Sunday, May 27, 2007

Gwoemul (The Host)

This is the last movie that I saw at the Film fest this year, and I've finally gotten around to reviewing it. Gwoemul is a recent Korean monster movie in the classic vein of Godzilla. It takes an interesting approach on the monster genre, creating an almost satirical spin on it. While watching the movie, I was inclined to describe it as Godzilla meets Dr. Strangelove. This was at leas for the first half of the movie. The second half, on the other hand, descended into a stereotypical monster flick.

There is not much depth to Gwoemul. The opening is based on an actual event in which an American army doctor poured hundreds of bottles of chemicals into the Han River. As a result, the movie contains some fairly blatent anti-American sentiment- with all the American characters being portrated as incompetent, and forceful. The story is simple enough: as a result of the aforementioned dumping, a creature has emerged from the Han River and begins to terrorize Seoul. (Excuse me during the next section, I'm going to try to get the names right). The monster captures Park Hyun-seo, the pre-teen daughter of Park Gang-Du, and granddaughter of Park Hie-bong. The two of them, along with Gang-du's brother and sister Park Nam-il and Park Nam-Joo, set off to rescue her. (whew).

In the first attack Gang-Du came into contact with the creature, and as a result, is taken into quarantine because of the fear that he is now carrying a disease (hence the name). These parts are where the Dr. Strangelove comparison comes into play. The doctors don't find the disease in any of the others victims, so by process of elimination, it must be in Gang-Du. When they don't find it in tests they conduct on him, they conclude that it must be in his brain. Of course, never during any of this do they even consider the possibility that there is no diesease.

There are some genuinely funny moments between the family members, with Gang-Du being a generally all around screw-up, even in these disasterous situations. In one absurd moment, there is a memorial service for Hyun-seo, and in their berevment, they start physically fighting with each other, rolling around on the floor of a refugee center, just in time for a camera crew to film it all. Absurd moments like these are what gave this movie some enjoyment.

Unfortunately, half way through the movie, when the family is out into the quarantined area looking for Hyun-seo, the movie dissolves into a standard monster movie. The funny charm of the first half falls by the way-side. Unlike most monster movies, however, it doesn't feature the monster a lot. It is almost more thrilling seeing only parts of it lurking in the dark. When the monster is shown, however, it runs the gambit from looking great, to just looking hokey. These visual effects are courtesy of Orphanage, and Weta Workshop (Peter Jackson's effects company).

The movie is a decent monster movie, one of the better ones I have seen in a long time. It's nothing more than this, however. It's still just a monster movie, but a fun one.


Saturday, May 26, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

This is the third installment of Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean series, and I feel the best. The first one was great, and the second one was slightly disappointing. At World's End, however, did not disappoint at all. It was by far the most "piraty" of the bunch (if that makes any sense). The first two played a little more heavily on the goofiness, but this one was straight up swash-buckling. An unfortunate side effect of this new darker vibe is that this is not a movie for small children.

This movie starts where the second one leaves off. Will Turned (Orlando Bloom), Elizabeth Swan (Kiera Knightly), and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), must sail beyond the end of the world to rescue Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) from Davey Jones (Bill Nighy). There's very little exposition, and it wastes no time getting into the meat of the movie. This is good because as it is, the movie is almost three hours. At World's End is divided essentially into three acts. The first involves the rescue of Sparrow (and provides the movie's title. The second section is spent trying to rally the pirates together to fight the British Navy, and the entire third act encompasses the epic battle that ensues. Honestly, each section itself drags on slightly too long, but at least moves onto the next act shortly after this happens. Suffering one of the same downfalls at the second installment, this movie could have stood to be twenty to thirty minutes shorter.

Like I said above, this movie is not for little kids. It received a PG-13 rating, but I feel it could have received an R. The movie is very violent (dozens of people are hung in the opening scene, including one child). The violence doesn't let up for the entire movie. Some of the creatures on Davey Jone's ship might also be considered frightening. It seems that the target audience are teenagers or older, but at the showing I went to, there a significant number of younger children.

