Thursday, July 2, 2009

Public Enemies

Directed by Michael Mann, Rated R, Released 2009. Based on real events.

Public Enemies is the based-on-a-true story version of the FBI's investigation and hunt for John Dillinger, a notorious bank robber of the 1930's. The two sides are represented by Christian Bale as the head agent of the FBI and Johnny Depp as John Dillinger. It is a fast paced, heavily plot driven story with dazzling gun fights, ingenious escapes, and masterfully performed strategies from both parties.

Public Enemies is a gangster movie, and it plays hard like a gangster movie. Guns blaze, cars are jumped on and fired out of in that iconic 1930's gangster way, and the women are classy and impeccable. John Dillinger and his gang are unstoppable bank robbers, but find some new competition in the agents of the newly formed FBI. J Edgar Hoover is up to his neck in bad publicity and desperately needs Mr. Melvin Purvis, Christian Bale, to take the Bureau to the next level by stopping Dillinger and his gang. The only problem is that the FBI is full of green-horns who can't keep up with the keen criminal minds of the gangsters.

Its give and take as we watch both sides play their hands, taking turns on both cruelty and sympathy. The gangsters do some expectedly heavy damage to the police and banking worlds, and Mr. Purvis is always playing in the periphery of his name's homophone, 'perverse,' though the other agents are usually the real culprits.

There is so much intrigueing and good about this film that its a real shame that I can't recommend it hands down, but there are two gray areas that I can't seem to get over.

Issue number one, this story is almost entirely plot driven. That's not a bad thing at all. However, we are thrown into the rich life of John Dillinger with none of his integral background given to us other than a title card at the beginning that says the 1930's were the 'golden age of bank robbing.' I feel that this is a mistake. Without crucial information on who this man is, we understand nothing for why we should care about him more than any murderer, which he was. Perhaps it is simply my own ignorance, almost certainly the case, but I will try to add some of the information I wish I had prior to watching this movie at the end of the review or in the comments section.

Issue number two, the hand-held cameras. The movie was going swimmingly, until the last 1/3 of it. Suddenly, in the middle of a gun fight, the cameras change to hand-helds. Not only do the cameras change, but the sound equipment as well. The guns no longer sound like the guns we have been hearing the whole movie, but instead sound like the stunt guns they are actually shooting on set. It starts to feel like a making-of DVD or a History Channel special. It really ruined it for me. It doesn't stop with that scene either, but continues interchanging with the regular camera work for the rest of the movie, making for some very awkward viewing. (update: 10 minutes after posting. explains that what Mann did was use HD digital cameras, and that's why the picture changes. Its effect escaped me, but maybe it won't escape you.)

And that's it for hard complaints. I could disregard my first complaint with the context they give you throughout the movie, but the second one stuck with me. I wish I didn't have to say all of this, because I think it was a great movie, but there we are. If you know better why Mr. Mann chose to do the movie this way, please share, I'd love to be proven wrong. Heck, I'll even blame my local theater.

Rated R for violence (some of the images of gun wounds were pretty graphic), and some minor language.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Directed by Michael Bay, Released 2009, Rated PG-13.

There was a time when robots fighting was reward in itself. There was also a time when robot fighting lasted less time than the 4th quarter in an NBA game. I'm gonna have to say right away that this movie was not worth eight dollars, but for the matinee, its alright. The robot fighting was great, in fact it was the best robot fighting I've ever seen. However, it came at a terrible price. The price of the writers' wages.

Do you remember how The Power Rangers would change from the hip nineties teens scene to the poorly dubbed Japanese footage from the original show? They do that in this movie. Except the hip 2009 setting is even more sophomoric than the Power Rangers teens were, but I'll get to that later. All I'm saying right now is that giant killer robots don't talk to each other well. Or realistically. Or even coherently. Deceptacons are iconically hard to tell apart. Its in their nature to be ambiguous, I guess, but its hard to follow.

There was also a time when Muppets humping may have been entertaining. In fact, I'd probably still like that. Killer robot sex isn't quite as funny. I'll tell you what is funny, irresponsible robot parenting. Yes, I'm talking about robot babies. We visit a robot nursery. It may have been the children's unit at a robot hospital, since they talk about how many of the babies are dying. How do the robots have babies? Just how much of these metal creations is biological? I saw robots come together to make bigger robots at least twice in this film, but no one mentioned shared genes. I saw a host of robot phalli at one point, but that seemed to more like...well, I guess rape is rape, but it wasn't the same as the human exchange.

So, we enter a robot cave with jelly sacs filled with robot larvae. Like, the metal is developing, and its dying, too. Why? Because of lack of Spark. Who's fighting for the children? The Deceptacons. I suppose that the Robot Home World could be the house of the rest of the Transformer race, and that's why the Autobots aren't very concerned, but if I recall correctly, the Autobots and Deceptacons both left that world to look for spark. Which means Home World babies are dying, too. I suppose I'll just have to be happy with the fact that Deceptacon babies would only grow up to be terrorists. That doesn't really add up, though, does it?

I digress, the babies only lasted a scene, and is bound to be the set-up of part 3.

Back to my Power Rangers, if robot talking was hard to follow, its still a relief from the non-stop noise of the human world. They should offer you Ritalin at the theater doors beside the 3D glasses dispenser. This was a big problem I had with the first movie, the inane banter that just lasts like an energizer battery. Big Red gum couldn't compete. And I could understand if it was a kids movie that had to be constantly stimulating to the two senses cinema panders to, but it is decidedly not a kids movie. The language is, shall we say loose? They pushed their PG-13, I think. On top of being loose, it is wildly racist, with all the worst stereotypes, down the the Black robots being illiterate. Even the educated Black robot, you can tell because he speaks with a British accent, still talks like a thug. Yeah, just to mull that conglomeration of language over.

There is not a character with a conscience in this movie. Violently, they are cold hearted, vocally they are crass, and morally they don't question their actions.

Robot violence isn't suppose to make you cringe, but robots aren't supposed to have bodily fluids or human emotions. That really doesn't stop anyone from being just as cruel as you like, though. I have to admit it was pretty gnarly. the images are shocking, but really cool. It's war from beginning to end, and from what I hear the shortage of robots was what was wrong with the first movie. I thought it was Shia Labeouf's character, but some people tell me otherwise.

Well, what more can I say? For an action packed movie, full of explosions and violence, it was a whole lot of fun and only mildly irritating, but for a movie that expands literature in any way, it falls flat. I haven't even gotten to the actual story, but that would take pages you don't want to read and the time I spent on robot reproduction should give you the idea of how I felt the entire movie. Okay, I just have to say that ancient robot history doesn't make sense, that's all there is to it. Seriously, now, I'll let you find out the rest.

For the summary: Don't take your kids, and bring a lot of popcorn.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Pan's Labyrinth

El laberinto del fauno, by Guillermo del Toro, written and directed, released 2006, rated R.

A bizarre fairy tale told against the back drop of the end of the Spanish Civil War, 1944. Well, post-end of the Spanish Civil War. Young girl, Ofelia, goes with her mother to live with her step-father, a sadistic Military Captain for Fascist Spain at an outpost house in the hills in the rural country. She has never met her step-father and only comes at her mother's insistence. Mother is pregnant, and the Captain wants the child to be his. Ofelia meets a few nice people, but most of her time is spent with a fearful pallor from the Captain's management. Ofelia finds hope when she is lead by a fairy to a faun who tells her of a past life and a destiny that only she can fulfill.

As the events in the camp unfold and the drama escalates, Ofelia brings herself closer and closer to reaching her desires until the two worlds overlap. Actually, there is a loose parallel in all the events, including how deadly each world is. The Captain is ruthless in establishing order and in eliminating the rebels, and the creatures Ofelia encounter are equally blood thirsty.

Prior to this movie, I had not seen a Guillermo del Toro film, but when I had heard about him it had always been with the associations of Fantasy Visuals. After all, he also directed the Hellboy movies, and Blade II. Incidentally, he'll also be directing The Hobbit. True to the hype, his visuals were seamless. The Captain's actions lead to violence, and the fantasy violence is engrossing. In particular, a face wound leads to many instances for wonder, a lot like Two-Face in the Dark Knight did. On top of the violent images were the scenes from Ofelia's Fairy World, where the creatures are completely intriguing. Not like monster movies where the creatures are withheld from view so our fear of the unknown grows, Guillermo shows us everything and lets us examine it closely, showing his mastery. Giant Frogs, the woody Faun, and the deadly knife, these images feel real.

Honestly, for me the fantasy world was on the back burner for the human drama of the Captain and the rebels, but Ofelia's plight and place was heart breaking, especially, as the tension in the camp grows tighter. All of the characters and actors portray themselves beautifully. I've never hated a villain or hoped for the protagonists so much. A wonderful film, leaves you bitter sweet, but justified.

Rated R for graphic violence, and I don't mean a lot of fighting, and the occasional swear, if subtitle words mean anything to you.


Directed by Henry Selick, released 2009, adapted from the novel, Coraline, by Neil Gaiman. Rated PG.

Coraline is a snappy story about a young girl who moves to a strange new home at the Pink Palace Apartments in Oregon with her depressingly busy and irritable writer parents. While trying to find a new place for herself she meets the other bizarre inhabitants of the old apartments, a Soviet Jumping-mouse circuteer, two washed up actresses, a boy named Why-were-you-born, and eventually she stumbles in on an alternate realty where things seem much brighter.

That's great, and it really is, but the story is really only so compelling as it's telling, and that's where this movie really takes off. Henry Selick, the director, also directed the films The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, Monkey Bone and several others. What's the connecting link? Stop Motion animation.

Coraline is fully animated with Stop Motion with some of the most gorgeous visuals you can ask for. In fact, to fully grasp what the artists and directors created, they filmed it in 3D, a sight that I regrettably missed out on. However, with a little imagination it's easy to see where the big Pop-Out images would be.

Most of this film is visual, watching Coraline accomplish subtle movements while talking, watching the unique posturing of the characters, being absorbed by the colors in the woods and in the garden. I especially loved the depth of the background scenery. Even when it gets trippy at the end, and probable computer generated images are included, the motion of the characters and the skill of the creators puts it together seamlessly. In fact, I think I really missed out on the 3D there. But equally important to the movie is the audio.

The real soul of the film is transmitted by the voice actors and musicians who fill the screen with life. During the relatively quiet scenes of watching Coraline explore her new worlds there's a hauntingly mellow song by Bruno Coulais sung in French that leaves the hair on your neck standing up. How does a mellow song leave you nervous? I can't tell you, except that it's the kind of incongruous experience that you have when somebody is so comfortable in a horrible situation that you get unnerved. There are tense scenes with tense music, but most of it is just an unsettling ambiance that you can wallow in. And why are you uncomfortable with the scene already? Probably thanks to the visualists.

And that's all I'm really trying to communicate here. This movie delivers it's mood so thoroughly that you'll walk away with it stuck in your pockets. I know people who didn't like that eeriness, but I personally couldn't get enough because the movie was so at home with it. It wasn't just a bizarre situation, but it was the reality of the world they show, so I made myself comfortable.

Now, structurally the story is not as engaging. The pacing is admittedly slow, and the events are really more of a show-and-tell that pays off for a climax. However, thanks to the voice actors and the great visual artists, the characters become so charming that watching the day-to-day of these odd people and creatures is really enough a story in itself.

With an unsettling atmosphere and occasional adult themes, it isn't a show for little kids, but it should do fine with open-minded big kids and young teenagers and most adults.

Friday, March 6, 2009


Directed by Zack Snyder, Released 2009, adapted from Graphic Novel written by Alan Moore. Rated R, for good reason.

The Watchmen was originally a limited-serial comic book that got compiled and published as a full-length graphic novel in 1986-87. Following the teaser for the Watchmen movie released with the Dark Knight, I read the graphic novel.

It was a fascinating use of comic book narrative. It was very complex, very gritty, occasionally disturbing, both to traditional values, and comic book standards; but how can I forget your stomach, too? If there was one reason to read the book before you watched the film, its to get an idea for what sort of violence you are going to see. It's purpose was to have you question your personal philosophies, beliefs, and points of view. It did so by making everything very realistic. The superheroes don't have super powers, many are as neurotic as they would be in real life, and they sure don't have the public vote. Violence is very real and painful in this one.

The movie adaptation was remarkably accurate, and, even more remarkably, still enjoyable! Several shots were perfect renditions of frames from the comic, and if you've read anything about the movie you've heard that before. Some of the dialogue doesn't come off as smoothly on the screen as it does on paper, but it was never enough to distract for long. In fact, I never felt bored for a moment because the story kept pressing on in interesting ways. There were times I was so impressed with the integrity of the original narrative that I wondered how they would fit it all inside of the usual two hours, and when I did check my watch outside of the theater I was surprised that it had been a full three hours.

Did I mention the gratuitous violence? While the violence rarely lasts long, and has extended dry spells, it doesn't skimp anything when you see it. When someone is getting their arms sawn off, you see the blood, the stumps, the gaping wounds, the bone, even the sawing as it happens. Gorey is the word. Usually the violence is not senseless, it has some socially based motivation tied to it. Sadly, this movie seemed almost more slasher than psychological, as I like to think of it.

Besides the graphic violence, the other graphics were fantastic. The Blue Man, Dr. Manhattan for those who know, was always fun. He was CG for a lot of it, or skinned at least, and I kept watching his mouth to see if I could tell, but they did a pretty good job. A lot of the visual-fun was colors. Things were always easily interpreted to your eyes, not always the case with comic book movies. It made it easy to focus on the other parts of the movie, like it's storyline.

Now, I said I like to think of the Watchmen as psychological. In the graphic novel the story is broken up into twelve chapters, for each issue released when it was a serial. Each chapter deals with different themes, so you get a lot of time to think about the issues raised. I can't go into much depth without ruining serious plot points, but keep your ears open to key words like forgiveness, justice, reality, and resposibility. The Comedian is a genius of a character that grips every person who listens to him because he speaks openly and honestly about the worst and most natural in everyone. I can say I relate to him in disturbing ways and I'd think you were a little bit of liar if you say you don't. It's was the author's intention to make you a liar if you didn't understand him. Its part of the message. You'd have to deliberately misunderstand him.

One sad note, they cut out a lot of the heart and soul from chapter 6, which undermines a lot of the thematic elements that counter-balance the violence.

However, the music was fantastic. They used a lot of classics from the eras discussed, but not always in the appropriate decades. Interestingly, they used a subtle irony in some scenes with the music choice to help you feel comfortable in the scene you were watching. It's very graphic, did I mention it?

This a terrible movie to show to kids. There once was a time when things were rated R because they dealt with things worth dealing with that young audiences didn't have the capacity to understand. This isn't Schindler's List, but it should be considered the same way. Too much is mimicable and glorified by being on the big screen. Oh yeah, and Dr. Manhattan is naked for a lot of the time, if male nudity matters to you.

Why it's R--Graphic Violence, One -assumedly- prolonged sex scene (I had my eyes shut for a while, I can only assume I had reason to), and thematic elements.

I liked it a lot. It didn't open my eyes the same way the graphic novel had, but maybe that's because I had already heard what it had to say. The music was fun, the nonviolent parts were very interesting to watch, and the story and characters are superb. The super natural elements are viewed in many different lights so that it's three dimensional. Fantastic,

but not in my top three movie list.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa

Directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, released November 2008.

My expectations were not high, I wasn't disappointed.  It's a kids movie, so what do you expect?  Fast transitions, extra-hyper actions, funny voices, nothing that makes you think too much.  Honestly, this generation of kids have such a high stimulus-intake, its unbelievable.  There were parts of this movie that made my head spin when I took myself out of the action and tried to see it as a whole scene or sequence for all the movement and music (which was surprisingly good).  

The title is a little misleading, there is no escape, and Africa was never the intended destination, though that is where the movie mostly takes place.  The movie begins with a recap of the first movie (which I never saw), and tells the childhood story of our main character, Alex the Lion, or, as he is known by his long-lost parents, Alekey.  Apparently, he was not the strong lion that his father, the King, had anticipated while they were in Africa.  Luckily for the Father, Alekey was kidnapped by some sort of trapper and later lost at sea, so he never had to watch his son become the metro-sexual dancer he became when Alekey was recovered in New York.

The main story surrounds this relationship.  Interestingly, they do create well-established side stories for each of the supporting main characters.  The Zebra is confronted by a herd of zebra and he finds himself, a very unique character in his own clique, to be completely undistinguishable from the rest of the herd.  The Hippo and Giraffe have a mixed story, as the Giraffe is secretly in love with the Hippo who find herself very involved in the hippo-dating scene.

To tell the truth, the topics the covered were pretty emotionally deep, but they only dwelt enough on each topic to give you a taste of the problem before switching to another character's problem or resolution.  I mean, it is a kids' show, that's appropriate, and like I said, kids' shows have so many fast cuts and changes, it's the easiest way to keep a child's interest.

Not a lot of the jokes were heaps-funny, but there were plenty of laughs from the audience.  Personally, I laughed loudest at the antagonist's lion-mane and at the Captain Penguin's line about sacrifices.  

Now, because the story was so divided in it's conflict-foci there is a lack of a strong antagonist struggle.  In fact, while the antagonist starts a lot of trouble, he is only brought to ruin by another lesser (but arguably more formidable) antagonist.  This reduces the story's struggle considerably.  We see the characters making a lot of snap-decisions without thinking out any consequences or more than superficial motivations (kids' movie).  No one is really concerned with changing anything, just getting away with things.

All in all, it was pretty enjoyable, unless you were looking for an adult film.  I actually kind of like looking at simple stories and seeing what those story tellers can get away with after so very little explanation and I'm always amazed by it.  Final thought: this is entirely a kids' movie; a good one, but don't expect the layering of Shrek, blame the complex story arcs.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Whale Rider

Directed by Niki Caro, released in 2002, adapted by director from a novel by Witi Ihimaera.  

I had watched this movie back in 2004 after I had taken my first film appreciation class and after I had lived with a roommate who had served his mission in New Zealand.  The way he and others described the Pacific Islands really enchanted me and the film class had made me think that I could interpret any movie perfectly.  I didn't do bad, but I sure didn't have the background that I think I needed to get it.

I saw this movie again this last Tuesday after I have been to the Pacific and heard more about the modern Maori condition.  The basic story is a young girl's struggle to both earn her Grandfather's love and fulfill her own potential as a strong Maori, while Grandfather can only see her attempts as a sad parody and curse on tradition, prophecy and his own life.

To appreciate this movie you need to have a pretty good stomach for minor notes, both musically and emotionally.  As with all Polynesian cultures, Maoris think that they have the best singing voices in the world, and I'm sure not a good enough judge to say otherwise, but I love Paikea's (Keisha Castle-Hughes) haunting songs.  While not a musical, the traditions that are trying to be upheld are often sung and leave an often melancholy tenor on the scene.  

I think the best way to get the theme of the story is to understand something of why the Grandfather is feeling the way he does.  The Maori culture was victim to British Colonization like so many other nations, and like other nations, their own culture was suppressed to allow for greater British domination.  Until recently, speaking Maori was illegal (at least in schools), and of course, the native populace has been largely mixed and supplanted by British New Zealanders who have grown up there, along with a healthy dose of Dutch-blood.  

The Grandfather is seeing his land lose it's identity, down to his own son, Paikea's father, and is desperately trying to restore the culture, seeing any difference from the ancient ways as a deviation from the god's methods, which would only further lose the people.  In his struggle he despairs at Paikea's success at the fulfilling the redeemer's role because it means that she is  only becoming more and more of curse for interfering in the traditionally male-based culture, and ultimately, destroying it's chance of returning.

It's easy to see the movie as a gender-based struggle with the most obvious conflicts coming from the fact that she's a girl, and with all the phallic references in the movie, but I think to label it like this is to be as narrow minded as the Grandfather, who was the one who  made it a gender struggle.  Paikea rarely brings up the struggle as a way to prove women, but rather as a way to say that to discredit anyone on an arbitrary trait is to handicap everyone.  In fact, I see her being a girl as a great symbol of change and hope.  The old ways were destroyed, but could still had value in being preserved;  however, they couldn't be brought back to the way they had been exactly, so something new had to happen, but by being through a Maori it was still pure.  Something Old, Something New at the same time.  

This is a largely family friendly film, with a few quick exceptions of language, and if you have problems with old men saying, "Hold on to your dicks." If taken for what it is, it's a wonderful view of  beautiful traditions, and of the need for flexible thinking.  I mean, I got a little emotional.