Wednesday, December 30, 2009

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

Director: Marc Webb. Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel. 95 min. Rated PG-13. Romance.

I generally avoid romantic movies, because the mix of romance and Hollywood illusions almost always leads to disaster. But (500) Days is a rare gem. It shows real people with real relations through real words. There's no delusional ideation or dream-like reactions here. Although it is a semi-comedy, the film manages to make intelligent statements about human emotions, human character, coincidence, fate, and even love. And I was impressed how it flash-backed and flash-forwarded time, simply by running numbers on the screen. Satisfaction guaranteed.
Mo says:

Invictus (2009)

Director: Clint Eastwood. Cast: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon. 134 min. Rated PG-13. Sports.

I guess in recent years, Clint has made us so used to masterpieces, anything less than perfect is considered mediocre. Invictus' first half works brilliantly as Freeman does the masterful job of portraying Nelson Mandella, and familiarizes the viewer, especially those interested in non-violent opposition, with the mechanisms of such movements. But then the second half succumbs into the usual cliches of sports movies (and of course, including the final obligatory slow motion shot of the main rugby player's last shoot/throw/jump). Still, I'm willing to forgive Eastwood, just because of the inspiring first half.

Mo says:

Che: Part 1 ("The Argentine"); Che: Part 2 ("The Guerilla") (2008)

Director: Steven Soderbergh. Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Demian Bichir, Julia Ormond, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Lou Diamond Phillips, Franke Potente, Matt Damon. 269 min (total). Rated R. France/Spain/USA. Political/Historical.

Watching more than 4 hours about the life and times of Ernesto "Che" Guevara (first part in Cuba, second part in Bolivia) wasn't exactly boring, but I kept asking myself: Why did Soderbergh make this? Why such a grand effort? Del Toro (like always) does a fabulous job in portraying the world-renown guerrilla, but don't look at this as a history lesson. The complete absence of the people component in both the successful Cuban and the failed Bolivian "revolutions" is striking throughout both movie parts - but maybe that's the point. Maybe only arms/violence were the basic underlying mechanisms.

(PS: I loved the geography lesson at the beginning of each episode!)

Mo says:

An Education (2009)

Director: Lone Scherfig. Cast: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Olivia Williams, Alfred Molina, Rosamund Pike. 95 min. PG-13. UK. Drama.

An Education is one of those obscure jewels that makes you wonder how many other unknown masterpieces are out there you've never heard of. In a powerful performance, Mulligan plays a 16-year old girl in London's 60s, confronted with the question: Why do we really go after an education? Just because my Daddy told me so? Just because our parents were ... afraid? Playing like a more dramatic version of Woody Allen's recent Whatever Works, An Education is guaranteed to stir discussions among you and whoever you watch it with. Oscar possibilities here for Mulligan.

Mo says:

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Up in the Air (2009)

Director: Jason Reitman. Cast: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, J.K. Simmons, Sam Elliot, Melanie Lynsky. 109 min. Rated R. Comedy.

Satire in movies seldom becomes so bitter. This is supposedly a comedy, but the absolute void of humanity and human relations pictured here leaves no room for a smile. Unemployment is no laughing matter, and Clooney, playing a businessman who is hired to fire people, does the tremendous job of keeping a detached pleasant face while breaking probably the worst news an employee will ever hear. Like in Juno, Reitman creates a fresh young female star in Anna Kendrick, and the screenplay has so many great one-liners, I had a hard time keeping up with the pace.

(PS: We're at the turn of another decade, and like the last decade and the case of the 2000 Oscar sweeper American Beauty, Up in the Air may ironically become another depressing story about American life that may win the Oscar for Best Picture.)
Mo says:

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009)

Director: Lee Daniels. Cast: Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz. 110 min. Rated R. Drama.

I do not enjoy watching other people's misery. I've seen movies much more depressing than Precious, but at least somewhere, at some point, they offer a small glimmer of hope - a tiny possibility of a solution. Precious offers none of that, and tries to torture the viewer for a full two hours by the story an obese black 16-year-old girl who has two kids out of incest, from a father who was HIV positive. The director's exploitation of the sad girl's story occasionally becomes sadistic. I found myself dozing off at times.

(PS: There's probably an Oscar nomination (or even a win) for Mo'nique in the Best Supporting Actress category here.)

Mo says:

About Elly (درباره الي) (2009)

Director: Asghar Farhadi. Cast: Golshifteh Farahani, Shahb Hosseini, Merila Zare'i, Taraneh Alidoosti. 119 min. Iran. Drama.

Lying. Some would merely ignore it as an acceptable sin. About Elly shows how it can undermine the entire infrastructure of a society. People lying to each other randomly, over the most mundane issues, without understanding the consequences of their random acts, or how their simple lies disastrously change the chain of events for others. And when they make a feeble attempt at honesty, they break into coughing spasms, or prick their fingers. The final scene, showing 7-8 people unable to move their drowning car out of the sand, is a powerful allegory on how dysfunctional this society has become.

Mo says:

Timecrimes (Los cronocrímenes) (2007)

Director: Nacho Vigalondo. Cast: Karra Ellejalde, Candela Fernandez, Barbara Goenaga, Nacho Vigalondo. 92 min. Rated R. Spain. Sci-fi/Suspense.

The paradoxes of time travel stories are always fun to absorb, but Timecrimes focuses more on the paradox, and less on the story. In a Rear Window fashion, a character sees a crime, but later discovers the crime happened after a present day character returned back in time. So how/why was that crime "placed" in that time in the first place? Hard to explain. You'll enjoy this movie during its hour and half length (especially while you discover the reasons for the characters' apparently unrealistic actions), but at the end, I preferred not to struggle anymore with the confusing elements.

Mo says:

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Avatar (2009)

Director: James Cameron. Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Wes Studi. 162 min. Rated PG-13. Sci-fi/Fantasy.

No wonder Cameron hadn't directed a feature-length movie for 12 years; obviously, creating Avatar mandated such time. Touches of Aliens and Dances with Wolves are scattered throughout, but for a true allegory, I believe Avatar is Star Wars for the new generation. The superb mix of fantasy, spiritual, philosophical, and political themes raises the story beyond any sci-fi concept seen in decades, and the additional message for humans to blend with their green environment is one to cherish. After 160 minutes, I did not want this visually stunning masterpiece to end, because I had seen my top movie of 2009.

(Disclaimer: Although Cameron had planned this mainly to be watched in 3-D, I chose to watch the 2-D screening, just because I wasn't sure I could tolerate more than 2 hours of 3-D without getting a headache. Maybe I'll try 3-D on the second round.)

Mo says:

Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009)

Director: Steve Carr. Cast: Kevin James, Keir O'Donnell. 91 min. Rated PG. Comedy.

Sometimes you're watching a movie, thinking: Which studio executive thought this screenplay was "good"? Who thought money should be invested on this? Watching Paul Blart, I literally had that feeling every five minutes. These are the movies that have a devastating effect on people's intelligence. These are the ones you feel embarrassed for even placing the disc in the DVD player. Stay away from this movie if you're concerned about your offspring's gene pool.

(PS: This movie was given to me as a gift. I hope whoever was kind enough to do so isn't reading this!)

Mo says:

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Cove (2009)

Director: Louie Psihoyos. Cast: Richard O'Barry, Joe Chisholm. 92 min. Rated PG-13. Documentary.

You may think of this as a mere wildlife documentary about dolphins, but that description doesn't even touch the surface. Working like a heist movie, The Cove is very successful at exposing the scandal behind what is happening in Japan to 23,000 dolphins every year (it's been awhile since I saw a movie with the Japanese as the bad guys). Disclosing that this documentary contains a literal illustration of "sea of blood" should make you curious enough to watch it - and after that, you will think twice about buying that discounted ticket to Sea World.

Mo says:

The Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008)

Director: Uli Edel. Cast: Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek, Bruno Ganz. 150 min. Rated R. Germany. Political.

For those (including myself) who don't know much about the RAF, the German terrorist organization of the 60s-70s, The Baader-Meinhof Complex works perfectly as a history class - but nothing beyond that. Although the film has an explosive opening 15 minutes, it doesn't sustain the same rhythm for the remaining 2 hours, and there's not much of the director's personal viewpoint about the RAF anywhere throughout. Maybe the only take-home message here, is that the concept of "resistance/revolution" (as opposed to "protest") is just a way to vent out some repressed internal rage; rather than a true altruistic cause.

Mo says:

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Play Misty for Me (1971)

Director: Clint Eatswood. Cast: Clint Eastwood, Jessica Walter, Donna Mills, Don Seigel. 102 min. Rated R. Suspense.

Clint's directorial debut appears to be a Hitchcockian effort (the detective's death scene is so Psycho), but his inexperience in keeping his grip on the viewer is a far cry from the master of suspense's works. I'm willing to forgive the movie's long dumb romantic scenes, because Play Misty was obviously the inspiration for great successes such as Fatal Attraction. Jessica Walter's screams become annoying after a while (you can even see that on the movie's poster), and even though I don't consider this "one of the most shocking psycho-thrillers ever", it may be worth a try.

(PS: Why did blood in the old days always look like tomato paste?)

Mo says:

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Bruno (2009)

Director: Larry Charles. Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Gustaf Hammarsten. 81 min. Rated R. Comedy.

Common point of Bruno and Borat: both were disgusting. Difference between the two: Borat was funny. Apparently Cohen didn't get why Borat was such an ingenious effort in comedy: he gave an exaggerated description of Americans' mental image of foreigners, then showed Americans weren't much better off themselves - and therein delivered a poignant message. Bruno offers such a bizarre and unrecognizable portrait of a homosexual, it makes the character look like a cretin. The final failed attempt to save the movie (pushing famous singers into the last scene) proves how distressed the filmmakers were. Don't waste your time.

Mo says:

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Lifeboat (1944)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Cast:Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, Walter Slezak. 97 min. War.

A 90-minute movie happening entirely on a lifeboat? Not even today anybody dares such a feat. Hitch reminds again of his style of making movies (a movie without editing, a movie without soundtrack, a movie filmed from a window, ...) that if ever repeated, people would say: "Hitchcock did that first!". By sticking a few survivors of a WWII ship with the Nazi captain who torpedoed their ship, on the same lifeboat, Hitchcock creates an environment that does not leave his hate for Nazis to imagination. Interesting how much more complicated the "enemy among us" has become in movies these days.

Mo says:

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

'Breaker' Morant (1980)

Director: Bruce Beresford. Cast: Edward Woodward, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown. 107 min. Rated PG. Australia. Drama.

So this is where the masterpiece called A Few Good Men came from! Although I found no evidence of Morant being the inspiration for the former, the plots are so similar (this one happening in 1901 South Africa), I believe the credit of such a magnificent courtroom drama should go to Morant (made 9 years before Good Men was written). Additionally, this is a deeper film; it dares to delve into the motives of the few soldiers who commit the crime (Good Men cops out by pleading: "We were just obeying orders."). This is an honest movie to be watched.

(Trivia: The film's main actor, Edward Woodward, died just two weeks ago.)

Mo says:

Raging Bull (1980)

Director: Martin Scorsese. Cast: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent. 129 min. Rated R. Sports.

Another re-visit. I had a better grasp of Jake La Motta's character analysis this time around, and realized the power of the movie's camerawork, as though during the boxing matches, De Niro was punching me instead of his opponent, to vent off his self-repressed sexual/physical rage. But I still couldn't understand why some critics say this was the best film of the 80s. I believe the Scorsese-De Niro partnership has offered us much better jewels in Taxi Driver, GoodFellas, and Cape Fear. Especially Cape Fear.

Mo says: