Monday, August 31, 2009

Review: Cold Souls

Deep shit, bro.

Cold Souls is a strange movie.  I can't decide whether its clever or just trying too hard to be existential.  Paul Giamatti is a fun actor to watch, but is it just too much when he's playing a kinda famous actor named Paul Giamatti?  You can make a sci-fi movie about real life ideas without rubbing it in our faces, guys.

Alright so Paul is this dude who's feeling depressed and out of it, partly because he's doing this crazy depressing Russian play that's really tough on him emotionally.  He's feeling crappy one day when his agent calls him and tells him to look at this article in the New Yorker about a company that can extract the soul from the body and put it in storage.

Mmmk.

Paul checks it out, and it turns out they're saying that removing your soul actually makes you feel lighter; it removes a great weight from your conscience.  Paul thinks this all sounds crazy, but what the hell.  If it's bad, he can always just put his soul back in his body and he'll be fine.  It's only for two weeks while he does the play, right?  What could go wrong?

Oh movie characters.  When will you learn that things that sound crazy-dumb usually are.  Life lesson:  if you are ever told that removing your soul from your body is a good idea, you are being shitted. This is a classic idea that always ends badly.  Just look at Liches, or if you're more pop cultural than that Voldemort.  Taking your soul out of your body is just stupid.  Classic symptoms include feeling empty, emotionless, scaley (as in lizard-like), and nothing at all.  That is, feeling nothing at all.  Look what happened to Bart Simpson - he felt anxious and empty.  Sliding doors stopped opening for him.  Crazy supernatural shit went down.  Yeah.

To no one's surprise but his own, this is exactly what happens to poor stupid Paul.  He feels empty, hollow.  I guess removing that intangible piece of yourself that makes you "you" rather than some other schmuck is a bad idea.  So what does he decide to do?  Rather than put himself back the way he was, he decides to "rent" the soul of a Russian poet.  Uh huh.  Because if feeling empty is bad, feeling full of something distinctly not you will feel great.  The movie itself compares this to sleeping with the person who's soul you now have in you.

There is a moment here that was very intriguing.  Paul is ranting about how it sucks to not have a soul when the doctor stops him and asks "have you felt a single bad thought since you extracted your soul?"  No.  "Have you felt anything at all in the past week?"  No.  This isn't exactly a good thing, but it is what Paul was trying to do.  He was trying to detach himself from his life and work, from his play.  It's a classic case of getting what you want but not realizing the full price that you paid.

What's going on with this movie?  It's obviously circling around the classic "what defines who we are" topic, but there's more to it than that.  The mule lady is so important to the story, and she's so good to Paul, what's being said when it turns out she can't ever get her own soul back?  Life is tragic, maybe.  Life can be tragic.

What's with the whole Russian theme?  I just don't know much about Russian history or culture to know what's going on there, but there's so much of it that it's got to symbolize something.  If anyone out there has ideas, let me know.

Then there's the movie poster.  Check it:


What does this tell us?  Well, Paul Giamatti is definitely in this movie.  I get the impression this movie is going to try and say something, probably about the soul - the abstractness implies that for me.  Abstract posters usually lead to thinky movies.  The Russian doll thing with his head... oh man.  Oh man!  The Russian motif is right there on the poster, albeit cleverly hidden.  WELL PLAYED, COLD SOULS.  WELL PLAYED.  Anyway, that makes me think about trying to get inside Paul's head.  We want to understand what's in there, but each layer is just more Paul.  As we go in there and look for him, we'll pass by all this other stuff that is also him.  And when we get there, it's just Paul.  He's there giving us a snarky glare.  That layer thing is important, too.  People are like onions, after all.  They have layers.

Why does Paul's soul look like a chickpea?  I think this is the part where we get a message about how something as wonderful and beautiful as the soul doesn't have to be big.  It can be as small and boring as a chickpea and still house all the essence of a human being.  Then you get obvious implications about what has happened to his soul when it's all withered out after the actress lady is done with it, and you get to make jokes about how some famous celebrity has a soul that looks like a charcoal.

I don't know, I feel like almost everything in this movie has been done before.  Souls are important, souls can be small and innocuous while still being beautiful, some people have good souls, some people have bad souls, everyone's soul is different, what happens to the soul when we die, what are people like when they don't have a soul, what does that imply about the nature of the soul, etc, etc.  It's just not new and not that innovative in its presentation.

I did like the laboratory scenes.  The sci-fi aspect of the movie was the perfect blend of wit and polish.

Also, someone get the directer a fucking steady-cam.  If you're filming Cloverfield, that's one thing.  You have an excuse for your shaky camera.  If you're filming a serious movie, your artistic statement about the uncertainty of reality and life is better left to the script and actors than to a technique that makes me queezy.

There were a couple of symbolic things I did like a lot.  The recurring shots of people standing looking out at the beach and into the ocean were good.  I like the use of the beach as sort of a dividing line between life and nothingness, between having a soul and not.  The other well done bits were the ones where we got a look into people's souls.  The cinematography was really good there, and being wide open to interpretation is something a soul should be.  The Russian poet's soul felt deeply tragic on some level.  I did feel longing and sorrow during that sequence, like I had once had hope but most of it had been beaten out of my by the crappy factor that I work in.

Paul's soul, too, is well done.  It feels so intimate.  He wants a son, or maybe his wife had a miscarriage, or both... He maybe wishes he was a kid again but is happy with where he's ended up.  Ultimately, he's content with whatever he came away with after looking into his soul.  I think that's the most important part of the movie.  It's the part that actually verged on powerful for me.  It's hard to really look into yourself, to give yourself a good examination.  It's not something you always want to do.  But it can help.  Coming to terms with yourself, or reconnecting with your soul as the movie puts it, can make you feel good about yourself.  Chances are you have a beautiful soul.  Let yourself into it.

...

Anyway, I did enjoy it.  Paul Giamatti is fun to watch.  Some of the soul stuff may be overdone, but it's still an interesting subject.  The sci-fi stuff is good, and there's some funny lines.  I don't get the Russian thing, and that might open up more understanding of the film.  Maybe it's supposed to add to the bleakness of the world that a soul can light up.  I think of Russian stuff as pretty bleak.

SAM'S VERDICT:  If you like Paul Giamatti or are feeling existential, jump on in.  The water is not fine, exacty, but full of existentialism and Paul Giamatti.

Also, just because I'm a filthy Joss Whedon whore, I'm going to go ahead and recommend Dollhouse here.  This is Whedon's most recent TV show, and it's dealing with a lot of the same ideas as this movie.  You know, who are we, and what makes a person a person.  Dollhouse starts out really, really, REALLY bad, but it picks up at episode 6.  If you can get your hands on the DVD boxed set, watch the original pilot, then read episode recaps of eps 1-5, maybe cherry-pick a couple out of there to get an idea for the show, then skip to episode 6 and go from there.  I stopped recommending the show a while back, but after seeing Epitaph One (a between seasons episode they shot for weird reasons), it's officially on my list of good shows.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Movie Trailers #5: Coming Soon

This time we've got a couple movies that are coming out soon.  Note that in addition to these I recommend the following movies coming this month and early October that I've commented on in August:

9 - coming September 9th because they're clever.
The Invention of Lying - September 25th
Zombieland - October 2nd
A Serious Man - October 2nd
Toy Story Double Feature - October 2nd

Damn.  I might have to pull a quadruple feature October 2nd.  Now on to the meat.

Extract - September 4th




I thought this was a documentary from the movie poster.  Boy was I wrong.  Jason Bateman is never any character other than Michael Bluth, so I guess it's a good thing that Michael Bluth is a fun character to watch.  Juno's dad is rapidly becoming my favorite actor; so good in both Juno and Burn After Reading. Ben Affleck is Ben Affleck.  Mila Kunis is pretty good...  LOOKING.  That beauty pageant judge from Little Miss Sunshine is so much fun to hate.  Man, I wonder what that actress is like in person.  She must be the most lovable middle-aged lady ever to parody horrible moms as well as she does.  Anyway, even if the premise sucked (which it doesn't), the cast is fantastic.  Plus it looks funny.  Definitely on my list to see.


I Sell The Dead - September 7th




You go, Dominic Monaghan.  Looks mildly entertaining.  Not great, but deece.  Grave robbing is just such a hilarious concept, man, it's a wonder this thing doesn't look like a total riot.  But yeah.  Zombedy told through flashback.  Nothing wrong with that.  It's got some awards, too, so maybe it's better than it looks.

