Monday, May 31, 2010

Tank Girl (1995)

Huh, I could have sworn I'd already reviewed this movie (I feel like I watch it often enough), but I guess not! So lucky you, you're in for a treat as I speak wittily and perhaps over-emphatically about a film I think is often under-appreciated. Also, I went a little crazy with the screencap function. Based (loosely) on Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett's titular comic, Tank Girl sets its sights on rebellious prankster Rebecca aka Tank Girl (Lori Petty), arrested for stealing water from dominant corporation Water and Power.

You see, it's the future and there's been a 13-year drought after an asteroid struck earth, and the jerks at Water and Power control all the remaining water with an iron fist. Their leader is Kesslee (Malcolm McDowell), a general asshole who is easily peeved by Rebecca's irreverent, plucky nature and tortures her within an inch of her life. She eventually escapes with fellow prisoner Jet Girl (Naomi Watts), a mousy mechanic, and the two embark on a mission to take down Water and Power for good with the help of the Rippers, a legendary gang of mutant kangaroo soldiers. And all with the aid of her trusty tricked-out tank, of course.

While the comic is a meandering, anarchistic, stream-of-consciousness safari through Tank Girl's wacky, hyperviolent antics and extremely self-referential rhetoric, the film endeavors to be a more straightforward dystopic action comedy while retaining that wild spirit. It's a valiant effort, but it doesn't quite succeed. It is, however, a highly entertaining and unabashedly offbeat film that I enjoy the hell out of. The script is a little uneven, but fairly funny, and there's a good mix of big action scenes and comedic moments. Several scenes incorporate still comic images and frenetic animation, giving the film as varied and changeable a feel as its source material.

Tank Girl has a cool cast that includes appearances from Iggy Pop, Ice-T, and Ann Cusack, but it rightly never strays far from its title character. With her pop culture references, cracked voice, and incredibly awesome costumes/hairstyles, Lori Petty does embody the playful, slightly insane personage of Tank Girl, but imbues her with more femininity. Martin and Hewlett basically took a beer-guzzling, sociopathic dude and put him in a woman's body. Director Rachel Talalay, Petty, and company bring some lady elements to the table and the result is a character who can use her sexuality to her advantage but is never dominated by men around her. She's a smart, funny female action hero who doesn't have to resort to tight-fighting clothes or seductive one-liners. And I totally dig that.

While the film's attempts to make sense of such a deliberately ridiculous and nonlinear comic are well-meaning, it doesn't always work story-wise. I like the post-apocalyptic evil corporation thing, but tribal mutant kangaroos don't really fit in (in the comic you just sort of accept it all). Plus she spends way too long in the Water and Power work camp. Martin, Hewlett, and Talalay had major problems with the studio over the final cut of the film, and no one was very happy with the end product. I'd say that it's not the best adaptation, but serves as a very cool, goofy movie in its own right. There's a killer soundtrack arranged by Courtney Love and a highly capable, empowered, fashion-forward lady front and center. It might not be the "ultimate riot grrrl movie" Talalay intended, but it's a good effort. Plus it inspired me to one day own a bitchin' tank, a little girl's dream to which I still naively cling.


"Girl U Want"- Devo (alternate version)
"Big Gun"- Ice-T and Joe-J
"Aurora"- Veruca Salt

My original poster design for this film is available for purchase.


Sunday, May 30, 2010

Lovely & Amazing (2001)

Fresh off my viewing of her latest offering Please Give (and also taking a break from packing up my mountain of possessions before moving to a new apartment), I was ready for netflix to send me Nicole Holofcener's 2001 film Lovely & Amazing. Jane Marks (Brenda Blethyn) is an aging single mother who decides to undergo liposuction surgery as a way to increase her self-esteem and get back in the dating game. Her oldest daughter Michelle (Catherine Keener) is an unemployed artist having trouble selling her crafts, and suspects her husband (Clark Gregg) of infidelity but doesn't want to lose their young daughter in a separation.

Jane's second daughter Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) is a struggling actress whose boyfriend doesn't understand her obsession with image, which she believes is crucial to her profession. The youngest is Annie (Raven Goodwin), an eight-year-old whom she adopted several years previously. Annie's experiences as a black girl growing up in a privileged white family have skewed some of her perceptions, and Jane enrolls her in a big sister program so she can form a bond with a black woman. The lives of the sisters intertwine around their mother's operation, co-mingling with relationship problems and various neuroses.

Once again, Holofcener has crafted a female-centric comedy-drama that revolves around character rather than an involved narrative. And once again, it works quite well. The script is inundated with realistic and lightly comedic conversations that help flesh out the frustrated and flawed characters. The story's threads are less cohesive than in her other films I've seen, making it a little uneven in its execution, but generally it works. She explores the setbacks experienced by women in a range of age groups, all connected by their neurotic fixations and concerns about beauty. These themes are dealt with in an unassuming, compassionate way, making the film intriguing even when its characters are making weird decisions.

The acting is of course excellent. Keener shines in her role as the quick-to-smile, quick-to-cuss Michelle, whose own creative and sexual frustrations culminate in an ill-advised and short-lived romance with a goofy-haired Jake Gyllenhaal. She anchors the film as the most dynamic and talkative character. Mortimer is sweet and believable as an up-and-coming actress struggling to be "sexy" and find comfort with her own body, though her fling with Dermot Mulroney is a little gross just because he is a little gross. I liked Blethyn but her character isn't given as much screen time or development as she needed, so she didn't have a lot to do.

While not quite as funny or memorable as Please Give, Lovely & Amazing is still a charming and well-written film that served to further deepen my crush on Catherine Keener.



Saturday, May 29, 2010

Dark Star (1974)

Wow. So this movie... it kind of comes out of nowhere, doesn't it? We watched it primarily on a whim and to satisfy another entry to the list, and I really had no idea what to expect. Written and directed by John Carpenter (along with co-writer Dan O'Bannon), Dark Star is the filmmaker's first full-length feature. And to quote an expert, "it kind of shows." But that's ok. Set in the titular "spaced-out spaceship", the film follows the endeavors of four beardy white guys trying not to go crazy after years spent in close quarters. There's not much of an over-arching story, as it's really more a collection of loosely connected scenes. Sgt Pinback (O'Bannon) wrestles with their pet alien, Lt Doolittle (Brian Narelle) talks a lot about surfing, Talby (Dre Pahich) attempts to repair damage to the ship's computer, and Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) just hangs out and maintains his facial hair.

Dark Star has evolved into a sort of cult classic and while I wasn't completely into it, I can see why. The characters are goofy and the script is ludicrous. Most of the movie doesn't make much sense and the production values are extremely low: two factors that generally serve to make it funnier than perhaps it was meant to be. The actors are only partly committed to their roles, resulting in some weird line readings. Plus it is hard to tell them apart sometimes since they are all white guys with lots of hair who wear jumpsuits.

The most notable part of the film is the extended segment involving the beach ball-esque alien's attempts to kill Pinback, which lead to some death-defying antics and a nerve-wracking elevator trip. It's a really well-shot sequence that's both funny and thrilling, expertly building up tension as Carpenter is wont to do. I also enjoyed the metaphysical discussion between a sentient bomb and its human controller, which quickly evolved into a very Douglas Adams-y conversation about a machine's understanding of truth.

Dark Star is pretty funny at parts, but slow or strange at others. It lacks any cohesion and I couldn't tell if some of its humor was intentional, which made me feel sort of weird for laughing at certain moments. It's a very cool first film and for the most part quite entertaining, but not exactly up there on my "cult classic" favorites.



Friday, May 28, 2010

New Poll: Video Game Movies

Whelp, I've graduated. There you have it. I'm also mostly unemployed, which sucks. (Anyone in the Boston area looking for an intelligent, organized, highly personable employee?!) So the responses for the college movie poll were fairly varied. Let's break it down!

4 votes: Animal House (nope, still haven't seen it), Legally Blonde (good choice!), Wonder Boys (which I should see eventually)
3 votes: Accepted, Real Genius, Other
1 vote: Back to School, Night of the Creeps, The Sure Thing
0 votes: House on Sorority Row, Old School, Revenge of the Nerds (which surprises me), Road Trip

In the comments: Simon recommends College Confidential and admits a soft spot for Sydney White (which I totally get), filmgeek goes for St Elmo's Fire (which doesn't quite count since they're graduates) and Gossip, Marc digs Road Trip despite Tom Green, and Whitney is pretty sure the kids in Masculin Feminin are pretentious enough to be in college. Oh and Luke kindly congratulated me!

Ok. Prince of Persia and The Rotten Tomatoes Show have had me thinking about video game adaptations. Most of them are pretty lame, some are mediocre, and a few are pretty enjoyable (though often in a guilty pleasure kind of way). So to continue on the "what's your favorite ____ movie?" theme, I ask you: What's your favorite video game movie?

BUT! Follow-up poll! What's the worst video game movie? Vote, comment, etc!


Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)

Hey, another free screening! Good times! Which means that for once in my life I have a review of a major release up less than a week after it comes out! Based on the video game of the same name that I vaguely remember watching a high school boyfriend play, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is an epic fantasy adventure set around the sort-of-historical locale of Alamut. Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an orphan peasant adopted by the king of Persia at the age of ten, who found his courage and lack of interest in the throne appealing in a new son.

Dastan and his adoptive brothers Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) and Tus (Richard Coyle) occupy the holy fortress of Alamut after evidence of arms dealing arises, with their princess and holy leader Tamina (Gemma Arterton) captured as a future wife for Tus. While their armies search for weapons forges, the king is honored with a holy robe that quickly poisons and kills him, and Dastan is the primary suspect. He flees with Tamina in tow and the two embark upon a journey to find out the real killer while protecting Alamut's most precious artifact: a mystical dagger with the ability to transport its user back in time.

As you can probably tell, there's a lot of setup to get to the main narrative, but once past that Prince of Persia is your basic lighthearted fantasy epic, reminiscent of The Mummy or Aladdin for its desert setting and unreal elements. It's fun, fast, and a little cheesy. The story is fairly cliche-ridden, with archetypal characters and an unsurprising plot (including a big betrayal obvious to everyone except the central characters! Whoa!), but it works well enough as an uncomplicated adventure with some cute dialogue, lovely vistas, and cool action scenes. Some of the CG effects are sub-par (mainly the shots involving the dagger itself), but I really enjoyed the sword fights and ancient-parkour chase scenes.

Of course, the historical inaccuracies and whiteness of the casting are pretty annoying factors. I'm in no way an expert on Persian culture or history, but it's not hard to tell that most of the main cast don't quite fit in. Everyone's got their "vaguely British to signify ambiguously foreign" accent going on, which admittedly I find pretty funny. But after a few minutes of exposition and name-dropping, I just started to look at the time, place, and people as completely made-up and unconnected to any real thing- sort of like a Middle Earth or Dungeons and Dragons deal. It makes it easier to get into, but doesn't excuse the fact that Hollywood insists on casting white people to play, well, everyone. I'm assuming the game isn't especially historically accurate and the film never pretends to be, so that's forgivable I guess.

With Alfred Molina in a fun comedic role, Ben Kingsley proving himself remarkably spry, Steve Toussaint throwing daggers with style (and meeting an all-too-expected end), and Jake Gyllenhaal showing off his remarkably toned arms, Prince of Persia does a pretty ok job for itself. Arterton is kind of annoying as your typical "lady in an action movie who despite being quite outspoken and presumably self-sufficient still needs the dudes' help all the time", but I think it's just that kind of role. It has its problems, but taken as it is Prince of Persia is an enjoyable, fun video game film that offers nothing new to the fantasy adventure genre but does certainly entertain.


Further Reading:
Cut. Print. Review. review
DC Girl @ The Movies review


Thursday, May 27, 2010

Holy Rollers (2010)

The MFA had a free screening of Holy Rollers last week, and I'm always up for a free screening, especially one that promises a great cast and some drug-trafficking Hasidic Jews. Based on a true story, the film tackles the evolution of one enterprising Jewish fabric retailer into a formidable ecstasy mule in the late 1990's. Living with his family in a small Brooklyn apartment, Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg) hopes to be set up with a good wife from his community, despite several rejections which he feels resulted from his lack of wealth.

When his rebellious neighbor Yosef (Justin Bartha) offers him a job transporting "medicine" between Amsterdam and New York, he sees an opportunity to earn enough money to warrant a wife. After ingratiating himself with his new Israeli boss (Danny Abeckaser) and his flirty girlfriend (Ari Graynor), Sam eventually finds himself slipping into their lifestyle and distancing himself from his family and faith.

I know nothing about the actual events, so I can't comment on how factual this is, but I can say that its understated and straightforward mode of storytelling feels pretty realistic, and is in fact one of its shortcomings. The film doesn't treat the story as a personal or religious journey, or dichotomous comedy, or insightful character study, but rather as a blunt and unsurprising crime drama. It's an interesting premise, but just not handled with any especially interesting angle.

The cast is great, with good turns from Eisenberg as the reserved but ambitious Sam and Graynor as his inappropriately seductive love interest (who doesn't get enough screen time, as usual). Bartha stands out as the main comic relief, infusing his character with an over-the-top personality and confident swagger. Mark Ivanir also shines in the small but significant role of Sam's father Mendel. He is a man equally committed to his son and to his religious/moralistic values, and forced to choose between the two- I was curious to see more from his character.

The plot is structured unevenly, with a good amount of character establishment and build-up to the actual trafficking, but then a sudden speeding up through a lot of Sam's personal development and new relationships when he starts working. It's an intriguing story by itself and the performances are engaging enough to keep me fairly interested, but all in all Holy Rollers just isn't special or smart enough to really stand out as a unique true crime drama. And considering its idiosyncratic roots, that's a shame.



Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Fei Zheng Chuan (Days of Being Wild) (1990)

Though viewed out of order, I have finally completed Wong Kar-wai's loosely-connected trilogy consisting of In the Mood for Love, 2046, and today's topic, Days of Being Wild. Set in the perpetually-humid Hong Kong in 1960, the story follows the romantic trials of Yuddy (Leslie Cheung), a self-absorbed, unemployed playboy who releases his anger at his adoptive mother (Rebecca Pan) by mistreating the various women he seduces. One such woman is Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), a mild-mannered cashier who finds herself wandering the streets late at night after they break up, confiding her troubles in a patient police officer (Andy Lau). Yuddy's next girlfriend is the outspoken dancer Leung Fung-ling (Carina Lau), who clings to him harder the worse he treats her, even after he abandons her to search for his birth mother in the Philippines.

First things first: I have been quite sick for the past week and my mind is not at its keenest, so this will probably be short and not especially insightful. Oh well. Days of Being Wild lacks the heart-wrenching effects of successors, primarily because its central character is so unlikable. I didn't care at all about Yuddy, even when his more vulnerable side was brought to light in his relationship with his adoptive mother, and became pretty sick of him as the film progressed. To me the most engaging relationship of the film was that between Yuddy and Tide, the police officer-turned-sailor, that develops near the end, mostly because it didn't involve Yuddy being completely awful to a naive woman. But their time together was quite short.

The acting is superb, with Maggie Cheung and Carina Lau being gorgeous and charismatic, Leslie Cheung being appropriately disdainful, and Andy Lau being quite attractive and enthusiastic. As I've come to expect from Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle- a frequent collaborator- the film is absolutely beautiful to watch. The colors are slightly over-saturated, and the frequent rainfall and nighttime setting are put to good use with dramatic lighting and shadows. The costumes are stylish and colorful in the way seemingly everything from the 1960's was in our glorifying collective memory.

The story itself is rather loose, with the focus remaining more on character interaction and serious ruminations on love and rejection. Because I wasn't especially attached to most of the characters or their experiences, I wasn't very engaged by this concept as a whole, but the visuals and performances certainly kept me interested.



Monday, May 24, 2010

The Good Heart (2009)

Despite its lackluster title, I was intrigued by The Good Heart's promise of great acting from Brian Cox and Paul Dano, and a new writing/directing effort from Noi The Albino-helmer Dagur Kári. Don't be fooled. The film tracks the evolution of an unexpected friendship between Jacques (Brian Cox), a cynical bartender, and Lucas (Paul Dano), a shy homeless twentysomething. They meet in the hospital, where Jacques is recovering after his fifth heart attack and Lucas is healing from a suicide attempt. The former decides to take Lucas into his home and train him as a bartender, hoping to leave his establishment in capable hands after his impending death. The two forge a bond, learn from each other, get sick of each other's weird habits, etc. Also a lady comes from France but don't worry, she won't be given any lines or personality so it's not important.

Ok, before I dive into the main thing about this movie that made me furious, let's talk about some of the good things. It's all shot with a nice, dark blue palette that personally I enjoy (I'm always one for altered saturation), lending the whole affair an air of antiquity and emptiness. For the most part, the script is decent- the story is mediocre but there is some great realistic dialogue. The performances from Dano and Cox are quite good, with both playing off each other really well and solidifying their under-developed characters. We know very little about the backstories of Jacques and Lucas, but through roundabout conversations and some telling quirks, their personalities and possible histories are able to shine through. I think Dano especially stands out.

Remember how I mentioned this movie had a lady character? Well, if we use the word "character" quite loosely? Yeah, so I hate to get all feminist on you or whatever but MY GOODNESS this is one of the most UNDER-WRITTEN female characters I've seen on film, and that is certainly saying something! She barely has 10 lines throughout the entire movie, she's given no personality, motivation, or purpose, and simply exists in a lackluster sort of way. She's made out to be a significant figure, causing a rift between Jacques and Lucas, yet she's not even given anything to do other than spend a lot of money on clothes and demand marriage. Her character and dialogue make no sense whatsoever, and completely diminish any depth the film strove for. If you're going to have a random lady just pop up in your movie, at least show the barest amount of consideration for her as a person. This is not some sort of artfully ambiguous writing- the fact that the male characters were fleshed out fairly well and given, you know, personalities, does make this a sexist issue. Argh.

Also, the ending was wayyyyyyyyy sappy and predictable.

The talents of Cox and Dano are the only thing that make The Good Heart watchable, as I enjoyed watching their relationship unfold and as actors they really did their best with the murky writing. The supposed significance attached to an extremely under-written female character and the uninteresting over-arching story drag down what good will they're able to bring to the film.



Friday, May 21, 2010

S lyubovyu. Lilya (With Love, Lilly) (2003)

This was actually the last film for my Russian contemporary culture class, having missed the assignment a few weeks ago. With Love, Lilly is the only film we watched that was directed by a woman (Larisa Sadilova, to be specific), and seems to represent the more indie/underground/low-budget types of filmmaking in the country. Lilya (Marina Zubanova) is an approaching-middle-age singleton who lives with and cares for her grandfather and works at a chicken factory. She is determined to get married soon, but just hasn't quite found the man for the job. Most of the film revolves around various failed dates, her conversations with coworkers and family members, and her innocent stalking of a talented local pianist.

The story itself is low-key and not especially interesting, with Lilya's romantic misadventures lacking significant development or humor. There isn't much direction to the plot, and little over-arching driving force. The film's charm resides wholly with Zubanova's performance, and a character who is just adorable- quick to smile, kind-hearted, almost delusionally optimistic. She's so desperate to fall in love that she isn't especially concerned with whom the lucky man will be. Of course, I'm sick of the rom-com "ladies love marriage" cliche, but Sadilova throws in a lot of unexpected elements to avoid stereotyping. Lilya is decidedly average in both looks and situation, with no glamorizing additions to her situation. The frequent assembly-line sequences of chicken parts serve to remind audiences of how so many women are "processed" and spit back out by society. Sadilova is insisting that regular women are just as deserving of love as Hollywood babes, and just as justified in their persistent hopes.

With Love, Lilly is a fairly understated movie, with little in the way of plot or insightful dialogue. It's a true slice-of-life tale with an impressive central performance and some entertaining eccentricities. It's a bit slow and meandering, but certainly an interesting addition to my contemporary Russian film lexicon.



Thursday, May 20, 2010

Please Give (2010)

There were about 8 other people in the theater for this, but I really hope that changes soon. It's so much better than most other things currently playing. The latest from writer/director Nicole Holofcener, Please Give revolves around the lives of two passive-aggressively feuding families connected by a Manhattan apartment building. Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a mammogram specialist, spends most of her time working or taking care of her ailing, unapologetically rude grandmother Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), while her facial-doling sister Mary (Amanda Peet) focuses on self-tanning and stalking her ex-boyfriend's new partner.

Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) are antique furniture dealers whose marriage has flattened out into more of a friendship/business partnership, with their teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) going through a rebellious bad-skin phase. Rebecca and Mary are convinced that the couple, who own Andra's apartment and live adjacent to it, are just waiting for her to die so they can expand their own dwelling. The two families develop a tentative relationship as everyone attempts to overcome certain internal struggles.

Despite having only seen one other film from Holofcener (Walking and Talking, her first feature-length), I have already deduced that a) I love her work and b) she's an incredibly adept writer. The script for Please Give has a wonderful, effortlessly realistic quality to it that's amplified by sharp humor and keenly-observed intimate moments. It's driven primarily by character rather than plot, with each figure confronting various flaws within themselves and unwittingly exposing their quirks and fears to those around them. It is primarily a comedy, but retains such a personal, almost raw feel that it never makes its characters into caricatures or one-dimensional cliches.

Though featuring a rather sizable ensemble cast, the film manages to develop everyone quite well with the aid of very talented and likable performers. Holofcener's muse Catherine Keener shines in the fairly central role of Kate, a caring but unsure mother whose guilt over her own privilege and job (which involves buying furniture from the descendants of the recently-departed and selling it for very high prices) is starting to take its toll on her conscience. She's easily depressed and worries constantly about charity, only to feel completely helpless whenever she does try to give back to the community. She's trapped in her own wealth and WASP-y mindset, unable to help anyone without also looking down on or pitying them. She's a character who might be hard to like or relate to, but Keener's dedicated performance makes her sympathetic.

The more I see of Rebecca Hall, the more I fall for her. She's so pretty and likable, and she's another standout here in the more understated role of Rebecca. Her relationship with her selfish sister is tempestuous at best, and her patience with her grandmother is astounding. She's a good foil for both Kate and Mary, and remains quietly interesting throughout the film. Of course Oliver Platt is the main comedic actor, giving a slightly goofy but very grounded performance as the husband who loves to make poor decisions. I'm not really a fan of Amanda Peet, but she was pretty good. It's tough because her character is almost impossible to like, and the addition of an actress I'm not crazy about just heightened the negative aspects.

Please Give is funny and affecting, with a script that goes for realism and a cast swimming in likability. More good comedies from lady writers/directors, please!


Further Reading:
The Film Experience report from Sundance (bottom of the post)
AV Club review


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Boat That Rocked (aka Pirate Radio) (2009)

I feel like I've been waiting a long time to see this movie- it took forever to come out in the US and I believe I was in Germany when it finally did. Spurred on by my enjoyment of The Runaways I've been looking into more period music-centric films and The Boat That Rocked fit right in! Written and directed by Richard Curtis, the film focuses on a ship anchored off the English coast broadcasting rock music, wacky dj's, and local news 24/7 in the 1960s, when no official British station played modern rock.

Expelled from private school, Carl (Tom Sturridge) is sent to live with his godfather Quentin (Bill Nighy), the manager of the Radio Rock pirate station. He hangs out with a bunch of kooky dj's, including reigning cool dude The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), ladies' man Doctor Dave (Nick Frost), and smooth-talking Gavin Cavinagh (Rhys Ifans), all of whom seek to teach him about women and rock music. Meanwhile hyper-conservative prick Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) vows to make rock radio illegal and will stop at nothing to take our heroes down.

The Boat That Rocked (inexplicably released as "Pirate Radio" in the US) doesn't offer any deeper meanings or life lessons, nor does it attempt an accurate portrayal of the real people and events it draws from. It simply seeks to entertain and rock out, and it succeeds on both counts. The very large cast is quite impressive and incredibly enjoyable, with great turns from Hoffman, Nighy, and Frost, plus smaller-but-memorable appearances from Rhys Darby, Emma Thompson, January Jones, and Chris O'Dowd. I'm a big fan of Rhys Ifans and while he's really great as the ultra-smooth, mysterious Gavin, I wish he'd had a larger part. He's the kind of character who's talked about and hyped up a lot, appearing halfway through the film, and then not really utilized. But considering the size of the cast, it's not that surprising.

The script is funny and entertaining, offering easygoing conversations and unexpected laughs. There's not much actual plot, so the focus remains on the likable characters and their interactions. The soundtrack is of course superb, with lots of great tunes from The Kinks, The Who, The Turtles, etc (though some aren't quite era-appropriate), and a plethora of dancey montages (you can never have too many). With the addition of totally rad, abundantly colored outfits, I was once again reminded that England in the 60's was just such a cool setting.

It's incredibly dude-centric, but they're all pretty likable and funny dudes, so that's ok. Most of the women characters weren't given much development, but in such a light-hearted comedy with so few women to begin with, it didn't distract that much. I'd say all in all The Boat That Rocked is just a fun flick with great music and a swell cast. Nothing too special, but it definitely kept me smiling.



Monday, May 17, 2010

New Poll: YOUR Favorite College Movies

Well, I guess the future is scary for other people too since less people were interested in the "Where do you see yourself in 5 years" question. I get that.

5 votes: In a totally new and better job (good luck everyone!)
4 votes: Other
2 votes: Unemployed (awww)
1 vote: Same career but promoted; same job; traveling the world; married to a wealthy spouse; the band's gonna make it!

In the comments: Univarn plans to start his own harem, Simon's waiting on the apocalypse, Allison hopes to be in grad school (me too, actually), Rachel would like to have another baby and stay home and blog, and Fletch is ready for a career change.

Anyway, new poll. As I mentioned earlier, I'm graduating this week. Good times. This prompted a Top 5 Movies About College list, and has now spurred me to ponder: What are your favorite movies about college?


Top Five: Movies About College

Well, I'm kind of graduating from college this week. So that's happening. While I sit back and try not to implode under the weight of impending real-life decisions (and sure-to-be-frequent mistakes), here are some of my favorite movies centering on college life. Most of them are silly comedies, since for some reason filmmakers think college is this constantly hilarious, sexy time. I don't really remember times such as these, but maybe after a few years of memory-erasing hard-drinking I'll start to look fondly back on the time I got into Harvard Law to follow my ex-boyfriend, or took an opposites-attract road trip with John Cusack, or invented a laser with Val Kilmer. We'll see.

Disclaimer: I've never seen Animal House. Or any American Pie movies (some of those are set in college right?). Just so your expectations aren't shattered. Also these are in order of release.

The Sure Thing (1985)
Well, it's got John Cusack, so I'm automatically on board (you might even say my enjoyment of the movie was a... sure thing), and the addition of an endearingly high-strung and over-organized Daphne Zuniga and a road trip love story closes the deal. It's mostly your typical 80's rom-com but the charm of the leads makes it memorable, and the writing is pretty decent, effectively updating It Happened One Night, the mother of all romantic comedies. Plus: it's got a young Nicolette Sheridan in skimpy clothing!

Night of the Creeps (1986)
I saw this as part of the 24-Hour Sci-Fi Marathon, and admittedly my memory of it isn't quite 100%, but I do remember really liking it! It's got some socially-challenged nerds who want to get in with sorority girls, but their potential sexual high-jinks are soon thwarted by scores of re-animated corpses. It's a great horror-comedy take on college living- specifically Greek life. Plus it has flamethrowers, a thing seriously missing from my hum-drum collegiate experience.

Dead Man on Campus (1998)
Ok, so this movie. It features lead characters who take the issue of suicide extremely lightly, and that is not cool, but I have to admit I thought this movie was hilarious when I was 13 or so. There's a great straight man/wacky man dynamic between Tom Everett Scott and Mark-Paul Gosselaar (aka "The Three Name Twins"), and some memorable supporting characters. The script is silly and entertaining, but doesn't resist laying on some dark undertones, and I like that juxtaposition. I think it was one of the first black comedies I ever saw, so it really left an impression. Plus it does a decent job of splitting time between the "sexy fun party" times of college and the "oh my god I am under so much social and scholastic pressure" times.

Legally Blonde (2001)
Technically, this is more about grad school but hey, whatever: this movie is pretty awesome. A smart endorsement for female empowerment disguised as a ditzy comedy, Legally Blonde is entertaining and presents a good message. The cast is excellent, from Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Coolidge to Luke Wilson and Selma Blair, and the fashions are adorably outrageous. It's the kind of movie I always watch whenever I catch it on tv, just for its fun and entertaining atmosphere. I also enjoy its courtroom thrills AND girly montages.

Accepted (2006)
This came out the summer before I went to college, and so it definitely played to some of the anxieties I was having at the time. I remember walking out thinking, "Even before going to college I know it won't be awesome as that." But it turned out ok. The movie is really cute and surprisingly hilarious, with great turns from Justin Long, Lewis Black, Jonah Hill, and Maria Thayer and a fun premise. It's just a nice, laid back movie that manages to provide some commentary on the limitations of our education system and the weight of parental expectations.

Honorable Mentions
Revenge of the Nerds (1984): You know.
Real Genius (1985): Man, those 80's sure were wacky, weren't they?
Loser (2000): Contrary to popular belief, this movie is ok. Maybe it's my unquestioning support of Amy Heckerling, or love of The Apartment.
Prozac Nation (2001): Don't remember it too well, but I like sad movies and Christina Ricci.
Mona Lisa Smile (2003): Ladies! Art history! Juliet Stevenson!


Sunday, May 16, 2010

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Alright! Iron Man! Pow pow! Yeah! It is difficult for some people to not be caught in the throes of overpowering child-like glee in the midst of certain superhero movies. This is definitely an effect Iron Man can have as a character embodied by the very talented Robert Downey, Jr. The fact that Iron Man 2 has been bemoaned as "not as good as the original!" is, I think, distracting us from the fact that it's still a pretty good movie. It takes off a short time after the first film ended, with Tony Stark (Downey) outing himself as Iron Man and subsequently "privatizing world peace". Somewhere in Siberia, gruff genius Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) discovers that Stark's father stole his dead father's legacy when they created the arc reactor technology together. He vows revenge on Tony and whips up a badass suit of his own, aiming to crush the narcissistic billionaire at the Monaco Grand Prix while impressing everyone with his over-strong Russian accent.

Meanwhile: Tony learns that he's gradually dying from palladium poisoning but keeps it secret while working on a cure; the US government puts him on trial in an attempt to claim the Iron Man technology for the military, Rhodey (Don Cheadle) does his best to keep his friend in check while also obeying orders to secure the suit; Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is made CEO of Stark Industries and spends most of her time cleaning up his messes; SHIELD continues to court Tony with visits from the mysterious Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson); Tony's new assistant Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) may be leading a double life; and seedy weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is doing his best to one-up his biggest rival.

It cannot be denied that there is a lot going on in this movie, and sometimes this influx of subplots is too much for the film. But generally, the script does a decent job keeping the flow of the over-arching story and connecting the disparate threads together as it progresses. It's a bit clunky at times, and the overflow of characters is a bit much, but because I liked everyone so much I didn't really mind. There are some cool action scenes, some great comedic moments, and some interesting developments in Stark lore with found footage of his father (played by John Slattery!). There is also some more attention to his alcohol issues, which weren't really noted in the first film but have played a major role in the comics.

Despite some narrative flaws and a lackluster final battle, Iron Man 2 manages to be quite entertaining. Any time Robert Downey, Jr is in anything, it is bound to be at the very least watchable (this theory is still mid-testing, but has proved correct so far), and he fits the role of Tony Stark so perfectly, and has such fun doing it, that it's impossible to not enjoy his performance. Since he's in almost every scene, it is therefore impossible to not enjoy most of the movie to some extent. The addition of Sam Rockwell (always welcome in anything) as the weasely, desperate Hammer and Rourke as the incredibly badass, super-intelligent Whiplash was quite welcome. And Johansson, while generally relegated to "sexy eye-candy" status has this one very impressive scene that totally sold her as the character for me.

I kind of want a Black Widow/Nick Fury spin-off...

Anyway, you guys need to calm down a bit about Iron Man 2. No, it's not as good as the first one, but that doesn't mean it's an awful movie. It definitely added a few too many new characters/subplots for its own good, but it manages to actually blend them together fairly well. This isn't Iron Man: Spider-Man 3. It's got awesome battle scenes, good-looking actors, plenty of quips, and reaches new levels of fake science. Just sit back and enjoy it.


Further Reading:
Anomalous Material review
Dark of the Matinee review
Four of Them thoughts
M Carter at the Movies review


Friday, May 14, 2010

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

You guys! I finally saw 2001: A Space Odyssey! This is a momentous occasion because now I believe I can more accurately call myself a SCIENCE-FICTION FAN. Before, no matter how many other awesome sci-fi movies I devoured, the term was meaningless in the face of the one film I hadn't yet seen. Thankfully, those times are over now and I believe we can all begin anew with a better understanding of one another. Divided into three segments, the film traces the discovery of three mysterious shiny black pillars with mystical powers. The first appears at the dawn of man, with much grunting amidst the first usage of tools, the second is found on the moon in a technologically-advanced future, and the third is detected on Jupiter several months later. I guess that's really all you need to know, plot-wise.

Some movies are about plot, some about character, some about action; 2001 is about... well, I'm not entirely sure exactly but certainly the visuals play a major role in anyone's appreciation. It is with no exaggeration aesthetically astounding , and I was completely entranced the entire time. I know for the period its special effects and filming techniques were revolutionary, but the fact that it still looks absolutely stunning today is a real testament to its validity as one of the most significant films ever made. I'll admit that until now I didn't really "get" Kubrick- I just didn't quite see what the big deal was- but now I think I have more of an understanding. He definitely becomes self-indulgent at certain parts of 2001 (the severely drawn-out shots, scenes that linger longer than necessary, etc), but he knows he's doing something very special, and it is certainly not my place to belittle him for bringing greater attention to his achievements here.

There is very little dialogue and a fairly long running time, yet somehow it manages to hold the viewer's (or at least my) attention the entire time, seemingly through sheer force of will. The visuals are so deliberately and meticulously arranged, combining with the sweeping orchestral score to make for a gripping experience. The characters are interesting, developed not so much through dialogue but more through meaningful actions, especially in the more character-driven third act featuring the infamous HAL 9000 supercomputer. Much of the plot is ambiguous and laden with symbolism, but these aspects are approached with intelligence and a palpable sense of wonder. This is probably one of the most realistic science-fiction films I've seen, with much care taken to applying certain basic principles of space life than a lot of other movies will (not that I mind either way- if you want something to explode in space, go ahead).

I feel like I'm losing myself here. I guess I can't very well sum up anything about this movie in any vaguely coherent manner. Oh well. Suffice to say, it's an excellent film with enormous scope- in its visuals, music, and storytelling- and I certainly enjoyed it. It can be a bit self-indulgent and overworked at times, but I can forgive that. Its impact on science-fiction cinema has been immeasurable, as I am only just now fully beginning to realize.


Further Reading:
Dear Jesus review (with special attention to the score)
Le Mot du Cinephiliaque review
Movie Mobsters review


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (1997)

The other night/morning I had an overwhelming desire to watch this movie, and thank goodness it's on netflix instant! Everything was suddenly ok, even if only for 92 minutes. With characters drawn from her stage play, Robin Schiff focuses on best friends Romy (Mira Sorvino) and Michele (Lisa Kudrow), two lovable but ditzy blondes who've been inseparable for over a decade. They live self-glamorizing lives in LA as roommates, and see their upcoming high school reunion as a way to prove themselves to the popular students who terrorized them as teens living in Tuscon.

Soon after filling out the pre-reunion questionnaire, they realize their lives aren't as great as they'd imagined (Romy works at a parking garage, Michele is unemployed, and both are single: truly the measures of failure). They decide to pretend that they're powerful businesswomen to impress their former classmates, but find that calling up old high school wounds also forces them to re-evaluate their own friendship.

This movie seems to get better every time I watch it, and really just hit the spot the other night so much that I think I enjoyed it more than ever. The script is just so funny- at times quite silly and at others rather clever- and the conversations are conducted in a vaguely self-aware manner. Sorvino and Kudrow completely embody these adorable characters, making us believe so strongly in their relationship that what could have come off as too one-dimensional is actually a very real, and at times very touching, friendship. The sheer joy these women get out of each other's company is palpable, and it really makes the movie so enjoyable to watch. The next day I immediately told my best lady friend how glad I was that we were friends.

Besides the effervescent leads, the splendid cast includes Alan Cumming as a nerd with a crush on Michele, Justin Theroux as an asshole cowboy wannabe, and Janeane Garofalo as a sarcastic chain-smoker. Obviously she's one of the best parts of the film, cracking wise every chance she gets and being laughably unpleasant to everyone around her. Along with the awesomely outrageous fashions displayed by Romy and Michele, Garofalo injects the film with a decidedly 90's vibe, and the film itself is a bit of a testament to how great that decade can be.

With its airhead characters and lightweight storyline, Romy and Michele's High School Reunion can come across as just silly fluff, but it's actually a rather smart and truly funny comedy that's well-suited to multiple viewings. It's got an elaborate dream sequence, a major dance number, and a very endearing friendship at its center. It's a female-dominated comedy that doesn't focus on romance, which is always nice. And Romy's stacked-high hairstyle never ceases to amuse and confuse me.



Tuesday, May 11, 2010

New Poll: Let's Think About the Future

Well well, the last poll was about female friendships in movies, spurred on by a recent viewing of Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (my next review). It was hard to pick which films to list, and I think I wasn't initially clear in my concept- I was thinking of films in which a friendship is one of the central points of a movie, and the characters have near-equal shares in the movie. Movies like Whip It and Juno were suggested, and yeah I dug the lady friendships portrayed in those movies, but they weren't the focus of the film. There was one central character and then a side character lady friend who was in a supporting role. Anyway, here's how it played out:

4 votes: Death Proof and Ghost World
3 votes: Romy and Michele and Thelma and Louise
2 votes: Kissing Jessica Stein
1 vote: Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Girl, Interrupted, Heavenly Creatures, Now & Then, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Walking and Talking
0 votes: Stage Door, Steel Magnolias, The Women (1939)

Cool. I haven't seen some of the 1-vote and 0-vote movies, but I guess I'm not missing much? Personally I'd go for Romy and Michele, Walking and Talking, and Thelma and Louise.

Anyway, new poll time. In my current predicament I am forced to often think about my future, and also about jobs. These elements have combined to create a partially serious but sort of joking poll question: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Whoa, penetrating journalism, I know. Anyway if my options don't suit your fancy then sound off in the comments!


HAUSU (HOUSE) (1977)

This post is part of Caitlin's A-Z Blogathon over at the revamped 1416 and Counting! Check it out!

*Disclaimer: Whenever you read the word HOUSE you must imagine it intoned loudly by a deep-throated male voiceover. This is HOUSE law.*

Oh, where to start. The wonderful Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square got its hands on a print of HOUSE, a wild-and-crazy (and hilarious) Japanese horror film from the 70's featuring my new favorite posters. It truly has to be seen to be believed, but I'll do my best to explain just why it is an absolutely phenomenal, must-see work of cinema. I'll forgo using actors' names since there are a lot of characters, but you can just check imdb.

The basic plot is fairly straightforward: Gorgeous (get ready for some nicknames) begrudges her father for re-marrying after her mother's death 8 years prior, and decides to visit her shut-in aunt in the country along with her friends Fantasy (the daydreaming one), Mac (the "fat" one who likes to eat), Kung-fu (the awesome fighter), Sweet (um I don't think she had a very distinct character trait...), Melody (the musical one), and Prof (the one with glasses).

When they reach the gorgeous country mansion, they find the aunt wheelchair-bound and starved for human interaction, and over-joyed for their visit. Soon enough the group is plagued by strange paranormal occurrences and multiple disappearances, but most of the girls refuse to believe something spooky is going on. Seriously, they just can't get it through their heads. It takes like 10 deaths and a score of levitating objects. I mean, they're ditzy high school girls, I get it, but sheesh.

HOUSE is a wondrous sight to behold, with delightfully trippy colors, spontaneous animated sequences, and experimental horror imagery; several sequences are reminiscent of home-made youtube music videos. The effects are noticeably antiquated, but that just adds to the fun! The entire film is really a collection of incredible, strange, and under-explained moments that left me as incredulous as I was tickled pink. Cats fly, clocks bleed, mattresses, logs, and floating heads attack, skeletons dance, and a score of other ridiculous, unexpected things happen at every turn.

The characters are hilariously one-dimensional, each one relegated to her specific interest/trait. Mac talks about nothing but eating, while Melody is only the focus when there's a piano in the room (a very... hungry piano). Fantasy is the only one who plays witness to most of the strange occurrences, and of course no one believes her for her overactive imagination. Kung-Fu is by far the best character, handling every obstacle with badassery and no questions asked. Also: she has the best hair. Supporting characters include the girls' heavily-sideburned teacher en route to the HOUSE but finding impediment in bananas (that will make sense when you see it, I promise- well as much sense as it can make), a pudgy salesman with talking watermelons, and Gorgeous's new step-mother, who literally cannot go more than 2 seconds without a gust of wind blowing romantically around her. It's a remarkable talent.

The dialogue oscillates between being frivolous and insanely over-dramatic, but the best part about it is its frequent insistence on completely ignoring what's happening in its own movie. Most of the weirdest scenes are just passed over by the characters without comment, and that just makes the "WTF?!" factor that much better. HOUSE is a strange, strange, strange film and I absolutely loved it. It's hilarious, inventive, utterly unexpected, and lends no comparison to any other movie I've seen. Even if a lot of its comedic value is unintentional, it's impossible to not appreciate this film for being incredibly entertaining and ultimately quite memorable.

UPDATE: After re-watching this, I'm bumping it up to a 5/5

My original art for this film.

Watch the trailer now, see the film when it comes to Criterion in September. Just trust me, ok?


Monday, May 10, 2010

Kick-Ass (2010)

So I'm a little late to the party- at least I made it! If you're not worn out from the thousands of other Kick-Ass reviews you've already read, feel free to press on. Based on Mark Millar's comic of the same name, the film follows the incredibly unremarkable high schooler Dave (Aaron Johnson) as he decides to spice up his hum-drum existence with some superhero antics. He throws on a scuba suit and calls himself Kick-Ass, but is viciously knifed and beaten on his first vigilante mission.

This results in a metal-laced skeleton and some numbness to pain, spurring him into a more successful second attempt and subsequently exploding in popularity through youtube and myspace. His fame brings him to the attention of Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloë Moretz), who have been training as vigilantes themselves to take down a local drug lord (Mark Strong) whose entire wardrobe consists of red-orange hues, and as he becomes unwittingly caught up in their fight he realizes the all-too-real danger of his new calling.

So let's get this out of the way first: Yes, this movie is really violent, and yes, some of that violence is directed at a young girl. But honestly, I was not offended or shocked. The violence isn't gritty and hyper-realistic, but highly stylized. Hit Girl is a badass, highly capable fighter who is basically her opponent's equal in ability, if not in strength. She isn't beat down into the ground or anything, but just gets a bloody nose. It's affecting in the way any scene of a beloved hero losing a battle is affecting, but I don't think it should be over-analyzed because this time it's a young girl. This is a completely unrealistic movie, so it's wise to keep the characters in that comic-book-fantasy sphere.

Ok, thanks for sticking with me there. The strengths of Kick-Ass lie in its characters, from the goofy best friends Marty (Clark Duke!) and Todd (Evan Peters) to the unapologetically assholeish Frank D'Amico (Strong) and his unsure son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). There's no denying that Hit Girl and Big Daddy should be the stars of this movie. Their relationship is surprisingly touching, and I really enjoyed watching their interactions and struggles. Cage overdoes it a bit but seems to be having a great time in the part, while Moretz is just straight-up awesome. Her character is fascinating, and she nails the part perfectly as a girl who's been forced to grow up extremely quickly but can't help retaining certain childlike qualities (think Mathilda in Léon but with more butt-kicking). I think the trope of putting dirty words into kids' mouths is overused and ineffective, though, and it didn't feel quite right here.

The biggest issue I had with Kick-Ass was its central character: he's way boring, and the actor didn't do much to keep me interested. Pains were taken to illustrate how "average-guy" Dave is, and that's great and all, but honestly I don't want to watch a movie with a guy just being regular unless he (a) proves that he can be special or (b) is played by a charismatic/interesting/very attractive person. Dave remains pretty boring for most of the film, even when in the guise of Kick-Ass, and I just wasn't at all drawn in by Johnson's performance. Being average doesn't have to mean being without a personality.

Other issues I had include: the whole "pretending to be gay to get close to the girl you like" thing never works as well as comedy writers think it will, and the fact that the girl doesn't even seem bothered by it just makes it ten times worse. A dude totally took advantage of your trust. Have some self-respect, lady, and at least wait ten minutes before you start the "I forgive you" make-out. Also, why isn't Clark Duke in this movie more? Why isn't Clark Duke the STAR of this movie?

Kick-Ass has a lot going for it: a great premise, awesome supporting characters, and some exciting and well-filmed action sequences. Unfortunately, its title character is pretty lame, and takes away from the overall kickassery. Still, I found it funny, thrilling, and sharp in its portrayal of superhero wannabes. And Hit Girl makes it all ok.


Further Reading:
Dark of the Matinee review
Final Girl Project review
Four of Them review
Total Film review


Sunday, May 9, 2010

Silent Running (1972)

While routinely perusing the MST3K wikipedia page for fun tidbits, I noticed a mention of Silent Running as inspiration for the show's premise, specifically the concept of a lonely guy stuck on a spaceship and hanging out with his robot buddies to keep himself sane. The fact that the film is also part of the 100 Greatest Sci-Fi Movies list I'm trying to complete served to hasten its jump up my netflix queue. The film postulates a future earth with no unemployment, starvation, or disease, but also no forests. The US government stations some white guys to maintain a collection of bio-domes launched into space, with the hope of one day re-populating the planet's forests.

The forests' head caretaker Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) is the only person on the ship who truly cares for the environment, and when the order comes in to completely destroy all that he's worked for, he kind of flies off the handle a bit. Ultimately he finds himself alone with his forest, floating around in space, with only the ship's re-programmable robots for company.

Silent Running is a rather uneven film, with a plot structure composed of several segments that are unrelated in tone but connected by the presence of Freeman Lowell. There are a lot of really good moments, from passing through Saturn's ring to anytime the 'bots do anything, but also a lot of slow, under-written moments, such as the repetitive conversations between Lowell and his co-workers. The premise is interesting, but becomes mired in its own politics, and essentially transforms into FLOWER CHILD: IN SPAAAACE what with the drawn-out close-ups of flowers and ever-present Joan Baez music. I'm not against these things at all, but they are incongruous with the dystopian-action-space movie being presented, and it just doesn't quite work.

