The City of Lost Children – Review

25 Nov

Every so often a movie comes around that goes way, way, way over the top with just about everything, and in The City of Lost Children it almost is enough to make you tired. Directors Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet completely blast your audio and visual senses. Anyone familiar with Jeunet’s other works like Delicatessen and Amélie may not be too surprised by this. This film is a milestone in terms of imagination and art direction, but it unfortunately lacks a little in the story department and all of the gizmos and what-have-yous often became distracting.

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The children of an unnamed port city all seem to disappearing one by one and all too quickly. No one knows why this is happening, but if they were to look out into the ocean they would find a rig where a mad scientist named Krank (Daniel Emilfork) has all of the children held captive. Krank’s plan is to use a device to extract the dreams of the children since he is unable to have any of his own. Meanwhile, a carnival strongman, One (Ron Perlman), sees his little brother get kidnapped to be taken to the rig. He soon joins forces with a little girl named Miette (Judith Vittet), an orphan who is also a member of a thieves’ guild. The two begin investigating the kidnappings which will ultimately lead to a showdown with the mad scientist, himself.

The plot of this movie is so stuffed, I feel like I’m leaving so much story information out. This is a two hour movie, but it could have easily gone on for four since there seemed to be just so much going. There’s a group of clones (all played by Dominique Pinon) who have a crazy backstory, conjoined twins that run the thieves’ guild, a tick with murderous powers of motivation, and a talking brain in a fish tank with speakers! WHERE CAN I EVEN BEGIN?! Like I said before, the imagination that went into making The City of Lost Children is mind blowing, but there’s so much there that the story sort of suffers.

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Every corner, every inch, every possible place for negative space in every scene is filled with some sort of gadget or device or weird looking person that there were times where I didn’t even know where to look. There is so much going, and I say that in one of the most extreme ways I could possibly say it. About half way through the movie, I started feeling like I was confused or missing something, but it turns out I was right on on pretty much all accounts. There’s just so many odd characters with different stories and contraptions that it all kind of detracted from the main story about a mad scientist kidnapping children to extract their dreams, which is cool enough. You don’t really need more than that, but this movie literally seems to have everything in it. This isn’t always a negative though.

As it stands, this movie is all about the style and art design which is beyond impressive. Being made in 1995, the film makers relied strongly on actual sets and practical special effects and make up. Much like John Carpenter’s The Thing, I would put The City of Lost Children on the movies that go above and beyond what is expected of special effects of the time. It all looks so amazing, and seems like it could possibly exist in some demented alternate reality. That’s really what watching this movie feels like. A step into a world that’s almost ours, but at the same time is completely different. It’s a modern day fairy tale.

You could compare this movie to the works of film makers like Guillermo del Toro, Terry Gilliam, or even David Lynch. Still, it has the names and style of Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet all over it. This is a really impressive film that is like nothing I’ve really seen before in terms of style, but as someone who loves a good story I was a little disappointed with the narrative. Don’t look at The City of Lost Children only as a story, but as a huge artistic achievement. With that in mind, this is a movie that is sure to make you gasp, laugh, and maybe even cringe.

Seven Psychopaths – Review

23 Nov

In 2008, writer and director Martin McDonagh graced the world with one of the most original and hilarious dark comedies ever to be produced, In Bruges. The movie was nominated for an Academy Award for its writing, and rightly so. The question was: Could McDonagh’s next movie support itself under the weight of In Bruges? The answer to that question came in 2012 with Seven Psychopaths. I’m not going to say that this movie surpasses or comes to close to the material that he struck gold with before, but it is a worthy and still darkly hilarious piece of work that’s jam packed with gallows humor, in jokes, and violence. How could I not like this movie?

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Marty Farnanan (Colin Farrell) is a struggling screenwriter and full time alcoholic who can’t seem to get any inspiration for his newest screenplay titled Seven Psychopaths. His best friend Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), who runs dog-napping operation, thinks he can help by placing an ad in the newspaper, asking “psychopaths” to contact Marty and tell him their stories. Meanwhile, Billy and his partner Hans (Christopher Walken) end up biting off more than they can chew when they dognap a Shih Tzu that belongs to the notoriously violent criminal, Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), who begins gunning down anyone who gets in the way of him retrieving his precious puppy. Marty, Billy, and Hans have to team up to protect themselves from Charlie’s rampage, while possibly getting some inspiration for Marty’s screenplay.

