Sunday, February 28, 2010

Oligarkh (Tycoon: A New Russian) (2002)

Remember that Russian Contemporary Culture class I'm taking? No? Well, I'm taking it. And it involves quite a number of films made after the fall of the Soviet Union, which is awesome for me since I've actually never watched Russian films before. After Little Vera introduced me to the nation's filmmaking, I was assigned Tycoon, an interesting look at the insanely rich businessmen who took over Russia's economy in the 1990's. It starts as a murder mystery when insanely rich and influential businessman Platon (Vladimir Mashkov) is assassinated, and small-time judge Schmakov (Andrey Krasko) is assigned to interview his close-knit circle of associates.

Through a series of interviews and flashbacks, the viewers are introduced to Platon and his best friends Masha, the goofy chubby one, Mark, the regular one, Viktor, the smart one, and Larry, the Georgian with underhanded methods. Viktor's bitter wife and Platon's manipulated lover are also thrown into the mix. In the late eighties Platon and Co took advantage of the introduction of small-time capitalism and after the Soviet Union collapsed they became incredibly wealthy and powerful through a successful car dealership. They engaged in illegal trading, media control, political maneuvering, and a little bit of murder, but the importance of their friendship becomes the focus of the story.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Tycoon. Its description as "The Russian Godfather" did not give me high expectations. Like many foreign-language films it is quite long, and also features a large amount of characters, many of whom aren't properly introduced until later in the story, causing me some confusion for the first half hour or so. Despite these drawbacks, it manages to become an engrossing study of this group of friends and how they drew power from a fractured economic system, while mixing in a good dose of mystery and murder. There's such a range of characters and plot points that I was consistently interested in the story, even if I wasn't always sure what was going on (it is intentionally ambiguous at certain times).

The development of such a complex, likable-despite-himself kind of figure as Platon is done exceptionally well. Because we see him first as a mulleted jeans manufacturer who wrote fake theses for extra money, it's easy to see him first as a likable, if opportunistic and overly-confident, guy. His transformation into a ruthless, greedy tycoon is unexpected and gradual. While I wasn't necessarily on his side, I was interested in his actions and in how he interacted with both friends and enemies. Tycoon is a slick, interesting film that almost sneaks the dramatic character study into a thrilling murder mystery. Except for the naive judge Schmakov, none of the characters seem to have much of a moral compass, making it fun to see where they will finally draw the line.



Fah Talai Jone (Tears of the Black Tiger) (2000)

You might recall how much I enjoyed Thai director Wisit Sasanatieng's stunning, inventive Citizen Dog. If not, well, you should be paying better attention. I was pretty keen to check out his first feature, Tears of the Black Tiger, a strange genre-bender with jaw-dropping visuals. Set in an overly-saturated 50's-esque small town, the film follows the doomed romance of Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi), the exquisitely beautiful daughter of a wealthy governor (Pairoj Jaisingha), and Dum (Chartchai Ngamsan), a stoic commoner who became an outlaw after his family was murdered.

Rumpoey is being married off to the stiff Police Captain Kunjorn (Arawat Ruangvuth), and has no idea that her fiancé has taken it upon himself to besiege the outlaw gang Dum has joined under the moniker "Black Tiger". She spends a lot of her time sighing and staring into the distance while a single tear graces her perfectly made-up cheek, while Dum regretfully kills a lot of police officers and stares mournfully into that same exact distance. Will their disparate backgrounds continue to separate them, or will Rumpoey and Dum find a way to be together? How many men have to die violently before this can happen?

While it isn't perfect, Tears of the Black Tiger is a wonder of color, action, parody, and cinematography. Every single shot is a visual feast (literally, my eyes wanted to eat it), filled to the brim with eye-popping shades of yellows, blues, and reds, theatrical locations, and perfectly-tuned costumes. Sasanatieng's vision of the world is uncommonly beautiful to the point of fantasy, and I would love to live in his candy-colored version of things. There's also a lively classic western-ish score that gives it all an adventurous, anachronistic atmosphere.

The acting is purposefully over the top, with each character reduced to a stereotype of a 50's western. The lady can't do anything for herself and cries all the time, while the male lead is strong and noble, with little display of emotion. As Dum's fellow gangmember Mahesuan, Supakorn Kitsuwon is having the most fun: he gives an over the top, slightly crazed performance that is aided by his (possibly made of paper?) pencil mustache. I get the joke they're going for, but it doesn't always go over well- because the lead characters are fairly flat, I didn't especially care about their romance, but it is given a lot of attention. I wanted a bit more of the bang-bang-action-gunfighting! than the film was prepared to give me, so the whole thing feels uneven.

Tears of the Black Tiger is a visual marvel and features some really funny parodical concepts and performances, but for me it doesn't go as far as it could have. I think it needed to be just a little bit more over the top, a little bit funnier, and/or a little bit more violent, and it would have been a truly excellent genre parody/homage. That being said, it's still a pretty imaginative and entertaining film that I'd be happy to see again.



Saturday, February 27, 2010

"Your Case and My Case Are The Same F**king Case!" Double Feature: Red Riding: 1974 (2009) and Red Riding: 1980 (2009)

So the Red Riding Trilogy is happening this week at the Kendall Square Landmark Theatre. Hopefully I'll be seeing the third installment tonight but for now we've got the first two to ponder. Made for BBC television but released theatrically in the US, these films adapt David Peace's books and present a string of shocking violent murders and the harried men trying to solve them, and each one is helmed by a different director.

In Red Riding: 1974, up-and-coming journalist Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) stumbles upon a series of local missing persons cases, all schoolgirls between 7 and 10, some of whom have been found dead. Suspecting some sort of connection, he investigates further, interviewing anyone he can find related to the girls, including one of the mothers, Paula (Rebecca Hall). Along the way Eddie also uncovers some shady dealings relating to powerful businessman John Dawson (Sean Bean), resulting in some serious repercussions from corrupt cops under his thumb. As Eddie probes deeper, he becomes completely immersed in this complex scheme of sabotage, sex, and murder that seems impossible to expose, much less defeat.

1974 takes a very halting, gradual approach to storytelling, allowing the connections of Eddie's investigations to reveal themselves slowly over the course of the film. There is no sense of immediacy that often seems to accompany other similarly-themed tales. This was good, in that the filmmakers acknowledge their audience's intelligence, and bad, in that the first half is a bit dull. It didn't help that I found several of the actors' accents extremely thick and hard to understand, especially that of Eddie's boss. I also really disliked the poorly-developed romance between Eddie and Paula. Note to screenwriters: When a lady is crying because of a tragedy, the first thing she wants to do is almost definitely NOT make out with a dude. She is feeling sniffly and sad and maybe embarrassed, and probably could just use a tissue/hug.

It's still a pretty cool movie though, with a great performance from Garfield and an interesting, if initially slow, story that gets surprisingly intense and crazy as the film progresses. It's also shot beautifully, with a lot of interesting attention to focus and framing, and some nice lighting effects. I didn't love it, but I do appreciate it a bit more after seeing the next segment, because of how the two relate.


Red Riding: 1980 begins with a new string of crimes, this time perpetrated by "The Yorkshire Ripper", a dude who loves to murder young women (who are constantly screaming to be murdered, I guess). An outside police investigator, Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine), is brought in to work on the daunting case, along with hand-picked officers Helen (Maxine Peake) and John (Tony Pitts). They are joined by Bob Craven (Sean Harris) who was involved in the climactic shootout of 1974, and whom Peter suspects of dishonesty. After receiving a tip from another character of the first installment, Peter starts looking closely into one particular "Ripper" victim: a prostitute and pornographic model who was connected to a murdered local police officer. The secrets surrounding her death draw him into a completely different case involving multiple levels of corruption that begin to connect to the events of 1974. It's really cool.

I enjoyed 1980 much more than its predecessor, but a lot of that was because of how ingeniously and unexpectedly the two connect. I had no idea where this story would go or how it would relate to the 1974 film, and I really loved how certain familiar characters popped up to bring everything together. The pacing is more deliberate and more exciting here, drawing me in much quicker to the mystery at hand. Its romantic subplot is also handled much better, and not as much of a catalyst for later action.

Paddy Considine is excellent in the lead role, engaging and inherently likable. Compared to Eddie Dunford, I cared a lot more what happened to Peter and felt I had more of a handle on his character. I really liked Maxine Peake as well, finding Helen to be an interesting and complex character though I'm sorry we didn't see more of her. 1980 is thrilling and absorbing, with a range of great performances and a compelling mystery. It wasn't quite as visually impressive as 1974, but incorporated some of the same experiments with depth-of-field and light. It's got an appropriately dark atmosphere and more of a twist, and makes me anticipate Red Riding:1983 much more highly.



Friday, February 26, 2010

Banlieue 13 - Ultimatum (District B13: Ultimatum) (2009)

Oh dang that sequel to that killer Besson/Morel buddy action movie is here! No, it is not a hasty follow-up to From Paris With Love but of course District B13: Ultimatum! This time Patrick Alessandrin directs from Besson's script, setting the action a few years after the last film. Crumbling sections of Paris are still walled off from the rest of the city and run rampant with crime, controlled by 5 warlords who of course separate themselves by ethnicity/culture. Leïto (David Belle) is running around stirring up trouble with the police who guard the wall to his district, and when he hears that old pal and good cop Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) has been wrongfully imprisoned, he immediately moves to bust him out. The two uncover a government plot to destroy the districts so that new middle-class neighborhoods can be built, and set off on a parkour kung-fu mission to stop the bad guys.

I knew that no matter what, this movie would be a lot of fun. And surprise: it was! It's got thumping music (seriously it's so thumping, we could hear it through the wall when we were seeing a different movie on the screen next to it), hot parkour action, a lot of innovative fight choreography (including a scene involving a Van Gogh canvas that had me squirming with anxiety), and a decent story. It takes a little while to get going unfortunately, and some of the most interesting characters (including the super badass Elodie Yung, the only lady) aren't brought in until the third act, but with its frequent action scenes and likable lead actors, the film is never boring. It sort of tries to set up a mystery, but Leïto and Damien solve it in like 5 minutes so they can get back to the butt-kicking, and that was ok with me.

I love the buddy-comedy-action of the Belle/Raffaelli team-up, but the film took too long to get these guys onscreen together. They have a adorable chemistry and I love how their different skills combine to conquer the bad guys. It's the heart of both movies, and could have been employed to greater effect here. While I really liked the action sequences and lead actors, I think the rushed introduction of new characters, and weird, poorly thought-out ending made Ultimatum slightly less enjoyable than the first installment. Also, it could have used more David Belle- I feel like he had an unequal amount of screen time compared to Raffaelli. And the latter is not the one I want to see constantly running around a city while inexplicably shirtless.



Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The American Astronaut (2001)

Uh-oh, watch out everyone, I have achieved obsession status with this one. In no way can I accurately summarize/explain/encapsulate the wonder of The American Astronaut, but damn if it isn't something truly special. Cory McAbee wrote, directed, starred in, and (along with his band The Billy Nayer Show) wrote the music for this ridiculously idiosyncratic space-western musical comedy. It's... so cool. The story is set in an ambiguous time period (though Wikipedia says it's "a fictitious past", which I don't recall being mentioned), during which the various planets and moons are populated by shady, slightly greasy dudes, with most of the women isolating themselves on Venus. McAbee plays Samuel Curtis, an interplanetary trader who picks up a complicated but lucrative job from his friend and former dance partner, the Blueberry Pirate (Joshua Taylor).

He must travel to Jupiter, where women are unknown, to deliver a Real Live Girl held in a small container, in exchange for the planet's teenage hero, The Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman's Breast (Gregory Russell Cook). Sam can then take The Boy to Venus, where he will be made the women's sex object and treated like royalty until he dies. In exchange for The Boy, Sam will reclaim the dead body of their last sex companion, whose wealthy family wants him back to be buried. Sam will receive a nice sum for the corpse, and can settle down on Earth. It seems like a pretty sweet set-up, but he's being closely followed by the skeevy Professor Hess (Rocco Sisto), who vaporizes everyone with whom Sam comes in contact.

There is no denying that this film is incredibly, indescribably strange. A lot of it doesn't make much sense, but that doesn't matter, because I was instantly drawn into the story by the likable characters, insane music, and unique universe. Cory McAbee is probably the most affable guy I've ever seen, and his characterization of Sam is just a pleasant experience to watch. He's funny but not over the top, and an impressive dancer. I also really enjoyed Greg Russell Cook as The Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman's Breast (that remains his name). Not only is he freaking adorable and a good singer, the fact that he spends the entire film dressed like Hermes is just too endearing. I was extremely creeped out by Professor Hess due to his profound ickiness, but I guess that's the point. And it was a pleasant surprise to see Annie Golden's cameo, though I didn't recognize her initially (she's in the movie version of Hair).

Visually, The American Astronaut has a combination of beautiful black and white stylization and DIY aesthetics. It looks amazing, but some of the cost-effective aspects are apparent. For example, McAbee does his own jumping moon walk when he first lands, and in lieu of CGI or models, the shots of his spaceship flying around are done as a series of paintings (by McAbee himself). Really these sort of effects-on-a-budget just serve to increase the film's already wildly imaginative outlook. The little details in the set and costume design are quite charming, from the ship's bedroom-like interior to penchant for cowboy hats.