Gamer - September 4th



Okay, first of all, didn't this movie just come out last year?  Except then it was called Death Race.  No, seriously, if you watched the Gamer trailer go watch this Death Race trailer now.  It's the same fucking movie except one is Twisted Metal and the other is Counter-Strike.  I would bet a large amount of pride that the one twist Death Race has (that is given away in the trailer) also shows up in Gamer.  They even look the same with that overly gray, gritty modern action movie look going on.  Someone aughta be sued.

Okay, so that's silly, but let's move on to ridiculous.  The plot.  Um... what?  Death row inmates are put up to be controlled in some sort of real life Counter-Strike thing?  Aside from the fact that this remote controlling people technology is just stupid, if it existed, I don't think we'd be using it to control death row inmates in some sort of stupid video game.  Why the fuck would we bother with that?  I don't think there'd be much of a market for watching that game over regular games, and I don't think there'd be much of a market for playing that game instead of a digital one.  But I'm being silly; that's not what this movie is about.  This movie is about a premise that thinks it's clever and the market that comes along with the word "gamer".  They're trying to appeal to gamers, and it's fucking working.  I only know about this movie because someone said to me "d00d, did you hear about this Gamer movie?  I think it's about video games."

It stars Gerard Butler, who I just saw as the lead in The Ugly Truth.  Yes, this is King Leonidas again.  I will never be able to take him seriously.  Gamer seems to think it's a serious movie, or at least it wants us to think that it thinks it's a serious movie so that we can laugh at how stupid it is that it thinks it's a serious movie.  So you've got Gerard Butler in this stupid, "serious" action movie just a couple weeks after I've seen him giving people pep talks in The Ugly Truth about men and women.  I wonder if he magically always has the same amount of stubble in this movie, too.

Also, what the fuck.  The premise is so stupid.  If you survive 30 games you get to go free, right?  What the shit is up with that?  You have no control over whether or not you win.  That's like saying "if you play 30 dota games in a row and don't have any leavers you go free."  You have to get super lucky; you have to get a good player controlling you every time, and your player has to be lucky every time.  That's just stupid.  That's just... I can't express how bad this premise is.

Of course the biggest problem with the premise is that it requires a teenage guy to be in a lead role.  I've never met a pubescent guy who doesn't piss me off in one way or another, myself included.  It also means that if what plot there is requires this kid to be anything except a total fuckhead, it's not going to be realistic.

I hate middleschoolers.

Then there's a cameo by Ludicris.  Like... I've been writing about this trailer for about 5 paragraphs now, and I still have more to say about how stupid this movie looks.  What does that tell?  I bet I could go see it, come home, and write a blog post about this film by cutting and pasting this rant, then adding "also there was this one part where the action sequence was particularly cool."  Yeah.

I'd probably see it if Danl was in town, though.  Oh, that reminds me.  Riddle me this:  Danl wants to see this movie but thought G.I.Joe looked like a waste of time.  At least the preview for G.I.Joe had some sweet bullet time dives, cool green smoke effects, and a tag-line to kill for.  "What does it accelerate?"  "You."  Hahaha.  So good.

Apparently I have a lot to say about Gamer.  I don't think there's much else I've heard of coming out in September anyway, so let's stop here.  If you want more previews, though, I recommend Avatar and Inception, both of which I'll be talking about soon.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Movie Trailers #4: Quick Hits

Despite my best efforts, there's still a lot of trailers I haven't covered out there.  Fortunately, there's not much to say about most of them.  Because there's a bunch of them and not much to say, I'm not going to embed these ones - instead I'll link them.  Now without further ado...

Toy Story Double Feature:  In preparation for Toy Story 3, Pixar is re-releasing the first two installments in this franchise... IN 3D!  Actually, the 3D part is not cool.  I hate having to wear those silly glasses.  Whatever, these movies were great the first time around.  Toy Story marked the move into modern animation instead of classic Disney animation, and at the same time it was one of the best kids movies I've ever seen.  I'm biased, though, since I grew up on the stuff.  Then #2 came out and didn't suck, a feat which I'm very impressed by.  So yeah.  If you're into Pixar movies and don't mind the 3D gimmick, head out to this one.  It's only going to be around for 2 weeks in October.

Legion:   Yeah, bitches!  Let's blow some shit up!  WOOOOO KILLIN ANGELS

When In Rome:  Yeah, bitches!  Shitty romantic comedies starring Sarah Marshall!  That's her name, you know.  Sarah Marshall.

Tron:  LegacyTron has The Dude in it?  That's the movie I want to see; fuck Tron.  I want to see Tron set at a bowling alley.  I want to see The Dude just out for a bike ride when some asshole cuts him off and ruins his day.  Yeah.  I've never seen Tron, so I have no reason to fan-boy out about this movie.  Thus to me, it just looks like another bad movie about an animation team having way too much fun for their own good.  Er, I mean, another bad action movie.

Law Abiding Citizen:  Ew.  I hate torture movies, and I hate "bad things happen to good people for no reason" movies.  Okay, I hate the torture movies, and I hate the kind of "bad things good people" movies that only use that motif to set up the torture parts of the movie.  This looks like a good example.

The Twilight Saga:  New Moon:  Hahahaha no.

Whiteout:  This looks like a great one shot RPG where everyone dies at the end.  Maybe I'll run something like that in a few years for ERPL.  Looks good enough to go see with Danl and not as bad as the premise would have me believe.

I just found this preview for a movie called Inception, but I think I could write a whole post on that preview alone.  So I will in a couple days.  Until then.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Trip to a Drive In

Drive in movies.  What a concept!  Even in the modern day, the drive in movie has a lot to offer.  You get 3 movies for $7.50, you get that cool retro feel to the experience, and you get privacy for you and your friend(s) to either heckle the film or make out in peace.  Then on top of that you get to tell all your friends the next day about how you, no for reals, got to go to a drive in movie.

A couple nights ago, I found myself at this particular drive in theater located east of St. Paul.  It's one of only 3 or so drive ins left in the state.  Both Danl and Evan have girlfriends that live not far from its location, so we'd been planning the event for a while.  My college best friend also lives within 5 minutes, but she was inconveniently at a cabin somewhere with family.  Luckily I have multiple friends at college, and coerced one who was in town to come.

Our movie schedule was District 9, The Ugly Truth, and The Taking of Pelham 123.  Clearly I was not there for the movie selection.  Drive ins seems much more about the social experience rather than what's playing, so it didn't matter that the only one of those films I was keen on seeing I already had.  I could see District 9 again, have a running commentary with Danl through The Ugly Truth, then doze off for Pelham.  That was the game plan.

I pulled in late with the people arriving from Northfield, and we were met with hellos and did-you-get-losts.  We busted out the snacks we'd procured at Kwik Trip at quarter movie snack prices, set up the backs of various cars for comfortable seating, and had some good pre-movie conversation. Pretty quickly the previews started.  There was only one, and I was very upset by this fact.  It was for Zombieland, so if you want my thoughts on it check out this post.  This was a longer trailer, but my impressions didn't change.

Evan and Annie (his GF) had taken up residence in the back of her truck, while Danl and Andrea (his GF) had gotten comfy in a pile-o-blankets in the back of her van.  I was left alone in the middle (my friend Sarah had gone to to the concessions stand) without a convenient place to sit in my car, and anyway that would've been awkward since I wasn't on a date with Sarah.  (Yes, it was a little awkward anyway.  No, not very much.)  I sidled on over to Andrea's van and "convinced" them they should let me and Sarah join them.  By which I mean they offered because they're nice.

District 9

This movie taught me some basic lessons about drive ins.

LESSON #1:  Bring a place to sit.  If you don't have a car with a back compartment to fit people into or you've brought more than 2 people who can sit in the front of your vehicle, bring chairs.  Nothing sucks more than sitting on a bunch of rocks.  Everyone's got lawn chairs lying

LESSON #2:  Bring bug-spray!  Even in the back of a van, the bugs were everywhere.  I got eaten alive, and this was with blankets covering much of my open skin.  I can't imagine what it would've been like if we hadn't had a vehicle covering 5 of our 6 sides.

LESSON #3:  It's fuckin' cold out there!  Blankets are awesome.  Vehicles with heating are awesomer.  Just don't freeze yourself to death as Evan and Annie almost did.  Lucky for them I'd thought ahead and brought plenty of warm covers, but even then it Evan complained about the temperature.

LESSON #4:  Snacks are delicious!  Everyone likes to eat snacks with their movies, and it's never been easier to sneak snacks into a theater than when you've got a whole car to do it with.  Stop for some at a gas station before heading out for the evening.  Even if you don't normally have snacks, this is 3 movies.  That's 2 more than most movies you'll go to in your life, and you'll probably end up hungry.  Don't forget pop if you're into that sort of thing, but be careful.  Caffeine can either keep you up through that third feature or keep you up way longer than you wanted to be up.  Plan accordingly.

Aside from that, it was fun to see this movie again.  I already reviewed it, but it's always interesting to hear second impressions.  The second time through was better in at least one way:  I could choose to not look at that part when Wikus is peeling off his fingernails, that part when he's chopping of fingers, and that part when he's pulling out teeth.  Seriously Wikus, you're gross.

I still think it's a great 20 minutes of documentary followed by 2 hours of mediocre action, and I still don't like the main character.  Marie's comments from last time stuck with me, though.  I do like the idea that this less than ordinary man is doing such extraordinary things.  The baby alien is also awesome; I don't remember if I mentioned that last time.

Here are some other people's impressions (paraphrased):

Sarah said she was hit by the fact that if aliens really did show up today, if the stuff in Disctrict 9 actually happened, that's exactly how people would react to it.  It pinpoints very well the bad parts of human nature and governments.

Danl thought it looked cool.

Andrea said "yeah, that was alright."  So did Evan and Annie.  I don't remember any more specific comments than that, which might say more than any specifics would.

The Ugly Truth

First a review:  imagine a standard romantic comedy.  Are the jokes good?  Yes?  Then your rom-com is not standard.  Tone them down until they just barely cover the 90 minute run time.  Is the acting good?  Yes?  Then your rom-com is not standard.  Tone it down until it's bearable, but both you and your date are watching the leads rather than listening to them.  Is the story good?  Yes?  Really?  Okay, you're shitting with me.  I asked you to imagine a standard romantic comedy.  Bring it all down a few notches on the quality scale, throw in a couple of stock characters (controlling girl, bad boy), set it in a slightly out of real life location (news room), and voila.  You get this.  If I ever have to give an example of a rom-com that was completely and utterly form fitting, this would be it.  It's like they've got a mold back there in those Hollywood buildings in Cali, and this one came straight out of the one labeled "summer romantic comedy".

Some of you may remember my comments on romantic comedies from my discussion of the The Invention of Lying trailer:
I've always secretly wanted a girlfriend who insists on going to see all sorts of bad romantic comedies so I have a reason to see them.
This still stands.  But wait!  I am not a hypocrite!  The problem is that mediocre romantic comedies are not the same thing as bad romantic comedies.  Bad rom-coms have silly magical gimmicks and scripts you can make fun of where mediocre ones have scripts that put you to sleep and take place in a fake-fake-fake version of the real world.  Bad rom-coms are a guilty pleasure.  Mediocre rom-coms are unpleasant.  There is a difference, and it's not always possible to tell the difference from preview alone.  Often you have to see a movie yourself before you can decide whether that was so bad you liked it or so bad you'd like to punch the director.

I'd been talking about the movie line up a few days earlier with Danl.  We both agreed that this movie looked bad.  I said that watching it was like part of the cost of admission, to which Danl agreed.  Then he recounted a horrible tale.  Apparently he'd had this same "sizing up the line up" conversation with Andrea, and this was the movie she'd gotten excited for.  NOOOOO!!  One of those girls!  The kind that likes formulaic rom-coms with no style!  He was dating a monster.

[Disclaimer:  Andrea is actually awesome.  Not all people who like formulaic romantic comedies are monsters.  Just most of them.]


It got worse.  The previews began for this movie (yay, more previews!), and Andrea exclaimed that she was excited for this one.  "What's it about?" asked Sarah, to which we explained.  "Oh, that sounds good!  I can't wait!"  Danl and I exchanged looks, then groans.  Andrea and Sarah turned to us.  "Now I know you guys like to run commentary through movies like this, but please don't.  We want to enjoy the movie," they said.  Danl and I groaned louder.

Needless to say, we didn't respect they're wishes.  We held off for a while, mostly because the material was so stale we had a hard time coming up with witty comments.  Instead, Danl and I dived into a game of "Spot The Actor".

Spot The Actor:  The Ugly Truth Edition

Alright, here's how you play. You see some actor that you sort of maybe recognize in the movie, but you can't quite place them.  Then everyone stops paying attention to the movie and starts thinking of where the crap it was that they've seen that person before.  And now you can play from home!  This way you don't even have to burn 90 minutes sitting through a bad movie to play.  Just give another movie + role that you've seen a person in, and see how many you can identify.  No IMDB, of course.  You don't have IMDB at a movie theater.  I'll have two sets of answers at the bottom:  one of my own, and one from IMDB.

Ready?


Who's that lady?  Where have you seen that guy before?


The female lead...?  She looks like she's playing, too.


And the male lead.  He was tough for me; I ended up having to use a movie that's not out yet.

Answers at the bottom of the post.  I recommend people comment their guesses, though.  I'm always curious both about who can recognize what actors, and what sorts of movies people have seen and remember.

The Taking of Pelham 123

Remember those molds I was talking about Hollywood having?  This one came out of the "Hostage Negotiation" one after they put the Denzel Washington clay into it.  They must have so much of that Denzel Washington clay... I bet they give it away to starving children.  Could probably feed all of Africa for a year with the amount they have lying around back there.

With nothing special happening on the screen I turned much of attention towards other things, namely trying to find a comfortable lying down position in the back of a van while sharing the space with 3 people.  If you ever find yourself in such a situation, let me save you some time and tell you how you get comfortable:  you don't.  Just sit up or shift around a lot, because there's nothing else you can hope to do effectively.  Maybe if we'd moved the car sideways and watched out a window...  No, no.  I'm done with that problem.  I'm done with it.

Sarah fell asleep as she is so prone to do.  Even through the gunfire, nothing wakes her up.  Danl and Andrea successfully refrained from any uncomfortable PDA.  Denzel did his thing, and John Travolta made watchable work of a meh script.  Evan and Annie did whatever they were doing in the other vehicle, and all was right in the world.

When the credits finally rolled in at around 2AM, we packed up and said our goodbyes.  It had been a good trip.  I had enjoyed it, at least.  Sometimes I think sitting through 3 movies, even good ones, sounds like torture, but every time I do it I come out having enjoyed myself.  The ride home was filled by of one of Evan's moderately entertaining monologues and decent music.  I dropped my fellow Northfieldians off, and turned in.

I'd do that again.  Remind me to keep tabs on how often their set of movies changes.

Epilogue

One of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite movies is set at a drive in.  It's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  Jim Carry and Kate Winslet are sitting in a car outside the fence of a drive in movie.  They're at this happy point in their relationship where it feels like they don't need anyone else; they're great by themselves.  There's two actors on the screen of the drive in, but because they haven't paid to get in they don't have sound.  To compensate, they're filling in the actor's dialogue themselves.  It's very adorable and funny; maybe the point is that this is more fun than watching a movie.  Maybe they like filling in their own words for infinitely less of a cost?  It makes me think about what it is that I like about movies.  Sometimes I'm in it for the story or the spectacle, but for the most part it's the people I'm with that make the film.  Bad movies become good when you've got a friend to make fun of them with.  Good movies become bad when you don't have anyone to talk to about them when you're done.  It's more important to have a good time than it is to respect the movie.  I'd much rather fill in a mute actor's lines with a friend while parked outside a drive in theater than watch a masterpiece of cinema while alone in my basement.

Spot The Actor Answer Keys

My answers:
Woman from pic 1:  couldn't place her.  I wanted to say some sort of Judd Apatow thing, but I think I'm wrong.
Man from pic 1:  Arrested Development prosecution lawyer.  I love this guy, man.  He's great.  We also suspected he was in the Waiting For Guffman documentaries.  I specifically remember him in A Mighty Wind.
Female lead:  couldn't place her, either.  I recall my parents saying she's a Grey's Anatomy alumni, though.
Male lead:  he's going to be in Gamer, and I think another stupid action movie I saw a preview for at District 9 the first time I saw it.  Yea, IMDB says it's called Law Abiding Citizen, and it looks just awful.  I'll have to review it now that I remember what it's called.

IMDB answers:
Woman from pic 1: Cheryl Hines.  She was apparently in Waitress and Along Came Polly.  I don't remember seeing much else from her bio.
Man from pic 1:  John Michael Higgins.  I was right on all counts.
Female lead:  Katherine Heigl.  Oh duh, she was in Knocked Up.  That's why she felt so at home in the romantic comedy lead position to me.  Grey's Anatomy seems to be the big thing for her.
Male lead:  Gerard Butler.  HOLY SHIT IT'S KING LEONIDAS!!!!1!  Hahahahaha, if I'd known that The Ugly Truth would've been great.  Just throw out another "THIS IS [blank]" joke every few minutes and Danl and I would've been set for the night.  Also in P.S. I Love You, which I may now need to see so that I can get those jokes in.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Inglourious Basterds



[Note that this post is mostly discussion. If you're reading this to decide whether or not it's a movie for you, skip to the bottom.]


Spoiler alert:


This movie is a movie. You can tell because only in movies do people like Brad Pitt's character exist. Only in movies do theaters explode and gunfights happen in bar basements ending in the death of everyone involved. Only in movies can you mother-fucking kill Hitler, bitches.

Yeah, that's right. Hitler dies. What are you going to do about it? It's a movie; it's not historically accurate. In the movies, The Jew Hunter was a real person. In the movies, enough Nazis have been killed to wipe out the entirety of German's forces several times over. In the movies, time travel is possible. In the movies, some guy figured out how to extract dinosaur DNA from mosquitoes and set up a dinosaur park for tourists before it all went bad and a bunch of people got eaten. Also that last one lead to a childhood fear of raptors for thousands, but that part was real. That part wasn't in the movies.

Inglourious Basterds is a movie about film making. This is something my cinema professor last year said about nearly every movie we watched, but I think in this case it's actually true. Quentin Tarantino knows he's hot shit, and hot shit directors like to be clever. Nothing says clever in the world of film like a good movie about movies, so that's what he's delivered. I first thought this might be the case when it was revealed that the most important location in the film was a movie theater; that's a big hint. I wasn't totally sure, however, until Hitler died. This is the most important event in the movie to me. It's like Tarantino has turned to us directly and said "Look, I'm directing here. I can do whatever I want, and there's no one to stop me. I could have aliens show up right now, in the middle of WWII, and that would be what happens. I can do anything. I can kill Hitler. Yeah. Look, there I go. I'm killing Hitler. Anyone stopping me? No? Didn't think so. This is my art, this is my self expression. Fuck you." Then Hitler's dead, and the film doesn't even make a big deal out of it. It focuses on the flames and the crowd and the explosions than on some dumb historical figure. Of course the point needs to be made that, yes really, Hitler just died, so one of the generic good guys throws some extra bullets into him for good measure.

The other scene where I really felt this was just before Hitler's death. It was the scene where The Jew Hunter (I don't remember his formal name) has P J Novak and Brad Pitt captured. He sits them down at a desk, excuses his guards, and sets a telephone on the desk between them before explaining the situation. The all important cinema and location of our film's climax currently has Hitler, a bunch of important German leaders, and a helluvalota explosives in it. The Jew Hunter explains that he can either make one phone call and put a stop to the American's mission, or he can do nothing and cause the end of the war and the end of the Third Reich.


What's it going to be, he seems to ask? Does he make the call and have history go back to its regularly scheduled programming, or does he do nothing, sit back, and enjoy the ride? Tarantino presents this as a real choice. And in the movies, it is a real choice. And this being the movies, this story is in the business of delivering us a happy ending. What's happier than Hitler biting the big one, taken down by a combination of a hot chick and Brad Pitt?

The phone scene is made even stranger by The Jew Hunter being at his most absurd. He's been a great character the whole movie. He's smart, he's cunning, he's creepy, he's German, he's evil, etc. We hate him. So when he delivers his "Bingo" lines, you're caught completely off guard. What is going on, you ask yourself. The whole theater laughs awkwardly. This guy can't possibly be for real. Of course, he's not. He's in the movies. He's like the 'toon from the end of Who Killed Roger Rabbit?. He's fake, and so is this whole piece of work. Sort of.

Sort of.

Shortly thereafter, Hitler's death happens in the background of the climax, and it involves the burning of several hundred films, a projection screen, and a whole cinema. I haven't quite wrapped my head around what exactly is being said here, but I can tell for sure that it involves the fragility of movies, the fact that you can use films for lots of different things, and specifically that you can destroy people with them. Look at Fahrenheit 9/11. It didn't single handedly destroy anyone, but it and media like it brought a ton of crap down on the Bush administration. Films can be destructive.

On the other hand, films are also easy to destroy. The flames created by those old movies brought down the Third Reich, but it was only because film is so combustible that this was possible. Film is fragile; you can tear it apart or burn it up. You can change it - you can edit in a giant picture of your face telling a bunch of Nazis they're about to die into an action flick.

Which makes me question the seriousness of the whole thing in the first place. Tarantino may have some cool stuff to say, but can we take him seriously when some modern Brad Pitt caricature of a Tennessee-ian Nazi killer running around scalping people and carving swastikas into their foreheads? Maybe the whole thing is just mind games and good times.

Oh, and then there's all the anachronistic stuff. The film is constantly breaking (or at least taking a swing at) the 4th wall by putting modern looking titles over old looking places pointing out important people or explaining important things. Sometimes it takes first-act-of-Juno-esque breaks from the action to just run off on a tangent and talk about something else. I'm sure this is again commenting on the nature of the viewer watching this "historical event" through modern eyes or something like that.

Quick Summary (Sans Spoilers)

With my analysis done, let's get back to basics. Who is this movie for? Well, it's a bit of a mind-fuck in that it's just... odd. It's probably all that post-modernism. Don't see it if you can't take Tarantino levels of violence, because those exist. It's funny and well written.

SAM'S VERDICT: A very lighthearted telling of a very gruesome tale. Great writing. Expect all of these things, but go see it if you're okay with that violence thing.

Man, I've gotten this far and haven't even mentioned the formatting. The films takes place primarily in just 4-5ish twenty+ minute scenes, each awesomely written and tense all the way through. Even when the characters are laughing, you're wondering when someone else is going to get twitchy with their trigger finger and flip out. I was on the edge of my seat for the whole thing. Such writing.

And The Jew Hunter! Oh man. He's such a good character. Remind me to do a "Top 5 Villains" list sometime soon. He probably won't be on it, but he's the kind of guy that makes me want to make such a list. I'm also going to have to come up with my own categories for Best Ofs come Academy Awards time. Best New Character will probably go to Malcolm from In The Loop. Mm... Exciting...

...

What a nutty movie.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Violence in Cinema Part 2, or Bourne vs Coen Violence, or Kill Bill Revisited

After my last post on the subject of violence, I decided it was time to go back and watch Kill Bill again. It seemed natural to go on a Tarantino binge with Inglourious Basterds coming out and me needing to see Reservoir Dogs.

Last time my question went something like this: why is my opinion of cinematic violence changed so much based on the movie? Why do I not bat an eye at action movies, can't watch parts of films like No Country For Old Men, and love Kill Bill? I think all these things are pretty easy questions to answer after a recent viewing of Kill Bill.

Why Can't I Watch Parts of No Country For Old Men?

This is simple: they're horribly violent, and I don't want to look at that shit. Easy. I can't take a whole lot even after being desensitized by modern society, so scenes where you can see the bone coming out of some dude's arm freak me out. This is not to say that I automatically don't like movies like No Country For Old Men; I love many of them. Case and point: No Country For Old Men, which I recently put on my Top 5 Adaptations From A Book list. A lot of Coen Brothers stuff falls into this category. This point also smoothly transitions us into our next question.

Why Do I Love Kill Bill?

Also simple: it's a great movie. The script is good, the acting is good, the cinematography is good, the directing is good, the music is mostly good, the special effects are good... It's smooth and polished. The story is your classic revenge story boiled down to such a pure form. There's exactly one twist, and it doesn't change the outcome of the story much. Everything from The Bride's yellow jumpsuit to the dusty Texas landscape is carefully placed with a specific purpose. Everything serves the story.

So why am I so much more okay with Kill Bill's violence than the Coen Brother's? Well, I'm not. As it turns out, I don't say "cool" to Kill Bill's violence for the most part. It's just as cringe worthy and horrific as No Country's or Fight Club's. The difference I was observing in my last post is something related to my third question.

Why Don't I Bat An Eye At Action Movie Violence?

This seems to be the underlying question. Here's what I said last time:
What sets Tarantino's films apart is their style. What draws me to Kill Bill is not the fact that The Bride just kicked the shit out of 88 ninjas, it's that the way she did it was so fucking cool. You can kill people, or you can stab them with a fucking bad-ass katana in slow motion with circling cameras on an elaborate set all set to a pumping soundtrack. Hell yeah.

Even that's not enough, though. Tons of movies come out each year with bad-ass weapon wielding heroes and heroines kicking the shit out of henchmen in slow motion with circling cameras on an elaborate set all set to a pumping soundtrack, but few of them compare to the Crazy 88 scene. There's something more to Tarantino pieces.
There is something more to Tarantino pieces: it's great writing and directing. He's a good story teller and a master of the cinematic media. That's what puts his movies above your common action flick. My comment about few other action sequences comparing to the Crazy 88 scene is just wrong. It stands up there with cool modern action sequences, but your average summer blockbuster car chase is going to come up about level with it. The difference I was remembering was all in the setup for that scene, where Tarantino beats the crap out of this month's blockbuster.

What we actually have in modern movies is two kinds of violence. You've got Bourne (as in The Bourne Identity) violence and Coen Brothers violence. On the Bourne end of the spectrum, your violence is cool. It's streamlined, it's entertaining, it's fun to watch, and it's all played out in slow motion with circling cameras on an elaborate set all set to a pumping soundtrack.

On the Coen end, you have violence that is up close and personal. It's really, really disgusting. It's not fun to watch (unless you're a creeper), it's not streamlined. It's bloody, it's sickening, and it makes you want to look away from the screen. Most of the time when you see this kind of thing, the mood is ruined by at least one person you're watching it with covering their face and asking you to tell them when it's over.

It's pretty clear to me where Bourne violence came from. We as a culture love to watch shit blow up. Cool action movie violence is... cool. It's super cool. And cool things are profitable. Put a good action sequence in your movie and you'll sell tickets. This leads to lots of mediocre action movies that have put a lot of time into the coolness factor and pretty much nothing into their scripts. These are fun, especially when they star Will Smith. I like them, but I don't love them. There's something impersonal about them. It's hard to get too attached to the characters because we know they're invincible. If they weren't invincible then we'd be moving towards really personal violence, Coen style violence. Threats to actually human beings. And that stuff is not what you put into something people want to go enjoy with their friends on a Sunday afternoon.

Coen violence is trickier. There's an audience that will pay money just to see horrible violence, but I'd like to think this concept didn't come from a need to sell tickets to them. Certainly some movies are made to cater to these people. The horror genre has been gravitating more and more towards torture and mutilation and farther away from atmosphere. I don't watch movies like this much, but I hear the Saw series is just ridiculous at this point. Creeps aside, I think it's much easier to say something with Coen violence than with Bourne violence, mostly because it's so much more personal. If you want to tell a "good things happen to bad people" story that involves violence, you use this kind. Same goes for "showing what people are capable of doing to each other" stories, "people are greedy bastards" stories, and "commentary on modern society that isn't a parody" stories. This kind of violence provokes a very specific negative emotional response from the viewer, and if you want to relate that response to a subject or symbol, Coen violence is the way to do it.

Aside from all of this, comedies can use either kind of violence for their own purposes. Parodies can make fun of both Bourne and Coen violence, and you can also use horrific images just for shock value in stuff like Shaun of the Dead. Comedy has its fingers in everything.

I'm still not done with this subject. I've talked a lot about what I think of violence in cinema, and now I've gotten into a sort of general theory of violence. However I still want to get into specific examples of violence as symbolism. Expect some thoughts on Fight Club. Until next time...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Top 5 Adaptations

Adaptations are a tricky thing. More and more you see anything that was remotely popular as a novel making the jump to the silver screen, and it's sometimes completely unwarranted. I'm sure this is related to the recent flood of remakes; apparently people will pay to see anything that's familiar to them, and Hollywood has picked up on this fact. Oh franchising. You suck so hard and are a topic that deserves its own post.

As I was saying, adaptations are a tricky thing. On the one hand you get stuff like The Lord of the Rings triology that takes a fairly cinematic story and delivers a beautiful projection of it in movie form. On the other hand you get stuff like the Harry Potter movies. (That's code for absolute trash for those of you that don't know my opinion of that series.) Even those aren't two ends of one spectrum since the HP films look so great and just suffer from "too much material to fit into 3 hours" syndrome. There's also stuff out there that was just adapted horribly, stuff where very important details were changed, and then stuff like Adaptation. Seriously, that movie is theoretically based on The Orchid Thief. No matter how much content may come from The Orchid Thief, Adaptation is not about its source material in the slightest.

On top of quality, you get a big problem with any novel-movie adaptation. That is, what you imagine it looked like when you read it is not going to be what it looks like on screen. This will make you upset, and you may never be able to experience the novel the same way again. It sucks, I know. This and TMMTFI3H syndrome are the big problems with the book to movie transition, though that's assuming the writers are respectful of the original material.

What are some great adaptations? In no particular order,

Lord of the Rings
The Shining
The Shawshank Redemption
No Country For Old Men
Chicago (though this came from the stage... still a difficult jump)
Big Fish
High Fidelity
About A Boy
The Princess Bride
The Maltese Falcon
Pretty much every old-school Disney movie (assuming you count adaptation from classic fairy tales)
Fight Club

...and that's just off the top of my head! I forgot how many movies these days are based on another source, and also how not all movies based on something are bad. It might be more entertaining to do a worst adaptations list. That one would have a lot of competition.

When making a Top 5 adaptations list, how much should one take into account faithfulness to the original material? For example, I hear Fight Club the movie is very different from Fight Club the book, but both are widely loved. I can't speak on this example directly having not read the book, but it's an important question. In my list above, I've only read 2 of the books those movies are based one (counting Lotr as 1 book). If faithfulness is an important quality, I have some serious work to do before I can make my list here.

Whatever. Let's see what comes up.

Top 5 adaptations from a book:
High Fidelity
The Maltese Falcon
Big Fish
No Country For Old Men
The Shining

Those are all from my above list, and I'm sure I'm forgetting some that should be on here. I wish there was room for stuff like Fight Club and The Shawshank Redemption, but the faithfulness factor knocks the first down a peg and the 5 on my list I like better than Shawshank. The Shining just does such a good job with atmosphere and pacing, it's easy to imagine getting that down in the book but doing an even better job in the movie. Considering that's what the story is all about, I think that should give it a spot. The first 3 on my list are just some of my favorite movies that happen to be books, too. Then No Country For Old Men is just... ridiculous. I guess. I dunno, it feels like it should be up there.

Now to work on a worst adaptations list. Consider that one in the making. Also, please remind me what obvious movies I'm missing for either list. Yes, I know about Catch-22; it's my favorite book but the movie is just alright.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Review: Reservoir Dogs

There's spoilers all through this, for the record. It's really more of an analysis than a review.

I'm not sure why you need so much violence to tell this story. You can have the same movie, even keep most of the ear scene, but just put more of the violence off screen, and I don't think you'd lose any of the film's potency. I just don't need to see the place where someone's ear used to be. Although maybe that's the way we're supposed to feel about Mr. Blond.

The script is fantastic. I love the first scene at the diner. Tarantino knows how to write dialogue even if he is excessively violent. It feels so natural to watch a bunch of guys talk about tipping and the true meaning of Madonna songs, and at the same time you get some serious character development. Mr. Orange's fake story about the bathroom is the best sequence in the film. It picks apart the nature of storytelling and lying, how you can make a lie true by knowing it well enough and how you need a few lies to make a story that actually happened really shine. I want to watch it again just to analyze the story the cops are telling within Orange's tale. Is the cop telling the story making stuff up to entertain his partners, or is he telling or embellishing the truth? The whole scene is all part of Mr. Orange anyway; what does it all say about him? He's telling a fake story about someone telling a possibly fake story, and they both get away with it. That is, if the cop is lying at all. What does it say about Orange if the cop in his story is telling the truth? Either way, the fact that he's telling a story about getting away with something right under someone's nose is great since he's currently getting away with something right under everyone's noses.

I think it's best to take this movie as fourish character studies framed by this robbery. Pink is selfish, Blond is horrific, White is compassionate and loving, and Orange is... Well, I think he's the most interesting. He's the good guy, the cop, but he doesn't seem like a completely great person. He's got that sort of relaxed, cocky asshole banter going with his black friend in that diner, and he's apparently screwed up his marriage judging by the wedding ring in the bowl of pennies. Maybe that's why he decided to go undercover in the first place; he screwed up and wants to try and make things better.

White is also fun to look at. He takes Orange under his wing and starts to really love the guy. I think he probably follows the old empathetic killer stereotype and sees a lot of himself in this new kid. He probably wants Orange to be happy, to succeed, and to live a long, enjoyable life. That's all anyone would want for themselves. But then Orange's inevitable betrayal comes along, and White's anger at being deceived is just enough to overpower his hopes for this kid...

Pink is pretty simple. He's selfish, as I said. Take any scene he's in and this character trait will emerge, from talking about not tipping to staying out of the final standoff. I like him (Steve Buscemi is great), but there's not a ton to say about him.

Then there's Blond, who just creeps the hell out of me. Torturing for fun just ain't cool, kids. Anyone who does that is horrible, nasty, and almost inhuman. He makes me squirm. I'm liking this idea that his personality is portrayed by the horrific violence; the gruesome images are a depiction of his character. That's sort of an excuse for the violence, in that it's a way to convey what's going on inside Blond's head. The problem is just that I don't want to watch a movie about what's going on in Blond's head because it's scary as shit.

Overall, it's good stuff. Tension, drama, characters, script, all of it good. There's something there to be learned, too. Something about either how bad things lead to bad ends or how unlucky things lead to bad ends. I'm not sure which.

SAM'S VERDICT: amazing script if you're able to take a lot of graphic violence.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Movie Trailers #3

More!

Zombieland



Danl requested this one. It's appropriate that he would be the one to point this movie out to me because he's probably the only person I'd actually consider seeing it with. This looks to be very much a bro's night out flick. It's a zombie movie, it's light hearted, the jokes look just good enough to both laugh with and at, and there's ample opportunity for Left 4 Dead references. It'll be fun, but it's not like it's new. Zombie films have been beaten to death as of late, and Shaun of the Dead covered a lot of the zombie comedy (zombedy?) stuff already. This looks like its mostly that southern guy killing zombies in cool / ridiculous ways and then making snarky comments about it. The gags look good enough, though that "zombie kill of the week" one from the preview is probably the high point of the whole film. But if this comes out and you're a guy, call me up. We'll grab a couple bros and head up to Lakeville.

The Bluetooth Virgin



This looks promising to me. It could be a smart comedy about the writing process while also being a decent parody of the Hollywood system, or it could wish it was that while actually being pretentious, unfunny, and bad. Maybe the jokes are good; maybe they suck. Maybe the protagonist is likable, maybe I want to punch him in the face, or maybe he's just boring. I'm not sure what to think, but I am intrigued. I like movies about writing - Adaptation and Barton Fink both come to mind as great ones, though this looks much less weird than either of those.

Alice In Wonderland



Oh Johnny Depp. You so creepy.

It looks cool, I'll give it that. Tim Burton stuff always looks cool. The question becomes whether any other part of it is any good. I have no knowledge of the script's quality, or even plot. Hulu says that this movie is about Alice returning to Wonderland for a second time when she's grown up, so who knows what the story involves. Maybe someone sucked all the brightness out of the world, which would explain why all the landscapes look so dark. Whatever. I'm not impressed enough to get excited. We haven't been given enough to work with here. Without more, I'm assuming this is just another Charlie and the Chocolate Factory style remake money grab. Given Johnny Depp's lead role and Tim Burton's involvement, I think we can expect exactly what we got with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: a decent modern take on a classic film much in Burton's style. I'll see it, nod my head in recognition of the neat visual style and crazy Depp antics, then be done with it.

Actually, maybe I won't. This is going to make a third movie like that after Charlie and Sweeney Todd. It's a good formula, but it's becoming old, and this is the one I'm least interested in to begin with. We'll see. Maybe someone will convince me it's worth it.

Ninja Assassin

Yeah. I'm not even going to embed this preview. Suffice to say it's exactly what it sounds like. Exactly what it sounds like.

Taking Woodstock



This one is a Madelyn request. I wasn't impressed when I first heard about this one, and the trailer I saw before District 9 was hardly inspiring. This Hulu trailer, though... It gets me more excited. Demitri Martin is mostly great, and this trailer takes it from "probably bad comedy" to "mediocre comedy with a heart" in my mind. That's much more viewable. Still, while trying to come up with things to say about it, I can't think of much. It's a pretty bland story; I could write you the plot and all major twists from the name alone. There will be a scene with someone from town trying to shut them down, parents not liking the idea then deciding it's great, a revelation on the part of or humiliation of the bad guy just in time for him to join in on that mud slide, and undoubtedly a romantic scene on a hill with a beautiful girl and Demitri that gets rudely interrupted by the crazy / in your face / over the top best friend. Still, stereotypes can be fun, and I'm curious about any progress in Martin's career. Friends could convince me to go. Okay, I'll be honest, a girl would have to convince me to go.

Next time I do trailers I'll be talking about Ponyo, Toy Story 3, and Tron: Legacy. Until then!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Violence In Cinema, or Quentin Tarantino: A Retrospective

With Inglourius Basterds coming out in under a week, I thought this would be a good time to talk about Quentin Tarantino movies. Then I decided that the real meat of what I wanted to say centered around cinematic violence, so now you get a discussion of violence in film using some Tarantino movies as examples. Sweet.

So what's the deal, modern society? When did we all decide it was okay to desensitize the population so hard? If you look at TV from the 70s, there's pretty much no graphic violence. The closest you get is this. Now we've got stuff like 24 and Lost flying around. Have you seen some of that shit? A friend of mine decided to play a drinking game while watching the last episode of Lost season 5 a few months ago. The rule was you drank whenever a bloody face showed up on screen, and when retelling this story this friend couldn't remember anything about the episode. And that's just the action shows. House is sometimes even worse; I just stop watching the screen every time they go into the operating room.

On a related note, why does every show need a torture episode now? Buffy the Vampire Slayer started this tradition for me with Spike getting brutally tortured in one of those later seasons, but Joss Whedon continued the tradition in Firefly when Mal and Wash get electrocuted until they bleed and then one loses an ear for a while. 24 has torture eps freaking all over the place, Lost had that one in season 2 or 3 where Sayid threatens to push sticks under Sawyer's fingernails.

Of course the torture phenomenon is not confined to TV. More and more movies are following suit. I'm not into the whole "horror that is actually just gross stuff" genre, but I think this whole thing started there. It first leaked onto TV, then into Bond movies. That scene in Casino Royal towards the end is just... painful. Then there's Se7en, Hard Candy (which I thankfully have not seen), and this preview I saw a couple days ago for one of those movies that looks like an hour of torture and an hour of car bombs. Gangster movies are up to their ears in it, and that's on top of the blood running down everyone's face from the action sequences. The same can be said for pretty much every genre. How has cinematic entertainment gotten so gruesome?

And yet... Not all the violence is completely unpleasant...

While I'd rather not watch Jack Shepherd get himself all cut up every week, there's a certain kind of stylized violence that I really enjoy. My favorite example of this is Kill Bill vol. 1. I watched the movie at a friend's house when I was young and even more sensitive than I am now, yet I came away longing for more. Kill Bill is a story about killing people. No matter how you look at it, the word "kill" is right there in the title. There's some guy named Bill out there, and this is a couple of movies about someone trying to kill him. The characters have some depth, but most of it doesn't come out until volume 2. Volume 1 just slaps a couple of good stereotypes on it's characters then delivers an hour and a half of people getting killed as The Bride makes her way towards Bill. That's it; that's literally the entire movie. The Bride kills a bunch of people. There's a slight twist at the end. Now go watch part 2.

It's horribly violent. The infamous Crazy 88 scene is so violent that it had to be shown in black in white in the American release of the film. Blood sprays everywhere. Limbs fly around the room like they've each been strapped with an individual jet-pack. Then after that, The Bride chops the top half of some bitch's head off revealing the brain. Holy SHIT, guys. That's it. That's the end.

Why is that entertaining? I walked out of my friend's house loving this movie, but I couldn't describe why. When people asked me what I thought of it I'd tell them that it was the best movie about killing people I'd ever seen. This is true. What separates this from the rest of the movies about killing people out there? I like action sequences, but I'm not a huge fan. It can't be action alone that turns me on to a film. I've already discussed the lack of an amazing plot. I enjoy the way Tarantino rearranges the sequence of his stories, but that alone doesn't make a good movie or everyone would do it. That's on the right track, though. What sets Tarantino's films apart is their style. What draws me to Kill Bill is not the fact that The Bride just kicked the shit out of 88 ninjas, it's that the way she did it was so fucking cool. You can kill people, or you can stab them with a fucking bad-ass katana in slow motion with circling cameras on an elaborate set all set to a pumping soundtrack. Hell yeah.

Even that's not enough, though. Tons of movies come out each year with bad-ass weapon wielding heroes and heroines kicking the shit out of henchmen in slow motion with circling cameras on an elaborate set all set to a pumping soundtrack, but few of them compare to the Crazy 88 scene. There's something more to Tarantino pieces. It's some combination of the way they're both completely serious and completely over the top at the same time. On the one hand, there's very little humor in the script of Kill Bill. It's dead serious about killing Bill. Few jokes, lots of tension, and death through the whole story. On the other, no serious film depicts someone getting their arm severed by the single swing of a sword followed by blood spraying out like a fountain. That's just not a serious image; it's absurd. Being both of these things at the same time gives the film a very distinct style. The violence being unrealistic makes it bearable to watch, and that all together gives the whole story a unique feel to it.

Kill Bill also pulls you in with its mythology. It's such a basic story, but that just makes it more accessible. Tarantino boils the plot down to its most bare bones. The Bride has been wronged by 5 people, and now she is going to kill all 5 of them. Bam. That's all the setup we need, it's all the setup we get, and it's executed with a sort of perfection that draws us in. It's simple, it's clear, and now we care. Now we want to see Bill killed.

That makes it sound like the stylized violence of Kill Bill is so compelling because there's a plot driving it. I don't think this is true. The plot helps, of course. If we didn't care about The Bride we might be rooting for the Crazy 88 the whole time. The reason I don't like this conclusion is how I feel about the story's end [spoiler alert]. Watching Bill take his final five steps is satisfying, but then what? After Bill is dead, the story is over. We have killed Bill. But on seeing this, instead of accomplishment I felt remorse that the story was over. There wouldn't be anymore killing. There wouldn't be anymore sleek yellow jumpsuits or ridiculous stylized violence. It was done. This means that the point was not to kill Bill, but rather the exciting story leading up to that final scene. The point was to have an excuse to show us the Crazy 88 scene, the buried alive scene, the opening hospital sequence, the shootout in the suburban kitchen, and all the rest. The style was the point.

Style. Modern action movies are supposed to entertain us, and some do that with violence. What I'm entertained by is not the violence, though, it's the style of the thing. It's the mood and the feeling captured by the film. Die Hard doesn't give us much beyond explosions, but Kill Bill gives us a polished product and a heart to examine. It gives us something more than just cool sequences.

I'm clearly still trying to pinpoint what exactly that is.

What is a movie like Kill Bill trying to say? It's not saying something in the same way that, say, A Clockwork Orange is. What is the point of all that violence? Why do I find stylized violence so compelling? Maybe when you take violence to the extreme, you can distill some sort of cinematic purity out of it. Maybe I'm wrong about that A Clockwork Orange comment.

Maybe it's just cool.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Review: District 9


What an impressive feat of world building. There's your summary, people.

District 9 starts out as a documentary in the way you would expect from its previews. You've got your young looking historians who set the background up for you; basically, aliens showed up in a giant mothership, we put them in slums (named District 9) because we're assholes, and now we want to move them to what amounts to a concentration camp because we're still assholes. The historians are engaging, and the news clips and so forth immerse you quickly. As far as I was concerned aliens really were hanging out in the slums of Africa, and that absurdly ominous mothership really was just floating there silently like some sort of giant freaky bomb waiting to go off. This was a bleak world, but a world I was very keen on exploring. Clearly there was a story in need of telling.

Oh man, and the aliens. They have shots of the aliens right away, and they look fantastic. I'm honestly not sure whether they had guys in sweet looking alien suits or just massive amounts of CG or what, but the aliens were right there! Right there in front of you tearing a pig in half. Yeesh. They click, they scamper around, their mouth tentacle things move a bunch, and they eat cat food cans whole. Absolutely fantastic stuff.

The opening historian / newsreels bits are spliced together with "archival footage" of some annoying office worker guy with a funny accent and a sign labeled "I'm the guy who dies first" taped to his back. More specifically, this guy has just been promoted to lead troops into District 9 and hand out eviction notices to all the aliens. Everyone gets ready to head on in, and the world of District 9 has been laid out for us beautifully.

Then, as you would expect, it turns into a mediocre action / horror flick.

Here Be Spoilers

As much as the action sequences are cool, they aren't special in the modern day where everything looks cool. Flipping a car over the head of one's giant robot suit is awesome, as was the electrically charged mushroom cloud explosions of some of the guns. Not much other that was particularly unique, though. People exploding is... well, yeah. Blood splattering onto the camera is also... well, yeah. Very cool, but ew.

I liked the tense sequences, though. From the minute our hero gets sprayed by that black alien stuff, I was waiting for his head to suddenly explode every time he was on camera. More relief came for me when his alien arm was revealed than is natural. Isn't discovering that some dude is turning into an alien supposed to be a point where you freak the fuck out?

The MechWarrior battle suit was cool. Christopher Jones (I think was his name) has a hilarious name. Alien babies are alien babies, blowing up shacks full of eggs and describing it as like popping popcorn is horrible, and chopping off limbs is cringe-worthy even when they're no longer human limbs. I don't know, I wasn't terribly impressed after the first 30 minutes.

My thoughts about this film remind me of my thoughts on WALL.E. I want both movies to take their opening 15 minutes, extend it to be an opening 45 minutes, and then take a bunch of their excess crap and throw it out. That's less true for WALL.E, but this one had a ton of scenes that just ran way too long. For example, the shots of the alien ship getting beamed up into the mothership went on for 2-3 minutes when they should have taken about 30 seconds, and I'd say there should've been about 50% fewer exploding people.

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Okay, maybe 20% fewer exploding people.

Then there's the main guy (who's name I don't recall). He's just... boring, I guess. I'd so much rather have seen him get killed like he was supposed to. Sure he was a decent guy, but I want more than that. Countless people have a wife and horrible in-laws. Countless people work in boring government offices. Countless people have no personality to speak of, yet you chose one of these people to be our protagonist. And no, an accent plus being small and timid does not a personality make. That's like choosing a memorable quirk or two from the list or random NPC traits in the Dungeon Master's Guide when you need a quick bartender on the fly; it's not how you make protagonists.

I guess I should mention the film's message: people are racist dicks. I know this, I've been told before. I don't think there's anything said here that goes above and beyond the marks other people have made on this thoroughly covered ground of moral issue. Not much else to say here, though I'd love to hear if anyone else got a bigger message out of District 9 than I did. Maybe I should take more from the fact that Christopher Jones is the person you end identifying with the most.

Spoilers End

Well. I did like it. I liked it a lot. The documentary parts were incredible. If the action and suspense sequences were just average, at least something about the film was dead on. No matter how much I may bitch about mediocrity, I still mostly enjoy it. It was a fun film. Very atmospheric. Very much a world building experience.

Oh, but please for the love of god don't franchise this, because a sequel would be awful.

SAM'S VERDICT: Great atmosphere, and suspense / action up to industry standards. Go see it if any of that sounds appealing to you.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Review: In The Loop

Tobee

I first heard about In The Loop while browsing movie trailers on Hulu one night several weeks ago. This was the first time since spring I'd remembered how much time I could sink into watching every trailer for every movie coming out in the next year, so it was a marathon session of trailer watching. I came out of it determined to see (500) Days of Summer (which I'd already seen a preview for but still looked amazing), The Invention of Lying (described in my last post), and the subject of today's review. This film looked like an incredibly fast paced British political satire with very improvised feeling dialogue. Having just watching it, I can confidently say that it delivers.

Okay. So. Before I get into the meat of things, here's how single movie reviews are going to work. I want this blog to be a resource for people to come to when they want a suggestion for a movie. They can search around, read a sort of "Sam's plot summary and opinion without spoilers" piece, and then pick out a movie. However, I also want to talk about spoilers, and nothing sucks more than picking up the back of a movie and having it ruin the ending. To solve this, I'm going to write reviews with two sections: the "no spoilers" and the "spoilers" sections. If you haven't seen the film but think it sounds good after reading the first part, go watch it. Then when you're done you can read the rest of what I have to say. Don't worry, what I have to say will still be there when you get around to watching it a week or twelve down the line.

Where was I? Ah yes. A section heading.

In The Loop: No Spoilers Section

I said before that this movie was high paced, yes? I used the phrase "incredibly fast paced". If I truly want to be accurate, I should say up front that In The Loop would pass incredibly fast paced films on the highway by several dozen MPH. It's like that guy in the bright red, shiny new car on the freeway who's behind... wait, no, he's passing you... wait no, he's waaaay off in the distance now. Of course, this is part of the point. It's so faced paced that you're always trying to keep up. And if you don't keep up, then you are, well, no longer in the loop. Just like in the political system it's portraying, everyone is constantly trying to keep up with what is going on.

The preview had me thinking of The Office but with a solid fourth wall. Lots of very natural conversations, people interrupting each other, and so forth. This is how the film plays, though it leads to crazy amounts of fuckwords. By which I mean the word fuck. It also leads to talking about people's hypothetical sweaty horse cocks - that scene is only, like, 10 minutes in, so it hardly counts as a spoiler. Yeah, the British war person secretary guy is obscene. Obscene needs an adjective there, but I'm hard pressed to think of one that describes the vast magnitude of the amount of obsceneness that this guy Malcolm possesses. In every scene he spouts out at least one ten second string of craziness that ends in me thinking "did he actually just say that?" while laughing in shock. Here's a clip:



Then his assistant shows up later... holy fucking cock suckers, man. Holy greased bags of monkey shit. Yeah.

The "hero", pictured above, is an aid to some mostly unimportant politician in London who comes in on his first day only to discover that his new boss may have just accidentally sort of maybe caused people to start thinking about going to war. Oops. Tobee, this aid, is a very sympathetic character to start with. He's got a nice girlfriend in the office across the street, a decent job, and he seems to be the only person who knows what real life is like in the whole office. That's probably not a perk with this job, though. He quickly gets sucked in to his new boss's world of horribly managed public appearances, sailor mouthed war politician crazy fucker Malcom guy, sudden trips to the states, and general hustle and bustle. It just gets harder to keep up from there.

Relentless. In the same way that The Office makes you want to squirm out of your body and just be somewhere other than wherever Steve Corell currently is, In The Loop makes you want to... to... God, I don't know. Maybe to help. I want to just walk into every scene, punch everyone in the face, and tell them exactly what is wrong with what they're currently doing. This, too, is the point of the film. That's how the people making this film feel about our political system all the time. It doesn't help that

WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS

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(everyone who wants to be gone? Good.)

As I was saying, it doesn't help that the ending is so depressing. Everyone with any shred of decency in their body is miserable and, in most cases, out of a job. I had such high hopes for our hero stopping the wary and getting together with that American girl permanently, but in the end he's helpless to do anything, out of a job, and pretty much a giant douche when it comes to his whole lady situation. The main British politician guy has had his career destroyed over some wall he was never even involved in fixing or not fixing, and that somewhat likable American general is stuck in a meeting about whether or not it's okay for soldiers to watch I Heart Huckabees. It was horrible watching the last fifteen minutes. What should have been a great revelation on the part of Tobee's on how to fix all of the war problems and maybe win back his British girl was instead a great revelation for Malcolm on how to save his ass by ruining the careers of multiple people and starting a war. That's the brilliance of evil people in politics, I guess.

I don't know how much of the satire to believe. Is our government... does the political system of the world really work like that? The cynic in me wants to say yes, but the optimist wants to... well, turn a blind eye, to be honest. I don't know anyone in Washington, though. I know a bunch of stuff that should be easy to get done can't get done because Democrats and Republicans are too busy fucking each other's mom's (sorry, I'm still channeling Malcolm's tirades), but I'd like to think that war happens because we need it to. It shouldn't happen because... because...

That's the other thing I came out of the movie with: a question. Why did anyone want to go to war? When you get down to it, there were only two people who did want to go to war: Malcolm and the horrible American Midwestern guy who had started the Future Planning Committee. Malcolm didn't actually want to go to war, he just wanted to get back at everyone who had pissed him off over the course of the film and to prove that he had power over the situation at hand. The real motivating force behind going to war was the Midwestern guy, and if it's explained what he stood to gain in the film it went right past me. That's the other lesson, I guess. There's never a good reason to go to war. That and people don't go to war because the war will actually benefit them, they go to war for bullshit other reasons.

I hate Dick Cheney.


...

Spoiler Section Over Plus Verdict

Finishing up here, I need some sort of rating system for movies. Numbers are okay, but I think a couple of words does better. That way when I have a bunch of reviews done I can decide whether "a good trip to funky town" or "assuming I'm drunk" is a better rating.


SAM'S VERDICT: Assuming I was in the mood for political satire, I'd put it highly on my list of choices.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Movie Trailers #2

Once more with feeling!

Before we get started, I note that Hulu has a trailer for New York, I Love You, an obvious sequel to Paris, Je t'aime. I'd talk about the trailer, but I haven't seen the french film despite its repeated suggestion to me. To the "movies I need to see" list!

A Serious Man



New Coen Brothers! This movie was filmed partially at the old St. Olaf science building across town from me. I kept saying I was going to go over and try and be an extra, but no one told me when they were actually in town and I missed it. Lame. I know a girl who got called back for a part in this film, too. Yeah. How's that for a stretched connection.

Oh man does this movie look bleak. The premise seems to be "Jewish man in horribly bleak 60s small town / at small town liberal arts college". I'm sure the Coen Brothers will succeed in making me feel like my entire existence is boring, depressing, and pointless. I'll walk out of the theater thanking them for showing me this, but I'll be depressed at the same time. That head slamming into the wall pulse through the trailer is almost intolerable, which is the point. Life is like slamming your head into a wall over and over again. Ugh. Is there anything less depressing out there?

Adam



The story I want to tell about this preview would be in bad taste now that I've posted a link to this blog on facebook. Such a shame. Suffice to say that this movie looks okay. Nothing about this movie appeals to me more than other romantic comedies. Watching someone be awkward because of Asperger's Syndrome is not something I feel compelled to do. I don't have faith in this movie to show an above average representation of the condition, so I don't feel like I can learn anything from it in that regard. From there it becomes a totally average romantic comedy where the thing keeping our romantic leads apart is social awkwardness. Then the whole time I'm watching it I'll have a voice in the back of my head telling me that I'm going to walk out of the theater thinking I'm now an expert on Asperger's, and that I'm going to end up making a fool of myself some day when I meet someone who has it. I'd rather watch Hugh Grant learn how to love and leave the theater feeling good about myself than watch the struggles of these characters and leave the theater feeling guilty.

Brothers



I hate movies like this. Specifically, I hate movies with no sense of humor. Pure drama just can't hold me if I'm not having any fun. I don't watch movies for a brutal, relentless experience, I watch them because either I want to be entertained or I want to be entertained while thinking about a particular part of life. I know that war is horrible and that it does horrible things to the people that survive it. I know that I should be considerate to such people, and if I knew what I could easily do to help veterans I would help them. What I don't want is to watch a family get torn apart by war. That just isn't my idea of a good afternoon. I'd rather spend two hours thinking about how to help vets than to watch a movie about how shitty it is to be one.

At least it has Natalie Portman in it.

Hot Tub Time Machine

Really? Really? Do I even need to watch this trailer? I mean, I guess for posterity's sake I should before talking about it, but... really?



Is that a movie with John Cusack, Rob Corddry, that black guy from all the Judd Apatow movies, and some nerdy dude all in the same scene? If you told me those four guys were the stars I'd be there in a heart beat. But even three actors I love will have a tough time saving a movie called Hot Tub Time Machine.

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Really? It's called Hot Tub Time Machine?

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I might have to go to this one.

The Invention of Lying



Nothing beats a romantic comedy with a likable gimmick. The script looks good, I love the lead, and it's a premise with... well, hopefully they can milk 90 minutes out of it. I know I'll like it for the first 15, if nothing else. I'll need an excuse to go see it, though. Maybe I can find some sappy bros to go with. I've always secretly wanted a girlfriend who insists on going to see all sorts of bad romantic comedies so I have a reason to see them. This one doesn't look bad, though, so I'm sure I can sucker someone into coming along.

There's still a few more trailers left that I like the look of, but I think five is a good stopping point. Next time I'll have to check out Alice in Wonderland. All I know right now is that Johnny Depp's mad hatter poster scares the crap out of me. I had to look at it for like an hour waiting to get into the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, and the whole time I felt completely unnerved. Had to avert my eyes.