a professional actor boggles the mind. He is so goddamn good.

The story is well-paced and engaging, the dialogue is entertaining and not overly obvious. It's a metaphor for apartheid, you guys; but it isn't preachy. This is smart science-fiction, enthralling and scary and real. And awesome- besides lots of talking, it has explosions and crazy weapons and other exciting things, too! I hope this leads to a trend of similar efforts receiving mainstream attention. Like, imagine if Primer had been this popular?

4.5/5

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Shimotsuma monogatari (Kamikaze Girls) (2004)

This is totally my favorite movie of the moment. Based on the novel by fashion designer Novala Takemoto, Kamikaze Girls is told from the point of view of Momoko Ryugasaki, a young girl obsessed with the elegance and hedonism of the Rococo era. She purposely isolates herself from the inhabitants of her small town, contenting herself with shopping, daydreaming, and plenty of long walks. When she decides to earn some shopping money by selling brand-ripoff clothes that her father (Hiroyuki Miyasako) designed, Momoko meets Ichigo Shirayuri (Anna Tsuchiya), a gruff and talkative biker who needs a cheap blazer for a wedding.

For reasons unclear to Momoko, Ichigo returns to her house often to hang out, which boils down to the biker chatting incessantly at the taciturn and serious lolita. Eventually they discover that their spontaneous and often at-odds relationship has developed into a real friendship, and for the first time in each of their lives, they have someone to turn to in times of trouble: Ichigo is experiencing tension in her female biker gang as well as her first crush, while Momoko has been hired to embroider for her favorite designer and might crumble under the pressure. Together they fight new challenges, bringing out new strengths in one another, and there is a surprisingly bloody (yet upbeat) ending.

How can I explain how great this movie is? It's incredibly funny, from Momoko's adorable and blunt narration, to Ichigo's melodramatic yelling, to the silly anime-esque moments, to this guy. It's also quite touching at parts, with interesting and lovable characters who won me over instantly. There's a good use of flashbacks and some cool side characters. Plus, it has a totally kickass soundtrack (which of course is only available as a mad expensive import). But I now hope to cultivate an interest in Japanese female rock bands.

Visually, it's enthralling and inventive. There's a vague graininess and slight over-saturation that gives the whole movie a surreal or daydreamy feeling. There are unexplained moments of fantasy or weirdness adding to the effect. I also love the anime segments worked in to detail the legend of a mysterious female biker who fought off all the bad gangs. And of course, the fashion! All her talk of the elegance of the Rococo era did not fall on deaf ears- I actually just finished a class on French art from that time period- and I really enjoyed all of the focus on dresses and embroidery.

Kamikaze Girls is a wonderful film about two self-imposed outcasts surprised by their own friendship. It also offers an interesting look into the lolita and Yankī subcultures. It's got great music, hilarious jokes, general badassery, and stylish photography: it's just pretty swell. My goodness, after more viewings I'll probably bump it up to a 5/5.*

4.5/5

*UPDATE: Rewatching this movie leads me to unquestionably give it a 5/5. It's just so goddamn good.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

In the Loop (2009)

Yay political satire. Spun off from his series The Thick of It, Armando Iannucci's In the Loop gives insight into the power struggles and miscommunication running rampant through the government agencies of Britain and America. After Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), the bumbling Minister for International Development, mistakenly calls war in the Middle East "unforseeable", it sparks a crazy stir between American officials who want war and those who don't, both hoping to use Foster as a poster boy for the UK's support of their side.

He travels to DC with new aide Toby (Chris Addison), and is partnered with the anti-war Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), whose actual job I forget, who wants to infiltrate a secret war committee headed by the intimidating Linton Barwick (David Rasche), whose actual job I also forget. There's a lot more characters, a lot of traveling, a lot of arguing, and a lot of talking, Also, swearing. James Gandolfini shows up for a while as an anti-war general, Steve Coogan has a silly cameo, and by the end Foster's asshole boss Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) has to take matters into his own hands.

