Monday, January 31, 2011


Movie: Extract

This is one of those low-key independent films that appeared on the edge of my radar and I wanted to see it but never did. It's also one of those films that I thought I knew what it was about without knowing anything about it. I'm not sure why that is -- if I saw some vague promotion or just read a paragraph and put my own interpretation on it. Part of the problem is the title. It's a comedy about an extract bottling plant owner and I guess I assumed that the extract was key to the plot: I figured he discovered some new extract that gave superpowers or some funny side effect. Boy was I wrong! This film is nothing like that. It's extremely subtle humor, almost bland. (It desperately needs a laugh track, though that would cheapen it.) Jason Bateman plays almost the same character he did on Arrested Development: a good guy trying hard and baffled by all the craziness around him. There isn't much of a plot. He's frustrated by his distant wife, thinking of selling the plant, being sued by an injured employee, and lusting after a female con artist who is just trying to get money from the suing employee. All these events converge into a decent, though low-key ending. While I really like the dry humor, it's probably not everyone's taste. It's important to realize this isn't a "laugh out loud" kind of comedy. It's the kind that brings a wry smile to your lips. It's easy to see how this could become a cult classic. There are some really wonderful moments and scenes, and on repeat viewings some of the subtle humor is really hilarious. Don't get your comedy expectations too high and it's definitely worth checking out if you like this kind of humor.


Friday, January 28, 2011

The Mechanic

Movie: The Mechanic

I haven't seen the original film, though I've heard good things about it, and I can't compare the two. But being a remake, I was leery of this, and that proved justified as this feels like a by-the-numbers remake with little originality brought to the new version. Other than a new cast and a modern setting, there's not much too this movie. The premise is interesting: a hit man is hired to kill his old friend and then takes on his friend's angry son as an apprentice. That opens all sorts of moral quandaries, but they aren't really explored as the hit man character is little more than a robot. The feeling I got is this tries to be Unforgiven but without the intelligence and depth. The beginning is slow, without much action, and the latter half of the film is too much action. The film thus has inconsistent pacing. It has an inconsistent feel, too, sometimes gritty and at times too slick and cool. We're also not given much in the way of character development. The old mentor is killed off so early we don't really understand his relationship with the killer, and the young new guy, while interestingly morose, hated his father so his revenge motivation feels ill-fitting. It's not a terrible film by any stretch. It's well-done and pretty good, but it's just not great. I am skeptical it could be an improvement over the original (I plan to see that soon and find out). A fun rental.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Princess of Mars

Book: Princess of Mars
Writer(s): Edgar Rice Burroughs

It's been a long time since I've read Burroughs' Mars series -- I first discovered them in high school (25 years ago, wow!) -- but with the new film coming out I thought I'd give them a reread. (And they're free on Kindle, so yeah!) This is an enjoyable book. Burroughs doesn't much limit himself to science so these are more fantasy than science fiction (remarkablely imaginative considering when these were written), but he does an excellent job at creating interesting and unusual cultures (that's my favorite thing about his books). Here he's got warring populations and species of Martians, a lone human (John Carter) thrust in the middle and trying to survive, and a terrific adventure tale of daring and brawn. Things are a little tedious at times as Burroughs has to spend a great deal of time explaining the world -- it's our narrator hero's first time there, too -- and while some of that exposition is interesting, more action would have been preferable. (I'm really curious about how the subsequent books handle this as they should have more story.) A few of the details are almost too pat (you can see solutions to future problems as things happen to him earlier on), and I found the descriptions of battles boring (war isn't interesting to me). The love story is the most fascinating part of the book, as he's falling in love with an alien with a different thought process and culture. Overall, it's a book that holds up remarkably well. I'm not sure if this is the book they're making into a movie -- it's the first novel but there is a book called "John Carter of Mars" which I heard was the movie title -- but I'm very curious to see what they produce. Considering the nature of the novels -- a foreign planet, strange beasts and creatures, epic battles, airships, alien cities -- these are not books that were filmable (at least realistically) without today's special effects abilities. We shall see!


Friday, January 14, 2011

The Green Hornet

Movie: The Green Hornet
Writer(s): Michael Gondry

I was fully prepared to hate this movie. The trailers gave me little hope: it seemed like a feeble attempt at comedy, and the whole concept of this particular superhero was missing. I also kept confusing this with The Green Lantern, another superhero movie coming out this summer. To my surprise, I really liked this film! It's wonderful. The director shoots it in an interesting manner, with fun little quirky touches that don't overwhelm but do make things more interesting. The plot is simple and slight, but I actually liked that. It's really just an origin story and I like my origin stories pure. Too may of these kinds of movies try to do both an origin and a regular adventure plot at the same time and the result is that neither storyline is satisfactory. The origin of the Green Hornet is interesting. I'd actually forgotten until I read recently that this character started out as a radio play way back when (along with the Lone Ranger and The Shadow). This character is not actually a superhero: he's more like Batman in that he's just a regular guy. He's also unusual in that he's not that super: his sidekick, Kato, is the actual hero. The main guy's just the motivator and image. (The concept reminds me (a little) of the team of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, where one guy's the actual electronics genius and the other provides the marketing and charisma. Neither would have succeeded without the skills of the other.) The other thing I really like about the concept of this character is how he's actually perceived by the police and criminals as a bad guy. Everyone thinks the Green Hornet is a criminal. The logic behind this is that as a criminal he can get closer to the bad guys and stop their plans. If the crooks know he's a hero, they'll try and stop him or take advantage of his good nature to hurt innocent people. But since the criminals think he's a bad guy, they assume that he doesn't care about innocent people and thus can't use that as a weapon against him. Genius! The drawback, of course, is that he's hunted by both revengeful crooks and the police, but that's a minor price to pay.

Now this particular version of the story changes things a little bit and does make it more comical. Seth Rogan plays the Green Hornet and he fits his role as a useless playboy to a T. I love the way Kato was slowly brought into the story, the way Seth's character slowly gets into the superhero business, and the way the two bicker and fight but ultimately become best friends. Seth's character isn't much a hero, but he has a good heart, and it's his idealism that that motivates Kato who would never have thought of dressing up in costume and stopping bad guys. That's just the kind of thing a soft, spoiled, and bored rich kid would dream up. While I can see how some people wouldn't like this story -- not a lot happens -- I really liked it. I admire the restraint and subtlety and I like the careful pacing so that characters don't suddenly change overnight but gradually become superheroes. It helps that there's plenty of humor to keep us entertained, and some decent (though over-the-top) action late on. The villain is marvelously played by Christoph Waltz (from Inglourious Basterds) in a wonderful role as a bad guy who is overly concerned with what people think of him. The plot simply consists of him, as the town's leading bad dude, becoming jealous of the publicity the Green Hornet's getting and trying to kill him. It gets a little muddled with a whole corrupt politician angle, but overall is a simple plot that gets out of the way so we can focus on the Seth becoming the Green Hornet. I'm sure future movies in this series (assuming they are bad) would have a more conventional action plot and that will be fine.

Overall, this is not up to the level of the amazing The Dark Knight, but it's solid and surprisingly watchable. The comedy is light and appropriate. A few things don't work or fall awkwardly (some of the adult language felt really out of place in what feels like a movie appropriate for youngsters), and some of the fighting between the two main characters went too far as we want them to be friends, but the bottom line is that I thoroughly enjoyed myself. That surprised me as I was really expecting to write a scathing commentary. Recommended!


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Twilight: New Moon

Movie: Twilight: New Moon

I'm not really into the Twilight series and this one started off horrible: it was incredibly boring, tedious, and I didn't have a clue what was going on. Basically the girl's vampire love splits on her, apparently because he loved her so much he didn't want to see her hurt, so she goes into a deep depression and discovers that when her life is in jeopardy she can sense him. So to get closer to him and see him again, she starts risking her life with crazy stunts. The drama gets better when he mistakenly thinks she's dead and decides to kill himself and she has to race to stop him. This whole mess is complicated by a second romance with another boy who turns out to be a werewolf. Werewolves hate vampires and thus she's torn between two species. The special effects are extremely weak (the human-to-werewolf transformation is especially cheesy), the action is minimal, the conflict artificial and forced, and other than the love story, there isn't much to this story. The real problem is that the love story doesn't really come into play until the end: prior to that it's just 90 minutes of walloping in a girl's depression and self-pity, which makes me feel like shooting myself just to stop the pain. All that said, the later part, toward the end, did get more interesting, and I did like some of the vampire ideas and dilemmas presented, especially the concept that the girl is actually special as some of the vampire's powers won't work on her (no one knows why). This says to be the series is going somewhere, but I am still in awe of how this series manages to make exciting stuff like vampires so boring! It's a real gift, that is.


Friday, January 7, 2011

Black Swan

Movie: Black Swan

Where do I begin? I loved this film. It's authentic, mysterious, magical, wonderful. It catches you off guard, puts you on edge, and makes you think. It's full of so many powerful themes: young replacing old; the old living vicariously through the young; repressed emotional and sexuality; and the quest for immortality, greatness, and perfection. The film is supremely sexual without being titillating. It's horrific without violence or gore. I think that's what I loved best. My favorite scene was when the domineering mother catches her adult daughter scratching (an old bad habit) and furiously clips her fingernails with a pair of scissors as though she were a helpless little girl. It was so vicious, every snip so angry, you couldn't help but cringe in terror. Movies today show lopped heads and limbs ripped off and we don't bat an eye, but this scene (which is utterly harmless, for what serious damage could the tiny scissors do?) -- will have you on the edge of your seat wincing and chills shooting down your spine.

The story is simple and clean and beautiful. A young ballet star has the chance to get her dream role as the swan queen where in Swan Lake she'll play both the innocent white swan and the seductive black swan. It's a challenge that will force her out of her comfort zone, make her have to feel rather than think. It takes her to a dark place, so dark she has a mental breakdown. As someone who's been involved with theatre, I understand that completely. Such roles are heady and life-changing, forcing you to rethink everything you know about yourself. For a repressed person, they allow you to slip out of your skin and into a persona and behave in ways you normally couldn't. I understand the mother, a former ballet star herself, whose career was cut short by her pregnancy, and now she unintentionally puts incredible pressure on her loving daughter. The mother is both awful and tragic, the perfect example of how genuine love can be cruel.

Everything about this film -- the powerful story, the incredible performances by the leads (it's Natalie Portman's strongest role by far and it will be criminal if she doesn't win an Oscar), the subtle and fascinating direction, the music -- is amazing. It's reminiscent of Roman Polanski's Repulsion, but less claustrophobic. It's a subtle film, delicate, with much depth beneath the surface. It's the kind of film I could watch again and again and learn more from each time. The only flaw I can find, if it has any, is that main character's repression keeps the audience slightly at a distance. That, combined with the strange and mysterious happenings, some of which might be the girl's imagination, can be off-putting. But to me this is a minor issue, though I can see how some might be more disconnected from the story. I loved this. I can't recommend it more highly. It's not always easy to watch, but that's what makes it so powerful.