Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Boston Horror Marathon: Dusk to Dawn, Pt I

Well, maybe you've noticed that it is nearing Halloween time. This means the Boston Horror 'Thon is on at the historic Somerville Theatre! It's 12 straight hours of horror movie goodness, running from dusk to dawn last weekend. This was my first time, and it was exhausting, but really fun! And nothing compared to the 24-hour Sci-Fi Marathon. The theme was vampires, and the line-up featured three I'd seen and three new ones, which was nice. There was also a burlesque show with ladies hell of taking off their garments, and a sort of lame costume contest. And all hosted by this awesome guy. Things learned: Vampires love lesbianism and boobs and sucky noises. They don't like regular food (which was news to me). Animals hate vampires. Sometimes vampires are not like full vampires? Just almost-vampires?

Anyway, I'll break it down for you with some short reviews of the films I saw, sticking to just the first three for now. Read on.

1. Bakjwi (Thirst) (2009) Maybe you will remember Park Chan-wook's latest film from my obsession with it a few weeks ago. After the second viewing, I'm still pretty obsessed. Song Kang-ho plays a Catholic priest who has an accidental vampire blood transfusion and must drink blood to keep a deadly illness from consuming him. He finds himself giving in to new desires and vices more and more as his will lessens, and he brings down with him a put-upon, vengeful young woman married to his childhood friend. It's captivating, intense, visually stunning, and heartbreaking. One of my favorite films of the year, easily. 5/5

2. Near Dark (1987) I've been meaning to get into Kathryn Bigelow's movies (I've only seen Point Break and it was years ago), and Near Dark is definitely a good start. A young Adrian Pasdar stars as over-confident stud Caleb, who tries to seduce a new girl in town only to have her turn him into a vampire. He falls into her crowd of rowdy killers (which includes Bill Paxton) but tries to resist his new bloodthirsty nature, while his father and sister track him down. It's a pretty cool time, with fun characters and a good dose of violence. There's a weird half-assed solution to the ending that kind of bothered me, and the love interest lady is super lame and missing a personality, but otherwise I dug it. 4/5

3. Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In) (2008) I remember this being offered as an intelligent, hauntingly beautiful alternative to Twilight when it came out, but unfortunately it didn't really have as much impact. Focusing on the relationship between a 12-year-old boy and his seemingly young vampiric neighbor, this film is a memorable, raw look at first love, childhood bullying, spontaneous combustion, and the trauma of being a vampire. It's lovely, really. 4.5/5

Part II in the next post!


The Proposition (2005)

In preparation for The Road, I was shown John Hillcoat's prior film The Proposition, a quiet and intriguing Australian western set in the 1880's outback. Local lawman Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) is trying to round up the Burns gang, composed of three brothers who are accused of raping an innocent pregnant woman and killing her whole family. Hoping to catch the oldest brother and leader, Arthur (Danny Huston), he approaches Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), who had taken his younger, mentally disabled brother Mike (Richard Wilson) away from their third sibling, who seems to have sunken into madness after catering to his own sickeningly violent nature. Mike is arrested and held until Christmas day, when he is to be hanged unless Charlie can kill Arthur. The effects of the crime and the pressures placed upon Stanley and his wife Martha (Emily Watson) are explored, set against Charlie's search for his brother and Mike's inhumane treatment in jail.

The Proposition sports an intensity and austerity in both its visuals and plot. The landscapes are gorgeous, vast and sprawling with warm colors and good attention to light, while the hand-made costumes are lush and intricate, heightening the realism. Penned by Nick Cave (who also did the music), the script is sparse but filled with emotional complexities in the characters of Charlie and Stanley, both of whom are dealing with external pressures and skewed senses of morality. While the story itself is fairly simple, it features an interesting dilemma and strong central figures. I think the role of Martha, who is basically the only woman with a speaking part, is unfortunately quite underwritten, but I guess I wouldn't necessarily expect a well-developed female supporting character in such a male-dominated film (and genre).

In dealing with police brutality and criminal violence, this film is viscerally realistic and harsh. I had some trouble watching a few scenes, but appreciated the honesty with which the filmmakers approached the subjects. The racist attitudes of white Australians against indigenous Aborigines are also touched upon, adding an extra layer of moral ambiguity to the main characters. I really liked this film, but wasn't completely taken in by it, finding a bit too bare and unemotional. I never got a handle on most of the characters or their relationships, and the story just isn't particularly my thing, I guess. Otherwise it's a beautifully filmed and engaging western with a lot of wonderful details.



Thursday, October 29, 2009

Taken (2008)

Taken came out right before I went abroad, and man am I glad I didn't see it then because I would have been way paranoid of getting abducted by some Eastern European sex traffickers when I visited Paris. Otherwise, it's a cool movie. Liam Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a retired US government undercover operative who's trying to work his back into the life of his teenage daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). She and her mother Lenore (Famke Janssen) convince him to allow her to visit Paris with her friend for a few weeks, going against his own natural inclination towards paranoia and caution.

When the two friends arrive, they quickly befriend a young man who shares their cab and invites them to a party. As they settle into their lodgings (a house belonging to her friend's cousins), Kim calls her dad to let him know she's all right, but during the course of the phone call, several men break into the house and kidnap the girls. Kim leaves the phone on and screams defining characteristics while Bryan listens, terrified. He launches into action immediately, relying on his French and American government contacts and impressive set of butt-kicking detective skills to find his daughter. It is a pretty violent task, and he kind of destroys Paris in the process.

After hearing many good things from 1416 and Counting, so I was pretty set to enjoy this movie. And I totally did! It's a well-paced and structured action movie with plenty of fighting and cussing and threatening conversations. The filmmakers take a straightforward, no-nonsense approach to badassery, and I can get behind that. It's not dragged-out, it's not trying to trick you with weird backstabbing or big climactic reveals: it's just pure entertainment, so who cares if it's predictable? Liam Neeson seems an unlikely dark action hero, based both on his age and charming demeanor (though I guess there's always Qui-gon Jinn), but he really pulls off the role by keeping Bryan dedicated and grounded in his characterization. Despite the extraordinary situation, he is a realistic- if very intense- guy who just wants his daughter back.

Ok so I know one must indulge in a little suspension of disbelief for movies such as these, but some of the weird loopholes were just too much. It was mostly a combination of a lot of little things that didn't seem to fit into the established story, or weren't fully explained. Was Bryan supposed to be Irish or was Neeson just phoning in an American accent? Does he not speak French (or any other language) despite having been stationed all around the world, and why does he assume every person he meets speaks English? Why don't the Albanian mob members realize this Irish guy speaking English to them is clearly not a French guy working for the French government, as he claims? Why doesn't he look both ways before crossing the street it is so dangerous ohmygod!?!?! These are some examples. Generally they served to make the movie a bit ridiculous, but I was able to eventually just accept everything and revel in the outlandish, but still serious, plot. I mean really all that matters is that Liam Neeson is fighting everyone, and he is totally winning.



Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008)

Anvil is probably the most important metal band you've never heard of. Formed by childhood friends guitarist/vocalist Steve "Lips" Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner as the core, they've released thirteen albums since 1978 but have failed to gain mainstream recognition. In Anvil! The Story of Anvil, former roadie Sacha Gervasi documents the band's recent failed European tour, their experiences recording a new album, and the relationship between and backgrounds of Lips and Robb. It starts off with interviews of assorted metal legends like Slash, Lemmy, and Lars Ulrich all citing Anvil's influence and general awesomeness, while wondering why they never made it big.

Cut to Toronto, Canada and we meet the band in its present-day incarnation. Lips works for a school catering company but still performs at local clubs with Robb and two newer members. They both have families and money problems, but cling to their boyhood dreams of playing metal for hordes of adoring fans. They can claim ardent cult status, but their lack of a manager and general organization has hindered their touring and recording success. They're just looking for one big break to market their newest album, and perhaps have another chance in the limelight.

This movie is funny, engaging, rockin', and unexpectedly heartwarming. Lips and Robb are so personable and likable, imbued with a natural charm and naive hopefulness not usually associated with their brand of demonic ruckus (or "music" to some [just kidding I am actually ok with metal]). I really came to believe in these guys and invested myself in their successes and failures. Their friendship is touching, and I liked seeing input from their family members to help trace its development and how the band came to be. *Sniffle*... it's just beautiful, really!

I would have liked more investigation of the band's impact on other bands or on the genre itself, since it wasn't really discussed in detail, and a closer look at their family life or how their wives and children were affected by their lifestyle would have been nice too (it's touched upon, but again, not in detail). Generally though, Anvil! The Story of Anvil is a well-structured rock documentary demonstrating the many downs and infrequent ups of a truly dedicated metal band. It's entertaining even if you're not into the music, because it really works as more of a human interest story about two guys who resist giving up on their dream, and tirelessly hope that they'll be rewarded for their inability to stop ROCKING.



Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

The inspirational trailer and promise of tempur-pedic seats were certainly abundant reasons to get me out to Jordan's Furniture (an amazing place involving trapeze artists, jelly bean sculptures, Fuddruckers, furniture, and an Imax theater) to see Where the Wild Things Are. Twice. Based on Maurice Sendak's beloved children's book, the film describes the amazing journey of Max (Max Records), a young boy who travels across the sea to escape his family life. His older sister ignores him, and his overworked single mother (Catherine Keener) doesn't know how to handle his wild outbursts. After sending him to dinner without supper, he runs away into a forest and finds a small sailboat which takes him away to an island populated by large composite beasts.

One of the monsters, Carol (James Gandolfini), is afraid of being alone and worried that this small monster family is drifting apart after his friend KW (Lauren Ambrose) leaves for new friends. He sees an ally in Max, who convinces the group that he is a powerful explorer and ruler who can help them be happy. They make him their king and he does his best to deal with their crippling emotional and social problems, sometimes doing fun stuff like leading the wild rumpus and building a huge fort, and sometimes causing problems like inviting KW's unwelcome buddies over or staging a mock-war that causes some real pain. After recognizing the parallels to his own life and personality, he learns some things and maybe even grows up a little.

I wasn't super-into this book as a kid, so my love for this doesn't stem from some exaggerated nostalgia- it's good without all that. Where the Wild Things Are is an open, inviting look into the alienation and confusion often brought upon by being a child. We are treated to incredibly personal glimpses of Max's life, and I almost felt like a part of them due to the intimate way in which the scenes are filmed. Despite being unable to relate to Max's wild abandon and uncontrolled angry outbursts (as a kid I was more into pacifistic make-believe and reading lots of books), I still found his character sympathetic and likable- a combination of Max Records' great performance and the well-executed script. He keeps the movie grounded and cohesive.

This film is so impressively and beautifully layered, I don't believe it's intended primarily for children. Jonze and Eggers have taken a textually sparse story and drawn out its emotional richness with a nuanced and engaging script. The myriad issues experienced by the characters aren't completely spelled out, but demonstrated in a way that's relatable and complex, resulting in a highly affecting film. The addition of gorgeous cinematography, imaginative character design, and a musical score that fits like a glove only increases the wonder of Where the Wild Things Are. It's a lovely film, all around: fun, intelligent, and slightly heartbreaking (yeah I cried, at both viewings, at the exact same part... that's emotional resonance for you). I'd recommend it in Imax, if it's available near you.


PS Also, seriously, Karen O's soundtrack is phenomenal. I have been obsessing over it all week. I'm glad they got someone who's so good at howling to do the music, but am also digging the slower, more melodic pieces. Check out these songs:

"All Is Love"


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Drag Me to Hell (2009)

Here's another movie that didn't make it to Germany, and I was pretty bummed that I missed out on Sam Raimi's apparent return to making awesome movies. Now that I've seen Drag Me to Hell, I'm certainly glad he's returned to more of a horror-comedy mode, but am a little underwhelmed. Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is a pushover loan officer vying for a promotion to assistant manager, but constantly bested by her asshole competitor Stu (Reggie Lee). In an effort to be more assertive and impress her boss (David Paymer), she denies an elderly woman's (Lorna Raver) request for a third extension on her payments, knowing it would result in her eviction. That evening the woman viciously attacks Christine, and puts some freaky hex on her coat button.

Feeling shaken and uneasy, she convinces her boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) to go in for a psychic reading. After various levitating items and spooooky happenings, Christine finds out she's been cursed, and following three days of torture, a crazy demon will drag her soul to hell. She tries to reason with the old woman, but she's passed away. She tries to appease the demon, but he is not in a merciful mood. She teams up with a fortune teller and an old mystic to kill it once and for all in a dangerous seance, but her time is running out and her reserve is all but depleted.

While it definitely has some funny moments, this movie is more of a straightforward gory thriller, following Christine as she becomes more and more desperate and willing to sacrifice her beliefs to save her own life. Alison Lohman is great in the role, portraying an average young woman trying to do well in life, now drawing on newfound strength as she's pulled into an unreal and terrifying situation. There are some cool effects, good jump scares, and a lot of gross, gory events. It didn't keep me up that night, but it freaked me out while I was watching it (mainly because of how squeamish I am).

I guess in general Drag Me to Hell isn't amped up enough to be a great movie. It's well-written, well-acted, and well-directed, but nothing really special. It was a bit predictable and needed to be either funnier or scarier, or both. The ending is really good, though. It's great to see Raimi's return to the genre, and I hope he continues in this vein for future projects (also, I hope Spider-Man 4 doesn't suck so incredibly hard).



Thursday, October 22, 2009

An Education (2009)

With lots of buzz about a Best Actress nomination and a Nick Hornby screenplay, An Education certainly piqued my interest. Based on Lynn Barber's memoir, the film follows 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) during her last year before college. An extremely intelligent, accomplished Francophile pushed by her overbearing father (Alfred Molina) to live rigidly, she hopes to apply to Oxford. Walking home one day from orchestra practice in pouring rain, she accepts a short ride from David (Peter Saarsgard), a smooth-talking 30-something with an easy smile and a nice car.

He expertly charms his way into her parents' hearts and Jenny is allowed to go out with him on different occasions, including a symphony concert and art auction with his friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike). She is instantly taken in by their fashionable adult lifestyle, full of worldly culture and liveliness. David becomes very attached to her and she trusts him despite his less-than-legal means of making a living and knack for deception. Eventually she becomes disenchanted with the education system, unsure how a life of study could be as sought-after as the life David offers her, and must choose which is more important for her future.

An Education is an interesting inquiry into a middle-class young woman's position in 60's England. The importance of education and attending a top-notch university is ingrained in Jenny from the beginning, by both her parents and teachers. But it is also made apparent to her that should she marry a successful man, she need not worry about school at all. It's a weird combination of the 50's suburban housewife and the 60's liberated woman conflicting within one person, and we see her trying to work through it in her interactions with the adults surrounding her.

Carey Mulligan is excellent as Jenny, shifting from an overly studious schoolgirl who tries to make herself seem more cultured by slipping French words into her everyday speech, to a girl forced to grow up too fast due to outside influences. She begins to act more like an adult and experience more adult things, but it becomes apparent that she hasn't actually matured fully. Her parents respond to these changes by treating her less like a child, increasing her misplaced self-confidence and causing problems later on. Her character is handled really well, and I wouldn't be surprised if Mulligan received an Oscar nomination for her nuanced and dedicated performance.

Generally I enjoyed the film, but the ending feels out of place and rushed. I wasn't too surprised by it, it just felt like it belonged in a different movie due to its sudden shift of tone and style. It's a bit hokey, really. I assume that's how the book ends, so it shouldn't be changed, just filmed or approached differently to suit the way the movie was made. I left the theatre with a sort of "huh" feeling. Otherwise, An Education is an engaging character study with a great script and lovely appearances from British actresses I dig, Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson.



Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Conversation (1974)

The only other Francis Ford Coppola film I've seen is The Godfather, which I didn't really like, but I've been meaning to check out his other works for a while, and I know someone who's really into The Conversation. Gene Hackman, a man who I guess has always looked kind of old, plays Harry Caul, a well-respected surveillance expert who runs his own business. He is hired to record the conversation of a young man and woman walking around a park in circles during a loud festival.

Their discussion is cryptic and ambiguous, and while it's against his professionalism to get involved with a job, Caul can't help but suspect that this couple will be in danger. He delays handing in the tapes he made, plagued by memories of a job gone wrong years ago that ended in murder because of the information he recorded. He tries to learn more about the couple and his client's interest in them, not suspecting how layered the conspiracy actually is.

The story starts off very slowly and quietly, gradually easing into a more and more engaging and intense narrative until the viewer is completely hooked. The Conversation does not spoon-feed its audience, trusting in their intelligence and observational skills. I liked that about it, but also found it a bit frustrating in the beginning, when I had a lot of questions that I wasn't sure would be answered. As I got more into it, I came to appreciate more how the earlier scenes were handled. It's a mystery told from the point of view of an outsider. We don't know whom to root for, or what everyone's role is, we only know how it appears to Caul.

As the central figure, Hackman is very good but a little too understated. I guess it's also a script issue, but I feel like I never really got to know his character even though he's in every scene. I learned some important things about him, and got a sense of his general demeanor and fears, but he remained too closed off for me to truly care about. Nevertheless, The Conversation is a smart and tightly written film, with a sparse style and killer ending. Also, a young Harrison Ford, lookin' goooood.



Monday, October 19, 2009

Top Five: Animated Movies (Non-CG)

With recent decades' influx of computer-generated animation and (ugh) the recent surge in CG 3-D films, I thought I'd take some time to discuss my favorite non-CG (and non-anime) animated films. I've been thinking about older Disney movies, and while I appreciate their contribution to the field of animation, I'm just not a huge fan of their general visual style. There's a limited stock of character designs, all used with minor tweaks in every movie, and a lot of the characterization is a bit lazy. The settings are usually beautifully done, but sometimes overly simplistic in their details. In the realm of cel animation I think anime is more interesting. Most of my favorite styles of animation are less traditional: I'm a huge fan of stop motion, rotoscope, and cut-paper silhouettes, for example. Read on for the list, and let me know what I've missed! (oh man... rhyming)

Neco z Alenky (Alice) (1988)
Experimental Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer combines a real-life actress with downright creepy stop motion figures in this version of Alice in Wonderland. The absence of music and dialogue allows the visual aspects to speak for themselves. It's intriguing and ultimately haunting.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Another stop motion film- and arguably the most well-known- with creepy undertones, but this time much more kid-friendly. I love Burton's character design and Selick's attention to fluidity of movement and intricate sets. Plus, these guys can sing and dance!

The Triplets of Belleville (2003)
Why don't I own this yet? Jeez. This is a lovingly crafted 2-D French film about a boy who trains to become a bicycle racer, only to be kidnapped by a mysterious group of gamblers. His grandma and dog search tirelessly for him, with the aid of eccentric, elderly chanteuse triplets. There's very little dialogue, but the expressive animation effortlessly details the story. I love the combination of observant and realistic movements with exaggerated character design.

Sita Sings The Blues (2008)
Nina Paley's ode to divorce draws from the songs of Annette Hanshaw and the Hindu story of Sita and Rama. She mixes shadow puppets, vector graphic, traditional cel, and flat, jerky stop-motion animation techniques for an eclectic and visually arresting tale. I'm not a fan of the style used in the modern-day segments, but everything is so beautifully done I can't really fault her for it.

Coraline (2009)
Another Henry Selick, so what? I was taken aback by how drop-dead gorgeous this movie is. He generates even greater fluidity than Nightmare with colorful, interestingly-designed characters. The sets and various fantasy segments are wonderful and imaginative, and I actually think the film improves a bit upon Gaiman's original book. Selick really knows how to create a fully realized, believable world out of such small pieces.

Honorable Mentions
Die Abenteur des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed) (1926)
The oldest surviving animated full-length feature, and it's made by a German lady!
Waking Life (2001)
Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
Dante's Inferno (2007)
Animated completely with paper dolls and backgrounds.
Fears of the Dark (2007)

What are some of yours?


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) (1964)

Man, France has been letting me down lately. I'll have to watch Amelie or something soon. The operatic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg covers the lives of a mother, Madame Emery (Ann Vernon), and her 17-year-old daughter, Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve), whose unprofitable umbrella shop and slightly upscale lifestyle has led to financial struggles. Geneviève is in love with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a mechanic, and they hope to be married soon despite her mother's reservations about his ability to provide for her. When Guy is drafted and sent to Algeria, Geneviève is heartbroken but waits for him faithfully despite their growing emotional distance.

She finds she is pregnant and tries to hide it from her mother's friend and jewelry dealer Roland (Marc Michel), who develops a strong attachment to her. Eventually he proposes to Geneviève despite her pregnancy, and she accepts, believing he can better support her and her soon-to-be-born child. Guy returns to discover that his love has moved to Paris with a new husband and a daughter he's never even met, so he goes on a bender and stresses over his sickly aunt. Maybe he'll find new love in a place he never thought to look, or something.

Ugh. This movie is so dumb. Though supposedly made "for all the lovers in the wide, wide world", The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is surprisingly unromantic. Guy and Geneviève are in love, ok, but I have no idea why. Their conversations are inane and unfeeling and I don't know anything about their relationship, except that it's not strong enough to survive a few months apart. It's completely unconvincing. The relationship between Geneviève and Roland is also not founded on anything- he's captivated by her beauty I guess and she's incapable of thinking for herself. Then Guy turns around and realizes he's in love with a character we saw for a few minutes at the beginning, and she's not at all put off by his neediness or self-absorption. At first I felt bad for him because what Geneviève did is unnecessarily cruel, but then Guy didn't even try to find them or make an effort to see his daughter. All of the people in this movie are flat and unlikable, and I quickly grew weary of their whining. I couldn't even pretend I cared what happened to them.

The entirety of the dialogue is sung, which I can deal with, but the music isn't very good and the lyrics are overly simplistic (then again I can't really speak to that since I was watching translated subtitles). It's not really melodic and there's little sense of clear, connected rhythms or movements. It sounds all over the place and boils down to a bunch of people clumsily singing stilted dialogue over a scattered score. The only saving grace here is the gorgeous visual design: everything is extremely colorful and whimsical, and people have a tendency to match their clothes to the wallpaper, which I really enjoy. But a gorgeous aesthetic is not enough to give a story depth or interest.



Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Serious Man (2009)

I walked into this unsure if it could live up to its consistently amazing and oddly quotable trailer, but by jove, it totally does! A Serious Man comes to us from those lovable scamps Joel and Ethan Coen, whose thematic range is as certain as their ability to entertain. Michael Stuhlbarg stars as physics professor Larry Gopnik, whose seemingly standard and happy life gradually begins to unravel with the news that his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) wants to divorce him so she can marry Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), an older widower in their community.

He's also afflicted with a South Korean student who tries to bribe him for a passing grade, an antagonistic, possibly anti-Semitic neighbor, a socially inept, live-in brother (Richard Kind) with a penchant for illegal gambling, indifferent and disrespectful children, and anonymous letters of condemnation sent to the committee debating his tenure. And people keep dying around him. Worst of all, none of the rabbis at his synagogue seem able to give him any useful advice! This man is frustrated. He tries to keep his sanity as things go from bad to worse and any remaining foundations of his life come crumbling down.

But it's mostly a comedy, I promise.

This movie is just so perfectly crafted- everything about it comes together flawlessly to produce a funny, engaging, and affecting work of cinema. Music plays naturally across seemingly effortless scene transitions, while darkly comedic dialogue works its way through what is otherwise a woeful tale. The editing and camerawork are fantastic, incorporating quick, juxtaposing cuts and faintly surreal dream scenes. The performances are excellent, with the Coens substituting poise, comedic timing, and an attention to character for big-name actors who might consume the roles with their own strong personalities. Fred Mulamed is the standout comedically, with little screen time but this amazing line delivery that really gets to me. And I hope Michael Stuhlbarg wins something for this, because he is just all-around great.

Everything and everyone is very Jewish, which I find awesome, but slightly alienating because I don't know all that much about the religion. I learned some new things though, like how divorce works in Judaism! Everything is also very 60's suburbia, which is interesting visually and culturally, showing the dregs of the 1950's flowing over and mingling with new ideas. A Serious Man is the work of artists who are truly dedicated to and comfortable with their craft, combining experimental elements with more familiar aspects. It all just works, completely, from the dead-pan beginning to the stellar and abrupt ending. I'm glad the trailer didn't let me down!



Friday, October 16, 2009

Away We Go (2009)

A lot of the movies I missed while in Germany (most of the smaller-release ones either don't come out there at all or take many months to arrive) are starting to come to DVD, which is exciting for me, and hopefully for you, too! Now you get to read about movies you probably already saw or heard tons about months ago, so really I'm giving you a chance to relive your summer during this impossibly cold October. You're welcome.

Written by awesome spousal team Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, Away We Go focuses on thirtysomething couple Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph), who are expecting their first child. When they learn that Burt's parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara), on whom they'd planned to lean while trying to support their new son, are moving to Belgium before he's even born, they decide to find a new place to live. They visit various old friends and family members scattered around North America, testing out different cities to see what's right for them. They see Verona's wacky old boss (Allison Janney) and sister (Carmen Ejogo) in Phoenix, Burt's pretentious hippie childhood friend LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in Chicago, old college buddies (Melanie Lynskey and Chris Messina) in Montreal, and Burt's brother (Paul Schneider) in Miami.

All of the people they visit give varying amounts of unsolicited advice on parenting and relationships, often pointing out the couple's unmarried status. The effect of Verona's parents' deaths when she was in her early 20's is also brought up fairly frequently. For the most part, the couple rejects their friends' lifestyles, relying on their own strong relationship and mutual respect to realize what they really want out of their future.

I just realized that while I have heard so much about him, I've never actually seen a Sam Mendes film. I'm pretty sure Away We Go is more lighthearted than his other works, but I think he handled the combination of comedy and drama well. The structure is that of a typical road movie, broken up into several segments with the central figures meeting different kooky characters and learning things about themselves along the way. Its strength lies in Burt and Verona's relationship, and their excellent characterization by Krasinski and Rudolph. I really liked the little moments of just Burt and Verona talking about their problems, worrying about the future, reveling in inside jokes, and just hanging out. Their conversations are engaging and realistic, and just nice to watch.

The different segments are, to me, hit and miss. I didn't enjoy the part with Allison Janney because her character is too unlikable. Maggie Gyllenhaal's part is pretty funny, but also made me uncomfortable. I liked the trips to Montreal and Miami, though. The main thing about Away We Go which I found alienating is the heavy amount of pregnancy/baby/parenting talk. As a person who has no interest in having kids, and who doesn't really enjoy talking about it in detail with people who love children, I just wasn't particularly interested in a lot of the conversations. It's still an interesting film with strong lead characters and great direction, just not really my thing in general I guess.



Tron (1982)

I finally saw Tron! Took me long enough, I know, especially with all the geek hullabaloo about the reboot/sequel. Inside the realm of computerworld, the malicious Master Control Program is trying to take over all other systems by abducting benign programs and forcing them to compete in gladiator-type games. Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), a programmer who works for the computer company that initiated Master Control, enlists his girlfriend Lora (Cindy Morgan), who experiments with lasers or something, and hacker Flynn (Jeff Bridges) to investigate these mysterious and nefarious happenings with the aid of his security program TRON.

Flynn is unceremoniously pulled into the computer network itself, treated like a regular program, and forced to fight in the games. He ends up busting out with Tron (also played by Bruce Boxleitner) and the adorable program Ram (Dan Shor) in some motorcycle-like vehicles with limited motion range. Master Control and his puppet Sark (David Warner) send out various machines and evil programs to get them, as Tron and Flynn try to use their special abilities to free everyone from such an oppressive regime.

Um, this movie is pretty awesome. It's got a cool premise, geek jokes, a computer religion, old-school CGI chase scenes, and Jeff Bridges. The visuals are beautiful and unique, with eerie and mechanical color design for the computer segments. I really liked the washed-out skin tones and vibrant neon light patterns in the clothing and sets. A lot of the CG animated segments are noticeably clumsy or under-developed, but considering this is one of the first incidents of the technology being used in film I am really impressed with the overall look of Tron. Plus it feels fitting since the animated segments take place within a computer, as opposed to blending with real life.

The story is basic at its core (male hero with special powers has to save everybody from an evil guy) but the creative set-up and interesting characters make it engaging and new. It's a bit oversimplified but I guess that's unsurprising from a Disney production. The fact that the only female character starts off as a potentially awesome computer engineer/possible physicist but then is reduced to a scared lady in a tight body suit is also unsurprising. In general Tron does a marvelous job combining stunning visuals with an engaging and imaginative plot, while throwing in some fun characters. I am now even more psyched for Tron 2. Seriously, watch the trailer, it's so rad whether or not you've seen the original.



Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mad Max (1979)

I guess some Australians just really know how to crash about a hundred cars for the sake of entertainment, and I respect that. Set in a sparse futuristic Australia with lots of violence and fast driving, Mad Max details the experiences of the titular police officer (Mel Gibson), who wears lots of leather and always gets the bad guys. When a new gang rolls into town, led by the sadistic Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), they take over the highways and ruin the lives of the small-town locals. Max and his partner Goose (Steve Bisley) try to bring them to justice, but find that the law is no match for their brute violence. After killing Goose, they come after Max's wife and son, until he must resort to complete ruthlessness for revenge.

This movie is a real series of highs and lows. There are these amazing chase and crash scenes, with truly impressive camera- and stunt-work. There are some nice visuals, incorporating the bleak, empty landscape and futuristic, punkish costumes. The cars look really cool, but I don't know anything about cars so I can't go into much detail except that Max's looks kind of like KITT. But on the other hand, the intermittent scenes are not especially interesting. The dialogue isn't very well-written, the acting isn't great, the characters are pretty boring, and I had no real comprehension of what was going on or what this imaginary future is actually like. It has many underdeveloped aspects.

It's the first feature from George Miller and the first (and only) screenplay co-writer James McCausland ever wrote, so I understand why it has some issues, I'm just not sure why this movie is such a big deal today. It's innovative for its time, features fun car crashes, and is well-filmed, but I'm not sure what its long-lasting appeal is otherwise, unless Mel Gibson has more of a pull than I realize. I'm looking forward to the other two, which I imagine will feature Max being really badass instead of mostly boring and hanging out with his wife the whole time? And many chase scenes and/or car crashes, I assume.



Monday, October 12, 2009

The Invention of Lying (2009)

In the alternate universe of The Invention of Lying, the concept of lying is unknown, resulting in a very different kind of culture from our own. There's no fiction because no one has imagination- no one can think of something that isn't exactly the way it already is. There's also no religion. Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais) is a self-proclaimed loser who works as a screenwriter for a film company that only makes movies about history, with one person reading an account of an event. His losery situation worsens when he's fired for his boring scripts (he's stuck with the 13th century), is rejected by a beautiful blind date Anna (Jennifer Garner), and on the verge of eviction from his apartment.

When he goes to the bank to empty his already-dwindling account, the system's down and the teller can't access the account information. With the spark of desperation, Mark tells her there is $800 stored there, and she (of course) believes him. He is astonished with this newfound ability to "say something that isn't", and he uses it to gamble, write a creative and successful new script, and eventually accidentally invent religion. Even after becoming rich and famous, he still has to convince Anna that they're right for one another.

This movie has a really interesting premise, and is able to do some very funny things with it. I dug a lot of the little details inserted to give the world fuller realization, from the periodical titled "The Newspaper" to the nursing home called "A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People". I really like Ricky Gervais and it's nice to see him starring in a film (I missed Ghost Town). His self-deprecation and wonderful ability to be flabbergasted really carry most of the comedic weight here. Garner is kind of annoying and her character is very flat, and Rob Lowe's role is pretty small but he nails the "pompous asshole" well enough. There's a large number of enjoyable cameos peppered throughout from the likes of Edward Norton, Tina Fey, Jeffrey Tambor, John Hodgman, and (!) Stephen Merchant.

Aside from some good performances and bits of cleverness, in general The Invention of Lying misses the mark. It's funny at parts, certainly, but not a very funny movie overall. While some aspects of the premise are handled well, others don't make any sense. In a world without lying, everyone must also say everything they're thinking at any point? Also, there's a weird Brave New World-esque concept of copulating only with a "suitable mate"? I liked that to the writers, a world without imagination or lies means a world without religion, but then that topic wasn't really breached fully- it's a good idea, but it felt out of place in a romantic comedy.

This is watchable for fans of Gervais or anyone who's a sucker for comedic alternate timelines, but nothing special otherwise.



Sunday, October 11, 2009

One, Two, Three (1961)

I'm writing this one out of order since I'd like to include it in the Billy Wilder Blogathon at the LAMB. I think I've seen a good amount of Wilder films, especially in high school when I was really getting into Jack Lemmon. I love his rapid-fire dialogue and attention to characters, and impressive range of genre and tone. Armed with various bits of insider knowledge after staying in Germany for a while, I recently watched One, Two, Three, which satirizes the political and social situation in a divided Berlin before the wall went up (it was actually built as the movie was filming in the city).

James Cagney plays Coca Cola executive CR MacNamara, a fast-talking family man whose wife (Arlene Francis) is sick of constantly relocating around the globe for his job. When his boss enlists him to host his airheaded, Euro-tripping daughter Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin) for a few months, it's up to MacNamara to keep her entertained and away from anything unsavory. Unfortunately for him, he isn't able to keep her from secretly marrying Otto (Horst Buchholz), a staunch young Communist from East Berlin. Her parents are on their way to Berlin to pick her up, and MacNamara only has a few hours to convert the unwilling Otto into a respectable, capitalist son-in-law.

I'm not sure why, but I couldn't really get into this movie as much as I feel I should have. It's not bad or boring by any means, it's just not as likable as other Wilder films I've seen. The story is interesting and funny and equally condescending to both capitalists and communists: one is corrupt and unfeeling, the other is easily corrupted and therefore hypocritical. It's spot-on, but felt a bit too cruel. Maybe it's because I visited Berlin not too long ago and have learned about the issues of this time period from a German perspective, but it just seemed a little too mean to both East and West Berliners (not the donut kind, though I do miss those mmm), who had enough to deal with already in 1961. It makes fun of Americans, too, but that's nothing new. This is definitely more of a personal reaction based on recent experiences, and likely not something that would affect most other Americans viewing the film.

The script is excellent, and Cagney does really well with his insanely quick, often ridiculous lines and hyperbolic reactions to the quirky people surrounding him. Unfortunately, his character is a bit too unlikable. He's the central figure, and I think we're supposed to kind of be rooting for him despite his faults, but I didn't care if he was successful or not because he's just all around pretty despicable. I'm not sure if this is Cagney's fault (I was wondering how this might have panned out if Jack Lemmon was in the role, for example), or just how the character is written. He's still very funny though. I liked Pamela Tiffin as the vapid, boy-crazy Southern belle and Arlene Francis as the exasperated wife, and there are a number of enjoyable smaller characters such as the various kooky Germans in MacNamara's employ.

One, Two Three is an interesting depiction of life in a divided Berlin from an American's perspective, with biting satirical commentary and highly entertaining dialogue, but it's missing the charm of films like Some Like It Hot and Irma La Douce, and the intelligence of Double Indemnity or The Apartment. I know Wilder can write and direct remarkable and affecting movies, but for me this just isn't one of them. Still worth seeing though, especially for fans of Cagney or those interested in German-American relations during the Cold War.



Saturday, October 10, 2009

Zombieland (2009)

Woody Harrelson should just star in every movie. What on earth is stopping this from happening? Brought to you by the writers of The Joe Schmo Show, Zombieland is an immensely entertaining zombie comedy that does almost everything right. After an unidentified plague turns most Americans into flesh-eating zombies, four survivors and hesitant compatriots try to find a safe place to live, knowing one another only by city-themed monikers to avoid growing too attached (in case anyone gets bitten).

Socially inept, multi-phobic Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) has stayed alive due to his strict adherence to a long list of rules, including "Cardio", "Wear Your Seatbelt", "Avoid Bathrooms", and "Don't Be A Hero". Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) has become a badass, zombie-killing machine with a serious Twinkie craving after losing someone close to him. Sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) were con artists before the outbreak, and continue to use their trickster know-how on the guys, as a result of some trust issues. They eventually make their way to an amusement park rumored to be zombie-free, and learn that sticking together is the most important thing. Along with guns. Lots and lots of guns.

I agree with this summation: this movie is insanely fun, not very scary (as opposed to Shaun of the Dead which had some moments), and features enough Woody Harrelson to keep everyone happy. I liked Jesse Eisenberg a lot: he pulled off the "socially awkward young person who mumbles" schtick with intelligence and charm. His narration is very enjoyable but there's a little bit too much of it. Also, he uses the film's title too often; we get it, writers, we're watching Zombieland. Emma Stone is pretty foxy and ruthless, and Abigail Breslin rides the line between still being adorable while also surprisingly grown up. But mainly: Woody Harrelson. I love this guy so much. He can make anything entertaining, and just brings such an energy to every scene. His character's a lovable, gun-slinging jackass and that's all I could want.

The script is hilarious and inventive, incorporating the different survival rules in cool ways along with quite a lot of creative zombie killing. There's an absolutely amazing cameo that leads to possibly the best scene in a movie ever. Plus, there's a cute little love story thrown in. Zombieland just overall delivers in pretty much every way, and I imagine its awesomeness might even increase after multiple viewings.



Friday, October 9, 2009

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Getting most of my knowledge about Joan Crawford's acting abilities from The Women and Mommy Dearest, I haven't been in a real hurry to see more of her films, but I'm really glad I finally got around to seeing Mildred Pierce. Crawford stars as the eponymous Mildred, a mother brought in for police questioning after her second husband Monte (Zachary Scott) is found murdered. Her first husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) claims to be the killer, and Mildred launches into an account of her life after they separated to try to clear his name. They had decided to split up after quarreling about how to raise their two daughters: He's willing to live humbly, while Mildred is convinced that she must dote on them lavishly, wishing them luxuries she had never received from her working-class family. Her older daughter Veda (Ann Blyth), is especially spoiled, becoming more and more obsessed with money as she grows into a teenager.

Aided by wise-cracking hostess Ida (Eve Arden), Mildred takes a job as a waitress and baker for a busy restaurant to support her family. She eventually opens up her own place, with consultation from Bert's old real-estate partner Wally (Jack Carson), who's persistently flirting with her. She meets and shortly falls in love with Monte when she buys his land for her restaurant, but his extravagant lifestyle coupled with Veda's growing demands force her to go against her own better judgment for the sake of her daughter's happiness, even if it leads to... murder. (Insert thunder crash and lightning bolt)

Ok so this movie is advertised as some sort of smoldering murder mystery with Crawford as a seductive assassin or something. Not true. It's actually a really involved and surprising (for its time) character study of a very strong, dedicated, and independent mother, vaguely reminiscent of Kitty Foyle. It just happens to have a murder mystery within it. I really liked the character of Mildred, even though I couldn't understand her blindness to her daughter's faults. She's sort of badass, really, and just so much more capable than anyone else in the movie. I like that though romance is a continuing aspect of the story, it's never the driving force. She is never relying on a man or allowing anyone to take advantage of her. So congratulations, Joan Crawford, I now understand what the big deal is. Eve Arden is pretty fabulous as Ida too, but she isn't in the movie enough.

The story is intriguing and well-structured, even if the flashback style is a little awkward here (she's like, "Bert didn't kill Monte! Now let me tell you my life story to illustrate this one point"). I enjoyed how it begins with a dead body, then slowly introduces different elements of the murder and various characters' motivations; plus there's a cool twist at the end (though it's partly foreseeable). It's filmed beautifully, making excellent use of the black and white format with a heavy attention to shadows. There are some sharp 40's suits and lots of drinking. Mildred Pierce is just a really good movie all around!



Thursday, October 8, 2009

Salinui Chueok (Memories of Murder) (2003)

I am continuing my Song Kang-ho education with Memories of Murder, a film from Bong Joon-ho based on the mystery of Korea's first known serial killer. In 1980s small-town South Korea, Detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) unearths a woman's body near a rice paddy, tied up and strangled to death in a manner similar to other recent unexplained murders. He and his violence-prone partner Yong-koo (Kim Roe-ha) suspect a developmentally disabled young man due to his stalkerish connection to one of the victims, and hold him for questioning. Often "questioning" involves a beating and forced confession.

Detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), a police officer from Seoul, is brought in to help the investigation. He approaches the case with more deductive reasoning and a close look at details, often at odds with Doo-man's more forceful way of doing things as he frequently debunks the latter's theories and suspects. As they begin to determine the connections between the murders, they can eventually predict when another will happen, but are no closer to the killer's identity. When a likely candidate is found in the form of an intelligent young factory worker, DNA evidence is sent to America to be analyzed (they don't have the facilities themselves), but the results only raise new questions.

Again Bong Joon-ho has successfully fused various elements and genres into one quite entertaining film. It's an intriguing mystery, a cops-at-odds tale, a moving drama, and at times a comedy. The two lead actors are wonderful, taking roles that could be serious cop/goofy cop stereotypes and instead forging complex, layered characters whose dedication and hesitation are clear. The cinematography is excellent, making use of the large stretches of rice paddies and persistently overcast sky, causing certain colors to pop significantly.

My main issue with the film is its length: this is a really long movie. Like, 130 minutes. And it starts off pretty slowly, gradually building into a more and more engaging, intense movie. It's not boring, but a good part of the beginning drags and I just wasn't very into it. I think it completely pays off by the end, because it just gets better and better as it goes on, but I did feel a bit frustrated at first. Memories of Murder is still a great modern mystery, giving a fairly objective view of small-town Korean police officers and their investigative practices in the mid-80's. I hadn't known anything about the real-life story beforehand, so it's really interesting to see how the case was approached in comparison to something like, say, the Zodiac killer in the US.



Netherbeast Incorporated (2007)

Hey, a horror-comedy with Dave Foley in it! I guess I will watch it. Netherbeast Incorporated primarily takes place within an office building populated by "netherbeasts" who live fairly ordinary lives as business people. Otto Granberry (Steve Burns aka Steve from Blues Clues) narrates, often with the help of animated presentations, describing life as a netherbeast, which is kind of like a vampire but less sinister. They can go out in the sun, but not for very long, and while they do need human flesh to survive, they don't kill and maim to get it, instead feasting on the recently dead. It's actually some sort of birth defect that's activated when the person dies, re-awakening with these attributes.

They must always be close to a piece of "netherstone", some sort of mystical item that radiates or something (I don't really remember, but basically it keeps them functioning). There are no outsiders allowed in their building, and they keep apartments in the upper floors. When Turner (Darrell Hammond), the head of the company, becomes afflicted with a form of amnesia netherbeasts are prone to get, he forgets he and his friends are all vampires and brings in an outside consultant (Judd Nelson) and an innocent new hire (Amy Davidson). It's up to Otto and the others to protect their secret, while also investigating several recent disappearances within the group.

Goodness, long summary, sorry. Anyway, I saw this movie on a lark and was surprised by how much I liked it. It's not uproariously funny and it's not very scary, but it's a cool premise with an engaging script. There's a lot going on, from the missing persons and fear of exposure, to Turner's brain deterioration and some flashbacks about the company's founding, and everything comes together well. I dug the little explanatory animations showing what it's like to be a vampire, and I think Steve Burns does a good job as an average-joe-type narrator.

Dave Foley is there but stays pretty low-key (of course, it's always nice to see any Kid in the Hall as a businessman character), and Jason Mewes has a silly supporting role. Darrell Hammond stands out as the boss slowly losing his mind. He starts off cocky and eccentric and gradually devolves into a carefree, babbling guy with a short attention span. He is definitely the funniest thing in the movie.

Netherbeast Incorporated has some really interesting ideas and an impressively detailed new mythology relating to vampires, in a premise that's detailed and feels fully realized. It's a good blend of workplace comedy and horror-mystery even if it goes too light on both of them. I like the cast, there's a cute romantic subplot, and I applaud its innovation. Also, Alexander Graham Bell and James Garfield make appearances! History!



Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Whip It (2009)

A movie made by ladies with a predominately female cast about a contact sport and featuring little reliance on romance? And the protagonist wears glasses? Aw shucks, count me in. Drew Barrymore's directorial debut Whip It is written by Shauna Cross, adapting her fictional book that draws from her own experiences with roller derby (which I hope to read soon). Ellen Page stars as Bliss Cavendar, a soft-spoken teenage waitress whose mother (Marcia Gay Harden) makes her take part in various local beauty pageants in an attempt to give her a way out of their small Texas town. After picking up a flyer for a roller derby event in Austin, she and her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) sneak out to see what it's like and Bliss is instantly smitten with the ballsy irreverence the derby players exude, sheepishly calling them her "new heroes" when meeting Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), a member of the Hurl Scouts.

Maggie encourages her to try out for the team so she can be her own hero. After lying about her age and making the team for her impressive speed, Bliss tells her parents she's taking an SAT class so she can secretly attend practices and games. She falls in love with the game, her eccentric teammates, and a way of life that can bring her out of her shell and give her a sense of direction. She also finds a new boyfriend in Oliver (Landon Pigg) a frequent derby audience member and hot lead singer of some indie band. As these new experiences draw her further away from Pash and her family, she has to find a way to fuse these two lifestyles.

Oh my goodness I love this movie. I might even be in love with it, but it's too early to tell. I honestly felt sort of reinvigorated upon leaving the theater. Whip It is smart, funny, unique, and a whole lot of fun. The cast is phenomenal- I felt like every few minutes another lady I liked was popping up on screen, from Alia Shawkat and Ellen Page to Zoe Bell, Ari Graynor, Drew Barrymore, Kristen Wiig, and (!) Juliette Lewis. I also dug Andrew Wilson (you know, the one who's not Owen or Luke) as the team's exasperated coach and Jimmy Fallon as the hokey commentator.

The whole "young person finds thing that's cool and then learns about life, love, and growing up" premise has definitely been done countless times before, but I think Barrymore and Co. did a great job injecting some freshness and modernity into the concept. Different, but integral, aspects of Bliss' life are combined effectively for an engaging and varied story. Nothing is given too much or too little focus (except maybe her school life, which was barely shown at all, but I realize that's not really important to the overall plot), so I didn't feel like any of the issues were being shoved down my throat, but I did get a good idea of what she was going through.

I think her conflicts with her mom were handled very well, realistically, relatably, and surprisingly poignantly. Her burgeoning relationship was a thing, but not that much of a thing, which was really fantastic because I'm so sick of every movie with a woman at the center focusing on some romance. Obviously the segments featuring the derby players and their interactions were the most fun to watch, with all their wacky names and penchant for violence. These ladies are independent!

I was impressed with Barrymore's directing. There are some well-placed scene cuts, great shots of the roller derby games (which couldn't have been easy to film), and generally good pacing. The soundtrack is also excellent, featuring some cool lady bands (you might recall that I am pretty into bands with ladies) and lots of Jens Lekman. I was disappointed, however, that even though their rockin' frontwoman is a main person in this movie, there is no music from Juliette and The Licks (or her new band- either one really). Quite an oversight.

Whip It isn't some sort of preachy feminist manifesto (god forbid), but rather proof that women can make an exciting, unique comedy with depth, generally feminist values, and a decent amount of punching. I really hope this opens the door for more mainstream movies in this vein, and maybe one day there will be equal numbers of well-known, successful female directors and writers. Also now I really want to see a real roller derby tournament. I'd try it out myself if I wasn't so lazy/terrified. I've been brainstorming my derby girl name, though, just in case...


"Bang On"- The Breeders
"Doing It Right"- The Go! Team
"Your Arms Around Me"- Jens Lekman
"Boys Wanna Be Her"- Peaches


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Oldboy (2003)

Why has it taken me so damn long to see this movie? Oh my god. I remember years ago when I was working at Barnes and Noble, one of my coworkers told me the entire plot of this movie, since at the time I hadn't heard of it and didn't think it was something I'd ever need to see. Luckily I forgot the bulk of what he told me until after I had watched the film and it came back. At the start of Oldboy, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is just a chubby drunken miscreant waiting for his best friend Joo-hwan (Ji Dae-han) to pick him up at the police station, so he can get home and give his young daughter a birthday present. Before he makes it back, he is stolen away and locked in a hotel room, with absolutely no idea of who his captor could be or his/her motives.

He keeps in touch with the outside world through television, but that doesn't deter the onset of hysteria and hallucinations. He makes himself physically fit and strong and develops his own brand of self-defense, hoping to one day take revenge. After 15 years, he wakes up in a box on a roof, ready to exact serious damage on everyone. With the help of Joo-hwan and new love Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong) (his wife was killed years earlier), he searches for clues in both his past and in details gleaned from his incarceration until he can identify his captor. But even when he does that, he must determine the reason behind it all, as well as the true ramifications of everything that's happened to him.

Oh man where to start? Oldboy is pretty darn amazing. Choi Min-sik is riveting as the protagonist, transforming convincingly from dumpy, goofy family man to a ruthless and vengeful man on a mission. He carefully represents the absolute farthest the human heart can be stretched, and the soul-wrenching effects of calculated psychological torture. Lee Woo-jin is fantastic as Dae-su's kidnapper, cold and mysterious but still a bit sympathetic. I liked Kang Hye-jeong as Mi-do, finding her performance nicely understated, and though I at first had some problems with her character, everything about her became fully realized by the end.

This movie starts off in one place and ends up in a completely different and unforeseeable location. The plot is complex and detailed, seemingly straightforward while simultaneously twisted and backward. For the entire film I was unable to predict what would happen (well, except one thing that I sort of predicted as a joke but turned out to be true), and every scene is integral in some way. The story is told with such passion and intensity, that it's completely enthralling. I believed everything what was happening on screen, and became very invested in the characters; there's a raw, almost palpable emotion presented in Oldboy that elicits an instinctive, gut-wrenching reaction.

Oldboy is also beautifully filmed, with a series of very deliberately-placed shots and some lovely drawn-out ones, including a ca-razy extended-shot fight scene. Mild color altering is used in some places for a more romantic air, most notably in a telling flashback to schoolboy days. The instrumental score is evocative and moving, adding an extra emotional layer to various scenes. There is a lot of violence, but much of it is offscreen, and it isn't usually extraneous, but rather dramatically effective.

It's rare that I would use this term for anything, but I honestly think this film is a masterpiece. It's perfectly shot, edited, scored, acted, and scripted. It expertly combines elements of noir, action, romance, and mystery genres to create a thrilling and captivating drama with a truly shocking climax and heartbreakingly bittersweet final scene. I am looking forward to the other entries in Park's "vengeance trilogy". Between this and Thirst, I am convinced that he is a man who really, seriously knows how to make a movie.



Monday, October 5, 2009

Tekkon Kinkurîto (Tekkonkinkreet) (2006)

I am constantly frustrated with myself for not watching more anime, so I am pretty happy I got to see Tekkonkinkreet recently (on a big screen, no less!). It's the first major anime studio film to be directed by someone not native to Japan, which I found kind of interesting. The story revolves around young orphans Black and White, who have made the colorful district of Treasure Town their stomping grounds. They fearlessly jump all around the city and make it their business to know its dealings. When yakuza move in with intentions of quietly taking over, the boys endeavor to protect their town from an onslaught of violence and unhappiness, but they may find the gang's numbers and uncanny brute force too much to overcome.

In terms of animation and visuals, Tekkonkinkreet is stunning. The figures move impossibly fluidly through the insanely detailed and whimsical Treasure Town. Stylistically, the character design is over-simplified which pairs interestingly with the detailed backdrops, and everything is generally infused with color, imagination, and a will to experiment. It's just consistently beautiful and compelling to watch, and there's this amazing scene toward the end done in trippy watercolor mode that's sooo cooool.

I haven't read the manga this is based on (hopefully I will soon), so I'm not sure of any plot differences, but for the most part I enjoyed the storyline. There's a large focus on the characters of Black and White and on their intense, symbiotic relationship. There's a lot of ambiguity, but I could still generally understand what was going on. I liked the numerous side characters and subplots intermingling with the boys' exploits, especially the weary yakuza leader opposed to the whole plan. As the film progresses, it becomes unexpectedly serious and a bit depressing, which I wasn't prepared for, but it's not a downer of a movie. Tekkonkinkreet combines the thrill of freerunning and fighting bad guys with an intriguing friendship and breathtaking animation.