Thursday, December 25, 2008

"A Gentle Breeze in the Village" (2007, Dir: Nobuhiro Yamashita)

Pros: Beautiful cinematography. Natural acting. Lovely pacing. Heartwarming story.

Cons: Overly slick production. Feels more Western than director's previous works.

Grade: A

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"A Tale of Two Sisters" (2003, Dir: Ji-Woon Kim)

Pros: Great use of tension. Excellent acting. Lovely sets. Some effective jump scares. Nice use of light + shadow.

Cons: Use of blatant 'scare tactics'. Some cliche 'horror-movie' camerawork. Hard-to-understand ending. Doesn't feel very organic.

Grade: B

Sunday, December 21, 2008

"Slumdog Millionaire" (2008, Dir: Danny Boyle & Loveleen Tandan)

The popularity of this film with American film critics associations just goes to show how wholly film critics are fazed by bright colors and loud noises. Sacrificing story for energy, wretchedly artificial and with not a lick of subtlety to be found, Slumdog Millionaire epitomizes the idea of "style over substance" in every way.

The cast is charismatic but there's no great acting to be found here. The writer seems to have no grasp of metaphor or nuance, hammering each point home as bluntly as possible. From the overly Western plotline to the almost patronizing way Boyle portrays the Indian slums, there is nothing here that seemed real to me in the slightest. It's a Westerner's approximation of the "real India", complete with a soundtrack (quite enjoyable, admittedly) of Indian songs remixed in a Eurodance style.

Cinematography is frequently interesting, but the abundance of cheesy slow-mo and the weird editing makes it seem as though we're watching a music video instead of a film. Slumdog Millionaire is basically the stylistic twin of Mamma Mia! with an Eastern setting and a European director. This, of course, automatically makes it worthy of awards.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"The Seventh Continent" (1989, Dir: Michael Haneke)

Pros: Interesting message movie. Effectively disturbing. Good for fans of Haneke.

Cons: Pacing and subject matter will turn off Haneke newbs. Tiresome editing structure.

Grade: B+

"Happy-Go-Lucky" (2008, Dir: Mike Leigh)

Pros: Brilliant, complex performance by Sally Hawkins. Rich supporting cast. Intricate narrative. Interesting concept film, the first of its kind from a director known mainly for "slice-of-life" drama. Highly discussable. Richly observed.

Cons: Writing seems less than organic at the beginning. Takes a while for the brilliance to really "kick in". Over-the-top score. Primary school teachers dress like hookers. Less realistic than Leigh's past work.

Grade: A

Sunday, December 14, 2008

"WALL-E" (2008, Dir: Andrew Stanton)

Pros: Visually stunning. Brilliant use of lack of dialogue. Great character design. Brilliant animation. Full of beautiful moments. Marvelous score. Great end-credits sequence.

Cons: Loses some of its charm once humans enter the equation. What dialogue there is is rather blunt and preachy. Political ends are admirable but portrayed less than subtly. Would have worked better as a "silent" film - without any human dialogue at all.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

"Benny's Video" (1992, Dir: Michael Haneke)

I can imagine that this film would have nonplussed critics when it came out, but seeing Haneke's works in reverse chronological order makes it a lot more interesting - you can see, in embryo form, ideas that he explored in depth in his later films. Present in Benny's Video is both the "filmwatching as voyeurism" idea he looked at in Hidden, and the "filmwatching as crime" idea he explored, to brilliant and challenging effect, in Funny Games. These themes are substantially less developed in this film, and it functions as more an exercise in brainstorming than a fully realized film in its own right - even looking at it from a pre-Hidden and -Games angle.

A lot of future Haneke regulars are here - Arno Frisch and Ulrich Muhe (may he rest in peace), both of whom starred in Funny Games play Benny and his father, respectively. Angela Winkler is the mother. Haneke uses subtle camera tricks and directs his actors in ways that complicate the questions ultimately posed by the film - who is the most heinous? The son, who kills without feeling and suffers no visible remorse (until, possibly, the ending - which I believe would have been better had it been left open-ended)? The father, who thinks only of his family and his son's reputation? Or the mother - do those little smiles represent a crumbling emotional front or is she secretly enjoying the perilous situation she's found herself in?

The underlying strain of anger towards America and American media is once again present here. Mickey Mouse makes another background appearance - he was in Funny Games as a refrigerator magnet. I find Haneke's distaste with American tash culture far more compelling than von Trier's - especially since von Trier has never even been out of Europe, and thus fits completely the "stuck-up, anti-American European" image than many Americans have. And apart from Dogville, I don't think von Trier has made anything remotely as interesting or complex as Funny Games or Hidden.

The direction is the star here - the acting is passable but not really significant in the scope of things. I find it kind of ominous that Ingrid Stassner, who plays Benny's victim, has no other credits on IMDb.

There's enough interesting material here for me to give it a B- grade, but it will probably only be of interest to Haneke fans.

Friday, December 5, 2008

"Wild at Heart" (1990, Dir: David Lynch)

Peppy fantasy romance shows Lynch at his most whimsical. His affinity for black comedy is on display here - the story itself is a twisted retelling of "The Wizard of Oz", with a very leggy Laura Dern (mining the role for all its worth) in the Judy role and a surprisingly bearable Nicolas Cage as the love interest. The weakest link is Diane Ladd, whose hyperbolic Wicked Witch performance is so loopy that it hits only a few of the necessary targets, leaving whole character avenues untraveled. Harry Dean Stanton, Willem Dafoe, Isabella Rossellini and a feral Grace Zabriskie fill out the castlist.

A fun diversion, but as close to fluff as I think Lynch'll ever get.

"David and Lisa" (1962, Dir: Frank Perry)

This interesting, offbeat coming-of-age benefits from a nice supporting cast and some intriguing directorial flourishes, but a prosaic, unrealistic script and a hammy performance by young lead Keir Dullea make it more of a chore to sit through than it should be.

Irritating teen David (Dullea), who has a fear of being touched, is sent to a private boarding school for the special (I think that's the PC term?), where he meets MPD girl Lisa (a beautiful Janet Margolin, doing pretty well in a shallow role), who only talks in rhyme and has an alternate personality named Muriel, who is withdrawn and silent. They get to know each other, stuff happens and it all winds up towards a predictable but sweet result.

Supporting cast is fine - Howard Da Silva as the head psych, Richard McMurray and Neva Patterson as David's parents and Jaime Sanchez and the intriguing but underused Coni Hudak as some of David's schoolmates are all stellar.

Moody and enchanting at times, but the slow pace and Dullea's complete lack of acting ability kill it.

"Funny Games" (1997, Dir: Michael Haneke)

This brilliant, disturbing masterpiece on the connection between media violence, desensitization and real-world violence is perhaps one of the braver pieces of filmmaking of the past twenty-odd years. Michael Haneke is a genius and the only contemporary director I know of who utilizes violence in his films with such innovation, originality and genuine power. Not for the weak of heart or nerve, but definitely one to see if you give a shit about movies or the media and the effects they have on us.

"Cleo from 5 to 7" (1962, Dir: Agnes Varda)

A real director's film, chock full of interesting setpieces, symbolism and subtle visual tricks. There's so much to look for here, which makes it a fun watch for French film devotees (especially if you're keen on puzzles), but the lead character is only marginally interesting, and her story isn't gripping in the slightest. Earns marks for the visual sense and keen attention to detail on behalf of Varda.

Monday, December 1, 2008

"Australia" (2008, Dir: Baz Luhrmann)

It's definitely long, it's definitely overjuiced and it is definitely theatrical, but I enjoyed every minute of this campy, OTT romp. The critics have been giving it too hard a time - the acting is great all around, the visuals are stunning and the film itself is a huge heap of fun. Sirk can suck it - this is how you do melodrama.