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6/10
Brutal fun, but nothing more
7 December 2012
LESSON OF THE EVIL is a relentless, remorseless look at pure evil. It is so brutally violent, it numbs you into submission and you are unsure how you should react to it. There is little joy in watching the film (though there is dark, black humour throughout) but it stands as a unique testament to infant terrible director Takashi Miike's crazy view of the world.

The film's first half is almost as restrained as the second is violently eruptive. The setting is an elite private school in Japan where teachers and administrators discuss the prevalent problem of students cheating during exams, mostly using their cell phones. Numerous solutions are proposed but the most radical comes from Seiji Hasumi, the charming, popular English teacher, who suggests body searches and signal jammers, but who's notions are rejected as being counterproductive to keeping the schools environment healthy. Undeterred, Hasumi continues keeping tabs on students and learns of widespread bullying, harassment and illicit teacher student relationships. You think he's going to turn into some kind of saviour, and the films tone seems to be heading this way, but then, and there is no fine way to describe it, Hasumi goes psycho. He explodes into a violent killing machine during a nightly school function, exacting brutal death, wielding a shotgun, pumping bullets into anything that moves and talking to his demons to leave little doubt he is a complete loony.

Knowing a bit about Takashi Miike and the reputation that precedes him, this midway shift should not be surprising (or even considered a spoiler). His films are almost exclusively violent, of that there is no doubt, but they revel in tasteless torture porn that is not for the squeamish. LESSON is no different and if anything, the overlong period of exposition, detailing the tribulation of a small group of students at the school, seems overcooked in contrast to the rushed, extended finale, which is really where Miike displays his skills as filmmaker. Hasumi is molded in the fashion of television's DEXTER—a likable serial killer with a wide grin and charismatic looks to match who is also extremely lucky in giving anyone investigating the deaths, a slip. But while the last hour is a lot of fun (at one point Hasumi off's countless students wearing a rain jacket and swaying to the jazzy tune of MACK THE KNIFE) it is indescribable, nearly unwatchable and after sometime, repetitious to the point of being unbearable. And, just when you think there might be some end in sight, Miike turns a moment of hope into a Michael Haneke moment of viewer patience testing ala FUNNY GAMES. If that sounds like your cup of tea, you know you're in for a good time.
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7/10
A playful return to form....well, almost.
20 May 2012
A decade away from the movie scene has given the Men In Black series a chance at a fresher, newer perspective. Taking its cue from Shrek Forever After, MIB 3 takes on a tired concept (time travel in this case) if only to acknowledge the failure of its dull sequel and take us back to a different era allowing us to view the franchise from an unsullied angle. The result is a film that returns to its roots and gives audiences the chance to relive much of what they first enjoyed – a smart, sci-fi, buddy comedy that embraces everything weird and wonderful about the unknown universe.

In his first cinematic role in nearly 4 years, Will Smith's Agent J is the usual charming, witty wiseass we expect him to be. Still teamed up with the laconic Agent K (wrinkly Tommy Lee Jones) he is no closer to cracking his older partners deadpan demeanour but their relationship issues take a back seat when a nemesis from Kay's past, Boris the animal, turns up to exact revenge for having been imprisoned on the moon 40 years ago. His elaborate plan takes him back in the past, to the day he was caught, and sets ripples in the present, where K no longer exists and a different reality results. J has to then literally time jump (off the Empire State building no less) and fix the past for normalcy to return in the present.

Directly Barry Sonnenfeld seems to find his groove once again with the zany and icky shenanigans that put him on the map with the original. Using plenty of the wide angle camera work that gave him fame as the Coen's favourite lenser, the resulting imagery should work wonders for those who decide to pay extra and catch the film on 3D (converted). Boris the animal is also a return to series villains being screwball and menacing in equal measure (remember Vincent D'Onofrio?) and Rick Baker's excellent makeup effects are both incredible and revolting. The big surprise is how well Josh Brolin impersonates Jones in the role of a younger K – which should not be a surprise considering Brolin's recent, impressive body of work as a bonafide actor, most notably in W. So chameleon-like is his performance that you forget it's him and actually completely believe it's just a younger version of Tommy Lee Jones that you're seeing.