Ok so the plot of this movie is unimportant. It's basically like "some people want war, some people don't, and everyone likes to take advantage of Simon Foster because he's clueless". What is important here is the amazing, hilarious dialogue packed into almost every second of its 108 minutes. It's blunt, sarcastic, and fearless. I need to see it again to catch all the lines I missed from laughing. Though I had a hard time keeping a handle on some of the plot points or characters, it really didn't matter because everything was just so funny. The cast is great and they make fun of how dumb politics are.

It's odd, I kept thinking, "maybe they'll find a way out of this and maybe Foster will be able to actually do something" but then it was like, "oh yeah... that whole starting-a-war-in-the-Middle-East thing already happened". So I guess the ending is predictable. But whatever. In the Loop is really awesome, period.

4.5/5

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Julie & Julia (2009)

Despite being an incredibly and unapologetically picky eater since childhood, I do love movies about food. Julie & Julia certainly has a lot of foodgasm moments, and I suddenly feel like cooking all the time. Adapted from two autobiographical works, My Life in France by Julia Child and The Julie/Julia Project by Julie Powell, the film spends half its time on Julia Child's (Meryl Streep) first cooking lessons and subsequent writing partnership, and the other half on Julie Powell's (Amy Adams) blog project: cooking every recipe in Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year. Both women are at first shown at a point of stagnancy in their lives, both ready and able to make a dramatic change.

Julia loves postwar Paris and loves her diplomat husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) even more. Seeking something to occupy her time, she enrolls in cooking school due to her great passion for food, and excels against all expectations. Soon she teams up with two female French cooks to teach classes to Americans and work on a comprehensive French cookbook for "servantless American cooks". The book is a grueling work and takes several years to complete, besides encountering publishing obstacles.

Decades later, Julie is loathing her depressing office job working for an agency dealing with the effects of 9/11. She finds solace in cooking and her genial husband Eric (Chris Messina). After a reporter friend writes about Julie's seemingly dead-end at 30 existence, he convinces her to start a blog about her experience cooking Julia Child, her idol. She had initially wanted to be a writer but never finished her novel, and hopes now to rejuvenate her life and self-confidence. As the blog becomes quite popular, she becomes more involved in the project and in her effect on these faceless readers, ostracizing her "sainted" husband and friends.

Many reviews I've read focus on the Julia Child portion of the film, citing Meryl Streep's portrayal as flawless and her tale more interesting. She certainly is likable and exuberant, but I wasn't particularly engrossed by that story. I didn't really know who Child was before this, to be honest, and I feel like the part of her life that's the focus here would be more interesting to someone who knew all about what she was to become. I just knew she had a cooking show and was really tall. The Julie Powell segments resonated a bit more with me for whatever reason, and it seemed a nice change for Adams to get away from the bubblyness she's often meant to exude (though I do think she made Powell sweeter than she's supposed to be).

The story is light and enjoyable, with enough drama to keep things interesting and a nice attention to the marital relationships. And of course, lots of food! I don't even like French food but I wanted to eat everything they put on screen, which I guess means someone's doing their job correctly. Julie & Julia is a character study full of strong women and deliciousness, as well as an informative look at two different perspectives on cooking. It's slow at times and overdoes it with some of the tearjerker moments, but overall is good for people like me (aka those who dig movies about food, ladies, France, history, the internet, and/or Amy Adams).

4/5

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Stardust (2007)

Uh oh here comes another movie I'm completely obsessed with for reasons unclear to myself and others. Stardust is just... so awesome. Based on Neil Gaiman's wonderful novel, the character-heavy fantasy tale begins in the small rural town of Wall in Victorian England, which borders a magical realm. Young Dunstan Thorn (Ben Barnes) crosses the wall and sleeps with a beautiful slave to a witch, and nine months later a baby named Tristan arrives at his front door. When he reaches 17 (becoming Charlie Cox), he promises the beautiful Victoria (Sienna Miller) that he'll bring her back a star fallen over the wall for her hand in marriage. Right before he leaves, his father tells him about his mother, and gives him a special candle that should transport him to her, but instead takes him right to the star, which turns out to be a young, injured woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes).

She was knocked out of the sky by a mysterious necklace belonging to a recently deceased king (Peter O'Toole), whose fratricidal sons Primus (Jason Flemyng) and Septimus (Mark Strong) are searching for it so one of them can claim kinghood. Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), a powerful witch, is also on their trail because if she eats the heart of a star she'll regain her youth and claim immortality. Tristan semi-forces Yvaine to make the walk back to Wall, promising once he "presents" her to Victoria he'll give her the candle so she can return home. They encounter various problems, dangers, and kooky characters (including Robert De Niro's closeted pirate Captain Shakespeare) along the way and spend most of the time bickering, and of course you know what that means...

So as I mentioned before, I'm sort of addicted to this movie, and I'm not sure why. It's just fun! The sets and landscapes are gorgeous and the costumes lavish. It's the kind of world I'd dream of living in as a fantasy-obsessed kid. The cast is swell, with the adorable Charlie Cox and sarcastic Claire Danes (who rocked that British accent). Michelle Pfeiffer is pretty cool too- very snide. I have mixed feelings about De Niro's performance, feeling the character rode the line between stereotypical and likable. Plus he used the word "très" way too often. But I guess having a gay character portrayed positively in a major film is a good thing, even if it's a bit stereotypical? Since this character isn't in the book, I'd imagine that was sort of their aim in writing him in.

Clearly, Stardust sports a rather involved and slightly convoluted plot and large host of characters, but it's not confusing to watch. A convincing fantasy realm is created with its own rules and lore that seem to all make sense while watching, and everything in the story connects in a nice way. The script (penned by director Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, who are now working on the Kick-Ass adaptation together) deviates from the book in several ways, but is still really enjoyable and does a good job condensing various plot points. It's funny and adventurous, romantic and imaginative: everything a light-hearted fantasy film should be.

4.5/5

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

Oh man Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel star in a movie together! So you know that means I will be eagerly seeing it despite the likelihood of cutesy indie overload. The former plays Tom Hansen, a greeting card writer who studied to be an architect and longs for a soul mate. He meets Summer Finn, a new secretary at work, and is instantly smitten by her good taste in music, sense of humor, and of course, general adorability. She openly discusses her belief that true love doesn't exist, and when they begin spending more time together and getting physical, she lets him know that she's not looking for anything serious and wants to make sure that's ok with him.

He's like "Yeah, casual, whatever" but of course proceeds to fall in love with Summer the more he gets to know her. As he gets in too deep, he fails to see the warning signs that will likely lead to separation. He seeks help from his buddies McKenzie (Geoffrey Arand) and Paul (Matthew Gray Gubler), as well as his precocious little sister Rachel (Chloe Moretz), but still manages to fool himself into thinking he's the special guy who will show Summer that true love exists.

The story is told in an interesting non-linear style, forwarding and rewinding between the 500 days that Tom is somehow involved with Summer, whether it's as friends, sort of dating, lamenting the loss of, or trying to win back. This technique gives an edge to the story, making the film a bit unconventional and more engaging, since questions of how the couple's relationship moved from one place to another were raised and then not answered until much later when it flashed to the same day again. It was nice to be kept on my toes as to the outcome, but I have to say I really hated the ending. To me it negated a lot of what Summer's character had been about and just took away from my overall enjoyment of the film.

There were good things, though! It's a lot funnier than I thought it would be, with some nice writing and a fitting amount of whimsy. Gordon-Levitt is incredibly charming, as usual, despite his character being kind of dumb. I liked the little things inserted into the dialogue about the characters' interests and hobbies. There was talk of music and architecture and weird dreams and art; often I feel like conversations in romantic comedies are centered around the topics of love or life stories or something, so it's cool to hear people talk about things I would be talking about. Also, yes I felt pretty in-the-know when I recognized most of the songs on the soundtrack or artists they mentioned. Whatever.

