Wednesday, September 30, 2009

La Planète Sauvage (Fantastic Planet) (1973)

A trippy, French, animated sci-fi film from the 70's? Sounds interesting, right? Ugh. Wrong. Fantastic Planet depicts a future in which humans have been brought to another planet to be the pets of a race of humanoid blue giants called Traags. They're highly technologically advanced and fairly cruel to their human underlings (called "Oms"), deliberating about exterminating the large number who run wild. Part of the story is narrated by Terr, an Om who is taken as a pet by the young female Traag Tiwa after his mother is killed. As he matures, he finds a way to gain Traag knowledge by connecting to Tiwa's learning device, which is the source of all her education. He escapes and meets up with a colony of wild Oms, and encourages them to use the learning device to find a way to stop the Traags' pending extermination.

This movie is boooooring. It's laden with ear-splitting tonal "music" and not much in the way of plot structure. The characters are empty shells, the dialogue is awkward, and the climax is really stupid and unexciting. I'm pretty sure Fantastic Planet started out as some high-concept short art film that someone thought should be developed into a full-length movie. These people don't know how to actually tell a story, instead relying on haphazard narration and large stretches of unnecessary silent scenes to hash out some sort of clumsy narrative.

The visuals could have been cool, but I didn't really like the animation, which is stilted and poorly designed; it is reminiscent of Lutz Dammbeck's The Tailor from Ulm, an anti-Communist art film from 1980, but that was actually interesting and knew to keep the length short when creating an ambiguous dystopia with no clear plot. I'm sure there's some kind of message in here about humans' false concept of superiority or a harsh regime's subjugation of its citizens, but I certainly don't need to watch a pretentious, unskilled movie to figure that kind of thing out.

1.5/5

Read more...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Harper (1966)

Time for some 60's murder mystery, I guess. Paul Newman, ever the stud, stars as the eponymous Harper, a cool private detective in the middle of a divorce from his wife Susan (Janet Leigh), who can't stand his commitment to his time-consuming and undignified job. When aging beauty queen Mrs Sampson (Lauren Bacall) calls upon him to find her missing millionaire/drunkard husband, Harper finds himself mired in an unexpectedly complex case involving drugs, murder, illegal aliens, and a tragic romance. He enlists the aid of Mr Sampson's pilot, Allan (Robert Wagner), and free-spirited daughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin), and lawyer Albert (Arthur Hill), but realizes quickly that no one he meets on the trail to the truth can be trusted (hey, nice alliteration, me). Mr Sampson is involved with a number of seedy characters, a number of whom might want him dead, or just want his money. In the middle of the case, Harper also tries to woo back his soon-to-be-ex-wife.

God, Paul Newman's charisma could have taken him right to the presidency if he wanted, it is ridiculous. Basically he makes this movie, infusing Harper with obvious cool and irreverence, a man who might not always have a plan but will always find a way out. He pulls off some hilarious accents, and he's lookin' good in a suit the whole time. There's a great supporting cast and a host of interesting characters. Unfortunately I kept getting some of the men confused, since some people who were given very little initial screen time would prove important later and I'd be like "Wait, who? Is that that brunette white guy or that other brunette white guy?" So I would advise you to pay better attention to everyone, I guess.

I like how the story starts off simple (millionaire is missing, let's find him) and becomes gradually more and more intricate as the relationships and motivations of the web of people surrounding Sampson develop. I haven't read the book by Ross Macdonald, so I can't say how close it is to the source material, but that's ok. Harper isn't as enthralling as, say, Laura or The Maltese Falcon, but it makes up for it with hip 60's fashion, music, and slang, aiding Newman's already considerably cool persona and swingin' co-stars. Also, its poster is awesome and kind of hilarious.

4/5

PS For any Harvey Danger fans, Sean Nelson references this movie a couple of times in this lyrics, which I had never picked up before seeing it! What a cool guy!

Read more...

Monday, September 28, 2009

Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (The Baader Meinhof Complex) (2008)

I have a weird history with this movie. It came out in Germany last fall and was submitted as their choice for the Best Foreign Film category in the Academy Awards. We read a lot of reviews and articles about the film by German film critics, so I learned a lot about it and had various pre-conceived notions floating around for a year, but I haven't been able to actually see it until now. The Baader Meinhof Complex traces the development of the RAF, an urban terrorist group active in Germany in the 60's and 70's, blending high-tension action with historical investigation.

Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) is the extreme, charismatic leader of a small number of young rebels, responding to the rise of conservatism and government support of the Vietnam War with department store bombings and other acts of violence. Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) is a successful journalist advocating for liberal protesters and exploited peoples in the Middle East. She is convinced by Baader's girlfriend and co-conspirator Gudrun (Johanna Wokalek) to leave her husband and young children so she can join their terrorist group. They assassinate, rob, and bomb people or companies in power, thereby expressing their concerns for Germany's perceived movement towards a new wave of fascism. The film follows years of their exploits coupled with the police efforts to weaken their organization (headed by Bruno Ganz), culminating in the trial the central figures faced.

While this film attempts to paint an interesting, provocative portrait of a controversial terrorist group, it unfortunately falls too often into guns-ablazin' action mode than actual biographical study. The characters had little- to- no development as people, and there are so very many of them that it's really hard to get a grip on anything. The Baader Meinhof Complex could work really well as a thrilling action tale about idealistic rebellion and lots (and lots) of guns, but it attempts to elevate itself into a more respectable historical drama with ambiguous, possibly meaningful dialogue and a very long running time.

There's a phenomenal cast, with several German actors I really dig. I found Moritz Bleitreu, one of the country's main comedic/dramatic actors (you might know him as the boyfriend in Run, Lola, Run) more likable than usual. And I was really glad to see Johanna Wokalek, who had delighted me recently in Barefoot. Sadly Martina Gedeck, after her excellent turn in The Lives of Others, falls a bit flat. And Bruno Ganz (Hitler in The Downfall and the main angel in Wings of Desire) is reliably awesome but appears rarely. Despite this truly impressive cast, it's not enough to save the film's underdeveloped writing and confusing, overreaching story.

Basically, everyone looks really cool, there are some great action sequences and a good premise, and it's never boring. But there's not much substance underneath. I had hoped for more of a character study- perhaps it could have been told from one person's perspective or had more backstory for the RAF members. Instead, I didn't get to know any of these people, and I don't feel particularly educated about this potentially interesting period in German history. I'm honestly a bit surprised this was their entry to the Academy Awards.

3/5

Read more...

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Big Fan (2009)

Robert Siegel proves he can wear both a writer's and a director's hat, both probably jauntily askew to fit at the same time, with Big Fan. Patton Oswalt stars (did I say "stars"? I meant "dominates") as Paul Aufiero, a parking lot attendant from Staten Island and diehard Giants fan. He lives with his nagging mother and spends most nights calling into a local sports radio show to battle a jerk from Philadelphia who's always going on about the Eagles. He and his best friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan) tailgate at the stadium but actually attend the games, opting instead to watch on a television in the parking lot. When they see Quantrell Bishop (Johnathan Hamm), their favorite player, driving around their neighborhood, Paul and Sal follow him around looking for an opportunity to meet him.

They end up at a club in Manhattan and finally have the guts to approach him, only for him to assume they're antagonistic stalkers. Bishop beats Paul to a pulp and is suspended from the team, making Paul feel incredibly guilty and frustrated to have been involved in something so negative for the Giants. His brother (Gino Cafarelli), a personal injury lawyer, insists he should sue, but he just wants the whole thing to blow over so he can go back to enjoying the games. His family, the police, and various sports fans are constantly hounding him, and Paul's fairly simple life has become so complicated he might do something drastic.

Big Fan can be viewed a lot of ways. It's definitely funny, with Patton Oswalt cracking wise here and there and some good visual gags. But it has a decidedly sinister edge that makes the viewer unable to predict how serious it will get. It can also be seen as a portrait of a lonely, presumably sad man with little to care about except a football team. I watched it with a mix of the first two approaches, since I didn't really feel bad for Paul. His life might not fall within the conventional ideas of "happy" or "normal", but he seems ok with it and that's all that matters. I wasn't buying into his mom's whole "everyone should want a family" speech.

This movie's story is deceptively simple, but weaves in an undercurrent of humor, internal drama, and character depth. The plot escalates in an unexpected and extremely well-handled way. Seriously, what a good ending. The performances are great, especially Oswalt's nuanced portrayal of the conflicted Paul. I liked Kevin Corrigan a lot too, because he seems like such a fun guy!

Siegel keeps the visuals stark and gritty, appropriately reminiscent of The Wrestler in its looks and tone. Plus I got to feel special since Giants Stadium is like 5 minutes away from where I live. So... yay NJ for hosting NY teams all the time. Big Fan is an impressive directing debut and I hope Siegel continues to work behind the camera (while still writing, of course), and Oswalt has really proven to be a versatile performer; I'll admit I wasn't expecting him to be so good in a more dramatic role. Anyway, go see this movie. I don't even like sports, and I think it's awesome.

4.5/5

Read more...

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Informant! (2009)

Steven Soderbergh is pretty aware of what will entertain different kinds of audiences. With The Informant!, he offers up a story for the kind that enjoys bumbling comedy, mustaches, corporate crime, and Scott Bakula. Based on the book of the same name (sans exclamation point) by journalist Kurt Eichenwald, the film follows bio-engineer-turned-corporate lackey Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a devoted family man, as he exposes the price fixing in the agriculture industry by his company, ADM, and its international competitors. He turns informant for the FBI, working closely with Agents Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Herndon (Joel McHale), and making hundreds of recordings of the meetings he and his superiors set up with various other companies.

He spends years gathering evidence, generally effectively but with some minor incompetent hiccups, hoping that when the case goes public and the other executives are arrested, he'll be put in charge of the company as the highest-level employee left. As the investigation gets deeper and deeper, the FBI questions Whitacre's honesty and motivations, creating a debate about looking into his possible illegal actions as well.

Despite its fairly serious real-life plot, The Informant! is light-hearted and fun in its storytelling. Whitacre's voiceover internal monologue is utilized for comedic effect, which was an unexpected plus though not always placed successfully. Matt Damon really embodies the role of this intelligent but often clueless executive, imbuing Whitacre with likability, humor, and a layer of desperation. I dug Scott Bakula, as well, because who doesn't? Joel McHale is surprisingly low-key, his biggest impression upon me being his insane tallness. Also, Hey Biff Tanen from Back to the Future! How are you?

This movie isn't all that long, but it certainly feels it. It doesn't drag, necessarily, but time passes at weird intervals and the whole film takes a big turn about two thirds of the way through, so the pacing is a bit off. It also doesn't blend the comedy and drama very well. It's pretty funny for the most part, but then I didn't take the dramatic moments very seriously. Overall The Informant! is enjoyable and engaging, but not funny or intense enough to really have an impact. Definitely worth watching, though. And I kind of want Marvin Hamlisch's jazzy 60's spy score to be the soundtrack to my life...

3.5/5

Read more...

Friday, September 25, 2009

9 (2009)

So once again machines have destroyed human life on earth and everything is a barren wasteland. A small robotic doll named 9 wakes up next to an old dude's dead body. He takes an important-looking talisman-thing and walks around until he meets 2, who gives him a voice box and promises to take him to the other dolls in hiding. Unfortunately 2 is attacked and taken away by a vicious animalistic robot. 9 meets up with 1 (the leader), 5 (the timid one), 6 (the crazy one who's always drawing symbols), and 8 (the gruff bodyguard) and implores them to save 2, but 1 is committed to keeping everyone safe and hidden from the monster.

9 and 5 go out on their own to find him, only for 9 to accidentally awaken a terrifying machine that exists only to create other terrifying machines. With the help of the daredevil (and female, or at least as female as a robot doll can be) 7 and silent but knowledgeable twins 3 and 4, 9 endeavors to correct his mistake and save what's left of sentient beings on Earth, as well as discover just what happened to the human race. And who's that dead old guy?

9 could have been so awesome, if it could get a handle on itself. It takes a played-out concept and attempts to make it different, adding an edge of steampunk design and Horcruxian soul splitting. It looks beautiful, with a faded color palette and great details in the textiles and sets. The crazy robots the big machine invents to hunt down the dolls are awesome and freaky as hell. The dolls themselves look ok, but aren't as diversified as they could be. Also their construction confuses me- what kind of robot needs to breathe?

A big problem 9 has is its intended audience: who the hell are they? With its downer of a premise and scary robots, it's decidedly not for children despite its animated medium. But it's way too simple in its story and characters to be engaging for adults. I have no idea who would fully enjoy this movie. I am not one of those people. Though there were things I liked about it, for the most part I was just frustrated the whole time because it could be so much better than it is. Also it's kind of boring. Come on filmmakers, let's make an intelligent and inventive animated science-fiction film.

2.5/5

Here's the silent short it's based on. Pretty good stuff.

Read more...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Crank 2: High Voltage (2009)

After hearing countless adulations for Crank 2 from this guy, I was plopped down to watch- nay, experience- it for myself. On Blu-ray, no less! So, I haven't seen the first one but apparently all I needed to know was that chronic bad boy assassin Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) has a super-powered heart (as proven by all his adrenaline-fueled stunts) and is about to hit the streets of LA after falling from a helicopter. The sequel opens with Chelios hitting the ground, supposedly dying, but then awaking in some Asian medical den with a plastic artificial heart. The aging head of a Chinese crime syndicate wants the "Chelios heart" to give himself new vitality. Chelios believes asshole criminal Johnny Vang (Art Hsu) is transporting the heart, and busts out of his makeshift operating room to track him down.

