Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Upside Down (2012)

Director: Juan Solanas. Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Jim Sturgess, Timothy Spall. 100 min. Rated PG-13. Canada/France. Fantasy/Romance.

The inhabitants of two adjacent Earth-like planets are forbidden to closely interact, and Jim Sturgess and Kirsten Dunst do so against all gravitational pulls. Similar to The Fifth Element's cheesy message (that love is the fifth element), this fantasy asks whether love defies gravity (wild guess on whether it does). Might be a metaphor for love crossing inter-racial/inter-ethnicity/inter-species boundaries, but could have been more interesting if the enormous sci-fi philosophical possibilities provided here weren't limited to a post-Spiderman Kirsten Dunst achieving mastery in upside-down kissing. Gattaca-lovers may enjoy this - but even that's considered a stretch.

Mo says:

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Cannonball Run (1981)

Director: Hal Needham. Cast: Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Dom DeLuise, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Elam, Adrienne Barbeau, Terry Bradshaw, Jackie Chan, Peter Fonda. 95 min. Rated PG. Action/Comedy.

It's good to find old junk, especially watching it for the first time. A collection of 70s icons (Burt Reynolds chasing Farrah Fawcett with his dumb laugh, Roger Moore playing a Roger Moore wannabe, Peter Fonda a biker, and Adrienne Barbeau just being... Adrienne Barbeau) in a movie with almost no story whatsoever, is a pure reflection of how simple and fun films used to be. But then again, knowing that half these people are dead (just go through the list), makes you feel old. Must've been considered trash for its own time, but for me, it was time travel.

Mo says:

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Painted Veil (2006)

Director: John Curran. Cast: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Toby Jones, Liev Schreiber. 125min. Rated PG-13. China/USA/Canada. Drama/Romance.

Good British doctor takes her unfaithful bride to cholera-stricken 1920s China, with disastrous results. The story is based on a Somerset Maugham novel, so criticizing the plot is probably considered blasphemy: (Spoiler Alert!) The bride become pregnant from her adulterous affair, but when the doctor discovers this at the end, he dies from cholera. In other words, the story cheats its way out of the difficult third act it created. Great acting by Watts, and the cinematography is mesmerizing, but the two-hour long wait doesn't lead to a satisfying payoff.

PS: This is actually a remake of a 1934 version, starring Greta Garbo.

Mo says:

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Boy (2010)

Director: Taika Waititi. Cast: James Rolleston, Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu, Taika Waititi. 87 min. Not Rated. New Zealand. Comedy/Drama.

The story of how a Michael Jackson-loving New Zealander boy idolizes his dad, regardless of the fact that his dad is the greatest loser ever known, and how that image is shattered, when he realizes his dad is the greatest loser ever known. This bittersweet indie film exudes of the innocence of childhood; an amusing coming-of-age story of how children learn the stark realities of life, too young and too soon. I understood only half of the strongly-accented English, and the DVD was (intentionally, I guess) devoid of subtitles, but the visuals were powerful enough to get the message across.

PS #1: Look at the list of the movie's awards. Need more convincing?

PS #2: Hard to believe: even indie movies now have post-credits sequences. Don't miss this one.

Mo says:

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

Director: Sam Raimi. Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zachary Braff. 130 min. Rated PG.

A Wizard of Oz prequel. It's prohibitive to compare a stage play to cinema, but if I hadn't already seen the far more sophisticated and socio-politically amusing Oz prequel story, the Broadway show Wicked, I might have enjoyed this more. Still, in lieu of the creative use of the 1939 movie story elements (the yellow brick road, the deadly poppy field, the Wizard's looming fog-like projection), the CGI effects here are too cartoonish and distracting. And how many times do I have to say I don't like James Franco? Nobody seems to listen.

Trivia: Bruce Campbell has played a role in almost every Sam Raimi feature film. Here, he's an Emerald City gatekeeper.

Mo says:

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Conjuring (2013)

Director: James Wan. Cast: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingston, Lily Taylor. 112 min. Rated R. Horror.

Based on a true story, a "ghost-hunter" couple in 1971 are summoned to eradicate demons from a haunted house in Rhode Island. Directed by Saw creator James Wan, this is a very clever horror movie. Haunted house cliches infiltrate every corner, but there's also an abundance of well-crafted scary false alarms, each without a decent payoff, making the viewer constantly vigilant of even the most irrelevant visual element in each scene. Farmiga is perfect in her role as the clairvoyant medium, Wilson repeats his team-up with the director from Insidious, and the movie's last line couldn't have been more pleasurable:

"There's a call for another case in Long Island."

Mo says:

Thursday, July 18, 2013

World War Z (2013)

Director: Marc Forster. Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, David Morse. 115 min. Rated PG-13. USA/Malta. Action/Horror.

The world is plagued by an epidemic of "fast" zombies, and while people die by the thousands ... everybody makes sure Brad Pitt stays alive. Don't get me wrong: this is two hours of heart-pounding suspense. But that's all it is - two hours of heart-pounding suspense. As opposed to many zombie movies, there's almost no take home message here. Danny Boyle did a much better job with the exact same material in 28 Days Later, which conveyed some dark concepts about human nature. But no, Brad Pitt is too valuable to lose.

PS #1: Here's the story of how the movie's entire ending was re-written and re-shot.

PS #2: Insane how many apocalyptic movies have been out this year so far (After Earth, Oblivion, This is the End, World War Z, Pacific Rim), and there's more to come (Elysium, Ender's GameThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire ...).

Mo says:

Pacific Rim (2013)

Director: Guillermo del Toro. Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Ron Perlman. 131 min. Rated PG-13. Action/Fantasy.

I've never understood del Toro's sense of fantasy. In Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth, he created worlds where events were so whimsical and unpredictable, it was very hard to worry for his characters or celebrate their victories. His fantasy is just too ... "fantastical". And now after Man of Steel, we have another Transformers-like spectacle of vast portions of human civilization being senselessly destroyed as a side-effect of building-size monsters and robots fighting and crashing into each other forever. I miss the days when a summer blockbuster consisted of a shark lurking in the waters, or an ape climbing a skyscraper.

PS: The movie opens with the line: "Hey kid ... don't get cocky." Guillermo del Toro is a Star Wars fan.

Mo says:

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Rolling Thunder (1977)

Driector: John Flynn. Cast: William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Haynes. 95 min. Rated R. Crime/Drama.

I've read Tarantino considers this one of the best revenge movies ever, and I can see how it inspired Kill Bill. A Vietnam veteran returns after seven years of prison camp torture, and back home, some people do him and his family wrong. Very wrong. This is not a brainless killing spree movie. It takes its time to engage us with the characters, and show how war has destroyed the souls of its two avengers (William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones in silent, creepy roles). No wonder the climactic bloodbath is reminiscent of Taxi Driver; Paul Schrader wrote both screenplays.

PS #1: Although this has been recently published on Bluray, a high-definition version is streaming on Netflix. Does the job fine.

PS #2: The main character's name is Major Charles Rane. Brad Pitt's character in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is Lt. Aldo Raine. Hmmmmm.

PS #3: Interesting IMDb trivia:

- "Quentin Tarantino named his distributing company, Rolling Thunder Pictures, after this film. Rolling Thunder Pictures released B-movies, cult classics, independent films, exploitation movies, and foreign films. The company went under due to poor sales."

- "In the book "Schrader On Schrader", Paul Schrader who co-wrote the movie complains how the studio completely twisted his original version of the story. He wrote it as a critique of US involvement in Vietnam War and fascistic and racist attitudes in America. Rane was originally written as white trash racist with many similarities to Schrader's more famous character Travis Bickle (the main character of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver). In this version, Rane becomes a war hero without ever having fired a gun, and comes home to confront the Texas Mexican community. Rane's racist upbringing and hatred that grew in him in Vietnam slowly come out. This version ends with Rane's indiscriminate slaughter of Mexicans which was meant as a metaphor for Vietnam. Schrader concludes with a claim that he basically wrote a film about fascism, and the studio made a fascist film."

Mo says:

Monday, July 15, 2013

Quartet (2012)

Director: Dustin Hoffman. Cast: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon. 98 min. Rated PG-13. UK. Comedy/Drama.

At a charming "nursing home for retired musicians" in England, residents struggle with the dilemmas of old age, old heartbreaks, and long lost fame. Although Hoffman's directorial debut choice of story and setting is both surprising and amusing, the signs of an inexperienced filmmaker are there: the characters are fuzzy, their motivations and interactions are hard to believe, and the screenplay settles for a cliche ending. Beautiful acting throughout, but the actors are probably doing a great job on their own. Hoffman could've benefited from the advice of the great directors he's worked with, to make this a better movie.

Mo says:

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Mary and Max (2009)

Director: Adam Elliot. Cast (voices): Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eric Bana. 92 min. Not Rated. Australia. Animation.

A claymation animation that vividly portrays what many of us must have experienced: a little girl in Australia randomly pen-friends of an old man in Manhattan, and these farthest ends of the friendship spectrum correspond back and forth throughout life. A very palpable concept, since through letters and emails, sometimes you get to know a person living in a far-away land better than a first-degree relative. The humorous moments are never-ending, and the rare dark moments are lingering and profound (eat your heart out, Tim Burton). And it all points to a great quote at the end of the film:

"God gave us relatives. Thank God we can choose our friends."
                                                                                           - Ethel Mumford

Mo says:

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Klute (1971)

Director: Alan J. Pakula. Cast: Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Charles Cioffi, Roy Scheider. 114 min. Rated R. Mystery/Thriller.

New York City, that glorious haven of film-makers throughout the years. Add to that the setting of a 70s NYC, and it's hard not to enjoy the film, no matter what the story. Watching the odd couple of Sutherland as a private cop and Fonda as a call-girl in their younger days sleuthing the disappearance of Sutherland's friend, was worth the time; even though Fonda's therapy sessions in the movie go far too long. Makes one wish Alan Pakula (The Pelican Brief, Presumed Innocent, All the President's Men, The Parallax ViewSophie's Choice, ...) had lived longer and made more movies.

Mo says:

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Lore (2012)

Director: Cate Shortland. Cast: Saskia Rosendahl, Nele Trebs, Ursina Lardi. 109 min. Not Rated. Germany/Australia/UK. Drama/War.

Amazing how WWII has provided an endless wealth of story-lines for movies, and yet ... here comes an entirely new viewpoint: Hitler has fallen, and a teenage girl and her younger siblings, children of Nazi parents, wander across war-torn Germany, looking for refuge. The movie does not fall into the trap of portraying them as innocent bystanders, but does help us look at the world through their eyes - and realize how abusive it is to structure your entire family's life on an ideology (any ideology). Youngsters' brains are molested, just because their parents absolutely knew what was right.

Mo says:

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Monsters University (2013)

Director: Dan Scanlon. Cast (voices): Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Alfred Molina, Nathan Fillion. 104 min. Rated G. Animation.

After going down the sequel-making path, now Pixar is venturing into prequels. Monsters, Inc. was a delightful piece of art done by some imaginative animation wizards, which apparently set the bar too high for its prequel, Monsters University. The film's lackluster story is mostly inspired by The Hunger Games (no, not that violent), and I'm not sure it sends out a foolproof message to kids (anybody can become anything, as long as they try). Not a bad movie - just that Pixar has almost always spoiled us with greatness, and this is a let down.

PS: As usual for Pixar, a short animation was screened before the main feature, The Blue Umbrella. This 7-minute cartoon is better than the entire movie that comes after, and will likely win the Oscar for Best Animated Short next year.

Mo says:

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena) (1973)

Director: Víctor Erice. Cast: Ana Torrent, Isabel Tellería, Fernando Fernán Gómez, Teresa Gimpera. 95 min. Unrated. Spain. Drama/Fantasy.

An innocent little girl in a 1940s Spanish village is traumatized by watching James Whale's Frankenstein in their small local theater, and uses her imagination and her few-year-older sister's ambiguous explanations to alleviate the horror. This has been called a metaphor for Franco's dictatorship, and some believe it to be Spain's greatest movie ever. I don't know about that. But strangely, the simple beautiful cinematography almost perfectly brought my own childhood expeditions with my few-year-older brother in Iran back to life. Considering the distance between the two countries, that should give an idea how strong the visuals are.

Mo says:

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Katy Perry: Part of Me (2012)

Director(s): Dan Cutforth, Jane Lipsitz. 93 min. Rated PG. Documentary/Musical.

Girlie stuff? That's why I was hesitant to watch this. But similar to this movie (and definitely unlike this one), Part of Me peels away the outer layers of a celebrity, and offers an introspective on what kind of person Katy Perry is. Between songs of her year-long 2011 concert tour, it shows her strict Catholic upbringings, her engagement/breakup with Russell Brand, and how she keeps smiling under crushing stress - just to make sure her fans are smiling. By the end, I got a feeling who this person was. Or at least I thought I got a feeling.

PS: Streaming on Netflix ...

Mo says:

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

No (2012)

Director: Pablo Larraín. Cast: Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Luis Gnecco. 118 min. Rated R. Chile/USA/France/Mexico. Drama/History.

A dictator holds a referendum. Do you participate and risk validating the system with your "No" vote, or not participate and risk your voice never being heard again? This happened in the 1980s Chile during Pinochet's ruthless dictatorship, when international pressure forced him to hold a referendum, and this movie tells the story. I won't tell the end result (you can look it up on Wikipedia), but found the ending anti-climactic and formulaic, and not as strong as it opens. The final scene of the hero skateboarding alone in the streets, skeptical of what just happened, is a lasting image.

PS: No was nominated this year for a Best Foreign-Language Oscar.

Mo says:

Monday, July 1, 2013

This Is the End (2013)

Director(s): Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen. Cast: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride,Craig Robinson, Michael Cera, Emma Watson, Mindy Kaling, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Rihanna, Paul Rudd, Channing Tatum. 107 min. Rated R. Comedy/Fantasy.

There's a generation of new comedians (mostly the Judd Apatow school of comedy), who don't show much acting flexibility in any of the roles they play. This movie is a collection of them, and it's at least honest enough to acknowledge this by having them perform under their own name, and a bystander yell at Seth Rogen why he always plays the same role in every movie. The apocalypse story-line is quite memorable as a comedy, and the film is full of whole-hearted laughs, but I'm generally suspicious of comedies that use vulgarity (to this magnitude) to create those laughs.

PS: I would've loved for James Franco to confess to his mess as an Oscars host a few years ago, as one of his greatest sins in life. He never does.

Mo says: