Posts Tagged ‘film review’

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Micmacs à tire-larigot (2010)

April 4, 2010

Micmacs review

micmacs screenshot

Matt:

Length: 105min

Micmacs isn’t a bad film. Lots of people will like it. The kind of people who like sweet fantasies and serendipitous romances. The kind of people who are happy to suspend disbelief in order to believe that the universe is good, and ordered, and that it watches over us. The kind of people who like Amélie.

I’m a bit more cynical. And I also can’t help thinking “but that’s impossible”, or “but that’s illogical” over and over, even though I know I’m spoiling the fun.

There are plenty of occasions to have those thoughts in Micmacs. It’s set in a universe that has a dash of magic and fantasy to it. It’s a little like an adult’s film in a  children’s universe.

Not surprising, seeing as it’s directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the same writer/director of Amélie, and half of the duo that created Delicatessen and City of Lost Children. Micmacs has the same beautiful appearance as those films, with lovely colours and plenty of creative scenes. There’s also the same fascination for the roles that the tiny and invisible play in chains of miraculous causation (in these films, tiny things are always causing big results).

But the story itself is a little – what’s the word… cartoony. It’s a fairly simple premise – Bazil (the clownish Dany Boon) has a bullet in his head. It can all be traced back to the amoral work of two wealthy weapons companies. He  wants revenge. Bazil hooks up with a group of misfits who live out of a scrapyard. They each have quirky, semi-autistic powers. Like Calculette (Marie-Julie Baup), the human calculator, who can calculate and distance, weight etc just by looking at something. Bazil, with misfits in tow, goes through a bunch of hairbrained hi-jinx to get back at the CEOs of the weapons companies.

There’s not too much to it apart from that. A lot of the screen time is taken up with fun and capers – for example, showing us the contraptions that the misfits make out of junk at their junkyard (which are quite clever and magical). That time is taken away from the characters and the relationships. That’s a trade off that has its pros and cons. I wanted to see the characters developed a bit more. It’s a feeling I often have in films where a team of quirky characters is presented and they each do their little bit, using their special talent.

Micmacs is also a film that seems to have lost something from being exported from France. There are obviously a few French language jokes that are lost in translation. It’s especially obvious because the special quirk of one of the misfits – the ethnographer – is his unusual and garrulous talking style. It seems like it was hard to translate what he’s saying without losing some of the point.

In the end, it’s fun, it’s pleasant, it’s kind of quirky. It’s nice. It looks good. But it has a bit too much sugary fantasy. If Jeunet had piped in some of the darker themes that were present in Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, it would have worked a lot better.

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CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (2007) (aka Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia)

November 25, 2007

Curse of the Golden Flower review
Curse of the Golden Flower

Matt: Two stars
Tracy: Two stars

Length: 114min

Taglines:

Unspeakable secrets are hidden within the Forbidden City.
Father knows best.
One King. One Queen. His Power. Her Rebellion.
A Queen’s revenge will threaten an empire.

Précis: An ornate, breast-bouncing tragedy that cinema goers will find tiresome and the CCP will applaud.

Review by Matt:

Hey, thanks Curse of the Golden Flower. Thanks for ending my run of good films. I was starting to miss the pain. Now at last I’ve grazed myself on a bad movie again. Mmm, it stings so good.

Golden Flower is the latest film from Chinese director Zhang Yimou, who has become very popular internationally since directing Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Those films were lavish and exciting but, I have to say, philosophically they both rubbed me wrong. Hero especially seemed to embody a philosophy that people must always follow the law and those who don’t must necessarily be punished (hello to the Chinese Communist Party). Golden Flower preaches the same bleak message. For anyone thinking of fighting oppression and rebelling against tyrants – don’t. That grates me. (although, if I was living under the CCP I probably wouldn’t want to make a movie that goes soft on rebellion either).

Golden Flower tells the story of the troubled family of the Emperor and Empress of the 10th century Chinese Tang dynasty. On the outside they’re all gold and cleavage. But something is rotten inside. Plots are afoot. The Emperor is poisoning the Empress. The Empress is having an affair. So is the Prince. So is the Emperor. Some of their affairs are with each other. It’s a big-screen Chinese soap opera (Dynasty, I suppose). There’s intrigue everywhere. It all boils together in a big confused soup for an hour until, in the last act, it washes away in one colossal, swarming battle scene.

It’s all extremely melodramatic and tragic. Not good tragic though. Although it echoes a bit of Shakespeare, it’s way too hollow and ostentatious to earn the label “Shakespearian”. Just as an example, compare these lines:

Shakespeare’s Othello (as Iago unveils his evil plan for vengeance): So will I turn her virtue into pitch / And out of her own goodness make the net / That shall enmesh them all.

Curse of the Golden Flower (as the Prince unveils his evil plan for vengeance): I’m not a fool! Give the throne to me now! I want it all! I know you never cared! You never liked me! No one wanted me! You can rot in hell!

The poorly told story and strange pacing (not to mention insipid dialogue) means the tragedy never even moves us – let alone sings – as it does in Shakespeare. Zhang seems to only have a vague idea about constructing and pacing a plot and he seems only able to sketch his characters. The actors (which include Chow-Yun Fat and Gong Li) try to fill them out with over-the-top emoting which, unfortunately, often just looks comical. And, perhaps most tragically of all for this film, it even lacks the fantastic martial arts that redeemed Hero and House of Flying Daggers. That would have given the film a spine and we could at least have walked out saying “but wasn’t the kung-fu amazing?”

Kudos to Zhang for putting such a massive effort into the ornate spectacle that is this film. Golden Flower is so decorated with gold and colour that you’ll be wondering how the $45 million budget – the most ever spent on a Chinese film – was enough (though don’t forget how cheap Chinese trinkets are). But there’s only so far you can get with gold and breasts. One place you can get to is the record books for most gold-drenched and cleavage-ridden set. Another place is somewhere like, say, the director’s chair for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Zhang was recently awarded this post. I’m sure the ceremony will be a glorious, CCP-pleasing extravaganza. The CCP probably loved Curse of the Golden Flower as well. Not me though. It’s a dissatisfying, laborious melodrama disguised in a tinselly wrapping.

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SICKO (2007)

November 25, 2007

Sicko review
Sicko

Matt: Four Stars
Tracy:Four Stars

Length: 124min

Taglines:

This might hurt a little.
Get well soon.
What seems to be the problem?
For many Americans, laughter isn’t the best medicine – it’s the only medicine.

Review by Matt:

Hey USA! Start running a fair and humane health care system, you utter sicko! That’s the message Michael Moore is hollering in his new critical documentary Sicko. Moore’s back in his favourite role as the good hearted iconoclast-of-the-conservative. He leads a support cast of everyday mistreated citizens against the irrepressible villain: the corrupt, capitalist USA. This time Moore has America’s ill and undernourished health system in his sights.

This might sound a bit like a good versus evil fantasy tale. In some ways it is. Michael Moore’s productions always have an element of constructed-ness about them. This has been the case ever since the set pieces he ran in his old television shows such as The Awful Truth and TV Nation (Moore has spoken about ‘racing health care systems’ in mock time-trials in TV Nation and being forced by the network to ‘doctor’ the results so that the USA didn’t show so poorly).

The same sense of constructed-ness is here in Sicko. While I actually enjoy it, I can see how it leads critics to question the veracity of Moore’s films. For example, as Moore pretends to set off to Guantanamo Bay with a boatload of needy patients (to access the Cuban health care system), you wonder how these scenes were really put together. Or as Moore reveals that he anonymously (until the film’s release that is) donated money to help the health of the leading anti-Moore campaigner, you have some trouble believing Moore is genuinely that Buddhist. The film’s style provides a lot of ammunition to vehement Moore haters who can denounce it for not being three-dimensionally analytical about the intricacies of health care systems. It even supplies enough ammo, apparently, to fuel a recent feature length documentary dedicated to Moore-bashing called Manufacturing Dissent. (incidentally, the title parodies a brilliant and essential book by Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent).

For me, Moore’s style is fine. You have to take it for what it is. He’s a showman and he’s trying to be funny, entertaining and satirical about important issues. It’s just that his slapstick is merged into a documentary that also carries heavy criticisms and a deep message. But it’s easy to distinguish the tone in the film, and once you’ve got it, I think the messages that he communicates are sound.

They are big picture messages. Sicko is telling us that the health care system in the USA is sick. It has become this way because of something fundamentally perverted at the core of American society. Moore is pitching a message about compassion and humanity and urging us to think how things can improve. Personally I embrace these messages and I’m grateful that Moore is spreading them to a wide audience in an entertaining and palatable way. In any case, the film stands as a defiant counter-message to the brainwashing conservative propaganda that we’re pumped with for most of our lives – Moore shows some of this in his film too (the rhetoric of politicians and the AMA, advertisements etc). Sicko’s style is partly a reaction to dominant orthodoxies, and its strategy is understandable. Like Marx said, the habit, tradition and accumulated mis-education of generations ‘weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’. And, as Howard Zinn says, you can’t be neutral on a moving train. You have to confront those corrupt messages.

Overall, although the veneer of entertainment slightly smears the fundamental messages in Sicko, its humour and staging is mostly funny and enjoyable. It softens a tough topic. The film still outs the corporate, capitalist sicko that is poisoning us like some greedy virus. I’m glad Michael Moore is fighting that cause, and Sicko is another of his good films. We should watch it, think about it, talk about it, and take action.

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RATATOUILLE (2007)

November 14, 2007

Ratatouille review
Ratatouille

Matt: Four Stars
Tracy:Three and a half Stars

Length: 110min

Taglines:

Dinner is served… Summer 2007.
A comedy with great taste.
He’s dying to become a chef.
Everyone can cook!

Review by Matt:

The Pixar studio has a great record of producing delightful animated family films such as Finding Nemo, Toy Story and The Incredibles. The latter won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2005 (which is no surprise – it was a truly gratifying romp) and its writer Brad Bird also wrote and directed Ratatouille. So expectations were pretty high for this film and, although Ratatouille isn’t my favourite Pixar creation, it certainly doesn’t disappoint.

In Ratatouille, Remy is a rat with a special talent. Unlike his garbage-hungry family, Remy is a gourmand and a genius chef. He has been spying through windows at cooking shows and he’s learned to cook like a pro. When Remy and his family are chased from their idyllic country lodgings, Remy is miraculously washed up at the restaurant belonging to his lifelong idol, the late chef Gusteau. Before long Remy is embroiled in the action of the kitchen, secretly creating delights to impress the customers by hiding under the hat of the bumbling and talentless Linguini and manipulating him like a marionette. With Linguini’s body and Remy’s talents the pair are a winning team, and soon they’re adventuring to keep Linguini in employment, win the heart of the restaurant’s female chef, and impress the trenchant Anton Ego, a humorless and death-like food critic (voiced by Peter O’Toole).

Ratatouille is exquisitely made. The quality of feature animations these days has reached dizzying heights, and the Pixar studio is well in the lead (I don’t even want to think about Dreamworks’ recent effort, Shrek 3). Ratatouille is like the modern version of a perfect classical Hollywood-era film, constructed by a studio at the top of its game. The production is lavish and frankly incredible. The plot is the classic three act script – balance, calamity, restorative denouement – and it’s one that is sure to satisfy a wide range of viewers of all ages; although younger kids could possibly struggle with the near two-hour length.

Much of the film’s appeal rests in its captivating atmosphere. As a background, Paris is a living, breathing character, and the scenes where Remy programs Linguini to respond to his commands like a Pavolvian dog are goofily enchanting. There are also scenes of breath-taking animated action which, in my opinion, even top the thrills and possibilities of live action cinema. Nothing can control our gaze with the same flexibility as realistic animation. To top it off, the film is sweet. I found its key message – don’t discount anyone – rather uplifting. Rats have never looked better than in Ratatouille – both in appearance and personality. Even if you’re rat-a-phobic, there’s a good chance you can warm to little Remy.

I was thinking that I must be in a good mood recently. My usual cinema-cynicism seems to have dissolved, and I just had a lovely warm feeling while watching Ratatouille. That’s despite the fact that it is essentially a kids’ film with all the concepts, characters and colour that you find in scores of kids’ films. But it wasn’t just that I was in an accidentally sanguine mood. Ratatouille put me there because it is a smartly written, brilliantly animated, and charming film.

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SNAKES ON A PLANE (2006)

July 7, 2007

Snakes on a Plane review

Snakes

Matt: One and a half stars
Tracy:One and a half stars

Film length: 105min

Taglines:

Sit back. Relax. Enjoy the fright.
At 30,000 feet, snakes aren’t the deadliest thing on this plane.
Airline food ain’t what you gotta worry about.

Review by Matt:

Really, this is a poor movie. There’s pretty much nothing to enjoy here. I would have much preferred to see “Snakes on a Train” where, after 20 minutes, the passengers realise there are snakes aboard so they stop the train and all jump out. And we go home and watch something else. [edit – have just realised that “Snakes on a Train” is actually a real movie. In fact, by the looks of it, I probably would not prefer to see it instead of Snakes on a Plane.]

Good news is I can describe the plot in a sentence without leaving anything out: A man witnesses a crime committed by a notorious gangster and while he’s on a plane to Los Angeles to testify, the gangster opens a can of worms by unleashing a crate of snakes. Beyond that there is literally nothing except people being chomped by snakes. I can’t even recommend this to action-movie fans – the extent to which the audience needs to suspend disbelief will surely be too much for them as well. There are too many key moments that lack verisimilitude. You always want to jump up and say “But how could that happen?!” Check out the awesome landing of the plane at the end for example. Actually, don’t – it’ll just make you scoff.

Snakes is a fine study in one-dimensional characters. And that’s just the leads. Most others are just meaty sacks of snake food. It makes it impossible for the film to evoke any pathos for its endangered characters – and the silly thing is that the film obviously wants us to connect with them at times. You can’t care that the characters are in peril, or that they’re brutalised by snakes, except to the extent that you would care for any random person in that situation. To top it off, the computer-generated snakes look unrealistic, and are nothing but aggressive. Badly characterised snakes as well.

There’s also something a little distasteful to this film’s morality as it chooses who lives or dies in its fictional world. The handsome surfer will survive. The fat lady will die pathetically. The promiscuous woman will die by having snakes chomp her naked breasts – a sex object to the end. We know the short tempered man will die horribly as soon as we see him mistreat the pretty girl. There’s something sinister at work that we are supposed to unthinkingly identify with it. It’s like that hidden arbiter that pulls the strings in horror films, to punish the lustful and spare the chaste. It’s primitive and unpleasant.

If you’ve seen any publicity about this film you’ll know that Samuel L Jackson is at the centre of the reptile riot, playing the cop escorting the witness to the trial. I originally held a cynical view that this film was only made because Hollywood had snared Samuel L to star in it, and they paid him to forget about artistic merit for a few months. I was ready to use this review to rail at Hollywood’s marketing machine millions, paying to fool us into watching their trash. But, although it is true that the film was made only because of Samuel L, it wasn’t driven by Hollywood at all. It was Samuel L’s project, and he insisted it remain uncorrupted by interfering Hollywood editors. More interestingly, the basic plot for Snakes (ie the title) leaked onto the internet before the film had been made. Many of the scenes and ideas that appeared in the final film are apparently those thought up by the fans chatting about it in anticipation – “Wouldn’t it be cool if a guy’s bald head was sucked inside of a boa constrictor? LOL” etc. So, in fact I appreciate the unique way the film was made and its willingness to absorb the ideas of the people. Just a real shame the result was a jumbo full of nonsense.

On the plus side however, we do have Snakes on a Plane to thank for that handy and adaptable complaint: I’ve had it with these motherfucking [blanks] on this motherfucking [blank]!  For Samuel L the complaint was obviously about the snakes on the plane.  But people can put on their best exasperated voice and adapt the phrase to any vexatious situation.  Domestically (I’ve had it with this motherfucking dust on this motherfucking bookshelf!), politically (I’ve had it with these motherfucking subsidies for these motherfucking polluters!), or even gastronomically (I’ve had it with these motherfucking pickles on this motherfucking burger!).  Obviously the options are endless.

This doesn’t redeem the movie of course. Ultimately, I can see Snakes being one of those films screened on TV in a few years time at 11.30 on a Saturday night for people who are too tired or lazy to move from the couch for a couple of hours (I’ve had it with the motherfucking drivel on this motherfucking station!). Perhaps only then you should stay there and watch it – but only if you really can’t reach the remote.

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BREACH (2007)

June 25, 2007

Breach review
Breach screenshot

Tracy: Four Stars
Matt: Four Stars

Length: 110min

Taglines:

How one man betrayed the security of a nation.
Inspired by the true story of the greatest security breach in U.S. history

Review by Matt:

Breach is a spy drama/thriller. It’s well structured and well acted. It examines themes of trust, integrity, motivation and personal sacrifice in a thought-provoking way. The film is set against the intriguing background of America’s most serious information security breach. However, it’s focused on character, and develops its themes in a relatively slow paced and thoughtful way. There’s a perpetual buzz of tension that’s not quite nail-biting, but definitely uncomfortable. Anyone of reasonable firmness should be fine, but it was enough to cause Tracy to pace anxiously at the side of the room moaning that she couldn’t take the stress.

In Breach, Ryan Phillippe plays Eric O’Neil, a young FBI agent sent to work under another agent – the aging and experienced Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). Ostensibly working as Hanssen’s clerk, O’Neil is in fact tasked with covertly investigating Hanssen who is suspected of various offences of inappropriate behaviour. O’Neil learns there is actually much more to Hanssen’s character and his crimes then he knew – perhaps more than he even can know. Ultimately, O’Neil’s success depends on cementing the trust of the suspicious Hanssen. He works at it, and the two proceed into a complicated web of deceit and sacrifice.