But UH OH the battery on his artificial heart is running low! It's only meant to be temporary and he's not supposed to exert himself! So he needs to constantly electrocute himself to keep it pumping! While searching for his heart and people on whom to exact revenge, he gets help from clingy prostitute Ria (Bai Ling), stripper girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart), "body-Tourettes"- afflicted Venus (Efren Ramirez), and underground doctor/best buddy Doc Miles (Dwight Yoakam). Mostly, he fights a lot of people and gets electricity from unlikely sources while various women around him are scantily clothed.

Topless Robot summed this up as "pretty much the ultimate action movie parody and action movie all at the same time", and I think that's not too far from the truth. It's ridiculously over the top in its premise, characters, plot, fighting, and sex scenes. It's gratuitous to the point of hilarity. But it's still a thrilling action movie, with exciting battles and impressive stuntwork. It's a nice blend of genre parody and genre tribute, in the vein of Shaun of the Dead. I guess the main question I have is: Was it intentional? Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor have this really silly story, mixed in lots of unnecessary nudity and cussing, but maybe that's just what they like to have in movies. I'm not sure. But it makes me feel better (and enjoy the movie more) if I view all of those weird embellishments as intentional parody.

Aside from queries about its intentions, Crank 2 is very funny by itself. There are a lot of video game references and unbelievably silly moments. I really dug the unexpected cut to a monster movie-type fight scene between Chelios and Johnny Vang. Also I liked when painful things involving cars happened to Bai Ling and Corey Haim (yes, he's in this movie). There were some parts I thought too hard about, and this is a movie which you definitely shouldn't be overthinking, so I would advise to keep that in mind during your viewing. If successful, you're sure to find Crank 2 an enjoyable, ridiculous, hilarious, and bizarre action film. Woooo.

4/5

Read more...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rushmore (1998)

Well I guess it's time to kick off Wes Anderseasons, in which each of that guy's film's are slotted into a corresponding season. Start of autumn and the school year of course means Rushmore. Max Fischer's (Jason Schwartzman) true love in life is the eponymous boys' school. Not especially adept at his studies (he got in on a scholarship for a play he wrote), he devotes most of his energies to a multitude of clubs and activities, from Model UN to the Beekeeper's Society. He meets first grade teacher and widow Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams) when tracking down who formerly checked out his library book, and falls for her instantly.

She is all too aware of his intentions, but he can't take the hint to back off, dedicating himself to building an aquarium at Rushmore for her sake. When Max introduces Rosemary to Herman Blume (Bill Murray), a wealthy alumnus and father of 2 Rushmore students, he finds he has a new obstacle to her affections. As Max is thrown out of Rushmore for illegally trying to break ground on the aquarium, Herman and Rosemary start secretly dating. Max does his best to acclimate to his new public high school, but when he discovers their relationship he goes a little crazy and starts an all-out war to bring Herman Blume down.

Wes Anderson has not yet made a film that I don't really enjoy. That being said, Rushmore is probably my least favorite of his current oeuvre. I think Max Fischer is just a little too unrelatable or too icky. He's funny and watchable, sure, but he makes me uncomfortable for most of the movie. I also don't think it's quite as funny as Anderson's other movies.

But of course, this movie is still awesome! It has all those Andersony things I love: a stellar soundtrack and whimsical Mothersbaugh score, quirky characters, loving attention to set and costume details, a perfect cast, and funny jokes. It's an affecting combination of funny and sad, and always interesting to watch. I especially enjoy Bill Murray's performance- the comment "Wes Anderson really recognized Bill Murray's innate sadness before everyone else did" was made while we watched, and I couldn't agree more. He really owns this scruffy, self-loathing character and imbues it with subtle marks of hilarity.

Rushmore is an amusing and engaging entry into the delightful Wes Anderson universe, just not as truly amazing as, say, next season's film: The Royal Tenenbaums.

4/5

"Here Comes My Baby"- Cat Stevens
"Margaret Yang's Theme"- Mark Mothersbaugh
"Concrete & Clay"- Unit 4 + 2

Read more...

Monday, September 21, 2009

Zebraman (2004)

Takashi Miike constantly impresses me with his mutability. The first film of his I ever saw was Ichi the Killer, which grossed me out so much I couldn't even finish it, so I swore off his movies. No Audition or Gozu for me, thanks. But then he's making things like the adorably bizarre The Happiness of the Katakuris or the insanely badass Sukiyaki Western Django, and I can't figure the guy out. After being smitten with the summary, I gave Zebraman a try, in which unpopular 3rd-grade teacher Shin'ichi Ichikawa (Shô Aikawa) remains unappreciated by his bratty students, cheating wife, bullied son, and jailbait daughter.

To escape his humdrum life, he secretly dresses up as Zebraman, the hero of a 70's television program he enjoyed as a child. He bonds with wheelchair-bound transfer student Shinpei (Naoki Yasukochi) over their mutual love of the obscure and short-lived series, and feels motivated to become a vigilante. At first he isn't especially effective, but soon he begins to develop actual Zebraman superpowers and fighting abilities. Weird crimes are happening around the city, perpetrated by men resembling villains from the tv show, and only Zebraman can stop them! Also, aliens are involved.

Yeah so this movie sounds like it would be awesome, but it didn't exactly deliver. I think they couldn't figure out if it should embrace the campiness of the 70's action shows it is referencing, or if it should be vaguely serious about the whole thing and turn it into some sort of sappy family film. I really like the scenes of Zebraman pulling out weird fighting moves and screaming their names as he performs them, but as the film progresses it becomes less fun and shifts in tone. It gets kind of boring, to be honest. And the Flubber-ish alien things felt out of place.

I'll admit that while I know I generally enjoyed the movie, I don't remember it especially well. I think I was a bit sleepy at the time and it wasn't funny or thrilling enough to keep me wholly focused. It's fairly accessible for a Miike film, but not as interesting as I'd have expected from him. It definitely has some stellar moments, though.

3.5/5

That was a pretty lacklust review, I'm sorry guys. I'll do better next time, I promise!

Read more...

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Robocop (1987)

Aw man Robocop! It's a cop who's also a robot! Yeah! My second Paul Verhoeven movie this month (and ever), Robocop introduces us to a vaguely futuristic, crime-laden Detroit, run by the corrupt Omni Consumer Products. This company develops a powerful robot, hoping to use it to deter crime, but it just ends up killing an executive at a big meeting. OCP is all "oops!" and decides to instead turn to its new cyborg program, operated by asshole Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer). When Officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is killed by supercriminal Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his gang, he's brought into the program and becomes ROBOCOP, a dude with primarily robotic body parts, a computer brain, and no apparent memory of his former self.

His efficiency and awesome powers certainly curtail criminal activity in the city, but the police department resents OCP's extreme presence. Murphy's old partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) is concerned for his lost humanity and does her best to remind him of his past, despite the corporation's strict regulations against communicating with him. Eventually he discovers what Boddicker did to him, and commits himself to stopping the baddie's violent activities for good. I wonder if the dual villains of Boddicker and OCP will turn out to be related somehow? Hmm.

There's a lot of grittiness going on in this movie; Verhoeven does an excellent job of really showing how hopeless, dark, and dirty a city can become without a cyborg around to dispense justice. There's a lot of great action sequences and the world felt fully realized. I think the story was a little uneven; it has a lot going on, but not all of it is necessary, so I felt like certain aspects could have been given more focus. I didn't really need all the corporate intrigue stuff at OCP, for example. But generally it's very entertaining, and knows when to be serious. The stop-motion battle robots are a bit silly in their design, though. I mean, they can't even handle stairs. They're like cows.

Peter Weller is really, really good here. I've been fan since my love of The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the Eighth Dimension began in high school, but I hadn't seen him in much else. Considering he's in a full body suit and helmet for most of the film, I was pretty impressed with his abilities. He's got great robotic movements and an appropriately stern mouth, and somehow manages to emote while keeping me convinced of his machine-ness. I liked Kurtwood Smith as the bespectacled and gleeful villain as well.

Basically: Robocop is pretty rad, and proves the old adage "Every movie is made better when it has a robot and/or cyborg in it". I liked it a lot, but wasn't blown away.

4/5

PS. This movie gave me two of my new favorite catchphrases: "I'd buy that for a dollar!" (what does that mean? I have no idea) and "Excuse me, I have to go. Somewhere there is a crime happening." Hell yes.

My original art for this film is for sale as a print and a shirt.

Read more...

Gwoemul (The Host) (2006)

I've been meaning to see The Host for quite a while and finally got around to it, aided by my new interest in both Song Kang-ho (after his performance in Thirst) and Bong Joon-ho (after his segment in Tokyo!). The former plays Gang-du, a hapless slacker dad working for his father's (Byeon Hie-bong) snack shop in Seoul. When a huge mutated fish-amphibian-monstrosity pops up out of the river near the shop, his young daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-seong) is stolen away along with several others. Believing her to be dead, Gang-du, his father, his professional archer sister Nam-joo (Bae Doona), and his alcoholic brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il) are in mourning as they get shipped off to a medical facility by the government after a virus believed to be caused by the monster is discovered. Gang-du interacted with it and is experimented on while his family remains quarantined.

He receives a panicked call from Hyun-seo, who somehow survived her plunge underwater and is being held in the sewers below the city. He busts out of the hospital with his dad and siblings, and they use their life savings to obtain a truck and uniforms so they can sneak into the restricted area around the river. They must search the labyrinthine sewer system while figuring out a way to defeat the monster (also, learning to work together and not bicker), as Hyun-seo does her best to stay alive and protect the only other surviving victim, a small and hungry boy named Se-ju (Lee Dong-ho). Meanwhile the Korean government is working with the US to find a permanent solution to both the alleged virus and the monster's attacks, in the form of the deadly chemical weapon Agent Yellow.

Song Kang-ho continues to be my new favorite actor. He's almost unrecognizable from his role in Thirst, with wacky hair and a droopy-eyed demeanor. He's great as comic relief, but shifts effortlessly and believably into a more serious mindset, creating a sympathetic and multi-layered character under the silly facade. Ko Ah-seong as his daughter is amazing, moving from chatty, disrespectful pre-teen to determined, badass survivor in one unexpected fell swoop.

Bong Joon-ho effectively blends a huge mix of genres and storytelling conventions to create a really interesting and highly entertaining film. It's at times hilarious, disgusting, tragic, thrilling, and action-packed. He takes a standard premise- scaly mysterious monster attacks unfortunate city- and imbues it with imagination, intelligence, and satirical undertones (the creature is accidentally forged by an American military scientist's irresponsibility, the US is willing to unleash a chemical weapon that could kill Korean citizens, etc). The effects and monster design look great, and there's even a few Molotov cocktails.

The Host is mad enjoyable, you guys. Go see it sometime.

4.5/5

Read more...

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Extract (2009)

Aww poor Mike Judge, doomed to have all of his movies compared to Office Space. Oh well. In Extract, his latest feature, small business owner Joel (Jason Bateman) is afflicted with whiny employees, a wife (Kristen Wiig) withholding sex, an impending lawsuit from an injured factory worker (Clifton Collins, Jr), and a smooth-talking con woman named Cindy (Mila Kunis) trying to take advantage of the situation. He complains a lot about the no-sex thing to his bartender pal Dean (Ben Affleck), who convinces him to hire a male prostitute (Dustin Milligan) to seduce his wife, that way Joel can cheat (preferably with Cindy) without feeling guilty.

The gigolo is buff, moronic, and all too successful at his job, making Joel worry a lot more about his wife than he did before when she seems overly responsive to these advances. Meanwhile his extract company gets an offer for a buyout, offering him a lucrative exit strategy from his thankless job, but won't settle a deal until the personal injury lawsuit is dropped. And Cindy is doing her best to ensure a lot of money comes her way by swindling herself into that lawsuit.

This movie is pretty funny. It's got jokes and wacky situations, ok? There's a fantastic cast playing various ridiculous characters, from the talkative and invasive neighbor, Nathan (David Koechner) (think a combination of Office Space's Milton and Lumbergh), to the passive-aggressive assembly line worker Mary (Beth Grant). Ben Affleck is hilarious as the slacker bartender, and he's in it a surprising amount considering his "With Ben Affleck" cast credit. Jason Bateman's character is a whiny, clueless asshole but because it's him I didn't mind as much. Judge certainly has a knack for creating unsympathetic main characters for really likable actors. It's a weird dichotomy.

One of my biggest issues is the misuse of Kristen Wiig and Mila Kunis. As if it isn't already hard enough for comedic actresses to find good roles, here are two very talented ones barely appearing in the film that advertises them as co-stars. When Wiig shows up, she's barely given anything to do. Kunis is there a bit more but her character starts off seemingly important and interesting and then just sort of peters out and nothing is done to develop her story. I found it quite frustrating.

Overall Extract is a bit uneven. It's very funny at some parts, and sort of bleh at others. I hated the whole "wah wah my wife won't have sex with me so instead of talking about it like adults let's get a gigolo to fuck her so I can cheat" storyline. I know it's not supposed to be smart, but it's too stupid to be amusing. However, I do like a lot of the side characters who pop up throughout and it's certainly never boring. In conclusion: it's ok.

3.5/5

Read more...

Friday, September 18, 2009

Taking Woodstock (2009)

Now I remember why I wanted to be a hippie in like 4th grade. They're so much fun in the movies! Based on Elliot Tiber's autobiographical book, Taking Woodstock focuses on Elliot (Demetri Martin), a laid back interior designer and painter who feels compelled to help his financially-strapped parents Jake (Henry Goodman) and Sonia (Imelda Staunton) run their dump of a motel in upstate New York. He finds out about a little music festival some hippies are trying to throw a few towns over, and decides to offer them his family's land as a space after getting a license to have a music event. Zen-like organizer Michael Lang (Johnathan Groff) visits the site and instead decides to hold it on Max Yasgur's (Eugene Levy) farm down the road.