One thing I'm a little iffy on, story wise, is the approach to women. A lot things about this universe aren't really explained fully, so I'm not sure what we are supposed to take away from it. I think that either all women, or just most, are relegated to Venus to make their way without men, except for one they use as a companion/sex slave. That is an ok idea, but when we actually meet them, they're very frilly and light-headed and giggly, dressed in these Rococo-esque gowns and literally tripping over themselves to catch a man. And then Sam is singing about "The Girl With the Vagina Made of Glass" which to me is just harking back to the stereotype of Woman as Frail Victim. Because the film is generally pretty light-hearted in other ways (well, except for all the vaporizing), I don't think any of the scenes on Venus were meant to be taken seriously, but I couldn't help but be a little perplexed. And obviously the concept of raising the Real Live Girl to become a wife/sex object for the head of Jupiter isn't cool, but that never plays out.

The story is engaging and fanciful, and the way it was approached really reminded me of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai; in both films, it feels as if the audience is entering the story in the middle of things, with a lot of unexplained references to past events or relationships and little insight into their developments. It's kind of cool to get the impression that all of this awesome stuff was going on before we were privy to these characters' lives, but it's also really frustrating because I want to know everything about these people. It's a good tactic though, as I know I'll be watching The American Astronaut again and again, attempting to glean new clues to certain mysteries and questions about everyone's past.

While undeniably weird and often ambiguous, this film is refreshingly original to the point of being unprecedented. It's got a great cast, great music, and a great look, with an odd but wholly engaging and funny script. Unfortunately it's really hard to find, and as far as I know the only way to get it is directly from McAbee's website. Otherwise, you could check out his newest venture, Stingray Sam, a miniseries with a lot of similar themes, characters, and of course, rockin' songs. I can basically guarantee you've never seen anything like his work before.


"The American Astronaut"
"Hey Boy"


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

I think the one movie genre I will avoid, unless prodded by friends or exceptionally high reviews, is the War Movie. I do not like war, I usually do not like to watch movies about it. I find most war movies completely unrelatable, and unfathomably depressing. That being said, I'm finally making an effort to see Clint Eastwood's films, and Letters from Iwo Jima seemed like a good place to start, because hey, I am always interested in Japan. Featuring a Japanese cast and with almost completely Japanese dialogue, Eastwood's ambitious film explores the Battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers stationed there.

General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) is transferred there a few months before the attack and restructures the island's defense plan, frustrating a lot of the other officers; having visited California before the war, he has a bit more compassion for Americans and is therefore considered considered distrustful. The experiences of the lower soldiers are also shown, mainly from the perspective of Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a young baker with a baby daughter he's never met. Almost every man suffers from hunger, unsafe water, and serious doubt. Their approaches to war, Americans, and patriotism are explored through their conversations, flashbacks, and of course, letters home.

Though the cast is quite large, they are all given such telling flashbacks and pivotal moments that I feel I was able to get to know each one. While set against the lead up to a horrific battle, the story becomes more of an intricate character study. Some of the military tactics and officer stuff went over my head, but the characters themselves are enough to keep the film engaging and quite effective. I knew nothing could end well here, but I still cried like a child in shock and dismay as the battle scenes raged on. There's just so much needless death and destruction, not to mention a large amount of suicides (seriously, it's like Chūshingura in here, but much realer).

Letters from Iwo Jima is filmed in a washed-out sepia tone, giving it an appropriately antique and dreary atmosphere but never delving into non-realism. I have no idea what the island or uniforms or anything actually looked like, but I can only assume this is a highly-researched, aesthetically accurate film, because that is how it appears. I love that it was made with a completely Japanese cast and the dialogue is in their language, and I know that was a huge risk for Eastwood to take, but I am curious about how the entire project was received by Japanese audiences. What might a Japanese director have done differently, with closer roots to this tragic historical incident?

All in all Letters from Iwo Jima is a moving, well-made film with excellent attention to character and some interesting cinematography. It takes a subject I normally wouldn't be drawn to but makes it so emotionally effective that I couldn't help but become wholly involved. That being said, I don't think I need to see it again. It's just too sad.



Monday, February 22, 2010

Akira (1988)

Yeah, so I haven't been a very good sci-fi/anime fan I guess since this is the first time I've ever seen Akira. But that time in my life has passed, and I hope we can all move on from this point as stronger people, and perhaps, friends. Directing and adapting from his own manga, Katsuhiro Ôtomo paints a gritty post-WWIII future Tokyo composed of neon lights, apocalyptic cults, hedonistic storefronts, mass protests and bombings, and teen biker gangs. After bossy gang leader Kaneda sees his best friend Tetsuo taken away to a secretive hospital facility, he teams up with the stern (and pretty foxy) terrorist Kei to rescue him and put an end to the government-backed experiments held there. At the same facility, a frightened grey-skinned boy with the face of an old man is taken in to join two other similarly pre-aged children, all of whom possess certain psychic and telekinetic powers. All of this action takes place below a potential high-level government coup, with leaders desperately trying to avoid another catastrophic war.

I knew very, very little about Akira going into it, and thank goodness for that. It starts off as one kind of movie and then gradually gets crazier and bigger and weirder until its explosive (literally, lol) finale. Every time I thought I had a handle on what was going on, this film just jerked me around and said "Ha! Puny human, you can't predict what we are about to show you". I loved being constantly surprised by this truly engrossing, strange story. The only problem with the writing is that there isn't much attention to character- it's not that they're undeveloped or cliche, it's more that I didn't understand where most of them were coming from. We never learn anything about Kei's history or experiences, and only receive glimpses of Tetsuo's, Kaneda's, and the psychic children's backgrounds. This movie is not a character study, so it's not a huge deal, and enough happens narratively that there'd be little time for that kind of exposition, but it was sort of in the back of my mind as I watched. I'm assuming there's more information in the manga, so I hope to read that as soon as possible.

Normally I'm not a huge fan of 80's anime style. There's this undefinable characteristic about it, something about the combination of dull and garish colors, and the often-clunky character design that tends to bother me a bit. I'm not sure if that sounds snobby- believe me, it's not meant to, it's just my personal taste. But Akira's visuals are exceptionally stunning. They're still very clearly tied to the decade, but are elevated by the exciting color schemes, gorgeous detail applied to the settings, and inventive action and transformation scenes. I enjoyed the character design as well, which kept to the typically flat and simplistic style but maintained an attention to expression and differentiating traits.

This film is a fusion of dystopian science-fiction and unbridled fantasy, with an action-thriller flair. Ôtomo's aesthetic style and fluid movements effectively combine these influences and themes for an imaginative and entertaining story that takes off at breakneck speed and rarely lets its viewers rest for a moment. While I had one or two reservations about it, I can't help but be completely and utterly blown away- it's not a perfect film, but its positive aspects so far outweigh its negative that it might as well be.



