Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977)

Director: Don Taylor. Cast: Burt Lancaster, Michael York, Nigel Davenport, Barbara Carrera, Richard Basehart. 99 min. Rated PG. Sci-fi.

First saw this in elementary school (Farsi-dubbed and edited according to religious guidelines, by the way), and was amazed at the story's bizarre creativity. Watching it again after 30 years, I was expecting disappointment. To my surprise, I enjoyed both the story's creativity and its stupidity. Such a classy-looking cheesy sci-fi could only happen in the pre-Star Wars 70s. Like all great artists, Lancaster gives credence to some of the most implausible moments, and Carrera (later a Bond girl in Never Say Never Again) was probably significantly edited out last time, because I couldn't remember many of her scenes.

PS: Haven't seen the 1996 remake (with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer) yet, but heard it's horrible.

Mo says:

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Damned United (2009)

Director: Tom Hooper. Cast: Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, Jim Broadbent. 98 min. Rated R. UK/USA. Sports.

I'm probably at fault for not ever having heard the name Brian Clough, the most famous English soccer manager ever. The Damned United, even though a sports movie, performs an incredible task: it doesn't fall prey to any sports movie cliche. Not even one - to the point that only a total few minutes of the movie occurs in the soccer field. Instead, it becomes Clough's sincere character study. Sheen (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) again proves his unique character actor skills. If you know who Brian Clough was, you must see this movie. If you don't, it's about time you did.

PS: Has anybody ever noticed what a valuable supporting presence Timothy Spall (the Harry Potter movies, Sweeney Todd, The Last Samurai, Vanilla Sky, Intimacy, Secrets & Lies, ...) is?

Mo says:

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Invention of Lying (2009)

Director(s): Ricky Gervais, Matthew Robinson. Cast: Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Jonah Hill, Louis C.K, Jeffrey Tambor, Rob Lowe, Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, Christopher Guest, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton. 99 min. Rated PG-13. Comedy.

I love Ricky Gervais' intelligent comedy, and this time, even though his movie doesn't offer anything artistically incredible, his satirical theory on how religions started thousands of years ago is quite amusing. His comedic skills are in full force during a 10-minute sequence midway through the movie, where he confabulates for a crowd how "The Man in the Sky" works; and cameo appearances by a multitude of stars makes The Invention of Lying even more enjoyable. You'll find yourself taking strong positions for or against the message Gervais is trying to make here. Reminds of Monty Python's Life of Brian.

Mo says:

A Serious Man (2009)

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen. Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Amy Landecker. 106 min. Rated R. Comedy.

I divide Coen Brothers' movies into two groups: their dark dramas (Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men), and their dark satires (The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink). A Serious Man is one of the latter, but the comedy this time is so dark, it borders on the former. The chronicles of a very unlucky but serious man, sprinkled with a flurry of confusing Hebrew expressions (of which not even the story characters understand), makes the deadpan humor so bleak, I had a hard time perceiving the usual Coens' charm. They've done much better than this before.

Mo says:

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Song of Sparrows (آواز گنجشكها) (2008)

Director: Majid Majidi. Cast: Reza Najie, Hossein Aghazi, Maryam Akbari, Kamran Dehghan. 96 min. Rated PG. Iran. Drama.

Directed by the master of heartbreaking honesty, Majid Majidi (Color of God, The Children of Heaven). He does it once again, with a naive struggling (but often amusing) father at the heart of the story, giving a very clear picture of the insurmountable challenge to stay honest in a seductive world. The colorful cinematography (hundreds of goldfish spilling on the pavement is a scene to cherish) and the intelligent metaphors (how the new generation needs to clean up all the mud the old generation have left in their waterways), makes you wonder: Did Majidi predict the Green Movement was coming?

(PS: This was the film whose leading actor, Reza Najie, won the Silver Bear for Best Acting at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival, right out of Daniel Day Lewis' grasp for There Will Be Blood.)

Mo says:

Caravans (1978)

Director: James Fargo. Cast: Anthony Quinn, Michael Sarrazin, Behrouz Vosoughi Christopher Lee, Jennifer O'Neill, Mohammad Ali Keshavarz, Joseph Cotton. 127 min. Rated PG. USA/Iran. Action/Adventure.

