Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003)

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

Last semester I took a seminar dedicated to Johannes Vermeer. For months I read hundreds of pages every week about Vermeer's work, his scanty biography, his hypothetical intentions and methods, his hometown of Delft, and his artistic contemporaries. So now I'm kind of a Vermeer expert. Naturally my newfound expertise coupled with my long-held love of movies had me itching to revisit Girl with a Pearl Earring, a film I'd only seen in my nascent stages as an art historian. I did read the book last year, though, so that was still sort of fresh. Anyway. The film reveals a completely theoretical snippet of the artist's life, through the eyes of an imagined servant named Griet (Scarlett Johannson). Quietly and anxiously navigating the tempestuous household of the Delft master (Colin Firth), who is struggling financially and must contend with an ever-growing brood of children and a jealous wife, Griet finds herself the lustful desire of Vermeer's main patron, Pieter van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson). The young woman switches from secretly working as her master's assistant to secretly posing for him in a special portrait meant for van Ruijven's private cabinet.

The thing about Vermeer is that we really know so very, very little about him. His mystery is his legacy, and it will remain a major factor in the continued fascination so many have for the man. His work is stunning, and progressive, and engrossing, and there isn't much of it. Scholars who study him often become obsessed with him, as do plenty of more casual art lovers and artists themselves (Salvador Dali is especially known for his Vermeer fanaticism). And I get it! I do. His paintings have this enigmatic stillness that holds you so close you have to fight to look away. Girl with a Pearl Earring especially is known for her steady, mysterious gaze- is her look flirtatious? Questioning? Seductive? Anxious? Judgmental? I'm told it's even more captivating in real life, though I've never had the pleasure of seeing it. Using the knowledge and evidence that has been gathered about Vermeer's life and surroundings, Tracy Chevalier wrote a thoughtful, well-researched, but necessarily fictitious story about the titular girl, and the painter behind her unblinking stare.

The film, of course, cuts down the source material and changes some things around, but does maintain most of the core concepts and most of all its quiet, pensive storytelling approach. Director Peter Webber approaches his tale like a Vermeer painting, choosing to show instead of tell, creating a lush but still atmosphere with rich colors and close, intimate camerawork. Johansson carries the narrative with her expressive face, moving about this creepily Catholic house (a religion practiced illicitly in the Netherlands but condoned by the state) with a downturned eye and barely-contained wonder. I love how her rise as his apprentice allows us to see some of his hypothetical methods, with detail given to the process of mixing paints and one of my favorite Vermeers, Woman with a Water Pitcher, shown in various stages of development. I'm of the camp that thinks his use of the camera obscura was highly unlikely though, so it's too bad this movie continues that myth.

Vermeer's biography is given some unnecessary or unfounded elements, but there's enough room for any writer to fabricate his day-to-day life since so little is known about him. While I look at the film now with a more critical eye, I still really enjoy the central story of Griet, who is the actual protagonist. There's an undercurrent of sexual and spiritual awakening in her experiences that binds the slow, understated narrative together. Her uncertain relationship with her master and her grudging romance with persistent butcher Pieter (Cillian Murphy with a horrific hairstyle) balance out the plot structure as she struggles morally and emotionally. But it's not centrally a romance, it's more about Griet's journey as a young woman coming into herself, opening herself up to new experiences and discovering a natural artistic eye. She gains self-confidence and sexual boldness, allowing her to leave a life of servitude under abusive employers to strike out on her own. This is a story about Vermeer, sure, but as the title suggests, it's primarily a story about that alluring girl with a pearl earring and her mysterious, confrontational gaze.


Pair This Movie With: I'm not sure, I suppose another dainty period piece with pretty dresses and meaningful stares and lots of white people? Yeah that could work! Or another artsy film, I have a few on my Art on Film page over yonder even though I'm kind of hilariously bad at watching movies about famous artists, like I haven't seen seen Pollock.


Sunday, July 28, 2013

Tom yum goong (The Protector) (2005)

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from Hollywood Express in Cambridge.

I don't remember how I came across it but somehow I saw the quote "You killed my father, and you stole my elephant!" and that pretty much inflamed my desire to see The Protector, another offering from the Prachya Pinkaew/Tony Jaa team. The film follows young fighter Kham (Jaa), who raises elephants for Thai royalty and has been trained in martial arts so he can protect them from predators. But he fails in his duty, and his two prize elephants are stolen and his father is killed all in one day. He travels to Australia to reclaim his animals from the powerful Thai criminals who took them, going up against various skilled fighters and gang assassins to get to their leader. An unorthodox Sydney cop (Petchtai Wongkamlao) helps him out despite corruption in his own office.