Sunday, February 21, 2010

The 2010 Boston Science-Fiction Marathon, Part III

Yawn. We're really coming into the home stretch, here, after so many movies. It's getting into the wee hours of the morning and your heroine (me) is doing her very best to stay alert. Plus, my butt is really starting to ache despite my multiple pillows. Thank goodness the concession stand has tea- glorious, caffeinated tea. Also thank goodness I remembered my toothbrush!

I don't remember when this happened, but at some point they re-showed two more films from the shorts program of the previous week. I got to see "The Kirkie" again as well as a beautiful animated film that I had missed, about a silent scientist sailing through dimensions to find his love. It's called "Lifeline" and is directed by Andres Salaff. And here it is!

Feature films after the jump...

10 Night of the Creeps (1986)
When an alien parasite (like a less-sophisticated Yeerk) attacks a college frat boy in the 1950's, his body is frozen and held in a containment center until the mid-80's, when two doofy students wake him up as part of a pledge prank. Now tons of alien-infected zombies are walking around terrorizing Greek life on campus, and it's up to the nerdy Chris Romero, his crush Cynthia Cronenberg, and the world-weary Detective Ray Cameron (you guys see what's going on with these last names? huh? do you?) to stop the murderous walking dead. It is a pretty funny/scary time, full of big hair, dance music, and excitable sorority sisters. I nodded off a bit around the end, but I definitely remember some hot flamethrowing action. According to the program, this is banned in Norway, so there's that, too.

11 Rabid (1977)
Hey, an early Cronenberg movie! This should be interesting! Except... well, not especially. After Rose (Marilyn Chambers, in her first non-pornographic film) suffers a motorcycle accident, she receives an experimental skin graft that gives her vampiric tendencies; she needs blood to sustain herself and transforms anyone she punctures into rabid cannibalistic maniacs. She runs around the Montreal area, infecting a number of people who then go on to infect others, causing a huge epidemic. Meanwhile her boyfriend is looking for her, unaware of her connection to this new disease. This movie has a pretty good premise, but its execution is just so-so. The characters are bland and uninteresting, and the pacing isn't as exciting as it could be. It's got some gross trademark Cronenbergian moments, but for the most part it isn't even all that gory or scary. It feels like he didn't know what kind of a movie he wanted to make, and the result is a little uneven.

12 La Morte Viene Dallo Spazio (The Day the Sky Exploded) (1958)
Ok, I'm not going to lie, I almost completely slept through this one. I know it's a dubbed Italian/French production and somehow involves space? And aliens? I saw the very beginning, in which some dude is chosen to go on a space mission or something, and then at the very end there's some explosion and aliens are maybe attacking Earth. But everything turns out ok, I think, because different nations work together. Yay. It seemed pretty boring, so I don't think I missed anything. And I hope you all don't feel let down that I didn't quite make it through all 24 hours.

13 Night of the Comet (1984)
Man, I woke up for this one, because it was flipping awesome. After a meteor shower passes over LA, teen sisters Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Samantha (Kelli Maroney) wake up to discover that almost everyone has been turned to dust. They come across Hector (Robert Beltran), a friendly truck driver, as well as a host of low-lifes who are partially infected, resulting in a cannibalistic mentality as they slowly degrade into dust. A group of scientists working in an underground bunker begin looking for other survivors, presumably to protect them, but Reg and Sam are unsure who's trustworthy in this sudden anarchy. This movie is funny, thrilling, and imaginative, with a great cast and a cool look (I love the perpetually-orange sky). It's one of the only female-led films they showed at the 'thon, and these ladies are acceptably badass what with their unexpected knowledge of firearms and admirable resourcefulness. I had never even heard of it before, and Night of the Comet turned out to be one of my favorite showings of the night- it's just so fun! I wouldn't at all be surprised if the Zombieland dudes were inspired by this, as the premise and tone are quite similar, as are the "teenage sisters fending for themselves" characters.

14 Sleep Dealer (2008)
The film festival running the previous week opened with this and I was disappointed that I couldn't see it, but luckily they gave it a repeat screening for us yawning marathoners! Mexican writer/director Alex Rivera's debut imagines a future in which labor is outsourced to Latin American countries through nodes wired into workers' bodies, which can connect to any job, anywhere. After his father's death, the traumatized Memo decides to join this cyber workforce to support his mother and brother, but finds his mental and physical health slipping as he becomes more ingrained in the energy-draining process. A halting romance blooms between Memo and the writer Luz, as they both seek a connection that doesn't involve technology. There's also an interesting subplot about an American fighter pilot who fights perceived terrorists through a remote-controlled plane. It's a good premise and a nice, understated script, but a little heavy-handed in its metaphor and a little slow-moving. But it was visually interesting and well-acted, and overall pretty enjoyable.

Well there you have it. Second time around, and I think I handled myself pret-ty well. 24 hours is a long time, and it actually went an hour late, but we did it all (well, again, except 9, but whatever) and it was most enjoyable. I find that instead of having my fill of science-fiction for awhile, I'm actually more in the mood than usual to watch some futuristic, tech-savvy, alien-riddled films! Of course this is not going to become a sci-fi only blog, but you might expect more than usual, especially since I'm still working on this. Anyway, I can't wait until next year!


Saturday, February 20, 2010

The 2010 Boston Science-Fiction Marathon, Part II

Continuing from where we left off, you might recall that at this point your heroine (me) was five movies into a 24-hour marathon of sci-fi, and feeling pretty good. The Pizza Hut from 9 was starting to wear off and the group of teenagers behind us were really starting to grate, but I pushed on through many, many more movie viewings, all for the sake of dedicated nerdery.

Before the full-length features started up again, a few shorts were shown- all holdovers from the festival screenings of the previous week. I got to see "Frank Dan Coolo" and "The Package" again (reviews here), as well as an excellent student film called "Conlang" from director Marta Masferrer. It's a really sweet story about a group of young people with a passion for creating languages, and a devilish rival trying to upseat their club leadership. Plus it's a love story. And it's funny! Awesome. Watch an excerpt. Feature films after the jump.

6 Famous Monster: Forrest J Ackerman (2009)
I had never heard the name Forrest J Ackerman but this Canadian documentary opened my eyes to an incredibly influential man. He essentially invented fandom and collecting in the 30's and 40's, amassing a huge amount of objects from monster and sci-fi films that studios would just give away after shooting. He helped several sci-fi authors, most notably Ray Bradbury, get their start and he produced the magazine Famous Monsters, thereby inspiring a wealth of young nerds who'd grow up to be sci-fi/horror writers, directors, and actors. A number of his friends and admirers are interviewed as well as Ackerman himself (who passed away shortly after this was made) from his mini "Ackermansion", his residence that he opened to the public to display his collection. This is a really interesting look into the cultivation of sci-fi/horror nerd culture in the 30's-on but it's quite short and therefore doesn't go into enough detail. Plus it served as a sad reminder that almost everyone into sci-fi is white and male.

7 District 9 (2009)
I really enjoyed District 9 when I first saw it in theaters, but have been wondering if it would hold up to a second viewing. The main thing I remember disliking was the too-long buildup at the beginning. Luckily we went to get some Chinese take-out at the delicious Taipei Tokyo Cafe, so we missed the first 15 or so minutes. Anyway I've decided that this movie is still pretty damn awesome. It's thrilling and inventive and very well-acted, plus everyone has cool accents! The title links to my original review.

8 The Thing (1982)
This was preceded by some sexy geek-themed dancers from Black Cat Burlesque, which was awesome. Boba Fett stripper? Yes, please. Ahem. Anyway, I was really excited for The Thing, which I'd never seen but had heard praise for. I saw the original at last year's 'thon, so I was ready to see how Carpenter handled the remake. The answer is: really, really well. Kurt Russell leads a talented cast through a monstrous alien attack in an isolated post in Antarctica. While it's certainly scary and gory during several scenes, a lot of the film is an interesting study of the effects of paranoia and fear in an extreme situation. There's a great tension throughout the whole film, plus they took out the science vs military thing that I didn't like from the original. Really good stuff.

9 The Lathe of Heaven (1980)
This was an interesting one. Adapted from the book by Ursula K Le Guin, this is actually a made-for-PBS two-part miniseries starring Senator Kelly from X-Men (for the life of me I can never remember that guy's real name... it's Bruce Davison) as a man who can change reality through his dreams. He has "effective" dreams from time to time and wakes up to discover everything altered as a result of what he dreamt, but he's the only one who realizes it. After overdosing on dream-suppressant drugs, he is sent to therapy and eventually convinces Dr Haber of his power. The doctor hypnotizes him and suggests new dreams that would benefit either himself or mankind (erecting a new Haber Institute, ending overpopulation, etc) but usually these cause some sort of tragedy due to the unstable nature of dreaming. It's a really interesting premise and the production is decent considering it wasn't made for a big screen, but the narrative was a little stilted and sometimes overly ambiguous. Good performances from Davison and Kevin Conway, but I found Margaret Avery as the love interest rather bland and unconvincing. I think I'll check out the book, though.

Ok I was nodding off a little bit by the end of Lathe of Heaven, so it might be a struggle to make it through the next five movies, but darn it all I'll do it! I will! Check back tomorrow for the exciting conclusion, in which your heroine (me) watches more films! And eats donuts! And feels really sore in the buttocks region!


Friday, February 19, 2010

The 2010 Boston Science-Fiction Marathon, Part I

Hello friends, anyone who pays attention to my twitter posts (and really, who wouldn't?) will know that this weekend I endured 24+ hours of nonstop science fiction films at the 35th Annual Boston Sci-Fi Marathon held at the Somerville Theatre. It is a wonderful, exciting, and very taxing experience, and one of the few times I'm really all-out releasing my inner super-nerd amongst like-minded folks. 14 films were shown, along with a delightful bevy of shorts and old trailers, plus a few contests and a geeky burlesque performance. After Miles won the logo contest with his superb design, we got in fo' free plus received some sexy merchandise. I'll be breaking down the entire marathon into three posts, so pace yourself for some sci-fi thrills! First five films after the jump...

1 Moon (2009)
I've probably said enough times how amazingly amazing this movie is, but in case you needed a reminder: Hey, Moon is spectacular! It was a great way to kick off the 'thon and I was happy to see it again on the big screen. Clint Mansell's metallic, almost ethereal score really stuck out to me with the theatre's improved sound system. The title links to my original review.

2 Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
This movie was pretty darned awesome and ahead of its time (I assume so, anyway, not like I was around during its time to confirm), imagining a future in which an all-powerful super computer dubbed "Colossus" is installed to control all of the USA's defense networks. It hooks up to the USSR's own computer and the two systems become bent on world domination, blackmailing humans to do their bidding by launching missiles against civilians if they don't comply. Colossus takes special interest in Dr Forbin, its creator, who is secretly plotting a means to destroy it. The film is an engaging and well-written rumination on the potential for man-made world destruction and a pre-Skynet version of enslavement by machines. It's a nice dramatic take on the subject as opposed to the more action-packed versions we get nowadays (although I do enjoy the thematically-related War Games). Also check out how similar its poster is to Moon. Coincidence?

3 9 (2009)
We'd already seen this when it was in theaters and found it to be rather uninteresting, so we popped back home and ate some Pizza Hut and homemade cookies. This Russian version of the poster is pretty sweet though right? The title links to my original review.

4 The Giant Gila Monster (1958)
Following the Aluminum Foil Hat Contest (we forgot! next year I'll participate maybe), this next film offered some fun 50's schlock to enhance the lighthearted mood, with a cliche story and laughable special effects that begged the audience to shout out humorous commentary (which we of course did). The story focuses on a teenage mechanic who discovers his missing friends have been killed by a giant lizard that's been hiding in a nearby river. It's not a "good" movie by any means, but it's really enjoyable for its goofiness and random musical numbers, plus it was the star of an MST3K episode, so it holds a special place in my heart just for that.

5 Labyrinth (1986)
I know this isn't exactly appropriate for the science-fiction theme, but it still fit in fairly well to the lineup. It was sort of a last-minute decision, I believe, since they couldn't get a hold of Godzilla vs Mothra. I hadn't seen this since I was a kid, and I'll tell you it doesn't thrill me quite as much now as an "adult". It might be because I think Jennifer Connelly is a really bad actress, or it might be because it's not very well-written (oddly enough I never knew the screenplay was by Terry Jones). Of course we still get David Bowie rockin' some truly tight stretch pants and a host of memorable characters with Henson's signature puppet style, so Labyrinth is still worth a viewing. Plus there's a nice MC Escher-inspired ending and some cool Bowie tunes.

Alright 5 (well, technically 4, but I'm thinking time-wise here) movies down and I'm feeling pretty good. Bah, I can totally do this 24-hour thing, no problem! I'll just keep drinking soda and eating canned pears, mmmm. These thoughts and more ran naively through my head as the evening passed and night began. The next four films will be highlighted in tomorrow's post!


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dirty Harry (1971)

Yeah so maybe I've mentioned my extreme dearth of Eastwood movie experience? This is being gradually corrected thanks to one man's noble dream of watching a ton of his films and keeping track of the bodycount. And I'm participating! We started with Dirty Harry, since I've been interested in that one since I was a kid but never got around to seeing it. Anyway, this movie is about Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), a skilled police investigator whose rude manner has made him some enemies in the office.

When the mysterious "Scorpio Killer" (Andrew Robinson) starts targeting random civilians and sending blackmail messages to the San Francisco Police Department, Harry is teamed up with the inexperienced Chico Gonzalez (Reni Santoni, whom I'm pretty sure isn't Mexican... or of any Latin American descent...) to find the culprit through a series of elaborate traps organized by a large force of officers. Scorpio proves to be unpredictable and unscrupulous, leading Harry down a long path of destruction before the inevitable final showdown.

This movie is pretty cool, but it's hard to separate from all of the similar knockoffs that have followed it, which I unfortunately saw first. The character and premise didn't feel new to me and the story's structure was lacking some punch or twist (again, I'm thinking comparatively). That being said, it's still extremely enjoyable thanks to the terrific performance from Clint Eastwood, who in his youth looks almost exactly like Hugh Jackman, as well as a nice, escalating script. Eastwood is cool and seemingly unstoppable as the eponymous detective, but still maintains an aura of humanness and relatability. He embodies this classic unlikely hero character with ease and confidence, and is quite fun to watch. The film focuses almost solely on the time he spends working, exposing his character through his interactions with coworkers and his crimefighting instincts, and giving very little view of his home life (which leads me to assume it's basically nonexistent).

One thing I found a little strange about Dirty Harry is its villain. Scorpio seems kind of... lame, to be honest. He's just this whiny guy with a gun and no real reason to be a homicidal maniac. He becomes more and more dangerous and resourceful as the film progresses, morphing into a serious threat to everyone around him and especially to Harry. I think he's written well, but that the actor is miscast. Robinson is not intimidating at all, and I just didn't believe him in the role. It seemed faked, somehow, as if this man wasn't really the criminal.

Casting issues aside, Dirty Harry is damned good fun, with a stellar leading man and an interesting story coupled with an engaging shooting style and a groovy score. I expect to see several more in the series at some point vaguely soon.



Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass (aka Baadasssss!) (2003)

God damn. God damn is this movie good. Drawing from his father's book as well as personal memories, Mario Van Peebles crafts an intricate and enthralling look at the creation of Melvin Van Peebles' pivotal film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which launched the blaxploitation genre in the early 70's. Writing, directing, and starring, Mario portrays his father as an extremely dedicated but controlling filmmaker who sacrifices absolutely everything- money, family, friends, health- to independently make a movie for a black audience fed up with racist and stereotypical roles in Hollywood. Van Peebles enlists the aid of hippie producer Bill Harris (Rainn Wilson), porn director Clyde Houston (David Alan Grier), and a range of connections to make his dream movie come to life.

Sweetback's shocking depiction of a black sex worker beating racist white cops, and its decidedly gritty hyper-realism, alienated a lot of already-wary white industry people and forced Melvin to essentially fund it with his own money and personal loans. Endeavoring to hire a multi-racial crew he avoided unions, and pretended to be making a "black porno" so they'd keep away from the production. To save money he starred, scripted, and edited the film, while sticking to a perilously short shooting schedule and using a lot of illegal locations. He loses a lot of friends due to his perfectionism and unwillingness to compromise, while becoming more isolated from his pre-teen children Mario (Khleo Thomas) and Megan (Penny Bae Bridges), and by the time he finishes the film he has very little left to live on.

This is an incredible story of such remarkable dedication and heart, and I was so utterly drawn into Melvin's struggle, that I honestly was pretty teary at the end. The character of Melvin is very well-rounded and with Mario's performance he becomes a very real, flawed, but quite admirable person whom you can't help but support. His cigar-biting intensity is well balanced against some lighter supporting characters like Bill and his histrionic secretary Priscilla (Joy Bryant). The structure of the film flits back and forth between scripted drama and documentary-style interviews with the actors as their real-life characters. This lends the story more credence as a fact-based tale while giving it a more dramatic, engrossing quality than an actual documentary might have. There's a lot going on in this movie, but that's appropriate for the fast-paced and frequently-besieged situations Melvin experienced while making Sweetback.

Baadasssss! (its title was changed after its initial festival screenings, but I think I like the original a bit better) is an insanely interesting film, dealing with issues experienced by minority filmmakers and actors in the 70's as well as the perils of making a movie without financial or studio support. The story spans his initial creation of the Sweetback character (who, incidentally, pops up once in a while to discourage Melvin for getting in too deep) to its first theatre screening. While the focus is almost solely on Melvin, there is also attention to how his creative process and personality quirks affected those around him, especially his son Mario. Thomas' performance is understated but their scenes together speak volumes about his relationship with his father.

By making this film it seems the younger Van Peebles is coming to terms with how he was treated by the elder, and how a movie so significant can have a wealth of negative impact behind the scenes. It is a loving tribute to an important figure in American pop culture, and just superbly made in every way, from the thumping 70's-style score by Tyler Bates to the costumes by Kara Saun (Project Runway, season 1, hello) to the enjoyable performances from the ensemble cast to the captivating script. Everything comes together to make a truly fascinating and ultimately moving film. Even though I've heard it's not actually all that great, I feel obligated to see Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song now, just knowing how much suffering and heart went into making it. But first, you should all go out and see this film!



From Paris With Love (2010)

I heard the mediocre reviews for From Paris With Love, but the Luc Besson/Pierre Morel team-up drew me in anyway. Besides, what the hell else was there to see? James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is a reserved, opportunistic government aide working in Paris while performing small tasks for the CIA on side, with the ultimate goal of becoming a full-time operative. He is assigned to be a driver for hotshot agent Charlie Wax (John Travolta), who plays by his own set of rules and has a special relationship with his gun. Wax leads Reece down a dizzying trail of Chinese coke dealers and fundamentalist terrorists, leaving a large amount of dead bodies in his wake. While Reece is reticent to go along with Wax's loose canon ways at first, he eventually learns to trust his new partner and they work together to stop a threat to the multinational conference meeting in Paris.

As buddy-action movies go, this one's a bit lackluster but watchable. Travolta is having a ball the entire time and it really shows, as he revels in his wisecracks and badass fight scenes. Unfortunately Jonathan Rhys Meyers is noticeably awful- just inexcusably bland and whiny- and yet is written as the main character. We see everything from his perspective, and I think he is supposed to be sympathetic, but he is just so unlikable and didn't really serve much purpose in the story.

Which brings me to: the story. It's not exactly a cohesive script. I think the writers were aiming for a clever buddy action movie that doubled as a twisty mystery relevant to contemporary world events but... that isn't exactly how it played out. The steps Wax takes to find the criminals don't make any sense and I didn't care enough about Reece as a character to be at all taken in by the surprise "twists". Really, it's all just an excuse for some very enjoyable and fast-paced battle and chase scenes. The fight choreography is excellent and there are some interesting shoot-out locations, as well as a good combination of humor and legitimate violence. Unfortunately the action scenes are shorter than I'd have liked, leaving more time for the weaker writing.

All in all From Paris With Love is sort of ok. The faulty script and Rhys Meyers' poor performance are coupled with some great action sequences and a fun turn by Travolta to create a decidedly middling movie. I didn't need to spend money on it though...


PS Remember if you want a truly excellent buddy action film from the Besson/Morel team, just see District B13! Or its sequel District B13: Ultimatum, which is gradually expanding in the US right now, but isn't directed by Morel.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Westworld (1973)

I've really been getting into iCheckMovies (be careful you don't, too- it's addicting for people with obsessive personalities, ie me) lately, and I've decided that the main list I'd love to see in its entirety is the 100 Greatest Sci-Fi Movies, as determined by the writers at Total Sci-Fi. I've already seen 56 of them and a bunch are on my to-watch list anyway, so it seems the easiest and most satisfying. This is all a long-winded way of saying, get ready for a lot of classic science-fiction coming your way. I hit Westworld first because lately I've been re-watching The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr and that always leaves me in the mood for westerns.

Wealthy pals John (James Brolin) and Peter (Richard Benjamin) embark upon an exclusive, adventurous vacation at Westworld, a historical Wild West playground populated by highly realistic robots. The guests live out their fantasies as heroes or villains, indulging in gunfights and seductive barmaids. This park is seated next to two other themed historical vacation spots, Roman World and Medieval World, whose guests are shown periodically, jousting and whatnot. While a sinister robotic gunslinger (Yul Brynner) persistently confronts John and Peter, the operators of the resorts gradually discover more and more unexpected glitches in their creations that could lead to total loss of control.

When I read the Netflix synopsis, which incorporates phrases like "a futuristic 'Fantasy Island' turns deadly", "high-tech nightmare controlled by a ruthless robotic gunslinger", and "the terrified adventure seekers get more than their money's worth", I thought Westworld would be a high-stakes action thriller with Hot Robot Death Action. It isn't really, though. The story develops very gradually from Peter and John's first entrance to the resort to their various experiences with the proprietors of this pseudo-realistic Western town. Peter is recently divorced and has never dealt with robots before, so a lot of their conversations revolve around John showing him the ropes and encouraging him to take advantage of the existence of machines as a way to relieve his tension- whether through sexual or violent means.

It's nice to really let the story unfold casually, with minor instances of machine malfunction building up into mayhem, but it did drag narratively. I understand all of the "realistic robots are new and useful, but also maybe terrifying" stuff was probably a newer idea in 1973, but with all of the subsequent films and books dealing with the same concept, I didn't need these frequent ruminations about it. The plot's structure was also a bit uneven- smaller characters pop up in the other worlds, especially Medieval World, from time to time, but they seem completely disconnected from the main goings-on in Westworld, and I think it would have been sufficient to focus the story on just one themed resort. They all sort of come together at the end, but it wasn't necessary to include them.

While a good chunk of the beginning of the movie is good-but-not-great, the big climactic chase and battle scenes are stunning. All of this gradual pacing and light conversation suddenly totally pays off in the form of this incredibly tense, dramatic, almost-wordless nail-biter of a finale. It's everything I thought the movie would be in its entirety compiled into about 25 minutes, with Brynner and Benjamin really earning their paychecks with the help of some impressive effects. While sometimes it shows its age and the writing isn't as tight as it could be, Westworld makes for an effective, engrossing thriller if you just wait for the payoff at the end.



Saturday, February 13, 2010

Malenkaya Vera (Little Vera) (1988)

I'm taking a class this semester on Russian contemporary culture, which is really interesting and new to me since I know very little about Russia. Most of the course focuses heavily on the fall of the Soviet Union and of residual effects on Russian lifestyles and questions of identity. Our first film (of which there will be several, so be ready for lots of Russian cinema in the coming months!) is Little Vera, one of the last movies made in the Soviet Union, which was radical for its time due to its frank depiction of sex and familial dysfunction.

Vera (Natalya Negoda) is a typical rebellious teenager: she listens to rock and roll, bleaches her hair, doesn't devote much time to her studies, and talks back to her controlling parents (Yuriy Nazarov and Lyudmila Zajtseva). She starts sleeping with Sergei (Andrei Sokolov), a frequently-shirtless college student, and in short time they decide to get married. Vera's parents are disheartened by this decision after finding her fiance to be disrespectful and selfish, but after a little while they allow him to move in with them. Sergei clashes time and again with her alcoholic father and jaded mother, making Vera more and more miserable as she questions her choices as well as her loyalties.

Little Vera's story isn't very good, it's true. Vera and Sergei are in "love" after less than 24 hours together yet the only thing they seem to have in common is their mutual desire to bang one another at every possible moment. Mom and Dad allow this asshole guy to move in and sleep in their daughter's bed, despite how openly rude he is to them. None of this is believable, yet these are major plot points. However, Little Vera really isn't about the specific story, but more about the characters and the various situations they find themselves in due to the cultural and sociological atmosphere.

Most of the characters range from contemptible to sympathetic at different moments, with a score of awful things happening to everyone. Everything just gradually worsens, and the film never lets its audience go for a second, piling up these brutal and raw scenes full of sex and aggression. While it doesn't openly criticize the Soviet Union, the dismal living conditions and pressures experienced by its inhabitants are clearly expressed but in subtler ways, seen in the father's brooding alcoholism and a lonely black child watching racist cartoons about Africa (this took place during the Soviet-Afghan War), among other examples. The loose morals and indifferent attitudes of the teenage characters can be seen as products of their overly-strict environment. There are a lot of little details highlighting daily life in the Soviet Union that I didn't think about until my professor discussed the film, such as the fact that Vera generally only wears two outfits (it was uncommon to own a lot of clothes) and the importance of certain guest behaviors at family dinners.

Learning more about how Little Vera reflects the culture and social customs of the period gave me more appreciation for the film, as it provides rare insight (for me at least) into a certain type of people and lifestyle with which I've had little contact. While I didn't find the story very engaging, I was intrigued by the characters' complexities and interactions, which make for a gritty but realistic drama.



Friday, February 12, 2010

Boston Science-Fiction Festival: Short Films

Well, the Boston Science-Fiction Festival is running this week at the Somerville Theatre. This incredibly talented man won the logo design contest, meaning we get free passes to the whole thing, including the main event: the 35th Annual 24-Hour Sci-Fi Marathon this weekend. Dang, I'm excited! In the mean time I caught two of the festival screenings, both composed of several shorts (unfortunately my schedule doesn't permit seeing any other screenings). I saw a ton, but I'll just talk about the ones I personally found most notable.

Many of them were time travel or alien-related, which is cool. My main problem was that several were meant to be quite dramatic, but I don't usually buy such seriousness in a short film. If there's no time to build up a well-rounded character in a small amount of time (or if your writing/acting isn't good enough to do so), then I can't be expected to care what drama they're going through. I liked the comedic ones much better, because one generally doesn't need a lot of time to be funny.

"The Package", dir Oliver Waghorn
This was part of a competition held by the Australian Post, with the requirements that it feature a parcel and not exceed 200 seconds. It begins with a couple fighting heatedly, with the woman storming away right before the man receives a mysterious package that could be the answer to his problems. Or not. It's a nice, curt little movie with a punchy ending. UPDATE: See an excerpt here.

"Destination Day" dir Chris Lassig
This is another Australian entry, spotlighting the time travel adventures of Tim, who keeps trying to fix his relationship problems by going back in time to re-do things, or kill himself before he makes another mistake. The ending of this one pretty much makes it too. But alas, no video.

"Dimensional Meltdown" dir Ofer Pedut
Despite the fact that they spelled "dimensional" incorrectly in the title card, I thought this one was pretty good, especially in its visuals. It has a similar theme to "Destination Day", but this time focuses on inter-dimensional travel. A man seems doomed to lose his love to car accidents in multiple parallel universes, so several versions of himself travel to the dimension in which she lives. Unfortunately this means they'll have to compete violently with one another to be with her.

"Frank Dancoolo: International Drug Dealer" dir Andrew W Jones
This was one of my favorites. Set in "Neo-Mega-Ultra Tokyo" of the future, a fast-talking lady reporter hunts down a murderous drug dealer and uncovers an unexpected psychic conspiracy. Of course, she handles it well with sass and a tape recorder while some mad kung-fu fighting goes down. It's funny and highly stylized, with a great lead actress in Priscilla McEver, fun with anachronisms, and a good dose of zaniness. UPDATE: Now you can watch the video!

"All Systems Go Neil Armstrong" dir Robert Dohrmann
This one really mixed it up. It's sort of a music video remix of space mission recordings, combining eerie animation, photographs, and a lot of intriguing machinery. It doesn't really tell a story or anything, but it's fun to watch and well-designed. You can see the video here.

"The Kirkie" dir Jim Krieg
This was probably my other favorite. Three cosplaying nerds are on their way to a convention when their car breaks down. The most visually normal one (the one with a leather X-Men jacket, as opposed to the one dressed as a Stormtrooper or Tron character) courageously enters a nearby bar to find help and finds himself socializing with a pretty lady. Of course some snobby assholes besiege the nerds, looking down upon their strange geek ways, but the main guy learns to stand up for himself with the help of James Tiberius Kirk. It's like what Fanboys should have been. And you can see the whole thing here!

"Enigma" dir Jason and Matt Shumway
Notable mainly because this was the longest and (I assume) most expensive short shown, the boringly-titled "Enigma" relates the turmoil caused on a run-down transport spaceship after the arrival of a murderous alien criminal. It looks really great, but unfortunately is basically an unapologetic Firefly ripoff. Seriously, it's like somebody plopped a less attractive Nathan Fillion into a smaller version of Serenity, mixed in a sarcastic mechanic (combination Wash, Kaylee, and Jayne) and a less fiery Gina Torres, and set it all within some half-assed frame story with a cold-hearted general trying to solve a crime. It's not bad, but it's not very well-written and it's highly derivative, so it's frustrating to see such excellent production go into a mediocre film when some of the better-written shorts clearly had less financial support. Here's the trailer:


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Blazing Saddles (1974)

I feel like I watch Mel Brooks movies all the time, yet somehow I've never reviewed one here. Huh. Blazing Saddles is probably my favorite of his rather large body of work because, well, it's pretty great. After clonking his racist boss Taggart (Slim Pickens) on the head with a shovel, black railroad worker Bart (Cleavon Little) is sentenced to death by power-hungry politician Heddy "That's Hedley!" Lamarr (Harvey Korman). He manages to escape his fate when Lamarr and the asinine Governor William J Lepetomane (Mel Brooks) appoint him sheriff of Rock Ridge, a small western town that Lamarr hopes to blaze a section of the railroad through after everyone's deserted due to their natural hatred of Bart's race. Bart takes the job, and appoints drunken sharp-shooter Jim "The Waco Kid" (Gene Wilder) as his deputy. He gradually wins over the closed-minded townspeople as he continually outwits the various sabotages launched at him by Lamarr and Taggart, including a German seductress named Lili Schtupp (Madeline Kahn), and eventually everyone has to band together to save the town from the greedy Lamarr.

God, where to start... this movie is just straight-up hilarious, with a good mix of visual gags, silly puns, anachronistic references, fourth-wall breaking, and clever dialogue. I love Mel Brooks, but he's definitely a bit hit-and-miss. Sometimes his humor is a little outdated or hokey, especially some of his sight gags, but with Blazing Saddles I really think every came together perfectly. It's a pretty cohesive story (something that is sometimes sacrificed in his other movies) with an ever-quotable script, interesting characters, and a killer opening song. Plus, it's a western! So there are gun fights! And corsets! And horse-punching! And Hollywood studio tours! While I know some people are frustrated by the off-topic, utterly fourth-wall-breaking ending, I appreciate that Brooks just lets everything get totally wacky- it suits the tone of the film and everything is still wrapped up nicely. Plus how else would he fit in the Dom DeLuise cameo?

Of course, it helps that the cast is compiled of some truly excellent comedic actors. I'm a little bit in love with Gene Wilder (ok, maybe more than a little) and this is one of my favorites of his roles. He's got this great easygoing line delivery and smooth demeanor that's impossible not to like. I love the crazier versions of Wilder, but this kind of low-key performance is a nice way to mix it up. Cleavon Little is rad, giving Bart a likable zaniness and natural charisma. Naturally Madeline Kahn is just radiant and funny as she works twice as hard as her male counterparts. She's always so fun to watch, and as usual steals any scene she's in. Other standouts include Harvey Korman as the ranty Hedley Lamarr, who's constantly correcting pronunciations of his name (a joke I never tire of) and Brooks himself as the incredibly idiotic and lecherous governor with aims at the presidency.

So there you have it. I love this movie. It's got jokes, the wild west, Gene Wilder, and it says no to racism. These are all things I appreciate. Plus I can quote it pretty darned well, resulting in periodic interior moments of me replaying a scene in my head and subsequently chortling to myself. Ah, what an exciting life I lead!