Archive | March, 2015

The Seventh Seal – Review

30 Mar

To any film lover, the name Ingmar Bergman is one to really perk up the ears. If I hear anyone having conversation about him, I automatically want to jump in, but that would be weird. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen too often. Anyway, he;s known mostly for a large amount of dramatic works and one really fantastic horror film, Hour of the Wolf. One of his most famous and respected works is a film from 1957, The Seventh Seal. In this movie, Bergman tackles some really heavy subject matter and wraps it all up in some of the most beautiful black and white cinematography you’ll ever see. The honor of being a “classic” was invented for movies like this.

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Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is a knight returning home after the Crusades with his squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand). Block is having problems with his faith after fighting tirelessly and then returning home to find the country ravaged by the Black Plague, while Jöns is comfortable with being a nihilistic agnostic. While on a beach, Death (Bengt Ekerot) comes for Block, but to stall Death’s intentions Block challenges death to a game of chess. While the game continues, Block and Jöns keep traveling home when they run into a family of performers. The performers and the two Crusaders move through the countryside contemplating life, death, and religion as the horror that surrounds them begins to engulf everything they believe in.

Sometimes looking at movies like this can be a weird experience. A lot of the times, they aren’t really entertaining movies, but more so movies to just be appreciated for their artistic value. The crazy thing about The Seventh Seal is that through all of it’s artistic qualities and moral preaching, it’s a damn entertaining movie. The whole idea of playing chess with Death is cool enough, but using the Crusades and the Black Plague as a time to set it in makes it all the more cool. But that’s not to say that I didn’t appreciate this film as a piece of art. In fact, when this movie was released it pretty much defined modern arthouse cinema.

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One of the main draws of this movie is how beautiful everything looks. The atmosphere is completely haunting and the black and white cinematography really is a must to make this story work. Bergman got a lot of inspiration for this movie by looking at paintings of Death and other works from this time period, so a lot of this movie does actually look like a moving, black and white painting. To top off the beautiful aesthetics is a score that will chill you right to the bone. Discordant melodies that seem to be seeping through the cracks of hell flood the dying landscape like the plague, itself. It’s memorable and something I’d love to put on my iPod if I could find the music anywhere.

Another problem that normally bogs these art house movies to the ground can be there length. If an artsy fartsy movie goes on too long, then the entire impact of what could’ve been great gets obliterated. Luckily, The Seventh Seal wastes no time with unnecessary scenes, and cuts right to the chase with Death starting his chess match with Block. From there, the story keeps progressing at a steady pace, leaving me no time to get bored with it at all. I was honestly expecting to be just a little bored, but I was too busy enjoying myself the whole way through.

I’m quite surprised with The Seventh Seal. I knew that it was going to be beautiful and aesthetically excellent, but I wasn’t expecting to have as much fun as I did with it. The setting is cool and eerie, the music is chilling, and the religious and moral questioning is interesting to listen to and think about. Many people say that this is one of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpieces, as it has been praised, parodied, and honored since it was first seen in 1957. I’d have to agree with them. This film pleases in every regard and can certainly be regarded as an international classic.

 

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Mean Streets – Review

24 Mar

I’m about to bust a myth for you right now. Martin Scorsese actually hasn’t been around since the beginning of time, weaving stories that are being passed down from generation to generation. I remember hearing in school that his 1973 film Mean Streets was his debut, but Scorsese actually had two other movies already made: Who’s That Knocking at My Door? from 1967 and Boxcar Bertha from 1972. Many people do say, however, that Mean Streets was Martin Scorsese’s first important film and the movie that put him, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel on the map.

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Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a small time New York gangster moving up the ranks of the local Italian Mafia in Little Italy. He’s a tough, but fair kind of person with a soul that’s aflame with personal guilt that his Catholic beliefs can’t extinguish. Instead, Charlie looks to the streets for some kind of penance and finds it in his childhood friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), who is throwing his life away with his devil may care attitude and outrageous gambling debts. Meanwhile, Charlie is also trying to maintain a relationship with Johnny Boy’s cousin, Teresa (Amy Robinson), and working to run his own restaurant. Charlie soon begins to realize that what he truly wants may be an impossible dream as an aggravated loan shark, Michael (Richard Romanus), gets increasingly violent towards Johnny Boy, and eventually threatening his life.

So not only is Mean Streets Scorsese’s first important film, it’s also one that feels extremely close and personal to the film maker, as it should considering it’s a semi-autobiographical story of Scorsese growing up in Little Italy. Still, this kind of closeness with his films can be seen in a lot of his other work with Hugo coming to mind as an excellent example. While this isn’t as violent or graphic as his later work, it’s one that seems to be paving the way for films like Casino and Goodfellas amongst others. This is still a much smaller movie that takes a lot of inspiration from the New Wave movements going on in Europe and Japan but combining them with the kind of gangster story that Scorsese tells so well.

