In Bruges (2008), or Shooting The Messenger

30 09 2009

Well, folks, much like Monday’s Chasing Amy review, it seems that I have to eat my poorly-timed words. I could lie and say that I was impressed with the trailer for this movie when it came out. I could say that on principle this independent feature HAD to garner some attention from me. I could also say that I’m a rakishly handsome black man from Barbados, but I doubt you would believe me. I looked at In Bruges with slight derision as it featured Colin “What’s My Line Again?” Farrell darting about a drab colorless Western European locale while complaining the whole time. Seriously, the trailer makes it look abysmal. Tell me that you couldn’t wait to see that after watching the trailer and I’ll tell you that you are a liar. But after just seeing it, I was more than pleasantly surprised about the outcome of this venture. It’s a black comedy/drama that plays fast and loose with the modern European identity but has enough emotional weight to be more than a droll indie guffaw.

It begins with a  hit gone wrong. Ray is a first-time hit man who has been ordered to kill a priest for some reason. Things go awry very quickly, and, to his dismay, amid all the turmoil of this hit he accidentally shoots and kills a young boy. Ray escapes, but his boss doesn’t want him coming back just yet, so he and his older partner Ken are sent to Bruges, Belgium to lay low and await further instructions. Ken is thrilled to take a break from the city life and go sightseeing, but Ray’s guilty conscience pangs him day and night, allowing him no comfort in what he sees as a dreary old town with nothing fun to do. Things gradually get better for him when a sexy romance starts between him and a local colorful character named Chloe, and for a time things seem like they might not be so bad. But a fight with a wacky Canadian couple, the nagging weight of his crime, and the eventual call back from pissed off hitman boss Harry all loom large to the small-time assassin. Can our hero take the time to enjoy his surroundings like protegé Ken, or is he doomed to be a sad little guy for the rest of his days?

The thing I enjoyed most about In Bruges is that there is so much variety, and yet it doesn’t seem scattered. It’s a comedy, it’s a buddy flick, it’s a gut-wrenching drama, it’s a shoot-em-up. It has all these elements and it keeps them all together like a house made out of extremely European cards. Nothing seems off-kilter for this film, even when the mood changes on a dime like it does in most scenes. Although I prefer the comedy here, personally, as it seems the most appropriate response for all the weird shit going on in Bruges.

Two actors really stand out here. Brendan Gleeson as Ken is a perfect choice. Bravo to whoever made that call! I love Ken! He’s one easygoing hit man. I like his attitude towards life, and especially Bruges. He acts around historical stuff the same way I would. When he tells Ray, “We shall strike a balance between culture and fun,” it makes me wish Ken would take ME on a vacation. I love that shit. Also, Jordan Prentice, one of my new favorite character actors, plays a filmmaker named Jimmy here who makes this picture 500 times funnier. He’s shooting the freakiest picture I’ve ever seen, and while it doesn’t seem to be working out for him too well, it’s working out for me perfectly.

Oh, and Colin Farrell? Eh. I could’ve done without him, but I know more than a few girls who would gladly kill a large animal with their bare hands to sleep with that man, so maybe I’M the crazy one. He’s not as jaw-droppingly awful as he was in, say, Daredevil, but him being the main character is hardly a treat for me. let’s just say he doesn’t fuck it all up here.

If watching cinematography this whole time has taught me anything, it’s how to look at things in a completely different perspective. Bruges is one of those cities that, at first glance, appears lifeless and listless. But in the hands of someone with a good head on their shoulders, in this case Martin McDonagh, Bruges really came alive for me. It’s cozy and majestic at the same time. Between the medieval and 19th century French architecture, the bruised and wind-battered skies, and a few fancy cobblestone streets, it’s a town that I would visit in a heartbeat. The town seems to slowly transform from a backwards yokel town to a beautiful and cozy nook in Western Europe seemingly before my eyes! What do you know; it’s a movie and a Travelogue!

But in all seriousness, In Bruges is another movie I might have judged prematurely. It’s actually pretty good, if you can get behind a Colin Farrell vehicle. There’s a lot of good human drama and machine-gun rapid European humor. You’ll enjoy yourself the whole way through, with the impressive juggling of genres and the delightful rapport between Farrell and Gleeson. If you have to see one movie with big movie stars set in Belgium this year, make it In Bruges. I give it 8 Belgium assassins out of 10!

Tomorrow I’m going to the River’s Edge! Until then!

Macbeth (1971), or Stange, Dark, And Bleak

29 09 2009

Let me be the first to say that Roman Polanski is not someone who I’d like to grab a beer with. He’s not exactly on anybody’s Favorite Dudes list, and I would be more than a little ashamed to be seen out and about with him. But I won’t deny his immense talent, and all the amazing things he’s done in the world of film. Today’s film is Polanski’s take of the classic Shakespearean play, a dark and menacing tale of murder, guilt, and greed. It was the first film he had directed after the murder of his wife by Charles Manson, so it is soul-crushingly bleak. But the story of Macbeth isn’t exactly sunshine and lollipops, so Polanski makes the right moves to make this a fine adaptation of what could be Shakespeare’s greatest play.

