Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Serious Man (Review)

     I may just be done with the Coen brothers after this.  I don't care how brilliant your symbolism is, poor story telling makes for an unenjoyable movie.  I may be being a bit harsh.  I'll give the Coen brothers this.  They do seem to be able to capture the essence of a person or people.  Perhaps if I knew more about Midwestern Jews in the 1960s I would have found parts of "A Serious Man" more interesting or amusing.  I did, after all, love "Raising Arizona," but, then again, I have a lot of experience with, shall we say, people who prefer to live in trailer houses.  That having been said, making a movie inaccessible to everyone but a specific group is also bad storytelling. 

     "A Serious Man" is the Coen brothers attempt to tell the biblical story of Job, in which, Satan contends that, to a man who has everything in life, like Job does, faith comes easily, so, to prove a point, God allows Satan to do all sorts of terrible things to Job, but Job's faith remains unshaken, so God gives him back everything he had, plus more.  In the Coen brothers version, a very sad and pathetic individual, has some bad things happen to him and he gives into temptation.  Along the way, there is a lot of symbolic imagery, including a tornado, and a lot of loose ends don't get tied up. (Also, I was bored for 105 minutes!)

     This wasn't all that bad of an idea for a film, but the story was executed very poorly.  It's impossible to feel anything for our main character, with the exception of maybe contempt.  Without empathy for the characters, you are simply left to sit in the dark watching sad, pathetic people fail miserably at life until the end, where they fail the final, biblically inspired, test.  (I understood the ending, the tornado is God, but that doesn't mean that I liked the ending, or any other part of it!)  People who are not familiar with the biblical story, or who fail to make the connection to it, will simply be bored by this movie and completely confused by the ending.  It's the job of the storyteller to make their story accessible to as many as possible, not just a few.  (Unless your goal is to make your movie inaccessible and pompous.)  Again, that's bad story telling. Just as surly as making a movie with nothing but overblown special effects and no plot makes for a poor movie, so does nailing the symbolism you are trying to get across, but failing to make any other part of the movie engaging.

     If your passions lie in picking a movie apart to find more and more layers of (what you think are) symbolic meaning so that others will marvel at your (apparent) perception, you'll love this one.  As for me, well, I know when, as an audience member, I'm not wanted.

Planet 51 (Review)

     I don't usually go to see CGI kids movies unless I think there is going to be something special about it.  I didn't know what to expect with "Planet 51."  It's the first offering from Madrid based Ilion Animation Studios.  I'm disappointed that it isn't anything too special, but I'm also pleased that it deviates from the typical  route taken by a lot of Hollywood's CGI 'extravaganzas.'  (Also pleased that it isn't unnecessarily 3-D!) 

     The story here is extremely stereotypical and well worn.  An alien lands in the 1950's.  Everyone is scared.  The military is mobilized.  Local kids help the alien, who is actually peaceful and just wants to get back home.  In the end, everyone learns a lesson about prejudice and the alien is allowed to leave.  The twist, which is no secret, is that the alien is a human astronaut landing on an alien planet.  That, and a pretty good time, is what kids can expect to get out of "Planet 51."  Adults, well, luckily, this film doesn't feature the usual, occasional off color joke to keep the parents paying attention.  It does, however, feature a lot of spoofs, parody, and in jokes, which I found to be a lot more entertaining than the usual schlock.  The entire movie is, basically, a parody of 1950's alien/horror movies, right down to the extremely 1950's look and feel of the town and aliens.  There's other humor as well, like a rover probe, sent in first by NASA, that is so obsessed with gathering rock samples that it completely misses an entire alien civilization and an alien dog, that looks like the aliens from the movie "Alien", named, Ripley.  Unfortunately, much of this is forced to take a back seat to the plot in the third act.  Happily, there is a story, plot, and character development.  Oh sure, I saw it all coming, but it managed to keep me interested. Voice talents include Dwayne Johnson, Jessica Biel, John Cleese, and Justin Long as the alien Lem.  (LEM, pronounced exactly the same way as they do in the movie, is also what NASA called the Lunar Excursion Module used during the moon landings.  I love nerd humor!)  Thankfully, Long acts, rather than attempting to inject his SNL persona into the film, like too many comedians tend to do in these types of movies.  Although, I wouldn't have minded if Cleese had injected a bit of Cleese into his part, but I can't blame the director for wanting to make a movie and not a vehicle for comedians. 

     "Planet 51" definitely isn't the next "Shrek," but I laughed a lot more than the kids in the audience did.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Big Chill (Review)

     "The Big Chill" is one of my favorite movies and tonight, I was feeling nostalgic.  I didn't even make popcorn.  I didn't want anything anything between me and the screen.

     "The Big Chill" is about seven old college friends, 60's radicals and revolutionaries all, who are brought back together to attend the funeral of one of their own, who committed suicide for, seemingly, no reason.  They all spend the weekend together, remembering old times, catching up on where they are now, wondering how they got there, testing the bonds of their friendship, and wondering if those times, not so long ago, were really as deep and meaningful as they seemed or as shallow and naive as they now appear. 

     That doesn't sound like much of a plot, I know, but "The Big Chill" is an extraordinarily well written and well acted psychological analysis of the Woodstock generation and their seemingly inexplicable transformation into the yuppies of the 1980s.  It mixes subtle humor with dark subject matter and creates a web of complex and dynamic relationships that feels as genuine and natural as life its self.  (Real friends and relationships.  Not the kind on Twitter and Facebook.)  Add to that a talented, ensemble cast, (Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, Kevin Kline, William Hurt, Tom Berenger, Mary Kay Place, JoBeth Williams, and a young Meg Tilly) and an incredible soundtrack of 60's classics and you've got a cult hit that gets deeper and ever more meaningful with each viewing. 

     "The Big Chill" isn't for everyone.  There are no explosions or special effects.  The humor is subdued and mixed with emotional subtext.  The details of each characters relationships to one another unfold slowly and are revealed in meaningful glances and quick comments that only close friends would understand.  This film is an exceptionally well portrayed slice of life.  In the end, people have grown or changed or have begun to heal longstanding and painful issues in their lives.  We get to see the 60's through the cynical eyes of the 80's and regain a bit of of the 'lost hope' from that rose colored, bygone era.

Amelia (Review)

     The main problem with true stories or biographical films is that you are limited to what actually happened.  Embellish too much and your story can be unbelievable or cliche.  Stick to the facts and you risk being dry and sounding like a textbook.  "Amelia" leans slightly toward the dry side yet manages to be a not unenjoyably portrait of a unique woman and how she lived a unique life.

     "Amelia" is, of course, the story of legendary pilot Amelia EarhartHilary Swank plays Earhart and Richard Gere plays here husband and publicist George Putnam.  The movie begins, more or less, with their meeting and is, really, more the story of their life together, mainly from Earhart's point of view, making this less a full fledged biography and more a tragic love story. 

     Swank and Gere's performances are believable enough, but there really isn't anything special about either.  The story is, as far as I know, historically accurate, but there really isn't any tension and not nearly enough emotion.  This is the life of an American hero, a truly unique and special woman who inspired generations of women to pursue their dreams and believe in themselves, a woman who refused to live by the rules of a society that told her she couldn't, or shouldn't even try, to be whatever she wanted to be, and it has all the feeling of a made for T.V. movie.

     "Amelia" isn't not worth seeing, but it also isn't likely to inspire any future generations.


     While standing in line to see "Titanic," which I was tricked into seeing, I upset a few of people by repeatedly saying, 'In the end, the boat sinks.'  (Sad, really.)  So, on that note, she doesn't quite make it all the way around.  Sorry if I spoiled it for you.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Box (Review)

     I have never seen any of Richard Kelly's other movies and I am not that familiar with the play "No Exit," however, I am very doubtful that my enjoyment of "The Box" will increase any if I were better versed in these works.  I understand stories that are supposed to raise moral and metaphysical questions and make you ponder these types of things for yourself rather than making conclusions for you, however, "The Box" fails to do either. 

     "The Box" stars Cameron Diaz and James Marsden as a couple who get presented with a choice; they can press a button on a box and they will get a million dollars and someone they don't know, will die, or, they don't press the button and well, this eventuality isn't discussed, but you are meant to assume that nothing will happen.  This choice is presented to them by a mysterious and deformed man played by Frank Langella.  From there, the movie devolves into a messy mix of conspiracy/mystery movie and not quite metaphysical and almost science fiction story that tries very hard to leave you wondering about the fate of humanity and the if we deserve to live on as a species, but ultimately fails to raise any questions. 

     "The Box" fails on many levels.  With the exception of Langella, the acting is really not very good.  Saddling the main characters with vaguely southern accents was not the best of ideas.  The directing isn't bad, but the movie does seem to become lost in its self in the middle, then there are far too many revelations about this mysterious force that's controlling everything, and, from there, the ending is very slow to come and doesn't really leave you with any questions to ponder, except, if the people pushing the button don't really believe that anything will happen when they push it, is it really a test of humanity's altruism?  This might have been a better story if it had been left to the realm of the metaphysical by telling us nothing about the force behind everything, but the suggestion of alien intervention really throws the whole thing into an almost cheesy science fiction area that really doesn't work.  One family's personal Hell, I could work with, but a succession of people being controlled by less than perfect aliens doesn't really make me ponder humanity's inherent worth.  Perhaps if they had left the alien connection for the very end, and shortened the whole thing to ninety minutes, it might have made for a better mystery, but once the Mars judges humanity reference comes out, the mystery is completely deflated and we are left with aliens judging humanity, one case at a time, with rather flawed methods.  Even the threat that humanity might not pass the test, as a lingering question, is defused by the fact that the movie takes place in 1976, so either the aliens are taking their sweet time about judging humanity's worth, or we were deemed worthy at some point in the last thirty-three years and no one bothered to mention it to us. 

     "The Box"  is long and tedious, its secrets are shallow and obvious, and the only thing it leaves one to ponder is, "Why didn't I believe the critics on this one?"  If you can, personally, find some meaning in "The Box," I'm happy for you, but please realize that that meaning is purely a personal one and nothing that is inherently suggested.  (That or you are just claiming to find meaning where there is none because you like to make people think that you are smarter than you actually are.  Sorry if that sounds bitter, but I was really disappointed.)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Dead Alive or Braindead (Review)

     I'm always looking for new, or new to me, zombie movies, so my Netflix queue is ripe with potentially disappointing, less than B-movie grade, suck fests.  I had slightly higher hopes, however, for one of Peter 'Nerd of the Rings' Jackson's early works, "Braindead" or "Dead Alive," as it is known in the US, and I was actually surprised at how bad a lot of this movie wasn't, and very surprised at how bad other parts were.

     Written and directed by Peter Jackson, "Dead Alive" is a lot of plot and the goriest, bloodiest, and sickest ending I have ever seen.  After watching this movie, I sincerely hope that Peter Jackson has since gotten some serious, psychiatric help. 

     "Dead Alive" is about a timid man, living with his (s)mother.  The mother gets bitten by the worst special effect in the entire movie, a stop motion, cursed, Sumatran rat-monkey, and she slowly degraded into an undead, zombie like creature.  She then kills her nurse and turns her into a zombie as well, and we are halfway through the movie with very little action and almost no zombies.  Another quarter of the way in, and we have three more zombies and an hint of the twisted depravity to come in the form of a newly born zombie baby, which is the product of zombie 'love.'  (Really Mr. Jackson, really?)  The last quarter is a non stop blood bath with unspeakable atrocities being committed upon zombie and human alike.

     Now, don't get me wrong.  I'm not opposed to a good blood bath, and I understand that we are not supposed to be taking this movie seriously.  Any time that a zombie's intestinal tract spills out on the bathroom floor, and then begins to pursue the main character, taking on a distinct, zombie persona of its own, I realize that this is not a serious horror movie.  The problem that I had with "Dead Alive," however, was that it seemed like every single kill, of any type, had to be unique.  The entire last quarter of this movie was almost like a neglected child, crying out for attention, and when he does not get any, he commits ever increasingly, disturbing acts in the hope that, surely, they won't be able to ignore this or, even worse, like there is no one there to control Peter Jackson's imagination and he is feeding on himself, trying to outdo every kill with the next kill, with no limit to just how depraved it might become.  There is no one to say, "Hey, maybe we shouldn't have the zombie explode and liquefy as it hits the ground" or "Hey, maybe they shouldn't keep kicking the upper half of that guy's head around" or even, "Hey, maybe we don't need to shred zombies in a lawnmower."  Once again, normally, I wouldn't have a problem with any one, or even some of what happens in the last quarter of "Dead Alive," however, with each zombie kill more gruesome and bloody than the previous ones, it rapidly reached a point where I had had enough, and Peter Jackson, it seems, was just getting warmed up.

     On a more positive note, I do have to give Mr. Jackson credit where credit is due.  For an extremely low budget, campy, gore-fest, the story is better than it should be, the characters are better than they should be, and the special effects, while completely disgusting, are better and more realistic than B-movies with much larger budgets.  Peter Jackson is a talented movie maker, and it shows in this early work.  (He's also one sick puppy.)

     Fans of disgusting splatter-fests and gore will want to see "Dead Alive" again and again.  Everyone else, I'd suggest you just skip it, or self medicate first.  (Don't do drugs, kids, and don't watch "Dead Alive.")

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats (Review)

     I've wanted to see "The Men Who Stare at Goats" ever since I saw Jon Ronson's interview on "The Colbert Report," although I could have sworn it was "The Daily Show."  (I LOVE YOU SARAH VOWELL!!!)

     "The Men Who Stare at Goats" is an odd, little dark comedy, about a secret Army program in the 1980's called project Jedi that tried to create psychic warrior monks who could prevent wars with the power of their minds.  Did I mention that this is supposed to based, at least in part, on real events?

     Ewan McGregor plays Bob Wilton, a recently jilted reporter who goes to Iraq to prove himself.  There he meets George Clooney, who plays Lyn Cassady, retired Jedi warrior.  Together, the two embark on a journey of self discovery and redemption that, in many ways, mirrors the Star Wars movies.  (And they borrowed heavily from Shakespeare, like everything else does.)

     There is a lot of subtle humor along the way, and some not so subtle, along with just enough drama to develop the characters and move the story along.  "The Men Who Stare at Goats" isn't going to win a Best Comedy Oscar (and not just because there isn't one), but it is an amusing film that fans of dark, subtle humor will enjoy.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Fourth Kind (Review)

     I attended a matinee showing of "The Fourth Kind" because I didn't want to risk paying the full night/weekend ticket price on what might be a less than stellar movie.  I still paid too much.  I want my money, and that hour and a half of my life, back.

     "The Fourth Kind" is Hollywood's (failed) attempt to make a 'found footage' movie.  It's a mix of movie footage and so called 'real' archival footage.  I actually thought that this technique would have made "Paranormal Activity" a much better movie, and it might have.  "The Fourth Kind", however, only manages to make the entire movie seem completely unreal by constantly trying to convince you that it is real.

     The movie begins with Milla Jovovich breaking the fourth wall and lying to the audience by telling them that the archival footage in the movie is real.  It quickly becomes apparent that it is not.  Jovovich plays Dr. Abbey Tyler,(who is not a real person, despite what faked web sites tell you,) a psychologist in Alaska, who is continuing her late husband's work with people having sleep problems.  She quickly stumbles into the possibility that these people are being abducted by aliens.  Under hypnosis, her patients discover the truth of what is happening and begin to go nuts.  This is where the movie lost me.  We are treated to, so called, actual dashboard camera footage of a standoff in a house where one of these abductees is holding his family hostage.  In poorly shot, grainy footage, we see him shoot his wife, both children, who are across the room, and himself, in a matter of seconds, and the police don't manage to fire a single shot.  If this had actually happened, it would have been all over the news.  The cable news outlets would have been giddy over actual footage of someone killing three other people and himself.  Of course, this didn't really happen, but the movie is so incredibly persistent in trying to convince you that it did all actually happen, that one simply loses the ability to suspend disbelief.  We are continually treated to split screens of movie footage and 'real' footage, audio tape recordings where the actors and the tape are heard almost simultaneously, and barely audible, subtitled audio, all in an attempt to get you to believe that it's all real.  "The Fourth Kind" beats you over the head with with it's attempt to make you believe that the found footage is real but it only manages to destroy any illusion of reality that might normally be created by a movie.  The acting is poor, the direction is poor, the story goes nowhere, the characters are unbelievable, and the plot is based entirely on you believing that what you are seeing is, somehow, actual reality.  On top of that, there is nothing actually scary about anything that happens in this movie.  The 'taped' evidence is not scary.  There is no tension.  When something happens on tape that might be frightening, the tape, conveniently, goes out.  Of course, they even fail at the tried and true method of, what you don't see is scarier than what you do see, by actually showing you a bit of something completely unbelievable as the tape is flickering in and out.  They show you just enough so you can't believe what's happening, but not enough to actually create any fright.

     The only way this movie is scary is if you actually believe that aliens really are abducting people, nightly, all over the world, and everyone, except for a handful of people in Nome, Alaska, are blissfully unaware.  If you believe that, then this film might actually frighten you, (and you might actually frighten me,) otherwise, it's an hour and a half of bad movie making and oversell of a poorly thought out concept.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

時をかける少女 or Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo or The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Review)

     When I saw "Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo" on Netflix, I thought it sounded like a a fairly original idea and was curious to see a Japanese perspective on time travel.  I discovered later (five minutes ago) that this is actually, only the newest incarnation of an old story in Japan.  The original dates back to 1965, according to The Boston Globe.1  (Actually, I learned that from Wikipedia, but I refuse to quote them as a credible source.)

     "Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo" is an almost tragic love story/coming of age tale, about an ordinary, maybe 15 year old, girl, Makoto Konno, voiced by Riisa Naka, who accidentally acquires the ability to, quite literally, jump through time.  (I'm surprised she didn't get a concussion from all the rough landings.)  Predictability, she uses the new found power to improve her own life, redoing each small embarrassment over and over until it come out well, and discovers, again, predictability, that her actions may have unintended consequences.

     While the setup may be cliche, where they go with it is not.  I absolutely hate domestic romance flicks.  They are all identical in the third act, leading up to what is really only the beginning of the story, and they all end in a huge romantic gesture and passionate kiss that, if you actually stop to think about it, is likely to be the start of a terrible relationship.  Thankfully, "Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo" doesn't go there.  It's more like one of my favorite films, "Roman Holiday."  Sure, they have a good time for a day, but in the end, it can never happen.  Well, maybe it can happen for these kids, but that's for the future, quite literally, and maybe a sequel.

     "Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo" has a great story, great development of characters, a surprise near the end that I would have never seen coming, is voiced very well, and, like most Japanese animated movies, is beautiful to look at.  It also seems to put a new twist on this old, Japanese tale.  From what I can tell, which isn't much, I don't think that the girl in these stories was ever as strong a character as Makoto is in this version. I could be wrong though. 

     Anime fans (the ones who like to read their anime, anyway) will enjoy this modern update of "Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo" and so will anyone who enjoys a well done, if a bit fanciful, coming of age tale. 


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Død snø Or Dead Snow (Review)

      I will apologize now if my objectivity on this review is not as objective as it should be, however, I LOVE zombie movies, and I saw "Dead Snow" on Halloween, at the Alamo Drafthouse; the experience could have not been better.

     "Dead Snow" is a Norwegian, Nazi zombie movie (that should be all the review you need!) and an instant classic for the dark comedy/horror genre.  The premise is simple and familiar; (even the people in the movie recognize it) a group of young, med students are on a ski trip to a remote mountain cabin where there is no cell phone signal or any other means of communication, they had to hike forty-five minutes to get there, and, the only other person they see is a random, old man of the mountain, who shows up for no purpose other than to educate the vacationers, and the audience, of an evil presence on the mountain, in the form of Nazis, who fled to the mountain with their stolen gold and were never seen again.  Some fun in the snow, drinking, and sex follows, and then our vacationing med students are besieged by hordes of Nazi zombies and the gore fest begins! 

     "Dead Snow" is extremely self aware, making fun of its self when it begins to become too serious or cliche.  It mixes dark humor, gruesome death by zombie, and horror movie stereotype in a way that is very reminiscent or "Evil Dead II."  While the crowd I was watching with, a sold out showing for the final movie in the Alamo Drafthouse's, Dismember the Alamo film festival, was obviously, like myself, biased and inclined to enjoy this movie, I still feel it is worth mentioning that multiple times during the movie, we broke out in applause at the creative gore, unique zombies kills, and the absolutely righteous mass slaughtering of Nazi zombies.

     I hate to give away too much of a good movie, but I would like to mention (entice you with) some vague details, like the fact that a Nazi zombie's intestine can support the weight of a person, and a higher ranked Nazi zombie, while they are both dangling off a cliff, the fact that I have never seen more intestine in any movie, ever, the fact that, at one point, someone's brains landed on the floor, and the fact that this movie contains, hands down, the funniest, self amputation scene that I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing.

     I find it very difficult to actually review "Dead Snow."  I think about this movie and I just smile and wish I could see it again, and again, and again.  (Sometimes I start to giggle a bit too.)  It is pure gory fun.  One of those rare gory, scary, and yet funny movies that just seems to get everything right.

True, "Dead Snow" is not for everyone.  It does take a special (that boy ain't right) individual to like this kind of movie, but if you liked the Evil Dead movies, you will absolutely love "Dead Snow."

     P.S.  Ok, so I didn't answer the main question for any zombie movie.  Slow moving, Romero-esque, living dead, zombies or fast moving, virus infected, not really dead, zombies?  Neither.  These zombies are obviously dead, they move as quickly as a living Nazi, but there is no explanation for how they became zombies other than, they were the really evil Nazis, and they want all their stolen Nazi gold back. It all sounds so ridiculous when you say it out loud, but, when you are in the theater, watching it unfold, it's pure Nazi zombie magic.