The movie is one long twist of double-crossings and secret agendas. Everybody is willing to sell everyone else to fulfill their personal agendas. This is one of the enjoyable parts, that there are no really good characters, and they all do bad things. Nobody can be trusted- true to the pirate persona. These characters are played fantastically by all the actors. The aforementioned stars that have been in the movies since the beginning are wonderful. Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightly genuinely seem to struggle to do the right thing, and Johnny Depp makes Jack Sparrow as insane as every (including fantastic scenes where he talks to his hallucinations. Chow Yun-Fat plays Captain Sao Feng, from Singapore, a ruthless pirate. Naomie Harris portrays the macabre Tia Dalma, and all of the pirate crews are almost comically overblown. In a great scene, the brethren of pirates convenes, and each pirate is more grizzled than the last, culminating in an appearance from Sparrow's father, played by Keith Richards.

Of course you can't talk about this movie without mentioning the special effects. In the credits, the digital effects credits outnumber the entire crew of many movies. ILM truly is the king of visual effects. The water, the creatures, the ships, the locations, etc, were all done beautifully. The animated crew of the Flying Dutchman alone would be enough to be impressive, let alone the epic battles and locations.

This week Shrek 3 took over the number three spot for highest grossing opening weekend of all time. Number two is the second Pirates movie, and the top one is Spider Man 3. I'm curious as to where At World's End will fall in this line-up. After seeing it last night, I would not be surprised if it were to take the number one spot.


Friday, May 11, 2007

Hot Fuzz

At the risk of being unpopular, I was slightly disappointed by this movie. Shaun of the Dead is one of my favorite movies, and Edgar Wright is a brilliant director, but Hot Fuzz just didn't quite meet my expectations. It's entirely likely that my expectations were so high, they would impossible to meet. Nick Frost and Simon Pegg reaffirm their roles as a brilliant duo, and even the sometimes rather difficult to understand British humor won't be lost on an American audience.

Simon Pegg plays Nicholas Angel, a stellar police officer who is transferred from London to the country town of Sanford. Here he starts encountering strange deaths that everyone (including the law) pass off as accidents. This is immediately a fantastic premise, with the big city cop trying to fit in with small town crime (catching an escaped goose for example). Throw in Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), as a bumbling but good natured side-kick, and you have an enjoyable romp through British humor.

Through most of the movie I was fully prepared to give this a glowing review, but towards the last half hour or so of the two hour+ movie, I started to fade a bit. After an absurd, but funny twist, the whole structure breaks down into a long, over the top, gun battle. Keep in mind that this is all done in a very self-aware manner, paying homage, and poking fun at action and cop movies. The movie comes across like the film-makers were just purely having fun. And it was fun, but it began to wear a little thin for me.

Those who have seen Shaun of Dead will be pleased to know that Wright reprised his almost trademark rapid fire, jump cut style of directing. The quickly paced closeups, and rapid scene transitions that seemed so original in Shaun of the Dead plays an even larger roll here. In the beginning, I thoroughly enjoyed this, but by the end, the sporadic editing, and almost unwatchable camera moves started giving me a headache.

As I said earlier, references to other movies are aplenty. Point Break and the Bad Boys movies are talked about in great length, and the stereotypical "flying through the air, firing your gun," is a prevalent theme. There was even a deliciously subtle Chinatown reference (at which sadly I was the only person in the theater who laughed). Perhaps the others were too busy laughing and commenting on the over blown and theatrical blood and gore that accompanied the second and third acts. These scenes were done a little too extreme for me.

This is very similar stylistically to Shaun of the Dead, with the absurd, over-the-top, and just goofy creating of characters and situations. The reason I think that it worked so much better the first time around, is that with a zombie movie, the audience accepts that in this world, anything can happen. Unfortunately Hot Fuzz had the handicap of being grounded in a real world, and when they broke out of that reality, it almost shattered my enjoyment of the movie. I feel it would have turned out much better if they had brought it back a notch, and stuck to the brilliant character dynamics they had spent most of the movie developing.