(500) Days of Summer is indeed a love story, but rather one-sided. It focuses mostly on Tom's point of view, reactions, and emotions as he falls for someone who is portrayed as somewhat cold for not returning his affections. I don't mind the idea of a one-sided story, but I got the feeling the sceenwriters were aiming for something vaguely bipartisan. I was on Summer's side, for the most part, since she clearly stated her intentions and never wanted to define her relationship with Tom for fear of ruining things later, and honestly felt sorry that she couldn't feel for him as he felt for her. But I think the writers were on Tom's side, if that makes sense. They could have given Summer a bit more depth or explanation.

The movie is entertaining, interestingly structured, and features two stellar leads. I loved the humor and dialogue, but the one-sidedness and bullshit ending kept it from being special for me.

3.5/5

"There is a Light That Never Goes Out"- The Smiths
"Us"- Regina Spektor
"Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want"- She & Him (Smiths cover)

And here's my favorite spontaneous dance number since Enchanted, set to "You Make My Dreams Come True" by Hall & Oates


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Friday, August 14, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Whew I've been doing a lot of catching up on movies in theatres so get ready for many new movies in upcoming posts. First order of business was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. We're six movies in and this shit is getting real. Voldemort's totally back and recruiting more minions, including Harry's (Daniel Radcliffe) nemesis Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), who's on some secret mission. Hogwarts has upped its security and gained a Potions professor, the oily Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), who delights in making favorites out of exceptional or well-connected students. Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) wants information he holds regarding young Voldemort aka Tom Riddle, and enlists Harry to get close enough to learn the truth.

Meanwhile hormones are a-raging throughout the school, what with Hermione (Emma Watson) totally into Ron (Rupert Grint), Ron constantly snogging Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave), and Harry having sexy thoughts about Ron's sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright). Also Harry has an old Potions text book belonging to a mysterious "Half-Blood Prince", with various helpful tips and experimental spells written in the margins. Also Dumbledore is teaching Harry about Voldemort's past hoping to find a way to stop him. Some magic and other stuff is worked in alongside the makeouts and Quidditch and Snape (Alan Rickman) speaking painfully slowly.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie. It's easily the funniest one, and the first time I feel that the movies focused more on the characters than the action of the story, which was nice. As much as I like the stories of the books, it's the interesting characters and amusing dialogue/descriptions that I enjoy most. There were a lot of conversations and relationship issues happening here and that was actually kind of a nice break from MAGIC AND FIGHTING AND PROBLEMS, which is what's usually going on. And this time around, everyone got funnier, which was a little odd and unexpected, but very appreciated. My movie buddy and I laughed a lot throughout, but often found ourselves to be the only ones. I guess the rest of the audience was just to dumb to get the subtle comedic nuances.

Yeah, lots of stuff was cut out from the book, but I dealt with it. The main thing I found frustrating was how they cut that part about Dumbledore getting Tom's ring. It wasn't even mentioned, yet they showed his blackened hand without explanation. Also considering how the Half-Blood Prince is in the title, it really wasn't important to the movie at all since they didn't focus on the book very much. Oh well. *Spoiler Alert* And I know some people were frustrated by the omission of Dumbledore's funeral, but I think that scene with everyone holding up their wands and destroying the Death Eater symbol was pretty darned affecting, and it was enough for me.

The cast is swell, obviously, with nice turns from Broadbent, Gambon, Maggie Smith, and of course Helena Bonham-Carter, one of my favorite casting choices. The kids are doing better than usual acting-wise, and Daniel Radcliffe is possibly some untapped comedic genius judging from his amazing Felix Felicis good luck escapade. I'm laughing just thinking about it. Weird. And every word oozing out of Alan Rickman's mouth is so loaded with disgust it's hilarious. Also child Tom Riddle: CREEPY AS HELL.

Visually The Half-Blood Prince looks really great, with a combination of bright and sugary colors and deep blue and brown tones. There is a good attention to detail, making this fantasy world feel fully-realized. It doesn't hold up to Cuarón's take on Prisoner of Askaban but it's still pretty impressive. Though I wish more time could have been spent in the twins' Wonder Emporium-esque joke shop. All in all this installment is probably my favorite of the series, but I'd need to re-watch them all to really make that decision. It's funny and very entertaining, and filled with enough magic and mystery and action scenes to meet my fantasy requirements. Great job director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves, I hope you don't mess up the last two Harry Potters by getting all entangled in the myriad characters and plot points not really brought up in previous films. Huh.

4/5

My original art for Harry Potter is for sale.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Once Upon a Mattress (2005)

As the last Netflix DVD I received before putting a hold on my account while in Germany, this has been sitting unwatched in my house for many months. So it also became the first movie I watched after coming home. Made for ABC, Once Upon a Mattress takes Hans Christian Anderson's "The Princess and the Pea" tale and adds music, goofy humor, and talented old people. Queen Aggravian (Carol Burnett) has spent years keeping her coddled, shy son Prince Dauntless (Denis O'Hare) from getting married, insisting that all candidate princesses for his bride go through crazy tests and challenges. She also ruled that no one in the kingdom can get married until the prince does.

When Sir Harry The Immaculate (Matthew Morrison) finds out his girlfriend Lady Larken (Zooey Deschanel) is pregnant, he decides to seek a princess worthy of the queen's requirements so that he will be able to marry Larken before she is forced to leave the castle to hide her condition. He brings back the bold and ballsy Princess Winnifred aka Fred (Tracey Ullman) from a swamp kingdom and she manages to instantly charm almost everyone, especially the prince. The queen is unimpressed and concocts a subtle test that she feels no one could possibly pass: To be considered worthy of her son, she must feel the pea placed beneath 20 mattresses, though she'll be unaware of this fact. Lady Larken and Sir Harry enlist the aid of the mute King Sextimus (Tom Smothers) and his jester (Michael Boatman) to help Fred beat the test.

I really like the fairy tale comedy premise, reminiscent of Into the Woods, but Stephen Sondheim this definitely is not. The music is good, but nothing special. A lot of the songs sound the same and nothing is particularly memorable. A lot of the jokes are too juvenile or campy, even for me. I had the feeling the script wanted to be a lot more clever than it actually is. It's not bad, just not as great as if could have been. Also it's a bit overly simple, story-wise.

What saves Once Upon A Mattress from total mediocrity is its cast. Carol Burnett, who originated the role of Fred in the first stage production, is radiant as the dominating queen, rocking several fancy hats and form-fitting dresses. She does her best with her over-the-top lines and works in some funny facial expressions. I was reminded why she is one of the only reasons I could stand all those forced viewings of Annie as a child. Tracey Ullman shines as Fred, with dance moves that defy her age and a boundless, infectious enthusiasm. Denis O'Hare and Tom Smothers were also rather endearing. And it was nice to see Zooey Deschanel singing even if she only had two songs and both were duets.

The older ages of most of the characters at first surprised me, but it didn't detract from the quality of the performances at all and I can see the angle of "Prince Dauntless hasn't been allowed to marry for decades so now he's older". Overall Once Upon a Mattress is enjoyable enough but nothing special, and really only worth it for fantastic turns from Ullman, Burnett, and Deschanel.

3/5

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Danny Deckchair (2003)

Sometimes you just need a nice, clever, laid back romantic comedy to put everything at ease. Inspired by real-life experimental aviator "Lawnchair Larry", Danny Deckchair is one of my favorites of this ilk. It's also the main Australian movie I really know besides The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (recommendations, anyone?). Danny (Rhys Ifans) is an imaginative cement worker living with long-time girlfriend and real estate agent Trudy (Justine Clarke). It's about time for his two-week holiday, during which they plan to go camping, but when Trudy gets the chance to show handsome, popular TV reporter Sandy Upman (Rhys Muldoon) some properties, she lies to Danny saying she has to fill in for someone at work and can't take the time off. He goes a little stir crazy trapped at home and there's a growing friction between the couple. During a big BBQ with his friends he decides to tie a bunch of helium-filled balloons to a deckchair, just to see if it would work (and to piss Trudy off).

