Posts Tagged ‘movie reviews’

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MONGOL (2008)

August 31, 2008

Mongol Review


Matt:

Length: 126min

Taglines:
Greatness comes to those who take it.
The untold story of Genghis Khan’s rise to power.
Don’t despise a weak cub, it can appear the son of a tiger.

Précis: Epic story dramatizing the early life of Genghis Khan with a loving – possibly revisionist – touch.

Review by Matt:

A nominee at 2007’s Academy Awards for ‘best foreign picture’, Mongol dramatizes the little-known early life of the infamous Mongol, Genghis Khan.  Despite focusing on one of history’s most famous warlords, Mongol isn’t really a boy’s battle film. It’s more of an epic drama, glued together by a Wuthering-Heights-strength love story. Russian writer/director Sergei Bodrov constructs a noticeably rosy perspective of his subject. His story follows the young Genghis – better known then as Temudjin – through what could be called his “constantly trapped in stocks and tortured” period.  For the most part it’s easy to cheer for this rugged and mistreated hero. It’s only when you remember that the story conveniently halts just before that whole touchy “slaughtering and raping half the world” chapter, that some of the characterisation seems a little awry.

Temudjin is barely nine when he first meets the stocks. His father, the tribal leader, is assassinated, ancient Mongolian style (tribal leaders should really know not to accept a horse-milkshake from their enemy). The tribe’s subordinates refuse to accept that little Temudjin will inherit the throne. So it’s into the stocks for him, and some other scallywag Mongol unjustly becomes the Khan. It’s the first of a series of struggles and indignities faced by baby Genghis. He fights to rescue his kidnapped beloved bride. He fights with, and against, his blood-brother, Prince Jamukha, in a number of blood-spurting battles. He is imprisoned and enslaved by his many enemies. You start to see why Temudjin grew into a vengeful warrior, declaring that “Mongols need laws and I will make them obey even if I have to kill half of them”. And still, in between it all, he finds time to be Mongolia’s number one dad, and go picnicking with his family.

Mongol looks amazing and authentic, with its hoards of extras, unique cultural quirks, and its lavish North Asian scenery. The performances are fine – Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano exudes a fiery intensity to fill Temudjin’s war-mongering boots. Non-actor Mongol Khulan Chuluun, is impressive as his stoic wife, Borte. Chinese actor Honglei Sun also infuses Prince Jamukha with a sense of wild-eyed Mongolian zaniness. All the imprisonment makes for occasional lulls, but add in the love story, tribal politics, and regular thunderous horse-filled battles and Mongol just manages to remain entertaining for its two-hour length.

Really what weighs it down is the requirement that we limit our mental engagement, else things seem a bit unconvincing or jarring. Aspects of the plot are underwritten, especially the supernatural intrusions of mysterious Mongolian gods. Most of all though, Bodrov’s portrait of Genghis as a Mel Gibson style, family-loving hero, makes you wonder just how the family bond will hold up during the years of raping and killing that are just around the corner. Bodrov will have to solve that one, as he’s set to continue the tale of hero-Genghis in two upcoming sequels.

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21 (2008)

August 22, 2008

21 Review


Matt:

Length: 123min

Taglines:
Inspired by the true story of five students who changed the game forever.

Précis: A disappointingly cliched dramatisation of an infamous casino card-counting caper.

Review by Matt:

21 is another example of ‘Hollywoodization” – the annoying practice of eviscerating a potentially interesting concept and stuffing it with the same old hackneyed pap, because that’s apparently what secures an audience.

The film dramatizes the real-life story of a group of MIT college kids who developed a card counting system and used it to win millions from the Vegas casinos. The affable Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) plays Ben, an ace maths student tempted into joining the secret card crew. The group is led by patriarchal professor Micky, played by Kevin Spacey in another calmly menacing performance. A mundane student during the week, Ben jaunts to glitzy Vegas on weekends, experiencing the heady influence of greed and glamour. On his journey he clashes predictably with a casino security thug (Laurence Fishburne), romances it up with sultry team-mate Jill (Kate Bosworth), and – as in so many college/high-school movies – momentarily forgets who are his real friends.

What begins with potential, winds up a glossy package of formulas. 21 tries too hard to impress us with glamorous cheats. It is particularly irritating considering the many fascinating angles a filmmaker may have teased from this story. Instead, the concept is superimposed with Hollyowood’s seen-it-all-before plot arc. No surprises for guessing how it concludes, despite the contrived – and morally questionable – ‘twist’ tacked-on near the finale. The dubious decision to ‘whiten’ the characters (the real-life protagonists were Asian Americans) only contributes to the feeling of phoniness.