In the end, despite all of the theatrics (always accompanied by bombastic sound effects), it is at heart a buddy flick. The true character arc is in Angel and Butterman. Angel learns to lighten up, and Butterman learns to be a hero. In fact, if you exam the movie with traditional definitions, it could be argued the Butterman is actually the hero of the movie. I adore the on-screen chemistry the two of the have, and their interaction with those around them. I wish the movie could have stayed focused a little more on the two of them, and tones down the absurdity a bit. Don't get me wrong, I laughed- a lot. I spent most of the movie laughing, until I started yawning.


Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Meet the Robinsons

This was a surprising delight from Disney Animation which came out earlier this year. Judging from the trailers, I was not anticipating very much, so I turned it on almost as background noise while I was doing work. It did not take long, however, for me to be captivated.

The story is about Lewis, a genius orphan who gets swept away to the future to stop a villain from stealing his invention. It's pretty much your standard children's carton premise. It features a strong pre-adolescent, who is unwillingly thrust into a heroic role. Likewise, even the bad villains are not truly bad, just misunderstood. This is certainly a positive message, but doesn't become too overbearing. There are still plenty of slapstick gags sprinkled throughout.

Honestly, the best parts of the movie were actually the characters. It features a large cast of crazies, which I have come to expect from Disney movies. Only the main characters seem grounded in reality, and everyone seems to function as a comic foil for the plot. I frequently find myself groaning at over the top characters in some animated movies, but I was actually laughing at their antics this time around. I mean actually laughing aloud. The scene with the Tyrannosaurus (seen in the trailer), is exceptionally funny.

The only issue I had with this movie, was the animation itself. It seems that with the 3D digital animation revolution, flash has replaced strong animation technique. This is a shame, because Disney is synonymous with world class animation. Back in the 1930's, they developed the techniques that are still used today, and it's almost disheartening to see them try to jump on the trend of quickly released 3D movies. Their hyper-realistic, yet exaggerated animation is what made their characters so memorable. This is even more upsetting ever since they closed their 2D animation department. Fortunately, however, it is rumored that they are re-opening it and are expecting a new traditionally produced 2D feature in 2009. Hopefully it won't be long until we see another Lion King caliber movie.

Okay, time to get off my soapbox. Despite the less than impressive animation, the movie is just plain fun. There's not much depth, but it's a heartwarming story of acceptance, with funny moments. Not the best animated movie I've seen recently, but a fairly decent one. Children will enjoy it, and I think others will as well. Meet the Robinsons is one worth renting.


Saturday, May 5, 2007

Summer movies

Here's my top movies of the summer that I am most looking forward to. (In no particular order)

1. Hot Fuzz (I know it's already out, but I still have yet to see it).
2. Pirates of the Caribbean : At World's End- May 25th
3. Day Watch- June 1st
4. Ratatoulle- June 29th
5. Harry Potter and the Oder of the Pheonix- July 13th

Friday, May 4, 2007

Manufactured Landscapes

This movie is almost more of a series of paintings than an actual film. Director, Jennifer Baichwai follows photographer, Edward Burtynsky around the world. Through is pictures, Burtynsky, documents the impact humans have on nature. The movie is filled with his of mines, tainted rivers, and gigantic landfills. These images are disturbing, yet strangely beautiful at the same time.

The movie opens with one dolly shot that approaches ten minutes in length. It simply follows an aisle in a Chinese manufacturing company as the camera passes by rows and rows of laborers in this mammoth building. This set the stage for a movie of great potential. I quickly grew to realize, however, that the movie seemed to function simply as a vehicle for Burtynsky's self importance. It was almost more of a documentary about him, than it was about what he was documenting. I lost count of how many times he talked about the importance of his work. Even he mentions the irony of taking pictures of silicon strip mines providing the ore used in his film.