Everyone knows the story of Macbeth, I hope, the mad Thane whose oath of fealty was stained in blood. If not, you probably haven’t finished high school yet, so you should probably start hitting the books, kid. It’s a fascinating story of avarice and bitter recrimination that has captured the imagination of the Western world for centuries. Polanski’s version changes a few things from the play to keep the world as realistic as possible. Some soliloquies are changed into inner monologues for a sense of realism, some scenes are cut for maximum potency, and the ending is changed to something much bleaker than what most might imagine. It’s by no means a light viewing, but what would one expect from a man who had his wife murdered no less than a year prior?

Polanski is a consummate director, and I will be the first to come to his side when it comes to matters of art. I appreciate his skill with the camera. There are some scenes that stick out quite a bit simply because nobody else would have done them that way. The beginning battle, for instance, is so brutal but it is shot at such a distance that it keeps the audience detached which leaves me with a strange and alarming feeling. And his use of quick cutting is very instrumental in creating an atmosphere in which anything could happen. The locations chosen bring out a stark reality to the 11th century that have rarely been duplicated. This world is surreal, eerie, frightening, and full of the dark energy that pervades the play.

The principal cast is excellent. Jon Finch is a fine Macbeth. He really captures the heart of what the character is all about, from his divided heart, to his paranoia, and finally his madness. He seems quite enamored with the role, and I felt that he was perfect for this version of the story. Francesca Annis plays the sinister heart behind the man, Lady Macbeth. What a stone-cold bitch! She was great, in a way that makes me hate her. Out of all the incarnations of the character, I found Annis to be the most contemptible. She just seemed right from the start to be a woman who was out for blood. I dug her rendition, but I was fuming during her planning of the king’s murder. Martin Shaw plays Banquo, the tragic go-to man of Macbeth. His character wasn’t as fleshed-out as I would have liked, but it never really was in the play, so I can’t really blame Shaw. He performs well, only he left me wanting.

The film looks great, the actors are excellent, and the writing is fucking Shakespeare. I’m gonna leave this one short so I can go get ready for my next two weeks without Bren. But trust me when I say that you’re going to want to check this movie out. Out of all the Macbeth adaptations I’ve seen, this one’s the best. I give Roman Polanski’s Macbeth 8 1/2 mad Thanes out of 10. Check it out!

Tomorrow I’ll be watching In Bruges! Until then!

Mon Amour, Mon Amour…

29 09 2009

Well, folks, today is a bittersweet day for ol’ Cinematronica. My best buddy, my lifetime love, my lady Bren is heading on her dream vacation to Scotland for two weeks. By this afternoon, she’ll be thousands of miles away from me and I’ll be one sad little ducky. I’m so incredibly proud of her for making this dream trip come true, and I can hardly contain my excitement for her. But as soon as that plane takes off, I might lose some of my natural exuberance. I just want her to know that I’ll be thinking about her, the way I always think about her, and that I’m really not all the way here without her in my life. So have fun, my love, and know that wherever you go, my lonesome little heart will follow…

Chasing Amy (1997), or A New Found Respect

28 09 2009

Kevin Smith is a man of surprising talent that is brought up in more circles than I care to list at the moment. He is the fan-made-good, the guy who grew up as a fanboy in Jersey and decided to be a part of the industry he fell in love with. Not to write a biography on the gentleman, but he has an interesting story. His films are often comedies that focus on everymen and everywomen, regular folk who are often human to a fault and full of insight into modern pop culture.

Up until 1997, though, Smith had usually made more adult comedies that focused on dialog-heavy scenes involving his characters shooting the shit. Chasing Amy was the film where he flirted with the serious and the dramatic. For the majority of the critical community, this was Smith’s finest hour and the dawning of him as a big name in the industry. But, as I’ve found out from the days before I lived in the comfort of the study in my Flying Fortress of Film Profundity, the majority of moviegoers don’t really care what high-minded FILM SNOBS have to say about movies, and they thought, and still think, that it sucked righteously compared to the rest of the Smith oeuvre.

I know this not only because I live and breathe in Texas, a state who, by and large, doesn’t really care about art unless it’s on a bottle of Natural Light, but also because I thought the very same thing about that movie. I last saw it when I was 16, a time when my intellectual growth could not even be measured and when I saw the seminal film Boogie Nights for the sole purpose of Julianne Moore nudity. In my hormonal haze, I found it to be slightly boring, unfunny, and lackluster compared to his first two films. I just saw Chasing Amy again today, though, and, looking at it as an adult (somewhat), I strongly urge all of you who saw it in your youth to watch it again. It’s a lot more than what I thought it was; it really epitomizes the extreme potential Smith has to offer insight into modern youth, contemporary American niche culture, and love in the 20th century.

It’s a romantic comedy that starts with two friends, Holden and Banky. They’ve been friends for as long as they can remember, and their shared love is comic books. They’re in the process of selling one they’ve made themselves called Bluntman and Chronic (for those who remember Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, this is the genesis of Banky’s dastardly scheme). At the comic convention they’re selling the comic at, Holden meets a girl named Alyssa who strikes his fancy. She likes him too, but not in that way; you see, Alyssa is a lesbian. Whuh-oh! Holden still thinks she’s the bee’s knees, though, and continues his advances with her, both as a friend and as a lover. Banky doesn’t like the idea, both out of a tinge of jealousy and for the simple fact that he feels they should be concentrating on their totally dope comic. But Holden is having none of it, and decides to try his luck with Alyssa to see if he can’t change her mind. An unexpected thing blooms between the two, and it’s sweet while it lasts, but Holden’s inability to cope with some of Alyssa’s past begins to cause a rift between them. Can Holden mend his broken friendship as well as his endangered relationship?

This is a movie that ages extremely well. I sat through all 113 minutes of Chasing Amy feeling like I had really watched something of value. It leaves the impression that this is not just a rom-com about trying to turn a lesbian the way a vampire would turn a human. It’s about the complexities of modern relationships, the danger of letting friends slip away, and the fear of letting something truly great fall through your fingers. And a lot of cock jokes, but what the hell? I still found it to be smarter than your average Smith film, and your average Smith film is far from insipid.

Chasing Amy, for good or ill, is probably the birth of Ben Affleck as a leading man. He plays Holden, the smitten lesbian-lover who can’t get Alyssa out of his head. There aren’t too many people who could have pulled this off, and I’ll admit that his nonchalance and charisma really pull this movie together. He’s very slick, and I found myself liking Affleck for the first time in a long time. Jason Lee plays his consummate nerdy, mouthy jerk character Banky, and it’s a role he was probably born to play. Not to say that Jason Lee is some sort of super-jerk in real-life, but he pulls off this natural arrogance that comes from a lifetime about knowing more about certain things than other people do. If I had to point out a weak link, it would probably be Joey Lauren Adams, who is the elusive Alyssa. She does a disservice to herself by not flaunting an inner confidence that I’ve seen from her in later works. Here, her confidence seems to be false, based on the dialog and the script more than in her performance. I wished Alyssa could’ve been stronger than she was, and that’s something that still bugs me after all these years.

But in the end, it’s about the dialog (because from an aesthetic standpoint the movie looks like shit, this is the movie’s strong suit). There are so many good lines, and it’s really a credit to Smith that he can come up with some of the most organic-sounding inorganic dialog I’ve ever heard. Some of my faves:

Banky: What is it about this girl man? You know you have no shot at getting her into bed. Why do you bother wasting time with her? Because you’re Holden fucking McNeil, the most persistent traveler on the road that’s NOT the path of least resistance.


Alyssa: I love you, I always will. Know that. But I’m not your fucking whore.


Alyssa: So you’ve never been curious about men?

Holden: Curious about men?

Banky: All every woman really wants, be it mother, senator, nun, is some serious deep-dickin’.


Indeed! In the end, Chasing Amy will not be remembered as the funniest Kevin Smith movie, his most endearing movie, or even the biggest disappointment to fans (i.e. Jersey Girl) It stands conspicuously out as somewhat of an oddity, but to me it stands out for a reason. It’s because Chasing Amy is his most emotional film, biting and raw like something that might have happened to Smith in real life (notice in the diner scene how sincere Silent Bob is). That’s what makes it so special; there are a lot of laughs, but more than anything there’s a lot of sincerity here, and I appreciate that so much more now as an adult. I give Chasing Amy 8 1/2 deep dickin’s out of 10. A high recommendation!

Tomorrow I have a movie in mind, but I’ll figure it out then! Just come back to me and I’ll promise you won’t be disappointed! Until then!

PSA: Magical Mystery Tour (1967), or Spaghetti? My FAVORITE!!!

27 09 2009

The clip above, you might notice, is not terribly ridiculous or crazy or just plain weird, or any number of the things you might have heard about this movie. Well, let me promise you that this is only a lull. There is plenty of that weirdness here. By 1967, The Beatles had completely changed their sound, their look, and the boundaries of pop music, subsequently forcing the rest of the music industry to follow suit. What proceeded was a complete opening of the doors, a complete changing of the guard; The Beatles were reconfiguring the rules of pop culture, and showing that they could do more than write love songs. In their brief and beautiful 7-year stint as a band, they did more than anyone to turn rock and roll into an art form. Along the way, at the height of their creative powers, they decided to shoot a movie to show the fans where they were creatively. And what they got was a 53 minute TV movie created for the BBC that combined elements of The Goon Show, Beatles music, and my nightmares to create something truly peculiar.

