Mini-review: Coraline

Coraline is the latest movie by the director of the classic The Nightmare Before Christmas. But more importantly, it was made by Phil Knight’s birthday present to his son, Laika, a (stop-motion) animation studio from Portland. Laika is dear to my heart because one of my classmates’ parents worked at it back when it was Will Vinton Studios, so we would go on tours in elementary school. Way fun.  I had all sorts of Raisins propraganda as a child.

So on to the plot. Coraline is your typical children’s tale: a young girl moves far away from her friends coralineand her parents spend all their time working and not paying any attention to her. Luckily she finds a magic portal that takes her to a land with her Other Mother and Other Father who shower her with mango milkshakes and lavish her with attention. Only problem is the Other Mother wants her to sow creepy black buttons on her eyes.

At heart, the story is nothing original. But it’s done so well! The movie is festooned – and yes, I just used the word festooned – with interesting and imaginative characters. And, much like The Nightmare Before Christmas, this movie is very dark. Heck, they have a character named “Wybie”, which is short for “Whyborn” because his parents didn’t want him. The child in front of us had to be taken out from the movie because she got too scared about halfway through. But the real star of the movie is the animation. It must be a combination of stop-motion and a little computer animation. The detail was amazing and everything was really very exquisitely done. The animation really worked to help with the mood, too. Stop motion is great for a creep movie because the movement is always slightly unnatural and makes everything very unsettling.

It’s rare that I don’t have anything bad to say about a movie, but I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. I’m not sure how keen I’d be to see it again, but it was definitely worth it for anyone to watch it at least once. A tip of the hat to you, good sirs, a tip of the hat.

The Coral – “I Remember When” [mediafire]

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Mini-review: Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road, as everyone who has seen or heard anything about this movie clearly knows, is the story of a young couple desperately unhappy with their lives. Set in the mid-1950’s, April and Frank have settled with their perplexingly absent children into a suburban home with all that entails: a stay-at-home mom and a father who traipses off into the city to work with all the other drones.

But this isn’t a movie deploring the ’emptiness’ of suburban life. April and Frank are both unhappy for a lot of reasons, but very few of them have to do with the fact that they are living in suburbia. Frank hates his job and dreams of ‘finding his taroad-2lent’ and ‘being great’, which is a hard dream for some so clearly mediocre. April doesn’t find housework very fulfilling, is hemmed in by the constant barrage of sexism, oh and her husband is pretty much an asshole the whole movie. They decide the only answer to all these problems is to move to Paris where April can work as a secretary and Frank can fulfill his promise. But it’s not about moving to Paris, per se: as April says, they just need to get away and start over. Unsurprisingly, neither of them is strong enough to bring change to their lives and their unhappiness continues.

I can’t say I understand why this movie is so popular. From the get-go, the acting of DiCaprio and Winslet bothered me; they sounded like two students in a high school play with a weird mixture of over- and under-acting. This might be because the dialogue was absolutely atrocious, too. The story occasionally seemed fairly ham-handed, as well: when Frank and April explain their plan to move to Paris, everyone has the same slack-jawed disbelief you’d find in Pleasantville. When it turned out that the only person to understand their plan was someone who was literally crazy – oh my gosh, are they trying to say that society finds these people insane?? – I almost rolled my eyes.

But the movie wasn’t really as bad as I’m making it out. It did have a lot going for it. The visuals and cinematography are great, for one. For another, the movie is able to capture the way 50’s culture forced conformity on people and how pervasive and destructive the sexism was (and is). And the story as a whole is a good one. Just as a whole, it wasn’t that great – although this was a contentious opinion among the people I saw it with.

I’m going to start attaching appropriately-themed music to my posts. Here’s Beirut’s “My Family’s Role In The World Revolution” [mediafire].

Mini-review: Amores Perros

Amores Perros, a film from 2000 by the same director as 21 Grams and Babel, has always been my favorite of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s. The story is in the same style, with disparate stories which are connected only tenuously. This style pops up all over the place, in films such as Crash, Traffic, and Magnolia. I had wondered for a long time where this style originated, and so I did a little digging and found out it has a nice and pretentious name: hyperlink cinema.

Hyperlink cinema attempts to tell a multilinear story, with metaphorical amours chiennes“hyperlinks” between the individual stories. For instance, Amores Perros links three stories through a car crash which effects the lives of all the characters. These kinds of links exist in other artistic forms as well – for instance, Nabokov’s Pale Fire links a story through a poem and its work of criticism.

The three stories in Amores Perros all involve love, in one form or another. The first is of someone in love with his brother’s wife; the second of love under pressure from a major injury; the final of a father for his daughter. The narratives are surprisingly complex and offer a vouyeristic look into other lives.

As you may suspect from the title, all the narratives contain dogs as a major cause for the action of each story. But be careful filmgoers – there is a lot of dog-on-dog violence in the movie. They never actually show any more of the dogs fighting than a lunge and initial quick bite, but you do see plenty of them dead. Unsurprisingly, the producers made the decision to put the “no animals were harmed” disclaimer at the beginning of the film rather than the end.

Overall, Amores Perros stands head and shoulders above the other hyperlink movies. It doesn’t shift back and forth too often between characters. The stories are focused, with small little breaks to catch up on what other events are going on. The acting is great. There is no cheesy “message” pushed in your face. It is more gritty and more real than the others. Its only real flaw may be the incredibly unsubtle music choices through the movie. But we can accept that every once in a while, can’t we?

Mini-review: First Blood

How exactly does one review a movie like First Blood (aka Rambo)? A movie like this, a movie that is kind of a legend, how does one review it? I suppose I will have to take it for what it is, and judge it that way.

firstbloodrerelease1I am a little ashamed to admit that I have never seen any of the Rambo movies before, nor any of the Rockie movies. It should not come as a shock to those who have seen the movie, then, that what the movie actually was like surprised me.  Compared to contemporary action movies, the number of deaths in this film was staggeringly low. I think maybe one person died for sure, and a few more were possible. That is not to say that the film is not violent. Rambo goes around hamstringing people and jabbing pointy sticks into them.

But the movie as a whole was more surprising. I pictured Rambo going around Vietnam, blasting the crap out of people. Not so! This movie is set in the Pacific Northwest as Rambo rambles about, heading toward Portland. He is picked up by an asshole of a cop but has flashbacks of Vietnam while in prison, causing him to run off, chased by some angry policemen. The story is actually surprisingly touching, even if a bit cliched.

Overall, you have to take it for what it is. The acting may be bad and the story a bit hackneyed, but it is pretty entertaining. First Blood is the type of movie that would cause you to halt as you flip through the channels, forcing you to settle in and catch a half-hour of enjoyment on TNT.

Mini-review: Fearless

Jet Li is a badass. That is really all you need to know about him. If you want to know more, just know that he won the national wushu (martial arts) championship after three years of training and retired at the age of 17. I guess it was all just too easy. Fearless is Jet Li’s self-proclaimed final wushu epic, which is something that should sadden all of us.

fearless1Fearless is a movie split into three parts. The first details Huo Yuanjia’s mastering of wushu, and his increasing ruthlessness and arrogance. This leads inevitably to the second part of his life wherein, fallen, he wanders the land trying to find meaning. Of course, in the third part he returns to his home enlightened and intent on doing good. In this case, that means fighting a bunch of westerners to reclaim Chinese pride.

The first part of the movie is pretty good. The only quibble is that the use of Matrix-style camera techniques occasionally distract from the battles leaving one a little confused as to what just happened. Other than that the choreography is pretty decent, although definitely not Jet Li’s finest. It also sets up what could be a fairly interesting story.

The middle part is kind of what ruins the movie. The story is boring and cliched, the acting pretty bad. Unfortunately, the script is not strong enough to carry the movie without the martial arts.

The final part continues to expose the flaws of the central portion of the movie, and carries them further. The ‘moral’ is heavy-handed and silly, and the plot decays further. On the plus side, this is where all the best wushu is done. The fights are pretty awesome and the use of computer effects drastically reduced.

Overall it was an okay movie. Jet Li has done better choreography and had better acting performances, and still would have even if the silly Matrix-rotate-the-camera-in-slow-motion never happened. It could have used a little more extended fighting. But the visuals in general were beautifully done and it was worth watching. Also, I think I watched the directors-cut edition, which is significantly longer and probably a little worse for the lack of editing.

The big bad Oscars day

Oh hoorah, the Oscar nominations are out. I suppose that means it’s time for me to kvetch about them, so kvetch I will. First, let me mention something from the New York Times article:

Gus Van Sant, nominated for his direction of “Milk,” struck the cool I-didn’t-realize-nominations-were-this-morning pose. “I wasn’t that attuned to the thing,” he said in a telephone interview. “My reactions don’t bend to the gameshow style of screaming and jumping up and down.”

Memo to New York Times: you are supposed to be reporting facts, not making snarky Entertainment Tonight-style comments. It’s hardly the only offending line in there but, really, I expect more.

On to the awards! I’m pretty surprised Benjamin Button got so many nominations. It was a decent movie but it certainly wasn’t great.  It did manage to make me think, about life and about the movie, and for that I will say it deserves something; few movies are able to really do that.  However, thirteen nominations is a bit much for a movie that wasn’t really special.

slumdog460

Best picture should definitely be Slumdog Millionaire. This was far and away my favorite movie of the year. Danny Boyle can be hit-and-miss, but this time he struck the perfect tone. It was just great story-telling with amazing visuals and cinematography.

Best actor I’m split between Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke. Both were pretty splendid at their respective roles, with Penn absolutely capturing Harvey Milk and Rourke turning in the most believable acting job of the year. I guess I’d give the edge to Rourke.

Best actress is also mixed to me – I thought Meryl Streep was divine, as usual. She is always able to bring in the little tics that make a character truly breathe. Anne Hathaway was pretty good, so I wouldn’t be terribly dissappointed if she won, but she didn’t have the subtlety that Streep did.

Supporting actor is easy – Heath Ledger all the way. Hoffman was good, too, but Ledger really stole the show. Supporting actress is harder – not really that huge a fan of any of them. I guess I thought Tomei and Cruz were decent.

But the biggest sin was not nominating WALL-E for best picture. It may be an animated film, but it was easily one of the best films of the year and deserves a chance to win it all. That’s not unprecedented, and if any film deserved it, WALL-E did.  How can you deny that lovable little box of rust after all he went through?  Cold-hearted bastards.

Mini-review: A Tale of Two Sisters

Ah, A Tale of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon), how I love thee.  I watched it for the third time last night and have now seen it with six different people.  Everyone except for one has agreed that this movie lead_a_tale_of_two_sisters_0509091114_wideweb__375x500is absolutely terrifying; the day after Ben watched it, he tried looking up trivia on IMDB but got too scared and had to quickly close the browser window.

I love a good horror movie and A Tale of Two Sisters is definitely a good horror movie.  Here, I mean horror “oh crap oh crap” not horror “oh hey look some zombies”.  It is a Korean film about two young sisters staying at their family’s cabin and having to deal with their abusive and slightly deranged step-mom.  The movie follows the two along, leaving you unsure about what is happening in the house and why it is allowed to go on.

The movie has a lot going for it.  The cinematography is amazing – the colors are always perfect for the scene and the shot selection lets the audience know what is going on while heightening the tension.  The characters are creepy and none do anything dumb.  It gets tiring watching movies that keep the tension high by forcing the characters to run around like headless chickens and doing the dumbest things.  This movie is just plain scary and there is very little the characters could do to make their situations come out better.  Perhaps most importantly, the movie is subtle.  Not only do you catch a lot on the second and third viewings, you have to think a lot during the movie to figure out what is going on.  Intelligent horror movies are always much more satisfying.

The movie only has minor downsides.  Like any horror movie, it is never scary the second time.  Also, the acting is occasionally a little off.  But that is about it.  Perhaps the real downside is that there is an American remake entitled The Uninvited that will come out soon and it looks absolutely terrible.  It seems like everything that was great about it has been destroyed so that the studio can churn out another predictable thriller.  Boo on them.