The films primary achievement and a true signal of its return to form though are the scenes set in the past. Not only is Josh Brolin a deadringer for Tommy Lee's K during his youth, but the hip musical vibes of the late 60's/early 70's allow for plenty of playfulness to ensue with a particularly hilarious segment devoted to Andy Warhol. If that isn't enough, everything very neatly ties into another epochal scientific moment from that time period and ends on a moment of curiously satisfying emotionality that provides not only closure to the film but the series as a whole. If that doesn't make you forgive all the wrongs that the sequel did and embrace this film as one of the years better movie franchise offerings the only thing that might work on you is a neuralizer.
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10/10
Certified Copy is the real thing.
29 December 2010
"Certified Copy" is a film of great beauty and mystery. The first thing that strikes you about it is how real it feels. Not just its plot, not just the acting, but also the dialogs - they are laced in the anguish, hope, fears, disappointments and joys of the life we all live, everyday. To try to explain what the film is about it to rob it of its sense of poetic irony but all you need to know about it is that it revolves around two people who strike up a conversation after meeting in picturesque Tuscany. Binoche plays the part of a woman, apparently a single mother, who owns a small antiques store. She meets a visiting British writer, James Miller (opera star William Shimell, in his debut) who is there promoting his new book, a treatise on copies in the art world. The two decide to meet later for a discussion dinner, but what at first seems like mundane musings on the every day quickly takes a turn when it appears to us that the two are familiar to each other and perhaps even might have met. We are never told, not directly at least, whether this is the case, but numerous hints are dropped; a joke that Miller shares for instance than Binoche seems to have heard before, then an anecdote that is all too familiar to her and which can relate to, about the replica (or copy!) of the David statue outside the Academia in Florence. Dialogues therefore drive the film. Binoche's description of her sister and her problems with stammering are so succinct, so clairvoyant that when we almost feel we know her as well and later in the film, when Binoche uses the pseudo stammering 'J-J-J-James', it tells you so much about her. If you listen carefully to the dialogs and are intent on picking up inflections, body language and facial expressions the film is richly rewarding.

Credit for this greatly goes to director Abbas Kiarostami for his use of formalism combined with minimalism and tight framings. Let's just say he knows where to place his camera and what to get out of his actors. His closeups of the faces of his two leads is both intrusive and revelatory. In the finest example of this, and in an outstanding unbroken single take, he lingers on the beautiful, ever luminous face of Binoche as she powders her face and applies her lipstick. Ordinarily the scene should have been inconsequential, but in the scheme of things it is both a private moment with the character that Binoche plays and fine testament of Binoche's ability. She is outstanding throughout - shifting from one extreme to the other, crying and laughing, sometimes at the same time. In the films most heartbreaking scene, she asks Miller if he noticed whether she dressed up for him that day. When he answers that he didn't she responds by telling him how she was able to pick up the scent of his new perfume. This might be nothing more than the deconstruction of all cross gender relationships, yet we learn so much about both of them while being kept at a distance. Because we can only infer what is going on, but still not be entirely sure about it, the film envelops us into its puzzle completely. At a time when many directors, most film and almost all actors are stuck doing the same things, "Certified Copy" feels like the real thing.
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5/10
The dullest post apocalyptic film I've seen
20 December 2010
End of Animal is certainly the dullest post Apocalyptic film that I've ever seen. An odd mix of art house drama in a decidedly mainstream setting, it is at its heart a genre film but denies us the pleasures that can be derived from being part of this grouping.

Soon-Young, our pregnant protagonist, is traveling to meet her mother when, good natured person that she is, she agrees to share her cab with a mysterious stranger going the same way. This nameless individual seems to know intimate details about both Soon-Young and the cabbie and ominously starts a countdown that ends with a bright flash. When she regains consciousness, Young is alone with only the cab radio working, through which this mysterious man offers her help and advice in order for her to survive the chaos that he predicts. Interesting enough, but the film does almost nothing with this setup. Instead, it turns into something of a stage play, composed of short vignettes where Soon-Young and others she meets on her journey to a nearby rest house, engage in meaningless, banal conversations.

Without any real threat (the films trite point is that human beings pose a danger to themselves in a desperate situation like this) the potential is wasted. Deliberately paced and rather dull, it adds insult by ending on a note of theological/cosmic consequences that, if you are attentive to the dialogs, gives itself away if you think about the obvious parables that the characters represent. For a better art-house, post apocalyptic film, you are better off renting Michael Haneke's bleak yet hopeful Time of the Wolf.
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4/10
"If you stop telling lies about me, I will stop telling the truth about you."
21 September 2010
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps isn't the sharp, critical film that its makers want you to think of it as. The sequel to the supremely influential, endlessly quotable original from the 80's is a dull whimper about what triggered the present financial meltdown and though it's cut from the same cloth as the original, it possess all of the bark yet, sadly, none of the bite.

