Saturday, November 14, 2009
It's been a long time since I've had the pleasure to write that a Woody Allen film was laugh-out-loud funny. WHATEVER WORKS breaks the drought.
The film begins with Larry David (the guy from "Curb Your Enthusiasm") having coffee with some friends at a sidewalk cafe. He's holding forth on his theory of life, when he decides that his friends just aren't sharp enough, or interesting enough, to keep up. Perhaps, however, his audience is. He turns toward the camera and lets us have it, in a riotously funny monologue that sets the tone for the film while bringing tears to our eyes.
From there, WHATEVER WORKS takes us on a tour of Allen's philosophy of life, or at least the one he's espousing for these 90 or so minutes. The film feels stagey at times, and we're often reminded that we're watching actors mouth the words of another. But these are funny, incisive, biting words; they're worth hearind, and they're delivered well.
I laughed. I thought. I laughed some more. I can't wait to see this again with the one I love.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
THE BROTHERS BLOOM doesn't want you to suspend your disbelief. Rare, that, and it creates an opportunity to tell a story that revels in its storyhood. It has a trustworthy-sounding narrator, outlines its chapters, and offers a world richer, more exotic, and flat-out more fun than our own. It tells its story with relish, for how can one not relish small touches like Maximilian Schell play a veteran con-man and thief who favors Turkish garb?
This is a con movie. As such, you can expect to spent part of your time guessing at the nature of the con, part of the time feeling proud of yourself for figuring out the con, and part of the time delighting in the surprises in the con. It's a pleasant way to spend an hour and a half, made all the more pleasant by the presence of likeable and capable actors, a sure hand on the camera, and beautiful locations both inside and out.
Is it slight? Yeah. Is it flawed? A little. Will it put a smile on your face? Absolutely. This is a fun little movie.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Vampires. Samurai. Ninjas. Do I have your attention? How about vampire samurai vs. vampire ninjas? And I'm not asking about your creepy Japanese schoolgirl in a sailor costume thing, but what if one of those vampire samurai was a Japanese schoolgirl in a sailor costume? That's right - BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE is a movie about a vampiric samurai schoolgirl. She fights other vampires, some of whom happen to be ninjas. She has one of those awesome mountain senseis with a wispy white beard. Oh, and you just know there's a magic sword and the fate of mankind hangs in the balance and so on.
Ah, but here's the thing: I've just seen two legitimately great films: MUNYURANGABO and BALLAST. How can I possibly evaluate a genre picture like BTLV after that? It comes down to this: how lustily is the genre picture a genre picture? Does it embrace its premise? If we accept that a vampire hunter movie isn't trying to compete with the aforementioned films, then all we have to do is discern whether it's a good vampire hunter movie.
My answer is yes, BTLV is as good a vampire hunter movie as one could want. Gianna Jun (a Korean, but that's not important right now) isn't much of a martial artist, but she's shot, edited, and CGIed well enough to keep the suspension of disbelief rolling along. The movie does a decent job of recreating late-60s Tokyo, the monster effects look good, the action sequences pop, and the climax is exceptionally well handled. So some of the performances, especially the American ones, are a bit creaky - that's par for the course.
Put simply, BTLV delivers on its premise and delivers an hour and a half of good, vampire-hunting fun. What more could you ask for in a movie about a vampiric samurai schoolgirl?
BALLAST reminds me of FROZEN RIVER. Not because it’s about poor people, or because much of the action takes place in tiny houses, or because it’s a winter film. BALLAST reminds me of FROZEN RIVER because it’s a film about people first and story second.
That’s not to say that BALLAST has no story, or that its story isn’t a good one. But there’s a difference between characters who live in service to the story and a story that operates in service to the characters. Like FROZEN RIVER, BALLAST puts characters first and allows the story to flow from them. And like FROZEN RIVER, BALLAST delivers an engrossing experience, one that makes us feel that we know these people and makes us care deeply about who they are, what they say, and which choices they make.
I’m three paragraphs in, and I haven’t offered a synopsis or even a jumping-off point. I don’t want to. BALLAST doesn’t reveal its secrets up front, and I’m not about to spoil events that occur even in the film’s first five minutes. So this is one of those movies for which I’m going to ask you simply to take my word for it. BALLAST is one of the best films you’ll see this year. Do yourself a favor and seek it out.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
MUNYURANGABO is flat-out brilliant.
Rwanda: ten years after the genocide. Two teenaged boys walk the road. One has a machete.
That machete, its mere existence, creates enough tension to turn what might be another ethnographic bore into an immersive and compelling story about these boys, about Rwanda, about Africa, about humanity's compulsion to divide into groups and find reasons to kill its own. This beautiful film draws us so completely into its world that we can sit, rapt, watching a family hoeing a field or two people repairing a wall. With the machete in the back of our minds, our attention never wanders. Surely, that's enough to commend the film. But MUNYURANGABO does more. It lays bare the heart of Rwanda, celebrates its culture, laments its past, and hopes for its future. Toward the end of the film, a poet looks at the camera and recites his work, a painful yet hopeful verse about where his country has been, where it is, and where it can go. The poet delivers his recitation in Kinyarwanda, the nation's language, and I came to believe that Kinyarwandan has a place among the world's most beautiful spoken tongues.
Do not miss this film.
Sunday, November 08, 2009
How do I say no to a Vikings and Aliens vs. Monsters movie (scratch that - *the* Vikings and Aliens vs. monsters movie), especially when it features Ron Perlman, John Hurt, and Jim Caviezel? And what's this? The monster lives under a lake? And it's - wait for it - it's a mom? And the alien Outlander (Jim Caviezel) has to ... hey, wait a minute, I read this book in the seventh grade!
That's right, folks, OUTLANDER is _Beowulf_. With spaceships. Friends, you can't screw this up.
And the people behind this movie didn't screw it up; not really. In fact, if you gave me fifty million dollars, some time, and some freedom, I couldn't make a Beowulf with Spaceships movie as good as OUTLANDER. If you gave me a decade or so to learn the craft, fifty million dollars, some time, and some freedom, however, I could probably make a Beowulf with Spaceships movie as good as OUTLANDER. This is a professional film: the script is tight, the photography pretty, the monster well-designed and realized, and the acting fine. But it's an average work by average professionals. It has no soul. Its story is too tight. Its sound design and score merely echo, not underline or expand. Its editing is so pedestrian that it seems like it came from a textbook. It's like some guy pitched "Vikings and Aliens vs. Monsters from the Public Domain," everyone got excited, and then they just sorta thought they could cruise by on the concept.
And they sorta do. I mean, really, y'know, it's fine. If you like monsters, aliens, Vikings, and epic poetry, it'll be right up your alley. But at the end of the day, it's no "Forth he fared at the fated moment, sturdy Scyld to the shelter of God."