There were some interesting portions of the film, where the focused on specific areas. One was a computer junk yard in china Here locals dig through parts to scrap was little valuable material is still left. This was accentuated by pictures of massive piles of computer parts. One particularly powerful picture was of an elderly woman, who had survived social and governmental revolutions, only to live out her days surrounded by "E-Garbage."

There is another portion that about the urbanization of Shang-Hei, which featured another elderly woman who refused to sell her home. Now she lives in the midst of giant skyscrapers. Yet another section dealt with Burtynsky trying to gain access to photograph a coal mine, and another lengthy section about an oil tanker graveyard, and the people who dismantle them.

My favorite part of the movie, however, was about the unfathomably large Three Gorge Damn in China. Interviewed are construction workers who look at this two decade long marvel of engineering as "just another job". To give a little scope to the size of this, 13 towns had to be razed to create the 500 kilometer long reservoir. There are sequences of citizens knocking down the buildings in their own town.

There are some rather powerful themes present in this movie: The effects of man's incursion on nature- not only on the environment, but also on people themselves, all in the name of progress. There were some fascinating interviews with the people living in these conditions, and working on these jobs, but I wish there was more of it. There was far too much time dedicated to Burtynsky talking about his motivations, and footage of him setting up his shots. The movie is short, however (around 80 minutes), so it's well worth your time watching. For another movie, even better movie on similar themes, watch "Working Man's Death." This is a comparable documentary told completely from the eyes of the workers.


Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Inland Empire

What can be said about Inland Empire? It's weird even for David Lynch, and it's three hours long. For those not familiar with his movies, they tend to appear to be very random and absurd, but beautifully done. He directs his movies like they're a continuous steam of consciousness. I am a fan of his work, but Inland Empire was a bit too much, and a bit too long for me to truly enjoy the whole thing.

This could be considered the third in a series of unrelated, but similar movies of his (the first two being "Lost Highway", and "Mullholland Drive"). All three of these movies toy with the idea of reality. Both the characters and the audience are in the dark as to what is actually happening, and what is not. In all of these movies actors and actresses can play several different characters, sometimes at the same time, while others characters are created and blink out existence almost randomly. Interestingly, Lynch is able to create a plot just discernible enough to engage an audience. He lulls the viewers into thinking that this time, they might be able to follow the movie. Once this trust is achieved, he throws convention out and presents the rest of the movie in a non-linear vortex.

The "plot" of this movie is about actress, Nikki Grace (Lauren Denn), as she prepares for her career making role. Her and her co-star Devin Berk (Justin Theroux) learn that the movie is actually a remake to a film that never got finished- and here's the kicker- because it was cursed. This could play out a hundred ways, but Lynch crafts a tale that none other could. Inland Empire descends into a swirling mess of a movie within a movie, non-linearity, and humanoid rabbits. Denn's character begins to lose grip on reality, thinking that she is indeed the role she is playing (Susan Blue), and has an affair with Berk (or possibly just his character). Through in a dose of paranoia, and doors that seem to transport you through reality, and you have a pretty good summation of Inland Empire.

After writing about it, I think that I appreciate it more than I did while watching it. During some of the long meandering scenes of color, and after about the tenth scene of Denn running down a hallway away from something we never see, I think I grew a little weary. This movie had fantastic potential, but Lynch just dragged out a little too much. The actors were amazing, especially Harry Dean Stanton as a down-on-his-luck producer. Somehow Lynch always manages to either find actors perfect for the disturbingly eerie roles, or manges to mold them just so.

I think this is a fantastic movie, taken about an hour too far. This is not the first David Lynch movie to get into, however. If you haven't seen any, watch "Lost Highway" first. It has a much more discernible plot. Inland Empire is a fascinating bit of film-making, but the overall brilliance of it is buried beneath three hours of confusion.