Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Solitary Man (2009)

Crushingly hot days keep pushing me into the movie theater, and the Michael Douglas vehicle Solitary Man seemed like an acceptable choice mainly for its excellent cast. Douglas plays car salesman Ben Kalmen, who does whatever he feels like doing at any given moment and tends to come off as a sleazy asshole. He sleeps with every woman possible, confiding his exploits to his overly obliging daughter Susan (Jenna Fischer) and barely lamenting his mistreatment of his ex-wife Nancy (Susan Sarandon).

Having driven his own successful car company into the ground with fraud scams, he's dating Jordan (Mary Louise-Parker) because of her father's business connections, hoping to re-establish himself. He takes her daughter Allyson (Imogen Poots) to visit his Boston-area alma mater and recommend her to the dean, and they end up sleeping together. This act sends his life even further into a downward spiral as he is forced to come to terms with his age, health, relationships, and responsibilities.

I'm caring less and less about the "old white guy deals with his age and women" genre of movies, and Solitary Man certainly doesn't bring anything new or insightful to the proceedings. It's a story about a fairly despicable man who lives the way he feels like living because he may or may not have a heart problem. His bluntness and real-world pragmatism may seem funny and refreshing at first, but his refusal to acknowledge the effects his words and actions have on those close to him is frustrating. There's nothing wrong with placing an unsympathetic or deeply flawed character at the center of your movie, but at least give him some sort of unique trait or concoct a more interesting story around him. Though peppered with moments of comedy or telling dramatic interactions, for the most part the film is just watching a jerky old guy go around sleeping with women and mistreating everyone he knows.

Not to appear contradictory, but this isn't actually a bad movie. The terrific performances and some well-written scenes partly make up for the blandness of the story itself. I loved the performances from Jenna Fischer, Mary Louise-Parker, and Jesse Eisenberg, and in her few short scenes Susan Sarandon lit up the screen as she always does. I'm not especially into Michael Douglas (I guess I haven't seen him in too many films though), but I think he did an excellent job in the thankless role of Ben. He manages to be charming and funny despite his assholic tendencies, and I could sort of understand his effect on younger women. Oddly enough I thought Danny DeVito stood out as Ben's estranged college buddy Jimmy. He was so down-to-earth and believable in his few scenes and I just really gravitated towards his character.

Solitary Man: a sub-par script with a stellar cast. It's quite lucky.



Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Knight and Day (2010)

Yeah, I know. But it was really hot the day this opened and I hadn't left the house all day and there's nothing else playing! Leave me alone! Anyway, Knight and Day pairs two people whose movies I usually avoid and places them in an action-packed romantic comedy that doesn't break any new ground but does entertain. June Havens (Cameron Diaz), a self-assured mechanic, meets the charming Roy Miller (Tom Cruise) on a flight from Wichita to Boston. After he kills the rest of the passengers and both pilots, she is left to believe he is either a hardworking secret agent being hunted by bad guys, or an unhinged killer on the loose.

Because of her association with him, upon reaching Boston she is brought in for questioning by FBI agents and placed quickly in the middle of a daring car chase/shootout through Boston's highways. Roy convinces her to stick with him for her own protection and the two embark on a multi-national journey concerning a missing teen genius (Paul Dano) and a powerful new energy source, with June continually unsure if her companion is trustworthy.

Ok: So I'm really not a Tom Cruise person. I've seen about 2.5 of his movies and have never been especially wowed. Then again I've never seen his big films like Top Gun or Jerry Maguire, so what do I know? I was surprised by how much I liked him here. He's funny and charismatic and quite believable as a seasoned risk-taker, and definitely has a lot of fun going to work as Roy Miller. I have always found Cameron Diaz unshakably obnoxious, and she didn't disappoint this time around. She spends most of the movie screaming or whining, and I just didn't care at all about her character. The script tried to make her be a bit more capable than many other lady sidekicks to action heroes, but as an actress she wasn't believable. Plus the character allows herself to be drugged way too much. That's really not something she should be shaking off and forgetting.

The filmmakers do a great job balancing the comedy and the action, and for the most part avoid the recent trend in shaky, indiscernible action scenes. The story is decent and the dialogue is curt and funny, and pace-wise there isn't much wasted time. I also dug the supporting cast of Paul Dano (despite his just AWFUL, perplexing facial hair), Peter Sarsgaard, and Viola Davis. There are definitely too many changes of scenery, but they do put most of the locations to good use so it wasn't a huge setback- I especially loved the shots of Boston and the Zakim Bridge (one of my absolute favorite bridges).

Knight and Day is not a great movie, with a lot of it reading like a spy version of Romancing the Stone but with a less likable cast. It is, however, really quite enjoyable as a lighthearted action flick for a hot summer day. I think Tom Cruise did a good job in the role but Diaz continues to really annoy me, leading me to believe the movie could've been pretty darn good if it had different leads. As it stands it's a bit mediocre, but entertaining.


Further Reading:
Joel Crary review
Roger Ebert review


Monday, June 28, 2010

The Lonely Guy (1984)

Much like my viewing of Midnight Run, I had to consistently ask myself "Why isn't Charles Grodin more famous?" while watching The Lonely Guy. As the dowdy Warren Evans he supports star Steve Martin playing Larry Hubbard, a greeting card copywriter recently kicked out of his girlfriend's house and quickly finding himself to be a true Lonely Guy, as the title suggests. Experienced lonely guy Warren helps Larry come to terms with his situation, giving him little tips about how to stay afloat when everything sucks so hard. They do their best to meet women but generally without luck, resorting to plants, pets, and cardboard cutouts to keep themselves company. Eventually Larry meets Iris (Judith Ivey), a frequently-divorced woman who continually pushes him away when she realizes that they're perfect for each other.

This film is based on The Lonely Guy's Book of Life by Bruce Jay Friedman, which is a humorous nonfiction how-to guide, so the story in the movie had to be concocted from scratch while drawing various concepts and passages from the source material. This results in an uneven script, with some really funny and charming moments mixed with a strange, meandering romantic subplot. The character of Iris is grating and unfunny, and the scenes centering on her relationship with Larry are noticably weaker.

The strengths of the script reside in the conversations between Larry and Warren and the observational narration provided by Steve Martin. I loved the self-deprecating humor and slightly surreal small moments, and Martin and Grodin turn in excellent performances. The whole movie is handled with a decided air of whimsy and the cast gives it that off-beat edge. Save for the subplot with Iris, The Lonely Guy is a very cute, slightly odd film that doesn't take itself seriously despite its sad premise.



Sunday, June 27, 2010

1974 Cult Cinema Double Feature: Foxy Brown and Space is the Place

*This post is part of the Juxtaposition Blogathon at Pussy Goes Grrr.*

The other day I unintentionally created my own double feature of cult films from 1974 featuring African-American protagonists. Weird. One was pretty awesome, one was just strange and a little boring. One has a funky soundtrack, the other pelts the ears with discordant space jazz. Find out which is which after the jump!

After walking around all morning with this song by the Moaners in my head, I decided it was finally time to sit down and watch Foxy Brown, my introduction to female-focused blaxsploitation. After her narcotics officer boyfriend is killed by a drug/prostitution syndicate, the saucy and ambiguously-employed Foxy Brown (Pam Grier) plots to take them down with only her wits and a tiny gun. It really is that simple. Plus there's, like, undercover operations and drugs and rape and boobs and the black power neighborhood watch and airplane rides and stuff.

I'll just come right out and say it: Pam Grier is the shit. Not only is she drop-dead-sexy, but she's got all the moxie, charisma, and intelligence necessary to elevate Foxy Brown's so-so material into a genuinely interesting film. I loved Foxy herself, who- despite showing her boobs a bit more often than is narratively necessary- is a strong-willed and compelling character forced to unearth a darker part of her nature in order to avenge her lover. Writer/director Jack Hill rightly puts her in almost every scene, as she is the most well-rounded, coolest character.

That's not to say that the rest of the cast doesn't pull their weight. Antonio Fargas is very enjoyable as Foxy's drug-dealing brother Link, with an over-the-top demeanor and some great one liners. I also weirdly loved Kathryn Loder as the villainous Katherine Wall. Her slow, overly-deliberate line delivery and creepy expressions are oddly entrancing. She brings a nice campy feel to the affair that I really appreciated. Plus the dress she wears in her final scenes is psychedelic!

For the most part Foxy Brown is a cool movie with a kickass leading lady and a decent plot. It's got a smooth soundtrack, awesome 70's fashion, a highly entertaining opening credits sequence, and a nice supporting cast. It definitely treads into overly-exploitative or slightly boring territory a few times, with some drawn-out scenes and meandering dialogue, but overall I dug it! Um, far out?


A few hours later I caught Space is the Place at the Harvard Film Archive, who are temporarily shedding their snootier programming for a "cerebral science-fiction from the 1970's" themed series. Of the ones I hadn't already seen, this movie sounded incredibly interesting: It "follows the legendary experimental jazz musician Sun Ra and his 'Arkestra' in their earnest quest to be space explorers, intent on settling a planet with African Americans, tempting them away from Earth with their music. An intriguing blend of intergalactic card games, time travel, spaceships and music, Space is the Place imagines outer space as a utopian zone free of racism where everyone is free to create their own destiny." Neat, right? Plus it's so rare to see a science-fiction film with a predominantly black cast so I definitely wanted to seize the opportunity to see something truly special.

Well. Turns out Sun Ra in real life was a little crazy, preaching a complex, under-explained mythology involving interplanetary travel, ancient Egyptian religion, transformative musical experiences, and black nationalism, and this film was his platform to share it. He plays himself (or at least, the version of himself he's created), and the film follows him and members of his gang/cult as he recruits African Americans in Oakland, CA to go to his special planet for a new all-black community. The film moves back and forth between his wanderings in the city, his endless card game with a devil/trickster figure (Ray Johnson), and a musical performance with his "Arkestra", along with scattered scenes of over-indulgent urban life. There's hardly any actual outer-space time at all. Lame.

I'll say right away that despite any opinions/feelings about this movie, I really admire its incredible imagination and unique blend of genres and ideas. It's got a cool premise, crazy costumes, some interesting visuals, a few enjoyable songs, and a whole lot of weirdness. I like all of these things, but the execution falls short of its promise.

Ra's intention of spreading joy and soul-shaking experiences through music is beautiful, but I must admit I am not a fan of the music he makes. I like traditional jazz, but have never been into the totally free-form, sprawling, non-rhythmic, non-melodic styles, which is a large part of Ra's soundtrack for the film. There are a few songs with lyrics, sung by a familiar-looking woman (sorry I can't figure out who she is), that I liked- they're sort of loose and repetitive but pretty. This is definitely a personal reaction, but I'm willing to believe a lot of viewers might be turned off by the music, to be honest.

His message of uniting the black community is wonderful, but it comes at the cost of complete alienation from and rejection of any other race (not just white people). It also gives a pretty sad picture of women in general (namely, they're all idiots/prostitutes/victims). The misogyny and mixed messages serve to cancel out any good will he may have earned at the beginning and make his claims less legitimate.

Space is the Place is notably imaginative, with some really funny moments and characters and a few aesthetically interesting setpieces, but ultimately its overly-ambiguous, poorly-written script, prejudiced messages, and discordant music had me hoping the end came soon (and it's only 85 minutes). I have no doubt that Sun Ra is a significant, influential figure in the jazz scene, and I love that he's invented this strange, science-fictiony philosophy, but his place was not meant to be the movies. He's a really bad actor.


Moral of the Story: Don't be taken in by Harvard's high-falutin' language that leads to bad movies. See Foxy Brown instead!


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010)

I missed this at IFF because it was playing at the same time as Winter's Bone but luckily it's been given a wider release! Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is a captivating documentary that follows the 75-year-old comedienne through one year of her life. She endeavors to bring her auto-biographical play to the stage, performs at small venues across the country, publishes a new book, competes on Celebrity Apprentice, sits in on her Comedy Central Roast, and just generally tries to keep herself working. She's been in the business since she was in her 20's, and has definitely seen her share of career ups and downs.

Despite her pioneering work as a female comic, she has no desire to be an "icon" as that places her impact squarely in the past, and she is still working as hard as ever creating new material and projects but with a fraction of the respect she should warrant. Her forays into plastic surgery and red carpet commentary have earned her a frequently-lampooned reputation and she struggles to maintain her lifestyle (and that of various people she supports) with such unstable bouts of employment.

This film is a wonderfully-constructed portrait of a remarkable, fascinating woman whom I am ashamed to say I didn't know much about. Her impact on stand-up performance and women in comedy is considerable, but I had no idea of the scope of her career or legacy because to me (and perhaps to a lot of people of my generation), she was primarily an over-the-top red carpet commentator. Luckily the movie introduced me to so many more facets of her personality and history, exposing an insanely driven, strong-willed woman who refuses to believe her best days are behind her even as she is continually faced with losing gigs and failed performances.

Though peppered with interviews from familiar comics and close friends, the film maintains a close focus on Joan herself, following her through make-up applications and needy business calls. She pulls through it all with blunt self-deprecation and brutal honesty, dredging up highlights of her past but always looking to the future and how to keep herself occupied and wanted. It's funny, informative, and sometimes heartbreaking, with a several anticipatory edge-of-seat moments mainly because I really had little knowledge of what she'd been up to. I didn't know if she'd win Celebrity Apprentice, but darn it I was pulling for her! I didn't know if her play received positive reviews, but I was waiting anxiously along with her until they were published. Luckily there is a good amount of positive experiences mixed in with the setbacks.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is a gripping exploration of one woman's year of trying to get back on top, climbing over mountains of prejudice due to her age, sex, and unwarranted reputation. Sprinkled with a number of clips from her stand-up act to remind us just what she does best, the film is an excellent look at someone who really deserves more respect than she gets, and knows it. I hope this doc brings her some more recognition from people like me, who didn't realize her impact on the stand-up community.