Gordon Gekko is a name that defined an era. Played by Michael Douglas twenty three years ago, he reverberated in the minds of viewers as a ruthless, amoral investor without a soul. Years later, the sequel finds him released after serving his prison sentence. Cut to seven years after his release, and its 2008, the dawn of the financial crisis. Gekko is now known as a speaker publicly vilifying the notion of greed in corporate America while simultaneously, and some would reckon quite ironically, publicizing his book inspiringly titled "Is Greed Good". A loner who travels in subways, he is estranged from his daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan, androgynously unglamorous) who is engaged to a young trader named Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf). Jake bumps into Gekko at one of his speeches (the films finest scene) and the two form a mentor-protégé relationship that irks Winnie but allows Jake to benefit by plotting revenge from Bretton James (Josh Brolin, the films principle villain), suspected of being responsible for the suicide of Louis Zabel, a close friend and confidant of Jake.

If the film sounds like a mess of relationships, then it is. As muddled as Stone's own political activism it has no clarity on what its trying to say. From trying to rationalize the reasons behind the market crash to the impulsive nature of human behaviour, it doesn't get either right. Not helping are the actors that Stone assembles. It's a mystery to me why Shia LaBeouf is constantly being thrust down viewer throats in film after film by studios convinced he is the next best thing. He is not, and despite being dressed up in expensive designer garb, cannot pass off as being anything more convincing than a working intern. His relationship with Gekko has none of the enticing quality that Charlie Sheen's Bud Fox did and a cameo appearance by Sheen only underscores this disparity. Douglas himself has none of the limelight. He has some powerful lines, but feels largely sidelined by the revenge/relationship/murder subplots and behaves uncharacteristically, especially in the very last scene (these were probably added as an afterthought). After showing some promise of returning to his incendiary, often infuriating filmmaking style and point of view with his previous film W, director Stone seems to have gone back to being comfortable working with drab studio approved material.

Not only was the original Wall Street a tremendously entertaining film, but one that was blessed with the critical foresight of its maker. The sequel partially entertains but does not have a new perspective. It is neither critical nor insightful and could have, with the same script and actors, been the work of a lesser director than Stone. The films themes are also impersonal - none of the characters suffer directly from the financial crisis the way they did in the original, they suffer from their own incompetent decision making, a sharp departure from how the original handled and fused stock trading with personal loss and gain.
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6/10
Builds on strengths of original while downplaying its weaknesses - overall, a good remake.
7 June 2010
The new Karate Kid doesn't even learn Karate - he learns Kung Fu. That's not the only significant change viewers who adored or grew up on the original from the 80's can expect. The story shifts base from the US to China, a move that embraces 21st Century's globalized view of the world as a shrinking village. This remake does what every good, successful remake should do, builds on the strengths of the original while downplaying its weaknesses.

The film belongs to Jaden Smith, the charismatic son of super star Will Smith. You may remember him from his previous forays into acting, including working alongside his father in the touching Pursuit of Happiness. Here he dominates the screen, not only getting first billing but also nearly all of the 140 minute screen time. As a launchpad for a sure-fire career in acting, it is about as good as any he could have hoped for. As Dre, he finds himself the victim of bullying at his new school in Shanghai, where he reluctantly moves to from Detroit after his mother secures a job there. Falling for a pretty girl draws the irk and no doubt envy of the schoolyard bully and his clique. The rest of the setup is as familiar as it is iconic - Dre is helped by the neighbourhood maintenance man, Han (Jackie Chan, exercising some decent acting chops) who saves him from being beaten up but also signs him up for a local Kung Fu tournament where Dre will have to take on the bullies in a final confrontation.

Apart from the obvious differences outlined already, the films setup - African American teen in a foreign land - allows it to amplify the situation to Dre's absolute disadvantage. Not only does he not fit in, he doesn't even speak the language and has even more reason to dislike his new home. These smart choices in constructing the films setup differentiate it as more thoughtful than the original, which seems almost dated (though charming) by todays standards. Even the numerous scuffles, from street chases to the final tournament fight, are grittier and more intense and act perhaps as good indicators of how much our collective movie watching culture and appetite for violence has evolved in just a generation. The one key area where the this film trumps the original is the training sessions. Whether being taught self discipline in how to hang his jacket and not leave it thrown on the ground, climbing some very steep stairs on a mountain or practicing at the famed Great Wall, the film benefits from a more convincing montage of scenes that showcase not just Jaden's athleticism but also the adequate chemistry that he shares with his master. The one area where the film doesn't quite break new ground is in the character of Han himself. While Chan is good in the role of Han, he isn't quite as lovable or memorable as Mr. Miyagi. This is no fault of his, for Pat Morita's character was just so novel (if you can discount the Yoda archetype) that he remains almost inimitable. Also bringing the proceedings down somewhat are the elongated running time and the blossoming romance that feels out of place and strangely stretched into full blown love.