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One of the most fun parts of watching this movie is seeing a really young Harvey Keitel and a really young Robert De Niro, who of course went on to be a regular in Martin Scorsese’s movies. Before there was Taxi DriverRaging Bull, or Cape Fear there was Mean Streets. Keitel actually worked with Scorsese before on Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, but this was his star making performance, and the same can be said about De Niro. Their performances in this movie are just as great as you would expect and then some. Some of the scenes with the two actors sharing some personal dialogue were actually improvised, which makes their performances all the more impressive. Even if you don’t like crime or gangster movies, the acting alone is enough to see the movie.

So while this movie is fantastic, it may not really be for everyone. The movie’s plot is kind of weird because for a while it doesn’t seem to really be going anywhere. Like many movies inspired by and included in the New Wave movement in other countries, movies focused on characters moving from place to place, going about their business, and interactions with other people. That’s the fuel for the story rather than situations pushing the movie forward. That’s how Mean Streets is. It’s all about interactions with other people and being immersed in the urban environment. It’s a different way to tell a story, but it’s the only way that this story could be told.

Mean Streets pretty much set the tone for the urban crime films that Scorsese made throughout the 80’s and 90’s that are now considered classics. It also marks the start of his career as a respected film maker, but also the starts of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. It’s clear in some moments that Scorsese was still experimenting with some things that don’t always translate too well, but as a whole this is a small personal masterpiece of his. It isn’t his best film, but it stands up very well to his best films and that in and of itself makes it worth multiple viewings.

Chappie – Review

18 Mar

When I first saw the trailers for Chappie with Neill Blomkamp’s name on it, I wanted to shoot right out of my seat and land in the closest theater and just wait there so I could be the first to see it. I feel like Blomkamp is at the head of the pack along with a few other in terms of modern science fiction movies. His films have this urban grit that meshes so well with the high tech sci-fi, and Chappie certainly isn’t any different. The troubling thing is that every critic seems to have major problems with it, and I found it to be far superior to his previous film, Elysium.

 

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In the near future, the police force in Johannesburg, South Africa is largely made up of state of the art police robots designed by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel). On his own time, however, Deon is working overtime trying to unlock the key to creating true artificial intelligence, a daunting task that eventually pays off. After stealing a deactivated police robot, Deon puts in the artificial intelligence chip, but not before being kidnapped by gangsters Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) and Ninja and Yolandi (played by South African rap group Die Antwoord). When the robot comes to life and becomes aware of the surroundings, he is named Chappie (Sharlto Copely). As Ninja begins training Chappie to be a gangster for a major heist, Deon and Yolandi work to train Chappie in the finer things of life and protect him from the outside world. Meanwhile, Deon’s competitor in the company, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), works to get his own police robot on the scene, no matter who has to die.

Compared to District 9 and ElysiumChappie feels like Blomkamp’s departure from a more violent and hopeless kind of science fiction. Both of the Blomkamp’s earlier movies leaves me feeling a strange sense of dread by the end of them, but Chappie made me feel different. There’s plenty of social commentary to be found, but I was way more interested in the characters and what happened to them. That being said, I felt that was the intention. There’s a lot of focus behind the differing factions of characters and the philosophical urges that push them. Then there’s Chappie, another memorable robot to add to the list of memorable robots. By the end of this movie, even though it doesn’t quite end on the happiest of notes, left me feeling a lot better for the situations and the characters than Blomkamp’s other movies did.

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There are plenty of great actors in this movie and a few quite interesting casting choices to really regard as a cinematic anomaly. The star of the whole show is Sharlto Copley who did the voice and motion capture for Chappie. Copley’s voice and movements bring Chappie to life more than any kind of advanced special effects could. He’s a tragic and interesting character and plays it to perfection. Dev Patel and Hugh Jackman work well as enemies, even though Jackman’s character was one of the least interesting parts of the entire movies. Finally, we have Ninja and Yolandi, a South African rap-rave group that seems to be playing themselves. I’m a big fan of Die Antwoord, and seeing them act was odd. Ninja was pretty on point and Yolandi did well with her character, but there were times where I was reminded that they weren’t trained actors. Still it was pretty wild to see them.

As I said before, Chappie dives right into social commentary in that strangely real way Neill Blomkamp does. District 9 brought racism to the screen in a way that was fresh and memorable while Elysium dealt with class differences in a classic science fiction sort of way. With Chappie, Blomkamp deconstructs the idea of a police state and a society that has become far too mechanized. This is a theme that plays very well with society today, in a world where technology seems to be going crazy. Combine that with the military, and things may continue looking bleak. It’s a smart way to go about telling a story, and it’s incredibly original in a world of reboots, remakes, and adaptations.

