Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Hey, this movie finally happened! And it's a fun time. Robert Downey, Jr plays the eponymous genius detective, who's been passive-aggressively handling the prospect of his roommate Dr Watson (Jude Law) moving out to get married. His last case, which involved catching black magic practitioner Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) about to ritualistically murder another young girl, ended three months ago and he's going stir crazy in his apartment. When Blackwood appears to have risen from the grave, Holmes is back on the case with a reluctant Watson in tow. They trace the connection between a dwarf scientist, a secret alliance of benevolent old white dude sorcerers (basically the magic version of the Republican Party), and Blackwood himself. Holmes' old flame and con artist Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) shows up to help, but it's clear she has a personal interest in the mystery. There's lots of fighting, deducing, quips, awesome turn-of-the-century costumes, and near-death experiences all around.

I enjoyed reading Sherlock Holmes stories when I was a kid, but they didn't particularly stick with me, so I don't have any kind of strong attachment to the character. I'm cool with a "re-imagining" of him and his exploits, and I think bringing in more modern and action-packed elements was a good idea. The story itself is so-so, becoming less of a mystery and more of a "stop the bad guy before it's too late" kind of thing. I would have preferred more of a twisty-turny mystery personally, but the script was more concerned with other things, like Holmes' and Watson's relationship issues and various random acts of violence. This is my first Guy Ritchie film, and I wasn't sure what to expect. Mostly I liked the old-timey look of everything, but thought there was too much use of slow-motion.

The film is entertaining for its multiple exciting chase scenes and fights, but made that much better by the performances of RDJ and Law. Their bickering old couple relationship is adorable, and the two have really good chemistry as these best friends who totally want to make out with each other. Of course RDJ, one of the best actors ever, didn't disappoint and brings his mumbling wit to many a funny joke or clever observation. I've always been lukewarm with Jude Law, but he impressed me here as Watson, making him a bit more badass than I'd have expected and a lot more likable. Rachel McAdams is ok- she isn't bad, but I don't feel like she brought anything special to the admittedly underwritten role. Looking sharp in those tweed pants and waistcoat, though!

Sherlock Holmes is definitely entertaining, but not phenomenal. I dug it for the cast and source material, but was a little underwhelmed with the final product. I look forward to the next installment, with the hope that Holmes and Watson will finally admit their true feelings, and we can finally have some handsome action stars who are also gay role models.

4/5

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Penelope (2006)

The modern-day fairy tale Penelope centers on the title character (Christina Ricci), born into a privileged, but magically cursed, family, which results in her ears and nose being unalterably pig-like. Her high-strung mother (Catherine O'Hara) believes the curse will only be broken if she marries "one of her own kind" (meaning an appropriately rich man) and she sends a constant stream of suitors to Penelope, all of whom run away at the sight of her.

Her parents force her to be a shut-in, never allowed to leave their mansion, so when reporter Lemon (Peter Dinklage) gets wind of a "terrifying, monstrous" pig-faced girl living in hiding, he sends in-debt blue-blood gambler Max (James McAvoy) to be a new suitor and spy. He enjoys speaking to Penelope through a two-way mirror for several days in a row, but is taken aback by her appearance when she finally reveals himself. Fed up with her incarceration and more curious about the outside world after her conversations with Max, she escapes her family and experiences what normal life can be like, disguising her face with a scarf.

I've always been a sucker for a good fairy tale- when I was a kid I read and re-read whatever magic-related story I could get my hands on. Bringing those nostalgic words "once upon upon time" to a modern setting always seems like a good idea to me, so I am pretty fond of Penelope's premise. The story isn't especially new, but is told well and with eloquence. And it has a nice "like yourself for who you are" kind of message. I remember it receiving negative reviews when it came out, and I wonder if that's because it isn't really tailored for a broad audience. It's simplistic in some ways to keep its fairy tale theme, but focuses on adults and features some adult humor and dialogue. I'm guessing not every grown-up viewer would appreciate this duality.

Penelope has unexpectedly beautiful visuals, with detailed and slightly whimsical settings and colorful costumes. It doesn't look completely overdone or unreal, just slightly sweeter and more stagy than real life. It's just a pleasant experience to watch. The cast is great- Christina Ricci, Catherine O'Hara, and Peter Dinklage are all actors I enjoy in anything and Reese Witherspoon shows up briefly (don't let the poster fool you, she's not one of the stars) as Penelope's feisty new vespa-riding friend. I still haven't quite figured out James McAvoy. Do I like him? Is he attractive? Can he act? I'm just not sure yet, but he's cute in this.

All in all Penelope is a really sweet modern fairy tale with lovely visuals and a swell cast. It's a nice little diversion to lose yourself in for an hour and a half, and I'll probably find myself watching it again whenever it's on television.

4/5

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For Me and My Gal (1942)

A musical dramedy set around vaudeville's heyday before the outbreak of WWI, For Me and My Gal is Gene Kelly's screen debut, so I've been interested in seeing it for some time. Kelly plays overconfident small-time hoofer Harry Palmer, a comedian and dancer who dreams of playing the Palace Theater. He sees talented singer Jo Hayden's (Judy Garland) performance with an unsuccessful troupe and convinces her to join him as a double act, traveling around the country playing small venues and hoping to catch a break. Of course after a time she falls in love with him, but when Harry meets the famous classical singer Eve Minard (Mártha Eggerth), Jo is afraid of losing him. And as the war looms nearer, the possibility of being drafted puts a shadow over their up-and-coming career.

For Me and My Gal feels like two separate stories slapped together into one, with the first half of a vaudevillian love triangle sort of awkwardly transforming into a more serious wartime story. It's a romance, but we don't really see a lot of the romance happening- Jo falls in love with Harry offscreen after a montage of them performing together, and talks to a friend about it, so it feels a little abrupt. The second half is heavy on the patriotism and forced heroism, as Harry tries to avoid going into the army so that he can stay on the stage. I understand that many films were war-related at this time, but the theme just wasn't done very well.

I was surprised to see that this was directed by Busby Berkely, because it's fairly demure in its musical numbers, and I've only seen his 30's films with unbelievably splashy and large-scale scenes. Here most songs take place on the stage, with fairly simple production to give the feel of actual vaudeville numbers. The music is pretty good, and I especially enjoyed the title song when it's first performed by Harry and Jo in a little cafe.

While the story is so-so and not put together very well, the cast makes the film worthwhile. Somehow I forget how truly beautiful Judy Garland's voice is- when she sings, I just want to stop and listen. She's a decent dancer and a good actress, and I liked her performance a lot because she's so darned likable. Gene Kelly is his usual charming self, singing softly to counter-balance Garland's vocals. He doesn't get to dance enough, though. I enjoyed George Metcalf as Jo's former stage partner, and Mártha Eggerth is lovely and surprisingly empathetic in her small role as Eve Minard, though the poor woman has her cleavage distractingly blurred out during her only musical number.

For Me and My Gal is by no means a great musical, but these early performances from Garland (it was her first big adult role) and Kelly plus some good tunes make it worth watching for a fan like me.

3/5

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Avatar (2009)

Let me preface this with the fact that I did not see this in 3-D, because I'm not a huge fan of the gimmick and I wasn't looking forward to wearing two pairs of glasses uncomfortably on my face for 3 hours. If I get a chance to see it again (preferably in imax), I'll try the 3-D thing, but please don't go on about how great 3-D is and how you can't believe I saw it the regular way. Because honestly, I don't especially care.

The lengthy and much-hyped Avatar tells of a future earth's need for a valuable substance called unobtanium (haha, get it?!) found on the beautiful moon of Pandora. Its inhabitants, the Na'vi, are large, cat-like humanoids with a tribal culture and little reliance on technology. Humans have set up bases here to study the people and determine a way to extract the unobtanium from the planet's crust. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic Marine, is taken there to continue his dead twin brother's work with avatars- Na'vi bodies created in labs that hook up to human minds. He meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a tenacious member of the Omaticaya clan, and though she recognizes him as a human in a fake body, she takes him to her chief/father with the belief that he's been chosen by their god to join the group.

For three months she teaches him Na'vi ways- how to fight, hunt, ride, and connect with the environment. The Avatar program leader Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is jealous that a non-scientist is privy to the secrets of the culture, but takes advantage of the opportunity to study the Na'vi more intently. Colonel Quatritch (Stephen Lang), the base's military leader, expects Jake to be his secret informant, offering knowledge of the unobtanium's location within the clan's village. But, as Jake becomes more connected to the Na'vi and especially Neytiri, he endeavors to stop Quatritch's destructive tendencies.

I liked Avatar, but I'm not sure what's it's doing on so many best-of-2009 lists. It's pretty predictable and every character is a stereotype with little development or depth (except Jake, but his character transformation went along an expected path). Plus it's not enough of an epic to warrant such a long running time. Several scenes were taken right out of Fern Gully (as were several characters), and while I assume it wasn't intentional, I couldn't help but make the comparison.

The visuals are, as expected, gorgeous. The lush and inviting world of Pandora is remarkably detailed and imaginative, with varied glowing plants and fanciful creatures. Cameron really captures the grandeur of everything, with huge trees and vast landscapes and soaring shots of the Na'vi's movements. The Na'vi themselves look a little silly but generally I was ok with their design (except for how impossibly skinny they are), even if I spent a good portion of the film wondering if Neytiri would have a nip-slip, and if indeed she even had nipples, which of course led to thoughts of how Na'vi had sex; all of which was a bit distracting. I was impressed with how the avatars somehow looked like their human counterparts, while still having blue cat faces.

While the overarching story is, as I said, pretty safe and predictable, I did enjoy the little embellishments added to expand upon the Na'vi culture. The way they could do that brain hook-up thing to other creatures and magic trees was pretty cool, and I liked the sound of the language (even though I can't imagine who thought Papyrus subtitles would be a good idea). The fluidity of their movements, their colorful clothing, and badass hunting and fighting techniques made them an interesting group, though laced with aspects of racial stereotyping of Native Americans. For the real-life portions, I was less engaged because insight into the secondary characters was not really given. I was happy anytime Sigourney Weaver was onscreen of course, though it wasn't enough.

All in all I'd say Avatar is a visual treat with an unsurprising plot and stereotypical characters, but worth seeing for its technical achievements and some cool battle scenes. It has a good environmental and anti-colonial message, but isn't deserving of such heapings of praise as it's been receiving.

3.5/5

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Red Sonja (1985)

One nice thing about being home is the wide range of movie channels, causing me to sit on my bum and watch many an odd or sort-of shitty work of cinema. This is one of those instances. I'd heard Red Sonja was being remade, and thought the original might be interesting since it's based on a successful comic series and has a strong lady protagonist. In the end, it was pretty dumb. Bridgitte Nielson plays Sonja, a chaste warrior woman given special powers by a goddess so that she may seek revenge on Gedren (Sandahl Bergman), an evil queen who killed her family and had her men rape her. As Sonja masters her sword-fighting skills with a Chinese teacher, a group of female priestesses try to destroy a powerful talisman. Gedren slaughters this group (including Sonja's sister) and claims the talisman for herself, systematically destroying kingdoms in her wake with its magic. Seeking revenge, Sonja and the talisman's mysterious keeper Kalidor (Arnold Schwarzenegger) travel to Gedren's fortress. Along the way they pick up a snotty prince (Eddie Reyes, Jr) and his servant (Paul L Smith), who serve as "comic" relief.

Well ok, this movie could have been pretty awesome, but really: it's not. The narrative is uninspired and a little boring, the plot's structure is awkward and dragging, and the dialogue is trite. I couldn't even really enjoy these typical b-movie aspects for their silliness, since it just amounted to something kind of lame. The characters are hit and miss, with the prince's whiny brat routine getting old immediately and his servant's fat-guy-wisecracks too stupid and out of place to be funny. I wanted to like Gedren since she reminded me slightly of the Great Tyrant from Barbarella, but she failed to deliver in the iconic badassery department and lacked charisma. Kalidor was ok, since Schwarzenegger is unable to ever not be entertaining, and I liked Sonja for the most part. She's got killer sword skills (though some of the fights were not well-staged) and totally saved the day. She's not very smart though, and saving herself for a man who could beat her thoroughly in combat is just frustrating- why become so strong and independent if you're only waiting to be dominated?

For most of the film I kept wondering where the hell they were supposed to be. With Kalidor's Austrian accent, Sonja's vaguely Scandinavian one, the prince's presumably Chinese or Mongolian culture and his servant's New Yorker inflection, I was pretty confused. And Sonja was maybe in China but her sister was maybe in a Scandinavian area, but it's all a horse ride away? I'm not very good at geography, so maybe I just missed something. Whatever, dude. Red Sonja is pretty bad, but slightly redeems itself for having a fairly capable female lead and some decent fight scenes. Meh. Hopefully the remake will be more interesting- if anything Rose McGowan will be there.

2.5/5

PS Here's a pretty interesting article about the "avenging Amazon" motif as a feminist and lesbian icon, if you're interested.

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Monday, December 28, 2009

Holiday Inn (1942)

While other families are watching Christmas Vacation and A Christmas Story, my mom and I are sipping tea and enjoying classic musicals like White Christmas and Holiday Inn. We roll with Bing Crosby, I guess. While not thoroughly a Christmas movie, Holiday Inn is notable for the first appearance of the song "White Christmas" as part of Irving Berlin's lovely score. The story opens as crooner Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) is left by his fiancee Lila (Virginia Dale) for his partner Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire), an opportunistic dancer. He moves to a farm in Connecticut, hoping to get a taste of the easy life, and eventually decides to turn it into a nightclub and inn that's only open on major holidays.

He employs aspiring performer Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) as co-host of the holiday-themed shows, and falls in love with her but is reticent to be open about his feelings due to his money problems. Ted shows up after Lila leaves him too, and conspires to make Linda his new dance partner. What follows is a passive-aggressive war for the woman's heart- the issue of what she actually wants for herself doesn't really come up until the end.

This movie certainly has its flaws, many reflective of its time period. It's pretty patriarchal (duh) and also there's a totally gross blackface scene (it's vaguely connected to the storyline but I squirm every time). Bing is a little lackluster, mostly because his character is so boring, but we still get to hear him sing some enchanting tunes. Virginia Dale is not a very good dancer. Most of the costumes are weirdly unflattering, too. The story is fluffy enough to serve as a showcase for the holiday musical scenes, but maintains some elements of drama for a more interesting take on the relationships formed in show business.

For me, Fred Astaire is the main reason to come back to this film. He's his usual charming, over-confident self, plus he's kind of a pushy jerk. He gets some of the best lines (appropriate since his timing is better than Bing's) and his solo dance number with firecrackers is one of my favorites. He's an actor whom I always enjoy, because he really knows how to entertain. Holiday Inn is a cute enough film with some great numbers, but Fred really makes it for me (I just never really got into Bing Crosby, not sure why).

3/5

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Top Five: Favorite Movies of 2009

Yes, yes here I am doing a "best of" list because, whatever, they're fun and I'm so often in disagreement with those of "experts" that it makes me feel better to see my own superior list on the internet. For me, 2009 holds the distinction of studying abroad in Germany for a semester, which was a pretty ok time even if it means I missed a lot of new movies. I think I'm pretty caught up now though, and even more appreciative of the use of subtitles in US theaters (as opposed to seeing every English-language movie with vaguely comedic German dubbing whilst abroad). Here are my favorites of the year, in alphabetical order because I can't quite decide on #1- it's a tie between Thirst and Moon. If something seems missing, it might be because I haven't seen it yet! I've yet to catch The Fantastic Mr Fox, Nine, or Bright Star, among others.

Bakjwi (Thirst)
Yes, I know I've already written about it twice, so I won't go into too much more detail about how awesome this Korean priest-turned-vampire drama is. But seriously, it's so rad. Also, it introduced me to one of my new favorite actors, Song Kang-Ho! And finally got me to start watching Park Chan-Wook movies! What a life-altering film.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
I've been holding out on this list until I could see this movie. After waiting at least a year for its US release, I've been increasingly excited, as Gilliam is one of my favorite directors. He didn't disappoint. This film is gorgeous and wonderfully imaginative, with cool performances and a lot of weirdness. I'm really glad they were able to finish it despite Heath Ledger's death, even though it felt a little eerie to see him.

Moon
Aw, dang, how cool is this movie? A fascinating character study situated in an ambiguously futuristic and abysmally lonely lunar energy station, with Sam Rockwell impressing everyone with his excellent acting chops. Both visually and narratively inventive, Duncan Jones's debut feature does just about everything right.

A Serious Man
Those Coens can do no wrong it seems, adding yet another spectacular feature to their impressive repertoire. This tale of a mild-mannered, Jewish physics professor coping with divorce, blackmail, anti-Semitism, a sick brother, and other hang-ups in 1960's suburbia is captivating in its visual details, understated humor, and great performances.

Whip It
Oh man, that sports movie about ladies made by ladies! Exciting! This is just so fun and well-done, filled with rad music, good jokes, an engaging coming-of-age story, and an impressive female-dominated cast. While not perfect, its empowering message, entertaining premise, and wholly satisfying, un-cliched ending gets it in my top 5 easily. Plus it exposed me to the awesome sport of roller derby!

Honorable Mentions
Coraline
District 9
In The Loop
Up
Where The Wild Things Are
Zombieland


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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009)

I'm so glad I finally saw this- it was tough to see a lot of new releases during finals and such. Precious is, as the title suggests, based on the novel by Sapphire, which I have never read and admittedly hadn't heard of until the film started getting press. The eponymous lead character (Gabourey Sidibe) is an overweight, illiterate teenager pregnant with her second child (both from her father raping her). After being kicked out of school, she enrolls in an alternative school that prepares young women for the GED. She is taught by the compassionate and patient Ms Rain (Paula Patton), who encourages her to apply herself more, something no one else ever took the time to do.

At home, Precious is continually mentally and physically abused by her mother (Mo'Nique), who uses her and her grandchild (who has Down Syndrome and lives with Precious's grandmother) to get welfare checks. When Precious begins seeing the social worker Mrs Weiss (Mariah Carey), the sordid aspects her life come to light and, with the encouragement of Ms Rain and her new friends from school, the prospect of a different future suddenly becomes more attainable. Interspersed throughout the gritty story are various flashes of the glamorous life Precious imagines for herself, often juxtaposed with her real-life traumatic experiences.

Like many, I walked into this expecting something pretty dim, but really Precious is a good mix of heartwarming coming-of-age tale and dismal situational drama. For inducing hopelessness, it's no The Road. I enjoyed the more casual scenes of Precious and her friends hanging out, or her conversations with Ms Rain. These, coupled with the bittersweet dream sequences, kept the film from becoming a bleak and depressing affair. The trauma and horror of the story isn't sugar-coated, and it's by no means a comedy, but because so much is dedicated to Precious's developing ability to overcome her problems and figure out what she can achieve, the film has a more hopeful tone. The story itself is told as a series of snapshots in her life, making it a little disjointed but narratively interesting.

Of course the performances are the big deal here, and certainly Sidibe and Mo'Nique are deserving of the acclaim they've been receiving. The character of Precious seems a bit rough and stale at first, but as we learn more about her, Sidibe infuses her with vitality, range, and subtle complexities. Mo'Nique is terrifying for the most part, and just incredibly despicable. And yet, somehow at the end she manages to make me believe in her (admittedly limited) humanity after I've already spent the whole movie hating her. I enjoyed Paula Patton a lot as well, who reminded me a bit of Miss Honey from Matilda.

Precious is a pretty damned impactful movie. It's at times fanciful and at others searingly raw, held together by the incredible performances and moving script. Also, yay for a movie with an almost completely-female cast (that isn't primarily about heterosexual romance) getting so much attention!

4.5/5

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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Tombstone (1993)

I've been meaning to see this for a while, but after learning that Michael Biehn had a role in it I bumped it up the ol' Netflix queue. Based on the legendary events encircling ex-lawman Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) and his persistently drunk, tuberculosis-stricken friend Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), Tombstone is a fun, if overlong, western with an impressive cast. Earp, his brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton), and their wives move to the town of Tombstone to make their fortune, taking advantage of its multiple saloons. They find themselves up against the aggressive outlaw "Cowboys" who run the town, led by Curly Bill (Powers Boothe). They intentionally stir up trouble for the Earps and end up killing the town marshal, forcing the brothers to take his place as the main police force. With Doc Holliday's help, they stage several ultimate showdowns against the gang. Also Wyatt Earp has problems with his opium-addict wife and maybe will fall in love with a free-spirited actress (Dana Delaney) who shows up for three scenes.

This movie should really be called "Tombstone: Unconvincing Mustache Central" because that's totally what it actually is. I couldn't tell anyone apart because everyone in this movie is a gruff white guy with a huge unrealistic mustache. It's pretty silly and a little distracting, but that's ok. Val Kilmer probably had the best one, but Sam Elliott's was the most believable. Kurt Russell's looked like it almost fell off by the end of it. And then even the ladies were hard to differentiate- all of the wives were skinny blondes in pretty dresses, and I don't think any of them were given names.

Tombstone is stylish and fun, with some great characters and a layered story. Unfortunately the development of those characters is practically nonexistent. I almost felt like it was a sequel, with relationships and personalities that had been explored in an earlier entry. I haven't seen any of the other movies based on the showdown at the OK Corral or Earp's life or anything, so maybe I'm just a little behind on the established lore of these events. And that half-assed romance was just annoying- the filmmakers clearly didn't care much about their relationship, so why should I? It just added 20 unneeded minutes to an already long movie.

Ok so it seems I have a few negative things to say about it, but really overall I liked Tombstone. It's got lots of shooting and guns and super neat costumes! I loved most of the cast- especially Sam Elliott (who I think should have been the star) and Val Kilmer (who needed more screen time). Michael Biehn, sadly, was not around much, and when he was, he looked like this and I had trouble taking him seriously. Nice moves, though. Also I developed a theory that Kilmer's and Biehn's characters were secretly twins. Think about it: One good, one evil, both mustachioed. There's the real story, and it makes their final showdown that much more dramatic.

Tombstone is abundant in sheer cool, so it gets a pass on most of its flaws. Now I really want a cool western name- maybe I can be like Doctor Vacation or something. Or The something Kid. Hmm.

4/5

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Orgazmo (1997)

*I hope everyone had a nice day yesterday, regardless of traditions or culture or day off or whatever. I only got like 3 movies, but lots of Best Buy gift cards so I'll be adding significantly to my DVD collection soon. Did you get anything good?*

Maintaining my Trey Parker mood from Cannibal! The Musical a few days prior, I watched his other early film, Orgazmo, which I hadn't seen in quite a while. And, for the first time, I checked out the drunken commentary! Trey Parker plays Joe Young, an unassuming and devout Mormon, recently engaged to the plucky Lisa (Robyn Lynne). He's in LA doing missionary work when he stumbles onto the set for the superhero porn "Orgazmo". When the director, Maxxx Orbison (Michael Dean Jacobs), discovers Joe's karate skills and drama degree in one short meeting, he decides to cast him as the lead, promising tons of money and no actual sex (they'll use a stunt cock).

Joe hesitantly agrees, desperate for enough money to pay for a wedding and new house, and assuming few people will really see it. But the film becomes a surprise cross-over hit, and Joe has to fight to hide it from Lisa as he's coerced into making a sequel. Meanwhile, he befriends costar and inventor Ben (Dian Bachar), who's constructed a real "orgazmorator", the orgasm-inducing weapon used in the movie, and is inspired to fight the assholes trying to take over the local sushi restaurant run by his friend G-Fresh (Masao Maki).

I always forget how funny this movie is, which is kind of fortuitous because the jokes are fresh every time I watch it. The premise is very silly but incredibly fun to watch- you've got porn, vigilantism, and a gangsta sushi chef. It's a pretty great combination. A lot of the humor comes out of the dialogue, egged on by the amplified personalities of the characters. Parker pokes fun at porn stars, Mormons, and martial artists, but never in a nasty way. Joe keeps his Mormon perspective and values throughout the film, and Parker mentions on the commentary how he really wanted it to be believable that the character would agree to act in an adult film.

The cast is swell, of course, with Parker doing some funny voices and Dian Bachar talking science whilst wearing a dildo on his head (allegedly the only reason Trey made the movie was to see the Dian Bachar Dildo Helmet come to pass). Toddy Walters and the infamous Leanne from Cannibal! make appearances, along with several real-life porn stars that I didn't recognize (except for Ron Jeremy). And Matt Stone, whose role is fairly small, cracks me up as a closeted photographer who likes Depeche Mode.

Orgazmo is not at all as risque or pornographic as it's made out to be. The NC-17 rating was totally unwarranted (according to the commentary, it was based on the appearance of an obese actress in a bikini dry humping Orgazmo, because I guess the MPAA is offended by fat people?). Part of the joke is that you never see any real nudity- whenever anyone starts to show their boobs there's something obscuring it, usually a guy's butt. It's first and foremost a comedy, and not nearly as controversial or subversive as some South Park episodes, so I'm not sure why some people took it so seriously. It's got some kooky characters, varied humor, kung-fu, and a hilarious theme song. There is little else I could ask for.

4.5/5

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)

After seeing Danny and Sylvia, the off-Broadway musical about Danny Kaye's relationship with his songwriter wife Sylvia Fine, I've been in the mood to watch his movies, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has always been one of my favorites. Drawn from James Thurber's eponymous short story (though he was seriously against the final cut of the film), it centers on Walter Mitty (Danny Kaye), a clumsy chronic daydreamer who works for a pulp fiction magazine and lives with his domineering mother (Fay Bainter). He's engaged to Gertrude (Ann Rutherford), the airhead daughter of his mother's friend, but fantasizes about being a dashing hero to a mysterious blonde (Virginia Mayo).

After taking a late train to work one morning, he finds himself sitting next to the woman in his dreams, Rosalind Van Horn, who asks his help after he witnesses her elderly friend get stabbed to death. Her uncle was the keeper of Dutch art treasures hidden during WWII, and an evil German group known as The Boot is after a little black book with the secret locations of these treasures. Soon Mitty finds himself in possession of the book, and hunted down by scary men. His family assumes it's all part of some delusion from too much daydreaming and pulp novels, and he becomes unsure what's real or imagined.

This was made as a vehicle for star Danny Kaye, a talented singer, tongue-twister, impersonator, and all-around entertainer. He captures the innocence and shyness of Mitty perfectly, allowing us a few glimpses of the wannabe brave hero within. He's always a very likable actor, and he infuses the character with this easy affability and inept charm, and is definitely the heart of the film. I also really love Virginia Mayo, who made several films with Kaye. She carries herself with this dignity and grace, but still radiates a palpable warmth. Fay Bainter is also pretty good as the pushy, nagging mother, reminiscent of Josephine Hull's performance as the uptight sister in Harvey. And of course, there's Boris Karloff, playing a scary bad guy/psychiatrist who elicits one of the best lines from Mitty: "No one can look as much like you do as you do!" Good one.

The script is quite funny, aided by Kaye's natural abilities, but sharp and clever on its own merit. The different fantasy scenes (some are right out of the short story, but many are made up for the film) are inventive and fun- from a Southern riverboat card player to a medical/technical genius, Mitty's alter-ego's are funny and referential. The real-life story is a little poorly plotted and structured, but still enjoyable and I really love the premise of a daydreamer thrust into a dangerous thriller but unable to separate reality and imagination. And of course, several great songs are peppered throughout, including "Anatole of Paris", one of Sylvia Fine's best.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty always makes me think of a line from Amelie: "Times are hard for dreamers", a lovely sentiment that really evokes a sort of sadness within the comic character of Walter Mitty. Surrounded by domineering, judgmental, and self-absorbed people, he is never really understood by anyone. He slips into day dreams as a means of escape from the dullness and isolation of his life. The short story makes this tragic aspect a bit more obvious. The movie is more of a straight comedy, but I think this extra layer is still made apparent, mainly through Kaye's performance and that excellent speech he gives at the end. Great job, movie.

4.5/5

PS If anyone is interested, the British film Billy Liar has a similar premise and feel to this film. It'd make a good double feature, I'd wager.

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Rashômon (1950)

Alright, so I've been meaning to watch more Kurosawa films since I saw Yojimbo over a year ago, but I never got around to it. Oops. Anyway, I finally saw Rashômon. Set within the framework of three men waiting out a rainstorm, the story unfolds as a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) recount for the third man the testimonies from a trial they just attended. The woodcutter had found the dead body of a stabbed samurai (Masayuki Mori), and several people are suspected of the murder. We hear the tale from the points of view of a notorious womanizing bandit, Tajômaru (Toshirô Mifune), the samurai's wife (Machiko Kyô), and the samurai himself speaking through a medium. Depending who's talking, the killer is any of these three. While the priest agonizes over the deplorable acts of rape and murder that occurred, the woodcutter might know more about the mystery than he's let on.

This film has been referenced and redone so many times, I had an idea of what I was in for, but I still found myself surprised and captivated by what transpires. It's a really well-made, complex mystery and character study, beautifully filmed and passionately acted. It starts slowly and deliberately, gradually eking out the intricacies of this one isolated incident. There's a great mix of emotive drama and high-stakes violence, adding interest to the repetitive nature of the story. The cinematography heightens the intensity, with stark black and white contrasts in the forest scenes and a bright, stage-like look for the outdoor court testimonies.

The performances are really what make this a great film. Each of the main three players must transform themselves depending on the version of the story being told. Toshirô Mifune is delightfully manic as the bandit, relishing in his despicableness and badassery. I was the most impressed with Machiko Kyô as the samurai's wife. She packs incredible range and personality into one character, switching from ferocity to demureness to desperation to frenzy with conviction and energy. She's really intriguing to watch.

It's remarkable how one event can be twisted and manipulated to produce multiple narratives, woven into a repetitive but engaging structure. I really enjoyed Rashômon, and hope to have less time between this and my next Kurosawa film!

4.5/5

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Vacation (1989)

Yeah so I've somehow managed to avoid this all my life, despite its many annual cable tv airings. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation sees the return of the Griswold family, headed by doofy businessman Clark (Chevy Chase), who dreams of hosting the perfect Christmas for his relatives. Along with his wife (Beverly D'Angelo), overramatic teenage daughter Audrey (Juliette Lewis), and plucky son Rusty (Johnny Galecki), Clark cuts down the "perfect" tree, suffers through noisy, abrasive parents and parents-in-law, bedecks the house with faulty innumerable lights, and even finds the perfect gift that he can't afford: a pool to be installed in the spring.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas he puts his best foot forward, hoping for his bonus to come in and hopeful that his relatives will somehow manage to get along, even when his eccentric, sort-of-gross brother-in-law Eddie (Randy Quaid) shows up with his wife, young kids, and dog. By the time the big day actually arrives, everyone is pretty much fed up with one another, and Clark's intense, blind optimism in the face of holiday disaster might just lead to a nervous breakdown.

This movie is a holiday tradition for lots of people I know, but without that sense of nostalgia and family-ness, I don't really see what the big deal is. Christmas Vacation (which, incidentally, involves very little actual "vacation") is funny enough, but nothing really sets it apart from similar comedies of the 80's and 90's. I found it a bit hit or miss, with some really memorable, funny moments along with some superfluous subplots (what was the point of Clark's fantasies about that saleswoman? Was this movie starving that much for some boobs?) and flat jokes. I could see myself liking it more as a kid, and growing up to continue loving it, so I'm guessing that's where some of its popularity comes from today.

It's got a good cast, with Chevy Chase carrying most of the comedic weight. He oscillates between being the goofiest or the cleverest person in the room, depending who's surrounding him, so his character is always funny but a little flaky. His immediate family doesn't really get to do much, but the older relatives are great and Randy Quaid, while sometimes too icky to be funny, is generally quite good, especially when he's playing off of Chase. I really enjoyed Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nicholas Guest as the Griswolds' asshole yuppie neighbors, whose personalities are just as awful as their luck.

I liked Christmas Vacation, but I can't say I loved it as much as I felt I should. Maybe it's because I haven't seen the other Vacation movies, so I didn't really know anything about these characters. Or again, maybe it's because I never had a tradition of watching it as a kid. It's an enjoyable film with some really funny scenes and a good cast of characters, but I don't think I'd make a point of watching it annually.

3.5/5

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Office Killer (1997)

I totally flipped out when I read that Cindy Sherman, my former profile image and one of my favorite artists, had directed a movie. And not like a regular "art film" movie, but a horror-comedy starring Carol Kane and Molly Ringwald! Is there anything this woman can't do awesomely? Probably not. Set in a failing magazine's headquarters, Office Killer examines the effects of new technology and shifting office dynamics through the perspective of quiet, dowdy proofreader Dorine (Carol Kane), who is downgraded to part-time and therefore forced to spend more time at home with her nagging, invalid mother. When working late one night due to computer trouble, Dorine witnesses her asshole editor Gary (David Thornton) die from electrocution when trying to fix some wires. She takes his body and sends an email under his name to Virginia (Barbara Sukowa), the magazine's head, saying he's gone away for a while.

Virginia teams her up with Kim (Molly Ringwald), who finds Dorine creepy and suspicious, to finish his big article. Working late to finish the piece, Dorine witnesses another death as Virginia has an asthma attack. This body comes home with her too, arranged in the basement with "working from home" accoutrements. She suddenly sees the advantages of murder, finding a wealth of posable new silent friends to fill her home office. Only Kim sees through Dorine's soft-spoken facade, but when she tries to warn Norah (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who's in charge of the computer changeover and reorganizational firings, she just alienates herself further and puts herself in danger of Dorine's unwanted attention.

This film is difficult to categorize, because it never veers fully into any one genre. It has aspects of comedy, but isn't exactly hilarious, and it's got lots of murder, but most of the deaths are off-screen. I guess it's mostly a thriller, with a tightly-paced story packed into a trim 85 minutes. It also works well as a parody of various slasher/thriller/horror films, viewing some of their tropes and stereotypes through a black comedy lens. Though it isn't always on target as a parody or comedy, Office Killer is nevertheless fascinating. Sherman uses her short time well, packing in a fast-moving plot, well-thought-out characters, and, of course, insightful and innovative art direction.

Knowing that a performance artist photographer was the director, I couldn't help but view Office Killer with an eye for how images were framed, angled, lit, and colored. There are a wealth of vibrant and interesting shots, from Ringwald's smoky and shadowy near-death experience to the dismal display of stony-faced corpses aglow with the television's blue haze. The gore and weirdness are all shown very frankly and without ceremony, adding to their eeriness. I also really loved the last shot, which seemed to pay tribute to Sherman's transformative self-portrait photography.

The cast is swell- it's great to see Carol Kane front and center, since for the most part I've only seen her in supporting roles (then again, I've barely cracked her fairly prolific filmography). She's delightfully creepy as Dorine, whipping out that impenetrable four-eyed stare like a pro. I enjoyed Molly Ringwald as well, since hey, for once she's not playing a troubled teenager (I'm joking, I know she's had tons of non-teenagery roles, but how many of them have you seen?). Here, she's rocking a cool hairstyle and take-charge manner. Jeanne Tripplehorn is a little choppy, but pulls it all together in the gripping climax.

Because it doesn't always deliver as a comedy or gory slasher film, Office Killer's parodical or referential aspects can sometimes drift into flat stereotypes. But the film is shot, paced, and acted so well that I didn't particularly care. It serves to prove that Cindy Sherman is not only an exceptional artist with an awesome boyfriend, but also a talented director. What a lady!

4/5

PS Can I say how great I think this connection is: Untitled Film Still #36 (1977) and Office Killer still. Rad, right? And I don't care if it's overly art-history-geeky to have thought of that instantly.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

I'd been in the mood to watch this ever since seeing the "Seeing Songs" exhibit at the Boston MFA, which features a video piece of various Madonna fans karaoke-ing her songs. Desperately Seeking Susan is one of the few films that really makes me wish I was a hip twentysomething living in the Village in the mid-80's. For real. The movie follows jaded New Jersey housewife Roberta (Rosanna Arquette), who stalks cool drifter Susan (Madonna) through the personal ads. As the flighty Susan travels around the US, she and her rocker boyfriend Jim (Robert Joy) communicate through the personals.

After she unwittingly gets mixed up in a mob murder and jewel theft, Susan tries to lay low in New York, while Roberta gets amnesia and is mistaken for Susan. Jim's friend Dez (Aiden Quinn) takes Roberta in without knowing who she really is, and they develop a halting romance. Meanwhile, Susan helps Roberta's yuppie cheating husband Gary (Mark Blum) find his wife. There's lots of eye-catching fashion, endearingly run-down buildings, cameos, and cool tunes thrown into the mix.

That synopsis sounds convoluted on paper, I'm sorry, but I am not a great writer as has surely already been established. But don't worry, Desperately Seeking Susan is not at all confusing to watch, despite the fact that it stars two dudes and two ladies who look alike. It's a cute story about how awful being a housewife in NJ is, and how everything in NYC is fun and bohemian and neon: all concepts I can get behind. It's also about a lady learning to stand up for herself and finding out what kind of life she'd like to have, instead of continuing to suffer the one she'd settled into. And it's about another lady with impeccable fashion sense, tons of confidence, and the balls to dance in a club to her own song. (Can you guess which is which!?)

While the story is light and fun (that crime and murder stuff is barely involved), the characters are interesting and funny. I really enjoy Roberta's husband and sister-in-law as they debate her whereabouts, convinced she'd become a prostitute or worse, a lesbian! Their dialogue provides an unexpectedly smart satire on those WASPy middle-class New Jerseyans. At the other end of the spectrum are cool hipsters Jim and Dez, the former spiking his hair and touring with his rock band, the latter showing obscure old movies as a projectionist.
Arquette tends to be a little grating, but generally she does a nice job pulling all these disparate characters and stories together. They are all slight caricatures, but still real people for the most part. Madonna, of course, elevates herself above anyone else in the film through her portrayal of the carefree, seemingly magical Susan, floating above those mere mortals imbued with that innate rock star persona and moxy to spare.

With equal parts comedy, fashion, and intrigue, Desperately Seeking Susan is an enjoyable glimpse at a very specific culture and time period. It's a little silly and a little romantic, offering a nice spotlight on two cool women leads. Nothing life-altering, but always a fun diversion.

4/5

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Invictus (2009)

Secret Movie Confession: I've never seen a movie directed by Clint Eastwood (hell, I've only seen two he's acted in). This is a source of frequent frustration for my associate, so I'm trying to correct it. It seemed easiest to start with his newest film, Invictus, which draws from John Carlin's book to tell the story of how Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) sought to unite post-apartheid South Africa through national rugby.

While dealing with unemployment, poverty, and police brutality, Mandela conspires to push the South African team the Springboks into the world championship. They've never been very good, and continue to represent white oppression for much of the black community, who usually root for anyone playing against them. Mandela meets with their captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), and convinces him to motivate the players and push them to become national role models. As the team becomes better and better, the country comes together in support. Meanwhile, the new administration experiences interior friction and the president's failing health.

Ok so now I've seen an Eastwood film, though I'm led to believe it's not up to par with many of his others. That's good to hear since I wasn't exactly blown away by it. While I think it's an interesting idea to view the struggles of post-apartheid South Africa through the framework of Mandela's interest in rugby, I feel like surrounding issues weren't dealt with enough to present a well-rounded story. Mandela kept ducking out of important-looking meetings to hear the rugby score, and it was played to comical effect, but I was like wait, he's got more important things to deal with! Still, it's a fairly engaging plot that flicks back and forth between Mandela, Pienaar, and the presidential bodyguards, who are constantly meeting new security challenges.

The performances are quite good, with Morgan Freeman exuding the necessary charm, charisma, and conviction to carry the film; his characterization reminded me a lot of Elwood P Dowd from Harvey. I really liked a lot of the supporting cast as well, many of whom are South African or British and unknown to me. I think Damon is the weak link here. He's not awful, just incredibly bland and flat. And I don't think he felt confident with the accent. His role is secondary to Freeman so it's not a huge deal, but the film is noticeably less interesting whenever Pienaar has a scene.

As a director Eastwood seems fine, but I didn't get a sense of any kind of distinguishing mark or style, apart from the awful and overabundant music choices (seriously, was the whiny white guy music juxtaposed with the fun African music supposed to remind us how lame white people are? or did someone actually think that these songs sounded good?). Then again, I've been told Invictus isn't particularly Clint Eastwoody. I think he and screenwriter Anthony Peckham did a nice job fusing various subplots into a cohesive narrative, and taking a culturally specific story and making it accessible to new audiences. It's a bit overlong, with way too much rugby (I guess it's an ok game, but I'm not watching this movie to see grunting dudes run at each other for extended periods of time), but otherwise quite enjoyable. The character of Nelson Mandela is explored in an indirect, nuanced way, and the numerous supporting cast members add some humor and excitement. I promise I'll watch more Eastwood movies soon.

4/5

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (Amélie) (2001)

Feeling listless and uninspired while working on some final art projects, I turned to one of the most beautiful films I know: Amélie. After discovering a long-hidden box of a little boy's treasures in her apartment, shy and imaginative waitress Amélie (Audrey Tatou) decides to track down the now-middle-aged owner and anonymously return it to him. Seeing the nostalgia and joy it brings him, she decides to become a professional do-gooder, going out of her way to secretly help her neighbors and co-workers in little ways.

She makes silly film compilations for the brittle-boned "Glass Man" (an elderly painter who can't leave his house), covertly hooks up the cafe's cigarette woman with a regular customer, and forges a lost love letter to her landlady from her long-dead husband. When she discovers a scrapbook filled with torn-up photobooth photos dropped by the adorable Nico (Mathieu Kassovitz), Amélie sense a kindred whimsical, lonely spirit and puts into action several stratagems that avoid physical interaction but spur his interest. She hates her own shyness but is afraid of actually meeting him, resulting in a kind of romantic game of cat and mouse.

This movie is beautiful in every sense of the word. It's emotionally resonant and visually resplendent, with a haunting score from Yann Tiersen and fine performances from everyone involved. Each shot is carefully planned and placed, with a wealth of details and a playful over-saturation. This candy-colored vision of Paris is charmingly dream-like, putting forth a type of city I so wish I could visit. But I guess that's one of the great things about film- the ability to create a personalized, impossible world not seen in real life

Amélie's story is simple on paper, but executed in an intricate, loving way, full of little inter-connected subplots and enjoyable supporting characters; I find something new every time I watch it. Tatou anchors the film with her lovely performance as the title character, delighting in the idiosyncrasies and self-assuredness of this creative but reserved woman. Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon stands out as the obsessive cafe customer Joseph, as does Jamel Debbouze as the childlike vegetable seller Lucien. And of course, there's Nico. Too, too adorable. Mathiew Kassovitz knows the way into my heart is through a distinctive nose, an artistic hobby, and a moped. He doesn't get a lot of dialogue, but he somehow radiates this aura of instant likability.

There is basically nothing I have ever found wrong with Amélie. I know this type of whimsical, saturated film style isn't for everyone, and its cutesiness might be grating to some, but I am always won over by its earnestness, detail, humanistic story, and magnificent visual style. This is a film in which it's clear that everyone put their whole hearts, resulting in a complex and evocative work that never becomes stale. It opens up a sort of wistful nostalgia for me, envisioning a perspective and lifestyle I'd love to have.

Plus, now that I've been to Montmartre in real life, I have the added joy of annoyingly saying "OMG I'VE BEEN THERE" at certain moments. Oh, simple pleasures.

5/5

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Just Like Heaven (2005)

Yup, another guilty pleasure romantic comedy added to the series my housemate and I have been doing. In Just Like Heaven, Reese Witherspoon plays Elizabeth, a workaholic doctor whose pushy sister Abby (Dina Waters) is yet again trying to set her up with a guy. After working 24+ hours and accepting an attending position, she gets in a car accident on the way to Abby's house. A few months later, her apartment is rented out by seemingly professional slacker/beer-drinker David (Mark Ruffalo), who sees Elizabeth wandering around as a disapproving ghost, refusing to believe she's dead but with no memory of her life. After unsuccessfully trying to expel her to the afterlife (no one else can see her except him), David decides to help her find Elizabeth identity and get her out of his hair. Along the way they will probably fall in love.

Ok, so yes, this movie like so many others paints a negative image of hard-working career women, and that's not cool. And Witherspoon's hair looks pretty bad for most of the time, also not cool. But aside from the usual romantic comedy problems, it's a really cute and enjoyable movie. The plot is straightforward but engaging, and the comedy doesn't resort to over the top slapstick or embarrassing moments; instead it comes from the well-written dialogue. The cast is great, with Ruffalo being his unkempt, likable self and Witherspoon making sure her strait-laced, no-nonsense Elizabeth is still very sympathetic. I liked the appearances from Donal Logue as David's best friend/psychiatrist and Jon Heder as a spaced-out psychic as well.

Though I understand Just Like Heaven isn't actually very good, I keep watching it, mostly for the charismatic performances and lack of complications. There are beautiful shots of perpetually-sunny San Francisco, a decent soundtrack (hey, Beck and The Cure, I can dig it), and a nice, fairly intelligent story. And it's got a really smart lady who gets to show off her smartness in medical practice, instead of just wearing glasses and being given the title of a supposedly smart person even though she seems dumb (this happens in other movies, sometimes).

3.5/5

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Cannibal! The Musical (1996)

Oh snap, here we go. This movie is kind of a big deal to me, so expect many exceptionally written paragraphs of plot, adulation, observation, and trivia about Trey Parker's first film, Cannibal! The Musical. Based on the true story of Alferd Packer, a miner tried for murder and cannibalism in 1874, the film follows our kind-hearted but pretty clueless hero Alferd (Trey Parker) as he innocently leads a small party of men into Colorado Territory, hoping to find gold in the town of Breckenridge. The group consists of Mormon minister Bell (Ian Hardin), girl-crazy Noon (Dian Bachar), gratingly upbeat Swan (Jon Hegel), know-it-all Humphries (Matt Stone), and pessimistic butcher Miller (Jason McHugh).

They encounter a trio of asshole trappers heading the same direction, who steal Packer's only friend: his horse Leanne. While taking refuge in a strange, possibly secretly Japanese Native American camp during a snowstorm, Packer decides to ignore the dangerous weather and lead his group after the trappers, hoping to get Leanne back and make it to Breckenridge before spring. When they get lost in the snow and run out of food, desperation and starvation take over. The whole tale is set within the frame of Packer's trial months later, as told to sympathetic reporter Polly Pry (Toddy Walters) from his jail cell.

Though laced with spontaneous musical numbers, anachronisms, and nonsensical humor, Cannibal! The Musical is actually pretty accurate in its plot. Filmed over spring break while the cast and crew were attending the University of Colorado, several scenes are set in the real historical locations of Packer's experiences. The story is based on his testimony, which Trey Parker believes, relating how when they were lost and starving Bell went crazy and killed the rest of the group and started eating them while Packer was ahead looking for a landmark. I'm inclined to believe that version too just because Trey makes the character so sympathetic.

Some aspects of the movie make it obvious that it's their first, but generally this is a really impressive student film. It has decent costumes and great locations, and is shot pretty well. The music is excellent, with a lot of Oklahoma! references (something I can always get behind) and self-aware moments. The performances aren't consistently good, but generally pretty sharp. Production values are... varied, but the bad make-up and ridiculously fake beards and wigs just make it funnier. All in all it's pretty remarkable this movie was made at all, much less turned out as awesome as it did.

Listening to the drunken commentary (which I highly recommend) is not only hilarious but also really informative. Cannibal! is surprisingly reference-heavy, looking to old musicals, historical tidbits, related movies, inside jokes, and elements from their filmmaking classes. Under the layers of biography and comedy, it's all just a veiled dig at Trey's ex-fiancee Leanne, who dumped him for an a capella singer a month before the wedding. With that kind of background knowledge, the movie suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.

I'll admit that when I first saw Cannibal! I thought it was fairly mediocre, with scattered funny moments, overacting, and a so-so structure. But the more I watched it, the better it got. All of these little subtle jokes started popping up, and things that seemed stupid at first suddenly became genius, plus it's just really cool to see Trey Parker and Matt Stone before they had even thought of South Park. It has given me infinite amounts of enjoyment and quotable lines, and for that I am grateful. Plus the music is so darned catchy! Shpadoinkle!

5/5

PS This site has tons of extras and trivia, if you're interested.

"Shpadoinkle"
"Hang the Bastard"

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Twitter

Hey guys, in an effort to stave off the growing panic at the thought of all the work I have to do just to get a passing grade this semester, I just got a twitter account for this blog. In case you're into that sort of thing. It'll just be updated with new posts and any outside articles or blogs I find interesting and would like to share. Let's be twitter friends! Or whatever you call it... Twits? Yeah, twits.

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The Fall (2006)

All right, I know a lot of people didn't like this but I am a little obsessed with it. It's one of those movies that's filled with a ton of things I love, and features some of the most breathtakingly beautiful visuals I have ever seen on film. Based on the 1981 Bulgarian film Yo Ho Ho, Tarsem's The Fall centers on Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), a young Eastern European girl in the 1920's who's stuck in a hospital after breaking her arm picking oranges. She meets Roy (Lee Pace), a depressed movie stuntman paralyzed after jumping onto a horse off a bridge (stunts were so stupidly dangerous in the 20's!), and takes an instant liking to him because he tells her fantastical stories.

He invents an epic tale about a bandit who seeks revenge on an evil governor with the help of an African former slave, an Indian widower, an Italian explosives expert, a silent mystic, and Charles Darwin, all of whom are portrayed by people seen in the hospital. The film flits back and forth between fantasy and reality, with the story reflective of Alexandria's wild imagination and Roy idealizing the idea of a "bandit" hoping to con her into stealing bottles of morphine so he can kill himself. His romantic problems work their way into his tale in the form of Nurse Evelyn (Justine Waddell), who becomes a princess whom the bandit loves.

The soaring, imaginative visuals alone would be enough for me to love this film. Every shot of the fantasy is colorful, sweeping, and honestly inspiring. It's a jaw-dropping experience, so I'm really glad I was able to see this in theatres (3 times!) when it came out. The performances are great- newcomer Catinca Untaru is absolutely adorable as Alexandria, and completely believable in the role (which doesn't always happen with child actors). Lee Pace, well what can I say... The World's Handsomest Man lays on the charms and the tears in his dual role as Roy and the Bandit. Plus he's got that nice Southern drawl going on. Hang on, I need to sigh wistfully for a second. There we go.

I have heard several negative reviews of this film by people who thought the story was empty and nonsensical, engulfed by the visual stylization. But it's not true! It's really a nuanced and heart-breaking grown-up tale disguised through the lens of a child's imaginative perspective. Everything we see is through her point of view and limited understanding, with little details like Roy's description of an American Indian morphing into a regal man from India allowing viewers to see how Alexandria affects the story in her head. Her gradual realization of Roy's intention comes out in the fantasy before it does in real life. By the end of The Fall, I was wrapped up in both sides of the plot, and wholly invested and moved by the central characters.

4.5/5

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mimi wo Sumaseba (Whisper of the Heart) (1995)

This was described to me with the keywords "Libraries! Strong female leads! A chubby cat!" by a trusted source, so I was pretty psyched to see it. Adapted by Hayao Miyazaki from Aoi Hiiragi's manga, and directed by Studio Ghibli animator Yoshifumi Kondo, Whisper of the Heart is a dramatic anime about Shizuku, a literature-loving high school student who becomes intrigued by a boy's name she finds in all of the library books she takes out. However, she doesn't have a lot of time to dwell on the mystery amidst school entrance exams, her friends' romantic drama, and taking care of the house while her mother works on her Master's thesis.

One day she spots a fat cat on the subway and follows it up a steep hill (because it "felt like the beginning of a story") to a fascinating little antique shop. She becomes fast friends with the proprietor, an old man with a passion for music. Shizuku discovers that his grandson is the same jerk who's been chastising her at school, and begins to re-think her opinion of him. His desire to make violins in Italy inspires her to forgo studying for her exams and write a story as a way of feeling productive and driven.

Hey, those descriptive keywords were correct! The protagonist is an independent, hard-working, and talented young woman, a library is prominent in the story, and there is indeed a rather chubby cat. The story is fairly straightforward, slice-of-life stuff, with realistic characters and a good pace (though knowing Miyazaki had written it I kept expecting something fantastical to happen, which it did, briefly, for a magical sequence illustrating Shizuku's story). While romance is an important part of the plot, it's really more of a coming-of-age tale as Shizuku decides what she wants to do with her life and explores her own limits and talents.

I haven't read the manga, but I'd really like to because there were a few ambiguities that confused me when watching the film. I had no idea what age the students were- at first I thought they were around 14 because they kept talking about getting into high school (I know Japan's school system is surely much different than America's, but I figured the translators would find the age-appropriate equivalent), but then they talked about their future careers as if they had to figure it out in a few months. There was also something at the very, very end that caught me off guard, both because of their assumed ages and the shaky romance that had developed. It's hard to explain without giving everything away, but suffice to say I was a bit perplexed.

Despite those minor mishaps Whisper of the Heart is still a very enjoyable, cute film, with good characters and beautiful Studio Ghibli-style animation. Sadly this is the only film Yoshifumi Kondo ever directed- Miyazaki wanted him to take over the studio, but he died unexpectedly a few years after this film.

4.5/5

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Shaft (1971)

Secret Movie Confession: I've never seen a blaxploitation film before. Oh dear, I know. I've had Foxy Brown for months and just haven't gotten around to watching it. Instead I decided to give Shaft a try, mainly because it has a cool theme song. The film focuses on the titular private detective (Richard Roundtree) as he tracks down the kidnapped daughter of a Harlem crime boss named Bumpy (Moses Gunn), who's caught up in a war with the mafia. He teams up with black power activist Ben Buford (Christopher St. John), an old friend with a lot of followers. Along the way he has sex with some ladies and argues with the white police investigator who's trying to find the cause of several recent murders uptown.

Most of this movie is just following Shaft around as cool music plays. Sometimes a gun is fired, sometimes he yells at people, sometimes he is romancing a lady who may or may not be his girlfriend. For a story about a PI, there isn't much mystery- we find out pretty quickly who has Bumpy's daughter, and there aren't any weird twists or anything. It tries to be an action movie, but there's a lot of dull space in between the action scenes, and it's all over-directed. I didn't really like the character of Shaft, because he's kind of mean and didn't actually send out the badass vibe everyone around him seemed to get. I thought Moses Gunn and Christopher St. John were the stand-out performances, with the former radiating a sleazy, slow-talking dignity and the latter rocking some killer sideburns, but neither of them were in it very much.

It's kind of boring, it's not very nice to ladies, and the main character isn't interesting enough for me to enjoy watching him walk around for an hour and 40 minutes. Shaft isn't awful, I just didn't see anything special about it. But at least now I've seen it.

3/5

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