Further Reading:
Dark of the Matinee review
Joan Rivers on twitter


Friday, June 25, 2010

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Only my beloved Toy Story could get me to break down and see a movie in 3D, and at AMC Boston Common's new IMAX theater, no less! Fancy! Toy Story 3 picks up about a decade after the previous film, with the toys' owner Andy heading off for college and deciding to store his childhood paraphernalia in the attic while taking Woody with him. The toys are all accidentally donated to a daycare center, which at first seems like the perfect situation- they'll never become forgotten or outdated because there will always be new children to play with them.

Woody believes his place should always be with Andy and begins to make his way back home before he leaves for school, but soon Buzz, Jessie, and the others discover that the daycare is run by a tyrannical stuffed bear and the toddlers are remarkably destructive. With near-impenetrable security, it's up to Woody to save his friends so they can return to Andy together.

I'm of a generation that grew up with the Toy Story movies- in fact seeing the first is one of my earliest film-going memories (it was definitely my little brother's first, which is why it sticks out). The return of these lovable characters and their wondrous world brought on a host of nostalgic feelings tinged with longing, following the onset of my own entry into actual real-life adulthood. Thematically this movie is very much about growing up and adapting to the necessary changes brought about by the passing of time, and that hits close to home.

These characters, who we've come to know so well over what feels like a lifetime (and for people in my age group, it basically is), at first find themselves incapable of coping with the sudden realization that they're not wanted anymore, that they're unnecessary and can't perform the one thing they were created to do- make a child happy. The importance of their usefulness has been hammered in throughout all the films, but becomes even more significant this time around. They slowly realize that even if they're lost, discarded, or forgotten, their friendships with one another and their incredible faith in the ones they love will see them through.

It's not all sentimental seriousness, of course. Right from the gleefully adventurous opening scene, Toy Story 3 is an exercise in adorable, slightly goofy fun that's enjoyable for any age group. The script itself balances out the humor with enough adventure and dramatic moments to make for an absorbing, multi-layered film. The voice acting is superb, with Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and Joan Cusack bring back their reliable charm (Hanks has especially always stood out for me), along with newcomers Michael Keaton, Ned Beatty, Timothy Dalton, Kristen Schaal, and many others. The animation is as lovely and detailed as expected, though the 3D wasn't especially utilized.

A few of the jokes are too corny, the Ken character is sort of a thinly-veiled gay stereotype (I think?), and the ending- while certainly emotionally affecting- is straight out of Drop Dead Fred (another childhood favorite), but all in all Toy Story 3 is a magnificently fitting end to a beloved film series. Like several of Pixar's more recent outings, it tackles adult themes with wit and realism that set a standard for more intelligent "family" films, and perhaps will eventually signal a move to some adult-centric material for the kid-friendly studio.


PS The preceding short "Night and Day" is EXCELLENT, and ranks among my favorite of the Pixar shorts primarily for its sheer imagination.

Further Reading:
1416 and Counting review
Dark of the Matinee review
Not Just Movies review
Where the Buffalo Roam review


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Blade II (2002)

My immediate love for the original spurred a necessary viewing of the sequel, appropriately titled Blade II and directed by the visionary Guillermo Del Toro. After finding out that his weapons master/mentor Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) is being held captive by high-ranking vampires, Blade (Wesley Snipes) sets out to rescue him. He successfully treats Whistler's fledgling bloodsucking tendencies with the help of his new sidekick, mechanic/inventor Scud (Norman Reedus). The head vampire counsel (or whatever the official title is) seeks Blade's aid when an evolved race of super vampires with communicable, thirsty demeanors dubbed Reapers begin taking over their civilization. Believing for once that they're all working towards the same goal, he teams up with a squadron of specially trained vampires (including Leonor Varela and Ron Perlman) to take out the Reapers before their virus spreads any further.

The first Blade is a fun, slightly campy action flick with a fantastic leading man. Blade II keeps the necessary lead actor and kickin' action scenes but punches up the script, visuals, and cast for a sequel that surprisingly surpasses its predecessor. The story is more complex and developed, with several characters of questionable intention and a few expected but well-handled twists, all serving to enhance the overall tension. The new characters are interesting and vibrant, from Ron Perlman's hostile Reinhardt to Leonor Varela's conflicted Nyssa, and naturally Wesley Snipes isn't taking shit from anyone as the badass title character.

Of course there's no mention of Karen, the capable doctor from the first film, and while it's no big deal if she couldn't return for the sequel, it always frustrates me when the script just refuses to even mention a missing character. Couldn't there have been a 30-second conversation between Blade and Whistler to the effect of "She got transferred to a different hospital/She couldn't take the dangerous lifestyle/She died"?

Del Toro brings his signature detailed and colorful aesthetic to the franchise's moody world, infusing it with well-placed beams of light and a lot of unexpectedly gross moments. The Reapers are sickening in their design, which is a testament to the excellent effects and fantastic imagination of the crew behind them. I also loved all of the new weaponry, including the UV ray bombs and boomerang blade, plus there's a good balance of gadget-based action and physical fighting.

Blade II has got the goods, it's as simple as that. This is the second time I've seen Del Toro make a sequel that topped the first, and that really is quite a skill. Now, I know that Blade: Trinity is supposed to suck, but I'm wondering if it'll be worth it for Ryan Reynolds' abs? Then again I just saw some pictures and he's got a sort of gross beard so nevermind.



Wednesday, June 23, 2010

New Poll: New Layout

Hey gang, so I've got the results of the poll regarding the A-Team theme song, and I have to say, I'm a little disappointed at the number of "Eh, it's ok" responses. I'm not sure I understand where you're all coming from, and I'm not sure I want to. So I'm just going to say "whatever" to you guys and continue to hop around singing it obnoxiously loudly UNTIL THE DAY I DIE.

Is the A-Team theme song the best ever written?
8 votes: Eh, it's ok- nothing special
6 votes: Yeah, it's one of them
2 votes: Most definitely! (my kind of people)
1 vote: I hate that song (damn that's harsh)
0 votes: I've never heard it

Anyway, my next poll is a bit more personal (that is, it's regarding myself, it's not like an intimate question). Maybe you've noticed that I've recently changed up the layout of the site a bit, and while I'm still not 100% happy with it, I think it generally looks ok. But I'd like to know what you guys think of the new layout! Let me know specifics in the comments (positive or negative), if you're so inclined. Thanks!


AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004)

Fresh off my first viewing of Predator, it seemed to make sense to check out a sequel that several of my friends have praised (even though critically it's loathed, hard): AVP : Alien vs. Predator. And hey, looking past its ludicrous premise, it's not bad. When a satellite owned by The Corporation detects a massive heat signature in Antarctica, billionaire Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen) enlists a group of archaeologists, adventurers, and grunts to accompany him on an exploratory mission.

They discover an ancient temple with elements of multiple disparate cultures that serves as a sacrificial alter and prison to the infamous Alien. Turns out, the predator species has been using Antarctica as grounds for a special coming-of-age ceremony wherein young hunters prove themselves by killing aliens bred in human sacrifices. Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan), the main (and basically only) competent person in the whole group, does the best she can to survive their unintentional interruption of this ritual, fighting off aliens and predators alike.

This movie is actually pretty good, you guys. It expands upon the predator mythology quite well, going into their cultural practices and history and making them much complex than just hunt-obsessed monsters. The creature effects are very cool and there's an array of fun weaponry. I really dug Sanaa Lathan as Alexa, finding her smart, driven, and delightfully take-charge. Her no-nonsense approach and the speed with which she picked up on the whole situation were very refreshing, plus her survival skills are top-notch. She makes the film more engaging, acting as the main link between the audience and the otherworldly action. Also I liked the throwback to Bishop from earlier Alien films with Lance Henriksen playing a human version of the android.

The story itself is decent, but the script is pretty bad and almost laughably unbelievable at the beginning, overloading itself with too much pseudo-science and useless characters. It takes a long time to get to the actual Alien/Predator parts, which wouldn't have been a big deal if the human characters had been more interesting. I think the idea behind it is good and the basic premise of predators ritualistically hunting aliens is pretty cool, but the material just wasn't handled well. The pacing and structure are uneven and the writing is a bit lazy. The excellent performance from Sanaa Lathan and the great action scenes make AVP an enjoyable addition to the franchise but not as absorbing as the earlier entries.


Further Reading:
1416 and Counting review
Alien Love Predator webcomic


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) (2009)

It's been a long time coming, I know, but luckily the Kendall Square Cinema has kept The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo around for months. Based on the popular book, this first entry into the trilogy introduces Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a sharp young hacker on parole for a violent crime, and Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a muckraking journalist recently found guilty of severe libel charges.

While Lisbeth works as a "researcher" for a powerful security firm and endeavors to put an end to her new parole officer's sexual harassment, Mikael is hired to spend his six months before imprisonment studying and attempting to solve a forty-year-old missing person case for elderly wealthy businessman Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube). Eventually Lisbeth stumbles upon Mikael's case through computer investigations, and is brought in to assist him. The deeper they dig, the more unpleasant truths they discover about the Vanger family, putting their own lives in danger.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has just about everything a movie needs: mystery, killing, sex, revenge, haunted pasts, crime, creepy locations, strong and likable characters, good writing, a talented cast, near-death situations, and a motorcycle. It's just great. The story is complex and tangled, allowing the audience just enough information to almost figure it out on our own but persistently throwing curve balls to keep us off balance. The script is well-written, with straightforward dialogue and good pacing (a true feat considering its 152 minute runtime), and I was fairly engrossed for the entire movie. Though I'll admit the fact that no one could figure out the Bible thing after years of investigating was a little annoying, since I thought of that right away.

While a good chunk of this film is a scintillating murder mystery, the rest of it focuses on the guarded personality and history of its eponymous character. Infantalizing title aside, she is a fascinating young woman whose background is subtly explored and revealed through scant flashbacks, a telling conversation with her mother, and the intelligent performance of Noomi Rapace. Affected by various events in her past, Lisbeth is extremely cut off emotionally and clings fiercely to her independence. She is unable to communicate effectively on an emotional level- at least not in the way an average person would- and instead gradually displays her trust in and attraction to Mikael through thoughtful gifts and impromptu sex, while instinctively maintaining a clear distance between them. She's a really interesting, powerful character and I look forward to learning more about her in the film sequels and books (which I'll be reading eventually). Oh, and Mikael is a pretty cool character too!

With an engaging plot and fantastic performances, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is an excellent and thrilling mystery with a good amount of character development thrown in. I can only imagine the many elements that will be lost in the American remake. Sigh.


PS (also sort of a spoiler) Anyone know who that girl was sleeping with Lisbeth when Mikael first visits her? Were they dating? When they first started sleeping together I was like, "Wait Lisbeth! Maybe you have a girlfriend? No cheating?" but she was never mentioned. I wasn't sure if she's an actual character in the books or something. Or I guess it was just a way to hint that Lisbeth is bisexual.

Further Reading:
Dark of the Matinee review
Flick Chick review
House of Self-Indulgence review


Monday, June 21, 2010

Jonah Hex (2010)

Ok everyone, I think we all need to calm down a bit about this movie. I really don't think it warrants such strong negative reactions, but then again what do I know? Loosely based on a DC comic that I've never read, Jonah Hex traces the exploits of its title character (Josh Brolin) as he travels around the iconic Wild West making his way as a bounty hunter and generally stirring up trouble. A former Confederate soldier, he was found out to be a traitor by General Turnbull (John Malkovich) and forced to watch his family burn to death while his own face was branded and he was left for dead.

This experience left him in touch with "the other side" and he gained the ability to waken corpses, a talent he sometimes uses to help him locate his targets. When the US government gets wind of the disgruntled Turnbull's plot to construct a doomsday machine invented by Eli Whitney and unleash it on the seat of government, the army enlists Hex to find him and halt his evil plan. Of course his on-again/off-again girlfriend Lilah (Megan Fox) eventually becomes embroiled in the whole affair.

Jonah Hex combines elements of fantasy, science-fiction, westerns, and adrenaline-infused action movies into a semi-successful genre mash-up. It's written by Neveldine and Taylor (Crank 2), which is really all I needed to know. It wastes no time in its storytelling, navigating through flashbacks and old relationships efficiently and informatively. There are some great concepts, from waking the dead to Confederate grudges to Gatling gun horses, but the execution is so-so. The characters aren't developed enough, and the climactic battle is over incredibly quickly, and though it was nice to keep it so short (80 minutes) I actually think it could have used about 10-15 more to flesh out certain elements. Also, lose the dream battle sequence. Unnecessary.

Josh Brolin was probably born to be in westerns, encapsulating the drawling one-liners, heady stare, and cowboy cool necessary for any character in the genre. While the hole-in-the-face make-up is a little gross, he's still pretty great in the role of Jonah. Malkovich is a decent villain, if a little bland. I liked Megan Fox as Lilah, a gun-toting prostitute who must constantly defend herself due to her line of work. Despite spending 90% of her limited screen time in a state of undress, she was convincing as a capable lady with a thing for facially scarred dudes. I was also quite pleased to see Lance Reddick, Will Arnett, and John Gallagher, Jr in small roles, even if Michael Shannon's part was practically non-existent.

The trailer promised a highly-stylized, fast-paced, offbeat action movie and that's basically what Jonah Hex delivers. I guess my surprise at the insanely negative reviews resides in the fact that they seem overly-critical of something that made its intentions very clear at the onset. It's not like this movie tricked us into thinking it'd be something different beforehand. I definitely understand why it wouldn't be everyone's thing, but as a person who really enjoys genre mash-ups I thought the film was an entertaining way to spend 80 minutes. It would have been more interesting with an R rating, though.



Sunday, June 20, 2010

Predator (1987)

Arnold Schwarzenegger loves proving my theory that he is incapable of appearing in a movie without making it somewhat entertaining. What a guy! In Predator, the filmmakers waste no time getting our man out in the jungle with a few other brutes ready to take down a guerrilla faction and maybe lay waste to any vicious aliens they find. Dutch (Schwarzenegger) is the leader of a group of mercenaries forced to team up with CIA officer Dillon (Carl Weathers) to free a kidnapped politician somewhere in Central America (I think?- Wikipedia says it's Guatemala but I don't remember if it's actually ever made clear).

When they find the hostages dead, they unleash all kinds of bullets on the guerrillas and everyone dies except for one lady (Elpidia Carrillo), whom they take as a prisoner. While making their way to the helicopter rendezvous, their tracker Billy (Sonny Landham) senses a strange creature hunting them (he's got magic perception because he's Native American- you know how it is), and soon enough there's a semi-invisible alien with day-glo blood gradually picking them off one by one, hanging up their bodies and skinning them for trophies. It's up to Dutch, the most badass of them all (obviously) to put up a decent fight.

I'm going to start off with the weirdest thing about this movie, before I forget to mention it: Shane Black is in this movie. As in, the guy who wrote Lethal Weapon, The Monster Squad, The Last Action Hero, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which he also directed). I had no idea he was an actor and it was a big surprise to see his name in the credits. And he did a good job, too!

Anyway. Predator is a pretty good movie. The story is very fast-paced and straightforward, devoting some time to establishing characters at the beginning but quickly launching into Action Time. In many ways it's a typical sci-fi chase movie by way of the Terminator or Alien franchises, but brings a level of "oh-shit!" moments and weapon variety to set it apart, along with a truly formidable and fascinating alien villain. The predator is cunning and impressively armed, with highly advanced technology and a very specific code. Though of course I was rooting for Arnold, I was definitely interested in how the predator plotted and fought, gleaning what information I could about its personality through its mute actions. The last 20 minutes or so of the film are almost completely wordless, and are also the most engaging.

I dug the action, I dug Arnold, I dug the HUGE gun employed by Jesse Ventura and Bill Duke, and I really dug the title creature. With its fast pacing and treacherous location, Predator gives us enough violence and intensity to make for a very cool film, and I'll admit I'm pretty psyched for the new one!



Stage Door (1937)

I feel I've been lax in viewing classic films lately, and sought to quickly remedy that with Stage Door, a female-driven comedy/drama that features a knockout cast of actresses. Revolving around a boarding house catering to young stage actresses in New York City, the story drifts in and out of the lives of a host of chatty budding starlets trying to survive the Depression. Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn), a wealthy, educated woman enters the house with no training and every intention of becoming an instant success, but she alienates many of the other lodgers with her affected way of speaking and overly pragmatic personality.

Jean Maitlind (Ginger Rogers) is a sharp-tongued dancer who strikes up a convenient romance with big-time producer and professional asshole Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou). Having made a name for herself in a successful play the previous year, Kay (Gail Patrick) is now struggling to even land auditions and forgoes meals to save money. Judith (Lucille Ball) suffers through dates with older men visiting from Seattle so she'll have a free dinner, while girls like cat-lover Eve (Eve Arden) and dancer Annie (Ann Miller) are ever-present in the background for a good wisecrack.

Stage Door boasts a large ensemble cast and a character-driven plot interwoven with Depression-era commentary about the importance of theater and the hope it instills. While some of the various subplots can be a little contrived or uninteresting, the clever dialogue and realistic subject matter lend credibility and imagination to the script. I loved just listening to these women speak, remarking upon life's ups and downs always with a quick joke on hand. The cast has a very improvisational, familiar chemistry (probably helped by improv sessions from which some of the dialogue was written), and it was great to see the sparks fly between so many talented actresses thrown together into one room.

I'll be honest, I'd watch anything for Ginger Rogers. She just floors me in everything she does, and handles her role here with wit, pluck, and oodles of charisma. Yes, of course I adore Katharine Hepburn and she certainly shines as the overly-mannered and outspoken Terry, but it's Ginger that kept me riveted. The two share several excellent scenes together and I loved the pairing. Also notable is a young Lucille Ball, who credits the film as her breakout performance. Having only seen her on I Love Lucy, I barely recognized her, but found her instantly likable. The most insane appearance was from Ann Miller, who was fourteen at the time, pretending to be 18 to get the part. She holds her own against Ginger Rogers during a short dance number and I was really impressed. Aside from being absolutely adorable, the lady had balls, you guys.

With a punchy script, a touching dramatic climax, and a cast that resulted in several squeals of "Oh! LOVE HER!", Stage Door is an incredibly enjoyable film. It is rooted in its time for its money-conscious rhetoric, but its relatable and clever dialogue is suitable for any period.


Further Reading:
Hollywood Dreamland review


Saturday, June 19, 2010

The A-Team (2010)

Yeah, that's right, that repetitive 80's action show with the best theme song ever got its own movie, with the events and characters updated to suit the present day. That's cool, I guess. The A-Team brings our friends Hannibal (Liam Neeson) the planner, Faceman (Bradley Cooper) the charmer, BA Baracus (Rampage Jackson) the fighter, and Mad Murdock (Sharlto Copley) the pilot to the Iraq War, where they perform special secret missions for the US military. When a butthead from "Black Forest" (Brian Bloom, also co-writer) sets them up to look like traitors on a mission to steal counterfeiter's plates in Baghdad, the gang is court-martialed and imprisoned. They escape with the aid of a cocky CIA operative (Patrick Wilson) and set out to prove their innocence with unintentional help from Faceman's ex-girlfriend, Lt Sosa (Jessica Biel). There are many plans involved, and most of them come together.

I really enjoyed the show when I was younger, mainly for its lovable characters and low-stakes action. My dad's favorite joke whenever an episode came on was "Oh wait, is this the one where a bunch of stuff blows up but everyone survives?" and I'd parry with, "No, no it's the one where they make weapons out of common household items!" and of course he'd return with "Actually I think it's the one where Faceman charms his way out of a sticky situation" and so on until our equally respectable wits finally ran out. (There you go dad, happy father's day!) So yeah, there's not much to go on, plot-wise, but it was never about that. It was about the characters and the general sense of fun always given to the whole proceedings, and for the most part I think the film captures that successfully.

I was feeling lukewarm about some of the casting initially. Liam Neeson is awesome in pretty much anything, and while he really seems to struggle with the American accent again he was excellent as Hannibal. Bradley Cooper is a little icky, but brought enough swagger and sly smiles to be believable as the slick Faceman (even if I think he just really isn't that good looking). Jessica Biel is always middling, but puts in a decent effort as the underwritten, basically pointless character of Sosa (well the main point was to have a lady in the film). Rampage Jackson was totally unknown to me before this, and while Mr T he is not, he had some good moments (although the refusing the kill thing and then killing again because of Ghandi or whatever was just a really stupid subplot). Really, it all comes back to Sharlto Copley, who is AWESOME as Murdock. While he also has a varying accent, it suited the wacky character well enough and all in all he is just enjoyable as hell in the role. More of him, please!

The story is kind of dumb, but there are some very cool action scenes. I liked the structure of showing the team laying down the plan, with intermittent cuts to the actual implementation. Some segments were overly-edited and too confusing to watch, but for the most part the action is fun and well-shot. Unfortunately, the big finale is underwhelming, nonsensical, and has some poorly-done CGI effects. Also, the theme song was barely used, and never in its entirety (did they have trouble getting the rights?). So in the end, The A-Team is an entertaining movie with some fine performances and decent action scenes, but nothing too special. They stayed true the characters and threw in some nice nods to the original show, and that's all I really could ask for anyway.


Further Reading:
1416 and Counting review
Four of Them thoughts


Friday, June 18, 2010

Pembalasan Ratu Pantai Selatan (Lady Terminator) (1988)

A magic snake crawls into an anthropologist's vagina and she goes on a leather-clad, machine gun-toting murderous rampage in Indonesia? OH HELL YES. Indeed, ladies, gentlemen, and transgender folk, this is actually the premise of Lady Terminator, a well-meaning rip-off of the American blockbuster. Tania Wilson (Barbara Anne Constable, also the make-up artist) is a big-haired anthropology student researching local folklore in Indonesia. She seeks the castle of the South Sea Queen, a vengeful sorceress who swore to take out the great-granddaughter of her ex-lover.

When Tania comes upon the now-underwater dwelling, a snake crawls into her vagina and she becomes possessed by the Sea Queen, imbuing her body with penis-mutilating sex powers and a thirst for murder. She hunts down Erica (Claudia Angelique Rademaker), a budding rock singer who's descended from the Sea Queen's lover, and goes off on a killing rampage in the midst of taking her out. An American cop (Christopher J Hart) endeavors to protect the young woman, but Lady Terminator's seeming indestructibility calls for some serious and explosive reinforcements.

Oh, where to begin? Lady Terminator is one of the finest examples of so-bad-it's-good cinema I've seen, with bad dubbing, cheesy special effects, a ludicrous premise, and my new favorite movie tagline. This was another part of the Revenge of the Grindhouse series at the Brattle, with curator Lars Nilsen explaining the casting as essentially profit-seeking producers rounding up whatever white people they could find in the area. And oh, does that show. The main white guy is laughably stiff, while Barbara Anne Constable is ridiculously over the top as Tania (the fact that the Australian actress was dubbed to have a Valley Girl accent makes it better) and thankfully mostly silent and pissed off as Lady Terminator. She's also topless for about one third of the movie, which I thought was pretty impressive.

This is definitely a film that needs to be experienced, as I can't quite sum up just how great it is. It's loaded with very literal references to the original The Terminator, including scenes lifted directly out of it but filtered through a poorly-written script. There's a copious amount of sex and violence, but I'd imagine it's not especially sexy for most dudes in the audience since most of the men end up with their junk sliced off by a vagina snake. It follows much of the Terminator format with its Persistent Superbeing Chases Lady and Alpha Male Protector plotline, but spices it up with a folk tale set-up and a lot more boobs. It's really strange and fun, features some fantastic dialogue ("Tom. My buddy." stands out as well as "If it bleeds, it dies!"), and surprisingly decent action sequences. The pseudo-white surfer dude/Spicoli-impersonator aka The Best Character, whose name I forget but I know the actor is Adam Stardust (I know right!?), wasn't in it enough unfortunately, but really I'm just thankful to the film for introducing us to such a man.

As a movie: 2/5
As entertainment: 4.5/5

Check out the trailer!


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Chinjeolhan Geumjassi (Lady Vengeance) (2005)

I've finally finished Park Chan-wook's revenge trilogy! Man, it feels good! Sparking within me the sudden desire to wear red eye shadow, Lady Vengeance focuses on Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae), a recently-released alleged child murderer who gained a reputation for saintly behavior in prison. As she seeks out her old prison-mates and calls in some favors, the story flashes back to their crimes and subsequent experiences in jail. With this back-and-forth mode of storytelling, we gradually learn the true nature of Geum-ja's character and begin to understand her intentions. One decision early in her life determined everything that happened to her afterward, and she seeks to tie up a host of loose ends.

This is an intricate and expertly told narrative with a master behind the scenes and a talented actress in focus. The script deftly weaves a cohesive story from several disparate threads- time periods, characters, locations- and works in some thrilling moments and off-kilter violence. It's cleverly done, leaving the audience to make certain inferences and connections so that nothing is too obvious but everything makes sense. There is a good balance between badass revenge tale and in-depth character study, ultimately leading to a gripping and fast-paced drama.

Lee Yeong-ae is mesmerizing as the lead character Geum-ja. Her young face and innocent beauty befuddle almost everyone she meets, and she dons the red eye shadow to represent her newly hardened exterior. Many of her darker actions and motivations remain a mystery throughout the first half of the film, yet she is somehow always sympathetic due to Lee's charisma and strength. Though she grounds the film completely, there's a strong supporting cast with Choi Min-sik (Mr Oldboy himself) as a corrupt schoolteacher and Kwon Yea-young as a Korean girl raised in Australia, among many wonderful ladies as Geum-ja's fellow inmates. Favorite Korean Actor Song Kang-ho even shows up in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it role!

Lady Vengeance delivers in every way, offering a strong, determined central character and a complex, intelligent narrative. It's beautifully shot, accompanied by a soaring classical score, and doesn't move in a predictable fashion. It's a Park Chan-wook film, you guys, what more can I say? The man is absolutely brilliant. And I don't think he's capable of making a movie I won't love.


Further Reading:
Cinemascope review
Japan Cinema review


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Orgasmo (aka Paranoia) (1969)

The Brattle Theatre's "Revenge of the Grindhouse" series is happening this week, with a range of b-movies, exploitation flicks, and foreign knockoffs of American blockbusters, all programmed by the extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic Lars Nilsen of the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, and in partnership with the newly-formed American Genre Film Archive. The kick-off was Paranoia (also titled Orgasmo), a giallo film with Carroll Baker as Kathryn, a jaded, recently-widowed alcoholic settling into a villa outside Rome to grieve for her wealthy husband's death and settle his accounts. When the young, broad-faced American college student Peter (Lou Castel) happens upon her home after his car breaks down, the two quickly begin a wild love affair. He stays with her for a few days and eventually invites his pixie-like sister Eva (Colette Descombes) along for the party, and the situation descends into weird sexual and psychological manipulation that slowly drives Kathryn insane.

Rated X at the time, Paranoia is fairly tame by today's standards. Sure, it has its share of titillating moments and naked lady butts, but most of the sex stuff happens offscreen. In fact, it is the implied actions that make the film more creepy and frightening, with viewers unsure of just how far Peter and Eva go to drive Kathryn into a panicked frenzy. The story is a little too slow, with ineffectual pacing throughout the beginning and middle sections. The sets and costumes are lovely, though sometimes the imagery is a little too "OMG DRUGS IN THE 60'S!" (which I guess isn't too surprising considering it is indeed the 60's and there are nondescript drugs involved).

Carroll Baker is pretty great as Kathryn, a bored woman looking to regain her confidence and sexuality through an experimental fling, but completely out of her depth when the true natures of her guests are revealed. She tries to be strong, but her alcoholism and general womanness get the best of her and in the end I didn't especially care what happened to her. Lou Castel is off-putting and gross as Peter, but I really liked Colette Descombes as Eva, with her gorgeous eyes and retro-cool exterior. The movie isn't so much about the people, but about where they'll all end up.

Paranoia is fun for its strange characters, poorly accented dubbing (I had no idea Peter was supposed to be American), and fairly engrossing, sexy-creepy story. It's not as shocking as its branding would have you believe, but the offscreen activities will leave you questioning just how far things went. Considering the whole affair is done as an intentional rip-off of better-produced films, I'd say it was pretty good!



Tuesday, June 15, 2010

IGNORE ME (Updated)

I'm in the middle of updating/re-designing. Please ignore how crappy everything looks.

Standby for a better-looking site, hopefully!

UPDATE: Ok, so I'm basically done with the things I was planning to do. It still needs some tweaking and such, but I wanted to know what you guys thought of it. Does it look ok? Is it too complicated to navigate?


Blade (1998)

Alright, so despite my love for comic books movies and Marvel especially, I'd never seen any Blade movies. What? I know, I know. But that's being remedied even as we speak! After his mother is bitten by a vampire soon before giving birth, Blade (Wesley Snipes) is born as a half-human, half-vampire hybrid, with super strength, healing powers, and a driving thirst for blood along with a human soul and ability to withstand sunlight.

He teams up with vampire hunter Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) and the two travel around from city to city tracking their movements and killings and striking them down to weaken their large criminal organization. When a particularly resilient vampire (Donal Logue) attacks hematologist Karen (N'Bushe Wright), she joins Blade's crusade against the crazed Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), who's planning to resurrect a powerful vampire god to destroy all human life.

This movie is cheesy, predictable, over the top, and absolutely awesome. Wesley Snipes is the epitome of superhero cool as the eponymous character, playing it confident and mysterious with some badass weaponry and rad tattoos. He always sounds pissed off, and he always looks like he's about to punch everyone in the room. It's so great, for real. I also really liked N'Bushe Wright as Karen, who starts off as a sort of useless, complainy lady but quickly establishes herself as highly capable and quick to learn, and very intelligent (well, she is a doctor). Stephen Dorff is a little weedy and lacks a true intimidation factor, but I love the guy for being Cecil B Demented and he still does a rather good job as the poseur villain.

The action sequences are very well-filmed and choreographed, working guns, swords, projectiles, and fists into some rather entertaining fights. The special effects are a bit lacking sometimes, but given the date that's no surprise and on the whole I thought the whole thing looked quite good. The main thing that hinders the film slightly is the script: the story is very predictable, working in a lot of familiar tropes, and the dialogue can be a bit much at some points. Blade seeks to be a more serious, dark superhero movie and while that comes across on some levels, it's hokey at others. I dig both cheese and drama in my superheroes, so it's not a huge deal, but I think the filmmakers could have pushed the tone just a little darker, made the dialogue a little more believable, and produced a legitimately dramatic work.

But really: whatever! I loved Blade! It's action packed and really fun, and I sort of have a crush on the main character. I've heard the sequel is even better, so that will be viewed and reviewed very shortly!


PS Look for a cool Traci Lords cameo in the opening scene. Love her!


Monday, June 14, 2010

Top Five: Summer Movies

Well, even though it's been rainy and slightly chilly here for the past few days, it is certainly summer time in my part of the world. This of course means it's time to think about movies that are summer-related! Of course, we can start off with the Wes Anderseason-appropriate films, Bottle Rocket for early summer and The Darjeeling Limited for late summer, but I want more. Here are some rad films that either take place during summertime and/or make me think of hot, sweaty bodies, listed in order of release.

Do The Right Thing (1989)
"It's the hottest day of the summer. You can do nothing, you can do something, or you can... DO THE RIGHT THING". Spike Lee's exploration of racial divides in a Brooklyn neighborhood builds throughout a boiling-hot day until its explosive finish. The main summery things I identify with this movie are Radio Raheem (the best character) walking around blasting cool tunes, and Rosie Perez slowly rubbing an ice cube over her naked body (a scene the actress loathed). It's a good movie with a strong message and memorable cast, but it's the palpably searing heat spread throughout (and the asshole tendencies it induces) that will really get you.

Heavy Weights (1995)
I loved this movie as a kid, and while I haven't seen it in several years I can only assume it's still awesome. When kids arrive at a summer camp geared toward helping overweight boys lose weight in a fun setting, they soon discover that it's actually the worst place ever, with a tyrannical fitness guru (Ben Stiller) and his European cronies torturing them to the point of unhealthy living. The boys strike back with the help of the few nice counselors, then they pull together to beat the asshole campers across the lake at the Camp Olympics! Yeah! It's funny and strange and teaches us that being overweight is ok but being healthy is still important. Fun fact: The script is co-written by Judd Apatow. Weird. I imagine that's how Ben Stiller became involved (they both worked on The Ben Stiller Show).

Im Juli. (2000)
In this super-cute German movie from the wonderful Fatih Akin, a straitlaced school teacher (Moritz Bleibtreu) and an adorable free spirit (Christiane Paul) are caught up in a road trip from Hamburg to Istanbul during summer vacation. Though initially at odds with one another, they eventually become friends (and perhaps... more than friends) in the midst of being robbed, stranded, drugged up, and imprisoned as they slowly make their way through Eastern Europe. It's a little silly, but ultimately quite enjoyable. There's a lot of sweat happening in this movie too, with some rather sunny locations. Also: Great soundtrack!

Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
It's no secret I'm a fan of pretty much anything former members of The State will do, and this movie is the culmination of everything that makes them great. It's weird, irreverent, crowded with great characters, and unabashedly goofy. It's the last day of summer camp, which sends campers and counselors alike into a frenzy of activity as they all try to accomplish their main summer goals (for many this involves getting laid, for others it's all about the talent show). It stars the ever-adorable Michael Showalter along with a score of people I love (Paul Rudd, Janeane Garofalo, Ken Marino, Amy Poehler, H Jon Benjamin- the list goes on). It's set in 1981, plus there's water sports and hiking and other summer stuff, too! Most importantly: it features one of my favorite musical training montages ever.

My Summer of Love (2004)
This is a bit less fun than my other choices (well, with the exception of Do The Right Thing), but it's a really interesting film. During a summer in the Yorkshire countryside, snobby rich girl Tamsin (Emily Blunt) and the lower-class tomboy Mona (Natalie Press) form a deep friendship that soon blossoms into a serious romance. While Mona is infatuated, Tamsin sees much of their relationship as a fun game to while away the boring summer days. They both toy with Mona's older brother (Paddy Considine), a recently-released convict who's become a born-again Christian. It's a moving, intense film with two excellent central performances, vaguely reminiscent of Heavenly Creatures. I haven't seen it in years but it's stuck in my memory when I think of summer romance.

Honorable Mentions
The Seven-Year Itch (1955)
The Parent Trap (1961) (what can I say? I loved Hayley Mills as a kid)
One Crazy Summer (1986)
Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead (1991)
Holes (2003)

So there you are. What about you guys? Any favorite summertime films?


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Alphaville, Une étrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution (Alphaville, a Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution) (1965)

Despite my underwhelming introduction to Godard last semester, I'm definitely still willing to explore the auteur's oeuvre. Alphaville seemed like the most logical second outing, since it's included on the Sci-Fi list and sounded pretty awesome. Simultaneously referencing, updating, and parodying "Lemmy Caution" secret agent films, it stars Eddie Constantine as the future version of Lemmy sent to infiltrate the eponymous city, a computer-run metropolis that's outlawed emotions, imagination, and questioning. He poses as a journalist while searching for a missing operative (Akim Tamiroff) and the scientist (Howard Vernon) who invented Alpha 60, the computer system that monitors and rules over the city. He is aided by the scientist's daughter, Natacha (Anna Karina), and as he awakens her long-muted feelings the two strive to eliminate Alpha 60.

The themes present in Alphaville are nothing new to me, reminiscent of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, Brazil, Equilibrium, and so many other preceding and subsequent sci-fi dystopian works, but they're handled in what I presume to be a rather Godardian/French New-Wave manner (then again I'm certainly no expert on the man or movement). The futuristic setting is sparse and unremarkable, incorporating contemporary locations and technology, and the complex premise is expanded in an ambiguous, scattershot approach. The characters don't seem to have any clear motivations, and no one was particularly developed. The romantic relationship between Lemmy and Natacha has no basis in anything believable or realistic, so I couldn't particularly care about it. Then again, the same thing happened with Breathless, so maybe this is a quality I should get used to.

While the exaggerated ambiguity and shapeless characters were frustrating, overall I still enjoyed Alphaville. It's beautifully shot in crisp black and white, with imposing shots that make 1960's Paris seem futuristic and cool whirring mechanisms for the Alpha computer system, all heightening its film-noir feel. The story is decent, working several interesting angles into the premise and achieving certain emotional depth in some scenes. I liked the world-weary Constantine as Lemmy Caution, who seemed so out of place in this fast-paced, bleak world. His familiarity and comfort with the character serves him well in this re-imagining. Anna Karina is memorably gorgeous, and for the most part that's her mamainjor role, but she gets in some affecting moments.

The main impression I have of this film is how staged it felt. The actors move around in an overly-deliberate fashion, and often speak without real meaning behind their words. While for the emotionless setting this is somewhat appropriate, it also keeps the audience at a distance and therefore inhibited my full investment in the story or characters. It's a bold stylistic choice that I've seen pay off in some other films (most notably those of Hal Hartley, whose works are self-consciously choreographed), but doesn't quite work in Alphaville. It's a well-filmed, intelligent science-fiction tale, but it lacks the warmth necessary to fully involve me in its story. And in a movie about overcoming the barriers of logic and cold-heartedness, that makes a big difference.



Saturday, June 12, 2010

Creepy Space Love Double Feature: Solyaris (1972) and Solaris (2002)

While I've learned a lot about Russian film in the past few months from my Russian contemporary culture class, I actually still hadn't seen any movie made before 1988. Solyaris became my first real Soviet film, sought out mainly due to its inclusion on the sci-fi list. After reading about the remake it just seemed like a good idea to dive into that one and closely observe the differences.

The epic-in-length Solyaris begins with aging former pilot Henri Berton's (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) visit to Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), a psychologist preparing to visit the crew of the failing space station on the mysterious planet Solaris. Berton attempts to convince Kelvin of strange visions he experienced when on Solaris himself decades ago. Ignoring his warnings, Kelvin sets off for the distant planet with a no-nonsense approach to his mission, which involves assessing the mental health of the remaining crew members so that the program leaders can decide whether or not to continue studying Solaris. Kelvin arrives to find one member dead, one (Anatoli Solonitsyn) shut inside his lab, and the last one (Jüri Järvet) friendly but remarkably ambiguous in his explanation of everyone's behavior. There is evidence that other people are on the ship, and when Kelvin starts seeing his dead wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) around his cabin, he suspects that Solaris itself is a powerful, sentient entity.

Yes, Solyaris is a really, really long film, and a lot of its length is due to the plethora of drawn-out shots and repetitive or meandering conversations. Though presumably artful in intent, some of these moments are a bit tedious and lackluster. Looking past all that, however, it is easy to see the brilliance in the concept and execution. Though set in a futuristic spacecraft hovering above an imaginary planet, the film retains few "science-fictiony" elements, focusing instead on the human relationships formed by an uncanny situation. It begins with a marvelously eerie atmosphere, accentuated by an all-encompassing silence and refusal to explain anything to the protagonist (or audience). As it progresses, it becomes more of a relationship-driven drama, documenting the different reactions of the characters as doppelgangers of people they love keep appearing.

I loved the premise, the sets, the early creepiness, and the crazy ending, but I was left wanting more from Solyaris. The character of Hari, definitely the most interesting for her unique and terrifying situation, is under-developed, and I didn't fully believe in the relationship between her (either the real or fake version) and Kris. Because so much of the story hinges on their interactions, this was frustrating. I also would have liked to know more about the other scientists on the ship, both experiencing visits from "guests" of their own. But overall, I found the film to be smart, emotional, and very well-filmed, with a good dose of ambiguous weirdness to keep me analyzing it days after viewing.


Thirty years later, Steven Soderbergh released Solaris, a remake that clocks in an hour shorter than the original but retains most of the general story and concept. Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) gets a message from an old friend seemingly suffering from paranoia and delusions while on a spacecraft monitoring and studying the planet Solaris. He is sent to the ship to assess its remaining crew members, quickly discovering that his friend has committed suicide. He is met with quirky friendliness from Snow (Jeremy Davies) and extreme antagonism from Gordon (Viola Davis), though neither will elaborate on the strange goings-on that Kelvin easily senses. His dead wife Rheya (Natasha McElhone) soon appears in his bedroom, with confused memories and a crumbling sense of identity. He is thrilled to be given a second chance with her, but is reminded by Snow and Gordon that she can never truly be the real Rheya.

When Soderbergh set out to film his remake, I wonder if he foresaw the challenge of marketing it to a wildly unenthusiastic public. It wasn't a very commercially successful film, to be sure, but I honestly thought it was quite good. It cuts out a lot of the lingering scenes not necessary to the narrative, and develops the central relationship between Chris and Rheya much further. It abandons the eerie tone and becomes even less science-fictiony than the original, opting for straight dramatic romance with the aid of frequent flashbacks. It elaborates a bit more on the personalities and experiences of the other characters, and includes a wicked twist with one of them. The ending is weird and sappy though.

It was great to have a more realized character with Rheya in this version, as she is given a distinct personality and more insight into her strange experiences. The whole cast is a bit more dynamic than that of the Russian version, though perhaps that stems from my familiarity with these actors. Jeremy Davies is just the cutest person in show business (well, tied with Anton Yelchin) and I really enjoyed his slightly crazy, endearing portrayal of Snow. Viola Davis is superb as well, exuding a mix of fear and fortitude with every line. And George Clooney shows his butt twice! All in all, fine family fun.


I don't mean to be disparaging of such a landmark film as the original, but I really found that I enjoyed both films fairly equally, if for different reasons. I loved the creepy tone and expanded discussion of the planet's qualities in Solyaris, while I relished the expanded character development and faster pace of the remake. I believe the writer of the book hated both, which perks my interest in the novel to see the differences there.