The motel becomes their base of operations and Elliot is sort of a community liaison, despite the fact that most of the townspeople hate him for bringing in a bunch of hippies. Thousands and thousands of people start showing up, especially after Elliot mistakenly says the event will be free in a press conference. His family is raking in money like crazy, enough that Elliot should be able to move to San Francisco with his friends and finally get out from the restrictive lifestyle his parents' forced on him. As the festival gets underway it becomes apparent that this is an event of unprecedented magnitude, and through Elliot's eyes we become privy to its effects (most of which aren't even related to the music).

Taking Woodstock is a breezy, easy-to-watch and easy-to-like movie. Demetri Martin plays a likable, average-joe kind of character. I liked how Elliot's homosexuality wasn't made into a huge deal, just a thing about him (as in, he isn't defined by his sexual preference), but it may have been treated too lightly in context of the time. I wasn't sure what Martin would be like as an actor and I was pretty impressed, and felt he did a good job as the personality connecting the multitude of characters. I dug most of the cast, though there are definitely way too many people in general. And despite the actual concert never being shown, there's a great use of music throughout, both as background and in montages. And drug use.

A good chunk of the movie seems an effort to capture the busy, friendly, and exciting atmosphere surrounding Woodstock, which meant an overuse of split screens to show a lot of things happening at the same time. It works once in a while, but gets a bit ridiculous the more Lee uses it. I could see what he was aiming for, but don't think he was successful all of the time. He definitely gets across how fun and good-natured all hippies apparently were, which is nice to watch. Overall the film is a cool and funny snapshot of this remarkable event (or some version of it, as I know there are varying reports on Elliot's story), with some fun characters and nothing too dramatic bringing it down. Also, lots of unsexual nudity.

4/5

Read more...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

One of the last stops on my quest to see every Coen brothers movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a delightful (and musical!) quest of its own loosely based on Homer's Odyssey. During the Great Depression, Everett (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro), and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) bust out of jail to hunt down the hidden treasure Everett scored from a bank heist right before being arrested. Along the way they encounter a treacherous cousin, a mass-baptizing ritual, a bipolar bankrobber, seductive sirens, and a Bible salesman with a big appetite (John Goodman), while the dedicated and taciturn Sheriff Cooley (Daniel von Bargen) hunts them down for most of the journey. They hear about a music contest held by a local DJ (Stephen Root) with an award and record a song with the help of hitchhiking guitarist Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), and it becomes a huge success while they continue traveling. When they reach their destination, Everett's wife (Holly Hunter) is waiting with a new beau, and it seems everyone is on the boys' trail.

This is a really cool way to adapt The Odyssey. There's a certain romanticism and adventure intrinsic to the period that just suits the famous epic. I really like the way musical sequences are worked into various parts- it's not spontaneous or unrealistic, but an active part of the scene and storyline. This also gives the sometimes-erratic story more cohesion, aided by the various connections that different impermanent characters have to one another or to the main three. The cast is great, with some unexpected people popping up in smaller roles. The music is awesome- sort of bluegrassy/folksy (aka "old-timey"), but unfortunately I don't have the soundtrack to share with you.

Otherwise I admit I just don't have much to say about O Brother, Where Art Thou?. It's a really fun and exciting film, with a funny and slightly ridiculous script. The Coens did a great job adapting Homer's tale to a Depression-era setting, relating various aspects to the time period in an interesting way. I found Holly Hunter's character too flat and flaky, which as the only real female character in the whole movie was a bit frustrating, but no one was exceptionally well-developed or taken very seriously here so it wasn't a surprise. Basically it's a very good movie, but doesn't have me gushing. It does make me want to re-read the Tank Girl version, though.

4/5

Read more...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Bakjwi (Thirst) (2009)

I think I've been waiting forever to talk about this (I had to get through my crazy backlog of movies first). It's been playing itself over in my head since last week, having struck some unknown chord that hasn't ceased to resonate. In Thirst, Catholic priest Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) feels dejected and helpless spending his days reading hospitable patients their last rites, and decides to partake in a dangerous experiment hoping to produce a vaccine to cure a deadly virus. He is the only test subject to survive, due to unknowingly receiving a pack of vampire's blood that fends off the disease. Hailed for his perceived blessed and restorative powers, Sang-hyeon is consistently called to pray for other invalids.

He gradually realizes what's happened to him as he develops a serious taste for blood and an awakening of sexual feelings, specifically towards Tae-joo (Kim Ok-bin), the seemingly timid wife of his childhood friend Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun). If he doesn't drink blood, the virus resurfaces, so he finds himself forced to give in to his desires for the sake of self-preservation. He becomes more and more in touch with his vampiric side after beginning a torrid affair with Tae-joo, who accepts his secret with both fear and attraction. Eventually they plot to kill her husband as an escape from the controlling clutches of his mother, but this drastic step leads to graver consequences and deeper sins instead of happily ever after.

God this movie is so good. Like, shockingly good. The concept is great and the execution is spectacular. The levels of obsession, desire, resistance, and aggression escalate gradually until the end result bears no resemblance to the beginning. Nothing prepared me for where the plot could go, and it ended perfectly. It is rather lengthy, which is apparent at the midway point which feels like the climax. However I didn't mind the long running time because it is never boring or dragging, and very deliberately and effectively organized. The visuals are raw and beautifully shot, and provoke a very visceral reaction (in me, at least- I was a bit too squeamish for the more gruesome parts). Also parts of it are maaaad sexy.

Song Kang-ho is totally my new favorite actor just for his performance here (though The Host solidified it). He's versatile and expressive, skillfully moving from soft-spoken and gentle priest to unwillingly violent vampire. He's so perfect in the role it's a little scary. I liked Kim Ok-bin as well: she oscillates between stages of ruthlessness, victimization, and compassion with a remarkable ability to make me feel for her either way. The Kang-woo character is a little too silly, but I still appreciated Shin Ha-kyun's over the top facial expressions.

Thirst is horrifying not so much as a film itself, but in its premise. The idea that a man of such strong beliefs can find himself completely, unrecognizably twisted after a random happenstance is pretty scary. So too is the fact that a subdued, put-upon young woman could develop a sudden unforgiving bloodlust. It's a really affecting film, staying with me long after I left the theatre. It's not perfect, but pretty darned close. My resolve to finally see Oldboy has been renewed, while I also hope to see all of Song Kang-ho's performances.

4.5/5 (more like 4.7)

PS I'm a little obsessed with this poster. I think I'll buy it.

Read more...

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Captain Abu Raed (2007)

I will admit that the main reason I saw this was because I had never seen a film from Jordan before. Not the best reason, I know, but whatever. The first feature from writer-director Amin Matalqa, Captain Abu Raed starts off as a deceptively simple tale of an aged, reserved, and widowed airport janitor, Abu Raed (Nadim Sawalha), who finds a captain's hat in the trash and wears it home. One of his neighbors, a young boy named Tareq (Udey Al-Qiddissi), becomes convinced that despite living in an impoverished area, Abu Raed must be a pilot and persuades him to tell stories of his worldly travels to the children of the area. Abu Raed concedes after some resistance, deciding to make up tales of exotic places outside the city of Amman, Jordan, aided by his vast knowledge gained from reading thousands of books on various subjects.