The film eschews the usual action and shootouts of spy films, yet it generates considerable excitement. All of the tension results from the two men’s battle to understand one another. As the audience we are privy to the motivations and deceptions of O’Neil as he struggles to snare Hanssen. Our audience gaze is blocked when it comes to Hanssen though; he remains a mystery. We are never sure how much he knows, what he believes, or what are his own motivations. Ultimately, the sacrifices required by O’Neil to prove his integrity escalate to dangerous levels. And we’re pushed to the edge of our seats – or, for some, out of our seats and to the corner.

Breach is a compelling character piece. Its success rests with the very good acting of the two leads and the intriguing interactions of their characters. Questions about the complex and sometimes indiscernible nature of human actions are central to the film. The audience is left with plenty to ponder about the characters, about their integrity, and about the motives behind people’s behaviour. It’s a good one for debating with fellow viewers after the film is done – just as friends analyze and muse on the behaviour and motivations of other real life people.

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SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER … AND SPRING (2003)

June 24, 2007

Spring, summer, fall, winter … and spring review
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring

Matt: Four Stars

Length: 103min

Review by Matt:

It’s not often we can go to the cinema and watch a film that is a simple and moving Buddhist parable about life and morality. Obviously that’s not a common theme in Hollywood or European cinema. Even the Asian cinema that reaches our theatres is usually kung-fu extravaganza, or a ravenous monster piece (although there was the lovely Tibetan film Travellers and Magicians a few years ago). It’s especially great then that we’re able to see the rare gem that is Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring (or Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom in Korean). Provided you aren’t actually expecting the ravenous monster or crazed kung-fu, and you’re prepared to engage with the film’s slow, meditative mood, you’re likely to find this a unique and special film.

Spring is a South Korean film made in 2003 by one of the country’s most internationally successful directors, Kim Ki-Duk. It tells a simple, well-crafted story about a nameless Buddhist monk and the nameless boy under his tutelage. The entire film takes place at a small Buddhist monastery floating isolated at the centre of a lake. As the title suggests, it is set over five seasons. Each shows a significant episode in the pupil’s life, from childhood to adulthood. We watch as the boy grows to an adult and learns dramatic lessons about life and the suffering caused by straying from a path of purity.

In the opening story, the boy is a 6 year old in Spring. Exploring the world of the lake, he unthinkingly tortures the little creatures that dwell there – a fish, frog and snake – by tying rocks to their bodies with string. The boy’s master observes and encourages self-awareness by trying a rock to the boy’s own back – a symbolic lesson that stays with the boy his whole life. The story continues a few years later in Summer when a young woman visits the monastery to convalesce. Now a teenager, the young monk succumbs to the destructive emotions of lust and desire, despite the portentous warnings of his wise master. As the seasons unfold, the young monk’s path to Buddhist enlightenment is marred by impurities.

By the time the Fall episode arrives it seems there can be no going back for the reckless protagonist. Karma – the law of cause and effect – is a strong force in this film. Like the rock weighing down the boy, or the omnipresence of the seasons, the young monk cannot escape the consequences of his actions. He has corrupted his inner world, indulged the ego, and yielded to damaging desires causing serious external consequences and suffering. Yet, like the monk’s ever-accepting old teacher, the morality of Spring is one of redemption and forgiveness. It shows clearly that we can overcome impurities that mar the path to harmony. The film is a moving picture of the eternal circle of life in all its power, suffering and beauty.

Kim Ki-Duk was previously a painter. He turned to film-making relatively late in life. His artistry is evident in the serene beauty of the film. Each of the vignettes is exquisitely shot, and almost wordless. This meditative quality and the sparse population of characters is reminiscent of another recent film by Ki-Duk, 3-Iron (Bin-Jip). As in 3-Iron, Spring depicts an honest picture that exposes life’s ugly cruelty and suffering as well as its compassion and beauty.

Koreans, or others with a better understanding of the symbols of Eastern spirituality might gain more from the symbolism in this film. For example, the animals that inhabit each season – a snake, a cat, a chicken, a turtle – all have particular significance in Eastern culture. But the film’s core of philosophy speaks universally. Spring is a rare, beautiful and ponderous film with an ability to touch the viewer. There are plenty of other films that might give you a stronger and more immediate buzz of excitement. But that is likely to be fleeting compared to the lasting introspective experience you can gain from seeing this wise work of art.