Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Valhalla Rising 2009

Valhalla Rising 2009

Valhalla Rising has been on my 'Scandinavian movies to watch' list for a while.  It got bumped down the list time and again as films like Arn and Rare Exports got North American releases.  I finally sat down and slotted the disc in and sat in a state of bored/baffled/confused/intrigued/awed stupor for the entire run.  This film had weight, gravity, and deep themes, but never really names a character.  It has beautiful cinematography and a bad Blade Runner clone soundtrack.  It has brutal fights, but is too focused on its loftier goals and themes to ever get around to offering much action, entertainment, or exploration.  If this reviews seems unfocused and confused it is only because this film left me totally curfuzzled (to steal a term from the heartwarming claymation Mary & Max).  It has contradictions and ideas that make it interesting, but fails to be interesting.  I still can't decide if it was deep or pretentious, art-house or artistic.

Perhaps breaking the film down will add clarity?  I doubt it, but here I go... Valhalla Rising has some beautiful vistas.  It was shot in Scotland and many of the shots are just beautiful and filled with imagery.  On the other hand it has some horrible 1978 style effects during flashbacks and flash-forward scenes combined with a synth musical track that seems equally out of date.  The writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn deserves some props for making a film with deep religious themes while having minimal dialogue and a cast of basically unnamed characters.  The film is broken up into sections or acts with each act having a title.  This seems like an odd choice and breaks the film up into six acts.  I feel this has to have some deeper meaning that I just missed.  Is it some biblical or christian reference that flew over my head?  Some reference to Danish theater perhaps?  If this doesn't have some grand import behind it, I think this little nugget of oddness can be added into the fail pile.  Refn succeeded in bringing some brutal, short and intriguing violence to the screen, but much like the landscapes the action can't really carry the film past all the dead space filled with bad music.

The protagonist is called One-Eye because he only has one eye is silent or mute, I know that is soooo deep.  He is played really competently by Mads Mikkelse, but it is hard to get behind a murderous semi-godlike slave when he refuses to explain anything. Never a line mumbled or a sound made.  Not even a communicative grunt.  This badass makes his wishes known with meaningful looks and staring off in the distance like all real men should.  His woeful stares are translated into dialogue by the apparently telepathic child side kick listed on the credits simply as "the Boy".  The rest of the cast is filled out with warriors and a priest-like general.  Of course the priest-general wants to take his merry band of killers to the Crusades, but they get trapped in some fog only to be lost in a strange land where they are chased and hunted by some "pagan primitives".  Can God save this band of crazed Norsemen or will One-Eye be the savior?  That is the main crux of the story, but it never fully develops.  So a mute protagonist that isn't mute because an emotionless kid speaks for him has to save a bunch of murderous zealots from what is obviously Native Americans.  Yep that sums it up pretty well.

Can this pic sums up the movie?
I could ramble on forever about Valhalla Rising without ever giving the reader a clearer view of what to expect or really formulating any deeper insights, but my rant here is already longer than the script of the movie.  So in summary... bad story, music, pace, and dialogue... good acting, attempts at depth, action and themes.  This is one of those films that just leaves me wondering if I just didn't 'get it'.  It makes it hard to really bash the film, but in the end I think it comes across as a B thriller with serious themes.  I would recommend Valhalla Rising only to fans of Vikings and people seeking a bit more religion in their foreign action movies.

PS I think this requires a public service announcement.  A couple of my friends attempted to convince me that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is actually a show worth watching.  Be warned this is a mean joke meant to torture you through 20+ minutes of horrible voice acting and nauseatingly smug cuteness. DO NOT BE FOOLED - DO NOT WATCH MY LITTLE PONY!

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods 2012

The Cabin in the Woods 2012

By necessity this may be the shortest review I ever do.  Cabin in the Woods is one of those rare movies with plot twists that aren't entirely ruined by trailers.  The twists, turns, and surprises are so interesting, unique and fun that I fear just by claiming that it has twists I could splat a big steaming pile of spoiler on it.  So I will rant and rave about a paragraph or so and then conclude this before I ruin it.

This wonderful horror/slasher/comedy written by the fan favorite Joss Whedon, with the director Drew Goddard, is clever and funny while still delivering a few thrills.  The plot does a few clever pirouettes without falling in the cliche traps of a M. Knight Shyamalan flick.  The acting is good with the ham and cheese delivered with comic timing better than the best rom-com.  The horror and kills didn't track down the trail of gore porn such as the Saw movies, which for this viewer is a good thing.  Overall this movie delivered on its promise of a fun horror comedy with a twist and went far beyond my expectations.  I would highly recommend this movie to horror fans and those looking for a comic take on the genre. If horror and/or comedy are your cup of tea, go see this flick before some jerk wad at the water cooler spoils it... Really go see it before I spoil it...