Whether the film itself will stand the test of time or spawn unnecessary sequels via a lucrative franchise, as studio sharks no doubt hope and pray for, remains to be seen. What is certain is that this is a definite crowd pleasure - an improbable underdog Rocky tale for children - and despite Jaden's limited range in expressions, the overall film manages to leave its mark.
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Iron Man 2 (2010)
4/10
Fails to expand on the original, a filler for the proposed Avengers movie
1 May 2010
Warning: Spoilers
In Iron Man 2, Tony Stark's ego swells to enormous levels. Written as some kind of Steve Jobs meets Richard Branson amalgam in a superhero costume, Robert Downey's wise-ass treatment of the character (still at tangents to what he represents in the original comics) seems self absorbed and cheeky. How could anyone find him likable as a hero? But beyond all of this is a simple fact, this sequel fails to do what every sequel must i.e. expand on the original and take the premise into uncharted territory.

Stripped down in this second outing to its bare essentials - one liners and scant cartoonish action - the films defects (glaringly obvious even in the first) conspicuously swell and rise to the surface. The story puts Stark in mortal danger; the miniature arc reactor that keeps him alive is now poisoning his body, discharging lethal toxins that weaken him and leave limited time to find a cure. Amidst this he finds himself embroiled in a wrangle with the US government over the ownership of the Iron Man armour and what it represents (weapon or instrument of peace). If all of this weren't enough, he is threatened by the random appearance of Mickey Rourke's Ivan Vanko, who as Whiplash thumps Start and his Iron Man armour in the movies best scene, set in an over-crowded Monaco racetrack.

Once the initial dust has settled though, the film turns into a self absorbed, faux character study. This superhero Bucket List setup, where our hero may be dying and therefore disregards all concerns about his image and worldly perception, does not make for good entertainment. Even with all its flaws, the original film never sank to a level where it didn't amuse us, whether it was in exploring (but also exploiting) the socio-political landscape of the war on terror or Stark's guilt-stricken conscience, bruised by the extent of his organizations exploits. Because director Jon Favreau is no Sam Raimi, even his attempts at parodying the character (ala Spiderman 3) in self deprecation mode – with Tony Start dancing around in full armour on his birthday - feels embarrassingly unfunny. For action junkies, the cluttered night time scenes with Stark and Jim Rhodes (underwhelming Don Cheadle in armour as War Machine) lack the aerial panache of Iron Man fighting it out with Jet Fighters from the original.

The film makes one fact glaringly obvious; comic book movies are not comic books themselves, they are movies and are expected to function in ways that films do. That Iron Man 2 doesn't is a failure that stems out of its short-sightedness to connect itself to something bigger and greater. Intended as a tie in to the upcoming, proposed (and so far non- existent) Avengers movie, it instead becomes filler for it. The movies tone implies it is a setup for the teams ultimate formation, and the blink and miss appearance of Captain America's shield and Thor's hammer, intended to provide drug like highs in audiences viewing pleasure, only confirms this observation. This is not a film but bait for a much bigger commercial franchise on the horizon and depending on how you see it, you will either enjoy it or feel duped by it.
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4/10
Ponderous, long wild goose chase
6 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Angels and Demons is a very long, very boring wild goose chase. It is peppered with theological mumbo jumbo and conspiracy theory fluff. This stuff should be fun like the Indiana Jones films, but here it's stuffy and uptight. Blame not just director Ron Howard for his ponderous serving, so generic you can almost smell the packaging the film comes out of, but the writers of this mess too (David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman).

While watching, you realize that the film has very little actual dialogue. The characters talk to one another, but it is all in the form of meaningless trivia. "The Illuminati were", "So Raphael's second painting was", "You mean what Bernini really meant with that sculpture is" and so on. It does nothing except provide endless layers of exposition. This is the film being clever with history, art, religion and everything in between. It wants to serve a big helping of unknown 'facts' that will tease audience members brain cells, but has more of the opposite effect.

The film lingers with moments of extreme sensationalism. The Pope has died, a voting is underway, but the secret Illuminati strike with a bomb threat (anti-matter stolen from the LHC project) in Vatican City. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is called upon for his expert knowledge of this cult group and to try and help unravel the mystery. Hans Zimmer's score has all of the expected papal choral chants to wake you up in time for the next stagey murder scene, but everything in between just doesn't sustain. There is something so bland, so sedate, so mechanical about the film and its exploits that I was reminded how helpful, even necessary the presence of Ian McKellen's role was in helping to drive the thrill of conspiracy theories in the much better The Da Vinci Code, preventing it from being as pedantic as this film.

The summer movie season used to mean simplistic movie fun, but now it means movie world ridiculousness and this is what Angels and Demons promises and delivers, in huge amounts. Hanks, with the second incredulous attempt as the Professor, has started to remind me of one of those behind the counter managers at McDonald's who likes to get his hands dirty from time to time, annoying us with his everyman attitude. His character might have gotten a new (and better) hair stylist, but I couldn't buy him as an academic, much less a religious skeptic, a point this film tries to make more than once. If this film and its principle character are strangely self aware of their religious stand, it is possibly as a response to the hue and cry made by the general public when its prequel Da Vinci Code (actually the sequel in chronological form) was released, but here it is stagey and unchecked. Not helping with believability is the fact that every garbed Cardinal or Priest is shown as a creep in hiding, and when you first see husky voiced, red robed Armin Mueller-Stahl, you can't help but roll your eyes.
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Max Payne (2008)
1/10
Revenge is a dish best served cold, but "Max Payne" feels dead on arrival
15 October 2008
You'd be forgiven for mistaking "Max Payne" as being an extended episode of one of the many TV legal dramas, except set in Sin City. It's actually New York, but I doubt anyone watching it would really care. Just like they wouldn't care who Max Payne is in the movie or why he's on a mission to find the man responsible for his family's murder. Revenge is a dish best served cold, yes, but "Max Payne" feels dead on arrival.

Like an angry, younger Lieutenant Columbo (another TV reference!), Mark Wahlberg as Payne prowls the streets and alleys trailing long shadows behind him. The film is based on a video game, but feels like it was based on a lullaby or is itself a video game being played out. Actually, that last analogy would be an insult to the original game which, ironic as it is, was modeled after Hong Kong movies and in particular, the now overused bullet time sequences from "Matrix". The games other defining factor was its dark, sarcastic, extremely quotable first person narration, which were as eloquent as they were witty.

Very little of both is found in the film, and that isn't close to being its main problem. What the movie seems to have somehow done is arranged the games many sporadic plots and threads into an incoherent, disengaged whodunit. It is so focused on telling its story that there are about half a dozen flashbacks to the murder of Payne's wife alone, none of which create the empathy they aim for. Forgetting that games are popular not necessarily for their stories, just like comic books aren't necessarily championed for their thematic depth or literary impact, the film ends up turning into an enduring punishment, one that lasts as long as the duration of the film.
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4/10
Avoid the third if you want to die happy with the memory of what Singer achieved
25 May 2006
X3 is more disappointing than a movie comprising of its talents should be. Employing the same cast as the previous films in the series and nearly the same technical crew, the film is a blunt, weakly realised superhero travesty. As director, Brett Ratner, a questionable choice ever since his announcement was first made, relies on rehashing a lot of Bryan Singer's original elements, afterall, how many times can we see Magneto elevate cars into the air and actually find it exciting? The barebones plot has something to do with a mutant cure that some mutants welcome and others shun, but from this half interesting concept nothing of value ever materialises. There are no standout moments, no interesting new characters (Vinnie Jones as hirsute, pot-bellied Juggernaut is insulting to watch, as is Kelsey Grammar's embarrassing blue painted rug of a man, Beast). Surprising, very little of the action scenes visually entice, because they are either so ridiculously executed (the phoenix vs Professor X segment headlining as one of the worst cinema moments this year) or are simply plain boring (Wolverine kicking arse in a jungle - Yawn!). On a technical level as well, everything that can go wrong does - the effects are painfully obvious and the score by John Powell ill-fitting.

Its sad to say this, but with one film, Ratner not only diminishes the collective memory of what was thus far a formidable film franchise, but also loses respect as a director with a promising future. Unlike Singer who used the settings in his films to hint at bigger themes such as racism and ethnicity, Ratner makes a one dimensional action filled special effects jaunt with little happening despite it seeming to imply otherwise. One important recurring element of both the comics and especially the films was Wolverine's quest to find his identity (think a mutant Jason Bourne), but here he is just another one of Professor X's lackey hanging around at the mansion spouting advice to the kids. The movie is very uneven, not only in pacing, substance and content, but also the way certain mutants are given too much screen time (Kitty Pryde) while others who might have been a big draw, are barely there for a few scant scenes (Angel, swooshing into the air as the music swells and irritates). A sign of a weak script is when it gets its high by killing off characters, and in X3 we get one too many of those. All in all, a movie to avoid if you want to die happy with the memory of the first 2 films.
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Stay (I) (2005)
10/10
A movie where the ambiguities becomes its greatest strength
27 February 2006
'Stay' makes the best use of scene transitions that I have ever seen. A person exiting a train enters a room instead, while a walk down a spiral staircase leads to a shadowy abyss where people disappear. It all seems like a trick at first, a visual device for the attention deficient, but gradually becomes a mechanism to reveal not just clues about what might be happening but also serve a very important purpose. These hints are presented to us in such a way that nearly everything we've seen by the end has been indicative of what will be revealed. Sold by the distributors as a shoddy winter horror film, the movie however is that rare intelligent, cinematic jewel that can only be described as an experience.

Our protagonist is Sam (Ewan McGregor) a university psychologist who takes up the case of Henry, (Ryan Gosling) a troubled campus student contemplating suicide. The manner in which Henry wants to go about committing his act is precise and planned; at midnight on the coming Saturday, he will shoot himself. His reasons are known entirely to him and his reluctance to cooperate makes him elusive to Sam's assistance. As a doctor, Sam must do everything within his abilities to prevent the situation from escalating, thus he embarks on a troubled quest to find reasons behind Henry's death wish, unveiling very strange things – including but not limited to encounters with people apparently dead, being addressed by names not his own and even observing the same events multiple times (ala 'Groundhog day') raising suspicion of his own sanity while vaulting from one maddening situation to another. Living with his girlfriend Lila (Naomi Watts), a once suicidal artist doesn't help, though it allows him to gain firsthand insight into what such people might be going through.

Amidst these happenings are many arresting situations and these become a visual playground for the director, the highly accomplished Marc Forster, who uses them to his strengths. Along with scriptwriter David Benioff, and some very nifty editing, they create an unsettling world where small interconnecting clues pepper multiple scenes; a handful noticed by me, numerous others surely missed out. A clear example of this occurs in a sequence where Henry visits one of those giant indoor aquariums and stares at the fish while a couple behind him flash photographs as they suspiciously talk in a manner that indicates they might know him. In the very next scene, that same photograph of the aquarium appears, almost unnoticed on screen except by the most careful viewer, in the background inside the living room of the house that Sam and Lila share, and yet there is no way that that photograph could have gotten there. Or could it? The overall effect is visually disorienting, yet completely engrossing.

At the risk of sounding like I'm giving it all away, at one point we are made to think as if the two main characters are actually the same, a device utilized successfully in many recent films, but here it is actually used to throw us off balance. An easy trick in stories (and not necessarily movies) that defy belief or seem too incredulous is to conveniently reveal them to be dreams. How else do you explain a connection between people that simply cannot exist or an act within the tale that violates human ability and basic logic? By the time it reaches its concluding moments 'Stay' may make you think that perhaps you are about to witness just such a simplistic travesty, but the end is handled craftily and with a delicate poise that is unsettling and wholly immersive. I am not completely sure if I understood the conclusion the way it was meant to be understood, but by that point the films ambiguities and puzzles became for me its greatest pleasures.
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Brooks will have to look elsewhere and probably change his naive methods
17 December 2005
Albert Brooks should look elsewhere to fulfill his quest of learning what makes Muslims laugh. The approach of this film and its execution are so heavily drenched in Western stereotypes about the people they want to study, it's a surprise the title doesn't use the word 'Moslem' instead of 'Muslim'.

Made in a sort of 'wink, wink, nudge, nudge' manner, it has Brooks playing himself at a point in time when his career prospects are slim and decent roles are hard to come by. Luckily for him the white house and state department come knocking and Brooks is sent off to the subcontinent to write a report on what makes Muslims laugh. Forget that India is officially a secular nation (the movie reasons there are about 150 Muslims there) or that Al spends in all about 15 minutes in neighboring Pakistan (an Islamic country), the fact remains that nothing about this film, except a scant few one liners, is funny or amusing. The list of crimes it commits with regard to typecasting is enormous and unforgivable – an office in the tech capital of the world has no computer, trendy young English speaking Indian women only wear sari's and the Pakistani's that meet Brooks look like bearded fundamentalists who smoke hashish- all of which shows great naiveté on the part of everyone involved with this misguided attempt, even if the irresponsible intent was to be tongue in cheek.

