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There can only be one (foamy tyrant!)!
Darkon is Live Action Role-Playing, where the characters in the game assume different personas of their own creation and partake of different warring nations and factions in the Darkon universe. Not entirely unlike traditional Dungeons & Dragons, except the focus is not upon the stat-sheets and one's imagination, but the actual grandiose foam-weapon battles between armies.
The documentary focuses on a drawn-out Darkon campaign fought between two warring faction leaders: Skip Lipman/Bannor (he's Bannor in Darkon), and Kenyon Wells/Keldar. Of the two, Skip is the more likable character, a stay-at-home dad with the utmost exuberance for Darkon's potential as a fulfilling and self-empowering creative channel. Kenyon/Keldar seems to stand for similar things, but then he doesn't take the Darkon fantasy as seriously as the other members of the documentary. Instead he uses it as a medium for him to channel his expansive, greedy determination.What is revealed by all this, is that these Darkon characters are not necessarily escapes or pure projections in another universe, but simply extended, exaggerated branches of their respective personalities inside the world of Darkon.
That isn't to say Darkon is a strange, negative or absurd enterprise by any means. In fact, the documentary is positive for making the viewer re-examine all the real Live Action Role-playing and fantasy elements that take place in our communities (American football and sports, martial arts and "Reality-Based Self-Defense", New Agers and "shamans", yoga, religion, etc.) because they have long since been accepted by mainstream society as normal. But when fantasies become vivid enough to the ones enacting them, those fantasies bleed into real life and how we develop as members of our daily communities.
Optimus Prime and co. save humans from the terrifying scourge of product placements
As an old-school fan of Transformers, I can't say I was too excited about seeing it transition into a big-screen Michael Bay production. The results are actually not as bad as I had anticipated, but some of the characters' dialog is so downright awful, while watching it, I myself wanted to "transform" -- by which I mean extend my limbs and transplant myself out of the room in which the film was playing. (Get it?!?!?)
*tumbleweeds roll by*
The special effects are good for the present moment and there are some pretty sweet action scenes. I do kind of love how they're badass robots but end up fighting with typical grappling martial arts. The music is adequate epic Hollywood action-adventure symphony stuff, but then interspersed with random segments of "nu-metal" riffs during cheesy action sequences. And then for some reason the film ends with a Linkin Park song. Which is funny because the film already ends on such a cliché, sappy note and then gives you permanent low self-esteem with the song that plays during the end credits.
Ah, I guess that's to be expected of a film that flashes Mountain Dew and Pepsi every 10 minutes and is one long commercial for GMC and the (then) new Chevy Camaro. From what I understand, enlightened cybernetic beings will one day be made from superior industrial products, which you should buy now. Oh yeah, and enlightened cybernetic beings also use dated American street slang, like "roll out". Natch.
Pretty entertaining stuff, but so empty and cliché it's almost incredible. Everything in this movie is a macrocosm of Megan Fox's presence and role: really nice to look at, but with absolutely nothing to say at all. I mean, it's basically X-Men, but with Transformers: Blahblahblah, "Transformers/XMen/Gargoyles/Spidermen are bad! Send in the military!" ...rabblerabblerabble... "Stop! Those are the GOOD Transformers/XMen/Gargoyles!!" Blarbyblarblar... "Humans are bad! You are friends with humans so you die!" blahblahblah "No! Some are good so we should let them live!" And that's about it.
Sukiyaki Western Django (2007)
Heike Monogatari von Django
'Sukiyaki Western Django' has a pretty literal name, even if it looks goofy to those unfamiliar with the genre being referenced. The name is straightforward: "sukiyaki" being a traditional Japanese dish (standing in for "spaghetti"), "western" referring to the genre, and "Django" referring to the gimmicky B-movie series of westerns from the '70s which the film constantly references. So the name literally is saying it's a Japanese B-movie Spaghetti Western.
Miike takes inspiration from, and references, almost everything here: classic Clint Eastwood westerns, the anime 'Cowboy Bebop', B-movie slashers (and obviously the terrible cult classic series, "Django"), Kurosawa's 'Yojimbo', the old Japanese story of 'The Tale of Heike' and so on. Quentin Tarantino has a small narrative role in the film as well.
And it ends up being pretty entertaining. The film is entirely in English, or I should say "Engrish," done by Japanese actors. The results are goofy and funny and sometimes downright unintelligible. It's pretty original/charming in concept, though, and I wonder if Miike wouldn't also like to make a samurai film entirely with Americans speaking broken Japanese. And regardless of how deeply the characters can inflect based on their accents, some of their visual expressions are really wonderful (my favorite was when the guy in the paddy-wagon grabs the sticks of dynamite!). The film is actually quite nice to look at throughout.
The sets and costumes are pretty nice for an independent film, though a lot of the interior decor often reminded me of the US interstate food chain, 'Cracker Barrel.' Haha! I just mean the saloons and everything were a little...clean. The action is a combination of really awesome and intentionally terrible, though the shootouts are pretty fun to watch and there are some pretty original moments featuring crossbows and computer-rendered effects. Furthermore, Miike likes to toy with audience expectations and anticipation, so prepare for some off-tempo action sequences which border on the bizarre.
And all the typical Miike touches are here: over-the-top manga-style violence, a combination of awful and excellent acting, critical reflections on chivalry, a weird drawn-out dance number that has nothing to do with anything, aforementioned intentionally off-tempo pacing, gorgeous cinematography, and well-constructed sets.
I would have really liked to see some deeper character development. The main characters all looked so similar and told such similar back stories it was hard to tell who was who until the end. And it didn't help that they all spoke in broken English, but then again I wasn't watching it with subtitles. Although it's not gripping for its story, narrative or traditional story-telling, film-making qualities, Sukiyaki Western Django is pretty cool for how unique it is and its goofy Japanese angles on the subject matter. At the very least, fans of classic "B-movie", "arthouse" cinema should find something to like here, as should fans of live-action manga or Miike's more light-hearted moments.
Touchez pas au grisbi (1954)
A "grisbi" all of its own, ahaha!
There's nothing exceptionally profound about the story to "Touchez pas au grisbi", one of Jacques Becker's later films -- but it sets up tons of film archetypes and patterns that later French Noir would emulate. Jean Gabin plays Max, an aging criminal set to retire with his friend, Ritan, when they're pushed into a state of paranoia by younger gangsters moving in on their retirement loot (their "grisbi").
The film is not overtly flashy, but Max is one bad dude, expressed by the way he commands universal respect from his peers, patrons and the younger ladies who surround him. In fact, his musky appeal is hilarious in contrast with his romantically bumbling partner, as is the way he overtly womanizes (notice that none of the women in this film are wearing a bra!).
There are only a handful of sets to the film, and a few outdoor scenes. The action happens suddenly and violently, which makes it much more jarring, and the themes of brotherly loyalty are expressed as both frustrating and endearing bonds, but with more nuanced definition than you might expect from such a straight-forward film. And to boot, there are some recognizable classic talents in this film, including Lino Ventura and Jeanne Moreau.
While not explosive and over-the-top, the story, set-up and exposition of the gangster code are all the result of top-notch cinematic craftsmanship. The music is minimalist, the camera-work is easy on the eyes, and the characters are fun to watch. Half-goofily endearing and half-starkly serious, but mostly brilliant, Touchez pas au grisbi is a lot of fun.
Gunki hatameku motoni (1972)
A distinguished entry by Fukasaku and an important Japanese WWII film
"Under the Flag of the Rising Sun" or "Gunki hatameku motoni" is a film by Kinji Fukasaku, a Japanese director renown for his work in the crime and 'chambara' film genres. This film was made by the director amid a streak of Yakuza-oriented films and shares some of the same filming style characteristic of his other films, detailed and somber character portraits, sudden outbursts of intentionally ugly and clumsy violence, intimate romantic relationships which end tragically or abruptly, and protagonists who have trouble compromising their own moral integrity to fit in with changing social hierarchies.
The main protagonist of this film is a Japanese war widow attempting to find out the actual events behind her husband's disappearance from his military station in New Guinea. After the war, Sakie Togashi never received a pension for her husband's military service because Sergeant Togashi was apparently court-martialed, but no official details are disclosed to her by social services or government offices for twenty years after his disappearance. Feeling sorry for her, several social workers give her the names of four men from her husband's platoon who returned to Japan after the war.
The film mixes the present-day (1970s) settings and quest of Sakie Togashi with various flashbacks involving her husband and the company members on New Guinea. This is interspersed with old war footage and photographs from the Pacific Theater. The more chaotic or violent scenes are often filmed in the manner of many action films from the early 1970s, with chopped, slow-motion effects and caustic drawn-out sounds.
Under the Flag of the Rising Sun is reminiscent of other important films (Rashomon, Jacob's Ladder, The Deer Hunter, The Human Condition) about the aftereffects of 20th century war on the human psyche, family and social networks, and the common people who end up fighting for their country. There are some good quotes from some of the retired soldiers, such as "people from the bottom of the heap never rest in peace," implying that individuals who occupy the less influential rungs of society are constantly manipulated by those in positions of power. It is a unique film for a Japanese filmmaker, in a country rarely known to recant its actions during World War II.
Dead Man (1995)
Pat yourselves on the back, William Blake & Jarmusche fans
'Dead Man' has a great cast, plenty of hilarious moments, a bunch of references and symbolism with regards to the actual William Blake, and is a wholly original enterprise. Although the film starts out seemingly with the intent to tell a story in the traditional sense, a third of the way through it becomes some kind of art-house comedy/philosophy film, full of references and symbols which will be boring and meaningless to a lot of people watching it based upon its popular and positive reputation. This is fine, but be forewarned -- there is something of a select audience for the subject matter. The second half of the film has symbols, not literal characters.
I found the soundtrack by Neil Young interesting at first, but by the second half of the film, Jarmusche relies on it way too much, and fills the film with empty scenes set to droning, meandering solo guitar chords. The aesthetic of the guitar sound works, but the music becomes very monotonous. Given Jarmusche's symbolic approach to old-west America, interspersed with references to Blake's own poetic reflections on the time, a much better musical choice would have been someone like John Fahey or Leo Kottke -- seasoned, well-known folk musicians long since acquainted with old American steel-string music.
Johnny Depp is capable as always, and there is a wonderful supporting cast, including Crispin Glover, whose screen-time is way too short. I liked the first half of the film a great deal, but the second half left me restless and waiting for it to end.
More like a black belt
I am not well acquainted with David Mamet's body of work, but I generally like what I've seen. His dialog-driven stories are often captivating throughout and Redbelt is no exception. While far from perfect (mostly for a few plot contrivances), Mamet has succeeded in crafting a modern martial arts flick that appears to be grounded firmly in modern, "reality-based" martial arts, and yet still has the attitude of traditional samurai stoicism.
In short, the plot involves a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu teacher, Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who becomes haphazardly involved with the Hollywood elite and corrupt Mixed-Martial-Arts promoters after saving a celebrity actor's life (Tim Allen) in a bar-room brawl. Eventually Mike is (practically) blackmailed into fighting on the MMA circuit, an enterprise he condemns as a disease to any martial philosophy.
The story treats us to the underhanded pinnings of the MMA and even BJJ social circles -- how jaded and corrupt their philosophies have become. Mamet seems to be embellishing a bunch of this, but the man has his own experiences in martial arts and Hollywood circles, and Mamet scripts are typically prone to be dramatic and darkly captivating. It all works well here, enough so that I was willing to overlook the convenient plot devices when they happened. However, a few goofy moments keep the film from being really excellent.
Some elements of the story are just a bit too convenient or contrived to be believable. Cops don't leave their guns around, women don't suddenly become "gold-diggers" without any apparent reason, and there is no teacher on earth who is as perfect and virtuous as the main character. Yeah, I became a little uninterested in the main character considering how valiant he is in contrast to the greedy corruption surrounding him on all sides.
Yet it's a good film which was mistakenly overlooked by the mainstream public who probably thought it would be a dopey brawl-fest. While it's not the totally mature, in-depth discussion of modern martial arts that many of us were hoping it would be, Redbelt does point some accusatory fingers at the MMA world and tells an exciting story to boot.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Anti-climatic, aged, but well-crafted and inspired
"Dog Day Afternoon" is the famous (purportedly true) story of a bank heist gone wrong. Because its reputation precedes it, it lacks in flashy shoot-outs, and its social commentary tirades are a bit outdated, the movie may not deliver to modern audiences with the same gravity as it did when it was released. The film is a showcase for one of Pacino's most controlled, nuanced performances and the story has some interesting things to say about loyalty within relationships and friendships. There is some amusing dialog with regards to Vietnam veterans, transgender and homosexual romance and even smoking (maybe a touchy subject at the time).
The film feels longer than it is and seems to build toward a surprise twist that never appears, but it is solidly crafted throughout and the climax itself is much more intoxicating for the masterful build-up. The tasteful camera cinematography (a staple of pre-80s films!) and the absence of a musical score both work to accentuate the character portraits and claustrophobic nature of the situation.
While maybe not one of the greatest movies of all time, it's certainly one of the notable ones of its decade, expertly crafted with some stand-out performances by Pacino and John Cazale. And while influencing a number of films since its release, "Dog Day Afternoon", also seems to have been the inspiration for the charming early '90s comedy, "Airheads", about a band of metalheads who get trapped while holding up an LA radio station.
Don't Look Now (1973)
You'll want to look twice
"Don't Look Now" made its impression on me a little while after I had finished it. During the film itself, I was not particularly confused, shocked or horrified by any of the events on the screen. The film itself is definitely unsettling and a bit creepy, but it is never clear exactly why until one considers it later. On some levels it seems to be an indictment of occultism and spiritualist beliefs. But then the story's methods of foreshadowing and the cyclical, coincidental occurrences later in the plot struck me as a revelation of something ominous, dark and sinister.
Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play John and Linda Baxter, a married couple whose young daughter dies in an accident at their estate in England. Soon after the couple relocate to Venice to work on a job restoring a dilapidating cathedral. In Venice, the locales are notably aloof, the streets are deserted, a killer is on the loose, and a blind psychic claims to see the Baxter's dead daughter. A strange, sad quality lurks behind the environment and strange incidents befall the couple.
An important thing to note about the film is how professionally it is made. The entire cast and crew seem to put real effort into the whole production. There is a wonderful original score to accompany the moods and scenery, the Venetian locale is effectively foreboding, and the melancholic desperation of John and Linda bleeds subtly through the story. The movie is apparently famous for its drawn-out love scene (where we get to see more of Donald Sutherland than Julie Christie). It is certainly longer than most mainstream sex scenes, and came across to me as cheesy for the music included (and aren't most movie sex scenes totally over-the-top?). But it works to establish the couple's intimacy early on in the story.
All in all, "Don't Look Now" won me over as a well-crafted, melancholic little thriller.
(I swear, every movie with Jim Belushi takes place in Chicago...)
"Thief" is a pretty interesting project. The Chicago locale is smoky and covered in blue hues; the characters all seem lonely or isolated from one another, and a sense of betrayal lies around every corner and plot twist. Michael Mann gives a preview of what would come in his later directed works, "Miami Vice" and "Heat", and sets the stage for later stylized, crime-romance flicks.
Basically the plot has been done to death by now, but back in the early '80s it wasn't so cliché. Frank (Caan) is a successful professional thief who makes his living with a small, loyal crew and operates under the front of a used car dealership. When a client is killed and some of his money is stolen, Frank goes out to find the perpetrators and finds himself involved in a deep underworld ring connecting mobsters and the police. As per usual, Frank is willing to do one last job in order to make enough money to retire with his sweetheart, but there's always a catch when making deals with serious high-level criminal organizations. Still it's pulled off pretty well. There are not specific twists, so much as well-placed acts and interesting thematic choices (for instance, the "big score" or "hit" or what-have-you, is given pretty minimal coverage when it happens).
The cast is effective. James Caan is as angry as he ever gets, Tuesday Weld is down-key and melancholy, Robert Prosky plays an unusually vulgar crime boss, Willie Nelson looks like he's about to cry every time you see him, and Jim Belushi comes across as a dopey, likable man-child. Of course, plot-wise, James Caan's character, Frank, functions as the hub around which all of their fates revolve.
There are a few weird moments. The conversation between Frank and Jessie (Caan and Tuesday Weld) at the coffee shop at night goes on for much longer than it needs to. Frank's scrapbook picture is a little bit... hokey or overly sentimental (but who knows, maybe badass thieves and killers have cheesy, soft, artistic expressions?) and the soundtrack at times seems out of place. Don't get me wrong -- the soundtrack is fantastic. It's by the German electronica group, Tangerine Dream. I generally love Tangerine Dream, but there are moments here when the music doesn't quite fit thematically (i.e. during the big safe job). It does not bother me, but folks who don't dig the extreme '80s synth-techno aesthetic might be irritated. As a stand-alone, the soundtrack rules, but with the film it can get a little over-the-top. (But the appearance of the "Beach Theme" is truly awesome, haha)
This movie is interesting for doing a number of things that seemed ahead of its time. At moments I was reminded of a darker version of the Peckinpah film, "The Killer Elite" (also with James Caan) and obviously some of the sad, desperate themes from Mann's big '90s achievement, "Heat". Also in line with "Heat" are the blue hues, the electronic music, the heart-broken romance (which here has equal elements of DePalma's "Carlito's Way" and the Tarantino-penned "True Romance"), and a good look at the criminal underworld.
Another DePalma movie, "Scarface", also explores themes initially found here. Like Tony Montana after him, Caan's Frank is a lone wolf in the underworld. He has equally violent and kind-hearted streaks, yet his destructive emotions tend to betray his best interests. Thus Frank (like Montana) is complex because he is both unlikable and angry and yet a far better person than his criminal counterparts in the underworld.
"Thief" is certainly recommended for any fans of James Caan, Michael Mann, underworld crime-thrillers, or any of the films mentioned above.
Diary of a Madman (1963)
Price -- the brightest star of all!
This is a Vincent Price vehicle that is loosely based on a Guy De Maupassant short story. The setup is eerie, speaking of how dark spiritual beings exist in our world, unseen by human eyes. "The Horla" is one such unseen supernatural being, one which has power over the minds of men and the natural world. Unfortunately, the film's pacing becomes quite grating by the end (was it really only 97 minutes?) and ends with some fairly predictable '50s/'60s cheesy horror.
In this tale, Price plays Simon Cordier, a magistrate in a French court in the late 19th century. When the magistrate has one final conversation with a prisoner convicted of multiple murders, the man tells Cordier that he did not commit the murders, but was compelled to by some unspeakable evil entity (the Horla) which took control of his mind and body. Then, for some reason or another, the Horla begins to stalk Cordier (it's rather clumsily presented, but it works). Fearing for his sanity, Cordier takes a vacation from his work and takes up his old hobby of sculpting, which leads him to encounter the model and enchanting muse, Odette (Nancy Kovak). And it is here that the Horla begins to work his magic on Simon Cordier. The Horla plays the devil's advocate, blackmailing Cordier into following his weakest urges.
A lot of Vincent Price films operated within a spectrum of horror-comedy, which is not to say that they were exactly funny, but had such an offbeat attitude it made them simultaneously amusing and creepy. Some of those vibes can be found here, and a number of Price's lines and expressions are totally charming (such as when he's smooth-talking Odette for the first time). And the way some of the "philosophical" ideas were presented -- they were so blunt it was comedic. I don't know if that much was intentional, but it did give the movie some color.
But at the same time the plot, characters and story are all too simple for how long the film runs. And the villain or mysterious antagonist, the "Horla", becomes pretty lame by the end. He gets reduced to the sort of unimaginative pseudo-science-fiction horror that filled out B-movies in the '50s and '60s. The typical spiritual/philosophical elements which litter "mystical horror" stories are here either cliché (the crucifix is able to ward off evil... again!) or just boring (the conversations with the Police Chief about whether or not criminals are born evil). And my other main criticism is that the film would be pretty terrible without Vincent Price in the lead role. Only Price carries the film by the end.
"Diary of a Madman" was a decent distraction for a lazy afternoon, but not a film that I'd watch again. Vincent Price has done some really excellent stuff, but this isn't one of his necessary works.
V for Vendetta (2005)
A "Testament of Dr. Mabuse" for the new millennium
"V For Vendetta" is a film "The Dark Knight" could have been -- almost the other side of the same coin. It is marked by a similarly dark protagonist with a more impressive (and dangerous) sense of justice, yet he is an endearing and likable character to the end. Thus it is a true superhero film, for despite its deadpan serious tone, it also retains a variety of comic elements that make the characters and plot deeply engaging to the viewer.
The setting is a totalitarian England of the near future, just after the collapse of the USA and their fumbled invasion in the Middle-East. England is now led by evangelical fascists who do not allow homosexuality, artistic expression, freedom of speech, late-night social activity, and all other kinds of "luxuries." The party henchmen all unquestioningly serve a crazed talking head played by John Hurt, who dictates to them through a giant television screen in an obvious reference to the movie adaptation of George Orwell's "1984". In the midst of this unpleasant society lives Evey (Natalie Portman), a young woman who works a dead-end job as an assistant in one of the main propaganda TV news studios. The protagonist, freedom fighter "V" (Hugo Weaving), accosts her in the streets one night (in typical superhero fashion) and takes their chance meeting to be more than just chance (he doesn't believe in coincidences, as everyone in the film eventually learns).
What makes "V for Vendetta" so intoxicating is the way it piles on the horrifying government indictments and heavy-handed polemics in obvious reference to the modern anti-terrorist party-line of the US/UK governments. But the main character repeatedly drives into our brains throughout the film, that as literal as these critiques may be, they (and the movie's entire story) exist merely as symbols, as ideas, which have no original form but continually reappear in contrast to control schemes. So to take everything involved here completely literally would be like taking the Matrix to be the actual hidden reality beneath our day-to-day lives.
But then again, somewhat admirably and dangerously, as they did with "The Matrix", here the Wachowski brothers have unveiled their own eccentric, courageous line of thinking -- one which is uncommonly seen delivered in Hollywood with such "chutzpah" -- especially nowadays. V brings back some of the best elements of "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse", "Twelve Monkeys", "Batman", "1984", and "Brazil", and it's a welcome return in lieu of the stagnant soft-fascism of modern mass-consumer-product-ridden film culture.
The film is not without its quirky flaws. By the end of the film, the villains are not quite as loathsome and sinister as they initially appeared to be; their dimensions are stretched a little thin over the 2+ hour movie. And for as much as V references "Hamlet" and "The Count of Monte Cristo" throughout the film, his tale of vengeance is never quite as fully resonant as anything in these aforementioned works. Additionally, there are some pacing problems about 2/3 of the way through the film, where the story is forced to go through a few montages to speed it up and actually conclude.
But still, even if you think the blatant (almost insane) political tirades are ridiculous, cheesy, inauthentic, exaggerated or offensive, the movie is well-made with some quality perks. The protagonist V has some awesome (sometimes hysterical) lines, and there are a couple of good twists to the film's story. V's first appearance and lines early on are some of the best in the film and Hugo Weaving gives an incredibly enjoyable performance using an endearing method of dead-pan delivery and expressive, jerky body language. And watch for the fight scene where the film pokes fun at the choreography and special effects from "The Matrix" (the director here was the Assistant Director for The Matrix series).
Although the movie is by no means perfect, and certainly unrealistic and at times illogical, it is a fantastic action/suspense film and evokes "The Matrix" and "The Dark Knight" with its cohesive and immersing plot, likable protagonist, endearing performances and insanely bold message. The worst thing you could say is that it's unique, which is certainly no insult in today's movie market.
More painful than having kids
"Juno" feels like a movie churned out by irresponsible, incompetent corporate hipsters for up-and-coming ever-more-shallow teenage hipsters. It has nothing to say about pregnancy (though it seems to be pro-life, whatever that means to you), does not take the responsibility of teen pregnancy seriously, is not realistic in its character portrayals, the script does not function to transmit the story, and it is not ever funny (yes, it actually makes "Knocked Up" look like a masterpiece). Of course, I was only watching "Juno" to make sure I, uh... yeah I don't know why I watched it.
Honestly, this movie felt like a big slap in the face. This won an Oscar for its screenplay? I don't have high hopes for Oscar ceremonies but good grief! Apparently this was written by a twenty-something ex-stripper, ex-blogger who goes by the name Diablo Cody. Not that I have anything against her past professions or hobbies, but this writing is vapid, jerky, amateur and betrays a nihilistic vanity that tries to trade dopey Suicide Girl/Indie-rock cuteness for cleverness. Most of the dialog consists of internet slang or currently hip things to say amongst white suburban indie-rock/punk-ish kids who go to college or live in a group-house. In other words, this is the pinnacle of corporate sludge being marketed as counter-culture. It's feeding regurgitated jokes to the same people who already use them.
It's not just the dialog. The whole movie is emblazoned by this: the music is a constant barrage of Elliott Smith rip-off artists (who are exceptionally dopey and spoiled sounding) and the costumes and sets look like really grimy versions of a Wes Anderson movie, maybe combined with the aesthetic of that old MTV show, "Daria" (although don't be confused by my assessment, since Daria was actually a decent show with a message -- it's just the aesthetic that has been copied). And Juno really relies on music to both indicate the emotional texture of the scenes (spoiled, whiny, fake cuteness) and to transition between them.
By the time the movie is halfway finished, you're just praying for someone to shut Ellen Page's character up. I guess she's supposed to be spunky or wise or some other completely irrelevant fake adjective for her obviously insecure and depressing character. I really don't know or care. I do know that the most important relationship in the movie -- the one between her and Michael Cera (here playing a character that acts just like Michael Cera) -- is given the least amount of attention of any relationship in the movie. It's brushed-over, undynamic and undeveloped. What gives?
Man, this movie actually seems malicious. It's like if someone made a nihilistic bubbly comedy about how having a baby is made of win. Yes, made of win. But unfortunately this movie is made of epic fail.
Inside Man (2006)
Spike Lee Phone Home
This is "a Spike Lee joint" that feels like a Hollywood film he was contractually obliged to make. The setup is interesting and the first third is pretty exciting, but the movie slows down and starts to putter around, prematurely revealing its conclusions. It includes a couple of twists, investigates potential Stockholm Syndrome, political corruption and war crimes, but ultimately fails in its predictability (and the fact that my own imagined outcomes were more entertaining that what transpired on the screen).
It's not really a bad movie. It's just not nearly as substantial as people say it is. Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster are on autopilot the whole time, Willem Defoe is hardly even used, there are blatant product placements for the PSP and the iPod, the "twist" to the robbery can be seen from a mile away, and Spike Lee's questionable morality jibe in the finale seems like a sensationalist afterthought. The morality tale came off as lazy and seemed indicative of weird subconscious prejudices Spike Lee has.
In short, the set up is pretty decent and the rest of the movie is professional and slightly above-average. The plot is ultimately typical bank heist fare, though presented with the intent of being a crime mystery/thriller. But a few offensive jokes/products/themes, phoned-in performances, and predictable characters keep it from being necessary viewing.
Xi yan (1993)
Good film flawed by convenient plot devices
Here Ang Lee makes a film about Chinese identity in the United States and the ostracized place of gay marriage in traditional Asian values. The centerpiece of the film is the wedding reception itself, showcasing a traditional Chinese/Taiwanese wedding between a secretly gay groom and his bride. This is an early-nineties film, so there are a lot of strange purple-ish values to the tones, and the fashions/costumes worn by some of the characters are rather amusingly dated.
The plot: Wai-Tung (Winston Chao) is a gay, first-generation American-Chinese living in Manhattan with his lover, Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein). Wai-Tung's parents seem to be of traditional Taiwanese stock and are pressuring their son to get married so he can hurry up and provide an heir for them. The problem is that Wai-Tung is an in-the-closet homosexual and is also their only child. At first they try to set him up on blind dates with Chinese girls, so he tells them he has a fiancée. So when they come to visit him, he attempts to hide his homosexuality and arranges a fake wedding with Wei-Wei, a financially troubled female tenant in a building he rents out.
The demeanor of the acts notably shift throughout the film. The movie starts out as a somewhat zany, light comedy and then segues into melancholy drama when the conservative Chinese parents test the rigors of the gay son's relationship. But I couldn't really understand Wai-Tung: what did he and Simon do for a living? Where did his (pre-marriage scheme) relationship with Wei-Wei develop from and how does he own her building? Some of this stuff was kinda... too convenient in my mind. But then again, maybe I just haven't seen the movie recently enough.
On the surface the film appears to be about gay culture contrasted against Chinese culture, but like a lot of Ang Lee films it is not about what it appears to be. And by this I do not mean his films have some extraordinary depth that we do not initially notice, but that they simply present capable stories within a variety of locales and aesthetics. The main reason I do not think it is realistically about gay/traditional Chinese culture is because of the ending. It feels like a Spielberg film script, and to some degree I believe Ang Lee is the Spielberg of Chinese-American cinema. The film is entertaining, but it has too many moments of unbelievable schmaltz or attempts at cheesy emotional affections.
Ang Lee does provide a nice window into Taiwanese culture abroad and raises questions about gay identity in contrast to traditional Asian values. To be honest, I have not seen too many films on the subject (and probably none which can be considered "mainstream") so for this I can give Ang Lee props. It is only really flawed by the convenience of plot details, which makes me suspect the conclusion was completely crafted fiction and not taken from experience or real life.
Lü cao di (2005)
A truck is valuable on the steppe...
'Mongolian Ping Pong' is an enjoyable film which tells the story of a young boy called Bilike, who finds a ping-pong ball in the river near his house. He lives on the Mongolian steppe, fairly secluded from industrial society, and his family and friends all have their own amusing opinions of what the ping-pong ball is or is used for.
As other viewers have mentioned, the film feels a lot like "The Gods Must Be Crazy" (and I would draw comparisons to the darker Icelandic film, "Noi the Albino") and contains the trademark flourishes of these documentary-ish steppe films. This means there are tons of drawn-out shots of the landscape, lots of time where nothing is happening or nothing is being said, and a lot of time traveling from location to location. This is interesting here because the elapsed time and expansive terrain lend the events of the story more gravity. Some of the drawn-out scenes are slightly monotonous, but without this lengthy pacing the same events would not be very significant.
Still, the characters and interactions prove to be endearing and this is one of the better "steppe films" I've seen (a haha, I've only seen three or so!). The themes involve the contrast of a nomadic life against a modern industrial one, materialism in the steppes, and the significance of family and hard work. There are some beautiful shots of the plains, mountains and deserts of Mongolia and we are treated to some charming segments with various locals. It is generally what some would call a "heart-warming family film" though the subtitles and slow pace would probably alienate most children.
The Hobbit (1977)
I don't hate the filthy Bagginses...
To date I think this is one of the best film renditions of a Tolkien project. It features beautiful line-drawn animation (although some of the faces are a little simple) and a good mix of folk music and fantasy elements. The music is minimalist but largely effective and was spoofed by South Park in an episode about the hamster, Lemmy-winks.
My high compliments go to the fact that Ralph Bashi, Orson Bean and company are quite inspired for this relatively low-budget project. Had certain story elements been left unabridged (there are a few moments where plot points are quickly summarized, such as in the Forest or with the absence of Baldur) and the elves been drawn more eloquently and been given nicer voices (they sound German?!) this would have definitely ranked higher.
This film is also higher-quality than the same group's later animation of "The Return of the King". The music in this one is far superior (harpsichord flourishes!) and paces much better. This is a fine kids' movie and is wonderfully complimented by the graphic novel of The Hobbit illustrated by David Wenzel. That comic is actually unabridged and features gorgeous watercolor paintings.
Pierrot le fou (1965)
A bizarre movie worth seeing under certain circumstances
I think Godard is one of the most overrated filmmakers of all time, and 'Pierrot Le Fou' has got to rank the same way in the echelons of film. But it has some pretty interesting stuff going on for it, even for an above-average casual viewer.
The problem is a lot of people go into a film like this and expect a typical plot and narration. A lot of Godard movies have no plot, and here it this is taken to the extreme. I mean, you can piece one together, but it's not particularly coherent or important to the characters and scenes. The plot here is off-screen almost the entire time, and we are subjected to a vast amount of improvised, random, and ridiculously cheesy, funny and pretentious scenes and exchanges between Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina.
This movie works for a party atmosphere, or if you are really, really good at making fun of movies. It was one of the first movies which attempted to interact with the audience instead of being a separate art subject. I don't know how successful it is at doing so, but there are a variety of scenes which are unbelievably amusing and in of themselves are fantastic clips.
If you go in expecting this film to be a typical film noir or something coherent and easy to follow, you will hate it. But if you know that it's going to be a long string of off-the-wall scenes that are at once funny, stupid, self-aware and amusing (and often translated poorly) then you might enjoy yourself.
Five out of ten, because it is both utterly awful and stupid and yet really, really entertaining and charming in retrospect. Just make sure you warn whoever you view it with!
Not someone I'd bring to dinner
'Scarface' is a strangely alluring movie. The film is held together by Al Pacino's charismatic performance, the ostentatious '80s design and sets, and a dirge-like synthesizer soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder. Al Pacino's portrayal is really wonderful, giving an extreme amount of depth to an emotional, desperate character and helps the film redefine and brutally modernize the crime genre.
Scarface chronicles the rise of Tony Montana, a Cuban criminal who immigrates to Miami in the early '80s and gradually attains influence in the drug trade. Tony's rise in the drug trade is interesting because it is the only avenue for his ambition. As a second-class citizen, an uneducated Cuban in 1980s America, Tony immediately realizes he will go nowhere working a 9-5 vending job. We watch him and his best friend work their way through gruesome early jobs and earn the respect of their coked-up drug boss. Of course, you can guess where the story goes since it has become so famous in modern film.
There is a distinct contrast between Pacino's role here and in the Godfather films. This film is long, but the pacing is fairly continuous. There's even a montage (gotta have a montage!) at the beginning of the second half of the film to cover a long span of time really quickly. At times the film can feel draining because the drawn-out dialogs are often about such greedy, shallow, or heated personal topics -- or they just descend into Tony's uncanny ability to curse up a storm. Especially in the second half of the film, when Tony's personal vendettas and passive-aggressive traits become exacerbated by substance abuse.
There are certainly a few twists in the plot, but they are somewhat predictable and simply have to do with Tony's bursts of anger. This is sometimes boring because the self-destructive nature of characters like Tony has been covered with greater depth by more succinct films ('Raging Bull', 'Aguirre: The Wrath of God'), so Scarface sometimes becomes something of an aesthetic experience. But then again, the aesthetics are so highly appealing: a flashy portrayal of Cuban subculture in early '80s Miami.
I'm not sure if this film is quite as focused as the later Pacino/De Palma movie, 'Carlito's Way'. That one has a better sense of narration and features characters who are less distant. It gets to the point more quickly. But Scarface is completely unique. Scarface places the whole American dream within a newly interpreted context. Tony comes to America and works his way to the top through the only path that is open to him. It changed crime films forever and did something totally new with the classic rags-to-riches tale. Influential, ultra-violent, and interestingly admired in modern pop-culture.
Spirited Away (or, How Sen Got Her Groove Back)
What is there to say about a film you give 10 stars? Only a few films fit the bill and this is one of them, featuring Miyazaki and his Ghibli crew at their very finest. Everything is in balance here, the Miyazaki-isms working at full charming blast. Spirited Away delves into a beautifully imagined world of mystical Shinto-like abstracts. It is a solid modern myth, with the spirit of folk-lore and fairy tales, the endearing, exploring nature found in RPG videogames, and the greatest tales of adventure and heroism.
Miyazaki has mentioned that he doesn't think young girls have enough good role models in the media and in response he fashions his characters as upstanding paragons of virtue. As others have mentioned, every single character, every little dust mite and creature is given a fleshed out personality in this film. Everything on the screen has full life breathed into it; the whole affair borders on being genuine sorcery.
And the pacing here is fantastic too. The film gradually unveils all the regions and character elements of Yubaba's mansion with appropriately shifting thematic events. Miyazaki's storyboard has the masterful crescendos and smooth resolutions of Kurosawa's finest moments -- a compliment not easily distributed. As such, the entire film is a breeze to sit through and you'll find yourself consistently curious as to what each scene will bring or how it will resolve itself. And the answer is always a delightful surprise.
This is supposedly the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan and is probably the most famous Japanese animated film to be released in North America besides "Akira". This is with good reason, although I've heard other viewers complain of the abstract qualities of the tale. But I find that the abstract elements neatly tie together without necessitating any hindsight critique.
Does that make sense to you? No? Too bad!
Majo no takkyûbin (1989)
Man, why does every Miyazaki movie have to make me cry? I don't even know if I like what I'm watching, it just makes me blubber. Well, better than the homicidal fear-mongering dealt out by "The Dark Knight," right? I thought so, haha!
As far as crafting movies for kids, Hayao Miyazaki is the unparalleled master. Duh! Making this kind of stuff is also not an easy task, as evidenced by the fact that so few decent kids' movies are made -- particularly ones that are entertaining, or at the very least painless, for adults to sit through.
But Miyazaki's films are almost... spiritually enriching. They can actually improve the moral fiber of your offspring. And you probably need all the help with them you can get, lolz! (Nah, if you're showing your kids Kiki's Delivery Service, you're awwwwright. *wink* )
My little sister used to watch Kiki's Delivery Service when she was really young, and I never saw it but just the smile it put on her face. Now I see it's a crying shame that Miyazaki's other stuff wasn't also in wide distribution back then. It's funny -- Kiki's Delivery Service doesn't even have a huge plot, a real villain, or a concise ending. But then it blows your mind.
Koroshi no rakuin (1967)
A film with panache. Capiche?
This movie is notable for its unusual deviation from the Yakuza/gangster format. Aesthetically it features tastefully lit sets, well-choreographed violence, and weird moments of goofball surrealism. The main characters walk an interesting line between cool and completely weird. Although, by the end they've gone way deep into the territory of being totally creepy.
The plot kinda hard to follow, but it's about this hombre, Jo, the No. 3 killer for the Yakuza, and how there is a competition for rank between the top killers which sometimes involves them being hired out against one another on jobs. On the side, Jo is a sex-maniac (with a sex-maniac wife) who is erotically infatuated with the smell of boiling rice and some dead-bug-collecting woman who is more goth than Wednesday Addams. That's about as concise of a "plot" as you get. Oh--and no one has ever seen the no. 1 "Phantom" killer, so clearly we're gonna be building up to that. Capiche? Hahaha....
Eventually the movie becomes a chore to watch. Some of the cuts between scenes are completely abrasive, a lot of "plot points" happen with no explanation or reason, and right when you think the movie is going to end it goes into another 20 or so minutes of a totally insane stand-off. Yeah, what plot does exist is sometimes abandoned for extended periods of time to show montages of sex-having. You heard me: montages of sex-having.
I thought some of the stuff during the appearance of the "Phantom" killer was pretty funny and the shoot-outs were really well executed and occasionally had a dark sense of humor, but that didn't save the draining quality of the pacing and editing. And really, I understand where the off-beat elements come from -- you can feel the director playing around, trying to enjoy himself in a genre that he's bored to tears with. Some of the film makes me wonder if it inspired some of Miike's more light-hearted moments, with the random jokes amidst fatal violence and the little surrealist vignettes that come out of nowhere.
It's worth a look, but it is a goofy self-conscious movie about film-noir, made with a late '60s panache. That's right, panache!
Batman & Robin (1997)
Let's write a serious review for a superhero movie!
The weird, goofy, offbeat moments of humor occasionally found in the prior film "Batman Forever" make up the entirety of this Batman's dialog and backdrop. It's certainly one of the weirder superhero action movies for its humorous angle. If someone had really good MST-3K dialog to put over this film it would be pretty entertaining. But as it stands, where you're left to make your own jokes about the movie, it's not very much fun.
The sad thing about this movie is that it had the potential to be a really entertaining high-budget "B" movie. It looks like that's what it was going for, considering the hokey script full of stupid one-liners and the ridiculous stunts that have no bearing whatsoever in reality. To that end it is kind of entertaining -- almost a throwback to the Adam West series and movie from the 1960s.
But Joel Schumacher and company chicken out of making real fun of themselves. Had this movie been made more in the vein of "Army of Darkness" it would've been much more appealing. Unfortunately, we get schmaltzy moments of affection between Alfred and his niece, Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone), a really unnecessary Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) and the unbelievably hilarious Mr. Freeze (Arnie). I swear, every line out of Freeze's mouth is so stupidly funny -- it makes you want to smoosh him. And casting George Clooney as Bruce Wayne/Batman is pretty nuts. It's like casting Chevy Chase or Frank Sinatra.
When watching this I really felt about it the way I did about the original 1966 Batman movie: I thought the filmmakers were on psychedelic drugs. Well, at least this one is impressively sub-par; this way it isn't entirely forgettable!
For real -- don't go in the attic!
I remember seeing previews for the Hellraiser movies when I was a kid and being scared by them then. Watching this movie by myself for the first time, I found it retains the frightening elements that stood out to me in the past. Hellraiser is equal parts spiritual/psychological/contemplative horror and gore. The highlights of the film are the Cenobites -- minions of hell and purveyors of sinister, dark pleasures beyond the threshold of mortal perception.
The movie begins with Frank, a guy on a mad quest for said dark pleasures beyond the human realm of perception, who purchases a strange box and naively summons the Cenobites to appear. Frank disappears and his brother, Larry and Larry's wife, Julia, inherit the house. Of course, the box is still present, Frank isn't quite dead in the typical sense, and hideous hi-jinks are bound to ensue.
Hellraiser set a benchmark when it came out, with a new standard of mainstream horror and gore. Several scenes had to be edited or cut out of the film to receive an appropriate "R" rating for theatrical release. But it is not merely a gore-fest, but features psychological and dark spiritual elements that are far more curious and horrifying than any of the violence. Indeed, merely these psychological elements would have been enough to scare the viewer, but combined with the excellent make-up and dusty atmosphere the movie becomes a very vivid, intoxicating experience.
My main qualm with the whole movie was how the film paced so slowly in the middle and focused so much on the family members, yet never really exposed very much about them. We don't see much about the dynamics or quality of the love triangle between Julia and Frank or Larry. We do understand how they are linked in theory, but it's so impersonally displayed -- they might as well be silhouettes. The same goes for Larry's daughter, Kristy, and her relationship with her stepmother.
This detracts from the movie because it is a fairly lengthy film (almost 2 hours) which takes place mostly in one dimly lit house. And though the demonic Cenobites (the lead one being the famous recurring 'Pinhead' character) are the notable centerpiece of the film, they appear sparingly -- though to great horrific effect when they do.
This is notable of the first Hellraiser film, the only one completely written and directed by Clive Barker: the Cenobites are not typical character villains, but horrific spiritual entities that lay beyond our sensory perceptions. Their ghoulish power exceeds mere evil; they are deep, authentic arbiters of the desire realm. In this sense, Hellraiser distinguishes itself from its contemporary horror films -- typical slashers, "torture porn" and suspense-horror. The Cenobites are not really villains because they are beyond human and have no hunger for victims. They answer and "assist" those who summon them, whether or not the summoning is intentional. In fact, the most disturbing facet of these characters is how mesmerizing and intriguing they are, how potently ugly they are, and how easily the viewer is pulled in while they're on the screen. That infatuation is genuinely scary.
The later films would fail to capitalize on this subtle-yet-sophisticated brand of horror and degenerate into average or above-average supernatural-slasher films. But the first one is fairly true to Clive Barker's literary vision and features amazing special effects. Even today the hideous, gory make-up and sinister creature designs are steps beyond anything else in film. This is a truly dark film, one which takes cues from H.P. Lovecraft and may have inspired the brilliant Japanese animation, "Berserk".
Big Momma's House (2000)
Big Momma's Funhouse
Martin Lawrence goes undercover in a suburb of Georgia as an overweight southern grandmother in "Big Momma's House". It's up there with "Black Knight" and "Blue Streak" as a ridiculous, predictable and stupid yet charmingly funny Martin Lawrence vehicle. Some of the dialog is almost non-sensical and seems to rely on Martin Lawrence's improvisational, uh... skills. Of course, why nobody recognizes that their friend/mother (Big Momma) is being impersonated horribly, I don't know. But that sort of adds to the movie I guess.
The story here doesn't matter that much. Really, it doesn't. Paul Giamatti plays the signature goofy white partner, who occasionally gets pushed around by the neighborhood locals to much comedic success (it is actually pretty funny, if predictable, like everything else here). Nia Long reprises her typical role as the love interest, and then a bunch of goofy physical stunts are taken from "Mrs. Doubtfire" and given a slightly different flair -- playing on southern black stereotypes (deep fried home cooking, going to church, etc.).
This movie is cheesy and ridiculous. I don't think you even need to watch the whole thing, nor watch it twice (though there is a sequel, and seeing that would basically be watching this movie twice). But for what it is, it's pretty goofy and entertaining.