So this movie is pretty ridiculous, and shoddily made, and a little weird, but sort of endearing in its own way. A lot of it is Tony Jaa running around Sydney in his cute red ascot yelling about his elephants, which is silly, but then he starts beating the shit out of everyone he sees and I am definitely into that. The fight scenes are awesome, with Jaa barreling his way through large groups of angry grunts, never stopping more than he has to. I loved the range of villains Jaa goes up against, especially the capoeira fighter Lateef Crowder and wushu fighter Jon Foo. Ballet dancer Xing Jing is ferocious as the evil elephant-killer Madame Rose, dressed in fashionable outfits and fighting with a deadly whip all Catwoman-style. Apparently there was a whole subplot about her character being transgender (as the actress actually is) that was cut out of the American version, though I'm not sure why.

The fights are great, but that's kind of the only really good thing about this movie. The story doesn't make much sense, the script is cheesy and uneven, and the production isn't exactly top quality (the dubbed-over English is the biggest distraction). Plus I couldn't tell if it was taking itself seriously or not. But luckily, a good portion of the overall film is just radical fight sequences, and Tony Jaa alternating between his adorable ascot/jacket combo or bloody shirtlessness. And that's all ok.


Pair This Movie With: Ah I don't know man, I guess Ong-bak.


Friday, July 26, 2013

Kakushi-toride no san-akunin (The Hidden Fortress) (1958)

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

So I've been working in a museum shop where we have a Japanese exhibit going, so we have some Miyazaki and Kurosawa DVDs for sale, and I've had The Hidden Fortress playing on silent on the tv behind me for a while which constantly reminds me I've never seen it. That, and the number of customers who sidle up to me to drop the "Did you know this movie is the basis for Star Wars?!" as if that bit of well-known trivia will impress me. Hah! Anyway, Kurosawa's adventure tale follows the experience of two bumbling peasants (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) returning from a war, who stumble upon a famous general (Toshiro Mifune) and his mysterious charge (Misa Uehara) while in the mountains. They team up to transport a large cache of gold found there, moving through enemy territory to make it back to their own province. But vicious enemies, mistrust, secrets, and most of all greed will make their destination that much more difficult to reach.

Kurosawa's earnest attempt at a straight-up adventure film, The Hidden Fortress is a fun, fairly light slice of storytelling that aims for comedy but excels more with its exciting plot and likable characters. The central pair of Tahei and Matashichi (the proto-C-3PO and R2-D2) offers the narrative a point of view, but their comedic relief function becomes somewhat tired as the film progresses. They're nothing more than caricatures, basically just idiots motivated by greed and self-interest, and their over the top physical humor wears thin eventually. Luckily the actual heroes are really interesting and this is mostly their story once things get going. I loved Mifune as the hardened General Rokurata Makabe, with those wild eyes and passionate exclamations. And of course I loved the fierce-as-fuck Misa Uehara as Princess Yuki. When she's not standing authoritatively with legs spread and a whipping cane in her hands, she's yelling every single one of her lines and it is excellent. I wish she didn't have to pretend to be mute for part of the movie but then it does lead to some funny, intriguing scenes with Tahei and Matashichi.

The script is complex but entertaining, the action moves steadily, the settings are fantastic, and of course the visuals are thoughtful and compelling. For me the only failing is the unnecessary focus on comedy in the peasant characters, who spend a lot of time stumbling around a war zone and making doofy faces in the first half hour or so. They're funny guys and I didn't mind their presence in general, but there is far too much time devoted to their less-than-gripping exploits. It's a strong enough story that we don't need all the humorous asides to keep things upbeat. Plus they kind of sucked as people and all their small-mindedness and greed and lighthearted considerations of rape didn't exactly endear them to me.


Pair This Movie With: I mean, it's obviously gonna be Star Wars, right?


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Pacific Rim (2013)

Seen: In IMAX 3D at Jordan's Furniture in Reading. A magical wonderland place, I promise you.

I'm basically on board with whatever Guillermo del Toro does- not only is the man a talented and versatile filmmaker, but he's also ADORABLE. Though its premise had a lot of people mocking it before it was released, I've been psyched for Pacific Rim since I heard about it because by now I have confidence in del Toro's ability to deliver a fun, visually stunning, and not completely stupid sci-fi action movie. Which is just what he did here. Set in a future where huge monsters (kaiju) are consistently rising from a dimensional rift in the ocean to destroy major cities, the film follows the efforts of an international group of fighters working to beat back the attacks in their mechs known as "Jaegers". With the attacks increasing rapidly, robots failing left and right, and humans seemingly on brink of extinction, Jaeger pilots Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) may be Earth's last hope.

What's really great about this movie is that it's basically a live-action anime, which is really not an easy thing to do successfully. It's exciting, emotional, thoughtfully stylized, and just the right amount of completely ridiculous. Del Toro takes care to balance the action with the characters' relationships, allowing just the right amount of backstory while still delivering extreme wide-scale destruction. I loved the very Japanese-inspired fighting style of the Jaegers, with the pilots shouting out attack moves and posing theatrically. The digital effects are beautiful, seamlessly blending some intimidating real-life locations with enormous robots and really gross creatures.

The script is cheesy, definitely, and the world-building is iffy at best, but it's not like I expected Shakespeare. This is a ridiculous premise and it's treated as such by cast and crew alike, and I can only assume everyone had a blast making this movie. The cast is for most part really fun, with great supporting turns from Ron Perlman (whose shoes I'm fucking COVETING), Burn Gorman, and Clifton Collins, Jr. Obviously Idris Elba is a standout, rocking the mean military commander thing and shouting out inspirational speeches, and Rinko Kikuchi is excellent as the reserved but passionate Mako Mori, who kicks ass and has blue hair. But, weirdly, I think Charlie Day might have been my favorite, as I found myself loving his slightly crazed scientist schtick as his character fought to uncover the secrets of the kaiju. Plus I liked his tattoos.

Here's where I have to say something about Charlie Hunnam, the star, the protagonist, the blonde white guy. It's not his fault, but goddammit am I sick of bland white dudes starring in action/sci-fi movies. I mean I know this happens ALL. THE. TIME. but lately I can't even tell any of these actors apart, and none of them have a personality. Like, the guy in Tron: Legacy? The young guy in Expendables 2? Who are all these men, and why aren't they more interesting? I didn't really give a shit about Charlie Hunnam's character in Pacific Rim, and it didn't help that for the first half of the movie I kept confusing him with the other bland young white dude from Australia. Like, give these people faces and maybe I can begin to care more? Or maybe cast someone other than athletic white dudes all apparently popped out of the same mold? What a notion. I'm glad Del Toro has some awesome people of color in this movie and especially a multi-dimensional woman of color who isn't sexualized or even romanced, but casting the lead role with this boring guy took away from the film for me, since I didn't understand why I should pay attention to him when everyone else was way more compelling.

Anyway. Otherwise this movie was pretty damn rad.


Pair This Movie With: Any anime with big robots and/or monsters, I'd say. I was most reminded of Neon Genesis Evangelion (which has movies too).


Monday, July 22, 2013

Black Samurai (1977)

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

After watching Three the Hard Way and hearing about Jim Kelly's death the next day, I was definitely in the mood for more of his films, and Black Samurai sounded like it would hit the spot. Kelly stars as superspy Robert Sand, whose girlfriend (Essie Lin Chia) (the daughter of an ambassador to Hong Kong) is kidnapped by voodoo practitioners trying to expand their drug trade. Sand is assigned to infiltrate their criminal group so he can save the lady and take down their operation, moving between California and Hong Kong and showing off his rad martial arts moves. But never really doing anything samurai-related so I feel like the title is a bit misleading.

This movie is like a lot of forgettable action b-movies except it has a few things that elevate it for me. One: Jim Kelly. Two: a jet pack. Three: Shirtless Jim Kelly. The story is ridiculous and doesn't make any sense and honestly I didn't pay much attention to it. The dialogue is stilted and most of the characters are boring. BUT. The action sequences are rad, featuring Jim Kelly beating the shit out of almost everyone he meets, including several little people stuntmen, yelling his own sound effects and swishing his feet around like a boxer. He really does at one point don a jet pack and fly around, which was great, but probably my favorite part was when he sent man falling to his death by taking off his own shirt. That's the stuff dreams are made of, kids.

The villains are mostly forgettable, though I did enjoy Marilyn Joi as the sexy henchwoman Synne. I didn't get the magic "voodoo" stuff, it never really fit into the plot except that at the end a bunch of extras were thrown into generic African masks so they could dance around in some ritual that was never finished. Anyway. This movie is pretty ok but mostly only worth it for Jim Kelly because oh my god I am crushing so hard on him. You could easily skip around and just watch his fight scenes and walk away entertained, and wouldn't you know it the dvd's only special feature is the option to select only the fights! Thanks, technology!


Pair This Movie With: I'd go with Enter the Dragon. That movie rules.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

True Romance (1993)

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

I've heard the phrase "YOU'VE never seen True Romance?!" enough times that I finally got fed up and watched the damn thing. ARE YOU HAPPY NOW. Anyway this movie is about Clarence (Christian Slater), a chatty super geek, and Alabama (Patricia Arquette), a good-natured prostitute, who fall in love after one night together, get married, and run into trouble. Though she wants to leave her old life behind her, Clarence wants vengeance against her abusive pimp Drexl (Gary Oldman), and crashes into his lair guns blazing, ending up with a pile of bodies and a briefcase of cocaine. The couple scurries across the country hoping to sell off the drugs in LA and start a life together with all this free money, but things turn out to be more complicate than they thought.

Ok so I think I have Tarantino fatigue, pretty sure I've had it for a while actually, and that definitely played a factor in my reading of this movie. He clearly wrote Christian Slater's character as a stand-in for himself (only much MUCH better looking), and used him to act out all his cool action movie fantasies, and it's so obvious it's annoying. While I probably would have loved Clarence and Alabama's blood-soaked road trip in high school, I can't help but see through some of Tarantino's fanboy bullshit now. Like the gratuitous, exploitative scene of James Gandolfini beating the shit out of Alabama, for like, 10 minutes. I don't care if she gets her vengeance eventually, there's no drawn-out sequence of a dude getting bloodied and mauled, just the film's only female character. Hmm. Also Gary Oldman's black rapper imitation thing was just weird and made me uncomfortable because it's kinda just blackface without the make-up? Right? That and unnecessary use of the n-word just confirm Tarantino's lack of nuance when he's dealing with race, though he features actors of color in many of his films.

Anyway it's not that I hated True Romance, I actually liked it for the most part. It's funny and exciting, with a crime thriller plot that merges nicely with a surprisingly sweet romance (even though usually I hate when people in movies fall in love after one night). I dug the cast a lot, which was well-peppered with actors I recognized but had no idea were in this movie, from Brad Pitt and Christopher Walken to Dennis Hopper and Michael Rappaport. I did NOT recognize Val Kilmer as the Elvis Presley manifestation/vision, which is pretty awesome actually. I kinda wish there'd been more of Clarence's Elvis hallucinations, since it didn't really fit with the rest of the film but informed the audience as to the character's state of mind, and offered some funny, surreal moments. The dialogue is typical Tarantino, fast-paced pop culture references and lots of cusses, while Tony Scott's direction keeps the story moving in a straightforward, sleek manner. With a totally out of place musical score, which I'm told is a thing of Scott's movies, but I guess I haven't noticed before.

The film is at its strongest when it turns into this Hollywood satire as Clarence tries to unload the drugs on a well-known movie producer played with effervescent glee by Saul Rubinek, accompanied by Bronson Pinchot as his sniveling assistant. They feature in the most entertaining scenes and I loved how Clarence and Alabama played into this weird world of under-the-table drug deals, haphazard police stings, and movie mogul self-importance. The entertainment industry is always ripe for parody and Tarantino and Scott definitely know how to manipulate it.


Pair This Movie With: Well I read somewhere that this was kind of the first half of one huge screenplay, the second half of which became Natural Born Killers, which I think would be a good follow-up as it has a lot of the same themes but is much more stylized. Alternatively, I was a little reminded of Gun Crazy as these two lovers get caught up in a criminal world they're not prepared for but find themselves gradually fitting in.


Friday, July 19, 2013

Alex Makes Art #110

Gosh I have a lot of commissions to catch up on, and I'm not doing a very good job of it unfortunately. But I did manage to finish one for my friend Sam, and I'm really glad he commissioned it because I think it's one of the best posters I've made. We are both big fans of the show Twin Peaks (which twitter followers might recall me devouring last summer), and he envisioned a design that was sort of an ambiguous presentation of the final scene in the show. I tried to create something that would show that but also not have big spoilers for the dummies who haven't seen Twin Peaks yet. It's a poster and a shirt!


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Gojira, Mosura, Kingu Gidorâ: Daikaijû sôkôgeki (Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack) (2001)

Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, part of their "Stomp Boston" monster movie series.

With a title like "Giant Monsters All-Out Attack" it was hard to resist this offering in the long-running, oft-disconnected Godzilla series. Set in present-day (well, 2001), the film calls back more to the original Godzilla than to its sillier successors. The giant lizard has returned to wreak havoc on Tokyo, primarily as a message to the Japanese who have forgotten or dishonored their destructive and decimated past in the first half of the twentieth century. Godzilla (the product of nuclear technology) contains the souls of those killed in WWII, now unleashing their torment on Japan. The nation's ancient guardian monsters Baragon, Mothra, and King Ghidorah awaken to fight off the lizard, and their mission is followed by intrepid news reporter Yuri (Chiharu Niiyama), whose father (Ryûdô Uzaki) is leading the military resistance against the sudden monster attacks.