The method used by Albert Brooks to understand what is considered funny to these people is putting on a standup comedy show in both India and Pakistan, but this doesn't work too well. Was it ever considered by him that perhaps it isn't the understanding of the English language that prevents the Indian audience from finding him funny, but that all the gags are soaked in cultural references completely alien to them (Halloween, 'The Exorcist' etc.)? Or that the people being targeted aren't really aware of just what standup comedians really do. It becomes pretty clear that the movie is played for obvious lowbrow humor by displaying ignorance about its purpose that borders on being a sham and the real point is to milk the present hysteria about the people of the Muslim community and make some quick bucks in process via the mild publicity it has already received for its attention grabbing title. Give this one a pass.
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Interesting and insightful, explores some of the deeper issues.
28 June 2004
As a documentary, this feature is not unique, in terms of direction or the issues explored. Its fairly linear and standard stuff by all measures. However, it manages to get together a large variety of legends and popular figures from the comic book world including Stan Lee, Kevin Smith, Will Eisner, Joe Quesada and many others for some interesting insights into the industry itself.

Its also nicely narrated by Keith David (the voice of Spawn from the TV series), and presented (during the bookends) by Peta Wilson, so all of that gives it a nice insider feel. As expected, it starts from the 30's, exploring the so called, Golden Age of comics, through their heightened popularity during World War 2, their decline in the post war period, their renewal during the Silver Age, with the launch of Marvel, all the way to present day creation of Image comics.

I guess most major milestones were neatly looked into, including the creation of DC Comics, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, the revolution that Watchmen and Dark Knight returns brought in the 80's and how comic book as a medium has struggled and coped with the changing attitudes of its readers. A little more could have been done to sustain interest for non comic fans interested in watching this, since watching comic panes buzz by for 90 minutes does little to captivate, but for any fan of superhero comics, this is a must watch. Highly recommended.
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Troy (2004)
A movie that wrongfully depends on the shoulders of its giant star. Good entertainment nonetheless.
24 May 2004
A caveat for those of you who take their history lessons from the movies; Troy is inaccurate and doesn't follow the epic poem 'Iliad' entirely. But that isn't its biggest imperfection. That dishonor belongs to the decision of placing its faith on the star studded cast of Hollywood superstars, led by a stilted and constipated Brad Pitt.

The central story remains much the same as dictated by legend and documented by Homer. While on a peace mission to Greece, Paris (Orlando Bloom), prince of Troy, falls in love with and eventually sneaks away the King's wife, Helen (Diane Kruger), much to the dismay of his elder brother Hector (Eric Bana). Repercussions eventually arrive in the form of the Greek army invading the shores of Troy, led by Agamemnon (Brian Cox), apparently avenging his brother Menelaus' (Brendan Gleeson) loss of a wife, but having a grand scheme of domination all his own. He also despises yet requires the presence of rebel soldier Achilles (Pitt), who himself seeks fame and glory above all else.

As a war movie, 'Troy' offers lazy aerial shots of battles that have become all too common to viewers familiar with a certain trilogy from the last few years. Director Wolfgang Peterson is far more successful at placing his leads in one-on-one combats that show his deft usage of close camera work to provide raw scenes of carnage and brutality. Especially effective are two key battles that pit Paris against Menelaus and then later towards the climax, Achilles against Hector. The latter vibrates with energy and cackle absent in any of the other bigger set pieces.

As the pivotal character, Achilles' is overflowing with pride and arrogance that eventually spills and gives way to a dull and vexed figure who is difficult to like because Pitt's presence feels too contemporary. Unlike the then relatively unknown Russell Crowe in 'Gladiator', Pitt's star appearance hurts the film achieve a sense of the ancient that it strives for. Bana as Hector fares better, not only because his cause carries more resonance, but also because he successfully evokes the proper balance of heroism and righteousness. The cowardice of Paris, as played by Bloom, is here turned into a class act. For the little duration that he is on screen, Peter O'Toole as King Priam of Troy brings a dignified grace that only comes with age coupled with ability. A scene where he sneaks into Achilles' tent and pleads for the body of his son is powerful and shows a marked contrast between the capacities of the two.