Of course the performances and production value are quite good, and there is still some residual excitement in seeing this audacious scam dramatized. Who doesn’t want to see the Casinos beat? But 21 is mostly just a front of tricks and distractions, desperately trying to convince you it is more interesting than it is. Behind the veneer it is bloated and meaningless. It’s a bit like a real casino really. You’re likely to walk out at the conclusion feeling like the house swindled you again.

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BE KIND REWIND (2008)

August 2, 2008

Be Kind Rewind Review


Matt:

Length: 101min

Taglines:
You name it, we shoot it.
Sometimes the best movies are the ones we make up.

Précis: Oddball and friendly film about amateurs remaking blockbusters and discovering the creativity and community spirit around them.   

Review by Matt:

Mike (Mos Def) is an affable clerk left to mind Mr Fletcher’s (Danny Glover) old-school video store for a few weeks. Things go slightly haywire when the store’s main patron, Jerry (Jack Black) – a loopy conspiracy theorist who lives in a nearby trailer – becomes magnetised, resulting in the erasure of the store’s entire catalogue. In a kind of child-like panic, Mike and Jerry decide the best approach to the problem is to recreate the videos by shooting their own versions, starring themselves, a randomly recruited laundry-lady (the ever-cheery Melonie Diaz), and a bunch of home-made special effects.

It sounds pretty weird, and it is. Be Kind Rewind is one of those films that will divide audiences. Some people are going to shake their heads and complain that it is chaotic and half-baked. They’d be right. It seems a bit like writer/director Michael Gondry (who whatever happens from now will be remembered for his stellar effort in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ) hurried his cast onto a set with a script scribbled on the back of an envelope. What stands out initially is the film’s disconcerting ‘low-key’ feel and the air of randomness. It makes you wonder if they’re making it up as they go along. Even the name the boys use for the process of re-shooting the films – “sweding” – seems invented on the spot, and Mos Def’s mumbling suggests he may not have rehearsed too much.

But the other half of the audience is going to think Be Kind Rewind has a unique comic charm and a freeing originality. This is true too. Where else can you see a couple of doofuses recreate Ghost Busters, complete with giant pipe-cleaner protonpack weapons? The same randomness that alienates some viewers is going to delight others. The film’s central theme, amateur creativity, has already inspired a hoard of backyard filmmakers to go out and remake everything from Jurassic Park to Predator.  To cement its point about creative community power, the villains of Be Kind Rewind are representatives of the powerful orthodoxy – movie studios and building developers.

My conclusion is that Be Kind Rewind is a better film than it first appears. It’s got something special going on in its weird whimsy, and before you’ve really figured out what you’re watching, it’s delivered a sneaky little celebration of community and creativity. It’s a bit syrupy, but I ended up liking the way it used a wacky vehicle to deliver a touching message.  Just that the delivery itself is kind of untidy. For a film crackling with comic potential, it doesn’t manage to elicit many laughs. It also should have traded some of the more banal moments to show us more of the creative and comic ‘sweded’ remakes, which are the best parts of the film. I ended up smiling because I was touched, but I didn’t smile outright at the film’s humour. So it’s missing a bit of polish and sparkle, but Be Kind Rewind is still is a friendly and original little film.

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FUTURAMA: THE BEAST WITH A BILLION BACKS (Futurama Movie 2) (2008)

June 28, 2008

Futurama Movie: The Beast with a Billion Backs Review


Matt:

Length: 89 min

Précis: Futurama movie number two of four is focused on the theme of love … examined through a plot about an inter-universe rift and a planet-sized tentacle monster.  Most importantly though, it’s funnier than the first Futurama film!

Review by Matt:

Good news everyone! Futurama, the animated sci-fi comedy show created by Matt Groening, continues its afterlife with the release of the second of four post-television movies: The Beast with a Billion Backs. The Futurama fan base is large and diverse, so some of you will inevitably dispute my assessment – but let me tell you: The Beast with a Billion Backs is much better than the first Futurama movie. To quote one high profile film scholar, Bender’s Big Score was a “weak, boring disappointment”. Inexplicably, Beast with a Billion Backs is just a whole lot cleverer and funnier. The difference between the two is like watching a bad Futurama episode (like, say, The Deep South or That’s Lobstertainment!) and watching a pretty good one (like, say, Godfellas or The Farnsworth Parabox). Who knows what changed in the well-populated Futurama team – but it was the right thing. Beast with a Billion Backs is like the good old days of Futurama again. The jokes come frequently, they’re a combo of slapstick, black, offbeat and witty, and it’s all couched in the kind of sci-fi action that tickles your nerd centre.

Hopefully viewers know the premise of this show already. The movie doesn’t take any time to bring outsiders up to speed. No help from me – read the premise of the show if you need some background. Beast isn’t as “fans only” as the first Futurama Movie though, and there are less in-jokes. You’re also fine to watch this movie without having seen Bender’s Big Score.  The Beast With a Billion Backs gets straight into it: within the first five seconds, space has ripped open leaving an inter-universal portal hovering above New New York (presumably this was caused by Bender’s careless time-hopping in the previous film). Terrified earthlings are beginning to grow exhausted from pointing at it and screaming. It’s the kind of parallel-universe premise that Futurama loves (I also love it). But, in case the title didn’t already alert you, you’ll soon realise that this second Futurama film is mainly a big riff on the topic of love and sex. Despite the hovering gash in their universe, our main characters are largely concerned with romance:  Fry is preoccupied with his new girlfriend’s fancy for polygamy and Kif and Amy are headed to Kif’s home world to take part in a swampy, otherworldly marriage ceremony.

Meanwhile, Professor Farnsworth – aided by arch-rival Professor Wernstrom and the super-powered head of Stephen Hawking – investigates the anomaly.  In a typical Futurama parody, scientific efforts are brushed aside by the brash American president (the delightfully cantankerous Nixon’s head) who launches an all out military assault on the parallel world.  “Hell of a thing to send a universe to certain doom… “, philosophises mission leader Zap Brannigan, “Fun though! Makes a man feel big!” Of course, incorrigible robot Bender also has a primary plot thread, as he plays with his fellow robots (including one of my favourites – the pompous soap-star, Calculon) searching for a mythical cult called “The League of Robots”. He’s in fairly good form in this film, irascible and amoral as ever.

That’s just the beginning really. Messing with the anomaly soon unleashes an almighty universe-altering adventure, featuring a tentacled Casanova, voiced by David Cross. I won’t go into detail, but it’s another one of those extravagant sci-fi ideas for which Futurama is well known. This one adds a little dash of philosophical weirdity too, which I quite enjoyed. Potentially it has a level of absurdity that might not gel with everyone. Me? I love the absurdity. It’s kind of a War of the Worlds meets Everybody Loves Raymond caper that allows the love/sex theme to take centre stage. As you’d expect, the background to the film is also bustling with neat, nerdish ideas and parodies of modern life.

But the only reason these traits actually shine is that they are housed in 90 minutes that mostly stays sharp and funny. For me, that’s where the previous movie lost it. Beast with a Billion Backs is not off-the-scale funny – not all the jokes hit home – but there are still enough winners to make it pretty enjoyable. My biggest struggle was with the film’s meandering plot. I think it might be hard to stretch the Futurama style over 90 minutes, and the plot sometimes clunks forward a bit awkwardly. After so many jokey sidetracks you might start to wish there was something sturdier at the core. But there’s the rub: which do you want? It’s difficult to pump out constant irreverent humour and still maintain intricate plotting and deep characters. So, hey, overall I’m satisfied.

I lamented in my last review that the Futurama movies could do better than Bender’s Big Score. Effort number two, The Beast with a Billion Backs is a decent step up. It’s at least made sure it’s delivered on its core promise: there are plenty of moments to make you laugh!

(Note: Add your favourite lines from Beast With a Billion Backs in the comments section)

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CLOVERFIELD (2008)

June 24, 2008

Cloverfield Review


Matt:

Length: 95 min

Taglines:
Something has found us.

Précis: Energetic monster-mayhem in NYC, filmed through a first-person account.

Review by Matt:

One of the main characters in Cloverfield, Rob (Michael Stahl-David), is having a farewell party. It is being filmed on handycam by Rob’s friend, Hud (T J Miller). It is this “home movie” that we the audience are seeing. Pretty mundane. Rob is leaving Manhattan the next day for a new life in Japan. Unfortunately, before he goes, Japan comes to him … in the form of its favourite city-smashing giant lizard, Godzilla!  BOOM!!

Actually, the enraged creature that suddenly descends on the Big Apple is not exactly Godzilla (and in a remarkable display of copyright compliance no character ever utters the world “Godzilla”). But it could well be Godzilla’s cousin. In any case, it is just as good at pulverising a cities as the famous reptile . Naturally, it quickly scares Rob and his party out into the panicked streets.