That being said, Silent Running is pretty enjoyable. Bruce Dern puts in a strong, impassioned performance and makes the character of Lowell dynamic and complex. The visuals are lovely, with masterful, intricate models for the ships and some really great spacey effects (as expected from director Douglas Trumbull, the special effects supervisor on 2001). The latter portion of the film focusing on Lowell alone on the ship with his robot friends is the most interesting to me (and not just for the MST3K connection). It's a sad, strange, and surprisingly touching exploration of a desperate man making the best of his situation, and accepting it for the sake of what he believes in.

It is at times weighed down by its overly blatant message, but the good premise, solid lead performance, and incredibly adorable robots ultimately make Silent Running an entertaining piece of science-fiction. I wish they'd done more with it though.



Saturday, May 8, 2010

12 (2007)

Goodness I feel like I've been covering IFF Boston forever! It was some pretty good times, but now it's back to our regular programming with Nikita Mikhalkov's 12, the last film assigned to my contemporary Russian culture class. This remake of 12 Angry Men/re-imagined adaptation of the play moves the action to a school gymnasium-turned-makeshift conference room, as twelve Russian jurors deliberate the innocence of a Chechen youth on trial for killing his adoptive father, a Russian soldier. The deep-seated racial tension between Chechnya and Russia is a deciding factor for several of the men, but one compassionate juror (Sergei Makovetsky) devotes many hours to convincing them that there is no certainty of the boy's guilt, and they may be condemning an innocent person.

At a thick 159 minutes, 12 is a lot to take in. The story is familiar and offers little suspense, and so the script relies heavily on the emotional impact of the plethora of personal anecdotes told by various characters. Many of these stories don't especially pertain to the subject at hand, causing some of them to try the viewers' patience as he or she seeks relevancy. They speak to the characters' ethical viewpoints and backgrounds, and generally seek to help the audience grasp the essence of their personalities with little expository action. For the most part it works, but there's only so much of "12 middle-aged dudes sitting in a room sharing disparate anecdotes" that I can really get into, and the film does drag at certain moments.

As a contemporary adaptation, 12 is innovative and insightful, and truly groundbreaking in its native Russia- it is rare for Chechen characters to be portrayed with such humanity and pathos, and the film approaches the effects of the situation in Chechnya with subtlety and open-mindedness. It is portrayed as a bloody conflict that affects everyone, not just Russia, and it handles racism (and to a lesser extent anti-Semitism) honestly. There are even certain hints that Russia should be taking more responsibility (the metaphor of a "big man abandoning the little man", for example). Of course, for all its strides in ethnic depictions, it is still pretty sexist in both its portrayal/discussion of women and its complete lack of female characters- there is no need for an all-male jury in 2007, you guys. But I guess it's all baby steps.

The cast is exceptional, with Sergei Makovetsky (in the Henry Fonda part) imbuing his role with compassion and intelligence and Sergey Garmash lending a sympathetic air to the violent and persuasive racist Juror #3. I also enjoyed Mikhail Efremov as an outspoken actor and the director himself as the level-headed foreman. While the film itself drags at certain moments, and takes too long to get going (they hang out exploring the gymnasium and complaining for at least twenty minutes), the hard-working actors make 12 quite engrossing. The addition of well-placed flashbacks to the defendant's childhood increases the social relevancy and viewers' engagement with the over-arching story. It's a well-done adaptation and I applaud Mikhalkov's progressive thinking, but as an overall film it could have been edited a bit.



Thursday, May 6, 2010

IFF BOSTON: Micmacs à Tire-larigot (Micmacs) (2009)

This review is part of my coverage of the Independent Film Festival of Boston 2010. (official site)

Oh dear. My friends, I'm afraid our IFF Boston times have come to an end. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's newest film Micmacs was the last film screened at the festival, replacing James Franco's Saturday Night (a decision I was pretty happy about). The event took place at the lovely Coolidge Corner Theatre, and was preceded by entertaining closing remarks from the delightful main staff along with tons of free stuff thrown into the audience (I got a t-shirt and some fruit tea!). After seeing those by-now quite familiar Ford and JetBlue ads one last time, Micmacs could begin. Once again Jeunet effortlessly slips his audience into an anachronistic, slightly off-color world with wacky characters and ingenious devices, and this time he even manages to work in some anti-war (or at least, anti-weapons) statements.

When video store clerk Bazil (Danny Boon) receives a stray bullet to the head, doctors decide that removing it could be more dangerous than letting it stay lodged in his skull. Upon release from the hospital he finds he's lost his apartment and his job, and lives day-to-day on the streets of Paris with the knowledge that he could die any moment if the bullet sinks further. He joins a rag-tag group of outcasts living beneath a city dump, all of whom have special talents they use toward re-purposing found objects into new creations. There's Fracasse (Dominique Pinon), a former human cannonball, La Môme Caoutchouc (Julie Ferrier), a contortionist (I believe her name translates to "the rubber girl", Tambouille (Yolande Moreau), who acts as a surrogate mother to them all, and several others. When Bazil discovers that the manufacturers of his bullet and of the mine that killed his father are from local competing weapons companies, he enlists his new friends to start a large-scale prank war that will take down both of the corrupt CEOs.

In my experience, Jeunet's strengths have always resided in his fantastic visual aesthetic and dedication to interesting characters, but not necessarily effective storytelling. I'm not saying I don't like the plots of his films, just that generally they aren't the strongest points. With Micmacs this characteristic is applied, as the story is interesting but a little confusingly structured and under-developed. It takes a while to really come together, with several curt scenes following one right after the other until the fun really starts with Bazil joining the energetic trash heap crew. Once everything gets going, the movie becomes a very enjoyable and unpredictable comedy complete with goofy disguises, high-concept stratagems, and plenty of breaking and entering.

The characters are fun and detailed- quirky but not in an annoying "indie-cliche" way. They all have their own talents and interests that lend them their nicknames, and I really enjoy schemes that involve everyone working together and putting their specific skills to use in unexpected ways. The cast is excellent, and everyone imbues his or her personage with emotion and a good dose of silliness. I loved Dany Boon's sort of hapless confusion coupled with a go-to spirit, and of course Dominique Pinon always stands out in anything. Omar Sy has some of the best comedic moments as Remington, a wannabe anthropologist obsessed with idioms. Julie Ferrer shines as the outspoken contortionist, and both Nicolas Marié and André Dussollier put in delightfully devious turns as the villainous CEOS.

While clearly Micmacs is character-heavy, the ensemble works so well together that no one is lost in the shuffle, and the focus remains on Bazil to ground the story. The script is funny and light-hearted but not fluffy, and of course the visuals are breathtaking. It's filmed in slight sepia hues with an array of innovative gadgets and home-made clothes, and everything has a very homey, lived-in feel. I loved the slightly surrealistic, kooky atmosphere and the characters are instantly lovable. It's a very cute, engaging movie, but not quite as heartfelt as Amelie or groundbreaking as City of Lost Children.


Further Reading:
Micmacs trailer
Micmacs official site

PS This review is also published in slightly different form at 366 Weird Movies.