Archive | July, 2013

Modern Times – Review

28 Jul

Charlie Chaplin is a name that has become synonymous with silent comedy, and I would say comedy in general. From his beginnings at the Keystone Film Company, Chaplin has made audiences everywhere laugh, cry, and stare in bewilderment at the physical feats that he would do for his pictures. They weren’t just shallow comedies, either. Chaplin had a way of injecting searing social and political commentary in his films. One of his most famous films is his 1936 silent (?) comedy, Modern Times.

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Set in Depression-era California, Modern Times tells the story of the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin), who’s trying to survive in the industrialized world. In the beginning, he works as a factory worker who’s repetitive job becomes to much for him, and he has a mental breakdown. Nevertheless, he loses his job at the factory and meets a young Gamine (Paulette Goddard). Together, they travel the city and look for work in all the right places, but can’t seem to make any money or keep their jobs due to the world around them.

Chaplin considered this one of his most important projects, to the point where he became obsessed with making it perfect. In fact, he started sleeping at the studio and only left work with the sound recorders when Paulette Goddard begged him to. After traveling the world to promote City Lights and meeting with important friends in many different countries, Chaplin saws firsthand the conditions of the modern world and how machines seemed to be taking over.

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Visually, this movie is a masterpiece, and not just in how the aesthetic sense, but also the excellent sight gags. The outstanding set pieces all look great and larger than life. In the most famous scene of the movie, and one of the most famous images to ever come from film, shows Chaplin getting caught in giant cogs, making him literally part of the machine. Another great scene shows the Tramp trying to do some good and give a flag back to a truck driver, but is mistaken for being the leader of a protest. The exteriors all look appropriately, well, depressing.

The thing is, though, is that this is not a completely silent picture, unlike Charlie’s earlier work. Much of the sound that is heard comes from phonographs and the sound of the factory boss hollering through a television. This is to show how technology is even changing Hollywood, with the introduction of sound in its modern devices, and also how Chaplin viewed this introduction to sound as not being the correct way to go. In what should be seen as one of the most important scenes in film history, the Tramp actually gets his own time to be heard as he sings a gibberish song in a cafe and pantomimes what the story of the song is.

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Modern Times is an important statement on the conditions of the modern world, trying to keep up with it all, and the increasingly difficult life of workers. This is also a film that has stood the test of time with its comedy that never gets old and themes that still resonate all these years later. In my opinion, Modern Times is a must see and must laugh film that everyone should experience at least once in their life. Charlie Chaplin surely was something special.

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Blade Runner – Review

25 Jul

I should really be ashamed of myself for having waited 21 years of my life to see Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. I have read Philip K. Dick’s outstanding novel on which the film was based, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and was completely sucked into the dystopian city that he brought to life. To begin with, I was surprised with the similarities between the book and the movie after hearing how different they were, and I was also surprised that I have to call this film a little bit over rated.

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Deckard is (Harrison Ford) is a retired blade runner, a branch of the police force whose main objective is to hunt down and “retire” androids that are called “replicants.” After four advanced Nexus-6 models escape from an off planet colony and come to earth, Deckard is forced out of retirement to hunt them down. These new models are a bit more tricky to find, however, due to advanced emotional control and, in some instances, false memories implanted into their brain to give an “emotional cushion.” This assignment will prove to be a life changing one as Deckard begins to see that he may be playing for the wrong side of the law.

Ok, I know I’m going to get a lot of heat for this one, but I have to be totally honest. I felt a little twang of disappointment with Blade Runner. Part of me thinks that I was expecting a bit too much from it. Another part of me realizes that Deckard is a really boring character whom I really didn’t care for. In the novel, seeing the world from his perspective and getting the inside scoop on his thoughts made him a much more interesting character. As the main protagonist, he just doesn’t really work. I’m way more interested in Rutger Hauer’s role as the lead replicant, Roy, who brings more humanity to his role than Ford. On top of that, we are introduced to characters early in the film which we then don’t see again for what seemed like a really long time. Then after all of that, the movie seems to wrap up really quickly.

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So, while the movie bothered me at some parts, it really does exceed in others. For one thing, the special effects are superb. Seeing the spinners flying through the dystopian Los Angeles, complete with advertising zeppelins and moving billboards as tall as skyscrapers is mind blowing. If anything, Blade Runner deserves a spot on anyone’s list of best science fiction films for the visuals alone. I hear a lot of complaints that this is a very dark movie and can be hard to see things at times. This is true, but Blade Runner falls into the sub genre of tech noir, which means it’s science fiction in the style of classic noir films. Thankfully, that god awful narration by Harrison Ford has been taken out of the re-releases!

Like the book, Blade Runner is definitely a philosophical tale. Deckard begins to see throughout his journeys that destroying these androids is a moral dilemma. In what I consider to be a fantastic monologue given be Hauer towards the end, he explains that his replicant eyes have seen things that most humans on earth would never believe, and when he is gone, so are the memories. The theme of eyes is very important to the story, and visually, Scott even went so far as to make the character’s eyes glow at some parts by reflecting a small light directly at them. The eye is the window to the soul, people say, and that is what the movie can be boiled down to. Deckard is hunting the androids because they have no soul, even though his job is more soulless than the androids he is killing.

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In my honest opinion, Blade Runner is just a tad bit over rated, even though the more I really think about it, the more I am liking it. Some things about it could definitely be changed, even though it’s been tinkered with throughout the years so  much so that even George Lucas would be blushing. It’s not my favorite sci fi movie, and objectively it isn’t the best, but it is something of a marvel and is definitely a reminder that blockbusters these days don’t have as much of a philosophical or soulful push that they had just a few decades earlier.

Melancholia – Review

19 Jul

Lars von Trier is no stranger to shocking and appalling audiences. It seems he relishes in the idea of giving the willies to unsuspecting audiences. Mind you, he isn’t some sort of horror film maker who fills his films with monsters and murder. His films give a more spiritual upheaval or a large dosage of mental anguish. Melancholia hits where it hurts, and leaves you feeling hopeless and completely insignificant. Sounds like a bummer, right? Well this bummer of a film is also completely mind blowing and will leave you in a state of thought for days to come.

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The film is broken up into two parts. Part 1 is titled Justine. It is the night of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael’s (Alexander Skarsgård) wedding. Arriving two hours late to their own reception at Claire’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) mansion, tensions are already running high. Throughout the night, Justine becomes more and more distant from everyone, leaving the party to sit by herself many times. Soon the entire party comes crashing down on everyone’s heads. Part 2 is titled Claire. In this part, we follow Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) as they allow Justine, who is depressed to the point where she can’t even take a bath, to stay with them. During their stay, a planet called Melancholia, is either going to pass closely to the Earth and allow a spectacular display or will crash into Earth, ending all life as we know it.

Visually, this is an incredible movie to look at. Lars von Trier has a way of making his movies look like moving paintings, rather than moving pictures. Every shot is so deliberate, even with the handheld style that he uses to give a more intimate look into the private lives of these people. What is really very impressive is the CGI visuals of the planets. In a breath taking opening sequence, we see planetary events from a remarkable view. While I know that it is all just special effects, it felt majestic.

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To many, Melancholia will be a prime example of a boring movie. The whole film takes place primarily on the grounds of John and Claire’s mansion. By the third act, the excitement and suspense really pick up, but for a bulk of the movie, not too much really goes on. There are some familial betrayals and arguments, but it’s very much just a family drama and character driven story. That being said, until the science fiction element of the story really kicks in, the plot moves fairly slowly. This is hardly a problem thanks to the excellent performances by the cast, with a special recognition going to Charlotte Gainsbourg for really conveying the emotional intensity of the story and characters beyond the screen. Kirsten Dunst also has a challenging role, and does a fine job at getting the physical and mental troubles of constant dread across.

A word of caution. If you’re in a great mood before watching Melancholia, be prepared for that happiness to be shattered. If you’re a generally sad or depressed person, than maybe this movie wouldn’t be the best thing to watch on one of your gloomy afternoons. By the end, you feel absolutely helpless and alone in the universe. All of the controllable and fixable problems that the characters have on earth mean nothing when an oversized planet is careening towards them. You are forced to put yourself in their situation, because you, no matter who you are, would be affected by this interstellar disaster.

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What Lars von Trier has done with Melancholia is blend beauty and tragedy, love and hopelessness together to create something that, to me, has surpassed what movies are really supposed to achieve. The reaction that I had to this movie is deep and personal because it deals with my own mortality. This movie isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t really traditional entertainment, but it has a way of sticking with you and affecting you. I implore whoever reads this to give Melancholia a chance for the visuals, the acting, and the internal turmoil that it is sure to cause.

Martha Marcy May Marlene – Review

10 Jul

When a film maker has the ability to create a movie that infiltrates your mind, even when you think that all is right with the world, you know that you are truly watching something special by a very talented artist. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a vicious spectacle of subtlety and paranoia that will remain buried in your mind long after the credits have stopped rolling.

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Martha’s (Elizabeth Olsen) life all of a sudden doesn’t seem like her own anymore. For the past two years of her life she has been staying with a mysterious cult, led by Patrick (John Hawkes), in the Catskill Mountains of New York. One morning she decides to leave and go stay with her sister (Sarah Paulson) and her brother in law (Hugh Dancy). Automatically, Martha’s behavior appears out of the ordinary to her family with an ever growing paranoia as the backbone of her whole mental discomfort. As the days go on, and more time is spent contemplating the past two years, Martha finds herself not knowing what is real and what is just her imagination.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the most pure psychological dramas/thrillers that I have ever seen. There are plenty of great psychological films that go way over the top with how the present the mental collapse of its characters (Dragonfly) and sometimes it really works well (Antichrist). The look into Martha’s head is much more subtle. As a viewer, I didn’t even know that there were times that my head was being messed with until I really thought about it. Then, I had to go back and re-evaluate major parts of the movie because more and more puzzle pieces were falling into place, even after the movie ended.

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Part of what makes this movie work so well is the pacing and how the shots and scenes are pieced together. Martha’s time with the cult is all seen in flashbacks and the rest of the movie is Marta trying to adjust to family life. These parallel story lines are triggered by the other with something happening in the present that initiates the jump to the past events. This mirrors Martha’s fragile state of mind and shows her regression and obsession with the past, along with her inability to escape what has happened. In one particular transition, the two story lines appear to converge without me even noticing. It’s brilliant film making that really makes Martha Marcy May Marlene work.

Finally, something has to be said about the performances. I first saw John Hawkes in Winter’s Bone, which certainly isn’t a movie that I need to see again, but I do recognize that it’s objectively a good movie and the performances are especially something to admire, Hawke’s being one of them. He has this quiet and misleading attitude that hides his maliciousness, which really only comes out in a few scenes. But all my respect has to go to newcomer Elizabeth Olsen for not only taking on, but owning such a challenging role. Martha is one of the most complex characters I have seen on film, and Olsen completely sells it. I’d definitely like to see her in more serious roles in the future.

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Martha Marcy May Marlene, to me, is the perfect example of a psychological thriller. It’s subtle, yet jarring. The level of discomfort that I felt while watching this was enormous, and when the movie was over, I was so glad to find myself in my living room and no longer in this woman’s mind. For fans of the genre, this is a must see. It’s a slow burn that will leave you speechless.

Battle Royale & Battle Royale II: Requiem Review

7 Jul

Before The Hunger Games was even a thought, Koushun Takami wrote a novel released in 1999 called Battle Royale. The following year, Kenji Fukasaku adapted the story for the big screen and was met with worldwide controversy over the subject material. This controversy, of course, garnered the film much respect along with just how well it was made. It’s almost cinematic law now that a successful movie like Battle Royale needs a sequel, and in 2003, Battle Royale II: Requiem was released.

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The first Battle Royale film takes place in a not too distant dystopian future where the Japanese youth has gotten entirely out of hand. As a response to their overly rebellious behavior, the BR Act is passed by the government. A group of students are witness to the effects of the this act firsthand when they are kidnapped on the way home from a school trip where their old school teacher, Kitano (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano), tells them that they are being released on an island where they must fight to the death until one of them is left standing. To make matters worse, unless they are all still alive within 72 hours or they are in a danger zone at a certain time, robotic necklaces that they are all strapped to will detonate. Let the games begin.

Battle Royale is truly an outstanding movie. How The Hunger Games got away with such a blatant rip off is way beyond me, but that’s not what I want to talk about. This movie had a good opportunity to be silly and violent, and in some parts there is great dark humor, but for the most part it takes itself seriously. Not only that, but it succeeds with its serious demeanor. There is lots of violence, but it never gets out of hand or ridiculous. In fact, it is hard to watch at times because you find yourself thinking about what you would do if you were in that situation. This makes Battle Royale a horrifying movie, due to its circumstances.

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Unfortunately, the movie does get a little heavy handed with the dialogue sometimes and it unintentionally funny, but as soon as you find yourself laughing, the next scene will only make you more nervous or upset. Takeshi Kitano is great in this movie and I had so much fun watching him whenever he was onscreen. Talk about taking a character and really making it your own. Battle Royale is a devastating look at teenage rebellion and the effects that it has on everyone around them. If you feel like you can handle the material presented in this movie, it isn’t really one you should let yourself miss.

Now, there really does not have to be a sequel. Can we just forget that it even exists? No? Fine. I guess it is my job to watch it and let you all know how it is. Three years after the original film, Battle Royale II: Requiem was released. Oh boy.

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Three years after the events of Battle Royale, one of the survivors of the games, Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara), has created a guerrilla terrorist faction to seek revenge on adults everywhere for the torture that they put him through. As a result, the government has upgraded their BR Program, and another group of high schoolers are put to the test. This time they are sent to and island where it is believed Nanahara is hiding and given the task to find him and kill him within 72 hours, or the necklaces will explode, not only killing the one wearing the necklace, but also their partner. Once on the island they are quickly launched in a battle with the terrorists who want to survive the onslaught and have their ultimate revenge.

Forget everything that was cool or exciting about the original Battle Royale, you won’t find any of that here. Instead we are forced to see battle scenes a la Saving Private Ryan. Was there anything like that in the original? No! Not only is it completely devoid of suspense, but it gets worse than the most repetitive game you may have ever played. Someone is shot, their partners neck explodes, and their friends all yell their names. Over and over and over again. To me, it almost becomes a comedy of sorts. Once the actual “game” is over and it becomes some sort of quasi-war movie, I completely lost interest.

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Unfortunately, the director of the previous film, Kenji Fukasaku, was set to direct this but dies of pancreatic cancer after only shooting one scene. His son, Kenta Fukasaku, who wrote both films, ended up directing the rest. I gotta say, I’m not a fan of his style. When you need to throw in CGI blood (which it is already known that I despise) and CGI debris in every other scene, the movie just starts to looks silly. That’s what Battle Royale II ultimately is: a silly mess of a movie. An overly long movie at that.

In conclusion, Battle Royale is not a movie that should be missed. It is exciting, suspenseful, and surprisingly thought provoking. As for its sequel, it is the ultimate proof that there are some movies that do not need to be made under any circumstances. Still, I’m glad I got to experience the first entry, and I’ll be sure to watch it again.

Samurai Princess – Review

3 Jul

For as long as I’m on this earth, I will do my absolute best to keep the crazy, over the top, blood splattering, Japanese movies coming. My most recent addition to the insanity is a little known film in this “category”, Samurai Princess. With a story by Kengo Kaji, the man who wrote Tokyo Gore Police, and special make up and effects by the always fun Yoshihiro Nishimura, what could possibly go wrong?

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In an alternate universe, feudal Japan is a strange place. The forests are littered with thieves and murderers whose bodies have been mechanically altered with weapons and other gadgets. These people are called “Mechas.”  When a princess (Aino Kishi) and her friends are attacked and killed, a mad scientist rebuilds her body and places the souls of the eleven friends inside of her to use as weapons. With this new body, the Samurai Princess wanders the forest in hopes of finding the people who ruined her life, and took the lives of her friends. Another, more powerful enemy, lurks in the shadows, however.

Just by that brief summary, it should be known not to take this movie too seriously. To be fair though, I’ve never watched a movie with Nishimura’s name attached to it and decided to take it seriously. Samurai Princess is a silly, often stupid movie that makes little to no sense at all. I’d even go so far as to say that it is almost unwatchable. Luckily, there is plenty of gore and a good amount of humor to save this movie from being so bad, it’s not even good.

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There is a lot to laugh at Samurai Princess other than the gore and the arterial sprays that squirt gallons of blood at a time. Some of the best parts of this movie are the ridiculous villains and side characters that pop up from time to time and offer goofy dialogue or just laughable weirdness. Of all these types of movies, this one might be the most surreal. The laboratories also have a “charming” design with body parts hooked up to all different sorts of machinery, and some of the gore effects look really great. One particular scene involves a fountain, made of human body parts, that is splashing blood all over the place. It’s dark, it’s weird, and it’s hysterical.

Don’t misunderstand me. This is not a good movie, even for the likes of this genre. The video that it’s shot on looks unbelievably cheap and the characters spend most of their time walking around forested areas that look like they could have been filmed down the street from my house. Movies like RoboGeisha, Machine Girl, and Meatball Machine look like thought was put into the locations. Samurai Princess looks completely random and has absolutely no continuity in its locations. Finally the story is told in such a way that it’s pretty much incoherent.

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Samurai Princess is a mess of a movie even for this genre. The characters, the humor, and the gore is all great, which is to be expected. Still, the narrative, the location shots, and the shoddy video all drag the movie down so far that they movie isn’t even enjoyable. I checked the time a lot throughout the movie with hopes that the movie was almost over, but i sat through the entire thing and I honestly can’t recommend it to anyone besides hardcore fans of the genre.