Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sucker Punch: Freedom From Prison Leads to a Fanboy's Wet Dream

Sucker Punch
Directed By: Zac Snyder
Written By: Zac Snyder and Steve Shibuya
Starring: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Jon Hamm, and Scott Glenn
Director of Photography: Larry Fong, Editor: William Hoy, Production Designer: Rick Carter, Original Music: Tyler Bates and Marius De Vries
Rated: PG-13, for a mixture of sci-fi, war, and period violence, mixed in with some sexual suggestions, but no actual sex.

            Zac Snyder is what I would call an iconic director. Not that his films are iconic masterpieces or cherished works of filmmaking that will go down in history, but his shots are designed to be viewed as iconic. With a combination of slow motion, intense close-ups, and high contrast production design, everything in Mr. Snyder’s vision is meant to say, “Look at this and remember how cool it was.” This came easy to the director for his adaptations of the graphic novels 300 and Watchmen, where Mr. Snyder could simply rip the frames from the comic and put it on to stage. But in doing those, Mr. Snyder lost the heart of the story, especially in the densely packed Watchmen (His first film, the frenetic and humorous Dawn of the Dead remake remains his best work).

            But how does he fare with an original script, perhaps one that comes with a unique and perhaps challenging premise for the director? That’s what we have in Sucker Punch, a visual mess of fury and fanboyism, wrapped in an attempt to speak about the power of storytelling and dreams. A bloated and ambitious disaster, Sucker Punch is nonetheless fascinating in the discussions it could spark about female exploitation and misogyny, and whether those orc samurai and German zombies have any relevance in the story. Mr. Snyder has probably reached to the highest potential here in both his filmmaking as well as his storytelling ability, and it’s unique that we get to see a director fall as hard as he does here. But watching how he falls is what makes this film so damn interesting.

Paul: He Not Only Comes In Peace, His Weed is Great Too!

Directed By: Greg Motolla
Written By: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, the voice of Seth Rogen, Kristin Wigg, Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, Blythe Danner, and a slew of cameos worth the surprise
Director of Photography: Lawrence Sher, Editor: Chris Dickens, Production Designer: Jefferson Sage, Original Music: David Arnold

            Creating alien beings for films has made for some of the most unique and glorious creatures in our culture. The double-mouthed, gigantic and sleek black monster of Alien, the cute and cuddly brown midget of E.T., and the hairy beast that will always beat all other hairy beasts—Chewbacca. And then there’s the titular character of Paul. Gray-color skinned, with a large head, and fashioning slacker shorts and sandals, Paul is perhaps the strangest character of the bunch, especially when you consider he is voiced by Seth Rogen. But a stoner, pop culture obsessed alien fits perfects in the world of Paul, which is more or less a stoner road trip movie.

            What makes Paul different from the world of Superbad (Directed by Paul’s helmer Greg Motolla) or the like is that it has a sci-fi element, and its extremely nostalgic toward some of the classics of the genre, including but not limited to Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Predator. And what makes Paul a decently enjoyable, if not perfect ride, is the nostalgia and heart at the center of this comedy.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Win Win: Getting Back Up, In the Ring and Life

Win Win
Written and Directed by: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Alex Shaffer, Amy Ryan, Burt Young, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffery Tambor, and Melanie Lynskey
Director of Photography: Oliver Bokelberg, Editor: Tom McArdle, Production Designer: John Paino, Original Music: Lyle Workman
Rated: R for some swearing, a moment of nudity, and a little violence, mostly in the ring.

            Although I’m usually there to watch the movie, sometimes I notice odd things about the crowds I’m watching with. This was the case with Win Win, a new comedy from writer-director Tom McCarthy. While most of the audience was your run-of-the-mill old-to-middle-aged New Yorkers, there were a few kids as well. Not a large amount, but enough that I noticed. That fact might tie right into the sensibility that Mr. McCarthy has created in his films, an indie spirit with a crowd pleasing attitude. While The Station Agent and The Visitor presented complex characters who we truly cherished by the end of the film, Mr. McCarthy has created a protagonist and story so lazy in its obviousness, but succeeds on his ability to tug properly at your heart.

            The film follows the story of Mike Flagerty, played by Paul Giamatti in a role he has perfected—the lazy and neurotic shlub. A lawyer in New Jersey who helps old people, Mike explains his problem as “work, money, everything,” as if it could be really anything. Despite two gorgeous little girls and a wonderful wife (Amy Ryan, the film’s saving grace), Mike is short on cash, and sets up an elaborate legal scheme to be guardian to a rich elderly man (Burt Young) with dementia and put him in a home, collecting a $1500 check each month.

Jane Eyre: Men Aren't The Only Thing Out to Get This Poor Girl

Jane Eyre
Directed By: Cary Fukunaga
Written By: Moira Buffini (Based on the novel by Charlotte Bronte)
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench, and Sally Hawkins
Director of Photography: Adriano Goldman, Editor: Melanie Oliver, Production Designer: Will Hughes-Jones, Original Music: Dario Marionelli
Rated: PG-13, for brief violence, and some other strange happenings

            Recollections of the name Jane Eyre may conjur many things for different people. Perhaps some will think about their college or perhaps high school years reading the novel, with its quick wit and gorgeous prose by Charlotte Bronte. Others may picture the numerous film adaptations—either William Hurt as Mr. Rochester or perhaps Orson Welles, and actresses like Charlotte Gainsbourg or Joan Fontaine in the role of the titular character. Call it my naïveté or simply lack of serious intellectual pursuits, but I have never seen anything related to Ms. Bronte’s now famous novel. Jane Eyre has been a missing link on my education (oh what do they teach these days!), and thus I went into this latest version as an “Eyre-gin,” so to say.

            So colored me surprised to not find another girl caught up in marriage pursuits, as is a favorite story of Ms. Bronte’s 19th century counterpart Jane Austin. Of course, that is the endgame in Jane Eyre, but through the eyes of Cary Fukunaga, Jane Eyre is darker than witty, more gruesome and haunting than charming and delightful. Sure it has its gorgeous moments, but its also creepy and effecting in its drab presentation and almost lifeless landscapes.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Certified Copy: Lovers' Game Creates a Platonic Paradox

Certified Copy
Written and Directed By: Abbas Kiarostami
Starring: Juliette Binoche and WIlliam Shimell
Director of Photography: Luca Bigazzi, Editor: Bahman Kiarosami
Rated: Not Rated, but a tame movie with only a few moments of language

            When the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami last appeared in US cinema screens, his film had about five camera set ups, one location, and mixed somewhere between reality and drama, all which made Ten one of the most brilliant films of the previous decade (He had a few other features and shorts, none which received much attention). Now we have Certified Copy, which stars Juliette Binchoe, is shot in one of the most gorgeous areas of Italy, and Mr. Kiarostami’s camera seems to have a much freer rein around the ara. Has he finally caved in?

            Hardly, or not even a bit. Instead, Mr. Kiarostamihas made something extremely risky and very unique, a mystery film with his strongest narrative to date. Certified Copy is full of gripping emotion, yet at the same time, philosophical ideas as well, giving us lingering questions and shots that can be debated for months. The director may be working outside his home country, but we are really in his playground. Certified Copy is an exploration of perspective more than anything: whose do we see? What are we paying attention to? And does it matter what it represents in the end?

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Interview: Apichatpong Weerasethakul Recalls His Past Filmmaking

We are re-publishing this press conference Q&A with Apitchatpong Weeasethakul from the 2010 New York Film Festival, where his film "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" had its New York premiere. The film is not playing in limited release, including at New York's Film Forum. Read a review of "Uncle Boonmee' here.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who goes by “Joe” in the states, is small and a bit quiet, yet extremely friendly when it comes to discussing his movies. He has been considered one of the most prominent film directors of the last decade, and his last two films, Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, appeared on numerous best-of-the-decade lists. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, his Palm D’or winning film, cannot be described as a genre, even though if anything, it might be considered a supernatural film. But during the interview at Film Society below, Joe talks about the different aspects of his latest odyssey.

Not that many of us Americans know much about Thailand. But tell us about this part of Thailand. In other movies we’ve seen Bangkok and a little bit of the South, but this part seems quite different in many ways.

It’s the Northeast part, which is where I grew up, and it’s quite harsh. Many go to work in Bangkok or Phouket, so it’s also poor, and there’s a lot of tension.

Is it a place that’s especially known for spirits, and think more about mystical things.

It’s all over the country. It’s all over Thailand. The thing for an audience and Boonmee are the animals really, and it’s more serious.

The Adjustment Bureau: Love May Conquer All, But They Can Change That

The Adjustment Bureau
Written and Directed By:  George Nolfi
Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slatterly, Michael Kelly, and Terrence Stamp.
Director of Photography: John Toll; Editor: Jay Rabinowitz; Original Music: Thomas Newman; Production Design: Kevin Thompson
Rated: PG-13 for some language, a flash of sex, and some brief moments of violence.

            Scanning any library for their philosophy section will be dozens, if not hundreds of books, on whether this species has free will, or if our lives are determined for us. Some explain that a higher power controls all, while some argue physics controls are lives, while others fight for human control. However, in The Adjustment Bureau, which is adapted a short story by Philip K. Dick, director George Nolfi asks a different question: do we deserve free will?

            A simple but endlessly complex question, and one that challenges in this slick and often reserved science fiction thriller, beefed up by the presence of its star Matt Damon. Mr. Nolfi, making his directorial debut after co-writing The Bourne Ultimatum and Ocean’s 12 for Mr. Damon, understands the ultimate rule of science fiction: less is more. Instead of giving us an incredible layered and complex universe, Mr. Nolfi instead focuses on characters and the romance that connects them. He lets us indulge with Mr. Damon as he flirts with his co-star Emily Blunt, letting us understand these characters before we get into any ridiculous notions of how a team of free will advisors could ever control the world.

Rango: Acting Good, Fighting the Bad and Ugly

Directed By: Gore Verbinski
Written By: John Logan
Starring: (The Voices Of) Johnny Depp, Ilsa Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Timothy Olyphant, and Ned Beatty.
Feature Animation: Industrial Light and Magic, Editor: Craig Wood, Production Designer: Mark McCreery, Original Music: Hans Zimmer
Rated: PG, lots of guns, a few explosions, nothing serious.

            Coming into theaters without a Pixar stamp of quality for most animations might create groans for adults, especially those who have children to drag to the theaters. Pixar, with its now 15 plus years of tradition and Google-like innovation, has become synonymous with balancing childhood wonder with serious adult themes. Thankfully, Pixar’s formula is not copyrighted, and other studios and directors are free to try their hand at something a little more adult-friendly. In fact, Rango, a new Western-set animated film, might be way more fun for adults looking for an interesting take on the genre than the kids who may not understand the film's numerous homages.

            Behind the (nonexistent) camera for Rango is director Gore Verbinski. Mr. Verbinski has been a fascinating Hollywood workman, starting off with his creepy and effective work in The Ring, but then falling into directing the increasingly bad Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Mr. Verbinski though has more talent than those films have shown, and together with screenwriter John Logan (Big Fish), they bring a cornucopia of ideas to this acid Western, mostly through homage and parody.

I Saw the Devil: The Killer Instinct Inside Us All

I Saw the Devil
Directed By: Kim Jee-Woon
Written By: Park Hoon-Jung and Kim Jee-Woon
Starring: Lee Byung-Hun, Choi Min-Sik, Chun Kook-Haun, and Chun Ho-Jin
Director of Photography: Lee Mogae, Editor: Nam Na-Young, Production Designer: Cho Hwa-Sung, Music: Mowg
Rated: Not Rated, and probably with good reason

            Director Kim Jee-Woon really knows how to setup the cruel world his characters exist in. In the opening of his latest film I Saw the Devil, a young woman sits quietly in car as the silent and gorgeous snow falls around her. She’s got a flat tire, and her fiancé sings to her on the phone (though from the quiet bathroom of the secret service mission he is on). Even a nice school bus driver offers to help her change her tire. Unfortunatley, that bus driver is in fact Oldboy star Choi Min-Sik, and he’s a serial killer, who smashes through her windshield. Later, when her body has been bloodied, she pleas with him, telling him she is pregnant. Mr. Choi ignores this fact, and continues his hacking job.

            It would be easy to deride Mr. Kim’s sadistic and often unpleasant world for just those reasons, but that is not why I found I Saw the Devil so boring. Mr. Kim, who has taken on multiple genres like the horror (A Tale of Two Sisters) and the western (The Good, the Bad, and the Weird) is the type of director you want to reinvent the way we look at the serial killer genre, a movie type that has been sorely lacking for some time, save for David Fincher’s Zodiac. And with his perfectly crafted sequences, filled with pitch-black humor, Mr. Kim can suck us into the logic of his world. The boyfriend of that poor girl turns out to be Lee Byung-Hun, and he wants revenge.

Uncle Boonmee: At the End of It All, Ghosts, Laughs, and the Absurd

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Written and Directed By: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Starring: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee, and Natthakarn Aphaiwonk.
Directors of Photography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Yukontorn Mingmongkon and Charin Pengpanich. Editor: Lee Chatametikool. Production designer: Akekarat Homlaor
Rated: Not Rated, and pretty tame, save for a scene involving aquatic life.

By the time a princess does some unspeakable things with a catfish half way through the latest film by the acclaimed auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul (he’ll tell you just to call him “Joe”), the film truly finds its absurdist, but slightly calming ground. The Thai filmmaker, known for his striking films Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, has created a strange world of our own existence and filled it with animals, monsters, ghosts, doubles, and other strange sights. Yet Mr. Weerasethakul is not just putting the bizarre in our face to confound and play with us; there’s a philosophical and political stance behind every moment of his film. In Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Mr. Weerasethakul has found a narrative structure that reflects his own philosophy of life and death.

The title gives a good explanation of what to expect: Uncle Boonmee, who has a bad kidney and is soon on his way out, starts having visions while out in his countryside home in the Northern part of Thailand. His sister-in-law and son can see them too, and instead of freaking out, they kind of welcome them into their home. This is typical of Mr. Weerasethakul, who acknowledges the absurdity of his film’s narratives. When Boonmee’s deceased son returns as a “Ghost Monkey,” a walking, talking ape with red glowing eyes, Boonmee’s sister-in-law tells him “you’ve let your hair grow out.”