The dialogue is clunky and attempts at making the story seem political, fraternal and confrontational all at the same time. The end is also too tidy and polished in setting the comeuppance of all the major players while James Horner's trumpet and vocal heavy score is a misfire and does little justice to the visuals. In the end Troy delivers less than it promises because it promises too much. And although there may be much to admire about Troy there is little to like about the central figure of Achilles.

Rating B
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Heaven (I) (2002)
Splendid tale, splendidly told, but befitting a more appropriate end.
24 May 2004
Warning: Spoilers
Contains Spoiler

Heaven, a film by extraordinary German director Tom Tykwer ('Run Lola Run'), explores the vivid nature of crime, punishment, and oddly enough infatuations, and tries to, rather unsuccessfully, bind these themes in a twist of fate, that, upon later, inspection seems clumsily contrived.

In the opening scene we are introduced to Phillipa Paccard (Cate Blanchett), an English expatriate working as a teacher in Italy, putting together a home made close proximity bomb, intended to kill only one person in a high rise office building. We know this because after Paccard has placed the bomb in the office of her intended victim, she takes great care to make sure no one else is within range of it when it goes off. She also has no intention of getting away with her act, since she walks out of the building only to call up the Italian police and let them know who she is what she has done. In a twist of fate convenient for the screenplay, the bomb does goes off, but doesn't kill the man she had targeted but instead finds other innocents as its victims. Soon Phillipa finds herself behind bars at the office of the Carabinieri (the Italian military and national police) for a murder she did not intend, but did commit.

When she is eventually brought in front of the superiors at the Carabinieri for interrogation purposes, she refuses to speak in Italian, which we have already been shown in an earlier scene, she speaks fluently. This sets up an interesting predicament whereby the stenographer Fillipo (a very dole-eyed Giovanni Ribisi), agrees to be her translator as well, since he has ample knowledge of the English language. Eventually we find out, through the interrogation proceedings, that the man Blanchett's character intended to kill was responsible for the death of her husband, through drug overdose and has now found a new market in the form of young children at the school where she teaches. The movie wisely eschews any sentiment with regard to the war against drugs and is not a deliberating movie about its effects either. What follows is a tale of revenge, escape and finding love in the most uncertain of places and situations.

It's interesting to see the momentum between the two leads build, and we feel glad because we know where it is headed and most of all, because it is done so well. Giovanni Ribisi and Cate Blanchett, who have worked together earlier in Sam Raimi's 'The Gift', show what great rapport they have together. Because no one understands what she is saying, except Fillipo, we assume no one empathizes with her either. Indeed Fillipo takes this understanding to the extreme when he confesses to his father, who himself is also an officer at the Carabinieri, that he has fallen in love with Phillipa. As strange as it sounds, everything is kept under the curtain of plausibility, until the final act, which I shall discuss shortly.

Performance wise both Ribisi and Blanchett are in top form. However it is Ribisi here who is all the more surprising revealing a greater depth by taking on a part that is mostly in Italian. In fact almost three fifths of the movies lines are in Italian, which gives it the concentrated aura of a foreign film, with familiar faces. But don't let that put you off. Ribisi comes across as a person living in another more serene world, because this world doesn't suit his tastes. He speaks little, except when the situation calls for it, and often is lost deep in thought, contemplating. He stares at Blanchett, and watches her every movement carefully. Blanchett plays Phillipa as a person who believes in cause and consequences and doesn't want to escape punishment because she feels responsible for the crime that she committed. She starts out as a person caught in the abyss of hopelessness, and we witness her descent even further. A character such as this is seldom seen in films these days, and that is what seems so fresh about the screenplay.

The direction by Tom Tykwer is splendid in its innovation. The film is beautifully shot and moves with a pleasant momentum, never seeming to rush to let us know what happens next. Great views and vistas of the various Italian destinations are shown in stunningly detailed photography. Its deliberate pacing reminded me of another well directed movie from earlier that year 'Monsters Ball', in fact both share the same atmosphere of quite clairvoyance. However it's the last act that leaves one desiring more. It happens quite abruptly which is strange given the nature of films preceding parts. Nothing can be more frustrating than a story half told and finished off at its most intense moments. In truth the ending isn't deserving of 'Heaven'. That is the impression that I got after everything was over. At barely 100 minutes, a lot more could have been done to make clearer what was intended at the end. It simply left me both puzzled and asking for more, and since this wasn't intended as a thriller with a franchise of sequels to follow, that cannot be considered a compliment.

Rating: B+
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