Turns out, it totally does work! But he forgot the scissors to help get himself down! So he soars away and is lost in a storm, landing in another county: specifically in the small town of Clarence, and more specifically in a tree outside of traffic cop Glenda's (Miranda Otto) house. Excited by the mysterious visitor, she tells the curious townspeople that he's an old professor of hers visiting for the big ball being held that week. To his surprise, Danny finds himself charming almost everyone he meets and feels special for the first time. He and Glenda also experience a growing, though halting, attraction to one another. Meanwhile Trudy goes from depessed and shocked over his disappearance to pampered and excited about the media attention she receives (including some more personal time with Sandy Upman). But of course neither of their new situations can last, and it's only a matter of time before someone finds Danny.

Gee whiz, I sure do love this movie. It's really freaking adorable. Rhys Ifans is always fantastic, and it's so exciting to see him in a lead role, especially one that's not creepy/silly/villainous. He's charming and enthusiastic, and emits that inherent aura of mischievousness. I really enjoy Miranda Otto as well, who reunites with Ifans after that Gondry-Kaufman oddity Human Nature, and is just very likable. I like how she handles the transition from lonely-by-choice and closed off to a more confident and lighthearted woman. Along with the strength of its leads, Danny Deckchair is sharply written and leisurely paced without being boring. It's another type of movie in which nothing bad really happens, but it's still a lovely and relatable story.

Admittedly there are some weird plot questions, like why didn't Glenda ask sooner where he'd come from, or why didn't she put two and two together when she saw the news report about a dude flying into the sky with balloons, or why that news report didn't post a picture of Danny. Huh. But jeez, just look past that and it's so easy to dig this movie. It doesn't make you think too hard, but definitely isn't dumb or shallow. Even Trudy, who could have easily been painted as an all-out villain, is shown to just be a woman obsessed with attention, who couldn't come to terms with the fact that her relationship had already fallen apart. For real you guys, I love this movie, and never get tired of watching it.

4.5/5

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Bug's Life (1998)

This was over ten years ago? Jeez, when did I get so old? Spending a quiet night in at an absent relative's vacation home in Ireland, we found this well-remembered gem among the VHS tapes. Pixar's second-ever film, A Bug's Life, focuses on an ant colony that's terrorized every year by a malevolent gang of grasshoppers led by Hopper (Kevin Spacey). The ants find an unlikely hero in Flik (Dave Foley), an enthusiastic ant whose inventions and new ideas alienate him from the rest of the colony. After he accidentally destroys the food offering they'd picked for the grasshoppers, Princess Ada (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) sends him on a mission to find "warrior bugs" so he'll be out of the way while they scramble to pick more food.

He finds a group of failed circus performers and mistakes them for his warrior saviors, bringing them back to the colony to fight Hopper, while they think they're being hired for entertainment purposes. When Flik realizes who they really are, he hides the fact from the colony leaders by forming a plan to defeat the grasshoppers with a large mechanical bird, which the ants and circus bugs construct together instead of harvesting any more grain. Hopper is set on keeping the ants in line, and may prove too formidable for them to beat!

It's easy to love an underdog story, especially as a kid. I also like the "imagination and determination triumph over violence and conformity" theme. A Bug's Life is funny and well-written, with a nice sense of adventure and a good message. It's a little too character-heavy, but keeps the focus on Flik so it never feels lost in its own cast. Storywise it's a bit too simple, but it's never slow or boring. Also I hope everyone noticed that Flik is voiced by Dave Foley, who is one of my favorite guys ever. Big plus.

Animation-wise, it looks good, but comparatively it's not as impressive as Pixar's other films. I think even the first Toy Story looks better somehow. The character design is the main problem, I think: it just doesn't look as detailed and solid as in most of their other movies. The set design and movement are wonderful though, especially the textures. I think the main issue is, after Wall-E and Ratatouille, my expectations are now incredibly high for Pixar's visual aptitude, even with something 10 years old. A Bug's Life is enjoyable family fare that raises the standards for the genre, which seems to be Pixar's main thing. And like the rest of their films, it doesn't really do anything with its lady characters. And is pretty racist against grasshoppers.

4/5

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Mystery Men (1999)

I will say right away: I think this movie is pretty great. Loosely based on Flaming Carrot Comics, Mystery Men follows a gang of wannabe superheroes who discover that their city's dominant asshole caped crusader, Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), has been kidnapped by grossly-fingernailed supervillain Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush). The hapless trio, composed of The Shoveler (William H Macy), the utensil-throwing Blue Raja (Hank Azaria), and sometimes-super-strong Mr Furious (Ben Stiller), decides to recruit new team members to launch a rescue mission. The deadly-farting Spleen (Paul Reubens), the Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), who's only invisible when no one's watching, and The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), whose flying bowling ball has a mind of its own, join them.

Meanwhile Casanova is gathering together a team of villains so he can take over the city. His right-hand men are Tony P (Eddie Izzard) and the Disco Boys. The good guys try unsuccessfully to break Captain Amazing out of Casanova's castle, only succeeding in setting off a deadly weapon and bickering amongst themselves. The mysterious Sphinx (Wes Studi) comes to their aid and runs a short boot camp to teach them to work together and develop their powers. They also enlist the help of eccentric weapons inventor Dr Heller (Tom Waits). Finally it's time for the big showdown at the castle, made more serious when Casanova holds Mr Furious' love interest Monica (Claire Forlani) hostage.

Despite being written by Neil "The Adventures of Pluto Nash" Cuthbert, this movie is hilarious thanks to the comedic timing and improvising of its stellar cast. It's full of some really funny dialogue and memorable one-liners. Ben Stiller works in ridiculously mixed metaphors while Azaria shows off his British accent; Tom Waits is adorable and crazy and William H Macy is funny-serious. Of course Janeane Garofalo steals the show, as she does in anything she has ever done because she is the best. She's got that excellent deadpan sarcasm and quick, referential wit, and her character even has the best superpower. I also really liked The Sphinx's palindromic advice ("To learn my teachings, I must first teach you to learn", etc). Paul Reubens and Kel Mitchell are kind of annoying (especially the former), but they're not in it too much so no big deal.

The premise is great; I love the idea of the much-beloved main superhero being a major jerk obsessed with securing more endorsements, and the lesser talented guys with vaguely silly powers scrambling to defeat a big-time villain. It's a fun parody of the genre and full of little gags and jokes that you might miss the first time around, making it good for multiple viewings. I'm not sure why it did so poorly at the box office and is now generally held to be a bad film. I just think it's really funny and enjoyable, especially for fans of superheroes. And it's got some good use of Smash Mouth.

4/5

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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1981)

Hey, I'm back in the USA! Exciting. Thanks for the well-wishes during my hiatus. It was a mostly pleasant journey through several German cities followed by a visit with distant cousins in Dublin and Donegal, Ireland. I learned that the Germans aren't very good at organizing road construction, and Guinness tastes better than I remember. Now, I have some serious movie watching to do!

SUCKERS!I've had a while to ruminate about this movie, and I still haven't quite pinned down my feelings about it. This may be a bit rambling (moreso than usual, even!) but please bear with me, since I think this is an interesting film that should be talked about. Written by Nancy Dowd (under pseudonym Rob Morton allegedly due to her dissatisfaction with the final cut), Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is dismal look at a young all-female rock group preempting the riot grrrl movement. A nigh-unrecognizable Diane Lane stars as 15-year-old Corinne Burns (aka Third Degree Burns) who, after her mother's death, convinces her reluctant little sister (Marin Kanter) and rebellious cousin (Laura Dern) to go out on the road as an opening act for The Metal Corpses' (a washed-up metal band) comeback tour.

Their band The Stains has only had three rehearsals (though admittedly, "they were real long ones"), but Corinne is determined to support her small family and get out of her depressing town. What they lack in experience, Corinne makes up for with audacious style and brutally honest stage banter at their first performance boiling down to: "We're The Stains, and we don't put out". The next day her "skunk" look is replicated by some audience members, who were inspired by her forthright comments, and soon more and more young women are mimicking the singer in a stylistic and lifestyle phenomenon whose publicity helps the band's popularity rise very quickly.

