Wednesday, February 29, 2012

3 short paragraphs: Love and Other Drugs

2011, Edward Zwick -- Netflix

I like a good chick flick, or a good romantic comedy.  No they're not the same thing.  Chick flicks tend to be overly sentimental and are conceived and marketed with a female audience solely in mind.  Romantic comedies are just that, romantic and comedic.  Where the chick flick tends to be marked with a level of fantasy and unreality, the romantic comedy tries to stay grounded in reality, if not always logic or emotions.  Love and Other Drugs is largely a romantic comedy with a dash of chick flick, and it makes for an interesting, if not altogether successful, concoction.

Set in late-1990s Pittsburgh, Jake Gyllenhaal is a hyper-sexual quasi-loser who lands in a career as a pharmaceutical salesman for (extreme product placement) Phizer.  During his pitching process at doctors offices he has the antithesis of the meet-cute with Anne Hathaway, here playing an artist coping with the onset of Parkinson's disease.  After a relentless chase the two hook up, but it's Hathaway who maintains her cool, keeps her distance, and Gyllenhaal is put on the chase.  Cue frequent nudity, oddly tasteful and never leering.  Hathaway has been burned in the past, while Gyllenhaal has never opened up, and as the two start spending actual quality time together, they form a bond, one that's threatened by the usual tropes of miscommunication, but mostly stemming from Hathaway's concerns about her own future, sparing herself the inevitable heartbreak.

While the film follows many of the conventions of the romcom, complete with the big break-up and the inevitable reunion (preceded by the "race against time" sequence, which here wasn't any sort of race at all), it still fleshes its characters and their motivations out in a more thorough manner.  There's not a lot of ancillary characters gumming up the works here, though somehow the film is still overlong at 112 minutes.  Gyllenhaal and Hathaway, reuniting on screen for a second time (last time Hathaway played Gyllenhaals beard in Brokeback Mountain), have a tremendous amount of chemistry.  Their passion is as believable as their warmth and compassion for one another.  Hathaway sells the onset of the disease mostly with subtlety, while Gyllenhaal's coming-of-age story progresses in obvious, but satisfying ways.  It's not perfect, and the Phizer plugs get egregious, but otherwise the story pulls together well.  It's a nice time.

(note: in choosing the poster image, I was amazed to discover that they really only went with one poster design for all the marketing of this film... kind of shocking actually)

3 short paragraphs: Cargo

2009, Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter -- Netflix

Cargo is a recent entry in the "quiet space thriller" genre and a part of the climb of Deutscheland cinema out of the art-school ghetto and into populist entertainment.  Its story is a slow-burning sci-fi set about 250 years in the future.  The Earth has been relatively vacated, deemed uninhabitable, while most of the remaining population lives aboard industrial city satellites, orbiting the planet.  There's a sense of a status quo, office jobs and the like, but also of tremendous poverty.  The bright hope is RHEA, the "new Earth", but only for the rich, and the lucky who win the lottery.  There are lengthy multi-year export missions that transport cargo to gateway space stations being built along the path to RHEA, during which only one crew member is active at a time, the rest hibernating in a stasis pod of sorts.  The only real threat to the mission is mechanical failure or sabatoge, as an extremist group called the Luddites try to convince the offworlders that Earth is inhabitable again and that an organic lifestyle is preferable to a caged one.

The film's central figure is a doctor looking to earn enough to make her way to her sister on RHEA.  It's mid-way through her cargo ships' 8-year voyage, whilst she's on duty, that things start going wrong.  Upon investigating she discovers many things going wrong with the ship and awakens the rest of the crew.  But suspected sabotage is not the only thing amiss on this ship, as the doctor discerns that their mission isn't exactly what it appears to be.

Like Pandorum which I wrote about a few weeks back, films like these live in the shadows of the classic claustrophobic space films like 2001, Solaris, and Alien.  Cargo sticks more to the sci-fi elements, rejecting almost any sense of the fantastical, more Silent Running, less Mission to Mars.  It sticks to its dirty, gritty, tired, run-down aesthetic and show a crew of people who have all but abandoned hope for humanity.  The only bright spot is RHEA, but it's so far out of reach for almost everyone that it acts more as an insult than a dream or aspiration.  Its foundation is the grim future of humanity if one takes the extremist leaps of global warming and the like, but its hope, though minute, is that there's a strong enough desire to recoup what we've lost.  It's a more dire, far less whimsical version of WALL-E in this regard, but equally finds its own distractions in its mystery to not be so overtly a message movie.  The effects are largely acceptable, though never exceptional, and the sets are effective, if underwhelming, but fitting for the tone of the picture.   Not an original story by any means, but well told and well put together to be engaging viewing for fans of the genre.  Otherwise, Cargo is likely too dull and lifeless (and subtitled) for the layman.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: White Christmas

1954, Michael Curtiz (Angels With Dirty Faces, Casablanca) -- download

Remember when I was attempting to do a 31 Days of Xmas?  There are still a few that I did watch, in my queue, that I will review purely on their merit of worth-watching.  We had intended on watching a good handful of the classics, some in our own collection and some that we have caught here and there over years of TV watching.  Too bad I cannot say I have seen anything but It's A Wonderful Life on the big screen.  We should see more older movies on bigger screens as it gives you a wonderful presentation of what life was like when they put their all into a film production, including the film stock.

So, White Christmas is the one I always wanted to see for the first time.  I always mix it up with Holiday Inn and with good reason.  It was originally intended to be another reuniting of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, who had done Holiday Inn and Blue Skies together previously.  Fred said no, so they ended up with Danny Kaye.  The title song White Christmas was also previously used in Holiday Inn which goes to show that Hollywood catering to it's audiences happened in the "good old days" as well. I only mixed up the movies because of the set pieces used in each: a sing & dancing duo, an inn in a rural snowy state and mixed up love stories.  Surprisingly the plots are not whatsoever similar.

So, Bing and Danny Kaye are old army buddies, who start the movie doing a musical number for the guys in their company. Later, after the war they try their hand at a musical act and are an unqualified success.  Fast track to them being big-time Broadway producers.  We get to know them and their somewhat lonely life through a great round of dialogue between shows, this is sparkling dialogue that I don't often associate with movies from the 40s or 50s, crisp and chuckle worthy.  It continues as Danny Kaye manipulates his buddy into falling for a girl in order to get into her sister's knickers.  The two couple play off each other being drawn together again at the failing inn in Vermont, that turns out to be run by their old general from the war. The rest of the movie has the big-time producers putting on an Xmas eve show to benefit the general with all the songs popping up, very appropriately for me as I normally hate the spontaneous songs of musicals, as they develop the show. It ends with the song being sung again and the unseasonal green Vermont winter is replaced by heavy snowfall, which will attract skiers and save the Inn. Very charming movie!

Sunday, February 26, 2012


2011, Gore Verbinski -- Netflix

It seems that ever since Toy Story theatres and home video have been flooded with digitally animated movies, and in almost every case, if it's not a Pixar film, the films have to work extra hard at drawing any serious attention to themselves.  Box office is one thing, where Shrek, Ice Age, and Kung Fu Panda seem to do quite all right for themselves, but critical acclaim and any sort of recognition for going beyond toilet and body humour seems fleeting.  What Pixar set the standard for was not just the craft of digital animation, but world building, character development and storytelling that seems geared for adults while still appealing to children, rather than the other way around.  Pixar, and most of their creative team, realize that sometimes adults have a hard time letting go of "reality" and that animation is an effective way to bring out the inner child, to experience a sense of awe, wonder, and discovery again.  Most other digital animation houses are more concerned about bankroll, cashing in off the child demographic, abandoning good, character-driven storytelling for an easy punchline.  It's to the point that if it doesn't say Pixar, then I'm generally not interested.  Which is why I skipped Rango upon its arrival in theatres.

Well, that and my kid didn't seem to express much of an interest in seeing it.  Until months later.  Thankfully it had arrived on Netflix in a surprisingly quick turnaround.  I was sold almost immediately. The film opens with a gecko, voiced by Johnny Depp, reciting a play with a headless Barbi torso, a toy fish, and a dead cockroach as his costars inside his small terrarium, currently in mid-transport in the back of a station wagon.  A moment of agitation on the highway is all it takes, and in a beautifully executed slow-motion sequence, the gecko's entire life is shattered on the road.  What results is the search for not only a new life, but a new identity.  Christening himself Rango, he comes into a small desert town whose water supply is fading, with the town following behind it.  With an egregious land baron, a family of thieving moles, and plenty of trouble, Rango accidentally talks and walks (or stumbles) his way into the role of sheriff of the town.  Of course, he's ill equipped for the role, and things continually get worse for him.

With inspiration from Don Quixote, countless westerns, and Chinatown, Rango is a rich film, story wise, centered by a character who has lived his entire life in isolation, with television and film as his only guide towards understanding others (as well as nature).  It is largely a classically-styled western, with drinking, smoking, violence and all the expected scenery and tropes cropping up throughout.  It caused a bit of a fuss upon initial release because it doesn't really hold back from the genre's trappings, but in some respects the western in the 40's and 50's was seen as a kid's genre, despite all the gunplay and booze.  If it's deemed a kids movie at all, it should be done so with that consideration.

Of every film I've seen directed by him, I've acknowledged Verbinski's wonderful visual sensibility.  He has long had an innovative style, with a great understanding of color, shadow, composition, movement, and the like.  I wonder if the extensive use of CGI in the Pirates of the Caribbean films prepared him for directing a full-on animated picture, because it's wonderful to watch.  There are many dreamlike sequences throughout the film, but each has their own texture, their own level of reality.  Rango's fever dream in the desert is drastically different than his dreamlike encounter with the Spirit of the West.  In this and many other respects it's quite handily Verbinski's best film (and an Oscar worthy one to boot), and of all the non-Pixar animated films of the past 15 or so years, I would say this is the best of them, though it still doesn't approach storytelling from the same direction.

Friday, February 17, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: Colombiana

2011, Olivier Megaton (Transporter 3) -- download

And then there is the movie about a killer where they don't even try to make you sympathize with her but expect you to nonetheless.  Colombiana is a sexy, slick revenge flick with an even skinnier Zoe Saldana as Cataleya, a hired killer who learned the skill so she could someday kill the men who killed her family.  Sounds like something sympathetic, right?  No, because her father was in the employ of a drug lord in Bogota.  Sure, nobody deserves to have their family murdered in front of them but, y'know, you lie down with dogs... Anywayz, she gets away, smuggles herself to the US to hookup with her uncle, a hitman and fixer.  Nice family you have there Cataleya.  She gives her uncle no choice but to train her to become a killer, all so she can take vengeance at a later date.  The problem with such dramatic choices is that the target might just die while you are growing up and learning the needed skills.  "Oh dear, Drug Lord was killed in a battle with another drug lord, guess I will stop learning how to be an assassin and work at the local UPS store."

Anywayz, Drug Lord doesn't die early and Cataleya (I just like saying her name in my head every time I type it) becomes a slinky, sexy killer in a catsuit.  I admit, watching her sneak into the police station in the ultra controlled fashion made me forgive the fact she is so skinny she wouldn't have the muscle mass to perform said actions.  It was sexy.  This is the first kill we see and actually not one for hire. She has been slowly killing off anyone involved with her family's murder (they are all in the US now) and leaving a trademark sign of a cataleya flower.  The FBI are hunting her and her uncle is pissed she is doing pro bono work.

Cataleya never really comes sympathetic.  Sexy to the nines but never really a likeable character.  I guess it's all about audience.  Intended viewers just want to see her slink around in her underwear, shoot bad guys between the eyes and have sex without emotional ties.  Now given that this is probably the Luc Besson / Robert Mark Kamen dregs from their failed attempt to bring Mathilda (Leon sequel) to the screen, I should like it more.  Why do I find the idea of a grown up Natalie Portman character becoming an assassin like her pseudo-uncle much more than this vehicle?  I guess because the whole Leon story is about the tragic nature of what the little girl experiences and that as the plot of a sequel would be even more tragic.  In this we are supposed to ignore sympathies and just enjoy her killer actions.  Stylishly, I did.  Plot-wise, I didn't.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: Killer Elite

2011, Gary McKendry -- download

This was not the movie I expected it to be from the trailers.  In those trailers I saw another Statham staple, a guns and kungfu extravaganza with humor and weird characters. Clive Owen's mustache was the expected weird character.  What I didn't know is that it took place in the 80s, explaining the cheesy stache.  Also, it was more of a political thriller than a kungfu-y romp.  Even the guns were not as prevalent as I expected.  It was deceivingly thoughtful even if the politics of the piece took more of a backdrop to the killer vs killer focus.

So, we have Statham and DeNiro as hired guns, maybe "company men" but more likely just freelancers. Statham has a change of heart after shooting a father in front of his child and decides to retire, much to DeNiro's chagrin.  He returns to rural Australia to reconnect with a farmer's field and Chuck's girlfriend (Yvonne Strahovski) but is immediately dragged back into the fray via a shaikh who has kidnapped DeNiro and wants to force Statham to assassinate a bunch of SAS soldiers who killed his sons during the Dhofar Rebellion in Oman.  Deep breath.  That is the background to a story of scheduled hits, foul ups and retribution.  The political aspect of a bunch of ex-SAS power brokers from the Dhofar Rebellion, calling themselves the Feather Men, is disappointingly downplayed to up-play the fights between Owen and Statham.

The movie is shot with a dirty, grungy sensibility like I view all euro movies from the 70s and 80s.  The characters are rough and mean and tough.  Their actions are uncouth, not a single 007 tux wearing killer elite in the bunch. Dominic Purcell's Davies is lifted completely from his Prison Break persona into a vivid sod of a killer referred to as The Welshman but making me think of a drunken Newfoundlander with his constant references to "me son".  Owen is himself, cool and controlled but scary in his anger.  Of course, who else would Statham be but himself or nobody would see the movie.  It solidifies that these are not nice guys, not the ones to root for and that their lives are most deservedly shortened.

3 Short Paragraphs: Haywire

2011, Steven Soderbergh (Contagion, the Ocean's movies, Traffic) -- cinema

When I walked out of the theatre I mentioned, "I always like compact movies." I wasn't just referring to the shoebox cinema I was just in but the nature of the movie.  To me, a compact movie has a very tight focus and doesn't stray from it with multiple plotlines, a big cast and flashy scenes.  The story is all we need to see. For example, in this movie, she is an agent working for a security company, a specialist security company that does spy-like work.  She is betrayed. She seeks revenge.  That is it. But it's more than enough.

Mallory is not the killer whose moral values I normally wrestle with in these killer movies.  I have a couple more to relate in the next few days, so you will be reminded of what I mean.  You can also peek back at the blurbs on The Baker, Knight and Day, and Killers should you be interested.  But in this one, we know she has the skills to be an assassin for hire but we get the impression that is not the job she choses.  The first we see her perform is a rescue and the next she is assigned is a baby-sitting job... protection?  Once the betrayal ballet is in full performance, we see she is more than capable of such jobs.

Mallory is played by Gina Carano, highlighted for her mixed martial arts career but probably more remembered for being an American Gladiator.  Thus she is familiar with hurting people with her body and it lends itself to the very tight, very compact, combat sequences. She is not a Jason Bourne superhero but uses the same moves over and over to disable as quickly as she can. Her hits have weight and power. They crunch. They make us cringe. But she is not perfect. When we see her race across rooftops in Dublin, we don't see amazing escapades of parkour but just a very-much-in-shape person climbing and jumping and not always making the best decision. That she is human, that she loves her dad (yay, Bill Paxton!) and that she makes sure her inadvertent hostage gets a new car makes us like this killer.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: Unstoppable

2010, Tony Scott (DejaVuDominoMan on Fire) -- Netflix

It's funny but when most people think of Tony Scott, the other Scott brother, they  think of his post-Man on Fire days, the distinct saturation factor and ... well, Denzel Washington.  But think back a little further and you will see a lot of the staples of the 80s and 90s, like True RomanceThe Last Boy Scout and The Hunger. I would say his brother is known for the bigger films, the flashier films, like Gladiator or Black Hawk Down but Tony has been doing a lot more work over the long period.

This one's another Denzel vehicle but not a cop story. This time it's a working man hero thriller. You wouldn't think such a plot would allow for the signature Scott look, the cut scenes, grainy angle and saturated excitement and the pulse pounding tension.  But it does, with the speeding train taking on the role of the antagonist that he can dose with his visual cues.  So, the movie is not so much the train wreck it could have been, hyuck hyuck hyuck. Besides, as the poster shows, there is ACTION, like trains crashing into cars and people running on top of them and others JUMPING ON TO THEM. I have a feeling that poster is from the Quebec DVD box.

So, really, the plot is basically this: two doofuses (is Ethan Suplee doomed to idiot roles post-My Name is Earl ??) let a train get away from them. Not such a bad idea, or they wouldn't have hopped off while it was moving, but they left the throttle increasing and well, there is a nasty explosive chemical in some of the cars.  Thus begins a story how a seasoned veteren (do I have to tell you it's Denzel?) of driving trains from one yard to another, between actual use, matches wits with the brave & plucky union guy (Chris Pine) as well as the corporate establishment.  Huh? It's not a seasoned union guy?  Is the Hollywood establishment now anti-union after the Writers Guild strike a few years ago? Anywayz, the focus is age & wisdom over training & youth. Surprisingly, Scott gets some pretty decent acting out of the low key characters, especially Rosario Dawson as the ... train dispatcher?  Her entire role takes place in a control room where she is trying to understand the situation and save lives, not dollars. I have always liked all-dialogue roles; gives the actor a chance to work.  And of course, they save the train and all the little children.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Winter pilots: The River

Tuesdays at 9 -- ABC

The "found footage" movies have, in the dozen years since The Blair Witch Project, become a staple of the horror film industry.  There are a handful of these types of films release every year, whether the latest Paranormal Activity installment or some Exorcist rip-off, the style is basically considered a horror trope.  The idea of an ongoing horror-mystery set on the Amazon river told through found footage sounds like a pretty good one.  The unfamiliar terrain coupled with countless potential threats should be easy to translate into chills and scares.  Toss in a supernatural component and a mysterious disappearance, and The River looked to be the new Lost.  Yet, show creators Michael R. Perry and Orin Peli seem to have imbued in the show little of the sensibility of their Paranormal Activity work, in fact any attempt at building suspense or terror winds up being laughable.

I admit to being charmed by the show's concept.  Bruce Greenwood plays Emmet Cole, a quasi-Jaques Cousteau TV-explorer of sorts, who has been a fixture of television sets for over 30 years.  On a recent expedition in the Amazon, his boat disappeared, and through every effort was made, he, his ship, and his crew were nowhere to be found.  But shortly after they were declared dead, his wife and producer receive word of his distress signal, which leads them on a new search, his estranged son and camera crew in tow.  On the Amazon they find an uncharted arm of the river, not on any satellite map, a place the locals are wary and fearful of, as they claim it's soused in negative energy and dark spirits.

Like Alcatraz a few weeks ago, this 2-hour pilot is actually the first two episodes presented back-to-back.  By the end of the first episode, the plucky adventure team have found the missing boat and fought off a malicious, restless spirit, sacrificing a cameraman in the process.

The show handles the relationships between the team in an overt and clunky manner, with unnatural and expository dialogue that sounds like community theatre. The spiritual and supernatural elements are handled with equal tact, which is to say that they manifest themselves in obvious ways depriving the veiwer of any suspense and are resolved in ludicrous displays of overacting.  The characters seem not only keen to believe, but eager to believe in the mystical forces they're up against.  There's little attempt made to mask the paranormal things that are occurring and it would appear that each episode has a different event or two for the cast to deal with (again with remarkable ease and familiarity).  The result it a tremendous lack of suspense, creepiness or horror, which if the show isn't able to properly manufacture, then why bother.

The "found footage" angle is underplayed, as there is a camera crew documenting the search for Emmet Cole which is more in "documentary style", while the actual found footage is the occasional excerpt from past episodes of Emmet Cole's exploration show, or of the footage from immediately prior to his disappearance found on the boat.  The found footage and background story footage are probably the show's most interesting component, however they are underused, particularly in setting up larger character or plot point, only used in an immediate relevancy context.  The "documentary style", meanwhile, overreaches, using far too many camera angles to be believable, and, at times, the camera angles lie, in the sense that there's no way there's a camera there, at that time, capturing the events as it happens.  Unlike, say, Person of Interest, or Four Lions, both of which switch between different camera styles and filming techniques to tell their story, The River does so with little sense of art or logic.  Are we really supposed to believe that every cupboard on the ship has a camera in it?  As well, the shakycam element is annoying and distracting.

The bottom line is The River is full of failed potential, ridiculously inept in its execution, and there's little to actually enjoy in watching it.  Television is ready for a good ongoing found footage-style scripted horror, this just isn't going to be it.

3 short paragraphs: Gamer

(aka Citizen Game)

2009, Mark Neveldine/Brian Taylor -- Netflix

I was not expecting this from the directors of the Crank films.  The glib, frat-style sexism and racism? Sure, that's a given.  The hyper-ADD editing style?  The beyond comedically absurd stereotyping and inevitable moments of pretension? All here. No, what I was not expecting from Neveldine/Taylor was a film that had any kind of redeemable message at all, nevermind one that had an honest to gosh critique of media saturation and the societal dangers of a virtual existence.

Of course, these themes are presented in a broad and aggressive manner, so as to try and disguise them somewhat under heaps of blood, flash-cut nudity, and a soundtrack that is one part Throbbing Gristle and the other chewing gristle, salacious and unpleasant.  But still, somehow the message comes through: relinquishing your identity blindly to some corporation, be it for entertainment purposes, business, or whathaveyou is not so much a good thing and leads down a dark and dangerous path.

It is, like so many other stories, that of a man, wrongly imprisoned, who must fight his way to freedom via a populist survival game.  Rollerball, The Running Man, Battle Royale, Series 7, Death Race, and The Hunger Games all dabble in this realm, so it doesn't really stake a claim to any innovation or aspire to greatness, but it does do its own thing.  It differentiates itself, and if it weren't for the juvenile tendencies of Neveldine/Taylor that undermine the message, it's really would have a strong resonance.  Also, dear filmmakers, I never need to hear another rendition of Sweet Dreams in a film again, thank you.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

3 short paragraphs: Lucky Number Slevin

2006, Paul McGuigan -- Netflix

Lucky Number Slevin hit the theatres at the height of my Bruce Willis fatigue, so I actively avoided it. I made a point of not caring about it, reading no reviews, viewing few, if any, commercials and for some time I got it confused with the movies Running Scared and 16 Blocks (both of which came out the same year and seemed in the same vein of middle-of-the-road action-thrillers). About a year ago I popped in a rental DVD and the trailer for this film came up. At first I was puzzled, wondering just what the hell it was, then I became intrigued by the plot it presented, and finally sold by the playful dialogue. I wasn't rushing out to see it, but I would watch it when the opportunity presented itself.

The film is, largely, as the trailer presents it. A case of mistaken identity thrusts Josh Hartnett's Slevin into the middle of a mob rivalry, and he's so out of his depth that the film presents an almost inescapable situation for him. The dialogue is quick, punchy, and very amusing throughout the first two acts, a cross between noir and Naked Gun. Hartnett, an actor whom I've never warmed to before, is affable and enjoyable here. Lucy Liu is adorable, Morgan Freeman and Stanley Tucci are typically great, Ben Kingsley treated this one in the spirit of the film, instead of just a payday, and Bruce Willis really does fade into the background for the most part. And it's wonderful. For two acts.

As I said, the film is largely as the trailer presents it, but not fully. The first two acts provide a wonderful build for the mess Hartnett has found him in, but also weaving in a cute detective-romance between Hartnett and Liu, the rivalry between Freeman and Kingsley, the mystery of Willis' assassin, and Tucci the outsider trying to figure it all out. The third act, however, is a complete mess of exposition, repeated exposition. Flashback upon flashback, one character telling a story to another, and another to another, and on and on. It's not a cheat as the film has accounted for everything that is detailed in the third act, but it's a humourless, tiresome, offensive and unenjoyable climax to a truly remarkable build. I believe I would be more satisfied with a third act that cheated from the first two acts, but retained the same flavour of them, and didn't pull the rug out from under the viewer so hard. In the end, what could have been a great film, a cult film, is just and unfortunate disappointment.

Monday, February 6, 2012


2010, Gareth Edwards -- DVD

Monsters is a low-budget sci-fi horror/thriller that takes place five years after an invasive alien species came to Earth, setting up home in the oceans off the coast of northern Mexico and the southern United States, periodically emerging from the deep to seemingly attack the civilizations and to spawn. 

The film came to me with a bit of a reputation attached, a reputation I explored about as much as the plot (which is to say very little).  I had heard it was surprising, and actually a good film, but I think in my mind I was expecting something along the lines of a District 9-in-Mexico scenario or something more like a Blair Witch with chupacabras.  I didn't realize it would have such a well thought out reality, and be more of a potent character drama then any kind of action movie at all.

The story follows photojournalist Andrew Kaulder as he documents the aftereffects of a monster attack on a Mexican city.  He's requested by his magazine's editor to first search for the boss' daughter, Samantha, who was potentially caught in the middle of the conflict, and then given the task of escorting her to safety, and ensuring she returns home before the spawning season begins and passageways between Mexico and the US are complicated.  Through an honest, but costly mistake, Andrew finds himself escorting Samatha through the quarantine zone through underground border-crossing channels, but instead of them racing for their life hour after hour, day after day, the film goes a far different route.

The journey is an arduous one, but it's the method in which it is conveyed, akin to a travelogue more than an adventure.  The camera focuses on the environment, making note of the natural beauty on display in Mexico's wilds, but also highlighting the effects the monsters, and the United States military who have been fighting them, have had on the landscape.  It's not all ugly, but largely, it's not pretty.  Samantha, with a fluency in Spanish, converses with the locals, learning how their lives have been affected by the invasion, and the fighting.  Andrew documents things in a quieter style, with his eye.

As the film progresses, were privy to Andrew and Samantha's conversations, but only as they're relevant.  All the dialogue in the film, between the Samantha and Andrew and their guides and the people they meet is all spoken in natural tongue.  It's not Hollywood conversation, but the type of exchanges you'd expect real people to have.  With the naturalistic world writer-director (and cinematographer and effects supervisor) Gareth Edwards builds around the characters visually, he also instills in the characters with a surprising finesse.  While the early impression is the two attractive leads are naturally going to be drawn to each other, because that's what happens in films, the manner in which the two come together, how they bond makes sense, but it's also not the only outcome.  They could just as easily part ways and the film would feel as complete.

By the climax of the film, this natural flow, the sense of reality earns the story a moment of utter beauty.  Most sci-fi films try to force a poignant moment upon the viewer and hope it resonates, but here, with Monsters, it really is not only a surprise, but a revelation.  The creatures take on a whole different meaning, and the whole world as it was presented seems so much richer than it already was.  Edwards uses his special effects as a storytelling and world building tool, and never abuses them.  There's no razzle dazzle here, he's not showing off, he's genuinely building something wonderful, and it's a rare movie of any genre that actually feels like something different, something special.

The Artist

2011, Michel Hazanavicius - theatre

The Artist is a film about the silent film era, told in silent film.  It sounds like pretentious art-house fodder, but, like the films of the time, it's populist entertainment, not heavy in its drama, or sophisticated in its comedy.  Yet it is in that very regard that it succeeds.  You believe in the authenticity of this silent film because it is, indeed, a silent film, albeit armed with a modern storytelling sensibility.  It's a bold production in a modern era of Bay-splosions and and Crank-style ADD editing, a film that not only requests your complete attention but your silence as well.  Encouraging a modern audience to keep mum when, in general, the quiet makes them uneasy is a tall order, but the Artist doesn't command your respect, but earns it.

It takes a good twenty minutes, at least, to settle into the rhythm of the picture, to acclimatize yourself to the lack of verbosity, but it comes.  The gestures are broad and the story is simple that it always seems clear what the characters' motivations are.  The film takes place at the dawn of the "talkie", following silent film superstar George Valentin as the world changes around him.  Almost in an instant he goes from the toast of Hollywood to has-been, watching as a young aspiring starlet, Peppy Miller, once an extra on one of his films, surpasses him to become the new darling of film.  Peppy, in her rocket to fame, never loses her crush on George and despite his fall and her rise, like the twist of DNA they keep crossing paths.

The leads of the film, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo remind you how much a film in the silent era depended not on acting ability or directing or sets or special effects, but on attractiveness and,  moreover, sheer charisma.  Dujardin and Berjo have it in spades, with wide, bright smiles that elicit sheer joy, and faces that please even when performing in the most dramatic or downtrodden scenarios their characters face.  Like the film itself, its stars are all charm.


Above I mention how it seems clear the character motivation at all times.  The emphasis should be on the "seems".  The film critiques the way silent film stars were cast aside once the talkies broke (and erupted in virtually an instant).  Silent film became passe in rapid fashion, and new stars were born.  There's a sense of injustice with the system, careers cut short by technology, when, theoretically there should be no reason why a silent film actor couldn't transition to talkies.  In the film's specific case, George finances his own film, writing, directing, and starring in it, and going head to head against Peppy Miller's first starring talkie, and bombing.  He obviously had a talent but the industry and the system weren't terribly favorable to talent.  They were meat, the product they ground out was disposable (much as it is today), and there was always more where they came from.  Nobody missed them when they're gone.  Except Peppy did miss George, and she tried to help George transition into talkies, but it seemed his pride got in the way.  "Nobody wants to hear me speak," his dialogue card reads.

In the film's finale, Peppy and George have figured out that dance, elaborate and glee-filled tap routines, were the way to not just embrace sound but equally defeat the talkie.  At the end of their staged routine, the camera pulls out and the sound of the stage, including conversation, erupts like a sonic boom.  Their producer Al (John Goodman) shouts with sheer joy "Perfect!" Pauses, then asks, "Can you do one more?"
George replies with his broad, bright smile, and in his own voice as opposed to the one the audience imagined, "With pleasure," which sounds, in Dujardin's thick French accents more like "Wiff pleah-zeehure".

It's that simple moment, that single which shifts the entire context of the film that came before it.  George didn't fight the system and accepted his fate because, frankly, he's not American.  In the silent era, anyone from anywhere, if they had the glint in their eye, could be a star in Hollywood.  But come the talkies, they had to sound the part as well as look it, and George' saying "No one wants to hear me speak" weren't the words of a depressed, suicidal man, but a man speaking the truth.

If you've seen Dujardin accepting any of the many awards for the film over the past few weeks, you're aware of just how thick his accent is, but watching him in The Artist, you're quick to forget just how French he is, and instead you believe he's the biggest star in America circa 1928, but also perhaps wonder why Dujardin, so charming, so entertaining, isn't a big star himself.  "Wiff pleah-zeehure" is why.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

2009, David Yates -- download

At this point in watching the series, I was deep in the throes of my lung infection, constantly feverish and very very tired.  The consistent exposure to the magic of the movies made me feel like I was watching a regular TV show, one that was just very very intense and expensively done.  And like a TV series, there were episodes that as a whole, were not very memorable, but had scenes and plot points that were. But still, it felt like filler.  This was one such, for me.

The crux of the story is that Harry has found a text book once owned by "the half blood prince", the identify of whom is a mystery. Still the book helps Harry out in many key ways in class, if adding a bit of darkness to Harry's personality.  Annoying me was that the reveal of the owner of the book contributed nothing to the ongoing plot, just adding some additional ooooooo-drama.  The point of the movie is that we are being led to (SPOILER ALERT !  even after all these years) the death of Dumbledore, which is engineered to steel Harry in the coming battle.  I found all the extraneous story elements, like Ron and his nutty girlfriend and Snape's defence of Draco to be unneeded.  But as I imagine it was based on one of Rowling's tome sized books, I imagine there was a lot of material to convey, in fear of pissing off the loyal readers.

As for the memorable scenes?  The introduction of the latest temp instructor, as he emerges from the disguise as an arm chair still makes me grin.  The scene at the beginning where Harry gets a vision of himself if he was a normal boy, with a waitress showing interest in him, is a nice touch and solidifies that Harry is not meant for normality in any sense.  And while the destruction of the Weasley house pained me, it showed the danger of the Death Eaters.  IMO, we should have seen them doing much much more.  Such as the attack on the Millenium Bridge, we are now shown that Voldemort will not shy away from attacks on Muggles. Unfortunately the ending, where Dumbledore is murdered by Snape and Harry can do naught but watch, was a bit of anti-climax because they machinations leading to such were so obvious.  All this movie ended up doing was making me ask very insistently, "So, do we have the others downloaded?"  Unfortunately we had crappy copies, so it was a few days before we wrapped up the series.