Saturday, April 28, 2012

Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora's Box) (1929)

Seen: On dvd (Criterion) on our big screen/projector set-up, rented from Hollywood Express.

Well, Louise Brooks looks like a cool lady, and I'm always seeing her around Pussy Goes Grrr so Pandora's Box was an easy choice for a Sunday break from writing papers. Brooks stars as Lulu, an aspiring dancer who marries a well-known newspaper publisher despite his misgivings about her seedy background. Their wedding night is laced with drama and everything goes downhill from there. People dying, gambling, poverty, prostitution, etc. Not sure how spoilery I should be?


With her iconic bob haircut and general flapper effusiveness, Louise Brooks doesn't steal the show, she is the show. She radiates equal parts unguarded sexuality and bubbly sweetness, prancing about in awesome outfits and seemingly passionate about everything. Those around her fall easily under spell, and it is unclear how aware she is of the effect she has. At times she is conniving and manipulative, at others she is fragile and well-meaning. This dual nature makes for a fascinating and confusing character, propelling the film forward despite a somewhat weepy, meandering script. Lulu's relationships are interesting but the story is too episodic to be fully compelling as a whole.


One of the most interesting components of Pandora's Box was the Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), one of the only "reputable" people in Lulu's circle. She totally has a thing for Lulu, and it is not subtle, and I think she was the most sympathetic of any character. She sees how Lulu flirts with various men and knows she wouldn't have a chance, but lights up whenever they're together. She helps her out of scrapes, clinging to some hope that Lulu might return her feelings. It's pretty tragic, actually, since no one is really to blame. Their dancing scene is pretty hot, though, right? Also according to imdb she is considered to be the first lesbian character portrayed on screen, is that true?


Just a note: I started watching this with the classical orchestral-style score, but it didn't feel suited to the mood of the film so I switched to the modern classical one, which I liked better. Not sure how strongly the four soundtrack choices affect the overall tone, but I'm sure it made some difference.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Hmm, not sure. I know Pabst's other main film with Louise Brooks is Diary of a Lost Girl but I haven't seen it so I don't know if it's good.

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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Alex Makes Art #79


I'm switching things up a bit today since I don't have time to finish writing a review but I do have some art to share! I should be posting about Pandora's Box tomorrow.

So this weekend I was rather productive, working very hard on my final papers and then rewarding myself with some art-making. First was a totally embarrassing "fail" (as the kids say) on my part, in which I thought an etsy customer had commissioned a portrait of Jimi Hendrix but she totally didn't. But I spent several hours making one anyway, so I put it up for sale just in case anyone wants it. I'm not super into him but I had fun drawing him. Plus he always makes me think of that scene in Wayne's World.


Next I continued to sate my Star Wars mania these past few weeks (Machete Order is completed!) and drew a little Yoda. Isn't he cute? Also for sale, and currently being turned into a postcard along with some other designs!



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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Warriors (1979)

Seen: On dvd on our big screen/projector set-up, rented from Hollywood Express.

Here's another "I should have seen this by now" movie that I wanted to knock off the list. Especially since it's a fairly well-known cult movie and I dig cult films usually. Based on the book by Sol Yurick, The Warriors posits a gritty New York City completely dominated by various street gangs. When messiah figure Cyrus is murdered after an attempt to unite all the gangs, the Warriors are blamed for his death. Now every gang in the city is after them, and it's a long way back to Coney Island.

This is totally a video game in movie form, but it's done so well I do not consider that a detriment in any way. These guys have got to fight their way back home, meeting specific gangs at different points along their journey. There's dudes on roller skates, dudes with knives, dudes with baseball bats, dudes with a big car, and even some seductive (duh) ladies with guns. Everyone is kind of scary, but also super young, so it's a little sad. Most of the Warriors are basically adorable (except for James Remar's Ajax, who's just a dick) and it's easy to root for them as they tear through lots of awesomely costumed packs of teenagers. The only actual villain is Luther, who of course gets his comeuppance.

The plot is almost laughably simple, but the script and characters are treated with unexpected subtlety, coaxing out an interesting study of disaffected youth and mob mentality. There's this surprisingly sad scene on an empty subway train, as two giggling, drunken prom couples stroll in and come face to face with our worn-out, forsaken Warriors. These privileged students stare uncomfortably across to de facto leader Swan (Michael Beck) and tagalong Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), who just stare right back with resentment in their eyes. It's the only time we're reminded that this whole event takes place in a real-ish world, where other people have regular lives. The gangs are more like lost boys, young people binding together and operating outside of the regular system because they don't have anything else.

Ok mostly it's just a kickass action thriller, though. The cast is great and really sells it, along with strong fight choreography and fantastic night-time cinematography that makes use of neon lights and cramped urban interiors. It's even got a lady I liked. Swan tries to get all judgy and patriarchal about her "loose" lifestyle but she stands up for herself and doesn't go down a shame spiral. She does what she wants! It gets a little sappy when they try to get romantic, but that's a minor quibble. My favorite character was probably Rembrandt, since he liked to do graffiti and had a killer afro. In fact, several of the guys had awesome afros. It's a good place to be if you're overly obsessed with hair!

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Streets of Fire, all the way. That movie rules, this movie rules. Perfect Walter Hill combo!

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Sunday, April 22, 2012

American Psycho (2000)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

American Psycho is one of those movies that I should have seen by now, and am not sure why I haven't. Just never got around to it. But it's referenced on the internet a lot, and I had seen some commentary on how it takes a gross misogynistic book and makes a feminist film, which is interesting. Christian Bale stars as so-called "psycho" Patrick Bateman, a stereotypical 80s businessman who matches his douchey peers in materialism, sexism, and self-obsession as a way to hide his carnal bloodlust. His thirst for murder is stronger than his coke addiction, and becomes harder to control as the bodies pile higher and higher.

This is kind of a weird movie, and I'm honestly still not sure how I feel about it. Mostly it's a darkly comic satire fueled by exaggeration and juxtaposition. The killing scenes all take place in richly furnished, highly modern apartments that ache for some well-placed blood splatter. Bateman's drawling monologues about his favorite pop singers while he prepares his victims for the kill ride the line between funny and creepy, but mostly land as just strange. I liked how much this movie hates rich white yuppies, and the whole businessman-satire thing is its strength, I think. All of Bateman's buddies are just the worst, so you can kind of see why he wants to kill everything. Most importantly though one of them is Bill Sage! He is so attractive! To me he's mainly a Hal Hartley guy so it's kind of a treat to see him venture into more mainstream films.

Anyway. This movie. Yeah I guess the main gender critique-y thing it does is personify this over the top stereotype of masculinity, and makes it ridiculous. The story deals with serious subject matter but the script doesn't take anything seriously, so it's mostly funny with an undercurrent of sicko violence. I have no idea what the book is like, in terms of tone and message, but I got the impression Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner changed these things? Is Ellis like supportive of Bateman being a jerk to everyone or something? I don't really care, I have no intention of reading it.

My thoughts are obviously scattered, sorry for the shoddy workmanship here but I've been writing papers all day and my mind is kind of shot. Basically I liked American Psycho because it's weird and funny, but I didn't all-out love it. It drags at parts and the plot is a bit meandering. The subplot with Willem Dafoe as a detective is sort of out of place, though it leads to some great moments between him and Bale. And I hated Chloe Sevigny's character, blegh. So obsequious.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: I thought about Office Killer, which I think is a really interesting film but I know is not to everyone's taste. I think any kind of office/business-type satire would be a good pairing. Netherbeast Incorporated was cute...

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Spaceballs (1987)

Seen: On dvd on my friend Rachel's tv, from her collection.

Soooo what's the best way to follow up a few hard ciders and a viewing of Revenge of the Sith? OBVIOUSLY SPACEBALLS. What made it even better is I'd watched Blazing Saddles that morning so it was a Double Mel Brooks day which is the best kind of day. Brooks' ultra-silly take on the Star Wars series and a range of other sci-fi tropes stars Bill Pullman as Lone Star, a cocky intergalactic smuggler who- along with his half-man, half-dog partner Barf (John Candy)- is charged with rescuing the stuck-up Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) for a shitload of money. The evil Spaceballs, led by Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) and President Skroob (Mel Brooks), are after her so they can ransom her to steal her planet's air. Many hijinks ensue.

Ooookayyyy so we all know I love Mel Brooks more than my real family, and Spaceballs was one of my favorites when I was younger because I dig Star Wars. And because it's hilarious. It's got so many great jokes, from Barf's "I'm half man, half dog. I'm my own best friend!" to anything Rick Moranis says or does ("No, I didn't see you playing with your dolls again, SIR!"). It's got the characteristic self-awareness (I had a world religions teacher who used the whole "That was then, this is now. We're in NOW now" scene to explain the Buddhist perception of time; it was amazing) and wordplay ("The force!?" "No! The SCHWARZ.") that I love, plus some spot-on nods to other series, most notably Alien with an appearance from the real John Hurt and a Sigourney Weaver lookalike.

Admittedly, this one gets pretty stupid at times, and because I watched it a lot as a pre-teen some of the jokes have gotten stale. I still think this film is amazing, just not as solid as my Brooks favorites Blazing Saddles and The Producers. Maybe it just needed some Gene Wilder. NOT that I'm complaining about the cast. Bill Pullman can star in any movie any day, I am a fan. And Joan Rivers! And Dick Van Patten! And Stephen Tobolowsky pops up for 30 seconds! And naturally, Mel Brooks himself in the dual role of President Skroob and wise Schwarz-master Yogurt is just fantastic. Why didn't anyone tell him his ass was so big?

Ok this is just devolving into me quoting the movie sorry. Spaceballs is great, basically, but too corny/dumb at times. And it makes me wish Rick Moranis was still acting. I miss him!

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Well obviously any Star Wars movie? Duh. Or I kinda get in a Bill Pullman mood, so While You Were Sleeping could be a followup.

PS This movie has a theme song! My favorite thing!!!!!!! It's got tons of synths.

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Machete Order Double Feature: Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Seen: On dvd on my friend Rachel's tv, rented from Hollywood Express in Cambridge.

Ok, ok, before you question my seeming lack of sane judgment, let me explain! A school chum and I have been watching the Star Wars series in the Machete order, which goes like this: 1) A New Hope, 2) Empire Strikes Back, 3) Attack of the Clones, 4) Revenge of the Sith, and 5) Return of the Jedi. There is no Phantom Menace because it sucks and according to this method it isn't really imperative to the overall story. We also fit in Genndy Tartakovsky's Clone Wars tv series between AotC and RotS, because that show is SO great! Genndy Tartakovsky is SO GREAT you guys, he should be making shit tons of movies. He should have made all the Star Wars prequels. Anyway. So I had already written about the original trilogy which is why I haven't been talking about this, but now for the first time on this blog here are my thoughts on Lucas's newest live-action Star Wars offerings.

Um so plot... Anakin (Hayden Christiansen) and Obi Wan (Ewan McGregor) are fighting and going on missions for the Jedi Council, Anakin's grown up to be a whiny asshole, the Trade Federation is seceding from the Republic and starting a war, Padme (Natalie Portman)- now a senator- is almost assassinated so Anakin becomes her protector, Obi Wan stumbles upon a clone army being built for the Jedi to use in war against the separatists, uuuuuuuuuum that's all I can remember right now.

The main thing I remembered about Attack of the Clones was how goddamned boring Padme and Anakin's stupid fucking romance is, jesus. NO ONE GIVES A SHIT YOU GUYS. At least she gets to wear some kickass outfits though. This movie is pretty dumb in general, really. The dialogue is the worst thing in the world, and the CG is already showing its age. Hayden Christiansen just sucks so hard, and I do not want to watch him whine for two hours. Sadly this is the only film where Padme gets something vaguely resembling a personality, and it's nice she gets to use a gun at one point. Obi Wan has the more interesting storyline as he finds the clone making factory and fans learn the origins of Boba Fett, BUT I'm totally distracted by his weird mullet. Without all the awfulness, Attack of the Clones does have some cool world-building and interesting connections to the original trilogy. Plus I like lightsaber fights.

Aside from the tedious romance my main issue with this movie (and all the prequels, really) is that I am incapable of following any of the political subplots. Every time people are talking about the Trade Federation or the Senate or the Republic, I just sort of zone out without meaning to. It's hard enough to care about most of the characters (aside from Yoda, Mace Windu, and Obi Wan), how the hell am I supposed to care about convoluted trade disputes and an old dude masterminding a war? Just get back to the fighting and flying around!

2/5

Here's an image from Clone Wars to remind you that this show is awesome! It's got badass lady Jedi and General Grievous and Mace Windu and lots of fighting and Jedi lore and rat people! The whole thing is only about 2 hours so it's basically like a bonus Star Wars movie.

Ok back to the actual movies, blegh. Revenge of the Sith is definitely the most watchable of the prequels. Padme is pregnant, Anakin is having scary dreams about her death, the Republic is crumbling under the weight of the Clone Wars. Anakin gradually goes over to the dark side because he believes Sith power will allow him to save Padme from dying. Also because Darth Sidius is mad manipulative, it's kind of hilarious how stupid Anakin is whenever they talk because it's SO. OBVIOUS. Alsooo Obi Wan does stuff, I don't really remember. Leading clones into more battles or whatever. Chillin' with the Jedi council.

Hayden Christiansen still sucks and Natalie Portman has even less to do than usual, but Obi Wan's hair gets better so it's not a total loss. Also Yoda gets to be totally badass, which is everyone's favorite thing even if I miss the puppet version (the CGI just doesn't really sell it). Various characters and plot points finally come together in this one, including several things that will lead us into A New Hope. There are still a lot of inconsistencies and half-assed explanations, but for the most part things add up, if you sort of stretch it a little in your head.

The whole things gets better as it goes on, climaxing in very dramatic final battles and an unintentionally ridiculous moment when Darth Vader is unveiled. Watching them in this order I'm definitely able to see more parallels and in-jokes among the films, but mostly I'm looking forward to get getting back to all my old friends from the original trilogy when we watch Return of the Jedi this week!

3/5

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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Serbuan maut (The Raid: Redemption) (2011)

Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge.

After various reports of The Raid's status as "best action movie ever", it was imperative for me to see it. Written and directed by Gareth Evans and starring rising action star/fight choreographer Iko Uwais, the film pits a group of Indonesian special police against a tenement building's worth of thugs, killers, and drug dealers. Corruption within the city police and a number of booby traps leave young Rama (Uwais) alone and fighting for his life in a series of escalating battles with scary criminal dudes.

Violent and thrilling in its variety of fight scenes and good use of a one-location setting, The Raid is indeed a damn kickass action movie. It's got a pretty simple set-up that's perfect for a wide range of battles and all sorts of riff-raff redshirts, but also manages to work in some compelling character-driven drama and unexpected reveals. Iko Uwais is strong as the main dude with morals who is also a deadly killing machine, hot damn. He's backed by a great cast of fighters and stuntmen, many of whom embody some interesting characters.

Of course with something like this it all boils down to expectations. I heard rumors of extreme levels of badassery and invention, and sometimes comments to the effect of "saving the action genre" and/or "the best action movie in years". But I wonder if those who made such observations hadn't seen various other Southeast Asian action films? No muay Thai? The Raid is a solid flick, no question, but it didn't come off as something extremely special to me, since it called to mind a few other movies I've seen or know of. It's not a failing, just something that confused me in regards to the overwhelming critical/audience response.

The actual drawback for me was the lack of clear good guy/bad guy boundaries. I didn't have a reason to hate most of the people being killed by the protagonists, and while I recognize that this is something of a darker, at-times morally ambiguous story, I'm pretty sure I was supposed to root for Rama and his team. Sure, they're often fighting in self-defense, but a shit ton of people are killed or horribly injured and I don't even know what their deal is except they don't like cops. Action movies are most fun when I feel strongly about who's fighting, so not taking more time to show me why these guys are all bad made some of the gratuitous violence less fun.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: The set-up made me think of Attack the Block, which is the best. It also called to mind Bangkok Knockout, once they're all trapped in the warehouse and fighting like crazy and it's awesome, you know?

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Friday, April 13, 2012

Alex Makes Art #78

Oh hi, here's a post. Good for me. It's crazy final papers/presentations time for the next few weeks and I'm not watching as many movies or making much art, which is a sad time. I stayed up all night working on a new piece though that I like, especially since it's pretty different from anything I've done before. It isn't movie-related, but it is partially inspired by Dumbo since I was thinking about mother/child relationships in kids' movies. I'll be doing a family-friendly craft fair on Mother's Day weekend and am trying to bring works that might make nice gifts (more about that as it nears).

Anyway here are some elephants! And they're for sale!


Also I've been doodling in class since lately it is paper presentations and I don't really need to take notes. Here my two favorites. Pretty proud of the Storm one, I won't lie.




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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Blood Tea and Red String (2006)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

Sometimes a movie comes along that seems impossibly in alignment with my tastes and interests. Blood Tea and Red String is so up my alley that 366 Weird Movies emailed me to make sure I knew about it. And thank goodness he did! The combination of stop-motion animation, lady filmmaker, comparisons to Jan Svankmajer, and dark fantasy world made it a very easy sell. Christiane Cegavske wrote, directed, designed, and did pretty much everything except the music and sound effects in this beautifully-animated film over a period of 13 years. The story concerns a group of creatures who make an enchanting white-faced doll for some aristocratic mice, but love it so much they keep it for themselves. The mice steal it in the night and feed it blood tea, while the creatures send a search party to reclaim it. There is no comprehensible dialogue.

Dark, imaginative, weird, meticulous: Blood Tea and Red String is a cautious journey through one woman's heady dreamworld, rewarding viewers with moments of mystery, humor, and all-encompassing beauty. My favorite animated films are those infused with small details and intricate movements, and I wanted to drink down the visuals of this film like the thick tea of the title. The story is at times vague and at others jarring, laced with ambiguous symbolism and strange characters, but I became quickly engrossed in the action thanks to Cegavske's expressive narrative style and wonderfully nightmarish stylistic ideas. Her creations have a light air of menace but aren't outwardly scary or antagonistic, and indeed my favorite character is a whip-smart spider lady who captures creatures in her red web and then haggles for their release. Strong Female Character, hello!

It's certainly not for everyone, but Blood Tea is definitely for me. It's part of a planned trilogy and I'm very excited to see what Cegavske does next!

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: This is definitely in the tradition of Czech stop-motion master Jan Svankmajer, so I would pair it with his version of Alice in Wonderland. Alternatively, if you're looking for more cool female animation directors (there seems to be a dearth of them in mainstream animation filmmaking), I recommend Sita Sings the Blues or something from early animation pioneer Lotte Reiniger, who made a host of silhouette-animated films like The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Brenda Chapman, who's worked on projects for Disney, Dreamworks, and Pixar, co-directed The Prince of Egypt and the upcoming Brave (which for some reason she was kicked out of? I never got the full story on that).

PS Christiane Cegavske is an awesome artist and crafter, she's got an etsy shop!

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Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

Seen: On dvd on our big screen/projector set-up, from Miles' collection.

I can't remember the last time I watched a western, so Tommy Lee Jones' theatrical directorial debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was a nice change of pace. Jones stars as Pete Perkins, a Texas cattle rancher who is crushed when his employee and close friend Melquiades (Julio Cedillo) is found dead in the desert. Local law enforcement doesn't do much to investigate, but Pete is led to believe a border patrolman shot him down. He finds the culprit and forces him along on a journey to bury his friend in his small hometown in rural Mexico.

With a nonlinear mode of storytelling and an easygoing pace, Three Burials is an intelligent, beautifully-shot film but requires a certain amount of patience from the viewer. Several characters are downright despicable, and even the supposed "good" guys have questionable tactics and motives. I enjoyed Jones in the lead role, he seems weighed down by this unbearable sense of disappointment with the world, and goes a little nuts trying to make at least one thing right. Barry Pepper's border guard is a disgusting asshole with little room for retribution but you know the film's going to try it anyway, and even the kind and hardworking Melquiades is in doubt as questions about his past come to light. The women are a bit flaky, but I did like Melissa Leo as the gruff waitress Rachel. January Jones does her sad, pretty housewife thing and that's nice, I guess, though so cliche. At least it passes the Bechdel Test!

This is a harsh film. The terrain, the people, the story: everything is gritty and mean, which fits in well with its western genre trappings. In many ways it is a blunt commentary on America's approach to Latin American immigrants and the multi-layered issues those living near either side of the border face. It is also a grudging look at basic human understanding (and lack thereof) when set against deep-rooted selfishness and prejudice. The script is fairly strong (penned by frequent Iñárritu-collaborator Guillermo Arriaga) but the pace is so meandering that I wish parts had been cut down or shortened. I know that's not the kind of movie Jones was trying to make but for my own tastes it lost me at some parts.

Still a solid film, though.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Oh I guess any of those journeys for revenge-type westerns. True Grit, The Searchers, The Proposition, etc.

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Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Omega Man (1971)

Seen: On dvd on my laptop, rented from netflix.
94/100 on the Sci-Fi List.

When I went through my Vincent Price phase in high school I watched The Last Man on Earth, loved it (duh), and declared it the only worthwhile version of this story without even reading the source book. I figured anything with Charlton Heston wouldn't be worth my time, since that guy always comes off like such an alpha-male jerk. BUT turns out The Omega Man is actually pretty good, aw shucks! Heston stars as Robert Neville, a scientist who survives a devastating plague brought on by global war by inventing a vaccine, too late to save anyone else. Those who weren't killed by the disease were turned into vampire-like creatures who form their own cult religion and take to destroying all vestiges of humans' technological past. When Neville finds a group of struggling survivors, he sees hope for a future for the human race.

I was really surprised by how much I liked this movie. In the few other films of his I've seen, I've always kind of detested Charlton Heston. He just seems like such a dick, and his characters always manage to be racist and/or sexist. But he's actually sort of likeable here, and at the very least sympathetic as his character talks to himself incessantly and desperately clings to the memories of humanity's past glory. He's still basically an asshole but I could see through it since it's recognized that his years of solitude and resentment have turned him into one.

The script is strong, making a lot of changes to Richard Matheson's story but updating it to suit the time and in the end becoming its own thing- especially with the character of Lisa (Rosalind Cash), an awesome, super-tough black lady who protects a group of children who haven't fallen prey to the disease. Co-writer Joyce Hooper Corrington has a PhD in Chemistry (What? How did she find time? I know, amazing), so there is a smart undercurrent of biological terrorism at work here. The development of a vampire-y cult that represents the advancement of the human race- indeed, the complete re-working of the human race- is a scary prospect, though some of the ideas there are confusing or underworked. And I could have done without the over-hasty romantic angle, but I guess at the end of the world there's no time like the present. (To be clear: I'm cool with everybody banging whenever, but Neville and Lisa slip into a serious-relationship-love-type thing in like a day and that was off-putting.)

The Omega Man is an exciting thriller whose strengths reside in its haunting premise, emotionally resonant characterization, and smart screenplay. Though I knew the general story I still found myself really involved in the film and its vision of a new dominant society and the few remnants of past humanity who fight against it.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Well other last-people-on-earth movies I dig include The Quiet Earth, Night of the Comet, and Zombieland. There are also the other main adaptations of Matheson's book, The Last Man on Earth and the more recent I Am Legend.

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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

Seen: At the Harvard Square AMC/Loews in Cambridge.

So The Hunger Games. It's kind of a big deal. I only recently got around to reading the book and haven't even made it to the next two yet but I was pretty excited for the movie- the book really is rather cinematic, and I knew Jennifer Lawrence had all the toughness and emotional vulnerability needed for the role. She stars as Katniss Everdeen, a hardened teenager living in a dystopian society whose overlords host a yearly public "game" that pits kids from different regions against one another in a homicidal free-for-all. She and her district's boy tribute, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), must first navigate the misleading luxury of the well-fed Capitol city with the help of their drunken mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). In due time they are thrust into a forest laced with hidden cameras, treacherous animals, and 22 other teens who must kill each other to survive.

Soooo yeah I know everyone has a billion opinions about this movie/book/series and I don't really need to get into it since it's all already been said. I might just do this in a meandering way as I think of items to discuss.

First off, Jennifer Lawrence is so awesome. I know there was so controversy over her casting because the character is described as "olive skinned" and Lawrence is not a person of color, but to be fair "olive skinned" is kind of an ambiguous term to me and the author signed-off on the casting. I'm sorry that yet again a major movie didn't give a lead role to a person of color (especially a woman), but I have no complaints about Lawrence's performance. She really captured the character's hard, practical personality while exhibiting complex emotions through expression alone. She's just fantastic. And considering how happy I am that such a popular book/film series has a badass lady at the center who isn't really sexualized or bogged down by romantic stupidity, I'm exceptionally pleased with her as the embodiment of this character.

The rest of the cast is strong as well, especially newcomer Amandla Stenberg as Rue (her role is diminished but she shines when she does get screen time) and Stanley Tucci as commentator/interviewer Caesar Flickerman. Elizabeth Banks is nigh-unrecognizable as their district's chaperone Effie Trinket, but she gets the most comedic bits, and Woody Harrelson is well-cast as the miserable but lovable Haymitch, though I think he needed more drunken asshole time to really show his development. Josh Hutcherson is a bit bland as Peeta, but then I find Peeta to be a bit bland as a character, so there you have it. Lenny Kravitz looks really sharp as Katniss's stylist Cinna, but doesn't do all that much- their relationship isn't given much time since I guess it's not really important to the over-arching story.

Yes, the shaky-cam is a bit ridiculous, especially in the non-action parts. I understand that it's a popular technique these days and that it does help a movie geared towards young adults sneak a PG-13 rating despite the dark subject matter and intense violence. But Gary Ross needed to take it easy at the beginning, sheesh. Otherwise I was ok with the general direction. Everything looked good, especially the wacky styles and hairdos of the Capitol residents, and it was paced well. Good action sequences, too.

In terms of adapting the source material, this is probably one of the best book-to-film adaptations I've seen. They didn't cut out too much or keep too much in, they didn't alter the characters or events, just skipped over a few parts or hastened the development of some things. I liked the whole "behind-the-scenes" look at the Games, with Ol' Crazy Beard manipulating the tributes' actions, Tucci and Toby Jones providing commentary, and Haymitch negotiating with sponsors. Since the book is narrated by Katniss, we only see what she sees and know what she knows. This was a nice way to expand the universe a bit and provide exposition that readers gained through her voice alone.

Sure, things were left out that I missed or felt were important (were Avoxes ever explained?), and characters I liked had minimized roles, but that's pretty much how it goes. I think the real darkness of the premise is somewhat glossed over by the limits of the PG-13 rating, but of course I know that this would never get an R since they want the teen audiences in there. I can't quite say I all-out loved it just because there were various little things I had issues with, and I couldn't quite tell but it felt like some things weren't really fully explained or communicated enough for viewers who hadn't read the books. So while there was meaning for me there wouldn't be meaning for everyone watching, which is a failing as an adaptation. I'd need to see it again to really pick that apart, though. For now I'd say it was generally very good and I'm looking forward to the sequel!

4/5

Pair This Movie With: I know it's obvious to say Battle Royale. But also I would suggest Winter's Bone for another example of Jennifer Lawrence playing a tough-as-nails older sister, and for a change of pace.

Further Reading: The View From Sunday basically says everything I thought.

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

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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Dead Ringers (1988)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix. Watched while very addled from flu-like symptoms. FYI.

Last year it came to my attention that 80s Cronenberg is the greatest thing, and I realized Dead Ringers was the only film from that era I hadn't seen. The premise certainly excited me. Twins. Gynecologists. Lady problems. Lady bits. Hopefully some body horror? And we're set! Jeremy Irons plays both Beverly and Elliot Mantle, pioneering gynecologists and identical twins who often impersonate each other to further their own professional and sexual ends. Bev begins to resent their shared life when he falls for actress Claire (Geneviève Bujold), and eventually the brothers find themselves on a sinking, self-destructive path as their mutual identity crisis threatens to consume them both.

At the start, I was surprised by how serious and dour this film seemed. It wasn't really what I wanted from a Cronenberg evil twin movie. (Side note: I know that movies/books are always doing weird things with twins and that it's probably really annoying for twins in actual life to have all these stupid stereotypes applied to them, but I have to admit that I LOVE crazy stories about twins while fully understanding that it's mostly all fake. So, no offense to real twins, if you're reading.) The first portion of the story is mostly concerned with Bev's sensitivity and Elliot's charismatic assholery, while the former quietly falls for Claire and the latter doesn't really understand what's going on because there are too many feelings.

BUT THEN things start to go south, and everything gets awesome. The earlier bits of the film aren't bad, they just felt more conservative than I expected from Cronenberg. Turns out you just need to give it time, as the story develops into something far more sinister than it lets on. I loved the subtle confusion of real and unreal as Bev's mental state unwinds and Elliot's dark undercurrents become more clear. Irons is excellent in the dual role- I liked his blend of vulnerability and hardness, as well as the slight creepiness underlying both characters and their obsessive relationship. While cursory summaries of the film tend to focus on the twins' romantic entanglements and falling out "over a woman", Claire's really just the catalyst for the discussion of the brothers' relation to one another. Their shared life and somewhat fragile mental state are the actual focus, as the two move back and forth between weakness and strength for one another, eventually mutually deteriorating. It's quite sad, really.

I wasn't sold at first but Dead Ringers won me over by the end as everything gets crazy. That's the Cronenberg I know and love.

4/5

PS So this movie has a cameo from Stephen Lack, and it's hilarious, because while I kind of adore him in Scanners I recognize that he is not a good actor, like at all. And he's just weird and out of place in this movie but I loved it. Also I didn't know he's mainly an artist in real life? That's cool.

Pair This Movie With: I'd go with The Prestige, for reasons undisclosed. Or if you want a picker-upper that's still on-theme, I do enjoy both versions of The Parent Trap.

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