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale 2010

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale 2010

So who likes campy holiday horror movies?  Well to be honest I do, but Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is actually much deeper than your average Santa slasher flick (see Santa's Slay 2005).  It is a Finnish flick and is a dark tale around some of the pre-Coca Cola versions of our favorite Christmas character.  It reminds me of an old fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm more than the horror flick I assumed it was going to be.  It might be a bit too dark for me to show it to a child that I don't wish to inflict nightmares upon, but it is pretty comic and has a good child actor in the lead.  It would be fantastic for kids that can handle movies with a dark turn like one of my childhood favorites, Gremlins 1984.  Well other than the liberal use of old man full frontal nude shots...

... Make up your own opinion about nudity and society, but for me this falls under personal opinion and to me it was inoffensive.  The nude shots were mostly from far away and quick so you won't be getting the 'giant blue ween' problem I noted in the Watchmen, but it is definitely there. Combining the nudity, dark themes, and a few translated swear words and this film earned itself an R rating by the MPAA (send them an email to complain about the rating, draconian ruling as usual).  I think the director, Jalmari Helander, might have served himself better with some editing for North American release, but that may have been his only mistake in this flick.  With the budget, style, and content it could not have been handled better.  The effects fall short of a big Hollywood movie, but much like Trollhunter they make great use of what they have.  It is done as realistically as a movie about Santa can be which keeps the camp down to a level that is comic without changing the movie into full blown spoof.  The story is great and the main character, played by Omni Tommila, is a protagonist my inner child identified with. Some of the dialogue is bad as it was translated and some of the characters do some odd stuff, but overall this movie isn't serious enough to worry about problems every holiday flick is guilty of.

Rare Exports is one of those foreign gems that I adore.  It is quirky, fun, and completely outside of the modular story telling I am used to in modern cinema.  I caught a few promo videos and the short films it is based on last year and have been eagerly anticipating its North American release.  After finally getting to see it, I can say that I don't regret the rental and will be picking up my own copy soon.   I would recommend Rare Exports to very open minded families and those looking for a completely different Christmas flick.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Hunger Games 2012

The Hunger Games 2012

My mission with this film review blog is to bring to light the strange, the underground, the foreign, and the forgotten movies. I try not to review new or really hot movies despite catching most of the big flicks while they are still in theaters.  The Hunger Games was my most anticipated movie of 2012 (well maybe the new Total Recall ...) and it turned out to be a positive experience so I can't help giving my opinion.  I have been excited about The Hunger Games for a long time with my excitement gaining momentum at every cast announcement.  Then I caught an CNBC interview with the head of Lionsgate (the production company) talking about how he was excited for the movie and thought it was going to be great, but that it was a big gamble.  With a budget around $75 million it couldn't compete with other big budget, big name and effects heavy book adaptations like the Harry Potter series (Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince for instance had a budget around $250 million).  Turning the books into a trilogy was put on hold by Lionsgate until they knew if The Hunger Games was going to be a loss or a hit. It had a reasonable advertising budget and didn't pick up a lot of early news coverage, but as it got close to release the world wide anticipation grew into a frothing frenzy.  The Hunger Games opening weekend broke some box office records so we will be getting the sequels, but does it live up to the hype?

First of all I am a fan of the books (insert insults for reading adolescent girl books here!).  As a fan of the books the movie was a great success.  I found it moving, basically well acted for a teen love story, and mostly true to the plot and characters.  For those that aren't familiar with the source material I think it would be a little confusing, particularly a few of the relationships and characters that are explored more in the later novels such as President Snow, played by Donald Sutherland.  The movie basically broke the story into two acts.  The plot moved along, but most of the character development happens in the first half.  This leaves the second half to be mostly an exciting set of action sequences.  Dystopian science fiction movies like this require a lot of exposition and using the first half to explain everything worked but I think the movie could have been paced better with more emphasis on the games themselves with a voice over to do exposition.  This would also give us more insight into the main character Katniss, played well by Jennifer Lawrence from last year's X-Men First Class.  This is one example of the ways this film fell apart on the directing and technical side.

The Hunger Games falls well short of being a great movie.  It had mediocre-to-bad digital effects shots that looked like painted backgrounds, a shaky camera, and noticeable continuity errors.  The camera work, cinematography was by the normally great Tom Stern, in this film took shaky hand cam work to a new level.  The first ten minutes were nearly unwatchable and all the most important fight scenes were a series of too close, shaky shots that were edited together with too many quick cuts.  This gives the fights a sense of chaos and probably allowed them to sneak some violence into the PG-13 rating, but it just failed.  Failed to be coherent, failed to be beautiful, failed to be interesting, and most of all failed by making some of my strongest stomached friends ill.  The script, written by the director Gary Ross and the novel author Suzanne Collins, felt close to the book, but directing choices such as not really developing the relationship between Katniss and Gale or not using voice over kept the film version from having the impact and social commentary of the book.  The acting was good enough for an adolescent action film with a few standouts such as Woody Harrelson personifying Haymitch, Stanley Tucci bringing to life the flamboyant Ceasar Flickerman, and Elizabeth Banks (yes from Zack & Miri Make a Porno 2008) pulling off the eccentric Effie Trinket.

So all in all I enjoyed the movie a lot.  During one scene I even welled up a tear, but like a lot of this film I can't figure out if the film version was that moving or if my attachment to the source material was overwhelming me.  I am not sure if this film will have much pop for those outside its target audience that haven't read the books, but it is good enough that parents that go with their teens should enjoy it also.  I would recommend this film to fans of the book series and to anyone looking for a good way to bond with their teenager.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Bunraku 2010

Bunraku 2010

Bunraku is a traditional form of Japanese puppet theater, but I know very little about it so I will instead discuss the 2010 live action film BunrakuBunraku is a revenge and violence tale that draws heavily on Japanese traditions such as Kabuki theater, Bunraku and samurai, but it also blends in heavy doses of the Western genre and modern revenge flicks.  This is a truly stylish film that is fun and light hearted, playing around within the tropes and ideas common to the genres and histories it both parodies and celebrates.  It delivers this style through fantastic fight scenes, creative green screen and CG effects, music, sound, direction and narration, but despite all the spectacles throughout the film it is somehow a little dry and uninteresting.  Style to me can make up for flaws bigger than wooden acting and poor pacing and this film had style enough to overcome a plot that was written in crayon by a kid wearing a helmet.  Every aspect of this film draws in references from film, video games (a top down GTA scenes and numbered enemies), comics (Spiderman-ish pop-up book, comic dialogue boxes for subtitled sections) and pop culture.  These can be distracting (video game dings), but overall are fun and referential humor is a win in my book.  The creative mish-mash of genres and styles comes together to create a feeling of a cross between a stage production of a Western and a puppet version of a traditional samurai film. 

The director, Guy Moshe, deserves the credit for the successes in this film.  Drawing together the desperate styles had to be done by a true artist. The film has some writing missteps, but it mostly falls down due to the acting. The narrator  (apparently stylistically straight out of Bunraku theater), voiced by Mike Patton,  is heavy handed and over used despite sounding awesome. The acting leaves a lot to be desired, even by some of the actors that originally drew me to the film such as Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore.  I can't bring myself to like Josh Hartnett despite him doing great in this film and several minor characters seemed to be miscast.  Other actors saved the film from becoming an artist, stylish bore.  Ron Perlman as the antagonist woodcutter Nicola was great.  Perlman really nails roles where he needs to be a likeable bad guy (see him in Sons of Anarchy he makes the show).  The androgynous Japanese actor Gackt plays the second protagonist Yoshi spectacularly.  His acting, makeup, and costuming bring to life the Japanese aesthetics.  Killer Number Two (I mentioned numbered enemies right?), Kevin McKidd of Grey's Anatomy fame, was a great cold, analytica bad guy who reminded me of the awesome antagonist the Swede from AMC's Hell on Wheels.

The technical side of the film shocked the film to life with great effects, style in spades and cool sound, but the best technical parts of the film where without a doubt the crazy, violent and fun fights.  The fight scenes throughout the film that mix of stylized western gang fights (like Gangs of New York), violent fights of modern revenge flicks (Kill Bill), stand-offs from Spaghetti Westerns (Dollars Trilogy), stylized shadow fights from Asian theater, puppet violence and duels straight out of Samurai films (Yojimbo).  The beautiful and stylized fights come right out of the gate with digital paper cut-outs showing warfare and downfall of man.  Again it was stylish, fun, and comical if a bit dry.  One set of simultaneous fights played well with the ideas of shadow theater, tying the two fights together by showing sections of the action purely or partially through shillouettes and shadows, but these clips were quick and underutilized.  Another fight during a prison break is reference to side scrolling video games.  A bare knuckles fight towards the end of the movie was a stunning fight with tremendous use of the soundtrack and sound effects.

The multidimensional and layered fights combining comic scenes, beauty, and violence are the core of film.  The writing and acting try to justify the collection of fight scenes, but fail to prop it up completely.  On the other hand the style and art direction manage to hold up this crazy, make shift, CG paper construction of a film despite the movie's flimsy substance.  I am not sure how highly I can recommend this film as it might have a niche audience and despite very competent construction of the film it lacks too much in the pacing and story to keep it interesting.  I fear despite my strong attraction to the film most audiences will find it a simple, if stylish, bit of popcorn spectacle.  I would recommend Bunraku to fans of Samurai Westerns and fans of Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 1920 / Hugo 2011

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 1920 / Hugo 2011

The review will meander a bit around a modern film before talking about the classic silent era horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).  Earlier this week I gave in to the pressures of positive reviews, academy awards and my love of all flicks by Martin Scorsese and went to see Scorsese's new children's adventure movie Hugo (2011).  Hugo has some interesting ties back to early cinema and inspired me to re-watch to review one of my favorites of the silent era.  It was a hard choice between Metropolis (1927), Dr. Caligari, or a movie by Georges Melies (discussed below), but I chose my favorite silent flick The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  Now to stop dancing around the issue and get into the details of historic characters, film history, and finally some movie recommendations.

Hugo was the inspiration for writing about a silent film so I should discuss it and its ties to silent movies first.  It is a great adventure story with fantastic effects, sound, costumes, and a pretty darn good story, but that is better explained by the awards it received.  At the 2012 Oscars it took home awards for Art Direction, Cinematography, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and lastly Visual Effects.  Personally I saw it in 3D and minus a scene or two ruined with heavy 3D snow I can see how it won both cinematography and effects categories.  It is a great looking work that does some amazing tricks with 3D and regularly has staggering shots involving the mechanics of clocks.  It is no great surprise that it was a technically solid, beautiful movie with Robert Richardson as the cinematographer and Scorsese directing.  Richardson has worked with Scorsese in the past as director of photography on Shutter Island (2010) and worked on both Kill Bill flicks.  Scorsese is a directing powerhouse famous for a long list of masterpieces such as Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), Gangs of New York (2002), and The Departed (2006).  Enough gushing about the talent behind the flick and to why it is relevant to my romp back into the silent era.

Hugo is the story of an orphaned boy seeking a last connection to his dead father.  The boy named Hugo, played competently by Asa Butterfeild, befriends the goddaughter of the owner of a toy shop in the train station where Hugo lives.  The store owner's story intertwines with the story of Hugo and his dead father through an early clockwork robot.  The historical significance in the film comes back to this toy shop owner.  The toy maker, Ben Kingsley who is awesome as always, turns out to be famous early film and effects genius George Melies.  The story of the character intertwines with Melies's fall from film making into obscurity working in a Paris train station and his rise back to recognition.  The movie does deviate from the true story of Melies but much of the silent movies shown are actual Melies films.  Hugo does a great job of opening up this fantastic film maker to a modern audience.  Meleies made silent movies from 1986 to 1913 and was an early pioneer in special effects.  He was one of the earliest film makers to explore genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy with famous films that drew upon ideas from contemporary science fiction writers such as Jules Verne.  Kingsley portrays Melies as a man damaged by his fall from grace and financial failures which closely reflects the real life Melies.

So after a two hour modern flick extolling the wonders of early film making, I was overwhelmed with a desire to watch a silent era horror or fantasy film.  Naturally I drifted back to the film class favorite The Cabinet of Caligari because it was my first non-Buster Keaton silent film.  Dr. Caligari is one of best examples of early horror and expressionism in film.  It involves ideas of reality and insanity.  The story unfolds through a character recounting the tale of how he came to track a murdering hypnotist and asylum director back to the insane asylum.  It questions what is reality and who really is insane.  The recent Martin Scorsese film Shutter Island closely mirrors much of the same ideas and themes.  Dr. Caligari draws heavily on expressionism for its style and its heavy use of angles give the whole story the surreal qualities that further confuses reality and fantasy.  It is hard to explain the aesthetic style of Dr. Caligari and I suggest everyone checks out at least a few minutes of the film to understand how fantastic the art and sets could be in the early era of film.

OK enough of me feeding you a film history lesson and down to the important recommendations.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a wonderful film.  It is a simple story with very complex ideas and subtext.  The set design and style create a wonderful fantasy world and you will recognize parts of the set because modern film makers draw heavily from Dr. Caligari (Tim Burton flicks and coffin scenes from Dracula [1931] are a great example).  On the other hand I can't recommend Dr. Caligari to most audiences.  It suffers from the slow pace common in silent films.  Unless you like black and white or silent movies, Dr. Caligari will only be interesting for its historic context.

Hugo on the other hand should appeal to a modern audience from children right up to jaded art house fans.  Scorsese again pulls off a blend of pop film making and beautiful art.  It borders at time on a pretentious film history lesson (like this article!), but it is exciting and entertaining.  I didn't think that Hugo could live up to critical acclaim it has received, but I think it did.  While it wasn't the most engaging or fun movie last year it certainly was one of the most beautiful with staggering effects and some of the best sound work I have ever seen.  I would recommend Hugo to anyone looking for a deeper kids movie and anyone who loves Scorsese.

Friday, February 24, 2012

I Love You Phillip Morris 2009

I Love You Phillip Morris 2009

Well this week I got a hype-free foreign gem in Castaway on the Moon (2009) that was a box office failure, so I decided to sit down and watch a very hyped domestic box office failure.  I guess I was still in the mood for some odd ball romantic comedy because I popped in a copy of I Love You Phillip Morris.  This flick has a great underground following despite its limited release and lambasting by some critics.  The touchy subject matter presented humorously in the film polarized some viewers, but overall it received positive reviews from critics and came with a few personal recommendations from friends.  For those not familiar with some of the controversy about I Love You Phillip Morris, it is a story based on a real life homosexual con-artist and prison escape artist Steven Russell.  Russell, played by Jim Carey, during a stint in jail falls in love with a fellow inmate Phillip Morris, played by Ewan McGregor.  The real controversy is that the film couldn't find a domestic distributor at first due to its frequent scenes of gay sex and other sexual content.  Eventually the film was re-edited to reduce the sexual content and the film got a limited U.S. release.  During its limited release it had equally limited success, but was more successful during foreign releases and among critics.  Personally I wasn't worried about homosexual content, but fair warning to the more puritanical viewers.

So I think that will segue really poorly into some further plot discussion.  The plot is based on the very interesting life of Russell and is adapted from a book that regales the tales of Russell's life and multiple prison escapes.  The film was directed and written by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, writers on movies like Bad News Bears and Bad Santa or for their writing on the cartoon The Angry BeaversPhillip Morris was the pair's directorial debut and I think the screen play was really good, but I felt that the pacing was off in the film with long dry stretches, painfully obvious attempts at heart string tugs, and then fast paced slapstick comedy.  I applaud the effort of turning taboo subjects like HIV and homosexual prison relationships into comic moments, but some of it just didn't really work for me.  Oddly the implausibility of it all was one thing that kept me from really enjoying it.  I know that sounds contradictory since Russell really did break out of jail multiple times in humorous ways (it is very worth reading more about this colorful character).

Jim Carrey plays Russell in the film and does an outstanding job.  He really is at his best playing extremely weird roles and the script seems perfect for his great facial expressions, expressive clown body language and odd stares.  On the other hand his very clownishness brings the illusion of the film crashing back down.  Every of person in the film play the straight man to his outlandish clowning.  While this creates laughs it also makes the few serious scenes more awkward than moving.  Their are odd and uncomfortable scenes with Carrey awkwardly twisting his face trying just a bit to hard to create awkward laughs.  This seems more like a directing and pacing issue than an issue with Carrey.  Ewan McGregor as Phillip Morris plays his role way too straight... well more gay than straight... hmmm.... OK make that McGregor plays his role very seriously.  He does an outstanding job playing a very soft spoke and kindhearted character who falls for the suave, lying scoundrel Russell. This leaves his character as too real to be in the same film as Carrey's version of Russell.  On a final note about the acting, Leslie Mann does a great job playing the good, religious wife of Russell.  Her scenes throughout the film elicited some serious chuckles.

Overall I feel like this was a good movie that just fell short of its own hype.  It was a really fun, funny, and entertaining flick, but I can understand why it had trouble finding its audience.  It deals with some pretty heavy issues in funny but frequently in demeaning ways.  For those black comedy fans open minded enough to watch a film with a lot of Jim-on-Ewan kissing it should offer some good laughs and the last half hour has some great lines, but I wouldn't go so far as to recommend this to my catholic grandmother.  I would recommend this film to fans of black comedy and those looking for a more comedic breach into issues of homosexuality than Brokeback Mountain (2005).