If there’s a plot to be had, it’s that The Beatles (John, Paul, George, and that other one) head off on a bus trip around England with Ringo’s aunt and some other weird people and do weird things together. That’s really it. The main plot revolves around the bus trip and all the odd fellows onboard, and there are a series of vignettes interwoven, some of them being music videos for new songs, some of them being tour stops, some of them being about five magicians (four who are The Beatles and one who is their road manager) who make all the strange stuff happen on the bus because I suppose they’re bored (perhaps), and some of them being just weird-ass asides. There’s a Wacky Racers-style competition involving the Tour bus and a lot of other eccentric vehicles, a 60s parody group viciously mocking Elvis, and John Lennon shoveling lots and lots of spaghetti onto a table for Ringo’s aunt to indulge in. Uh, and a strip show.

It might sound a bit fawning and obsequious, but you can’t deny that this movie was ahead of its time. They use a lot of techniques that most of the world had no idea about. Magical Mystery Tour is a movie that brought the art film sensibility out of France and Germany and into the British and American audience. Now, is it a great movie? Nah. But it’s influence is more than a lot of people would care to admit. This movie, which has a LOT of humor that most would find Python-esque, came out a full 2 years before Monty Python aired their first episode. It’s outrageously absurd, but isn’t The Mighty Boosh? Isn’t Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace? Isn’t most great British humor, and, to a lesser extent, American humor, nowadays based on the grounds of absurdity? The Beatles knew way back then what was funny, and they took their unique sense of humor, added an artistic sensibility, added quite a bit of nonsense, and made something the world wasn’t quite ready for, at least not for a few years.

The songs are the highlight of this, and they might be some of the best of their career. Their musical inventiveness knew no bounds then, and so a lot of the songs featured here are wildly imaginative. Not yet in the dour reflective phase of Let It Be but past the “Please go out with me!” love songs of anything pre-Rubber Soul, the Fab Four were seemingly inventing new ways to sound, using tape loops, backwards music, Indian instruments, and retro sounds to make their new songs. Songs like “I am the Walrus”, “Fool on the Hill”, “Your Mother Should Know”, “Hello Goodbye”, and the titular track all create this sense that anything was possible.

But, in all honesty, the movie isn’t the best. The Beatles, now left to their own devices and directing themselves, forgot how to act (especially George, who, during the “Blue Jay Way” sequence, looks like he couldn’t care less about the fucking movie). Their delivery is shoddy at best, and their once spot-on rapport together virtually dissolved by this point. I don’t know what happened, but rarely are they in scenes together, and when they all are, it’s usually for a musical interlude. The magician scenes are fun, as they are all together there and having fun, and I wish there were a lot more of those, but they take up about 5 minutes of this picture. I think they lost here the idea that the main reason people liked Beatles movies was that they featured the antics of THE BAND, not some guys from THE BAND. Much like their careers post-Beatles, it becomes very apparent here that the actions of these fellows individually don’t add up to the potential endemic of the whole.

So try this movie out if you’re a fan of The Beatles. It should be mandatory. There are a lot of good songs, the atmosphere is still chipper, and it’s a rare look into a Beatles flop. You’ll never see anything quite like it in the entirety of your lives, simply because it’s just so off-kilter and odd. If you like Monty Python or The Goon Show, this is an awesome alternative. If you think that stuff is stupid, though, wait ’til you get a load of this! I give Magical Mystery Tour 6 nasty plates of spaghetti out of 10! Yum!

Tomorrow I’ll be watching Chasing Amy, much to the delight of Kevin Smith fans everywhere! Until then, I leave you with one of the more disturbing moments from MMT:

The Night Out: Pandorum (2009), or Movie>Expectations

27 09 2009

I guess whenever I see a giant, cavernous space-faring vehicle in a trailer, made of cold steel, barely lit, and filled with all sorts of hellish, nightmarish imagery from the coldest reaches of space or the darkest circle of Hell, my expectations fall very quickly. Because most sci-fi films set in dimly-lit space stations or dimly-lit off-world research facilities housing freaky shit aren’t very good. Let’s look at the statistics; for every Event Horizon out there, there are dozens of movies like Pitch Black, Ghosts of Mars, any Cube sequel, Jason X, the first Resident Evil, Doom, or Wing Commander that just stink the joint up. The sub-genre itself is just riddled with cliches, and while it seems tempting to do a movie about the horrors that might exist at the borders of space, there are too many risks involved that could just lame it up. Today’s film, Pandorum, falls prey to a few of your standard, um, let’s call them horror-fi, films. But it succeeds where the others fail with a surprising originality that rises above the future muck to make something quite enjoyable.

It all begins in (brace yourself) THE FUTURE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Man is running low on resources in the year 2XXX and we’re all pretty much screwed because of overpopulation (it’s called a condom, guys; wrap it up!). So we send a ship out dubbed Elysium to a world far away that’s possibly inhabitable. The film begins midway through the ship’s journey, with one of the crew members, named Bower, waking up very violently after an extended sleep in hypersleep. He doesn’t remember much, if anything, as staying too long in a stasis like that can cause extreme memory loss. And, as it turns out, he’s been asleep for much longer than anybody anticipated. His commanding officer, named Payton, wakes up alongside him, and together they try to reassemble what happened along their voyage to the new world. The ship’s reactor is misfiring, the crew of thousands is seemingly missing, and strange noises are heard throughout the ship. Can Bower piece together the mystery of the Elysium while trying to restart the ship? Can he find the rest of the crew members? And can he survive the onslaught of bizarre creatures that now infest the ship and cry out for his blood?

It’s good. Surprisingly good. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. Part of it is that Pandorum keeps you guessing until the very end. It has an air of mystery that is impenetrable because of its first traumatic, claustrophobic scene. You go in knowing about as much as Bower does as he painfully awakens from a deep hypersleep. It’s disorienting but engaging as you follow the crew and solve the puzzle. So many of these films give it away in the trailer, but fortunately the makers of Pandorum were wise enough to keep it all under wraps. There will be a few things that you WILL NOT see coming, and that is refreshing as hell.

You know what really sells this movie? Rising star Ben Foster. I am really digging his choice in roles, and his turn as Bower is just what he needs in his ascension to leading man. He’s been the obsequious second-banana long enough, and I feel that with more roles like this, I could see him becoming  the next A-lister, like a more versatile Shia LeBeouf. He’s heroic, he’s athletic, but most importantly he’s immensely talented, and I hope this becomes a vehicle for him to land even bigger, better roles in the future.

It’s not all sunshine and roses. There are a number of stock horror-fi BOO! scares that disgust me completely. The kind of scare where you just turn the volume up to the max and flash something on the screen. That doesn’t stick with you, that doesn’t make for a memorable moviegoing experience; that just makes you jump, big fucking deal. It’s more than a bit annoying, and it happens a lot. Not to mention the usual sci-fi exposition can be as clunky as a push lawnmower (OF THE FUTURE!!!!). Director Christian Alvart has a lot of interesting ideas, but some of them come out in a most unnatural way. Whenever Bower mentions something to Payton, played by Dennis Quaid,  about a particularly horrifying type of cabin fever (or space madness) called Pandorum, Quaid starts explaining it like he’s reading from a space encyclopedia. It was a little much, and although I know that there’s a lot of exposition to give out for a sci-fi movie, don’t dump it on us like it’s research for our term paper.

Oh, and there is a scene where Bower shaves with a laser razor. It’s like a regular razor, but a beam comes out of it and the hair comes off as if he were wiping a window. Is that really necessary? Really? How extraneous! What else do we have in the future that’s unnecessarily laser-powered? Combs? Ceiling fans? Feminine products?

The rest of the cast excels, for the most part. Dennis Quaid is Ol’ Reliable, and he does fair enough. I can’t complain, seeing as how he’s doing high-profile work again, so congratulations for getting back in the saddle again, Quaid. Cam Gigandet is here as Gallo, a mysterious character who may or may not have Pandorum, and I found him to be a little grating. All of his scenes seem to involve him whining or crying or begging, sometimes in the nude. And that’s not something that I’d like to see from that guy for an extended period. Two breakouts here for me are two characters I’ll leave for you to figure out. Their names are Antje Traue and Cung Le, and respectively they play Nadia and Manh. These two really impressed me with their individual skills. Cung Le barely talks, as  he is supposed to be foreign, but his stunt work is pretty damn amazing and I liked his wise Tonto-esque demeanor, which is a great, if not slightly demeaning, foil to Foster’s Bower character. Antje Traue speaks quite a bit more, and this is her American screen debut! Her English is pretty flawless, and I was blown away by her character, who is a consummate survivor and independent woman. There need to be more Nadia’s in today’s film-making world, although they don’t all need to be so traditionally beautiful as she is.

I think you’ll like Pandorum. It’s satisfying in a lot of ways. Good cast, creepy atmosphere, plenty of interesting creature effects, and a story that will keep you from walking out of the theater at the end claiming you “called it”. I hope there will be more in this planned series of films, and I hope Ben Foster returns for them, because I really feel that this is his vehicle, through and through. It might not have the best time expressing itself or how it is to live in the future, but I still stand by it for the simple fact that it transcends almost all the pitfalls it could have been susceptible to, and it comes out of the horror-fi genre looking like a champ rather than a chump. I give Pandorum 8 laser-powered feminine products out of 10. Check it out!

I’ll be back with another review later tonight! Keep watching the site! I’ll have SOMETHING for you!

I Heart Huckabees (2004), or Where’s The Love?

26 09 2009

I’m always at odds with I Heart Huckabees. Part of me loves its madcap antics and its existential search for cosmic meaning. There’s a lot of talent here, and anyone can find a character to latch onto, I think. Director and writer David O. Russell has a lot of interesting ontological ideas at play here as well as a style that I personally relished. On the other hand, a lot of the characters are sorely one-dimensional and quirky to a fault,  there’s no clear conflict, much less a resolved conflict, and I felt there to be more than a bit of the ol’ meandering throughout the main plot that really detracted from any momentum I Heart Huckabees hoped to gain. Hmmmm…

Well, where to begin? It all starts with Albert, an ecological activist who is having an existential crisis of sorts. He is trying to save an area of land from being turned into a Huckabees department store (real world equivalent: Target). He’s fighting with all he’s got, but it doesn’t seem to be doing much good, especially when a smarmy executive for Huckabees named Brad weasels his way into his organization and gets them on his side. His philosophical awakening comes when he sees a conspicuously large African doorman 3 separate times in the course of a day. He gets the feeling that this means something, and he contacts two “existential detectives”, who teach him a doctrine of “universal interconnectivity” that opens his eyes to a whole new realm of consciousness. In this awakening of his, the detectives issue him an “other” (sort of a philosophical sponsor) to help him through this process. His other, Tommy, is a very outspoken firefighter who is trying universal connectivity, but isn’t afraid to punch somebody in the face about it either. They’re a strange pair, but it somehow works. For a while, anyways. The problem is that the philosophy seems incomplete, because Albert still feels miserable, and the doctrine said nothing about all the misfortune happening around him. Tommy knows someone who might be able to help, but it would mean going in the complete opposite direction philosophically. Things aren’t going well in weaselly Brad’s life either, as the detectives have approached him and questioned the meaning in his shallow corporate life and his vapid relationship with a Huckabees model. What will happen to these strange individuals now that philosophy and meaningful thought has been introduced into their lives? Will it make a difference to them? Will they stay the same? Should it matter whether there is a change or not, as long as the concepts have been explored, thus creating a cognizance that one can use for honest and healthy appraisal of the self?

It’s hard to imagine where David O. Russell got this idea from. Perhaps he was sitting in a community college philosophy course and was bored, penning a Hardy Boys-esque mystery story called “The Philosophy Detectives” that morphed into today’s film. Or perhaps David O. Russell is slightly insane/brilliant. We’ll never know. But I like the idea of infusing philosophical aspects to modern day scenarios in a very literal sense. That’s inventive, fresh, and all kinds of interesting, and I think more directors should get the chutzpah to try something so bold and unique. Just don’t do it exactly like today’s film.

You see, I Heart Huckabees suffers from a lack of focus. We’re not really learning anything from these characters on a philosophical level. They seem more hungry for semantics than anything else, skirting around the edges of the subject but avoiding any real touchstones into the ideas of existentialism or transcendentalism. It just stands out as weird rather than insightful. And even if we were to defend it by calling it a comedy, not only would it totally invalidate every non-joke philosophical discussion put up on screen, but it also raises doubts as to how funny the movie is, because I wasn’t exactly laughing my ass off during the whole universal interconnectivity discussion.

The cast is mixed, but leaning towards good. My breakdown: Jude Law as weaselly Brad, not good. I was not impressed in the slightest by this character, because Jude Law didn’t seem very into his own work. He smiled a lot and made his usual “I’m incredulous!” faces, but to no avail.

Jason Schwartzman as Albert, good. Schwartzman comes into his own and brings a lot of zest into this movie with his role. Albert is astute but lost, all together there but confused. It makes his awakening all the more interesting to watch as he blooms as a character.

Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin as the existential detectives, so-so. These two were just kinda there. They certainly said there lines, and I definitely saw some movement on the screen, but I was not too thrilled with anything they put up on screen. They seemed tired, worn-out, almost jet-lagged, and perhaps had better things to do in their opinions.

Mark Wahlberg as Tommy the Other, very good. Wahlberg shows time and time again that he indeed CAN act when he wants to, and proves it here again with short-fused Tommy Corn, firefighter/rough-and-tumble philosopher/lover. He’s probably my favorite character, overall, and has a lot of hilarious energy to offer this movie.

Naomi Watts as Dawn, Brad’s model girlfriend, good. Watts uses her charm sparingly here to play a vacuous woman who has a philosophical epiphany. I liked what she did here, because a lot of real emotions came up when she finds out what kind of a guy Brad really is and what kind of corporation Huckabees is when she figures out that they only wanted her for her beauty. Not her best work, but not bad.

Isabelle Huppert as Caterine Vauban, sexy. Ms. Huppert plays this character, the typical French Nihilist, with comedic precision and undeniable sex appeal, despite her incredibly thick accent. You can understand most of it; she’s just VERY French. I like her character’s motivations and her portrayal quite a bit, and you also can’t forget about her legendary sex appeal, which radiates from the screen like a radioactive cougar.

It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, but I Heart Huckabees is far from terrible. There are some logical questions that nagged me, some more philosophy I would have liked to explore, a cast that wasn’t all there, perhaps some more, I don’t know, jokes, but it works with what it has. I think that despite that, though, it’s a comedy with a fair amount of insight and intelligent humor that I wouldn’t have a problem with watching again. I was going to give this movie a 6, but the Shania Twain running joke bumped it up a notch, so I’m giving I Heart Huckabees 7 radioactive cougars out of 10. ROAR!

Keep an eye out for my review of Pandorum later tonight! I leave you with a clip of the legendary on-set argument between Lily Tomlin and director David O. Russell while they filmed I Heart Huckabees. It’s quite possibly one of the best blow-ups I’ve seen in a while:

I’m Helping A Friend Tonight! I’ll Be Back Tomorrow!

25 09 2009

Sorry, everyone. I’ll be back tomorrow with two reviews. I have to help my friend get some special family bonding time with his dad by letting him go off to the Astros game (sports suck!) while I wash dishes at an Asian restaurant called Bonsai! If anyone lives in the NW Houston area and wants to talk movies with me for a few hours, I’ll see if I can squeeze you in, but otherwise I’ll just bust in bright and early tomorrow with a review on both I Heart Huckabees and another as-of-yet unannounced film. I’ll see you tomorrow! Wish me luck!

Ran (1985), or The Wisdom Of Age

24 09 2009

I truly mean it when I say that Ran is one of the most engrossing Japanese films I’ve ever seen. When you first lay your eyes on it, you’re sucked in and you can’t look away. Akira Kurosawa, after many years of mastering the fine art of cinema, he finally consummated his lifetime of achievements and made a perfect film. To me, this is flawless film-making; after investigating it thoroughly, I find it to be both a visual feast as well as a gripping classical drama that sticks with you long after the credits have rolled. This may sound like normal praise about a Kurosawa movie, but even amongst all the Kurosawa pictures I’ve seen, this one ranks highly. I’m somewhat awe-struck and completely amazed by Ran, and it’s not hard to see why.

It’s a loose re-telling of the classic tale of King Lear, set in feudal Japan. Hidetora is a king with three sons, named Taro, Jiro, and Saburo. In his old age, he plans to abdicate the throne, suggesting that the three rule together, with the eldest being the leader. The youngest, Saburo, is not happy with this, and makes this known to his father and his brothers. This creates a rift between the family that slowly begins to tear them apart. Everybody’s petty grievances come out, plots are formulated, and people are killed for useless and base power. It’s a saddening testament to human nature that must be seen to be fully appreciated.

I am floored by everything about this jidaigeki. What a gem to find by such happenstance! A movie such as this is only as potent as the emotions we feel for the characters. If the script is stale, you can sense it from a mile away. But Ran, written by Kurosawa himself, is fresh and extremely relevant in that timeless way. Despite its epic nature, everything hits you personally in a way that resonates through time, class, and gender. It’s about the dissolution of the family, and how when a single family is given too much power, the people between them can suffer the most damage.

The acting is flawless, especially from Hidetora, who is played by my hero from Sword of Doom, Tatsuya Nakadai. He goes through the most in the reconfigured King Lear role, and his presence is still as commanding as ever. The sons are also excellent, with their own unique attributes and eccentricities. My favorite younger actor here, though, has to be Mieko Harada, who play’s Taro’s wife, Lady Kaede. She is cold, ruthless, and desires a divide between the father and husband Taro for some reason. She exerts all her feminine wiles and influence in a way that breaks Taro down, Lady MacBeth-style. Harada is excellent, and after seeing this film I can safely say that she has become one of my favorite Japanese actresses. She imbues the film with grace and charm, and though that charm is used for evil here, it is undeniable and enveloping.

Kurosawa lovingly renders this compelling film in the most beautiful colors imaginable. From the pristine, awe-inspiring green hills of Hidetora’s domain to the raging fires he creates around it, the film looks incredible. I fell in love with every frame of Ran. The shooting style, which uses the least amount of close-ups I’ve ever seen in a Kurosawa film, is refreshing and inventive. The takes are long, patient, and impressively unbroken. He takes his time to establish a mood and a presence for the actors, instead of rushing into things. This is part of what I really enjoy about wise, learned directors; their ability to take their time and judiciously create a scene. Not a moment is squandered on the arrogant spasms of youth’s wanton haste. It’s simply exquisite.

I think I’ll leave this one somewhat short, because I’m honestly at a loss for words right now. I wasn’t expecting something so lovely, so well-crafted. I’m serious when I say that Ran is one of the greatest epics I’ve ever seen, a boon to Kurosawa’s already-amazing oeuvre, and possibly a contender for Best Film of the 80s. It’s that good. It’s a tad long for some people (over 2 1/2 hours), but don’t let that stop you. If you’re in the mood for a dark and chaotic period film (the word Ran means “revolt” or “chaos” when translated), then please watch this movie. I am proud to give Ran 10 Lear-iffic epics out of 10! My highest recommendation!

Tomorrow I’ll be cooling off my heels from all that drama with something a bit lighter, enigmatically titled I Heart Huckabees! Until then, I leave you with a short scene from one of the best films I’ve been witness to in these 265 days of Cinematronica from today’s feature:

Heaven And Earth (1990), or Canadian Samurais

23 09 2009

You don’t need a big budget to make a good movie. It seems obvious to say such a thing, but money is a much bigger issue with films than we tend to realize. There’s a certain stigma put upon the under-budgeted film that exists, even though it might not be a conscious act of the public. And it starts at the very top. Movies that were cheap to produce, in a stunning case of irony, rarely make it into the theaters. Studios and venues alike would rather spend WAY more money and time on films that they ALREADY spent ridiculous amounts on, leaving the smaller-budgeted films to languish in straight-to-DVD releases or two-week smaller-chain releases. This alleviates the media’s need to talk about them, since no cash is being thrown their way for these safer, less insane investments. And, unfortunately, whenever the media does talk about small-budget films, it’s usually about the bad ones (The Room) or the controversial ones (Hounddog). This results in a lack of people seeing them, a lack of audience, and a lack of interest in anything cinematic that isn’t blasted into the brain by advertisements. It’s a fucking shame, too, because movies like today’s feature, Heaven and Earth, should have received a lot more play in their day. But 1990 was a big year, and the theaters needed to make room for gems like Bird on a Wire, Ernest Goes to Jail, The Exorcist III, and Frankenhooker, so I can understand why they’d pass on  this.

In a deeply contentious era of feudal Japan, the warlords have broken away from the law of the shogun and have broken out in heated battle between one another. Two warlords in particular, the samurais Kagetora and Takeda Shingen have declared all-out war on one another, and there seems to be no way out of it besides mortal combat. Older Takeda wants to expand the horizons of his domain, and sees younger Kagetora’s realm as a suitable place to start his budding future empire. Kagetora sees things a little differently, and vows to protect his land and his people at all cost. This results in a lot of bloodshed over some damn real estate. Kagetora is a noble man compared to his ruthless opponent, but believes that he must grow more ruthless to have a chance against him. What lengths will Kagetora go to in order to protect his homeland? And will it be worth it if those lengths are soaked in blood?

Heaven and Earth, or Ten to Chi To in Japanese, has a strong, if not vapid, premise. It can’t be faulted for its skin-deep ideology, though; this was how things were. People often didn’t fight over love or hate or God or country, but for the simple drive of greed. This entire conflict is all about land, and how one person wants what the other has, and is willing to use brute force to take it. This makes for somewhat uninspiring cinema, since there is really no point to any of it (I guess you could call this era FUTILE Japan! HAHAHAHAHA! Damn it, I’m funny…), but I still enjoyed this film.

The characters are unexpectedly rich. Kagetora, played by heartthrob-ish Takaaki Enoki, is particularly enjoyable. He embodies the impertinence and boldness of strength and youth, and his Kagetora suffers no disrespect against his people lightly. But he has the doubts, as well, and his fear of failure in the face of an older, wiser opponent is handled very well. He also has an intriguing subplot involving his adviser’s daughter, particularly his affections for her. It would normally be no big deal, but he recently took a vow of celibacy to give strength to his armies. Oops! It’s a very invigorating look at love in a royal court, and I relished every minute of their scenes together. Masahiko Tsugawa as Takeda is no slouch himself, however, as is apparent by some of his scenes in battle (what a jerk, is all I’ll say!). These two compliment each other very well, and it was an on-screen rivalry that held my interest the entire run-time, at least until the realistic-but-anti-climactic ending.

And I know I won’t be the first to report on this, as I know I’ll also not be the last, but this movie is unequivocally gorgeous. It’s impeccably well-made, and I was unprepared for the simple beauty Heaven and Earth provides. Some scenes, like the sequence where Kagetora plays a song on a flute for the adviser’s daughter, take my breath away. Director Haruki Kadokawa melds expertly-performed action sequences with the scenic beauty of Canada to make something unforgettable. That’s right; Canada. The Great White North served as hosts to the Japanese film industry at some point, because this was filmed in the smack-dab of Alberta, the least likely place for Kadokawa to choose for filming. But it’s a good thing he did, because there’s something about the stillness of the Canadian wilderness and its pristine beauty that evokes a time before our iron-fisted modernization changed the face of the world.

If you see one Japanese movie from 1990 that was filmed in Canada, make sure it’s Heaven and Earth. It’s a small release that was totally avalanched by a ton of other films when it came out because of its small scope and its concept, which could have been potentially boring to de-sensitized Americans coming off of the coke-binge that was the 80s. It has a lot of things going for it, and I was really impressed with all the beautiful things they pulled off with a relatively small budget. It just goes to show you that bigger isn’t necessarily better when it comes to Japanese period drama. I give Heaven and Earth 8 1/2 Frankenhookers out of 10. Arigato gozaimasu!

Tomorrow I watch, in the spirit of all this Japanese cinema, the last Kurosawa epic, Ran! Until then!!!