I've only seen scattered Godzilla films but I felt sufficiently knowledgeable about the main monsters that I could follow the references to other movies, which were worked in nicely for big fans of kaiju stories. But what was nice is that this really doesn't rely on the precedents set by other films, instead striking out to create a new version of Godzilla and these other monsters, one that is more closely connected to the original film in its WWII-influenced commentary while also delivering big fights and city-wide destruction to satisfy audiences who've come to expect that. It's a fun and exciting film that manages to communicate a thoughtful, somewhat dramatic story amidst all the giant monster stuff. I liked the human characters, especially the unflappable Yuri, and how their stories intermingled with the guardian monsters. The dialogue is super cheesy, though, (and the version we saw was dubbed) so it isn't exactly a gripping character study.

The effects are generally awesome, relying on humans-in-suits and miniature cities for most of the fights, with some computery magic thrown in at the end. The CG used during the final fight scene is distracting, and actually I though the whole battle was way too dragged out. Like, this is a pretty cool movie but it could be shorter in general.


Pair This Movie With: Well this was shown at the theater after several other Godzilla movies, which seemed to work, so pick your favorite!


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Jaws (1975)

Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.

This was part two of our July 4th movie-theaters-have-air-conditioning saga, after Man of Steel. I hadn't seen Jaws since I was a kid and I used to hang out with an aspiring marine biologist who lived across the street, so really it was like seeing it for the first time, which was neat. I didn't even remember that it was an Independence Day film! Spielberg's classic monster horror follows the terror and excitement surrounding a small New England island's holiday weekend. First a young woman is found mauled to death on the beach, presumably by a large shark, but the town's mayor is desperate to cover up any unpleasantness at a peak tourist time. When a young boy is eaten by a shark in plain sight, the town sheriff, Brody (Roy Scheider), takes more deliberate action. Against the mayor's protests and machinations to keep the beaches open, he and marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) work to take down a Great White with a taste for human blood, eventually teaming up with salty sea hunter Quint (Robert Shaw).

I know most of you are already aware of this, but it's something I keep forgetting: Spielberg is definitely famous for a reason. Looking at some of his earlier movies now, after I've come to identify him more with his recent spate of bombastic prestige pictures and so-so sci-fi, I'm really touched by how fun a movie like Jaws is. It's just a straightforward, well-made film, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. The script is sometimes silly, sometimes deadly serious, performing an impressive balancing act in order to make this ridiculous plot somewhat believable. My favorite thing was how everyone was always yelling over each other, which was somehow super endearing. The characters are really well-developed, and the central trio of Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw make for an excellent combo. They're alternately funny and intense, mean-spirited and adorably communal. Their relationships and conversations make Jaws more a kind of horror character study, while the shenanigans involving the greater population of the island raise it to a small-town satire about greed and desperation.

Not that it's all mai tais and Yahtzee out here (heh guess who just celebrated Con Air Day?), this is an effective horror-thriller too. The deft camerawork that keeps the monster hidden for much of the earlier sequences, along with the shark POV shots as he stalks his unsuspecting prey, makes for a compelling and downright scary experience. That, and the buckets of blood and dismembered body parts that pepper the first half of the film. The mechanical shark ("Bruce") is convincing enough to make me think twice about going in the water, which is silly since I know nothing about this movie is realistic. BUT IT FEELS SO REAL and I love it.


Pair This Movie With: Well I just wanted to revisit Close Encounters what with the Dreyfuss and the Spielberg and the 70's and all that. But thematically I think it'd be fun to follow this up with The Life Aquatic since that's also about hunting a shark but is totally different in tone and storytelling approach.


Friday, July 12, 2013

Man of Steel (2013)

Seen: At the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square.

This Independence Day, it was HOT. So the boyfriend and I made it a movie theater day primarily for some cherished air conditioning and ample servings of beer/cider. First up was Man of Steel, a movie neither of us particularly wanted to see but it was 143 minutes of cool indoors and it has Michael Shannon, so we had to show some support. Zach Snyder's re-vamping of the classic superhero stars Henry Cavill as the legendary alien baby who is shipped away from his crumbling home planet of Krypton just before it collapses in on itself, landing on earth in rural Kansas. He grows up stronger, faster, and with super-natural abilities, but his father (Kevin Costner) convinces him to hide his powers for fear of how humankind will react when his origins are discovered. When rogue Kryptonian general Zod (Michael Shannon) and his squad of soldiers suddenly show up demanding Clark's surrender, he begins to learn about his own history and finally decides to reveal himself as... SUPERMAN.

The thing is, I've never been much of a Superman fan. I don't find him very interesting, and I don't think we need so many movies about him. I could see what Snyder/Nolan/Goyer were trying to do with this version, trying to be more dramatic with the storytelling and really building up this complex backstory, and I can respect a more serious version of the character since there are a lot of ramifications to be explored- his alien origins, his god-like powers, his place between two worlds, etc. But after this long, slow, kinda boring build-up that sort of touches upon these issues, it just switches to an overblown action movie that also happens to be long and kinda boring. A big part of the problem is that I just didn't care, like AT ALL, about any of these characters. Everyone feels bland and unoriginal, perhaps just because I've seen so many of them before, but they all read like stock types or caricatures. Even Michael Shannon as Zod, try as he might, isn't much to write home about. There's only so much scenery to chew here. Antje Traue can get it though, I was way into Faora, though her screen time is somewhat limited.

I know a lot of people have Feelings about Superman and Opinions about how this reboot has treated his story, but I find I don't have strong leanings one way or the other. It's competently made, the actors are all capable, the visuals are interesting, and I liked the backstory about Krypton since a lot of that information was new to me. Lois Lane is an active character who rarely functions as a damsel in distress (though the female Jimmy Olsen does, and that is in fact her only role in the film), and I enjoyed Amy Adams' take on the part. Her romance with Clark is completely unfounded, though, and it just felt rushed and out of place, and I'm sure they could have put off the actual lovey dovey stuff for another movie, since it's not like a secret they're gonna get together eventually. Henry Cavill is indistinctly handsome and unassuming, a good fit for the role but, as I've made clear, a bit dull just given the nature of Superman in my eyes. The fights weren't great, which was too bad, since if they're going to forfeit some of the "Big Questions" subplots in favor of huge action set pieces, there could at least be more compelling fight scenes. Like, stop just hurling everyone in sight through a wall and maybe choreograph something!

Anyway. I can't believe I've talked this much about Man of Steel. It's just like this movie, it's there, it happened, ok. It's way way way too long and I never need to see it again, but it's not like I hated it. I'll just probably forget it in a few minutes.


Pair This Movie With: I don't know, man. Whatever.



Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Cool as Ice (1991)

Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed from Miles's harddrive. Originally rented from Scarecrow Video in Seattle.

There was a time, way back in the early 90's, when Vanilla Ice was a Thing. So much so that he was given his own movie, appropriately titled Cool as Ice. A loose remake of Marlon Brando vehicle The Wild One, the film stars Ice as Johnny, a free-spirited MC who rides around on his cool motorcycle along with his beat-supplying dance crew. One of their bikes breaks down in a small conservative town and they're forced to stay a few days, shacking up with an old bike repair odd couple. Johnny immediately falls in love with a high school valedictorian named Kathy (Kristin Minter) and proceeds to seduce her away from her stuck-up white-bread lifestyle into his super-cool world of hip hop and freedom. They have one date hanging out at a construction site in the desert and now they're together forever. But there are problems because Kathy's dad is actually in a police-specific witness protection program and his identity's been leaked and now some assassins are coming after him and he thinks Johnny is involved so he tries to keep the young lovers apart WHAT YES THIS IS THE PLOT.

I admit that when Cool as Ice first got going, I was totally into it. It's got fresh beats, deafeningly loud fashions, hilarious side characters, and a frenetic visual style that had me reeling from weirdness. I loved the inescapable early-90s trappings and the stupid as fuck screenplay. But then. It just got dumb and kinda boring and like, where are the musical interludes? There are all of three breaks for rapping in this movie, and I wanted more of Ice and his awesome crew doing wacky dance moves and antagonizing the locals with their devil's music. For real, this movie takes place in a town that has never heard hip hop and maybe has never seen a person of color, based on the reactions of the townspeople to the gang's presence. There is definitely an MTV-ready attempt to satirize middle-class white suburbia, since it's SO square, but that vibe dissipates when the story becomes more about the romance and Kathy's weird family problems and criminal hitmen and stuff.

Cool as Ice is- surprise, surprise- a really bad movie, no question. There's a reason Rifftrax did this a few months ago. The acting is horrendous, the story doesn't make any fucking sense, the tone can't figure out what it wants to be, and there's barely any MC-ing despite this being a showcase for MC Vanilla Ice. But I can't say I wasn't pretty damned entertained because it's all SO. SILLY. My favorite characters were Ice's crew composed of Deezer D, Kevin Hicks, and Allison Dean, who are all too cool for school. They just hang out eating weird foods and talking about philosophy and dancing, always dancing. If the movie had been about their antics with the old couple fixing their bike (who live in a surreal, multi-colored barn, it's beautiful), I would have been totally on board with the film! But it's not. It's all about this boring romance and some half-assed revenge plot and then Kathy's annoying little brother gets kidnapped and like, do I care? Nope. Just show me some more dance moves and rock out with your amazing neon outfits and I'll be happy as a clam. AS A CLAM.

As a movie: 1.5/5
As entertainment: 4/5

Pair This Movie With: Well for a while I was convinced this was a secret sequel to Footloose so that's one option. Alternatively The Wild One? If that's a good movie? I've never seen it.


Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Bling Ring (2013)

Seen: At the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square.

With sexy teens, high fashion, celebrity burglary, and a based-on-a-true-story plot worthy of a Lifetime Original Movie, Sofia Coppola's latest offering The Bling Ring has a lot going for it. It centers on a group of privileged California teens who dream of becoming a part of celebrity culture, and find that breaking into famous stars' homes and "going shopping" brings them artificially closer to their goal. The high of committing a crime and the bonds that form between the group keep them reaching for more and more scores, until, of course, they get caught.

Told primarily from the point of view of Marc (Israel Broussard), an insecure teen who changes high schools and falls into a friendship with the glamorous (and effortlessly immoral) Becca (Katie Chang), the story moves back and forth between Vanity Fair interviews, sweaty club nights, and criminal extravaganzas. Marc is the most sympathetic of the characters, with the girls mostly reading as vapid self-absorbed jerks, but hey, it's a satirical portrait of wealthy, pretty youth. These kids have been fed a bullshit American Dream and they learn they can succeed on their looks, their shows of material wealth, and some good old-fashioned law-breaking, all to an ultimate end of sexy drug-fueled excess and the push for their own reality show. It's ridiculous and sad, and more so because it feels utterly realistic. Not to rag on teens, I know they get enough shit as it is, but Sofia Coppola has definitely tapped in to that reality show culture that's erupted in the past decade, planting seeds of forced melodrama and hopes of unwarranted fame in the minds of impressionable youngsters. And encouraging lots of Facebook selfies.

The script is light and funny, and the cast is all-too-comfortable in their shallow, ludicrous roles; Emma Watson especially is hilarious as the ultra-ditzy Nicki, along with Leslie Mann as her doofy New age mom. I loved the high-glam interior sets and close camera work through various stars' mansions. It gets a little repetitive with so many scenes of breaking and entering, but Coppola films each one a little differently and managed to keep up the visual interest even if narratively there's something of a drag. I especially dug the silent, one-shot sequence for Miranda Kerr's house. For Coppola the film is a bit of a break from her traditional approach, in that it's less concerned with existential angst and more focused on the humor and over the top elements of celebrity culture today. It is definitely her funniest movie, and I was enjoying it so much that I found I could give it a pass for the off-kilter storytelling and lack of emotional depth. The Bling Ring has its faults, but it also has some (albeit fucked up) virtues. Her camera and soundtrack combine to atmospherically create a portrait of a certain kind of American youth, that while exaggerated, does hold some abominable truth.


Pair This Movie With: The breaking-and-entering with hip young people subject reminded me of The Edukators, which is more political but fun, or if you wanted more teenage girls being hilariously entitled there's always Mean Girls.


Thursday, July 4, 2013

Three the Hard Way (1974)

Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed from Miles's harddrive. Originally rented from Scarecrow Video in Seattle.

As some of you may have heard, Jim Kelly passed away on Saturday. I'm saddened by it but hope news of his death might spur a resurgence of interest in his career, since he is so freaking awesome. Completely coincidentally, I watched one of his films the night before he died, a hard to find blaxploitation team-up film called Three the Hard Way. A record producer (Jim Brown), a businessman (Fred Williamson), and a dojo master (Jim Kelly) are old friends pulled together by a devious white supremacist plot to poison the water supply of three major cities with a toxin that will only affect the black population. Using their fighting skills and a bit of rough detective work, they track down the assholes and get sweet revenge, rescuing Jim Brown's kidnapped girlfriend in the process.

With a ludicrous plot and three awesome blaxploitation stars (plus the director of Superfly, which admittedly I started and never finished), Three the Hard Way was an easy sell. I loved the high-flying action sequences, which include an explosive car pile-up, a lengthy climactic shoot out, and a good amount of martial arts madness. The costumes are TO DIE, with Williamson and Brown fighting for biggest collar and Kelly wearing all-leather suits in various colors. The main villain is a wantonly effeminate rich white dude who stands in stark contrast to the ultra-masculine black protagonists, so the film manages to perpetuate stereotypes while also empowering people of color, which in 1974 was an important thing I think. It's mostly a light action movie, but with such vile displays of racism that I had to take some of it seriously. The execution of the villainous plot may be ludicrous, but the idea of a white organization wanting to selectively poison black people is not an unrealistic thing.

While I dug the cool cast, extreme violence against racists, and music from Richard Tufo and The Impressions, I found the film as a whole pretty uneven. The pacing is all over the place, and the final shootout isn't as impressive as the previous action sequences so it felt anticlimactic. It takes a really long time to get going, and there's definitely not enough Jim Kelly or Fred Williamson. Jim Brown is the real lead, and I found him less charismatic than his costars. I also wish there were more ladies of note, although the red, white, and blue torture brigade was... interesting? Like, they were cool, but the gratuitous nudity was just way too silly, I could only laugh at them.

Let's talk about Jim Kelly for a moment. I have such a crush on this man. Not only is he super attractive and stylish, he just emanates cool. His fight scenes are the most compelling to watch, especially when his character is introduced in the middle of a set-up when he just WASTES a whole crew of asshole cops. It is GLORIOUS. And did I mention that his character's name is "Mister" because his mom wanted people to show him respect? HE'S SUPER COOL AND SUPER ADORABLE! Love love love. Black Samurai is coming in the mail soon, I am very excited.


Pair This Movie With: For more Jim Kelly I will always heartily endorse Black Belt Jones, or for more Fred Williamson there's the kickass The Inglorious Bastards. I could also pair this with the two blaxploitation parodies that directly reference this movie's plot, Undercover Brother and Black Dynamite. Lots of options!


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Holiday (1938)

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

As might be gleaned from previous reviews, I'm a fan of the Katharine Hepburn/Cary Grant team-up. But somehow I just never got around to seeing Holiday! Thankfully that's been rectified, since this is a really great film. Grant stars as Johnny Case, an intelligent businessman who's worked hard all his life to support himself and is very set in a life plan to eventually quit his job so he can explore the world and himself while he's still young. He falls in love with Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), discovering after their engagement that she is super rich and very set herself on turning her soon-to-be husband into a respectable man of wealth. Johnny clashes with her father (Henry Kolker) but warms up to her wacky sister Linda (Hepburn) and drunken brother Ned (Lew Ayres), struggling to rationalize his own working-class worldview with Julia's stubborn privilege, and realizing their love might not be enough. But her sister... well, that's a different story.

As I grow older, wiser, and poorer simultaneously, I find my loathing of super-rich people growing stronger as well, because let's face it: rich people suck. The original play was produced right before the stock market crash of 1929, but this version of the film came out in 1938, when out-of-work Americans could steal away to the movies for some escapism. A film that exposed both the decadent lifestyle of a blue-blood family and their haughty assholery- all through the eyes of an unassuming man who came from nothing- surely offered an interesting story for Depression-era viewers. I certainly got a lot out of it! Because... fuck rich people? YES. This mentality is why the side characters of Nick and Susan Potter (Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon) were my favorites. They're down-to-earth intellectuals who can't stand the image-obsessed world of the Seton family, preferring to hide during a fancy party and do a puppet show. They make hilarious jokes about class that those "above" them don't get, and that just makes it better. They won best couple the instant I met them, plus I think it's cool that Susan was a university lecturer before she got married, but it's too bad she retired (I guess? They weren't too clear on the point).

Ok enough about side characters, we're all here for the stars, I know! Hepburn is effervescent and sly as the "black sheep" Linda Seton, a character who is moody and erratic and clinging to a childhood full of promise that developed into an adulthood destroyed by wealth and status. How could she help falling in love with the funny and ideologically defiant Johnny? The two perform acrobatic feats and joke about family members, it's a perfect match! Most of their budding romance is unrealized since Julia is still in the mix, and it's kind of sweeter to watch these two fall in love without even realizing it until the third act. Though I would bill this a romantic comedy, much of the film is more of a class satire, with hilarious and fast-paced dialogue and some serious digs at the Seton family, representative of the stuffy, old-money "type" in American society. I was most impressed with Ned, as played by Lew Ayres. He is a bitter alcoholic, with a baby face that rarely betrays his hardened core. Like Linda he spiritually rejects the life laid out for him by his overbearing father, but unlike her he isn't strong enough to get out of it, and just sadly resigns himself to wasting away in the family business, giving into this shallow, hedonistic lifestyle because he sees nothing to lift him out of it. He's like the template for a Sofia Coppola or a Wes Anderson movie.

MOSTLY THOUGH this is a comedy! And I loved it. It's not quite up there with Bringing Up Baby or The Philadelphia Story, but it's close. Also now I want to know everything about big game hunter/super spy/socialite Gertrude Sanford Legendre, whom Hepburn's character is based on.


Pair This Movie With: I kinda wanted more Edward Everett Horton being sarcastic around doofy rich people, so Top Hat seems like a good choice.