Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club (review)

Oscar season is upon us, and as such we have entered a time of the year when we swap out our regular Movie Quality Yardstick for one that's a bit longer. For better or worse we expect more from movies this time of year. Yet with these greater expectations come movies which still manage to exceed them, and if nothing else Dallas Buyers Club is here to do just that. While it may not be the greatest movie of the year, it's probably pretty close, and the acting in it will likely earn its two stars Oscar nods for their efforts.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Near Dark (review) Thriller Mondays

At the recommendation of my friend and fellow movie nerd Martin, I recently had the opportunity to watch Near Dark (1987), the second feature film from director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty). And yes, Near Dark is, in fact, a vampire movie, but before you run away in disgust at this undead monster's recent popularity, Near Dark is also a good movie (also these vampires don't sparkle in the sunlight). Admittedly I was a little disappointed at first because I was basically expecting a big dumb action movie, but what we get instead is more interesting and more satisfying. Bigelow uses the pretext of vampires to stage both a compelling family drama and an incisive morality tale.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Planet of the Apes (analysis)

The original Planet of the Apes (1968) has about as much of a legacy in the world of science fiction as 2001: A Space Odyssey (movies which coincidentally came out in the same year and both feature actors dressed as monkeys). With films like this, which you've probably been told were the most revolutionary thing put to celluloid back in its day, it can be hard to believe they'll still be relevant today, let alone possible to watch without snickering. I had similar reservations: this movie is twenty years older than I am, how could it possibly still be good? This is one movie at least which has earned its position as a classic by creating a story which is as compelling and enjoyable as it is timeless. If you're curious enough to consider watching, just go do it.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Men in Black (quickie)

Men in Black (1997) is a movie I grew up watching (it just barely missed the cut for my Childhood Favorites Week). Its story of secret agents tasked with monitoring extraterrestrial life on Earth is packed with both action and hilarity. The effects department combined practical effects with CGI to make aliens which look convincing enough without doing this. But like the black suit-clad men it features, there's more to this story than meets the eye. Alien invasion is an incredibly common science fiction theme, but Men in Black puts a unique spin on it which highlights the ideological underpinnings of the genre. It doesn't take much imagination to understand that alien invasion movies are about aliens (from another country) and not aliens (from another planet). This reorganization explains why so many alien invasion movies trumpet nationalist pride rather than global solidarity. Men in Black turns this trend on its head.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Goonies (quickie)

Thanks to a recommendation from my friend and fellow film nerd George I finally watched the classic 80's film The Goonies (1985), but I encountered a bit of a problem. I could understand everything that's great about it—from its sense of childhood innocence and wonder, to its genuine enjoyment in storytelling and adventure, to its heartfelt coming-of-age narrative—and it was still fun to watch, but my experience of the film wasn't as immediate as it would have been had I watched it as a kid. The movie didn't "happen" to me the way movies "happen" to younger minds. I still loved it, but from the removed, jaded perspective of someone who's seen too many movies. What I got out of it instead was a thoroughly Lacanian twist on the classic pre-teen self-discovery story. While The Goonies is on one level a traditional coming-of-age plot, on another it is also the story of a young man discovering his manhood, both literally and figuratively.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Perfect Blue (quickie)

 Perfect Blue (1997) is feature film debut from director Satoshi Kon, the brilliant man behind the more recent Paprika (2006), and as such the two movies share a lot of similarities. They both directly confront the thematic dichotomy of fantasy and reality as well as dealing more tangentially with issues like identity, obsession, and the influence of culture. The most noticeable difference between the two is in the quality of the animation: Perfect Blue undoubtedly has several stunning visuals, but when it comes to the busier moments some of the background detail is lost. The crucial point to make about a film like this is that the temptation to play detective and uncover whether Mima is a schizophrenic murderer or which scenes are reality and which fantasy is a misleading one. The point is rather to immerse yourself in the confusion of it all, to feel the same uncertainty that Mima does, and ultimately to lose your confidence in (the appearance of) reality.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Oldboy (review) Thriller Mondays

I recently had the great pleasure of going to a double feature at my local multiplex, so for the first time since my review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire I'll actually be talking about movies that are still in theaters (sort of). Oldboy is a psychological thriller from director Spike Lee, and it's the exact opposite of a feel-good movie. The film is dark, moody, and ominous, and serves as a cautionary tale against revenge. If you read my article on cinematography you know I think Spike Lee is an incredibly capable director, so while the story may leave you in tatters it does so very artfully and with a great deal of cinematic craft. While Oldboy is far from the best movie you'll see this year, it very well may be the year's best thriller.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Adaptation & Source Material (analysis)

In the wake of a recent surge in successful movie adaptations of literature—from classic novels like The Great Gatsby to popular young adult fiction like The Hunger Games—it is often assumed that an adapted film which isn't faithful to its source material can't be good. Remaining objective is incredibly difficult, especially for fans of the books who see the story and characters they love represented in a way different from what they imagined. I'm here to tell you that adapted movies need not adhere to their source material to be “good”—in fact, strict adherence is often just as inadvisable.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Total Recall (review)

I loved the original Total Recall (1990) for all its campy sci-fi weirdness, and according to critics the 2012 version was below average even for a Hollywood remake. So when I decided to give last year's Total Recall a try, my expectations were set about as low as they could be. Maybe that's why the movie's first act, with its impressive (albeit fake) visuals and competent discussion of the nature of reality, was a pleasant surprise for me. The problem is that it uses this enjoyable and potentially thought-provoking premise to stage a by-the-numbers action flick. This is of course exactly what I would have anticipated if it weren't for the unexpectedly passable and even auspicious beginning. The sad irony of this remake of Total Recall is that you have to watch the first half of it to be disappointed by the second.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Running Man (quickie)

It's so trendy among movie cynics to say that The Hunger Games is just a copy of the supposedly better movie Battle Royale that it's actually become a commonplace, and mainstream reviewers have been forced to make reference to the similarities. I guess all the film hipsters out there haven't seen or have just forgotten about The Running Man (1987), one of the ever-plentiful Schwarzenegger stupidity machines created in the 80's and 90's. This is part of a series of movies with enough recognition to warrant a feature film parodying them. So where are the trendy name drops? This movie might not be as good as Battle Royale—the cinematography is pretty bland, the writing is relatively poor, and the characters are defined by little more than their muscles—but it's certainly not without its own merits. And on top of that, The Running Man is more thematically similar to The Hunger Games than the Japanese slasher flick. So let's take a look at some of the similarities.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Predator (quickie)

I knew going into Predator that it was one of those So Bad That It's Good movies. It's an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, what can you expect, right? Well for one thing, I didn't expect the movie to be actually bad. Don't get me wrong, there were definitely moments I did enjoy, and some of them not even in an ironic, "laughing at the movie instead of with it" kind of way. There's a panning wide shot early on which gives a sense of the mystery and fear of the jungle as well as the group's camaraderie and cohesion. Then on the ironic side of things, there's the signature bad puns encompassing everything from shouting "knock knock" after knocking down a door to telling an enemy to "stick around" after being stuck to the wall with a dagger. There are also these terrible hypermasculine jokes about women, but this is where the movie starts to go from fun-bad to just regular bad-bad.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The East (review) Thriller Mondays

It's beginning to look more and more like I should actually do a Thriller of the Week segment where I compare one of the infinite new thrillers to Now You See Me (because apparently it's the best example of what bothers me about the genre). In any case, I have my very good friend Sof to thank for sharing The East (2013) with me, and while I don't think I'll be watching it again any time soon it does get some things right which bigger and "better" thrillers don't seem to understand. I may not care much for this movie's politics, but if nothing else it certainly knows how to develop a character.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Cinematography 101 (analysis)

With the success of my recent didactic historical article focusing on The Big Sleep, I figured I'd take another shot (sorry about the pun) at writing an educational article for anyone looking to get into film. I feel that with the explosion of amateur film critics (such as myself) and the growing unease with movies which prioritize "style over substance" (a criticism I often make), something of the artistry inherent to film has been lost. Take adaptations of popular literature for example: the most common criticisms are often limited to which elements from the book were included or left out. While this can be an interesting discussion to have, the nature of film as a storytelling medium carries with it a different kind of art, and its beauty comes from the technique with which its story is told. And while it is very easy to come away from a film with the sense that the director of photography knew what she was doing, sometimes explaining that artistic vision can be more difficult. So today I'd like to talk about the very basics of cinematic camerawork and how different methods of filmmaking can unconsciously affect the experience of a film.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Day the Earth Stood Still (quickie)

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is one of the most influential science fiction films of all time, so in my effort to educate myself in the genre I decided to give it a look. The most obvious thing that will jump out at you if you watch this movie today is that it really didn't stand the test of time. The acting and cinematography are all great, but the special effects are just the opposite. I don't care how much you can appreciate old sci-fi special effects, Klaatu's spaceship and his robot Gort are both pretty unimpressive by today's standards. And then on top of that they're not even featured very heavily in the movie. The robot and spaceship are basically bookends to the central story of Klaatu studying the human race. This sci-fi oldie is best appreciated from a modern standpoint for its influence on the genre and its anti-war message.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Source Code (review)

Thrillers are so popular now that it seems we get a new one every week. I've already reviewed Now You See Me and Trance, both movies from this year which are vaguely entertaining in an I Have No Idea What's Actually Going On kind of way. The problem with these is that quite often they're not given enough detail, or their plots are too focused on the big twist, so that the excitement of the first time completely disappears on subsequent screenings. These are the movies that will get audiences into the theater but disappear after their home video release, satisfying big production companies but ultimately fading into history. So I think it's safe to say that my expectations were pretty low for Source Code, a two-year-old sci-fi thriller that flew completely under my radar until recently. While there's one giant flaw in the film which will keep it in relative obscurity, I was pleasantly surprised with everything else.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (quickie)

My friend Garth recommended I watch Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) multiple times before I finally got around to watching it the other day. For some reason I was expecting a combination of RocknRolla and Layer Cake; instead the movie is closer to In Bruges but much more lighthearted and fun. And in the end, maybe "fun" is really the best way to describe this movie. I don't mean "fun" in the way the Transformers movies or the latest Die Hard is fun by sacrificing story for big set piece action scenes. Quite the opposite. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has plenty of action, but the focus is clearly on the story, which works well because the story is the most entertaining I've encountered in a long time. Robert Downey Jr. is absolutely hilarious and Val Kilmer's role as the private investigator Gay Perry allows Kilmer to showcase his talent for comedic character portrayals. The film is also eminently quotable, another sign of the quality of the writing.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Attack the Block (review)

I saw trailers for Attack the Block when it was in theaters, but since I didn't really hear anything about it from critics or my friends or anything I never went to see it. Then last week my good friend Garth shared with me this review of it which puts forward a definition of the overused term "masterpiece" and shows how it fits the movie (the article's really quite good if its unique writing style doesn't bother you). On that recommendation I decided to watch the movie, and now I couldn't be more disappointed I never went to see it in theaters. As such I'd like to put forward my own definition of what it means to be a "masterpiece": a masterpiece is a really freaking good movie. And yes, Attack the Block is a really freaking good movie.