At its core, Seven Psychopaths succeeds at taking the cliches of the action/crime genre, and totally flipping the conventions on their heads while at the same time honoring them as timely traditions. The line that really hammers this home is when Billy points out that an area they are driving by is the “perfect place for the final shootout.” It’s no surprise that this area comes back again at a pivotal point of the film. Now, calling this film “meta” wouldn’t be completely accurate, but it kinda sorta is. Billy is just such a fascinating character because he’s the only person in the movie that seems to be in on the joke, almost as if he’s aware that he’s just a player in someone else’s movie and he wants to follow the proper steps to the proper climactic scene. It’s a brilliant way to write a character, and may be one of the best characterizations I’ve seen in a long time.

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So as hilarious as this movie is, there is still a big problem that I have with it that makes it come up short in terms of achieving the success that In Bruges did. Now, it’s pretty awesome that Tom Waits has a part in this movie. He is a legend in the music world after all and has a really hardcore following. Believe me, I know some people that can’t stop talking about him. That being said, he doesn’t need to be in this movie. It really doesn’t make sense that he is. The scene that he’s in, as smartly written as it is, is pointless and ridiculously long. His character is really of no importance to the story, so why spend so much time on him? Was it just to have him in the movie. This isn’t the only time the movie goes off an a ridiculous tangent, but it is the most overdone and pointless ones in the movie. If this scene was cut altogether, the movie probably would have felt a lot smoother than it did.

But still, this movie is a refreshing breath of noxious fumes. There’s no doubt that Seven Psychopaths is a comedy, but I’d be damned if i didn’t say this movie didn’t try to offend, and I write that with a smile on my face. The language is as cut throat as the violence is, but the way the violence and language is presented fills me with glee. It’s excessive in that way that only the most potent dark comedies are, made by people that really understand the point of gallows humor. This isn’t a tame movie in the least, and it even gets pretty dramatic at times, but the comedy is consistent in a way that the movie’s narrative is not, so at least we have loads of laughs to get us through the unnecessary scenes.

Seven Psychopaths is a riot in every sense of the word. It’s violent, kinetic, hilarious, and oddly sentimental. It’s one of those movies that pays its respects to other movies, while remaining original in just about every aspect. Think of it as a really clever inside joke that doesn’t get old. While the humor may be a bit dark for some people’s standards, it is still a well acted, well written, and well produced film. It doesn’t quite reach the level of greatness as Martin McDonagh’s first film, but it makes me excited for whatever work he releases in the future.

Blue Valentine – Review

20 Nov

Before Blue Valentine was released in 2010, there was a lot of controversy surrounding the rating that I think helped boost its recognition a little bit, and I was worried that the hype around the movie was going to ruin the entire experience for me. Well, after 4 years, I’ve finally gotten around to seeing this movie, and I can’t really say that I’m disappointed. There are plenty of things that make this movie great and worth a viewing, but my own personal taste tells me that I’m really not going to have to sit down and watch the movie again.

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This film chronicles the relationship of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) in an interesting way, but the love they have for each other is ultimately doomed to fail. In the past, Cindy was facing the end of a bad romantic entanglement and an unexpected pregnancy when she meets Dean, who shows her a much more fun and easy going side to life. Dean is even willing to step in and help her with the baby even though it is obvious that it isn’t his. Five years later, they are married and raising their daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka). Both are good parents, but have seemed to have lost touch with what made their relationship so great in the first place. Dean and Cindy both decide to go out for a night and try to rekindle the spark that they had, but only succeed in making their situation worse.

I understand that this movie is really good. I can see that it is, clear as day. There’s just some unknown variable that exists that makes me not really want to watch it again. Maybe I found the entire experience a bit too cynical, but then again, that cynicism is a big part of the story and the message that writer/director Derek Cianfrance is trying to give. So it’s not that I don’t understand what he’s trying to say, it’s just all sort of depressing. There have been films with this message I’ve seen in the past like 500 Days of Summer and Annie Hall, both of which deal with doomed relationships, but there’s something about Blue Valentine that looks at it in such a hopeless an negative way, sort of like real life. So, yes, I do appreciate and understand Cianfrance’s frankness, but that doesn’t mean it makes for a very entertaining movie.

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By far, the best part of this movie is the acting. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams give two of the most honest performances that I’ve ever seen in a movie. The director had a lot of ways to get that kind of chemistry between them, so credit also goes to him. It’s clear that a lot of what the actors are saying is improvised or even some of their actions, and that is what gives this movie such a real feeling. Even through all the cynical remarks and devil may care attitude that doesn’t always work for me in movies, I still bought it because of their strong performances. Williams was actually nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in this, which pretty much had to happen considering how excellent she was.

I just really couldn’t get into the style of Blue Valentine. I felt like it was a romance movie that was trying to be different at times. Most times it definitely succeeded at being unique, but I often felt, especially during one nice scene where Cindy dances to Dean’s ukelele music, that the movie was just trying to hard. But you know what, this is all just my personal preferences coming into it. I can see how this movies appeals to other people, and I definitely see that it is a well made film. There’s just something about this style that I can’t really get into, and I often checked the time throughout this entire movie.

This was a really hard review to like, because part of me was saying to just write how well made it was and how technically proficient it all is and how the writing and acting is all really good. It all is. All of those things are really good, and for those reasons I’m glad that I’ve seen this movie at least once. The other part of me doesn’t want to see it again because I just couldn’t get into the mood or the style of the movie, but as I said before I can see how it would appeal to other people and for good reason. Objectively speaking, Blue Valentine is a really good movie, but it just didn’t sit too well with me.

Interstellar – Review

19 Nov

It’s happened. It’s finally happened… All those years of watching movies of different genres, spirits, moods, and messages, and it’s finally happened. My brain should now be legally defined as mush. Christopher Nolan’s newest film, Interstellar is the new way to look at science fiction. There has been a series lack of space exploration movies that doesn’t have the Star Trek label. Really only Europa Report and Prometheus come to mind, but now we have Interstellar to add to the top of the list of science fiction.

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In the near future, Earth’s resources have been slowly disappearing leaving a barely surviving agrarian society. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA pilot turned farmer who is recruited by Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) to travel through a wormhole found by Saturn. This wormhole leads to another galaxy where other scientists have begin studying different planets orbiting a black hole. Cooper is joined by three other scientists, including Brand’s daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway). The mission starts to experience some major problems, while the situation on Earth gets even more complicated when Brand reveals his plan isn’t as promising as he originally described it to be leaving Cooper’s daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) to keep society from mass panic.

This is probably one of the best science fiction movies of the past decade, and may very well be the best science fiction movie of the past decade. I always figured Inception to be Nolan’s masterpiece, but Interstellar changes things. There are scenes in this movie that are absolutely mind blowing. It’s like Nolan took Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and Doctor Who and just mushed it all together into one giant mosh pit of sci fi. It’s both quiet and majestic, while being equally intense and explosive. It’s hard to take your eyes off of it, even for a second.

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I’m a stickler for run times as I’ve made it quite clear so I was concerned when I saw Interstellar has close to a 3 hour run time. I don’t mind if a movie is long, but if it is, I don’t want that time to be wasted on scenes that really have no place in the finished movie. This isn’t a problem for this movie, and it’s equally impressive that Christopher and Jonathan Nolan were able to write a movie that’s this long and make it interesting the entire way through. The film starts off slow with a lot of physics talk and theories, but it all pays off when you see the physics in action when the astronauts blast off. The characters are also all really strong so spending a long amount of time with them is as dramatic and exciting as it can possibly be.

Finally, what would a review of this movie be without talking about the incredible effects and sound? Like Gravity, Nolan chose to make space totally silent in Interstellar, which is a great choice especially when something catastrophic is happening. There’s also a lot of great music by Hans Zimmer in the movie that can either make space beautiful or the situation of the astronauts deadly. One scene in particular when Cooper is trying to spin a ship to match the rotation of another part of the ship to dock had all three working in unison. The effects were dizzying and the silence of space mixed with Zimmer’s music made for the best part of the entire movie.

Prepare to be blown backwards and thrown all over the place by Interstellar, a movie that is sure to be recognized at this year’s Academy awards. It was a nice reminder, along with Birdman, that all of the excellent movies are going to be coming out. This one took science fiction and took it to a whole new level, along with philosophy. The same was done with the aforementioned 2001 and Solaris, and now Nolan’s true masterpiece continues the tradition. This was a mind boggling science fiction film of truly epic proportions.