After a member of the Corpses dies from an overdose, the tour continues with only The Stains and the other opening act, The Looters, a British punk act fronted by Billy (Ray Winstone). Throughout the tour, Corinne and Billy oscillate between admiration and backstabbing, with the former stealing their main song and the latter badmouthing The Stains onstage during a huge show. Corinne stops at nothing to become successful and is adamant about getting her considered-radical views heard. She wants women to stop being groupies and take over the music world without reliance on old men, while maintaining control of their sexuality. Unfortunately, her inexperience and over-confidence may prove to be The Stains' downfall.

Ta-Da!Hmm. I wish I could get a handle on this movie. As I watched it, I thought it was ok. It takes a long time to get going and then suddenly moves very fast, and never really seems to know what it wants to say. There's barely any climax, and everything is a bit too minimalist, especially the dialogue. I just kept expecting more to happen, and then it didn't. I also felt like none of the characters got much attention except Corinne, and while she is interesting enough to be the focus and Diane Lane is amazing in the role, there were all these other people constantly hanging out onscreen who never do much. (Although Laura Dern's thing with her mother's news interview was quite touching.)

Get older?Initially it was also hard for me to sympathize with Corinne. She's clever and stylish and she's definitely got balls, but I hated that she steals The Looters' song "The Professionals" and that becomes the only song they ever sing otherwise. I like the first one, "Waste of Time", which has a nice, raw quality to it reminiscent of The Slits. It frustrated me that though they have basic musical ability and Corinne obviously has something to say in her songs, they continue to use a stolen track about military recruitment. But the more I think about it, the more I respect and understand her for being so cutthroat at such a young age, especially when she perceives The Looters as antagonistic toward The Stains. She's resigned herself to the fact that she must be self-reliant and quick-thinking in order to protect herself and her family, and can't be nice about it.

Maybe I've never mentioned it here before, but I am a fan of lady bands of any type, and really dig the premise and themes of this movie. It's nice to see young women breaking into the music industry on their own terms, and crafting their own image encouraging experimentation and individualism. They get taken advantage of by a money-hungry, exploitative manager, but learn from it.
It's not full of glitz and glam and perks. The music is great, with a soundtrack full of punk-rock, angry ladies, hair metal, and reggae, and I love the stage sequences splattered throughout.

I also really liked the news segments interspersed within the story, with the initial reports of Corinne's on-air firing from a restaurant and subsequent candid interview about her views of love and living as an orphaned teenager without a high school diploma, followed by various commentary from an old-fashioned white reporter and his open-minded female counterpart. Their reports on The Stains and their obsessive followers ("Skunks") give an outside view of the band's surprise popularity and impact, and it's a nice narrative tactic.

I need to talk about the ending, so *Spoiler Alert* for this paragraph. The film originally ended with Corinne's short interview with the male reporter, and a confrontation with Billy. Her band is now infamous and hated by its former fans, but she sees a few girls dressed as Skunks hanging around, and smiles at their dedication. However, test audiences were dissatisfied with this ending, and a new one was filmed. It's just a very 80's music video with a poppy, bland makeover version of The Stains gleefully singing "The Professionals". I think it was supposed to show that everything turned out ok, and they found success and happiness. But my first reaction was "wow, this is so incredibly cynical and on-target!". They spend the whole movie forging themselves into an edgy, honest, unique group who resist the influences of accepted standards only to end up another girl pop band with a video on MTV. I liked that cynicism and bluntness. When I found out that wasn't the original ending, and was presumably filmed to make it more crowd-pleasing, I was just confused about the overall meaning of the film.

Ok still working things out here, sorry, I know this is all a bit scattered and rambling. Final thoughts: while watching Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, I was underwhelmed. Its reputation as a cult film about a bold female rock band led to high expectations for a movie less sparse and more fun. But it turned out to be a more dramatic, slow-moving story of desperate teenage girls trying to do what they love despite the barriers of age and experience. It expounds on the fickleness and manipulation of fame, and (in my interpretation) the disgust of selling out. It stuck with me for weeks after seeing it, and I like it better the more I think about it. I think it will improve upon watching it a few more times, which I guess is one of the marks of a cult film. It definitely makes an impact. Also now I kind of want to be a Skunk for Halloween... does that make me a conformist?

4/5

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