Hud keeps his handycam running. The result is 90 minutes of shaky, first-person footage documenting a small posse’s attempts to find a lost friend and escape Manhattan, while chaotic monster-action goes down all around. Cloverfield’s style basically parallels the infamous Blair Witch Project. We only see the perspective of one person and one camera throughout the entire account. Doing away with the constructed, edited narrative of other monster movies makes Cloverfield a much tastier film. We’re as confused and uninformed as our cameraman. We’re only given glimpses of the invidious invader and of the army’s desperate attempts to contain it and evacuate the city. Some viewers might find it frustrating that we do not receive a complete picture, but I liked the fact that the horror is left to brood in our minds. There are scores of other “invaded city” stories if you want to go and see a plotted explanation. I was mostly on-board with the turbulent “oh my god what’s happening?!” style because I appreciated that within the framework it sets up (mysterious monster crushes city), the action in Cloverfield is fairly realistic.

What the film has going for it is that it has picked a simple story and style and just pumped it out in a tense and exciting ninety minutes. Explosions, monsters, deaths, panic. Repeat. It’s not groundbreakingly original but that doesn’t really matter. One influence that Cloverfield has obviously plucked from the zeitgeist is the 9/11 world trade centre tragedy. The visual parallels are striking, as Manhattan buildings collapse and dust spews through the streets engulfing the city’s shocked denizens. The film’s effects are done brilliantly and for the most part it really looks like the footage of a hapless victim stuck in the thick of it. I didn’t find the bumpy hand-held style annoying or nauseating (as some viewers apparently have). If anything, the camerawork was probably too steady and convenient, considering the amount of city-stomping monster-mayhem going on around these poor sods.

The film’s biggest problem is its characters. Often acting is only ever noticed if something is amiss. Here, it is noticeable. Cloverfield’s band of twenty-somethings seem incurably two-dimensional, even though the film gives us twenty minutes of “home movie” with them before the monster even comes a-knocking. Somehow our guides through devastated downtown don’t look like everyday people who’ve stumbled into a spontaneous documentary. They just look like actors whose attempts at appearing realistic are a bit hammy. So Cloverfield’s relationship/romance strands swirl away in the New York dust, along with our potential empathy. But at least you won’t feel too guilty if you cheer a bit for the monster.

In any case, the immersive sci-fi action is still ample for a good cinema experience. Cloverfield delivers an exciting monster film that is much better than your standard “city under threat” blockbuster. Provided you don’t demand a conventional narrative and you can take a bit of mystery, shaky camera and hammy characterization, Cloverfield is worth a look as an enjoyable piece of fluff-entertainment.

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PERSEPOLIS (2007)

June 22, 2008

Persepolis Review


Matt:

Length: 95 min

Précis: Creative and likeable “coming of age” story set against Iran’s modern history.

Review by Matt:

Persepolis is an animated cartoon version of Marjane Satrapi’s popular autobiographical graphic novels about growing up in Iran.  You might already be dubious, especially if you prefer the cinema to be a place for an entertaining escape and have been burned before by contemporary Iranian films (many of which are fine films but, oh so painful!) Don’t worry, Persepolis filters this potentially depressing subject through Marjane’s idiosyncratic viewpoint and tells a story with a refreshing wit and whimsy. Iran’s modern history, dominated by the deposition of the Shah and the consequent rise of the current fundamentalist regime, becomes the backdrop to a personal tale about rebellion against repression and the search for identity. It’s a touching and funny story whose messages are universal.

The story begins when Marjane is a small girl living with her family during the last days of the Shah in the late 1970s. It’s evident from the start that she’s a feisty non-conformist, obviously influenced by her liberal family, some of whom are even imprisoned as dissidents. Part of the delight of these early scenes is the way events are filtered through Marjane’s childish viewpoint. A story about the Shah, for example, unfolds on the screen as an animated fable. As she becomes older and the regime more repressive, Marjane’s indomitable free spirit leads to trouble and a self-imposed exile to Europe. More animated adventures confront her there, but special prominence is given to her search for identity as an Iranian living in the west.

There is a lot of enjoyment to be found simply in the film’s style of storytelling. The animation is almost anti-Pixar in its grey, un-glossy, two-dimensionality. Yet it is used creatively and evocatively, sometimes reminiscent of German expressionism, and it is ideal for animating flourishes from Marjane’s active imagination. Marjane also has an uplifting joie-de-vivre that shines through the oppression; she’s the kid who would sneak into backstreets Tehran to buy contraband Iron Maiden tapes, or who just has to ask the fundamentalists insolent questions about God.

The film’s autobiographical frame means that personal experiences trump political comment, but a humorous personal account is quite an interesting way to look at a foreign history and culture, and of course it makes the politics easier to swallow. A lot is said about indoctrination and martyrdom, for example, simply by Marjane’s brief encounter with her young cousin, who has been promised a key to a Heaven full of women in exchange for military service. Some of Marjane’s other digressions seem a bit indulgent and the film meanders slowly for a while, but Persepolis maintains an entertaining ability to poke fun. The focus on everyday details of life also reminds us nicely that people everywhere are really the same – even if they hail from the ‘axis of evil’.

It’s not a surprise that Persepolis has become so popular. It scooped the Jury Prize at the Cannes festival in 2007,  was nominated for the Best Animated Feature at the 2008 Oscars, and is still touring the world, having just played at the 2008 Sydney Film Festival. It’s a likeable, unexpected gem that celebrates strength and spirit and proudly represents everyday people faced with dark times. Marjane Satrapi produced Persepolis outside of repressive Iran – she now lives in France. We’re lucky that protestations from Iran have been ignored and that we get the chance to see this exile’s unique picture of life in her former home.

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LEATHERHEADS (2008)

June 15, 2008

Leatherheads Review

Matt:
Tracy:

Length: 114 min

Taglines:
In the beginning, the rules were simple. There weren’t any.
If love is a game, who’ll make the first pass?

Précis: Mediocre modern ‘screwball comedy’ about 1920’s American football.

Review by Matt:

George Clooney’s directorial catalogue is taking us backwards in time through the 20th century. His debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, took us into a colourful 1960s and 70s. Good Night and Good Luck put us in the stifling black and white of McCarthy’s 1950s. His latest film, Leatherheads, mimics 1940s Hollywood comedies, but is set in 1920s America. These were the days when the American football league was rules-free and carefree. Clooney plays smooth, fast-talking football-wizard, ‘Dodge’ Connelly. Encouraged into entrepreneurship when his ailing team disbands, Dodge manages to kick start the trend of professional, overpaid stars by recruiting football champ and war hero, Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski). Meanwhile, feisty reporter Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) is on Carter’s trail. She’s got the inside word that Carter’s war heroics are greatly exaggerated and she’s determined to uncover the truth and write the story of the year.

Clooney has lovingly made his film in the old fashioned ‘screwball’ style of comedy. Swinging Randy Newman numbers accompany scenes of slapstick football antics and bar room brawls in underground prohibition-defying nightclubs. It’s the kind of film where Dodge and Carter can punch each other’s lights out, bickering over Lexie’s affections, and then hop up, rubbing their jaws, and have a drink together. The film looks great, it has a bouncy comic feel, and it’s pleasant, oh so pleasant. But, while it is devoid of things that will actively rankle you, unfortunately Leatherheads is missing something as well. It’s just not that enjoyable. Like an expensive, exotic meal that is disappointingly tasteless.

Why is it so? You can tell that Clooney really loves this genre and Leatherheads is finely crafted. But perhaps it suffers from too much love. It becomes indulgent and a bit dull. There are a few too many of scenes of 1920s atmosphere, and not enough comic material. Partly blame the script as well, which doesn’t deliver the interest and impact that the triumphant directing deserves. The best scenes, as with the old screwball comedies, are when Carey-Grant-like Clooney and Katherine-Hepburn-like Zellweger engage in their argumentative banter (which really of course just masks their unexpressed love for each other). But they’re only a rare smattering in a jumpy script that lingers too long in nowheresville and then rushes through when it reaches somewhere more interesting.

There are still plenty of things to endear you to the film, if you’re impressed by individual parts. The acting is roundly excellent. George Clooney is in full ‘loveable rogue’ mode and his frenetic eyebrow-raising and smirking helps energise the pace when it flags. He and Renee Zelwegger have nice comic timing in their verbal jousts. American football fans will probably find some curiosity the tale of the origins of their sport, which in 1920 certainly didn’t look anything like the serious super-business it has become today. Fans of old screwball comedies will also probably appreciate Leatherheads more than I did, recognising a familiar 1940s freshness usually missing from films today; even the romance plot stays ‘moral’, burying references to sex in ingenious clues, as if the old Hollywood censorship code was still around (such as the romantic leads finding themselves sleeping in the top and bottom of a bunk bed).

So Leatherheads is generally charming and pleasantly nostalgic about things we’ve lost from football and films. It’s not a film to deride. However – and maybe I’m from a generation that is more distracted and demanding – I really would have preferred a film with a bit more zing.