While Chappie isn’t quite District 9 it shoots past Elysium, and I’m baffled as to why critics are giving this movie such a hard time. Not only are there memorable characters, a sentimental feeling, and interesting commentary on technology and government, but all of that wrapped up in Neill Blomkamp’s distinct style. Not only is Chappie a good movie, Chappie is also a great movie. Suck it, critics.

Men Behind the Sun – Review

11 Mar

Oh boy. This is what it’s come to. I’m really digging up something with this one. This time we’re gonna be looking at T.F. Mou’s 1988 film Men Behind the Sun. It sounds innocent enough, but this infamous, though relatively obscure film, is one of the most brutal, grotesque, and disturbing films ever made. Look at any list about warped movies, and it’s guaranteed that you’ll find this one on here. Many people argue over what this movie is trying to do, but everyone seems to agree that it will definitely leave a mark on anyone who dares to watch.

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In the later days of World War II, the Japanese were getting desperate to turn the fight around to their favor, and a method that seemed both popular and deadly was biological warfare. The film follows a group of young Japanese boys enlisted in the youth corps that are stationed at Unit 731, a mysterious base run by a recently disgraced Lt. Gen. Shiro Ishii (Gang Wang). Soon the boys (and the viewer) finds out the secret work happening at Unit 731. The base is a testing ground for new biological weapons with the test subjects consisting of captured Chinese and Russian citizens.

This is actually the first part of an unofficial series that I’ve made the decision not to watch, mostly because they’re pretty hard to find and it’s pretty unnecessary considering the heavy subject matter. This is a movie that has torn audiences in to two separate factions with differing arguments on how to look at what is being presented. On one side, there are the people who think this movie is a disgusting piece of exploitive horror, using the testing and gratuitous gore as only a way to make people squirm. The other side truly believes that Men Behind the Sun is an important film that explores a horrific time of history in a no nonsense way. It’s hard to choose a side because there’s enough evidence to support both theories.

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T.F. Mou is a very odd figure in terms of his filmography. After joining the Shaw Brothers, Mou worked in the genres of crime, horror, kung fu, and exploitation. The Shaw Brothers aren’t really known for producing the most thought provoking work, but Mou, himself, was very dedicated to making Men Behind the Sun as realistic and historically accurate as possible, and for that I commend him. He hired actors who looked like their historical counterparts and researched for over a year in order to create an accurate depiction. Wang’s performance as Shiro Ishii is especially memorable. This makes me think that T.F. Mou was really trying to create a historically significant movie that would shock people into understanding the horrors that people endured. Unfortunately, he sort of took it way too far.

There’s no way to be comfortable watching this movie. I first saw this movie in school during a class about horror movies, and I found myself looking away at many points during the movie. Me. The guy who loves gory movies, but this was just too real. This is where the movie seems to lose its footing in a major way. For an hour and a half, you’re just subjected to scenes upon scenes of relentless brutality that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. It’s just way too much gore and sickening imagery to really keep someone’s attention focused on the history. Men Behind the Sun really is one of, if not the most sickening and repulsive movies ever made.

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Normally, I post a video in these reviews, but I just can’t for this movie. I can’t even write a review giving my opinion on it because I don’t know what it is. Technically, it’s very well made in terms of shot composition, effects, and historical accuracy. At the same time it’s a horrific piece of exploitation that is enough to make the most experienced movie watcher sick to their stomachs…or more. All I can say is that whatever this movie was trying to do, be it sicken people or depict a terrible history, it did it’s job. It’s just a bit to much for me to recommend to anybody.

The Bridge on the River Kwai – Review

9 Mar

World War II is a topic that no one can really stay away from, which is fair enough because there’s so much to do with it. There’s been a huge amount of movies, games, and books dedicated to certain moments throughout the war, be it real or fictional. There are some, however, that really stand out and one of them is David Lean’s 1957 war epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai. While it is a work of fiction, it’s based off of a true event, but nonetheless, it stands as one of the greatest war films ever made but also one of the most complex.

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Lt. Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and his British troops find themselves in a bind when they end up in a Japanese labor camp commanded by Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Nicholson and Saito soon butt heads when Saito orders everyone, including the officers, to start work on constructing a bridge over the River Kwai. Nicholson soon finds himself watching over the construction and believes it to be an accomplishment for the British, but also a way of raising the morale of his men. Meanwhile, escaped American prisoner, Commander Shears (William Holden) is put in charge of a mission to destroy the bridge and the first train scheduled to cross it. As Shears’ team gets closer, it becomes clearer that Nicholson will do whatever it takes to complete and protect the bridge, even if it means betraying the Allied forces that he is a part of.

What’s so impressive and difficult about this film, especially considering the time it was made, is that there are no real good guys or bad guys. The Japanese Saito runs the camp with an iron fist and mistreats certain prisoners, but deep down he’s a man who appears weak facing the code of honor and winning the war for his country. Nicholson appears to betray his own country to protect the bridge even though he’s doing it for reasons he thinks are for the long running good of Britain and his troops, making it easy to sympathize with him. Meanwhile, Shears is a liar, lazy, and cold towards other people making him more of an anti hero, despite him being an American soldier fighting for the Allies. It’s incredibly interesting seeing these morally ambiguous characters clash throughout the movie, and it makes them seem like real people.

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While it is ultimately the actor’s job at making the characters seem real, it would all be for nothing if nothing else had the air of realism about it. This movie feels very grounded in reality and part of what makes it feel that way is how huge it is, and I’m not just talking about the close to three hour run time. What I mean is that the jungle seems vast, the bridge looks gigantic, and everything just pretty much feels epic. This makes sense since Lean would go on to do his masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia just a few years later. That’s one thing that I just couldn’t get enough of in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Lean’s sense of space translates so well to the screen, especially with this being the first film that he shot in Cinemascope.

I look at this movie like it’s a two part type of deal. The first part is pretty much just in the Japanese labor camp with Nicholson and Saito trying to outdo one another. The second part deals mostly with Shears and the other British troops making their way to the bridge to destroy it. While the second part definitely has more action, I prefer the first part more because I loved Alec Guinness’ performance and his character. The second part had a lot of meetings and walking through the jungle that made me kind of fidget during. It all still comes together really well in one of the most memorable and intense climaxes in film history.

Simply put, The Bridge on the River Kwai deserves its place in just about every film textbook you can find. It’s a triumph as a character study, an adventure story, and a war epic. While the second half seemed to drag a little bit and got a tad derivative, the movie as a whole took a lot of chances in its viewpoint of soldiers from around the world during World War II. It’s a fantastic film that deserves to be watched way more than once.

Nil by Mouth – Review

3 Mar

Everyone knows about Gary Oldman’s acting career. He’s been in so many movies as great as The Dark Knight Trilogy and as awful as the 2009 “horror” film The Unborn. He’s one of those actors that seems to turn up everywhere, but he always brings an air of seriousness to all of his roles. I’ve just recently learned about his work in directing after reading about his 1997 directorial debut Nil by Mouth. I didn’t really know what it was about, but being a fan of Oldman’s, I felt it was worth checking out. That being said, this is a surprisingly gritty, disturbing, and genuinely upsetting film.

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Set in the working class environment of South London, this film examines the life of a small, but poor family. Billy (Charles Creed-Miles) is a heroine addict that struggles with both his finances and his addiction, mostly using one to help the other. Billy’s sister is Val (Kathy Burke), a relatively unhappy woman who is married to Ray (Ray Winstone). Ray is a thief, an addict, and violent, many times taking out his rage on the pregnant Val. After a vicious night between the two, the family really seems that it is finally ready to break down and leave everyone on their own.

When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, Nil by Mouth was received with much critical acclaim and Kathy Burke winning for Best Actress. This is really no surprise to me since this movie tackles subject matter in an unflinchingly realistic way. As I was watching it, my mind kept going to Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, although the main protagonist in that movie is a kid and it was released two years later in 1999. It still deals with the same ideas as poverty and the breakdown of a family. There were many times in this movie that it got so intense and real that it stunned me.

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Like I said before, Kathy Burke won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for this movie, but that isn’t where the excellent performances end. Everyone in this movie seems to be working their hardest to completely sell their roles to you. Burke has a lot of different levels she plays at and Ray Winstone matches her perfectly by showing an aggravating and complex character. He has become one of the most hated characters for me because Winstone makes him so real. Charles Creed-Miles also works well as the pathetic drug addicted thief who I really couldn’t help feeling sorry for.

To really make Nil by Mouth work, Oldman had to create a certain kind of uncomfortable atmosphere that isn’t really easy to do. Many of the scenes are shot in dark side streets of London, the kind of streets that you wouldn’t want to find yourself alone at night. When we’re not in some alley, we’re in cluttered, tiny apartments that seems to have a few too many people in it. That being said, certain scenes have to appear comfortable and livable since this is just the way of life for these people. It’s an odd combination where I would be disgusted one moment and then almost feel at home the next.

Nil by Mouth can definitely be classified as a film that isn’t easy to watch, nor is it particularly entertaining. It is, however, a film that seems to be a very deep and personal project of Gary Oldman’s, and that comes through in how realistic and honest everything is in the movie. This may be one of the realest movies I’ve seen and it certainly isn’t afraid to throw a rotten piece of life into your face. While it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it’s an intense experience nonetheless.