Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

23
Apr
09

Review: The Descent

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American horror flicks have been in a real rut of late. From the wave of watered down Japanese horror, to the Saws and Hostels that confuse stomach-churning with thought-provoking—hell, even the pairing of genre titans in Freddy vs Jason was a fairly bland affair. Judging by Neil Marshall’s The Descent, it takes a Brit to remind us how it’s supposed to be done. Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and her female friends are established as a rugged, outdoorsy bunch in the opening scene of whitewater rafting. But after tragedy strikes Sarah’s family, her buddies decide the best therapy is…spelunking? Meeting up with their American friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza), who incidentally may or may not have been sleeping with Sarah’s husband, they venture into an unexplored Appalachian cave system where they find themselves very unwelcome guests. Without giving away too much about just what these plucky spelunkers encounter, picture a blind, even paler Gollum with anger management issues and a taste for human flesh. But thankfully we live in a post-Buffy world, which means that beautiful girls in danger don’t simply whimper and run—they roll up their sleeves and commence to kicking ass, transforming from J. Crew-modelesque milquetoasts into badass battle babes along the way. Cinematographer Sam McCurdy visually strands the viewer right alongside the protagonists in impossibly narrow, barely lit passages. Often two thirds of the screen is pitch black, a lone flashlight beam providing the only illumination and the chiaroscuro effect heightening the sense of claustrophobia. Marshall’s script has a recurring theme of rebirth, and viewers obsessed with reading every film as a subversive political metaphor should have a field day with the charismatic American who lies to her UK allies, eventually embroiling them in a bloody, complicated war. Sure the film has cheesy dialogue (After a cave-in blocks their escape route: “This is not good, guys.”), and plot holes a mile wide (why wouldn’t a blind predator rely on a heightened sense of smell?), but it also contains tight pacing, numerous expertly timed “boo!” scares, and a generous helping of unapologetic gore that’s been missing from the glut of PG-13 “horror” movies currently plaguing American screens. The Descent brings the pain in more ways than one, and reminds us yanks we need to step up our guignol game.

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03
Apr
09

Review: Typhoon

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With Hong Kong’s quality film output having taken a dip recently, and the Japanese horror craze dead in the water, South Korea has quietly stepped into the spotlight of Asian cinema (Thailand: you’re on in five). From Kim Ki-duk’s brutal psychological investigations to Park Chan-wook’s pulpy vengeance trilogy and beyond, the past few years have seen a steady stream of entertaining, challenging, and wholly original fare coming out of Chungmuro. So it’s something of a shame to see director Kwak Kyung-taek imitating lame American thrillers in his bombastic new film Typhoon. Korean megastar Jang Dong-gun plays Sin, a scraggly refugee-turned-terrorist intent on righting a misperceived wrong from his past, who plans to take out his anger on the whole of South Korea via dirty bomb. Standing in his way is Lee Jung-jae as the ultrapatriotic supercop hot on his trail. It’s a simple enough premise, but with a J.J. Abramsesque cat-and-mouse game spanning multiple countries and languages (five, with Jang surprisingly delivering the bulk of his dialogue in Thai), the story can’t help but be convoluted. Kwak also delves into Michael Bay territory, cramming the frame with car chases, explosions, and nausea-inducing handheld camerawork. Kwak previously directed Jang in the Korean blockbuster Chingu (Friend), a sort of testosterone-addled take on the chick-flick, albeit with the emphasis on male bonding and fighting. But while that film had a strong (if, by Western standards, sappy and maudlin) emotional core, Typhoon is all fight or flight, never stopping to take a breath. The best we get is a flashback interrupting what little narrative flow exists to illustrate Sin’s plight as a North Korean refugee and explain his misplaced hatred of South Korea, but sandwiched into the tumult as it is, it hurts more than helps the story. On the plus side, when the action does let up, Kwak’s recurring cinematographer Hong Kyeong-pyo uses an abundance of natural light, giving even the omnipresent overcast skies an ethereal beauty, and Jang has the feral, occasionally hammy intensity of a young Toshiro Mifune, somehow managing to elicit sympathy for his single-minded, megalomaniacal villain. Speaking of megalomania, there’s a third-act terrorist plot that even a Bond villain would find ludicrous, and a climactic battle that contains all the clichés: dangling chains, dripping water, walls of fire, a phallic knife fight, and the ubiquitous action flick line “You and I…we’re the same.” If Kwak really wanted to nail the American action flick vibe, he should have pared Typhoon down to a lean 90 minutes, as the film feels bloated at almost two hours. But if he wanted to nail the current zeitgeist of Korean cinema, he should have trusted himself to create something uniquely his (and his country’s) own.

26
Mar
09

Review: Cars

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Everyone knows that Pixar can’t do people. From Toy Story’s Andy to Monsters, Inc.’s Boo to, well, all of The Incredibles, the animation studio’s humans tend to look much less impressive than its Potato Heads, Scarers, and Omnidroid 9000s. So the fact that Pixar Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter’s latest, Cars, takes place in a world populated entirely by automobiles is a very good sign. Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson, easing up on the stoner drawl) is the cocky, narcissistic rookie on the stock-car circuit who’s just begging to be taken down a notch or two. And soon enough, he finds himself marooned in the teeny-tiny town of Radiator Springs, a roadside hot spot during the heyday of Route 66 that now receives visits only from those who’ve taken a wrong turn off the interstate. Is the obnoxious city slicker going to be forced to reevaluate his priorities after some exposure to unspoiled country folk? You betcha—and those folk take the form of every stock character imaginable, albeit cheekily reduced to automotive stereotypes: George Carlin voices a VW bus as a burnt-out hippie, Cheech Marin is a Chicano lowrider, Larry the Cable Guy—who admirably restricts himself to just one “Git ’er done!”—is a dimwitted tow truck, and so on. Indeed, there are almost too many characters to keep track of, as if the filmmakers had been ordered to dream up more and more parts to attach celebrity voices to. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Lightning’s speed-talking Jewish agent, who Jeremy Piven turns into a carbon copy of his Ari Gold character from Entourage. Happily, though, the film’s big sad-music-and-slo-mo montage isn’t about a character at all, but about Route 66 itself. As a flashback to the pre-interstate roadway unfolds, kandy-kolored love interest Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt) laments, “It didn’t cut through the land—it moved with it.” And what a beautiful land it is, with rock formations resembling the fins of classic cars and vistas stretching into forever. Those visuals are, of course, extraordinary. But the real treat of this flawed yet charming film is watching Lightning’s transformation as he learns about friendship and compassion. It’s a change that doesn’t take place overnight and isn’t even close to complete by film’s end—which is a rarity in Hollywood movies, no matter how impressive the humans look.

25
Mar
09

Review: Word.Life: The Hip Hop Project

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Matt Ruskin and Scott K. Rosenberg’s film Word.Life shares its title with the 1994 debut by criminally underappreciated Brooklyn rapper OC. If unintentional, it seems highly appropriate, as OC’s album was a beacon of thought-provoking positivity amid the sea of gangsta posturing in the nineties, and The Hip Hop Project aims to do the same for the underserved kids who are it members. The film follows Chris “Kazi” Rolle, who went from an orphan in the Bahamas to a homeless hustler in New York, and who eventually heads up the nonprofit Hip Hop Project, designed to help disadvantaged youth express themselves through music. The program aims to give these kids a positive forum to vent their anger and focus on an attainable goal, in this case the writing, recording, and production of their own hip hop album. Following the program over a four year period, the film also spends individual time with these budding emcees, showing the hardships in their lives which come out in their lyrics. There’s Cannon, who has to deal with his mother’s multiple sclerosis and his own waning interest in completing high school. Or Princess, who still carries the emotional effects of the abortion she had as a young teenager, and whose father has recently been incarcerated. The kids’ talent is undeniable, though in the beginning their delivery is raw and their lyrics mostly ape the manufactured gangsterism they hear in the mainstream. But soon they learn to strike a balance between relevance and reality, kicking complex, socially aware rhymes that never sound preachy or pessimistic. While they may never top the charts, their honest portrayals of their lives ring a lot truer than the “money, hoes and clothes” ethos of mainstream rap.

16
Mar
09

Review: Ushpizin

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Onscreen chemistry gets a lot of lip service, but it seems that’s usually just a euphemism for casting two incredibly hot actors to look incredibly hot together, with little to no regard for the complicated dynamics of human relationships. Not so with Gidi Dar’s Ushpizin, which contains genuine chemistry and one of the warmest depictions of married life in quite some time. Moshe and Mali (real-life Orthodox Jewish couple Shuli Rand and Michal Bat-Sheva Rand) live in an ultra-Orthodox enclave in Jerusalem where they are struggling with a lack of money and a lack of children. But Moshe is a man of faith, and believes “If there is something someone doesn’t have, it is because he hasn’t prayed enough.” They are preparing to celebrate Succoth, the commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt, for which each family builds a replica of a desert hut for eating and sleeping during the festival, welcoming family and guests (Ushpizin) to join them. Moshe and Mali’s holiday takes an unexpected turn when two of Moshe’s secular friends “from the old days,” escaped criminals Yossef (Ilan Ganani) and Eliyahu (Shaul Mizrahi), arrive just as the festival begins. As the newcomers move from bumbling caricatures to genuinely scary, they end up testing the couple’s hospitality, patience, and faith. But Ushpizin is as much about the couple’s relationship with each other as it is about their individual relationships with God. In one scene, a distraught Moshe literally runs into the woods to scream for advice; in another, a tightly framed Mali first appears to be gushing over her husband, but as the camera pulls back it becomes clear she is actually declaring her love directly to God. This is one of many scenes stolen outright by Bat-Sheva Rand and her effusive eyes, and she shines brightest when playing off her husband’s somber piousness. Rand’s Moshe radiates a quiet wisdom throughout, though his old pals’ buffoonery eventually draws out some of the long-dormant hellraiser of old. The film strikes a delicate balance in being sweet without cloying, and maintaining a certain innocence without being naïve. But the real balance on display is the one between the two leads, whose warmth and honesty shines brighter than a thousand Brangelinas.

09
Mar
09

Review: A Scanner Darkly

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Although Richard Linklater’s new film, A Scanner Darkly, features a cast of bankable, highly recognizable actors, you won’t see them onscreen, or at least not in the way you’re accustomed to. That’s because everything and everyone in the film has been rotoscoped, a process by which footage of the actors has been digitally traced and painted, giving the look of an animated comic book panel. Since it’s based on a Philip K. Dick novel, the plot is difficult to convey briefly, but it goes something like this: Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is one of a group of burnouts hopelessly addicted to the paranoia-inducing Substance D. But Bob is actually Fred, the federal agent assigned to monitor these dopers in hopes of making a bust higher up the ladder. Even his superiors in the feds don’t know his real identity, since Fred always meets with them while wearing a scramble suit. This cool little jumpsuit constantly shuffles random facial features, clothing and hairstyles to grant the wearer total anonymity. The fact that Fred is basically spying and reporting on himself among others (Winona Ryder plays Donna, who is both his dealer and girlfriend), combined with the fact that he may be cracking up from the effects of his job-related Substance D addiction set the stage for a schizo freakout of epic proportions. Considering the original novel was published in 1976, the story seems eerily contemporary, with its themes of identity crises, pharmacological conspiracies and mass surveillance. Dick’s work is infamous for being bastardized by Hollywood, but Linklater’s script actually adheres quite closely to the source material, with entire passages of dialogue unchanged. Linklater tends to make talky talkies, and perfectly handles Dick’s mile-a-minute druggie chatter, delivered most notably in the form of Robert Downey Jr.s psychotic chatterbox Jim Barris. Talking far less is Reeves, who seems to have mastered his craft as an actor to the point he can now say “whoa” without uttering a single syllable. But the real question here is: why use the rotoscoping technique at all? Linklater used it once before in Waking Life, and it’s recently been seen in TV commercials as well, so at this point it seems more a novelty than a visual innovation. But while the look is initially distracting, the 2-D, slightly-skewed perspective fits perfectly with the drug-addled surrealism and concentric plot circles, and pretty soon those animated people onscreen start to seem less like movie stars and more like the paranoid androids we’ve all become.

20
Jan
09

Review: Godzilla (1954)

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The Film Studio Formerly Known As Miramax took quite a bit of flak in its day from foreign film enthusiasts for its maddening habit of buying the rights to Asian hits only to re-edit and re-score them in the name of “American tastes.” But Bob and Harvey Weinstein have got nothing on producer Joseph E. Levine and his cronies at Embassy Pictures, who performed a truly heinous hack n’ slash job on director Ishiro Honda’s 1954 masterpiece, Gojira. When a retitled Godzilla: King of the Monsters hit American theaters two years later, it had been robbed of 40 minutes as well as the blatant anti-nuke message at the core of its story. (Camp movie aficionados will be quick to note the American cut did, however, add some unintentionally hilarious dubbing and 20 minutes of newly shot footage featuring future Perry Mason star Raymond Burr.) Fifty years later, Honda’s somber cautionary tale about the dangers of nuclear proliferation can finally be seen on these shores in a form Elvira Mistress of the Dark would barely recognize. Taking plenty of time to create suspense before revealing its 150-foot-tall, fire-breathing metaphor for the bomb, the film opens with a string of disappearing boats and a nighttime stomp across the island of Oda by a barely seen Godzilla. After Honda and co-scripter Takeo Murata have established the threat to humanity posed by the monster, the tone shifts to question the moral implications of eradicating something mankind may have helped create. Everyone wants to kill the monster except paleontologist Dr. Yamane (played with quiet dignity by Takuya Shimura, fresh off Akira Kurosawa’s epic Seven Samurai), who theorizes that Godzilla was disturbed by H-bomb testing and believes that mankind should instead study him. But soon Godzilla launches a full-scale attack on Tokyo, a set piece of scale-model destruction by special effects maestro Eiji Tsuburaya (who went on to create Ultraman, a staple of 70’s TV in both Japan and the States). While the “man in a rubber suit” is often the butt of easy jokes in the wake of numerous low budget sequels, spin-offs and rip-offs, here the combination of Tsuburaya’s miniatures, forced perspective and Honda’s dark, documentary-like cinematography create a surprisingly convincing illusion of Godzilla destroying Tokyo’s landmarks (and decades before Independence Day, mind you). Finally, not-so-mad scientist Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) reveals a weapon powerful enough to stop the beast—though he does worry that it could become the world’s next “weapon of horrible destruction.” But, following the logic of the genre, the only way to stop a monster—even one created by man’s powerful weapons—is to use an even more powerful weapon. At least the good doctor has the decency to burn all his notes for the “Oxygen Destroyer” lest they be adapted for military application after his death. Godzilla is first and foremost a monster movie, albeit one with a moral about as subtle as its title character. In fact, the final line of dialogue has Yamane warning that another monster could appear if nuclear testing continues. Of course, Honda may have been a bit naive to think a sci-fi movie could change anyone’s mind about such weighty matters, but Godzilla remains a powerful anti-bomb statement, even if it’s taken 50 years for “American tastes” to be ready to listen.