Sunday, July 19, 2009

Movie Rundown - July 13 to July 19

All right, ladies and gentlemen! We're up to our asses in films this week, so let's not beat around the bush.

Movies incoming!

Benny & Joon (**)
I checked this one out on the recommendation of one Elizabeth Ditty, who typically has great taste in film. Perhaps that still holds true, but I found Benny & Joon to be a frustrating, empty experience. In short, a man caring for his schizophrenic sister takes in an offbeat layabout (played by Johnny Depp) who acts like Buster Keaton. Antics ensue.

There's some stuff about mental health and other stuff about a budding romance, but it's pretty light fare. The problem comes from the actions of the titular Benny and Joon, both of whom are basically entirely unlikable and spend the entire movie doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons until the writers ran out of pages and let them all live happily ever after.

There is something very charming about Depp's performance, back in the day when he hadn't yet learned how to play Movie Star Johnny Depp. But unless you have a thing for him or a high tolerance for sappy-at-the-expensive-of-all-else kind of movies, stay away.

Reclaiming the Blade (****)
A documentary about swords. Seems straightforward enough. But this is a movie with an edge. More to the point (okay, I'm done) the film is about the history of these weapons of legend, from their first developments to their use in modern day in sport, reenactments, movies, etc.

There's quite a lot to love here. It explains the sword in function and theory, and the Western infatuation with the blade. There are interviews with actors, sword trainers, martial arts experts, blacksmiths, scholars. It's pretty exhaustive, though even after an hour and a half I was ready for more.

Of particular note are two sections, one on how fencing bears little to no resemblance to any sort of actual swordfighting, a reduction of a skill to a sport and how the proliferation of fencing nearly ruined the heritage of European martial arts. And secondly, of the rediscovery of the true European martial arts, both of swordfighting and grappling, that has risen up very recently.

If you love movie fighting, real fighting, or just documentaries in general, this is for you. It's on Netflix Instant, for anyone who's interested. And it's well worth the investment.

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (***)
This is going to be short. Either you're A) a Harry Potter fan and are going to see this one no matter what and nothing I say is going to sway you one way or another B) someone who hates all the Harry Potter garbage with a passion and nothing I say will get them to watch this or C) someone who's kind of meh about the whole thing.

I fall pretty heavily in category C. But I encourage all Category C people to go ahead and see this one. It's solid enough, not as flashy or pointless as the last two felt, not as whimsically stupid as the first two. It's not as good as Prisoner of Azkaban, but it's a decent movie that had to do a lot to get away from the soggy trainwreck of a novel that is the Half Blood Prince book.

I don't really have much more to say on the subject. The films are bigger than my opinion. I thought this one in particular had an eye for how to shoot a dynamic scene and the actors gave much better performances across the board than they ever had before, but the story itself is kind of long-winded and ineffectual, as penultimate stories typically are.

That said, it's a worthy setup to the two Deathly Hallows movies, and if you've come this far through movies 1-5, you're probably going to see this one anyway. So yeah. Harry Potter. Another one. Woo.

Dogma (****)
Dogma is the next in the Kevin Smith project, and one that had already been highly recommended to me many times before. It's an amazing movie, funny and smart and surprisingly well-paced especially for a Kevin Smith movie.

The story of a young woman who is drafted by Metatron, the voice of God, to stop two angels from fulfilling a plan to lead to the destruction of all creation, Dogma is part quest film, part road movie, and part religious satire. Along the way, the woman runs into the 13th Apostle (Chris Rock), the Muse Serendipity (Salma Hayek) and more.

There's a lot of things I'd say about this one, but instead I'm going to tell you to go and watch it. Much of the comedy would be spoiled by a bigger, better explanation. But I will say that as long as you don't mind some punches being thrown at the Catholic Church and Christian religion, you're going to have a great time. Guaranteed.

Cannibal Holocaust (*)
I don't know if you've heard of this, but if you're a fan of horror or exploitation or controversial movies in general you should have. In fact, you've probably seen it, as it's one of the most ubiquitous exploitation movies of all time.

Which is unfortunate, because it's terrible.

The movie charts a professor who goes into the jungles of South America to find a missing film crew. In doing so, he stumbles upon a wild tribe who have the rolls of film, and then returns to New York City to view the grisly footage on display.

The problem is the film is a trainwreck. There's a hamfisted message about how civilized man is worse than cannibals in the wild, because while cannibals are just doing ritual slaughter modern man comes and destroys and rapes and pillages.

Of course, the film has no qualms about going around showing you just how bad the film crew is. There are multiple murders, and multiple rapes, to the point where something's getting screwed, shot, or stabbed about every three minutes in the last half of the film. And it's all done with a flair for the graphic detail, which leads to an onslaught of gore and hyperviolence that permeates the second half.

The problem is, for all that fury it ends up shooting itself in the foot. You watch so many people get hacked apart, so much raw looking flesh get eaten, and so many people violated in so many ways that it just ceases to be affecting and becomes slightly queasy and slightly boring. When they talk about the deadening affect of violence in media, this could be the poster child. For all its atrocities, they're all misused and stripped of context until it all becomes meaningless and stupid.

But, sadly, this is still a significant film. And despite my hatred for it, I know how it exists and why it's so regarded and controversial to this day. Any film person is going to have to give it a go sooner or later. And while I absolutely hated it, maybe ... just maybe, someone else will see something in there I don't.

(as a final note, I know some people are really weird about animal cruelty, and know that this movie has real images of real animals having bad things happen to them on camera. none of them are so cuddly as dogs or cats or anything, but ... it's there, and it's as gratuitous and exploitative as the rest, but worse for being real )

Moon (****)
Imagine a future where Earth gets all of its energy from a substance called Helium-3 mined on the far side of the moon. It's a mostly automated process that only needs limited oversight. So there's a single man who signs up for a three year contract on the moon base, watching the harvesters and doing any necessary repairs.

This is the world of Moon. And in many ways, it's a world of isolation. It's about what happens to a man when he's cut off from the world, and what that can do to a person in stages of their life. The film is basically Sam Rockwell in a single set the whole time, kept company by an AI built into a mobile console played by Kevin Spacey.

It's when Sam (Rockwell's character) gets in an accident and wakes up in two places at once that things get dicey. The two versions are both identified by the AI as being the same person, and they both share the same memories. And it is the interplay between the two versions of the main character and the AI that become the driving force of the film.

And guess what? It works. Really well. There are multiple layers to the story, and whenever I figured I had it pegged and was like 'huh, it'll end on this level and that'll be kind of cliche' it went ahead and took it further. There was just so much atmosphere, and the performances were so great, that it was impossible not to get sucked in.

Well recommended. Easily one of the best sci fi movies I've seen in years and years.

Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back (***)
I can already tell you exactly whether or not you'll like Jay and Silent Bob. Are you into his other movies that came out previously? Do you like the things that Kevin Smith is into (Star Wars, comic books, movie nerdism, etc)? Can you appreciate fan service? Do you like Jay and Silent Bob as characters?

If so, you'll like this movie. It's entirely a fan service project, a movie that Kevin Smith made as a love letter to the other movies in the same universe, where characters exist together and everything is touched upon. Actors play two different roles if they were in two of his movies, just about every familiar face returns, and the whole thing is kind of a goofy romp through the world that Kevin Smith created, seen through the eyes of his dumbest characters.

At heart a buddy road movie, Jay and Silent Bob isn't very good, but it's great fun. I mean, the climactic battle involves Kevin Smith as Silent Bob facing off with Mark Hamill (doing a barely-disguised Joker voice) in a lightsaber dual in a batcave knockoff.

I think this is the movie with the highest barrier to entry of all of his, because it does have so many callbacks. But for a part of the movie project? It was like a love note to what I had been doing, taking in these movies so rapidly. Just don't expect a masterpiece. At the end of the day, Jay and Silent Bob go through life smoking weed and telling dick and fart jokes.

I really debate rating movies like Nosferatu and others in the silent film genre, because of how far removed we are. That movie is literally 87 years old, and generations of movie advancement apart. How good it is at that point becomes really abstract, requiring a lot of context and knowledge that I might not necessarily have. So ... I think I'm going to abstain from rating it.

That said, it's an interesting retelling of Bram Stoker's Dracula, focusing more on the first half of the novel. Guy goes to sell a mysterious Count a house, gets trapped in the castle, Count turns out to be a vampire who is infatuated with guy's young wife, heads to England to drink her blood.

The movie itself takes plenty of liberties with the source material (though, then again, it's not a direct Dracula adaptation). But all in all it's very well put together. The makeup on Nosferatu himself is well done, going for a rodent-like appearance over a charming count. And all in all, I think it's a far better portrayal of a monster than trying to humanize it. That said, if you're into horror movies, vampires, or silent films, it's well worth watching. It's endured through the ages for a reason.

And that's all for today! I didn't get through one of my netflix discs, but it'll show up next week. Also on the agenda is Clerks 2, the last of the Kevin Smith project. Past that? Who knows! Gonna be playing it by ear a bit more next week.