Friday, November 30, 2007

La Chinoise

Jean-Luc Godard | 1967 | 96 minutes | France

Jean-Luc Godard’s visually lush film about a small group of Maoist students in France was incredibly prescient. Made in politically tense mid-60s France, just before the events of May 1968, the film in retrospect serves as a great commentary on that turbulent time.

One thing about Marxist-Leninists that hasn’t changed since the ‘60s is that they’re generally a bunch of self-righteous bores. Godard’s Marxist disposition, which was only starting to become explicitly public at this point in this career, thankfully didn’t stop him from creating a wonderfully critical film which elevates the ideas while poking fun at their fervent adherents.

A loose collection of Maoist monologues (didactic to the point of self-mockery) are tied together with the pop-art-y visuals and bold primary coloured sets that make great use of stacks of Mao’s little red books. Jean-Pierre Léaud and Anne Wiazemsky are delightful as Guillaume and Veronique, both absolutely nailing the inexperienced idealism of the generation’s young, and of course, bourgeois, university students.

As the film progresses, the students’ discussions grow closer to the inevitable conclusion that violence will shake things up and start the revolution they yearn for. Unfortunately, their plans for revolutionary action are as ill conceived and naïve as one might expect, and at the film’s conclusion we see that the only changes that have been affected are in the students’ own disillusion. Clearly, Godard was commenting on the politics of the time more than expressing his personal political views, and more than being a film about Marxism, La Chinoise is an affectionate and incisive study of the naïveté of youth.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Beowulf (3D)

Robert Zemeckis | 2007 | 113 min | USA

Robert Zemeckis hasn't made a good film since the Back to the Future trilogy, but in some strange way, this latest atrocity makes me want to tip my hat to him. It's so ill advised and mind-bogglingly ballsy that I'm impressed it actually got made.

At face value, this film is an insult to both cinema and literature. The very idea of adapting the epic poem to film, then CGI-ing the hell out of it and marketing it as "not your grandpa's Beowulf" is pretty ridiculous. But creating a 3D version of the adventure? Verging on genius. Seeing it on the IMAX screen kind of made me wish all films were released on 3D. How much more would I have enjoyed No Country for Old Men if Javier Bardem's creepy, watery eyes had been hovering inches from my face instead of being contained on the flat screen?

Seriously though, using live actors and then computer-animating them only works well for the action sequences, while leaving the quieter scenes unwatchably wooden. Least recognizable behind her computerized mask is Robin Wright Penn as the Queen, who is decades younger than the actress and has a totally different face. Even Crispin Glover is easier to spot under his many layers of gross goop, as the fantastically whiny Grendel.

The next worst thing about this film, after the bizarre video game aesthetic, are the accents. Only Anthony Hopkins and Ray Winstone (who maintains his native Hackney accent pretty much throughout, thank god) escape the harsh and ludicrous lilt that is apparently intended to represent 'the mythical past'.

The film's writers also inexplicably waver between a modern English translation and the original text, often giving Grendel gibberish-sounding Old English lines. Maybe Neil Gaiman thought it would make him seem more alien and monstrous, but it comes off as a silly gimmick in spite of Crispin Glover's quite decent delivery.

The tale of Beowulf is amazing. This film is not, and anyone who sees the non-3D version of it is a fool. If you're going to waste $15, at least get the roller coaster thrill of having Grendel's blood spill off the screen at your feet.

Oh, I nearly forgot. John Malkovich is in this, and he really acts the fuck out of his role.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Meatball Machine

Yudai Yamaguchi + Jun'ichi Yamamoto | 2005 | 90 min | Japan

A love story about two people who stumble into a war between bio-mechanical parasites that have invaded Earth. Meatball Machine is low budget, action-packed, and gore-tastic.

This movie is very similar in execution to Tetsuo: The Iron Man. It is a viscous, violent mess of homemade costumes, old-timey physical effects, spraying blood, and origami paper thin plotting. Yes, it steals wholesale from Tetsuo, but how many movies can you say that about? Maybe two? So it's acceptable.

And just what is the "meatball machine"? Oh, that tantalizing secret is saved for the very last moment of the film. I wouldn't want to ruin it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Smashing Machine

John Hyams | 2002 | 93 min | US

Mixed martial arts is an extremely taxing sport, both mentally and physically. If you have any doubt, please take a look at this portrait of fighter Mark Kerr.

Kerr was once a successful, popular heavyweight in the premier UFC and Pride Fighting organizations, but is in the process of trying to climb back to the top when this documentary catches up with him. Kerr is very forthright about the highs and lows of his involvement in mixed martial arts. He openly discusses his addiction to the opiates which allow him to dull the hits and fears of each fight and ease the painful recoveries. His troubled personal relationship with girlfriend Dawn Staples also falls under scrutiny. As the relationship comes into focus it becomes clear that it has as ill an effect on his professional performance as his drug addiction, though the couple are the only ones not to realize it.

The Smashing Machine also spends a lot of time with Mark Coleman, a friend and colleague of Kerr's who's name will be familiar to long time fans of the UFC. 'The Hammer' Coleman was once a heavyweight champion, but is well past his glory days by the point of this shoot. He plainly admits that he continues fighting to feed his young family, and is doing worse and worse as the sport evolves further beyond its brawling origins.

The doc is stark and visceral in its portrayal of the physical toll of the sport, showing both the in-match hits and the scars following in a brutal macro one never sees in pay-per-view. I am no stranger to watching televised fights and I still found myself wincing a lot more than I would watching a typical UFC match. The soundtrack is also an unusual, though welcome, choice. The grating nu-metal and hard rock typical of these events is eschewed in favour of languid atmospheric guitar work.

The Smashing Machine is definitely recommended viewing for fans of mixed martial arts, but it is good enough a feature to appeal to any who enjoy documentary portraiture.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

Ridley Scott | 2007 (via 1982) | 117 min | USA


Not a single change in this re-edit seems out of place or inappropriate. They're very slight for the most part, and actually improve the film. It's funny that the last time I was this giddy to be seeing a movie in a theatre was for a Star Wars film.

I could go on and on about the changes made to this new edit, but other people have already done that, and besides... you don't really want to know what you're getting for Christmas until you're opening youre presents on Christmas morning, do you?

If you like Blade Runner at all, you have no excuse to not go see it on the big screen. After years of watching it on video, it's a revelation. A pure joy. Easily one of the best movie going experiences of the year.

Merry Christmas.

No Country for Old Men

Joel and Ethan Coen | 2007 | 122 min | USA

I've seen No Country for Old Men twice already, and plan on seeing it at least a couple more times before it leaves theatres. After spending nearly a decade making bad movies, my once beloved Coen Brothers have finally decided to make a movie to win back my affections.

A trailer dwelling tough guy played by Josh Brolin stumbles upon a drug deal in the desert gone bad. Dead men everywhere, a pick-up truck full of heroin, and a case full of money (2 million moneys). He decides to take the money home with him so that he and his wife (Trainspotting's Kelly Macdonald, who's wonderful) can retire. Of course, the people who the 2 million belong to aren't pleased that it's gone missing, and send perhaps the most terrifying killer to grace the screen since... forever(?), played BRILLIANTLY by Javier Bardem, after him to retrieve it. The cherry on the top is the aged law enforcement officer played beautifully and never over the top by Tommy Lee Jones.

Those are the basics, but they don't do the film any justice. The tension is palpable in such a long-lasting and rare way. There aren't many chances to relax here. All of the performances are incredible, the dialogue is natural, pacing perfect, cinematography shockingly good, and even more shocking is the graphic violence that harkens back to Miller's Crossing and Fargo. This movie sticks to your ribs.

For a film that's based on a book, the Coens have definitely made it their own. Certain scenes seem like they're paying tribute to themselves, and their older films. Almost a knowing nod to the fact that it's a return to that territory, but thankfully not in a distracting way that takes you out of the story.

No Country for Old Men is about as good as movies get. My only complaint is that after years and years of considering Miller's Crossing as one of, if not my favourite film, the Coen Brothers have gone and made a film that just might be better than it. These are hard times with difficult decisions to be made.

Friday, November 16, 2007

American Gangster

Ridley Scott | 2007 | 157 min | US

So it's wonderfully paced, deftly acted, and great attention is paid to the details of the 1970s, even in expansive street scenes. Except for the one scene I cannot get out of my head. A scene wherein Moses Jones' Wu Tang Clan RZA tattoo is prominently on display.


Saturday, November 10, 2007

Shoot 'Em Up

Michael Davis | 2007 | 86 mins | USA

Let me say right off the top that I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. I want to make that clear, because there are certainly valid complaints about it that could be brought up and have been in other reviews. I just happen to think that those reviews missed the point a bit.

There are several things about Shoot ‘Em Up that, had I been in a different frame of mind while watching it, would have infuriated me. If, for example, I’d been expecting a taut psychological thriller full of complex, bullet proof plot twists, I might have been annoyed by the film’s break-next pace and frequent corny gags.

Fortunately, I wasn’t watching an intricate suspense film, I was watching a shoot ‘em up. As one of those, this film delivers in spades.

The action begins at minute one, when a woebegone looking Clive Owen decides to follow a pregnant woman who’s being pursued by a gang of thugs into an empty warehouse. Owen springs into action, taking the woman’s gun and annihilating the bad guys in a variety of cartoonishly satisfying ways while she goes into labour. Somewhere between the moment at which he drives a raw carrot through a man’s eye and the moment at which he shoots the newborn’s umbilical cord to sever it, I realised this film would totally rule.

The story revolves around Owen, an anonymous good Samaritan who takes it upon himself to protect the innocent babe with the help of a lactating hooker named DQ (played woodenly by Monica Bellucci – I guess it’s harder to spot bad acting when it’s in another language, because I’ve seen her in several Italian films and didn’t realise until this one how terrible she is). In hot pursuit is Paul Giamatti, incredibly creepy as the mysterious Hertz, single-mindedly focused on killing the child.

There are a lot of weird lactation jokes in this movie, and a lot of Bugs Bunny gags (Owen’s Mr. Smith eats raw carrots throughout – they’re a shtick, but also an occasional lethal weapon). Somehow, this makes the film no less enjoyable.

As the convoluted plot unravels (something about a dying politician and some anti-gun control fanatics), it becomes clear that what we’re waiting for here isn’t an M. Night Shaymalan-esque twist ending to make us roll our eyes or fall out of our seats. It's Clive Owen jumping out of an airplane and shooting guys in freefall, or destroying a SWAT-team’s worth of assassins while fucking Monica Bellucci in a hotel room.

Like last year’s Crank, this films provides the roller coaster thrill of non-stop action with no filler. It's 86 minutes of good times.

Canada’s own Stephen McHattie co-stars as the gun factory owner, Hammerson. Personal confession: I have an inappropriate crush on him, even though Clive Owen is obviously the heartthrob here.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Hot Rod

Akiva Schaffer | 2007 | 88 min | US

A string of cliched eighties references does not a comedy make. Napolean Dynamite has ruined cinema!