Though popular with all the kids, he becomes especially close with Tareq, whose father makes him sell candy bars instead of attending school, and Murad (Hussein Al-Sous), whose alcoholic father abuses his family. He also befriends Nour, one of the pilots who flies out of his airport. Her wealthy father is obsessed with finding her a good husband as soon as possible, but she remains uninterested and independent. Abu Raed's developing relationships with these characters are explored, shedding light on the different struggles people of different ages and social positions might go through in this culture.

Captain Abu Raed starts off kind of sappy but sweet; it's slow-moving and has a few montages featuring this sort of tableau. It's not bad, just not very different from any other movie of this type. About halfway through, it takes a real turn into serious, agitated drama. It's a bit jarring and really draws it away from the "feel-good" genre, but makes for a more gripping story. I liked this second half much better than the first, but the sudden change in tone and pacing felt off. There are lots of interesting bits and subplots here, but they just aren't paced or detailed especially well. For example, I liked the character of Nour a lot, and there were a few scenes dedicated solely to her story, but nothing was really developed and it didn't seem to completely fit in with the rest of the movie.

All that being said, this is still an enjoyable and well-made film. The main character is well-rounded, and the main child actors are incredible considering they hadn't acted onscreen before. The visuals are fantastic, making great use of truly gorgeous rooftop vistas of the city and detailed, interesting interior sets around the housing complex. It seems like a good look into the culture and inhabitants of Amman, a place about which I admittedly know nothing, so its setting alone made it uniquely appealing. I just think with better pacing and a more consistent tone, this would be a more effective film. Do not heed its "feel-good family fare" premise: it gets really engaging in the second half, but not in a happy way.

3.5/5

Read more...

Gake no ue no Ponyo (Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea) (2008)

Wow Miyazaki really has his finger on the pulse of "things that are incredibly cute". I mean seriously, just look at this. I feel like the Fuck You, Penguin guy needs to give him a stern talking-to. With Ponyo, he gives us his version of "The Little Mermaid". The titular character is a young, magical goldfish princess with a warlock father and sea goddess mother, and she desperately wants to escape her father's over-protective grasp. She breaks out of her bubble home and makes it through dangerous water pollution to land, rescued by Sosuke, an eager young boy who delicately takes care of her. Soon enough she's unwillingly taken back by her father, but her desire to become human like Sosuke and be with him gives her enough drive and power to become a Transformer and turn into a real little girl.

She and Sosuke are happily reunited, with his mother Lisa half-accepting the idea that a goldfish could have magic powers and allowing her to stay with them while a massive storm floods the area. Lisa leaves them to help out at the senior center where she works, but the sea rises so high, a large portion of the town is underwater the next day. Sosuke and Ponyo set out in a small boat to find her, while Ponyo's mom and dad search for her with the fear that she'll upset nature's balance if she remains simultaneously human and magical.

Like My Neighbor Totoro before it, Ponyo is of course adorable and easy to watch, with a nice combination of fantasy elements and real human emotion. It's visually beautiful in its watercolor and pastel style and effortless animation. The underwater scenes are so detailed and flowing, while the on-land settings feel like paintings. The main characters are very funny and engaging in their typical child enthusiasm and general excitement over everything. I didn't watch the dubbed version since I don't want anyone with "Cyrus" or "Jonas" as a last name mucking up my anime viewing, so no comment on Disney voicework. The Japanese cast is pretty great, though.

I was a bit bothered by the weird and copious ambiguities in the story; Ponyo's dad was maybe evil? Once he was human but for some reason now he just hangs out underwater and controls the ocean? He and her mom are split up but we don't why? The balance of nature is being overturned because Ponyo did a thing? Ponyo's dad wants to take over the world with mysteriously glowing ocean fluid but then he's wicked upset when Ponyo makes that crazy storm happen that brings the town underwater? I was asking a lot more questions than I was getting answers, and for a movie aimed at (and about) young children, I was surprised.

In general Ponyo is enjoyable and sweet, and a true delight to just look at. It's simpler and less affecting than most other Miyazaki films I've seen, so I didn't I like it as much as, say, Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke. It's the kind of movie that's pleasant and fun, but not incredibly memorable or groundbreaking (in its story, I mean- of course in animation it's top-notch). Considering its audience, this isn't astounding, but considering its filmmaker it's ever so slightly disappointing.

4/5

Cutest theme song ever (the original version, but I know Disney skewered it with a Noah Cyrus/Frankie Jonas version)


Read more...

Friday, September 11, 2009

Total Recall (1990)

I've read several complaints this year about the possible remake of Total Recall, so I thought I might as well give it a look-see myself. Living in a very 80's future, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Douglas Quaid, a happily-married construction worker tormented by persistent dreams of Mars despite never having been there. He decides to take a "virtual vacation" to the planet with memory-implant company Rekall, Inc, opting for the two-week espionage package so that he'll think he's a spy on an important Martian mission. Before the implants can begin, he starts freaking out and thinking he's a secret agent, and several people try to kill him including his poser-wife Lori (Sharon Stone), who admits that he's had his memory erased after a spy mission on Mars and his entire life and personality have been fabricated.

Quaid's like "WHAT?" and after being given a briefcase with a video of himself in the past telling himself to go to Mars, he sneaks/blows up his way past bad guy Richter (Michael Ironside) and his henchman who are after him. The planet is a very red place full of unhappy civilians mutated by lack of oxygen; everything is controlled by tyrant Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox). Now Quaid is trying to find out the secrets of his real past while figuring out whom to trust. Of course, this could all just be a wacky mental adventure dropped into his head by Rekall... WHO KNOWS?!

Can Arnold Schwarzenegger make a bad movie? I'm pretty sure he can't. The guy's amazing. This is a pretty standard role for him, with a lot of screaming and fighting, and he's at the top of his game. I also really liked Rachel Ticotin as ex-flame Melina, because she was sassy and liked to use guns. Plus she dressed like Peter Pan at one point. The visuals are interesting (if wildly unrealistic) and there are some good effects and make-up with the "freaks", but a lot of it did feel dated.

I like movies that leave the viewer to question whether or not something really happened, so the ambiguity of Total Recall's story is pretty cool to me. I've never read the Dick short story, so I'm not sure how the two compare, but the movie is adventurous and exciting, with a fast pace and host of interesting characters. It's a bit campy, but it suits the overall atmosphere. I was laughing out loud sometimes and just really enjoyed all that was going on in this movie. It's not groundbreaking science-fiction or anything, but soooo much fun!

4/5

Read more...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Up (2009)

I'm so glad I caught this on a big screen (I missed its release in America and it didn't reach Germany while I was there). Up sports an interesting premise: After his wife passes away and he's about to be shuffled off to a senior home, elderly Carl Fredricksen decides to embark on the epic adventure she'd always dreamed of. He loads up his house with thousands of helium balloons and sails away in the direction of South America, only to discover the dedicated and talkative Wilderness Scout, Russell (who needs a badge for helping the elderly), on his front porch. The two land a few miles away from Carl's intended spot of Paradise Falls, where his wife had wanted to have a house when she was a little girl.

The house is still buoyant but only barely so, and Carl and Russell attach themselves to the garden hose intending to drag it the rest of the way. En route they encounter a large unclassifiable and multicolored bird whom Russell befriends and names "Kevin". It's being hunted by a pack of vicious dogs with special collars that allow them to speak English, and Carl must decide whether or not to continue his quest to Paradise Falls or sacrifice his wife's dream to help Kevin evade capture.

Up has a poignant, interesting story with typical Pixar themes of friendship, responsibility, and innovation. It made me cry like 5 times, which is saying something for a kids' movie. Something about an old person losing a loved one and the ensuing extreme loneliness just really gets to me. I liked how the film kept me on my toes for the most part- I didn't expect a lot of the plot developments. The talking dogs feel out of place, but the Dug character is so funny I didn't mind too much. Everything connects together really well from beginning to end, and while it's very imaginative, it's not inaccessible or unbelievable.

One thing that frustrates me about this film is, surprisingly, the visual design. The animation is fluid and beautiful of course, but I am not a fan of how the characters and settings fit together. The people are blocky and exaggerated in size and proportion, which is fine (though not usually to my taste in CG animation), but their placement in exceptionally detailed, elaborate, and overall realistic backgrounds is a bit jarring. It's not a big issue, and probably something that doesn't bother most people, just a personal opinion.

I'm not going to make a big comment about the lack of female characters, since many others have spoken about the subject more eloquently than I ever could, but yes the lack of women is very apparent to me, especially when taken in consideration with all of Pixar's other films. Kudos for having an Asian-American as a lead character, though!

4.5/5

Read more...

I Sell the Dead (2008)

The night before supposedly-innocent graverobber Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan) is to be hanged for murder, Father Duffy (Ron Perlman) seeks an interview with him exploring his flirtation with the paranormal and the undead. Arthur begins his life story, beginning with his apprenticeship to graverobber Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden) as a child. When he gets older, they steal bodies for the corrupt and experimental Dr Quint (Angus Scrimm), who blackmails them and nearly gets them arrested on multiple occasions.

When they come across a staked vampire in a grave, they give it to Quint, only for him to take the stake out and suffer for it. After this, Willie and Arthur dedicate themselves to specifically unearthing the undead because it pays more. Besides the expected occupational hazards, they have occasional run-ins with their competition: the fearsome and ruthless familial gang called the House of Murphy, in whom Father Duffy has particular interest.

I Sell the Dead came off as an Evil Dead-ish horror-comedy so I figured, why not give it a try? Unfortunately it is neither particularly funny nor particularly scary. It's a good premise with a nice flashback-sequence mode of storytelling. The main cast is enjoyable, giving us Ron Perlman's sometimes-questionable Irish accent and a surprisingly likable Dominic Monaghan (associating him primarily with Lost means I think he sucks because Charlie sucks). I like the dark and persistently foggy old England setting, and there's a really cool live action-to-comic-style-drawing effect, though it's used seemingly at random.

This movie just didn't do much for me. It felt overlong despite its 85 minutes, because it took forever to get going and spent too much time with insignificant vignettes in the beginning. The House of Murphy was given high importance, but didn't show up until halfway through and then only had one major scene. There are a couple of zombies but they're not very scary, and only a little bit funny. The movie needed to be amped up in either or both departments, because in general it was all just too straight. It isn't an especially bad film, just sort of eh.

3/5

Read more...

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Cold Souls (2009)

I'm not surprised Cold Souls is getting compared to Being John Malkovich, but that's a little unfair. They are different in style and tone, and Cold Souls isn't as good. Paul Giamatti plays a version of himself currently starring in a stage production of Chekov's Uncle Vanya. He is feeling frustrated with the role, afraid of losing himself in it along with his sense of humor, and so becomes open to the new service of "soul storage", in which a person's soul is removed and stored away so he or she can live a more unburdened and carefree life. Though at first he feels great, Paul finds himself unable to sleep with his wife (Emily Watson) and overthinking his portrayal of Vanya. Unwilling to take back his (perceived as) dark and heavy soul, he accepts the anonymously donated soul of a Russian poet, offered through a disreputable soul-trafficking company operating out of Russia. When he eventually decides to take his own soul back, it's missing from its storage box.

Alongside Paul's story, that of Russian soul trafficker Nina (Dina Korzun) is also told. She carries within herself souls from her country into the United States so that they can be sold to rich Americans. When her boss's soap-opera star girlfriend (Katheryn Winnick) hungers after an American actor's soul, Nina takes on Paul's, only to be completely captivated with the beauty she sees in it.

Cold Souls has an interesting concept that it never deeply explores. Several questions raised about souls and soul removal are brushed away so the next scene can start, making it unfulfilling. I really like Paul Giamatti and he is very good here, elevating the film to a more enjoyable level with his natural comedic timing and knack for making complaining lovable; place another person in his role and I probably would like it less.

The editing is jarringly choppy but there are some nice visuals with the clean and crisp soul storage technology juxtaposed against the bleak Russian warehouse. I liked Nina's story a lot and was disappointed that she didn't get a little more focus- there is mention of the effects her constant soul implantation is having on her due to residue from multiple souls, but it's never really shown. I understand Paul is definitely the main character and he can carry the movie, but it's frustrating to have a character in a strange and unique situation introduced, only to have her pushed into the background, just popping up to help Paul out in the third act.

Cold Souls is funny and has some nice ideas, and for the most part I enjoyed watching it thanks to Paul Giamatti's great performance, but it never really delivers in any special way. It's just not very memorable and didn't go as far as it could have with its premise.

3.5/5

Read more...

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

It's WWII, and Nazis are running about occupying France. Col Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), dubbed the "Jew-Hunter" in most circles, lives up to his moniker when uncovering the Dreyfus family hiding in a small dairy farm. Only young Shoshana (Mélanie Laurent) escapes, and four years later has established herself in Paris as a reserved Gentile cinema owner. Meanwhile, we come upon a small group of Jewish-American soldiers dedicated to mercilessly tearing apart and scalping every Nazi they find; they call themselves The Basterds. They're led by straightforward Southerner Lt Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), and have been causing quite a stir among Nazi troops in France until even Hitler (Martin Wuttke) is intimidated.

When Nazi soldier Pvt Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) falls for Shoshana, he convinces Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) to open the propaganda film of his hero story at her theater. Head of security for the opening will be Hans Landa, and Hitler is rumored to be making an appearance. Shoshana sees an opportunity to enact vengeance on those who killed her family by burning the theater down with Nazi attendants trapped inside, while the Basterds plan to blow it up with the help of British agent Lt Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) and German actress/spy Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger).