 

Cronos – Review

18 Nov

Guillermo del Toro is the man. That’s been firmly established with Pan’s Labyrinth, the Hellboy movies, and Pacific Rim. There hasn’t been a film that del Toro made that I really haven’t liked, so I was more than ready to check out his debut film from 1993, Cronos. This is a vampire story with a kind of twist to the genre that only a film maker like del Toro could make, in fact I’m sure that he’s the only one who can make something like this. It’s an amazing debut film.

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Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi) is an antique’s dealer who mildly spends his days in his shop with his granddaughter who seems to never leave his side, Aurora (Tamara Shanath). Things change when he finds a mysterious device inside a statue of an archangel that latches itself to Gris’ hand so hard that it draws blood. This begins changing Gris into a much more invigorated man who has acquired an unquenchable thirst for blood. This draws the attention of the dying businessman Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook) who sends his nephew Angel (Ron Perlman) to retrieve the device, but Jesús isn’t willing to give it up, especially after discovering what it really does.

Let me get this out of the way, if you’ve seen any other movie by Guillermo del Toro, you know pretty much what this movie is going to feel like. Think of Pan’s Labyrinth and how it mixed reality with fantasy in a way where it felt like a fairy tale is coming to life. That’s what Cronos ultimately is as well: a fairy tale. It’s also not a very overt fairy tale, which really makes the movie feel special. The word “vampire” is never even used in the movie once. It’s simply alluded to through the images that we see and the prior knowledge that we already have about vampires. It also recreates the myth of the vampire through the alchemical device inhabited by an insect.

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So, since there’s vampires in the story of Cronos, it’s pretty fair to label it as a horror movie. There are some pretty icky gore effects with the device digging into skin or flesh being peeled off of the body. Those scenes work very effectively at the body horror that del Toro does very well. Still, this is more than a horror movie because there is so much more to it than that. It’s a movie about dealing with age, facing death, and the importance of family. Gris’ family is close and a model of happiness while Angel is miserable being in the same family as Dieter. There’s also the paranoia of dying, but the reminder that death is the natural order of things and eternal life may not be so pleasant if the body can’t support itself.

I kinda wanted more out of Cronos since there was so much in there to love. Sadly, the story kind of begins and ends. I’m one to complain if a movie’s run time goes too long, but I was so into this one that I wasn’t ready for it to end. I felt like there was a lot more to be explored, especially when the resurrected Jesús comes home after escaping from his own cremation. There were a lot of places the film could’ve gone from there, but instead that’s when the movie begins moving towards the ending. The make up looked awesome at this part too, and the bond between Jesús and Aurora also got a lot more interesting at this point.

Guillermo del Toro said that the most important movies in a film maker’s life are their first film and their last film. His reasoning is that the first film sets the stage for what they will be making throughout their career and the last film is the one that closes the book on their work. Cronos perfectly set the stage for del Toro’s career, even though it’s a minor entry into his filmography. Vampires would come back to del Toro when he made Blade II, and his take on fantasy can be seen in almost all of his movies. This is a really beautiful and relatively quiet look at vampires and horror that may not have the most prestige or biggest budget, but is obviously superior to many other vampire movies being released now.

Rashomon – Review

14 Nov

Akira Kurosawa has become kind of a regular point of interest on this blog, so why not go back to another one of his works and give it the ol’ once over? This time we’re going be looking at what many consider to be one of the greatest movies ever made, but also one of, if not the most, important films of Kurosawa’s entire career. That film is Rashomon. It did a lot for the film world other than making Kurosawa’s and Mifune’s name known to the rest of the world, and even after 64 years of existence, it still holds up very well.

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On a rainy afternoon at the Rashomon City Gate, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), a priest (Tabi Hōshi), and a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) hide from the downpour in a dilapidated temple. The woodcutter and the priest reveal that they came from the courthouse to testify in a case about a murdered samurai (Masayuki Mori) who was killed three days ago. The story of the bandit Tajōmaru (Toshiro Mifune) raping the samurai’s wife (Machiko Kyō) and the possible murder/suicide is told by multiple people in court, each with their own views on what happened. With all of this confusion, it seems next to impossible to discover the truth.

Rashomon is really incredible for a number of reasons. It’s true saying that this isn’t the first movie to tell a story through flashback. Just look at Citizen Kane, made in 1941, and pretty much told all through flashback. This is, however, the first film to utilize multiple different versions of the same flashback and a strong use of unreliable narrators. Knowing this, it’s easy to see Rashomon‘s influence on other films that came after it, like the more modern films The Usual Suspects and Vantage Point. It really is an amazing way to tell a story, and it scared the producer who thought that audiences wouldn’t understand it.

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The story of Rashomon and its influence doesn’t end there, however. At the time this movie was made, western audiences weren’t quite savvy to the powers of the great eastern film makers like Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, and others. More focus was on the European side of things. Luckily for the eastern powerhouses, Kurosawa gave them due recognition was Rashomon. This film wasn’t just a hit in Japan, but also at the Venice Film Festival, and also received an honorary Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, before that category was even established. It’s safe to say that this film is the reason why that category even exists.

Technically speaking, this is a beautiful movie. Kurosawa and his DP, Kazuo Miyagawa, know how to shoot weather and forests very well. The rain looks powerful and ominous while the forest looks like a beautiful place to hide a murder. Kurosawa and Miyagawa are also the first people credited with pointing the camera at the sun for a lens flare, and this is the movie where you see that for the first time. The way the camera dollies through the trees and foliage is surprisingly smooth and everything is lit so well and dramatically, it certainly couldn’t have been easy.

What you should take away from this review is the power that Rashomon and Akira Kurosawa have in film history. It’s true to say that without this movie, things in the film world may have been a lot different. It also shows that to really appreciate some of the great modern movies, it is also essential to look at the past to see where and how film makers of today got their inspiration. Rashomon really is, objectively, one of the greatest films ever made and rightly deserves its place in film history.

Gummo – Review

13 Nov

Harmony Korine. You either love him, or you absolutely hate him, and let’s face it, it’s pretty easy to not enjoy a lot of his work unless you have a really strange taste in movies. His latest film, Spring Breakers, while being a box office success was not one with critics or audiences. Long before this, however, he made a movie that didn’t quite take 1997 by storm. Instead it was a quiet release that actually deserves a lot more than what it received, that is if you can stomach the material. This movie is Gummo.

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In the town of Xenia, Ohio, life was disrupted when a tornado rips through the streets killing many and destroying the lives of many others. After a few years, people have learned to get on with their lives, but not in ways that most of society would deem to be acceptable, and what’s presented is a tapestry of life in this nearly destroyed town. These people include the young Solomon (Jacob Reynolds) and Tummler (Nick Sutton) who spend the days shooting stray cats and huffing paint; Dot (Chloë Sevigny) and her sisters spend quality time together doing typical sister stuff; and Bunny Boy (Jacob Sewell) who wears pink bunny ears while going about his day peeing off overpasses and playing the accordion in public rest rooms.

Reinforcing what I said before, Gummo doesn’t really have a plot to speak of. I like to think of it as the anti-social little brother of Richard Linklater’s film Slacker. What Korine shows in this movie is a tapestry of life in this close knit, yet uncomfortably dirty and disgusting town filled with people who kill time in ways that I’d never think of.  That being said, this is a pretty disturbing movie, but Korine does a good job at not making it overly disturbing so as it’s unwatchable, nor does it ever feel like he’s exploiting the kinds of people in this movie, some of which he said he hired out of Burger Kings and Wal-Marts.

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The big issue that I have with Gummo is that it loses its steam a little bit towards the hour mark of the movie. I sort of wished that I could spend more time with some of the characters and less time with others. It also might’ve been a better idea to complete an arc with one group of people and then move onto another group, kind of like Linklater did. There was just a really big gap between the interesting and the boring in this movie, so when I started to get bored, I started to get really bored.

But that isn’t really what I thought of Gummo. I would never describe it as being a boring movie. I really appreciate what Harmony Korine has done making this movie. What he shows in the images, both humorous and disturbing, is a way of life that we like to think doesn’t exist, or at least are content with not paying any attention to. This isn’t the kind of movie where the characters want out of the economic situation that they are in. In fact, everyone in this movie seems very content with their lives in lower class suburbia. What the people in this movie find normal, others may find disgusting, and Korine is showing that there is no right or wrong in the matter, but more so just different points of view.

I won’t say that I really was entertained by Gummo in the traditional sense of the word, but I will say that I appreciated Gummo for everything it was worth. This is a cult classic from the ’90s that has been the bud of many arguments. Is it exploitation, trash, or art? I’d have to go with the latter more than anything else. Harmony Korine may not have the cleanest track record when it comes to his films, but in my opinion, Gummo should not be forgotten, but seen and appreciated.

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