Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

This 2009 flick was written and directed by Terry Gilliam, who also did the animation and art direction. Tom Waits is in it and plays the devil. If you heard those statements and either they mean nothing to you or make you not want to see this flick already, the you probably don’t need to read the rest of this review and you probably won’t much care for the film. If, however, you read those statements and instantly know, like me, that you will see this movie and already know you’re probably going to love it, then you too probably don’t need to read more.

For the rest of you…

A man named Parnassus, played fantastically by Christopher Plummer, became an incredibly powerful monk, so powerful, in fact, that he gained powers, not the least of which was the power of immortality. His likely only, and surely greatest, weakness is gambling. It seems he simply can’t stop himself. The Devil loves this problem of his and loves to exploit it as well. Here we are now in the present and Parnassus is a drunk, feeble, old (he lost his immortality in the 1940’s through yet another bet gone bad), loser of a man whose gambling problem has sent just about every aspect of his life down the tube.

Suddenly Parnassus’ group comes upon a man who can’t seem to remember his name or anything else and he enters the story as a choice for Parnassus. This supposed amnesiac named Tony may well be a manipulative con artist who seems wholly unconcerned with anyone but himself. Sounds a bit like what Parnassus has become, eh? Parnassus, see, has this mirror that people can walk through and see, essentially, their true thoughts come to life. I think it’s safe to say that, in Tony, Parnassus has found his mirror.

This movie was classic, as in 1980’s or before, Gilliam. It is imaginative, interesting, funny and engaging. I thought it was really great and I hope you all seek it out.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


In the not-too-distant future the son is diminishing and the earth is on the verge of a major ice age. The governments of the world come up with the idea of sending a crew with an enormous bomb toward the sun to launch the bomb at a key point on the sun on the theory that the bomb will basically kick start the sun. Problem is, no one’s heard from the crew in years. Desperate, the people of earth gather up all the remaining resources they can to build a truly ultimate bomb and send a second crew to do what the first could not. A group of 8 brave souls set off on their, essentially, suicide mission to save the earth, but along the way they pick up a distress signal from the first crew. They then have to decide, do they go after the first crew or do they stick to the mission and just leave them there.
This 2007 flick is by now Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle and his longtime writing partner Alex Garland, who also wrote the not-so-great The Beach and the very very good 28 Days Later. This movie was visually fantastic, with excellent production design that was clearly very detail oriented. Sunshine also features a very international ensemble cast with each actor seemingly from another country, even the computer voice for the ship is a Zimbabwean actress. I liked that and felt it added an interesting and, in terms of space travel, realistic angle to the cast. However, this point about the cast brings up my biggest complaint about the movie, in that Boyle attempts a lot of things here but never seems able to truly utilize them. For example, he has this great international cast, but then has them all using, or at least attempting, American accents, yes, even including the computer. For crying out loud, it’s a Scottish made movie with only one American in the cast, just embrace it. There are other such examples too, like the introduction of a mysterious and, supposed to be, frightening stowaway. We never really know why he’s there, what he’s trying to do or where he came from. In other words, the idea may have been good, but it just wasn’t executed well enough to be effective.
In the end, this was a decent movie that was visually great, but lacked a bit in story. If you love space-based movies like I do, you’ll at least enjoy the watch, but for most it’s probably not worth seeking out.
Saturday Afternoon/ME

Monday, January 25, 2010


So my appreciation of this movie is really two-fold. I appreciate the fact that Duncan Jones and screenwriter Nathan Parker pulled off a minimalist sci-fi movie that is super engrossing and simple... and I also appreciate the fact that Duncan Jones shed his ties as the son of David Bowie (Zowie) to bring us a low key release in Moon.

Sam Rockwell is astronaut Sam Bell, a contractor for energy mega-corporation Lunar Industries who is finishing up his 3 year program as the only human supervising the robotic collection of helium-3 on the Moon's surface. Since the live satellite link has been broken, Sam's mental health starts to come into question in the last few weeks of his occupancy on the lunar station Sarang. A hallucination and accident during a helium-3 retrieval catapults Sam into a series of strange events that changes life as he knows it, and everything he has come to work for.

No 'on-the-nose', space-themed Bowie songs - no extensive special effect scenes or ridiculous CG aliens... Moon works because of its quiet atmosphere and basic story. Not that there isn't a place for the normal big budget sci-fi flick, it's just that much more impressive when a new screenwriter and director can pull off something atypical. Rockwell is excellent in the near one-man-show, and off-beat moments of humor and tragedy mark this as one of the better screenplays in the last few years. I think screenwriter Nathan Parker really steals the show in this one, and credit goes to Jones for highlighting the better aspects of Parker's talents in his first film, and vice-versa.

I think it's a shame that Moon barely made back its budget in worldwide sales thus far, but I think with the release of the DVD and with word of mouth it can truly be appreciated for the work it is. At the very least one of the more interesting projects in recent memory.


(500) Days of Summer

Tom Hansen hasn’t had many relationships and really never thought he’d truly fall for someone. Unfortunately for him, he does fall for Summer and man did he fall hard. The reason I say this is unfortunate is because Summer never really falls for him. So, in the end, he only gets to be part of a chunk of Summer’s life. 500 days, that’s all he got. You, the viewer, know this from the very beginning. This isn’t a fairy tale where the two figure it out and live happily ever after. So, now that it’s over, Tom spends some time really reflecting on what happened and why things turned out the way they did and the viewer is simply along for the ride.
Since this movie is largely comprised of memories there’s a certain non-linear progression of the story. He remembers in bits and pieces, some of which go together, some don’t. He also remembers some things one way and then another later, so you end up watching the same scene again and yet, this time, it’s a totally different scene. He hates her, he loves her, he cherishes her, he regrets ever meeting her.
I thought this movie was very enjoyable to watch and I liked the director Marc Webb’s approach to telling the story. I also thought it was a great, authentic flick for people who are dating and not settled down with a single partner. It felt true to the oft complex and tumultuous task of finding the ‘one’ for you. The only thing I didn’t really like about the movie was it did dwell way too long on Tom moping around and being depressed. It just wasn’t that necessary. But overall, I liked it and enjoyed watching it.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Easy Virtue

In 1994 Aussie director Stephan Elliott put out one of my all-time favorite movies The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. He followed this with a series of bad movies, including the truly awful 1999 flick, Eye of the Beholder. In 2008 he directed Easy Virtue, his first film since Beholder, and when I found out it was a period-piece comedy written by Noel Coward and starring Colin Firth and Kristen Scott Thomas, made through BBC Films, I was excited. I thought the ingredients were there for Elliott to return to the path of righteousness he was on so briefly with Priscilla. Well, that didn’t happen.
Easy Virtue is about a British family deeply rooted to their traditional aristocratic ways and their sprawling country-side estate. Tensions are high as money grows thin. The husband no longer works and does little more than drink and bitch and the son, the hope of the family, is on a frolic in the south of France. Hope arrives when the son announces he’s returning, but that hope soon turns to more despair when the family learns that he’s coming back only for a visit and has actually gotten married, and to an American race-circuit driver. Oh, how appalling.
Sounds good, but it was terribly executed. This movie is a classic example of swinging and missing the ball completely. The characters are under developed, the scenery seems cut and pasted from some other movie and the story arc (overbearing mother and strong willed daughter-in-law compete for king of the mountain) is as played as it gets. They also do things that are just downright distracting, like having characters who are totally unnecessary and having modern songs (including KISS’s Sexbomb) as the soundtrack, played as though they were popular songs of the era.
Though I never thought I’d say this, the saving grace was the performance of Colin Firth and Jessica Biel, that’s right, you heard me. Biel was great, and I liked her just about every second she was on screen, and Firth was totally enjoyable as the drunken curmudgeon of a father. Outside of those two, the movie was utterly forgettable. I’m going to keep watching your movies Mr. Elliott, but please, please get better at this.


Up in the Air

This 2009 drama by Juno director Jason Reitman gives the audience a glimpse Ryan Bingham a man whose job is firing people. Companies hire his company to let people go from their positions. And why would they do this and not just fire their employees on their own? Well, because Bingham is very good at his job. By the time he’s done with you, you’re likely to feel like this is the best thing that’s ever happened to you. He’s so good his company sends him all over the world. He sells books, he gives speeches and seminars. In other words, he’s good. Problem is, to be good at a job like that it means you must always be gone and your heart must be cold as ice. His apartment looks like it’s vacant and he simply has no relationships. Just as he’s hitting the peak of his game, two game-changers get tossed his way. First, he meets a girl that has him feeling things he’s not sure he’s ever felt before. And, two, his company is likely doing away with in-person firing and has hired a 20-year-old wiz kid to implement the plan of Skype-esque firing. The company wants this young lady with almost no experience to travel with Mr. Experience to broaden her understanding of how it all works. Neither of them likes the idea and, in the end, both grow by being stretched like this. After these two major life changes, Ryan has to decide how he’s going to proceed in this life.

It seems the whole world loves this movie. It just won a handful of Golden Globes and people are saying this is Clooney’s best performance to date. Reitman seems to have a nack for sucking people into the lives of his offbeat characters, but unlike Juno, this flick is very grounded and seems very realistic. In fact, Reitman had non-actors play the part of the vast majority of the people fired in this movie. He simply set up a camera and asked them about their recent experiences being fired. He edited that footage into the movie as though Ryan was talking to them.

While this movie is certainly well acted and clearly the product of a talented director, I must confess it didn’t suck me in almost at all. I didn’t think about it when I left and when I sat down to write this review I had to do a little memory refresh. My biggest problem was that I’m not sure Reitman nailed down what he wanted to say. For example, he spent a great deal of time showing these gut wrenching scenes of firings, clearly trying to have us see the horror of it, but then he’d switch to working diligently to get us to sympathize with and even adore Ryan. The message jumped back and forth like that. An even better example is that my wife and I left the theater remembering the ending totally differently than the other did. Because of this, I never felt all that engaged. Still, not a bad movie by any means, just not that memorable.


Saturday, January 9, 2010


Only someone with big enough vision and an even bigger ego could pull this one off and I think James Cameron succeeds. Much has been said about how Avatar is the future of movie making. I understand that on the technical side, I ate up all the amazing details of how this movie was made. He invented and refined a new way to film in 3D, combining the two cameras necessary into one, and then convincing theater owners to upgrade projectors and get ready for the 3D revolution.
The filmmaking side of the movie is amazing. No creepy Polar Express teeth or eyes here. This was helped by using the most advanced motion capture but also mounting a camera on the heads of the actors, focused on thier face, to capture more emotion and expression than before. He also utilized a process of filming that allowed him to direct the actors while they are a part of the CG world and not just in front of a green screen. This helped create the most realistic world we've seen on the screen yet. A process that truly "suspends disbelief" and allows you into this new world.
Unfortunately the "new world" is the same old story.
If it weren't for the incredible scenes, floating mountains, glowing plants and plastic dogs you would quickly be bored.
In fact, Cameron takes a giant pantheism hammer and hits you over the head, then slaps you around with some white guilt for good measure. He makes Hollywood liberal lefties look like they graduated from Oral Roberts.
It's a good thing the flying dragons are awesome.

WW: Gotta see this in the theater, in 3D, to truly appreciate.

Friday, January 8, 2010

La Nana

What is your life like when you work a job you hate for 20 years? Well, if you’re Raquel, the live-in maid for a family of 6, you start going a little bit nuts. La Nana is a 2009 Chilean flick about Raquel reaching her breaking point. The movie starts on her birthday and, coincidentally, the 20th anniversary of her coming to work for the family. Raquel seems to have reached a place in her life where she is full of little more than angst, dissatisfaction and obsession. Her obsession and depression is literally affecting her whole person and she is now starting to have headaches so bad she will occasionally pass out. There is a certain dichotomy to being a live-in maid. You get to live in a nice house, but don’t get to enjoy it. You’re part of the family, but not really. In other words, you’re very invested in a job that’s not very invested in you. 20 years in and Raquel is about to snap. The family brings in a few other maids to give Raquel some ‘help,’ but they inspire little more than jealousy and a heavy dose of more depression. That is until she meets a new maid named Lucy.

Lucy is informal, fun, happy, healthy, and all the things Raquel is not. At first this inflicts on her the same disheartening feelings the other new maids brought, but Lucy is different because Lucy wants to bond with Raquel and isn’t going to give up very easily in her quest to do so. So, will the tipping point be towards the light or further into the darkness? I loved the way this movie was shot. Nearly every shot is a close-up and it truly makes the movie feel claustrophobic, which is perfect because it’s about a person who lives their life like they’re in solitary confinement. I also loved the actors. Everyone, even the kids, is great in this movie. Catalina Saavedra seems to inhabit Raquel and Mariana Loyola is absolutely natural as Lucy. My only complaint is more macro than this. There was quite a bit of the movie that should have been cut. This would’ve made for a fantastic 45-60 minute piece. In the end, this meant the movie was not nearly as engaging as it could have been. It felt like a really good early effort in a director’s career, showing tons of promise but needed just as much refinement.