This is a Tarantino flick: there is a lot of talking. Some of it is a bit tedious or dragged-out, but for the most part it's engaging and fun, and I'm glad he varied the languages realistically. The violence is harsh and extreme, when there is violence (which is less often than expected). I liked the inter-connected dual stories and use of chapter separations. The flashback sequences are really cool but there aren't enough of them, so it felt weird to have backstories for some of the Basterds but not all of them.

There was a wealth of interesting characters here but most of them weren't really utilized. A couple of them got one main scene, while the others popped up once or twice for a line. Considering they're in the title, I was surprised that they weren't in it very much. Really, Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa is the star of this film. He's gleefully despicable and makes for a perfect villain, and a nice counterpart to Pitt's hammy and over the top Raine (whose performance felt a bit too forced). I dug the various German actors appearing, especially the adorable Daniel Brühl.

Inglourious Basterds is fun and interesting, with a nice lack of regard for anything historical and a cool host of characters. In Tarantino fashion, it's packed with funny and referential dialogue, multiple storylines, and heady violence, but isn't as well put-together as some of his other films. There isn't enough focus on most of the characters, which was frustrating, and the pacing is sometimes off between slow, drawn-out scenes and well-written moments of tension. I liked it, but it didn't live up to my expectations, and I felt like everyone in the theatre was laughing or reacting a lot more than they should. Also Mike Myers' appearance was really out of place.

4/5

Read more...

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Alien (1979)

It feels like I've waited a decade to finally see Alien. I kept hearing how Ripley is one of the most badass female characters ever, how it's super scary despite its antiquated special effects, how it's got some killer twists, etc. And I totally heard correctly. The first in the long-running sci-fi series, Alien takes place on a futuristic commercial space ship manned by seven people. They receive an unintelligible signal from a nearby planet, but the investigating team finds only an abandoned ship and a host of alien eggs, one of which attacks Kane (John Hurt) by implanting itself onto his face.

Despite Officer Ripley's (Sigourney Weaver) concern about quarantine procedures, he is allowed back on the ship in the hope that Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm) can remove the creature safely. Turns out the alien has settled deep into Kane's body and it would kill him to remove it. Soon enough the alien busts out and is running around the ship, growing larger insanely quickly, snatching up humans in its path, and leaving a trail of blood. As more of the crew is picked off, Ripley takes matters into her own hands and stops at nothing to destroy it.

This movie is pretty damn awesome. It starts off slowly with lots of dialogue and long scenes, but escalates faster and faster until I was on the edge of my seat and freaking out at every turn. The set is detailed and sinister, aiding along the tightly-paced screenplay. The effects are impressive, considering the time period, and darkness and framing are used very well to create the desired terrifying atmosphere. Plus, there are some really great unexpected twists, making this much more than "a bunch of people are trapped in a place being chased by a monster".

The main thing that bothers me in Alien is how stupid everyone who isn't Ripley is. She's like, "Hey guys, we should definitely quarantine Kane because who knows how everyone could be affected. We don't want to bring some deadly disease or malicious alien back to earth." And everyone else is like, "No, we don't really feel like listening to reason." Then she has a good plan to stop it, and everyone else just doesn't listen to how logical she is being. Ugh. It was just so frustrating. But it felt good to know that Ripley would emerge as the hero, since she is so incredibly badass and smart. I was so won over by Sigourney Weaver, who has slowly been working her way into my favorite actresses list, that now I pretty much think she is the best person ever. I'm glad she got the role despite the fact that it was originally written for a man.

This movie is rad. Everyone should see it. I'll be doing a marathon of the rest of the series next time I'm home.

4.5/5

Read more...

Friday, September 4, 2009

Tokyo! (2008)

I was pretty bummed to have missed this in theaters, so it was near top of my Netflix queue when I came back from Germany. Tokyo! is a collection of three shorts by three different directors, linked by the city in which they take place.

Michel Gondry brings us "Interior Design", based on the graphic novel "Cecil and Jordan in New York". It follows the recent move to Tokyo of young couple Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani) and Akira (Ryo Kase), who plan to temporarily stay with Hiroko's friend Akemi (Ayumi Ito) while looking for jobs and apartments. Akira is working to become a filmmaker, while Hiroko is unsure of any kind of career or talent she'd like to pursue. She hears the people around her bemoan her lack of ambition, and seeks a way to become useful to others, finally finding it in an unexpected way.

This segment is cute and a little whimsical in true Gondry fashion. I liked Ayako Fujitani (Steven Seagal's daughter) a lot and thought her character relatable and sympathetic. The story is a little slow but not painfully so, and it was also the only one of the trio to really give some insight into the city itself- its streets and culture. The ending is what makes it special, offering a surreal, tongue-in-cheek conclusion.

"Merde", from Leos Carax, focuses on a strange man living in the sewers who periodically pops up into the streets of Tokyo to wreak havoc on passersby. He has a curled beard and long fingernails, knows no Japanese, and seems not to care for those he's terrorizing. When he gets a hold of some hand grenades and several people are killed, he's finally captured and a strange French lawyer (Jean-François Balmer) who oddly resembles him in looks is brought to speak to him, as he claims he's the only one who knows the strange language the "creature" (who calls himself Merde) speaks. Merde's motivations and unique perspective are explored, as is the media frenzy surrounding his trial.

I liked this the least of the trio, finding it alienating and confusing. Merde grossed me out with his milky eye and disgustingly long fingernails, though I'm sure that was part of the point. He is off-putting and unlikable. I also wasn't particularly engrossed in the story- it has odd pacing and a wealth of ambiguities. I didn't hate "Merde", I just didn't get anything out of it. Apparently it's a reference to Godzilla, which is cool, but I haven't seen any Godzilla movies so I couldn't appreciate it for that.

The last short is Bong Joon-ho's "Shaking Tokyo". A hikikomori (Teruyuki Kagawa), or self-imposed Tokyo shut-in, narrates the intimate details of his lonely life, from meticulously stacking pizza boxes and rolls of toilet paper, to reading an inordinate number of books. His life changes suddenly when he meets a pretty pizza delivery woman (Yû Aoi) who collapses in his doorway during an earthquake. After this interaction he becomes obsessed with finding her again, and after learning that she's become a shut-in as well, he ventures outside for the first time in a decade and finds that the city has changed considerably since he last saw it.

This was definitely my favorite. It's funny and sad and inventive, and I love the main character's narration. There is a wonderful level of detail in the set design marked by interesting shot choices. The story is adorable and well-structured, and I feel like each character has a complex and involved backstory despite the fact that we didn't get to know them very well. It makes for an intriguing and memorable short film.

Overall Tokyo! is an engaging collection of shorts by a team of talented directors. Unfortunately I felt it a bit uneven. "Merde" felt out of place with the other two, both in story and tone. Still, it's a cool way to see this fascinating city through different eyes, and a nice showcase for Gondry, Carax, and Bong.

4/5

Read more...