Initially I thought it would be interesting to watch some American and Iranian superstars in a joint collaboration, made during the last year of the Shah's reign; just to get an idea where the two countries were striving towards - at least artistically. The result was a disgrace. This movie portrays Iran as the lowest imaginable form of human civilization, making prehistoric caveman feel guilty. Iran' revolution happened the next year; maybe this was the reason. The film's only strong point is its epic soundtrack, but even that's not worth watching 2 hours of exploitation.

Mo says:

Monday, February 15, 2010

Crazy Heart (2009)

Director: Scott Cooper. Cast: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall. Colin Farrell. 112 min. Rated R. Musical.

After watching so many of his movies, I never realized what Bridges basically looked like: an alcoholic. More than a third of Crazy Heart is in close-up, and the miserable self-reflection Bridges provides as a country singer with a royally screwed-up life, hit notes far deeper than what Ray or Walk the Line were able to achieve, making this an exercise in honest storytelling. Notably, the power of the movie is not only in Bridges' performance, but also in his chemistry with the supporting actors, Gyllenhaal, Farrell, and Duvall. (This was the first time I discovered Gyllenhaal's star quality.)

Mo says:

Moon (2009)

Director: Duncan Jones. Cast: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey (voice). 97 min. Rated R. Sci-fi.

Obvious opening homages to Kubrick's 2001 (duplicated interior designs, Kevin Spacey's GERTY as another rendering of HAL-9000) make the viewer wait for the moment the central computer revolts. But no; this intelligent sci-fi has so many plot surprises that disclosing any one of them would be cruel to whoever hasn't seen it. Just take my word for it: you'll feel sorry for a certain life form you never thought worth considering.

Mo says:

The Blind Side (2009)

Director: John Lee Hancock. Cast: Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Quinton Aaron. 128 min. Rated PG-13. Drama/Sports.

Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar? Hmmm. Of course, it's high quality Hollywood at its best; one of those feel good movies that almost never props a question, never takes a risk, and plays it safe for the mainstream viewer, with several "Awwwwwwww" moments in between. Look at it as a light version of Precious, with the usual (rather offensive) "white saving the black" message at the end. Bullock is obviously in control here, but if she wins an Oscar, it's more due to a lack of competition, rather than offering any memorable movie moments.

Mo says:

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Director: Frank Capra. Cast: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains. 129 min. Rated G. Drama.

When all-American Frank Capra and all-American Jimmy Stewart get together, their ultra-classics make you shed a tear for the joy of pure honesty. Made in the golden Hollywood year of 1939, the concept of corrupt politicians and the fight of the lone hero against the cruel system, is as fresh as could ever be - not only for the American audience, but also for countries who brink on totalitarianism. At times, I had difficulty deciding whether I found James Stewart's character more interesting, or Jean Arthur's. If you haven't seen this classic yet, you're doing yourself a great disservice.

Mo says:

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jô) (1957)

Director: Akira Kurosawa. Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Takashi Shimura. 110 min. Unrated. Japan. Drama.

Any version of the Macbeth tale is innately a delight (similar to the effect Les Miserables always has), and Kurosawa's take on it is even more worthy of consideration. His "Japanized" view of the story, especially at specific moments (the spirit who offers the prophecy, the ghost showing up at the banquet) makes this version most memorable, and even to some point eerie. Don't let the movie's 50 year age trick you into brushing it aside.

Mo says:

Sunday, February 7, 2010

As It Is in Heaven (Så som i himmelen) (2004)

Director: Kay Pollak. Cast: Michael Nyqvist, Frida Hallgren, Helen Sjöholm. 132 min. Sweden. Drama.

This foreign-language Oscar nominee may initially remind of Mr. Holland's Opus, but eventually offers the metaphors of Chocolat (there it was chocolate, here it's music). Music proves its power by releasing inhibitions, facilitating the characters to suddenly realize how they've been imprisoned (and even tortured) on a daily basis, without even knowing it. Works like freedom of speech. Always lovely to watch people break free of their confines.

Mo says:

Zombieland (2009)

Director: Ruben Fleischer. Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin. 88 min. Rated R. Action/Comedy.

The same old zombie concept, started from 1978's brilliant Dawn of the Dead, about how our current daily life is no different from a one infested with zombies, is repeated here; but with a comedic touch, as seen in 2004's Shaun of the Dead or 2006's Fido. The "rules" listed by the movie's protagonist are not necessarily ones to be observed in a zombieland, but in any "normal" human lifestyle, and the heroes are just remembering how to become normal by practicing these rules. Regardless of all the gore and violence, this is actually a family movie!

Mo says:

The Hangover (2009)

Director: Todd Phillips. Cast: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Heather Graham, Jeffrey Tambor, Ken Jeong. 100 min. Rated R. Comedy.

Winner of the Golden Globe for Best Comedy, two major elements elevate The Hangover a level higher than a regular comedy. First, we are not shown what went wild the night the four men spent in Vegas (although I guess the whole plot is based on that, working like a whodunit); and second, I have never been so absorbed in watching the end credits. Never. But the aftermaths of the night are so beyond imagination (we're never told where the hotel room chicken came from, or how the mattress ended up on the rooftop statue), plausibility is a problem here.

PS: Ken Jeong ("Mr. Chow") is becoming a major comedian. Watch out for him.

Mo says:

Ran (1985)

Director: Akira Kurosawa. Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryû, Mieko Harada. 162 min. Rated R. France/Japan. War.

A brilliant celebration of exaggeration. The character gestures, their reactions, and the set colors are so exaggerated and attractive, Ran is far beyond a mere remake of Shakespeare's King Lear. This eye candy study of father-son relationship is so visually beautiful, you will never notice how the 2 hours and 40 minutes went by. Kurosawa was truly the "Emperor".

Mo says:

Monday, February 1, 2010

My Top 10 Movies of 2009

It's the night before the Oscar nominations, and here they are - my top 10 movies of 2009, in alphabetical order:

1. Avatar
2. District 9
3. Drag Me to Hell
4. The Hurt Locker
5. Inglourious Basterds
6. Knowing
7. Paranormal Activity
8. Star Trek
9. Up In The Air
10. The White Ribbon

2009 was a great year for sci-fi/fantasy, with Avatar, District 9, Drag Me to Hell, Knowing, and Star Trek taking half of my top 10 slots. To make it a true sci-fi year, my favorite film of 2009 would definitely be Avatar - a fantasy of grand proportions you only see once in a generation.

The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band) (2009)

Director: Michael Haneke. Cast: Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Burghart Klaußner. 144 min. Rated R. Austria/Germany/France/Italy. Drama.

I'm forming a love-hate relationship with Michael Haneke. I loved his Cache, hated his Funny Games, but The White Ribbon left me dumbfounded. The overlong black-and-white story of a small pre-WW I German village, actually gives a very clear picture of how WW II came to be. Unlike movies offering a cozy nostalgic feeling of some long lost good old days, this ultra-dark picture of a certain generation is extremely difficult to relate to - and nevertheless leaves you disturbed. Only for die-hard movie fans; but if you're one of them, at the end, you'll wake up in a daze.

Mo says:

Update: I have a habit of always reading reviews after I've seen a movie (and after writing my review!). I just read Roger Ebert's incredible interpretation of the movie, which although slightly undermines my above-mentioned Nazism theory of the movie, is ingeniously put:

"... It's too simple to say the film is about the origins of Nazism. If that were so, we would all be Nazis. It is possible to say that when the prevention of evil becomes more important than the preservation of freedom, authoritarianism grows. If we are to prevent evil, someone must be in charge. The job naturally goes to those concerned with enforcing order. Therefore, all disorder is evil and must be prevented, and that's how the interests of the state become more important than the interests of the people.

"I wonder if Haneke's point is that we grow so disturbed by danger that we will surrender freedom -- even demand to. Do we feel more secure in an orderly state? Many do. Then a tipping point arrives, and the Berlin Wall falls, or we see the Green Revolution in Iran. The problem, as philosophers have noted, is that revolutionaries grow obsessed with enforcing their revolution, and the whole process begins again."

Surrogates (2009)

Director: Jonathan Mostow. Cast: Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, James Cromwell, Ving Rhames. 89 min. Rated PG-13. Sci-fi.

A mix of The Matrix, BladeRunner, I, Robot, WALL-E, The Sixth Day, and every other robot/android/virtual world movie you've ever seen. Predictable at times, but still kept me going, just because the premise is always interesting.

Mo says: