Thursday, February 25, 2010

Movie Review Quickies, Part II

Part II offers a diverse batch of reviews: Beowulf, Clerks II, The Good German, Michael Clayton, Eastern Promises, WALL-E, Kung Fu Hustle, To Live and Die in L.A., and C.H.U.D. I could've been stingy, but I want to make amends for two weeks of silence. Anyway, if you're reading this, you deserve pleasant surprises. Enjoy.

"Vulfie," for short.

Many folks clamor to treat animation the same as "real movies." This holds up best with Pixar's work; their dedication to story and character is unrivaled. "Beowulf" was supposed to kick off the same possibilities for pure CGI. Since the studios bet on a violent classic, audiences got an almost-live-action-cartoon. Presumably this would capitalize off that great overlap in moviegoer demographics: 11 year old boys and Comp. Lit. students.

Actually, they were banking off the success of that lousy almost-live-action-cartoon, "300." This story has survived for a long time because it is thrilling and creepy and classic (in every sense); it is of a piece with any mythological tale you can recall. In practice, it was fairly easy to ignore because the emotional content matched the average episode of "GI Joe."

The effects work was amazing - I can understand Angelina Jolie's slight embarrassment, 'cause it looks like her body was directly scanned into a computer. But some nice post-modern writing (thanks for doing what you could, Neil Gaiman) can't give this experience enough depth or emotion.

Screw Rosario Dawson on a prep station? Disgusting! You do it up against the fridge...

Clerks II
A little good, but mostly bad. I think my radar is pretty keen at detecting intended awfulness. Sadly, I don't think that's what Kevin Smith was aiming for - at least, not for the overall film.

The dance sequence stands out as a particularly ill-conceived part of the picture. I may have a seizure the next time I see a guy tweak his nipples because that's supposed to be funny. And, for my money, I didn't like the early salvo which has our three leads discussing the do's and don'ts of a certain unusual sex act.

Other parts of Smith's humor worked as usual. Setting the story at a fast-food joint from "Dogma" was excellent - but I loved the satire behind "Mooby the Cow." The call-back jokes were generally good, and I was not too annoyed/distracted by the way that this sequel adhered to the form of the original "Clerks." And yet...

And yet I expected more from Kevin Smith. I remember seeing his first film and thinking that this director showed great promise. I actually enjoyed "Mallrats" - I got 8 early passes, and my group had a blast - but what followed showed a diminished glory. Those movies were very uneven, and I only liked them in parts. 16 years after his name went nation-wide, and I still have to heap all my praise on "Dogma" and "Clerks I:The Good Clerks."

Most of "Clerks II:Why" feels incredibly regressive. While I'm sure that KS was aware of this at the time, I hoped for more evolution from this skilled writer/director.

She'll seduce you with her eyes, then bore you all night long...

The Good German
All the right parts were put together for a movie that lacked any real punch or impact. I loved the idea of this cinematic experiment where Steven Soderbergh used old film cameras and techniques. I don't know how well the effects paid off - I only have so much time for studying cinematography.

I do know that, visually, the movie looks like something I'd love to pieces. But a story with such great players - Clooney, Blanchett, Maguire - just can't feel so under-cooked. A huge chunk of the viewing experience makes me feel like I (or the filmmakers) took a sedative. This could have been called "Much Ado About Nothing in Berlin, Really."

Staring at horses can ease your soul - or take it away!

Michael Clayton
A great movie. Even though it seems like a Holiday Season Dramatic Blockbuster, it feels like an artistic piece. I distinctly didn't like Tom Wilkinson's performance (or most of it). But I do like the writing behind his psychologically-damaged state; when he talks, it often makes sense - you just have to decipher it a little.

The examination of corporate evil - in a human, not supernatural form - is chilling, and feels accurate to what probably occurs in real life. The entire picture - in appearance, conversations, actions, and facial expressions - does an amazing job of feeling grounded in the way that people really look, act, and talk. Tony Gilroy did a magnificent job here, both in writing and directing.

The look, tone, and style of "Michael Clayton" made me think it was a Soderbergh picture, actually. The writing contains a great deal of depth, giving more for the actors to work with than you would think is on the page. This movie is greatly helped, of course, by the excellent cast.

The most impressive scenes for me were (a) the end (of course) and (b) a certain murder that takes place. The latter shook me up a bit. In short, someone is basically paralyzed but conscious; he does not die quickly, but is handled carefully by two stealthy killers. They handle the body as if they were handling a machine: push this button here, open that port, flip that switch, and watch him die. It was horrible. I really enjoyed this quiet and thoughtful movie a lot.

Please note, in case you didn't catch it: many of Clooney's scenes, particularly playing poker, running through the woods, or gazing at horses, have a thematic connection to other parts of the movie. Aspects like this make "Michael Clayton" a film that lives up to its hype quite nicely.

Armin Mueller-Stahl cruelly proves that Russia imported sexual slavery, not just Tetris.

Eastern Promises
So much has already been written about this film. The first thing I'll add is that I enjoyed it throughout. That said, the persistent abuse of women means that I like it less than other Cronenberg works. David's films are always worth watching - even when they repulse you.

"EP" is rare because it rode on the success of "A History of Violence," and gave DC his largest mainstream audience yet. The director might not care - he's the best non-mainstream director I can think of. Yet I'm content knowing that these successes should get him more influence...

The cast is solid, yet some things stick out to me. Naomi Watts' role is so cold, and I'm not really sure what I should draw from that; she's a fine actress, generally, but it makes me wonder if she missed the mark (or that I missed something). I've enjoyed a lot of movies with Vincent Cassel, but VC just barely redeemed his screen time. I'm can't stand anymore stereotypical "emotional-waste uncontrollable idiot son" parts (e.g., Joaquin Phoenix in "Gladiator").

I must also mention the fact that DC filmed this story in London. It's a welcome change of pace, considering Hollywood hates foreign filming. I've always felt that the common criticism of American filmgoers is due to the studios. I think they have a self-fulfilling belief that Americans only watch stories that are American in setting, protagonist, and appeal. Well, I know they get nationality quotas for the crew, and I know it's more expensive, but it's visually and intellectually refreshing. Oh, wait - that must be the reason they hate it.

Yes, the steam-room sequence is astonishingly-good. And I love the fact that Canada's best director (IMHO) always makes the audience see how awful violence is - he puts the gruesome results right in your face. That's a good way to dissuade folks from living out their violent fantasies through film COUGH*mel gibson*COUGH.

A robot like this could clean my apartment at last!

Great fun, great premise. I thought the filmmakers both gained and lost by having so little dialogue. For one thing, it was impressive to have a movie work so nicely with so little of it. For another, I thought the whole experience would've been richer if it had more of it. I suspect a "perfect" version would be somewhere in between...

Like most Pixar films, "WALL-E" should be viewed on a large screen. The diminished dialogue - Pixar's main way of deepening the characters and story - made it more important to catch this one in a theater. Oops.

For all that, I'm always amazed by that company. They have a lot of tricks, and find ways to turn this visual experience into something that can be fulfilling for adults too. If you doubt me, note the adam and eve motif to WALL-E's later actions, as well as the depth behind the "seed" symbolism. Or the (Spoiler) "humanity is becoming useless" part that appears near the end. Is Pixar making it too easy to be a movie-going parent?

Do the Hustle!

Kung Fu Hustle
Stupendously fun and smile-inducing. It was great to watch a new kung-fu film. However, I should note that using so much CGI in kung-fu movies has the potential to create what I'll call "martial-arts porn." [sorta like "torture porn] Or I could just be too nostalgic for the old days of Jackie Chan...

These complaints - or accusations that the film is only trying to impress with ridiculously extreme fake martial arts - don't hold up far, though. The artistry in the camerawork - and the wardrobe and dancing - is excellent. The comedy is also quite good, and really seals the deal on a fun ride. Thank you, Steven Chow!

Personally, I vote for living in L.A., not dying in it. Close call, tho.

To Live and Die in L.A.
William Friedkin is an excellent director. He has a strongly-skilled, well-developed, and stylistically-pleasing artistic sensibility that infuses his work. For example, the great "TLaDiLA" has many moments of unexplained dialogue and characterization that require thought to interpret, much less understand.

WF puts a lot into his films for the audience to take in, and he makes that experience resonate (emotionally). I consider this an achievement, since the story follows a tepid but weird counterfeiter, an oddly-rugged cop, and some unusual women.

For those of you with a strong touch of schadenfreude, you'll enjoy what happens to our lead, the secret service agent. He blunders, he fumbles, and he gets played by those around him. It's fun to watch his situation occasionally slide from bad to worse to way way worse.

To be honest, I consider this movie to be a version of "Lethal Weapon" set in reality. If Murtaugh and Riggs really did what they get away with in their films, they would be royally-screwed. They would probably end up killing an undercover cop, probably end up having to commit crimes to cover up for their mistakes, and would probably be addicted to antacids. Cops that love glory have a greater chance of screwing up irretrievably, not just dying.

I also strongly recommend watching (on youtube) or thinking of all the police-sponsored PSAs you can. Then compare it to the messages about crime and law-enforcement that you derive from this movie. I don't know whether to call this film's approach "disillusioned but mature" or "freakishly nihilistic."

This cop flick really is quite the character study. William Petersen and William Dafoe throw in many little things that tell you a lot about their parts. I won't bother talking about the action - the director made "The French Connection." 'Nuff said. If you want to see a great 80's film - perhaps the best cop film of the decade - this is for you.

"Cathartic Hugging Until Death" was my guess...

It's been a long time since I've gotten a taste of 80's budget-challenged horror. In this case, I'd say that enough thought is evident to have created a nifty little horror film. The execution, of course, is where things go awry/uneven.

The monsters look dated and minimally-scary (they do look gross, though). John Heard and Kim Greist are the leads, and their roles are great at acting senselessly; but just on occasion, like there's a ticking clock on their freakouts. Bonus points go to cameos by Daniel Stern and John Goodman, especially since at least one of them dies gruesomely.

All four of these people are good enough as actors, but so many parts of this movie are just a little off. I mean even by b-movie standards, otherwise "C.H.U.D." would be a fine b-movie entry... It's like a team where at least 2 or 3 of the players didn't show, and the rest couldn't make up for it. Many of Stern's line readings are just a little too loud or strident - you could call that "off" acting. Or maybe the sound recording wasn't set up right. It's also the kind of thing they work on in post-production.

And, even if you discount the clothing, there are moments of unintentional comedy. Still, the focus on NYC's SoHo is nice; these locations make the movie a lot of fun for city natives (yes, like me). While there are a few genuine scares, I can't say that it ever filled me with fear (for myself or the characters). Everything about this picture screams "cult movie," in many of the same ways as "Rocky Horror."

This horror entry can be accused of having greater goals, as government corruption, bureaucracy, and the plight of the homeless are issues that set up the ensuing madness. I suppose if I were faced with the limits of that budget, I'd've used most of the movie to explore those issues as effectively as possible.

Random Notes: John Heard is a respectable actor, but his way with his woman seems so hammy at times. I don't blame his acting skills, though, as gender relations from the 80s and before are often painful to watch; I always end up laughing or squirming. For more awkward and antiquated dating tips, check out Hulu's recent addition, the great "I Spy." All three seasons are up and offer loads of fun. Yet even Robert Culp looks bad chatting up the ladies. Awkward, if not ludicrous...

And, of course, let's not forget that John and Daniel Stern would work together again in "Home Alone." I was going to write something about curses and bad writing, 'til I noticed they were both in "The Milagro Beanfield War." Just coincidence, so this post ends witticism-free...

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