Archive | September, 2013

Enter the Void – Review

25 Sep

There are plenty of movies out there that are completely unique and provide the viewer with a different sort of experience. This is normally done through narrative tricks or special visual effects to really separate itself from other movies. In my opinion, there has never been a film as different and inventive than Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, a film that he calls a “psychedelic melodrama” that seems to defy all conventions of film making and takes a different approach at an art form that seems to have seen it all.

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Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) is a small time drug dealer and junkie who lives in Tokyo and mingles with the other assorted junkies and dealers. He shares an apartment with his sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta), and shares a very special connection with her. One night, after trying to complete a deal with an old friend, the police burst in and shoot Oscar. What follows is Oscar’s consciousness or soul leaving his body and flying over the neon world of Tokyo, examining his past, and observing the lives of others that have been affected by his death with the ultimate goal of achieving some sort of resurrection.

The way Gaspar Noé tells the story in Enter the Void is unlike anything I have ever seen. The movie’s psychedelic mayhem begins right with the opening titles that shock the viewers mind like a defibrillator. Once the titles end, it is strangely calm and the next odd choice by Noé is to have the first half hour completely in a first person POV of Oscar. After he is shot, we travel with him out of his body to experience his life flashing before our eyes and also see the effects of his own death. In this way, the film is still first person, but it’s a strange trip flying over the neon hell of Tokyo.

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Where a lot of film makers use CGI as a crutch and a tool to draw in audiences to see spectacular things, the CGI in Enter the Void is for a much more visceral experience. A large part of the story is the usage and effects of a drug/chemical called DMT, which is released by the brain en masse to a dying individual or to the user of the street drug. The effects of this is a vibrant, colorful visual experience which is recreated with the sights and sounds of Enter the Void. As a result, this is a very colorful movie at times, only to be momentarily defeated by the grime and darkness of the deepest alleys of Tokyo. It’s a beautiful contrast, but certainly not the only unbelievable part of this film.

Fortunately, this Noé did not rely on visuals alone to make this movie compelling. The story and theme of the whole things made me revert into my own psyche and think about everything I believe is to be possible after we die. The thought of death is frightening, to simply not exist anymore, and there are so many thoughts as to what happens after our life ends. In Enter the Void, we are presented with one of the thoughts and is put on screen. It’s hallucinatory and even though the themes might be beyond our understanding, it’s still a deeply personal journey.

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This movie has polarized audiences since it was shown on the festival circuit, and was hurt a little after it’s poor box office return. This isn’t a mindless piece of entertainment. It is an art film through and through that really makes you think. I know I say that a lot, but it’s been about a week since I watched this and it’s still fresh in my mind. I can not recommend Enter the Void enough.

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Ju-On: The Grudge – Review

18 Sep

There was a point in time when it seemed like Hollywood was just going to start remaking Japanese horror films instead of thinking up their own stuff. One of the more popular examples is 2004 film The Grudge, which is actually based off of a 2002 film Ju-On: The Grudge. The Ju-On series consists of five other films other than this one, but this is the more popular one, and the only one I will be reviewing as of right now. Ju-On is a strange, startlingly slow, and occasionally boring example of J-Horror that may not really be everyone’s cup of tea.

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When a volunteer house keeper, Rika (Megumi Okina), begins work for an elderly woman in a house with a violent past, she never thought she would be stepping into a world full of horror and death. Other than Rika, a handful of other people have been inside the house, which condemns them to the vengeance of two spirits inhabiting the house that were brutally murdered. One by one, the people who have associated themselves with the house begin being stalked and tormented by these spirits before they are ultimately killed. No one who has been in the house can solve the mystery before it is too late.

The narrative of Ju-On: The Grudge is not like the American versions, despite both versions being directed by Takashi Shimizu. The Japanese version is strange, in that the story is told in episodic segments that are presented out of order. I didn’t expect this to happen at first, so I was completely lost for a little bit before I figured out that the order was completely messed up. Once I caught on, things began making sense and I started to have more fun with the film. This is actually a lot more difficult to piece together than a film like Pulp Fiction, because there are random jumps in time that are never explained and really forces the viewer to be paying attention to the timeline to keep with the pace.

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In terms of scare factor, well maybe I’m being a wuss here, but these movies have always freaked me out more than any other horror film. This is my first time seeing the Japanese version, but the American ones were not bad at all. Still, needing to sit through a movie with my two worst enemies (the two spirits) was fun. The sounds and movements of these ghosts are haunting, and made me not look forward to closing my eyes to go to sleep that night. I would be lying if I said I didn’t glance over at my stairs to check to see if there were any bloodshot eyes staring at me. The fact that these things just appear without any warning and mentally torment you until they kill you is way more than enough to make my skin crawl.

That being said, there is a whole lot of nothing that happens in this movie. The scenes of dialogue or plot and character development are really not that special at all. The characters are pretty dull and aren’t memorable at all. The parts of the movie that are most enjoyable are when the movie tries to scare us, and that seems to work 95% of the time. Unfortunately, this is a 93 minute long movie, and it can’t all be scares. There has to be something of a plot, but this one is confusing and just plain boring. That’s really a lot of points taken off of Ju-On to the point where the whole experience is pretty much ruined.

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Ju-On: The Grudge will bore many a people, that is a fact. A fact that has been strengthened with how bored I was during a large portion of the movie. I still can’t deny how freaky and nerve wracking this movie can be. If it only kept a consistent level of horror and dread throughout the whole thing, I would consider this one of my favorite horror films of all time. Unfortunately, it is bogged down by a confusing story and characters who really don’t mean a thing. This is an important film for the genre, but it really isn’t the awesome film that a lot of people say that it is.

High Tension – Review

16 Sep

When you think of countries that make top of the line horror films, I normally think of places like Japan, Korea, or Italy. One of the last places you would expect to look is France, but recently France has  been adopting this style of film making that is dubbed New French Extremity. I’ve reviewed a film a while back called Martyrs, which was my first exposure to New French Extremity. Perhaps even more popular than Martyrs is High Tension, a horror film by Alexandre Aja that is genuinely terrifying, gory, and unpredictable.

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Alexia (Maïwenn) and Marie (Cècile De France) are in need of a vacation, so they head off to Alexia’s family’s farmhouse located far and away from the city so that they can get some quiet for their studies. Paradise soon finds it’s trouble when a mysterious killer (Philippe Nahon) breaks into their home and begins killing the entire family. Soon enough, it’s just down to Alexia and Marie, forcing Marie to take matters into her own hands and stop this killer before he has the chance to kill them.

Simple story, no doubt, but this is a slasher movie when you get right down to it and we all know exactly what we want when we turn one on. In the case of High Tension, I feel like I got a lot more than I was expecting. I heard a lot of good things about this movie, but I didn’t want to get myself all worked up over it and be disappointed when all was said and done, so I went in with a relatively blank slate. In the beginning, I was immediately impressed with the cinematography and the acting, especially for a movie of this genre. I didn’t even have a chance to get bored at this time, because Aja has such a way with building, for lack of a better word, tension.

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When the bodies begin to fall and the gallons of blood begin to pour, the pressure really gets turned up a notch. As a fan of horror movies, I feel like I’ve seen a lot that the genre has to offer. Good thing Alexandre Aja and his writing partner, Grégory Levasseur, are also huge fans of the horror genre. This puts them in a very good position, because now they can pay homage to horror films (High Tension seems like the child of two ’70s exploitation horror films I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left) but at the same time it creates new and interesting situations to keep the viewer interested. The scenes of suspense are crafted in such a way that I found myself not breathing, both out of fear, but also so I wouldn’t give away the location of the hiding women. Yes, this movie is violent and yes, it is ridiculously gory, but hey, that’s New French Extremity for you.

With these new situations and ways of telling a pretty archetypal story, there are things that audiences may not like, and this one has gotten some attention over the years. Without spoiling anything, the ending of this movie does something that makes the audience all say, as if synchronized, “Wait…what the hell?” To some people this will be awesome and make rewatching it a lot more fun than it was the first time around. Others will find this to be the most frustrating and ridiculous thing that could possibly happen. In my opinion, it worked. There are a lot of small winks and clues throughout the entire thing, and in terms of narrative, there are ways of explaining a lot of things that might seem unexplainable. As much as I want to talk about it, I really don’t want to give the ending away.

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High Tension will polarize a lot of people. I’m on the side of loving it. I really, really love this movie. It seems like there’s a lot of film makers who are afraid to really take their horror movies and turn up the terror to an 11, for the sake of getting a rating that will make the movie more accessible to wider audiences. Aja wasn’t afraid to go the extra mile. Granted, when it got to America (and being the wussiest country ever when it comes to movies) some of the scenes had to be toned down to get an R rating. If you get a hand on a copy of High Tension, make sure it’s the unrated copy, because you owe it to yourself to get the best possible version of this movie for maximum enjoyment and discomfort.

The Passion of Joan of Arc – Review

11 Sep

So, for this review, we are going waywaywayway back to 1928. At this point, film making is still relatively new. Edison’s actuality films have been around for a while, and we are well into the golden age of silent cinema. Film makers like F.W. Murnau have been taking the medium and turning it into a very expressive work of art that can be used for more than just simple entertainment purposes. One of the most important film makers, whose goal seemed to be achieving just this, was Carl Theodor Dreyer. I have already reviewed on of Dreyer’s movies, Vampyr, and can easily call it my personal favorite. In many people’s eyes, however, The Passion of Joan of Arc is considered his masterpiece.

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Joan of Arc (Maria Falconetti) stands trial for declaring that she has been sent by God to remove the English from France. The judges try to intimidate her with condemning words, false letters from King Charles VII, and eventually the threat of torture. Her fear of burning at the stake forces her to sign the confession, stating that she was lying the entire time. Later, in her prison, she is rethinking everything that she has done and recants her confession. This leads to an intense scene of her execution by fire and the riot amongst the public that this causes.

When executed properly, silent films can be even more powerful than modern day dramas that implement a lot of dialogue to convey the emotional intensity of a scene. Dreyer didn’t have this luxury and was forced to use other means to show just how straining physically, mentally, and spiritually this whole trial was for Joan. As a starting point, Dreyer had actual transcripts of the trial that had been meticulously recorded. This provided a lot of information that makes the film as good as it is. One outstanding instance of historical accuracy that can now be used as one of the greatest lines of dialogue in the film goes as follows: “Are you in a state of grace,” asks one of Joan’s judges. She replies with, “If I am, may God keep me there; if I am not, may He grant it to me.”

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Dreyer is really good with set design and moving the camera around in these sets. At the time, camera movement was not as fancy as it is today, but somehow Dreyer managed to completely step out of the box and create highly artistic and fluid motion. The sets in The Passion of Joan of Arc are almost completely bare and white. There are occasional shadows that evoke religious imagery, which is nice, but the set design is an excellent example of minimalism. The exterior scenes were also shot in a man made town square that had many of different mechanisms that had to be adjusted so that Dreyer could move the camera about and got the shots that he wanted. One exterior shot that really caught my attention was a extremely low angle shot looking straight up with people sprinting by the camera. It seemed like an incredibly daring shot, but looks fantastic nonetheless. Another great example of camera work is when the camera moves close to Joan and her judges in moments of intensity. That brings us to the close ups.

It is said that the producers of this movie were none to happy with Dreyer and the finished product. They spent a lot of money in making sure that the sets were large and starkly beautiful. Well, viewers don’t get too much time to admire the sets with all of the close ups that Dreyer uses. The amount of close ups was pretty much unheard of at this point. Not only that, but none of the actors were wearing make up.  That leaves a lot of close ups on actors that are completely natural, and lets face it, some of her judges are pretty freaky looking without make up. Dreyer firmly believed that the eyes were the window to the soul, which makes his decision to cast Maria Falconetti as Joan even more perfect. The close ups on Falconetti are mesmerizing, with her eyes seeming to look through the screen and straight into the viewer’s heart. This is one of the best performances ever put to film, and words really can’t do it justice.

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The Passion of Joan of Arc is an essential piece of film history that acts as a major foundation for making film into a legitimate means of artistic expression. For film standards in 1928, this is movie is extremely inventive and progressive. Moving away from what was considered to be a traditional film of the time, Dreyer creates a meticulous spiritual journey that we must travel with Joan. It’s beautiful, haunting, and will completely overwhelm you by the time that the final image burns into your mind.

The Three Musketeers – Review

6 Sep

There have been more versions of Alexander Dumas’ classic book that I can really even believe. Critics go for the 1973 version of The Three Musketeers, but I grew up with the 1993 Disney version, so I have a special kind of love for that one. Why not take another shot at it though? It seems to be quite popular nowadays to take a classic novel or story and blow it up with craziness and special effects. With a name like Paul W.S. Anderson in the director’s chair, it seemed like this version of The Three Musketeers was doomed, and I was more than ready to hate it with every fiber of my being, but the truth is, it isn’t as bad as you might think.

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D’Artagnan (Logan Lerman) is a young man with the sole dream of becoming a musketeer for King Louis XIII (Freddie Fox). Upon arriving in Paris, he soon meets three of the most famous musketeers: Athos (Matthew McFadyen), Porthos (Ray Stevenson), and Aramis (Luke Evans). They accept him as one of their own, but regret to inform him that the musketeers have been disbanded by Cardinal Richelieu (Christoph Waltz), who is seeking to take the throne from the king with the help of Milady de Winter (Milla Jovovich). The Three Musketeers and their newest member soon learn of this nefarious plot and decide that it is solely up to them to protect the king and stop France from going to war with England.

Like I said, I was so ready to watch this movie and hate every bit of it. In the beginning, I really was not enjoying it at all. The acting was pretty bad and nothing was really jumping out or engaging me in any way. Between a quarter of the way to the half way mark things of interest actually start happening and continue up until the end of the movie. I use the term “of interest” pretty loosely. I’m pretty much saying I started to get entertained. This movie isn’t really good in terms of depth and character, but as much as it really pains me to say it, I had some fun.

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I really need to say that this version of The Three Musketeers is completely different than any other version that exists. Take the original story and then mix in a bunch of steampunk technology, and you get this movie. This is what really sold the movie to me, in my opinion. I love steampunk style and it was a pretty interesting choice to incorporate it into this classic story. It also gave everyone a lot of room to tweak the story. There’s a really fun aerial battle involving ships that are part zeppelins and part clipper ships. Is this anyway in the original Dumas book? No way, but as far as entertainment goes, I was having so much fun watching this play out onscreen.

So the special effects and swashbuckling action are all well and good, but that really doesn’t excuse a lot of the negativity that I actually recognized in this movie. First of all, the movie just up and ends faster than you even have time to blink. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but I didn’t feel like the resolution had what it takes to really wrap up a movie. Also, there were some bits of acting that were just God awful. From the uninspired to the over the top acting, it hit the entire spectrum. Christoph Waltz was great as the Cardinal and the only other actor who seemed to really be enjoying his part was Ray Stevenson as Porthos. The other musketeers weren’t memorable at all. Orlando Bloom was pretty fun to watch, even though it’s kinda hard taking him too seriously as a villain.

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Don’t go into The Three Musketeers expecting anything that resembles the Alexander Dumas novel. The characters are there, but everything else is pretty much its own thing. This isn’t a good movie in the objective sense. It’s full of bad acting, silly story contrivances, and an ending that doesn’t really wrap things up. But, the action was over the top and flashy enough that it kept my attention for most of the time. The good thing is that this movie never took itself too seriously. It always had a light hearted attitude and a sense of self awareness. There were even some small historical quirks that made me chuckle. All in all, it’s not great, nor is it really good, but it provided me with a silly afternoon escape.

The World’s End – Review

4 Sep

Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright have proved to be a formidable comedic team ever since their beginnings in the BBC comedy series Spaced. Their greatest accomplishment however comes with the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, or as it is in the US, the Blood and Ice Cream trilogy. For everyone who has been living under a rock, this trilogy consists of Shaun of the DeadHot Fuzz, and finally The World’s End. Thankfully, I really couldn’t have asked for a better film to close out this trilogy and, in my opinion, this is the best film of the three.

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Gary King (Simon Pegg) is a pathetic man who seems to be stuck in the days of his youth. All that he can think about is a pub crawl that he did in his home town with his best friends over twenty years ago, but it bothers him that they didn’t make it all the way. Gary reunites the old group to head back to the town a Newton Haven and make it through all of the pubs ending with The World’s End. His friends are Andy (Nick Frost), Peter (Eddie Marsan), Oliver (Martin Freeman), and Steven (Paddy Considine), and out of the five, only Gary is excited to be doing this. Halfway through, however, a very interesting situation comes up that explains a lot of odd things that have been happening since they got town. It turns out that everyone in the town has been replaced by robotic replicants, and now they are targeted. They can’t stop now, however, and vow to get out of Newton Haven once the pub crawl is completed.

Anyone who has seen a movie made by these guys no that the humor is out of this world and nostalgic. Here we have this sort of modern take and comical version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. These guys know exactly what pleases fans based off their own knowledge of cool science fiction and horror, which was made very clear by their multiple references in Spaced. Unlike Spaced, and the other two films in this trilogy is that this one has a distinct sense of maturity. The actors and other people involved on these films aren’t getting any younger, and they all know it, but that isn’t stopping them from throwing in their own anarchic and nostalgic humor that hasn’t slowed down in all these years.

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I’ve seen this movie twice this week, and this isn’t me complaining, not just because it’s a great movie, but because there is so much to see. What I mean by that is that the snappy dialogue and sight gags go by so fast, that you may need to see it more than once to really catch all the jokes. Whether it’s Martin Freeman making some sort of whacky face in the background or Simon Pegg snapping off a line of sarcastic dialogue, you really need to be paying attention in order to catch everything. So the comedy is all well and good and all the actors pull it off well, but the drama in this movie is on par with that of Shaun of the Dead. This movie is about letting go of what you may think are the best times of your life and learning how to accept responsibility and everything that comes with it. That’s where a core part of the drama is, and Simon Pegg does absolutely outstanding work at making us feel sorry for Gary King, even though we all know he needs to grow up.

So, this point I want to make may sound like a very unimportant thing, but it really jumped out at me. What I am speaking of is the sound design. For one thing, when the “robots” open their eyes and mouths all wide, and the blue lights shine through with the blaring voice of The Network (voiced by Bill Nighy), the mechanic kind of hum that drones throughout the scene is so cool. That along with the sounds of limbs popping out of sockets and heads getting smashed like eggs, makes me think that whoever was doing the foley and the sound mixing deserve a handshake.

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Edgar Wright and company really prove themselves again with The World’s End. It’s a brilliant combination of comedy, science fiction, and touching human drama that nearly everyone can relate to. If your a fan of the other films in this trilogy and are accustomed to the occasional deadpan style of British comedy, than this is a guaranteed delight.

The Tourist – Review

4 Sep

At first glance of The Tourist, you would notice that everything about the movie seems pretty cool. Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie in a Hitchcockian thriller film involving mistaken identities, shot mostly in Venice. Sounds like a pretty fun movie, if anything, it seems like it would provide a nice escape for a few hours. What you would actually be in store for is an abysmal film where the actors, direction, and the screenplay are all completely uninspired and anything but thrilling.

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Elise (Angelina Jolie) is in deep trouble with Scotland Yard. She has criminal connections to a mysterious man named Alexander Pierce, who has stolen £744 million from a mobster, Reginald Shaw (Steven Berkoff), operating out of Russia, and he owes that stolen money in back taxes to the British government. Pierce tasks Elise with fleeing France and heading to Venice, but along the way she has to pick up a man with the same build and features as Pierce to throw off the authorities. She chooses a math teacher from Wisconsin, Frank Tupelo (Johnny Depp), and gets him involved not only with Scotland Yard, but also with the Shaw.

Where to begin? Well, let’s start off with the good. Venice looks absolutely beautiful, and it’s obvious that it’s one of the most beautiful places to film. The water and the design of the buildings, from the modest to the lavish looked great. Another thing that looked great were the costumes. The most kind way to describe this movie is elegant. Jolie’s dresses were beautiful, but the running joke with them got old way too fast. Johnny Depp’s suit that he wore during the end was also very stylish. This is really one of the only movies where I took special notice to the costume design.

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But, that’s very little good compared to the overwhelming stink of The Tourist. Let’s talk about the story. In theory, this is a cool idea for a story that very much reminds me of North by Northwest, which objectively is one of Hitchcock’s best movies. What made that movie so intriguing are the interesting characters and the almost light heartedness of the entire situation. In The Tourist, I didn’t care at all what happened to any of the characters nor what the outcome of the movie even was going to be. Angelina Jolie seemed completely uninterested, and she even said that the only reason she took the movie was because it would be a quick shoot in Venice, and who wouldn’t want to get paid to go to Venice and make a movie? The only person who seemed to be taking their role seriously was Johnny Depp. It was refreshing to see him in a role that isn’t a rehash of Jack Sparrow.

Nothing really seems to be salvageable. There seems to be some attempts at comedy, and I’ll even say that a few of Depp’s lines made me laugh, but no one else really seems interested enough to give a comedic performance. The story is so predictable that even the situation can’t be played off as comical. Then there’s the thriller aspect. The direction of the movie is so slow paced and dull that there is little that is thrilling about it. With this in mind can this movie be called either a comedy or a thriller? I don’t think so.

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It’s disappointing to see two very talented people in such a beautiful city making such a terrible movie. The costumes and the locations are all great, but everything else is garbage. Only Johnny Depp’s underhanded performance makes anything entertaining at all. This is one of the worst movies I’ve seen in a very long time, and I can’t even recommend this as a movie that’s so bad it’s good. It doesn’t even qualify for that.