Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story - Reaction

A short movie told through barbie dolls about a singer's (Karen Carpenter of The Carpenters) death due to anorexia. I applaud the choice; the barbie dolls reflect a plastic, overly clean, impossible notion of femininity. The movie also used other props such a container of ex-lax.

It's clearly an advocacy film, with narration explaining anorexia and its social milieu. The scenes using barbie and ken dolls were moving, a fact that surprised me. The narration, however, made the film lose ground when it appeared, bringing one out of the story, which actually had a soap-opera feel, and into the larger social context. In contrast, interspersed montages, which used real footage, provided atmosphere without disrupting the narrative. But there were also interjected interviews with people reflecting on the singer's life--these felt out of place, tossed in as part of the rest of the hodgepodge.

The movie appears to be coarse-grained, though some of that could be because I watched a bad, nth-hand copy.

The film was never distributed because the creators never acquired the rights use The Carpenters' music (which serves as the soundtrack throughout the film), rights which were probably denied because the film portrays Karen's brother in a bad light. Nevertheless, the film is freely available online.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Valet (La Doublure) - Reaction


A decent French comedy-drama-romance about the situation that arises because a rich man needs to cover up an affair. (A regular guy was passing as he was photographed with his mistress supermodel. He pays the regular guy and the supermodel to pretend to be a couple so it doesn't look like he's with the supermodel.) Although short, it's slow at times. Nevertheless, it has some great lines.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Sound of Music - Reaction

A well done family film about a nun/governess and her family in Austria during the coming of the third Reich. Includes a love triangle. This film is a musical, containing songs with good lyrics and good choreography and that are so catchy they made their way into our common cultural knowledge (i.e., I recognized many of them though I'd never seen the movie before). The setting--Austria--is beautiful and offers many opportunities to see expansive vistas. The cinematography is likewise good. Though the movie is long (three hours), the length didn't bother me. In short, it's a good quality movie that's rightly called a classic and it's no wonder the film is one of the top grossing films of all time and a winner of five Oscars.

I want to record in particular that the puppet scene is a lot of fun.

The movie is mainly about family and "about freedom, hope, and facing our lives and future with a positive outlook", as one reviewer said. Also, some songs/relationships involve traditional gender roles; others have more female empowerment. Many reviewers claim the movie and its themes are too sugary / syrupy / "schmaltz"-y, but it didn't seem to bother me.

I learned a lot about the film from reading about it afterwards and from listening to the commentary track.

  • The screenplay was based on a fictionalized musical based on the true story book written by the Von Trapps themselves.
  • The movie was made for a lower budget than I thought. For instance, they filmed some scenes on a stage so they didn't have to pay people overtime to film in the house at night. (But, yes, some scenes were filmed on location in Austria.)
  • Some dubbing of the singing occurred, though not much.
  • Most of the children got taller during filming -- visual tricks were used to minimize this.

Monday, August 11, 2008

8 Mile - Reaction

A not-bad film about a rapper in an impoverished side of Detroit trying to find his voice. The first half of the film shows him idling around, with nothing really happening, which I suppose is an accurate reflection of life in that community. Sadly, however, I was disappointed that not much more happens in the second half. Nevertheless, I appreciated the movie's portrayal of a world I have no familiarity with, and the movie's exploration of attitudes in that community to jobs, women, and money.

I wish I knew more about the rapper's final status with his girlfriend.

Writing this response far after the fact, I vaguely recall liking the rap battles (both in the movie and in the special features).

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe - Reaction

A good fantasy movie with high production values. Whether computer graphics or costumes, it's clear they paid attention to detail. (Indeed, the film won an oscar for make-up.) I wouldn't call it an epic because an epic feels long, grand, and complicated. This movie is about as complicated a story as you can tell a child. The characters are straightforward. And, although long, it doesn't feel long. Furthermore, during the first half of the film, the kids are just looking for their brother, which is not really a traditional epic quest.

I found something odd about the way the real animals are animated, but I'm not bothered by the fake animals and monsters. I thought the monsters in particular were animated very well. Also, the fawn's acting was adorable.

Despite the PG rating, the movie is dark at times and I don't think it's entirely appropriate for kids.

There's an obvious Jesus allegory here. Also, I couldn't believe there's a Santa-Clause/Father-Christmas figure. (I haven't read the book since elementary school, and completely forgot about it.)

It's interesting to hear the commentary by the child-actors. By listening to the commentary, I also learned the film was shot generally in order according to the script--an unconventional choice--to make it easier for the kids to act, and because the kids grow over time.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

A History of Violence - Reaction

A not-half-bad movie with a measured pace about a calm, quiet, family man in a small town, and what happens when allegations of his violent past emerge. As such, it's a movie about character. Sadly, the plot felt like it was written by someone in Creative Writing 101. Furthermore, it's hard to understand the villains' and hero's motivations.

Nevertheless, the film deals with many deep issues. The movie's plot shows that even if a person is resurrected--this word was primed by the image of jesus at the beginning of the movie--, he can't leave his past/history behind. In a similar vein, it's about the impossibility of escaping violence. It's also about opening one's self and telling the truth to one's spouse, even if one's already been redeemed for past actions. In addition, the film touches on a mistaken sense of normalcy--how normal can life really be? Finally, it's about the inheritance of violence in children from parents. It explores why people turn out the way they do, and wonders whether violence begets violence through bad examples or through genetic nature--survival of the fittest. As such, this theory returns to idea that violence tends to become pervasive.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Darkon - Reaction

An interesting, well-put-together, funny-at-times, open-minded documentary about people who play a particular live-action role playing game, what they think about it, and why they do it. The real-life characters are interesting and they do a good job acting in fantasy-life roles. (Indeed, the costumes they make are much better than I expected. In fact, they display an impressive commitment to role playing in terms not only of costumes and makeup but also time.) The movie is by necessity haphazardly photographed, as it's trying to capture unscripted fast-paced events.

Although the film mentions the rules of the game (different colored weapons, how they affect various armors, the rules of resurrection, etc.), it mainly focuses on what the players get out of the game. Some players use the game as a form of escapism from real life. The game is where they can pursue the American dream: to live their lives as they desire. Some of these players draw the analogy that just as reality, where one has responsibilities, is like adulthood, the fantasy world is like childhood, where one is unencumbered and more free. Others use fantasy role playing to gain confidence and train for real-world situations, developing skills for socializing, playing politics, negotiating, or leading. (One person playing the game for this purpose, Danny, says "sometimes Danny doesn't have the balls to do what needs to be done.") Interestingly, a number of players reflect upon the idea that just as they're playing a role in the game, they're playing a role in their real lives.

The movie also explores the different lines people draw between this world and the real world. For instance, some players' characters don't date in the game even if they're dating outside of it. Players generally try to maintain real-world friendships regardless of in-game actions, though sometimes the line is crossed and real life impinges on one's fantasy life and vice versa.

I particularly liked two scenes: one, the neat opening transition from a hexagonal game board (the common board for role playing games) to an aerial view of the suburbs, and two, a brief interview with an Iraqi war veteran who plays and why he does so.

Some of the deleted scenes are quite good.

I must admit the movie is probably not interesting to people who've never role played.

I first heard about the film through a radio segment: The Role of a Lifetime (WNYC's On The Media via NPR). The story provides a good overview of the film and its feel. (Listen to the story; if you read the transcript, you'll miss out on the sounds and voices.)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Spaceballs - Reaction

I rewatched this Mel Brooks comedy classic which plays off of Star Wars. It was as good as I remembered. Nothing more needs to be said.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Blazing Saddles - Reaction

Important note: I saw the theatrical release, not the TV one. The TV one apparently has some extra scenes.

Mel Brooks's dated, okay, vaudevillian comedy-western involving a black sheriff in a white town. I think it's meant for people with short attention spans. The straightforward plot isn't the point--indeed, one IMDB reviewer said the "structure is a total mess"--; it's merely an excuse for the gags, whether slapstick, raunchy, scatological, or racial (in ways that probably are unacceptable nowadays). Basically, it felt like the script-writers threw in the kitchen sink every crass or crude joke they could think of, especially those that mocked westerns. Generally, it wasn't my type of humor. There is one minute of action near the end that I liked much better than anything else in the movie. Sadly, the movie didn't end on that note but instead got too strange, turning its attention to mocking movie-making in general.

I think I missed a good number of references. For instance, I only knew one character was parodying Marlene Dietrich because someone pointed it out to me.

The movie apparently was somewhat controversial in its time. Some people complained it was racist; others thought it reflected reverse racism.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

D.O.A. - Reaction

Important note: I saw the original 1949/1950 version. The movie has apparently been remade later.

An average, unexceptional noir: some action, a relatively confusing plot, not particularly snappy dialog, and a generally unnecessary romantic subplot with an annoyingly one-dimensional female character. A novel premise, the movie follows the previous twenty-four hours in the life of a man who enters a police station and declares he's been murdered by poison. There's a good jazz segment in the middle of the movie. Near the beginning of the movie, on the other hand, the film uses wolf whistles to indicate when the main character notices an attractive woman. The whistles are out of place and distracting. The audience already knows what's going on.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - Reaction

A preposterous (both in terms of details and high-level plot) action flick that never decides if it's an indiana jones movie or a parody of an indiana jones movie. The script is poor: there's stilted dialog in places (often using exposition) and the way the relationships evolve isn't plausible (Oxley, Marion, and Indiana; Mutt and Indiana). Relationships aren't built so insanely fast, and no one can be as accepting as the movie makes it appear. In addition, the ridiculous plot--almost a cross between the X-Files and Indiana Jones--is inexplicable at times. Also, it's a few minutes too long. Maybe this all adds up to a standard (not good) summer blockbuster.

The movie references past Indiana Jones movies. I probably missed some. Had I caught them, maybe they'd have made the movie funnier.

Aspects of the movie are even more over the top than past Indiana Jones movies. I hear there's a movement to replace the phrase "jump the shark" with "nuke the fridge" in reference to Indiana Jones surviving a nuclear explosion by hiding in a lead-lined fridge that is thrown by a nuclear explosion miles through the air.

This At The Movies discussion generally reflects my mixed (though tending to the negative) reaction to this film.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

This American Life - Reaction

On May 1, 2008, This American Life simulcast a live production of the show to many theaters throughout the country. (Well, for us west-coast viewers strictly speaking it wasn't a simulcast because they delayed the broadcast in order to show it at a reasonable time in the evening.)

This well-produced, entertaining simulcast was similar in feel to the radio show though the structure differed. Ira did some segments live, narrating, queuing clips, and balancing background music. In addition to these segments, other regulars appeared on stage to do pieces. It's amazing how fast I can recognize them from their voices. There was also an discussion segment where Ira and the This American Life's television show's producer talked about how they make creative decisions and what they're doing differently for the next season of the show (e.g., try omitting narration entirely). The simulcast wrapped up with questions and e-mails from the audience.

As for the content of the show, it had some clips that had been broadcast on the radio and on the television show, plus segments that didn't make it to air due to length restrictions. I particularly liked a cartoon they made for a radio segment and the talk-to-an-Iraqi segment. They also showed some outtakes. In addition, before the presentation began, the screen displayed animated games of hangman and anagrams to keep us entertained. (It worked.)

Ira didn't look like I expected him to. Indeed, he joked about this fact at the beginning of the show, remarking that he must remember that people who meet him for the first time don't hear anything he says for the first minute, instead attempting to integrate his appearance with their mental image of him. Later in the show, they showed clips of Ira's reactions he interviewed a guy talking about skinning a bull and crying. His facial expressions were hilarious, making it obvious why they don't show Ira's face during interviews in the television show--it'd be too distracting.

The theater was mostly full. I noticed a number of people, I included, craning their necks to look around to see what kind of people watch/listen to This American Life.

I wonder how much of Glass's motivation for this simulcast was a promotion for the second season of the TV show.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Mr. & Mrs. Smith - Reaction

Important note: I saw the 2005 remake.

A satisfying (but not great) action/offbeat-romance about two assassins who meet and marry each other, neither knowing what the other person does. I might even call it a romantic-comedy, just with dark humor as the comedy aspect. Sure, the plot has holes, the action scenes start reasonable and get more and more preposterous, and the film's not consistent in feel, but the fun the actors are having is obvious, and that fun is contagious. There's something simply cute about it (referring to the film) or them (the actors).

In short, it's a larger-than-life movie about larger-than-life people trying to make a relationship work. As such, it's a metaphor for marriage: the struggles, the conflict, the need for openness.

Interestingly, the film has no real villains. Originally it had villains, but they were removed in editing to make the focus more about the Smiths' struggles and relationship.

The repartee is generally pretty good but not great. However, the kitchen scene, with its double-entendres, is great.

An early scene in the movie gratuitously uses the sex appeal of its stars: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Luckily, the movie has more content than that.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Sound and Fury - Reaction

A tv-documentary-quality docudrama about a deaf couple deciding whether to get a cochlear implant for their child. It was only vaguely interesting to me. Nevertheless, I think I'm, as one IMDB reviewer says, "better for having watched it."

At its heart is "the old story of parents either wanting their kids ... to either be like them or to have it better than they had it," as another IMDB reviewer puts it. While even-handed, it's emotionally heartfelt. It's hard to watch people making this type of decisions for their children.

At a higher-level, it's easy to see the film as exploring the defensive reaction of a closely-knit community/cultural group as its existence is threatened by technology and medical advances. Basically, it's about how the existence of separate worlds / separate cultures can lead to xenophobia, and about how a constrained world-view can lead to ignorance and pride.

Incidentally, I think there's something ironic that the film has no subtitles and thus no deaf person can watch it. By the way, it uses voiceovers to translate what's said using sign language.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Bloodspell - Reaction

Bloodspell is said to be the first feature-length machinima film. I first learned about this burgeoning art form of using video games as animation engines through Red vs. Blue and later a screening/talk at a film festival in Berkeley.

This movie is described as a "post-goth punk fantasy adventure" set in a world where some people have magic in their blood and have to live in hiding due to church persecution. Though an action film, the action isn't that thrilling. The best visual effects are the appearances of the creatures (which, interestingly, is something the video game engine supplied, not the producers). Although the film has stilted dialogue, poor characterization (e.g., relationships which evolve unnaturally fast), and a plot that doesn't really make great sense, I nevertheless, despite many opportunities to stop watching as I waited for the film to download each new chapter, watched it to the end. In spite of these problems, something in it must've appealed to me. I did like the soundtrack, though it didn't necessary go with the action. (It didn't clash either.)

The film is freely available online.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sicko - Reaction

Michael Moore's entertaining, interesting, and surprisingly non-hysterical documentary about problems with the U.S.'s health care system, what caused them, and how other countries have solved similar problems. I like how he generally stayed off camera (especially in the first half), only narrating. His personality and cynicism comes through in this film, but they're not as overwhelming as in some of his others.

The movie takes a personal approach to its subject, interviewing many real people as it alternates between horror stories and tales of amazingly great health care systems. This approach, however, means that this isn't policy journalism because the evidence Moore compiles is anecdotal, however damning of the current system it may be.

The film advocates for publicly funded, universal, standardized health care--in some sense, universal humanitarianism.

The special features, mostly additional scenes and interviews, are like appendices.

Some reviewers complain his portraits of other countries are too rosy. I disagree; he's more focusing on what we do wrong than exploring other countries' systems in detail. He's showing that other countries don't have some of the same problems. Regardless of what hidden, different problems other countries have, it's clear their citizens take pride in their systems.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Wordplay - Reaction

A decent documentary about crossword solvers and the crossword championship. It does a good job showing the camaraderie these quirky, brainy characters have with each other. I most enjoyed the interviews with famous people (Clinton, Jon Stewart, etc.). I also liked seeing how crosswords are created. On the other hand, I found the sections giving background on the various contestants got a little slow/tedious at times. I'm not sure the film (despite the competitive nature of the subject matter) would interest people not into puzzles. (Richard Roeper warns that the film has a "heavy nerd factor.")

I liked the special features (factoids, snippets, colorful blurbs, puzzle profiles, music video) more than the movie itself.

If I bought DVDs, I'd be tempted to buy this one, simply because I think I know many people who would enjoy the contents. This is an odd thing to say since I've definitely seen better movies per se, but I think the topic and contents of this DVD are something special and distinctive.

Incidentally, the movie uses ingenuous/inventive graphics to show crosswords on the screen as contestants solve them.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Pursuit of Happyness - Reaction

A good movie with a literary feel. Based on a true story about a San Francisco man trying to simultaneously be a father and work himself out of poverty. At its heart is a father-son story displayed through the series of obstacles that the father overcomes, often demonstrating morals/life lessons, while seeking to convey a sense of normalcy to his son. These events usually turn out in good ways, or at least we focus on these events as watchers of the movie. The movie is paced like true life: these things, they happen. This pacing can take some time to get used to. It's revealing that the director, regarding a scene 50 minutes into the film, said that particular scene is the most important scene in the movie. After that scene, the movie takes off.

The acting is good! Will Smith played the protagonist and Will Smith's real son played his son in the movie. The son was said by the director to be the best kid for the job. I believe it. Chris Gardner, the man who wrote the book/lived the life on which the movie was based, said, "the kid has more talent in his big toe than Will has in his whole body."

At its core, the movie is about the American dream, about the pursuit of happiness. It's also about fatherhood/paternal love. It's interesting to note what the movie's not about. Although the main character is black and attempting to get a job in an all-white firm, the movie doesn't comment on race at all. Furthermore, although it deals with poverty, the poor, and homelessness, it doesn't really make a statement about them. Some may consider the movie to be making a statement about capitalism; I'm not sure.

The commentary revealed neat facts about how the movie was produced.

  • They hired real homeless people to play homeless people!
  • Will Smith solved the Rubik's Cube himself. (He taught himself to do them quickly.)
  • The director obsessed about making the film and sets look like the 1980s. Frankly, I didn't notice or care.
The DVD includes many special features for those interested in the true story. I also heard more of the true story in a KQED interview. There are dark, R-rated aspects of the story, aspects omitted in this PG-13 version of the tale and never mentioned in the special features of the disc. Obviously, for even more details, read the book.

Addendum: While reading others' reviews of this movie, I came up with a list of words that I think generally apply but aren't so perfect that I wanted to use them in my reaction essay: tense, heart-wrenching, intense, moving, tender, slow, heartful, heartfelt, and earnest.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Bananas - Reaction

An early Woody Allen movie: meaning a pure comedy with no attempt at philosophical depth. It's a wacky, random film with a strange plot. Dense with gags, I found it funny, in an absurd way; it made for easy watching.

Like other Allen films, his self-obsession clearly comes across.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Street Fight - Reaction

A compelling documentary, which should induce anger or outrage in any viewer, about the 2002 electoral race in Newark between the underdog, a Stanford- and Yale-educated Rhodes scholar, and the mayor, head of the political machine and doer of mean, underhanded, sometimes criminal tricks. The mayoral battle shows examples of corrupt power and racial politics (despite that both candidates are African-American). The sleazy mayor resorts to negative ads, to outright lies, and even to criminal activity. If my description of the candidates seems one-sided, it's because the maker of the documentary clearly has a perspective. But then, that's pretty natural because one side provided access and the other did not.

Although the documentary is about a dirty campaign in the microcosm of local Newark politics, the themes aren't limited to Newark. Indeed, it feels like an election that could've taken place in any third-world country. It touches on first amendment issues: freedom of the press (e.g., denying access of the documentary maker to the mayor's public events) and freedom of speech (e.g., selective police prosecution of people who erect signs supporting the underdog). Furthermore, the simple fact that the documentary only covers intangibles about the candidates, not issues, makes a statement about politics.

This is the director/producer's first full-length movie. He paid for it out of his own pocket. I'm glad he made it.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

My Best Friend (Mon Meilleur Ami) - Reaction


A lovely, sensitive, sweet French comedy-drama about an antiques dealer who needs to find a true friend, not a contact or business associate. Given the setting and the way unexpected twists appear, the clearly contrived premise may even stray into sit-com territory. Nevertheless, the result is a good, rewarding film that may be called a romantic-comedy--just one about male friendship rather than romance--or better yet a "buddy movie." The great acting is a nice bonus.

Although my description may make the film sound light, it's actually pregnant with sentimental humanist themes about the difficulty of making new friends and about the meaning of friendship. Or, if you're thinking a little darker, it could be about using gifts to compensate for social alienation. That is, should you buy your friends? Regardless of how you read it, the director has made "cannily crafted entertainment" (Andrew O'Hehir, that combines "sympathy for his characters with a quick wit, a dark undertow and a love of human peculiarity" (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times).

Friday, February 29, 2008

Dirty Dancing - Reaction

A fairly entertaining, sweet dancing movie / summer love story set in a hotel in the Catskills. Made in the 80s but portraying the early 60s, it's about loss of innocence. In the grand view, this means America's loss of innocence and class struggles. In the local view, it refers to a particular girl's journey into womanhood.

The story, not unlike Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story, has simple characters, played straight. Nevertheless, the movie holds up to multiple viewings.

There's a spot about an hour into the film when it could've ended.

I found the writer/producer commentary interesting and detailed.

Incidentally, the film briefly includes an amazing tap dancer. (I don't know his name.)

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The War Within - Reaction

A scary, unsettling, topical drama about a man who is wrongly (?) picked up as a terror suspect and is interrogated/tortured. (We see this through some disturbing, gruesome flashbacks.) The man leaves prison with a hatred of America. The "mostly well wrought" (source of quote) film about a "mild-mannered zealot" (source of quote) is mainly marred by the portrayal of the main character. I wish I could read him more. It could be poor acting. It could intentional. Given the commentary about what was intended in certain scenes, I believe it was the latter, which I think was a poor directing choice. In contrast, the supporting character, the old friend, is particularly good.

The title, The War Within, refers to the war within a man, within a family, within America, and within Islam. The film deals with the American dream (as seen through a New Jersey family), how we influence the younger generation, the interplay between immigration and assimilation, and whether we can truly know the people close to us. Also, obviously, the movie directly addresses the point that America's secret prisons where torture occurs can create terrorists.

In the special features, I observed the deleted scenes were deleted for a reason: they change the feel of certain relationships or reveal things in the wrong order.

Monday, February 18, 2008

District B13 - Reaction


A decent, mindless action movie with slick stunts. It's about a bomb in a French barrio. Set in the near future. I especially liked that much of the action involved parkour. (One main character is played by one the founders of parkour.) Plus, the occasional slow-motion Matrix-like shots were a nice touch. The film obviously touches on the recent social unrest in the poor districts near Paris.

The DVD itself is remarkably bad.

  • The previews were for movies that looked so bad, I'll forever remember the name of the production company and in order to avoid its movies.
  • The menu screens on the DVD had what appeared to be bad artwork, like that one sees in a video game, as the background. They could easily have taken an arbitrary frame from the movie and it would've looked better.
  • The English dubbed audio was enabled by default. Although it was bad and I switched it off after a few lines, my real complaint here was that this foreign film assumed the viewer wanted to watch the dubbed version. This is the first film I've seen in a long time that made this incorrect presumption.
On the other hand, the DVD's hour-long making-of documentary was quite well done.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Row Hard, No Excuses - Reaction

A striking, intense, personal narrative documentary about two men who enter a competition to row across the Atlantic. (Don't think about ordinary rowboats--these are sizable boats because they must hold all the food for the multi-month journey.) The film is about the hardships they encounter, both physical and emotional, which are not what they expected / planned for. Despite me not being that interested in the rowing aspect, it's a pretty good movie, skillfully edited together from the videotapes the rowers made while en route and footage the director recorded before and after the journey.

The movie speaks about what it means to consider one's self a success and why people do the things they do. Relatedly, it deals with the men's relationships with their fathers. Thus, it explores "masculinity, midlife, and ambition." Also, it shows different ways people work together in teams constantly in each other's presence under intense conditions for weeks on end.

After the screening, the director and one of the men answered questions from the audience. They told some great stories. (Q&As are one reason I love film festivals.) One story described how the men were nearly hit by a huge cargo ship in the middle of the night, and how the sailors on the ship were perplexed why anyone would want to row across the ocean. Judging by the questions, most of the audience rowed. (Incidentally, the starring men were generally emotionally distant in the film. Judging by the one starring man at the Q&A, this impression was justified.)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Sexina: Popstar, P.I. - Reaction

A super-campy, fun film about a pop star, a la Britney Spears, who fights crime. It's infectious. I'm not sure why it's so much fun. It's not a rational reaction. Deserving special commendation is the great opening song in the style of a Bond theme, and the awesome, fake bear attack. My only complaint is that the film is a little too long--near the end, it becomes a bit sappy and therefore slower.

Many cast and crew members answered questions after the screening.

Monday, February 11, 2008

La Crème (The Cream) - Reaction


A good, black-comedy-drama about a man who finds a skin cream that makes people think he's famous and therefore treat him very well. (The comedy-drama aspect is the usual way the French combine these genres that I like so much.) The story has multiple unexpected events, making the story delightfully difficult to predict. The film speaks about the desire to be famous and about how we respond to celebrity.

I just wish they used a better quality camera. The film was a little grainy.

La Combinaison (The Combination) - Reaction


A fairly cute, funky short about a guy who's played the same lottery numbers every week for ten years. One week they hit.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Lawrence of Arabia - Reaction

This movie, grand in scope, feels like a classic. Based on a true story, it's about a flamboyant, complex, unique, and sometimes enigmatic British officer who leads the Arab tribes, despite internecine fighting, against the Turks during World War I, and, notwithstanding British misgivings, encourages their independence. As such, it plays simultaneously like a character study / psychological profile and an adventure story. The film, at nearly four hours in length (with an intermission), feels stately in style and in pacing. One can't make movies this long or at this speed anymore. Thus, it's unrepeatable. A solid film, it's not a surprise that it won many Academy Awards and Golden Globes.

Speaking of the intermission, I liked the musical score that played during it, before the movie started, and at the end.

The film includes dramatic, expansive desert vistas. The battle scenes had a similarly wide angle and used many extras. According to the commentary, shooting in a pristine desert was hard work. One had to rub out tracks (or wait for the wind to do it for you) between takes. And, as this film was made long before computer graphics, some scenes, such as a striking sunrise, simply required luck, early morning setup, and patience, in order to capture the cinematic magic.

The movie is about skin color and fitting in, and about compassion and mercy. It also explores the ambiguity of motives, such as the conflict between political expediency versus personal morality.

It's interesting that the movie works and was successful without any love interests or indeed any women in speaking roles at all. (I didn't notice this fact while watching; I only read about it later.)

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Road to Nod - Reaction


A black and white movie about a prisoner who is released from prison and finds out his old gang has been disbanded, another has taken over, and they want him dead. It's simultaneously a road movie and a noir, as he looks up old associates and runs for his life. Although apparently a low budget film, it's hard to tell. It uses a high quality camera, and the camerawork is smooth and good.. The framing and cutting is better than in most professionally made movies. (Indeed, that might be a reason to see it.) On the other hand, although the stoic main character is played well, some of the supporting characters are not. Some seem like they're just reading their lines. Also, there's no visible pursuing enemy, no sense of a chase, and thus the movie lacks a sort of imminent threat that could keep us on our toes. My overall impression of the movie: while I'm glad I saw it, I could've taken it or left it.

Incidentally, many actors and the soundtrack come from Swiss Rock musical groups. I enjoyed the music, feeling it added a soulful and unconventional yet appropriate ambiance to the film. The indiefest person who introduced the film believes the music alone might be reason to see it.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Night and the City - Reaction

Important note: I saw the 1950 version. The movie has apparently been remade later.

A respectable, compelling, action-filled noir about a con artist/tout/huckster for whom, although slick and wily, nothing goes right. Perhaps the events are a bit exaggerated at times, but most good noir are like that.

Road House - Reaction

A decent enough noir about two men, one of whom is psychotic, caught in a love triangle in a small town. The movie meanders, building characters, for quite a while as nothing happens. In fact, except for a suspenseful ending in a foggy forest, there's not much action. Also, the plot is straightforward, lacking twists, turns, and unexpected events. Given the last three sentences, I'm hard pressed to call this a noir in the traditional sense.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Quiz Show - Reaction

A dramatic, engrossing movie about the 1950's scandal about quiz game shows being fixed. It's suspenseful all the way through its more than two hour length. The writing is smart and the characters appropriately articulate. Also, I love the accents.

Beside the obvious moral issue in the film, there's a number of other themes. The movie speaks a bit about ethnic/race and class issues, especially as seen through the producers and sponsors of the show thinking about the image they want to convey and what the public wants. The movie also speaks about father-son issues, as exemplified by the two main characters' relationships with their father's/son's. In addition, in some sense, it speaks about America's loss of innocence in general and about the media in particular. Finally, we also see the rise of television culture, as families gather weekly to watch their favorite shows, and the tyranny of audience ratings.

The movie is based loosely on a true story. Although all indications imply the movie is truthful, and it even names names of real people and companies, it apparently takes substantial dramatic license. For instance, the lawyer didn't really play any role in uncovering the scandal, despite how the movie makes it appear. It's ironic that a movie about misleading the public into believing something happened that actually didn't does the same with its plot.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Ratatouille - Reaction

Pixar's stylishly atmospheric computer animated tale, filled with vibrant colors and sumptuous, dazzling visuals, about the adventures of a rat, Remy, who loves to cook. He's irresistible. Further, all of the varied characters are unique individuals. In addition to their personalities and actions, the generally great voice acting helps flesh them out. Regardless, though the last third is fantastic, I found my attention wandering throughout the first two-thirds. It would've helped to have another character with whom to identify or a consistent threat/problem/opposing force.

I want to commend many features of the film:

  • Multiple visually stunning scenes, especially panoramas of Paris. They should be printed and framed.
  • The amazing scene of the kitchen at work near the end of the movie. It's like ballet.
  • A chase scene along the Seine. It's simply pretty. I especially liked the attention to the leaves and how they blow in the air.
  • Two imaginative scenes showing visually what it's like to experience food.
  • Good rendering of water, better than most computer animation.
  • The consistency of Remy's actions. He's only able to talk to other rats, and only walks on four paws when in the presence of his father.
  • The quick, funny image of a rat playing his whiskers as a musical instrument.
  • The subtle death imagery about the restaurant critic who "killed Gusteau: his skull-shaped typewriter, and his casket-shaped study.
On the other hand, I felt the movie had a bit too much slapstick, especially scenes of Remy crawling over Linguini.

Some reviewers have aptly remarked that this film is a portrait of an artist. As such, it has an interesting message about art, talent, and success. Think about it.

The DVD includes a cute short special feature on the history of rats. I wish I knew how much of it is true. The DVD's special features also describe how some Pixar employees trained with Thomas Keller (of the French Laundry) in order to get restaurant details right, and how early versions of the film had Gusteau alive.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Stardust - Reaction

A fairly good, fun, often whimsical, swashbuckling, energetic adventure. A casual film, it flows over the viewer, making it a harmless way to pass the time. My reaction is rather like Roger Ebert's from the Chicago Sun-Times:

"There is a kind of narrative flow that makes you want to be swept along, and another that's just one thing after another."

The movie is sophisticatedly executed with attention to the details such as the opulent costumes, the idiosyncratic characters, and the good (not overwhelming) special effects. The colors often radiate/glow, which seems appropriate for a fantasy. I enjoyed the peanut gallery / supernatural Greek chorus of dead Stormhold rulers who comment on the action. On the other hand, I thought the homosexual ship's captain was dramatically overacted.

Stardust is a fantasy about one man's quest to retrieve a star in order to show his devotion to his love. As such, it's a fairy tale, though aimed a bit more at adults than children. Based on a novel by Neil Gaiman, I felt as if the book captured the fairy tale feel more than the movie. Also, the movie changed the story somewhat. One change involved removing some scenes which I thought were significant. For instance, the movie lacked the scene in which the hero leaves the star unchained, a scene I thought important to show how the hero's relationship with the star grows. In the end, I'm not sure what I'd think of the movie if I hadn't read the book--whether I'd like it more or less.

Incidentally, given the movie's fantastic setting, its humor, and the romantic plot element, it's often compared to the Princess Bride.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Princess Mononoke - Reaction


An epic, masterful animated film by Miyazaki. It's a fanciful, memorable film with a mythic story involving men literally trying to kill the old gods (who represent nature). In particular, the hero finds himself in the middle of a war between a mining and gun building colony (i.e., humans and technology) and the creatures of the forest (i.e., nature). The hero is overflowing with compassion. He attempts to save everybody, on every side of each battle.

Everything in the film is richly alive and imagined. The creatures are visually (and conceptually) inventive and stunning. In addition, some vistas are tremendously beautiful.

The movie is slow in short segments, perhaps because it occasionally conveys information through exposition, not action. Nevertheless, the movie is usually quite exciting. Indeed, the climax involves multiple scenes and lasts thirty minutes. I kept thinking each scene was going to be the last. I was wrong multiple times. Note, however, the movie continuing was natural; I wasn't disappointed by or frustrated by the length of the conclusion.

The film explores some of the same themes as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds, such as the importance of living in harmony with nature / old gods. Making an interesting statement, the film presents no easy/clean resolution. Also like Nausicaä, this film has strong female characters. One new theme explored here is prejudice. The film shows how prejudice, which can lead to hatred, can literally possess someone.

The subtitles in the version I watched almost went by too fast to read at times.

Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times film critic, has a great quote about the movie:

"We are presented with a haunting, even unsettling magical mystery milieu of frustrated gods, angry spirits and overmatched humans in which images of startling beauty alternate with violent acts and nightmarish terrors as if that were the most natural thing in the world."

Neil Gaiman has some interesting thoughts on the movie (1, 2, 3). He was involved because he wrote the English translation of the script. As I watched the Japanese DVD with English subtitles, I don't think I saw any of his work.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Kaze no tani no Naushika (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds) - Reaction


A very good, fast paced, animated movie set in a post-apocalyptic world. It's dark, violent, and suspenseful, and therefore not for kids. The storyline is complex, twisting and turning, and often we see events happen before it's revealed why they're happening. As with other Miyazaki films, the film includes very imaginative creatures.

The movie warns about the generally irreversible destruction caused by war, and the need to be environmentally conscious / balance man's needs with nature's. It advocates that one should treat other people, as well as animals, insects, and plants, with compassion and sympathy. Also, as all major characters in the film are strong women, the movie implicitly has an undertone of female empowerment.

The ending has religious overtones.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Helvetica - Reaction

An interesting talking-head documentary, mostly interviewing various typographic designers about their opinions about Helvetica, an amazingly pervasive font, and about their thoughts on how graphic design can help express ideas. Also covers the history of the type, the passions behind it, its rise and fall according to fashion, and how it has come to be so ubiquitous. Some of the people interviewed are real characters, with extreme, passionate views of Helvetica (it's perfect, or it's used only by the brain-dead). My only complaint is that I wish there was more depth about graphic design and its history, and less about opinions on Helvetica--that aspect got repetitive.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The People vs. Larry Flynt - Reaction

A smart, funny, and entertaining movie based on the life of Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler, and his personal battles and battles with the judicial system. I had effectively no knowledge of this story beforehand and enjoyed learning it. The movie is a bit too long. That doesn't mean it gets slower at any particular point but rather just that I ran low on patience. Also, I was slightly bothered that people don't seem to age, despite the story happening over more than a decade.

Courtney Love deserves a special commendation for seeming to inhabit her character, a kittenish, brazen, vulgar, quirky free spirit.

The film is fundamentally about freedom of speech. Some reviewers complain the message is too strong--the perspective too assertive and sugarcoated--but I disagree. It's impossible to overstate the importance of freedom of speech. Other reviewers complain it omits some of Flynt's opponents, such as the feminists who protested his pictures of sexual aggression against women. Despite watching all the special features, I learned while researching the movie later that the original advertising poster was banned in American! How ironic.

Speaking of special features, the DVD was full of them. And they were all good! There's a documentary about making the movie and the reaction to the movie, and another about the evolution of the court's interpretation of the right to freedom of speech. There's also a commentary track with the actors. Courtney Love is funny! Her commentary is great, and personally revealing. There's another good commentary track by the writers. They discuss the research they did for the movie and what they decided to change and what they decided to omit.

One scene amused me so much that I want to document it here: after Flynt says, "I ought to move somewhere where perverts are welcome," the movie cuts to the Hollywood sign.