Mon, Jun 30, 2008

: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Author: Hayao Miyazaki

This is the seven-book series of graphic novels the animated film was based on; however, it’s so much more elaborate, it’s really a different story all together. I liked the books far more than the film, which felt generic in terms of plot. But with the books, you really get to see the elaborate and complicate world Miyazaki has created. In this future world, humanity has so poluted things that nature has taken over with huge forests, giant insects, and poisonous miasma that humans can’t tolerate. Nausicaa is the young female leader of a small, insignificant clan of people, and through an elaborate series of adventures, she uses her talent of being able to communicate with animals and her instinctual love of all living things, to halt a war and stop the destruction of the world. It’s an amazing and wonderful story and is highly recommended. The graphic novels were originally Japanese, so they read backwards, from right to left, which is odd at first, but soon is not an issue. Unfortunately, the black-and-white artwork varies in quality: most of the time it is excellent, but occasionally things are supposed to be in color (like when Nausicaa wears a blue dress) and other places the art is so sketchy and the reality so complicated that it’s confusing figuring out what is going on (like some of the battle scenes, with explosions and chaos). But that’s a niggling negative: overall this is an incredible, creative and fun, and far more worth your time than the movie. My cousin gave me the books at Christmas and I’ve been reading them every since, a few pages a day (about a book a month). Very enjoyable.

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Fri, Jun 27, 2008

: Wall-E

Pixar does it again! Another terrific film. This one is very different from previous outings: it’s more similar to some of their dialogless shorts as there isn’t much dialog. That means the story must be told via visuals and subtle character expressions. That’s even more challenging when the characters are various kinds of robots, but the team at Pixar have done a great job conveying subtle emotions. The story is occasionally slow, but when it’s going, it’s going great, with tons of fascinating background visuals and gags that will mean you can watch this over and over again and see things you missed each time. There are hilariously quick bits like a shot robotic “mice” that look like Apple Macintosh computer mice, or the Macintosh start-up sound that plays when Wall-E reboots. The story is simple and elegant. After the earth is overrun with trash, the humans all leave to tour the universe on a luxury cruiseliner while robots clean up the earth, but 700 years later, the earth is still a mess and only one lonely “Wall-E” model robot is left, still compacting garage. When robot probe “Eve” shows up Wall-E ends up traveling back with her to the cruiseliner where he saves the humans and becomes a hero. The interaction between the robots is extremely well done: each have their own personality and yet there is minimal dialog (Wall-E can’t even speak). Great for both adults and kids. Highly recommended.

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: Wanted

This is an over-the-top action movie that is a lot of fun if you don’t take it too seriously. The special stunt effects are just as often funny as they are cool and are the main reason to see the film. The story’s too far-fetched and mysterious to be much more than a frame for the spectacular action. The premise is that 1,000 years ago textile merchants put together a secret society of assassins (why is not explained) who still exist today. These assassins have almost supernatural power (like the ability to shoot a bullet in a curve or slow down reality so they can do impossible stunts). The main character’s a nobody working in a dead-end office job who suddenly gets recruited into this society and is told his father was an assassin who was just killed by one of their own rogue members and it’s time he be trained to use his hidden gifts. The training is absurdly difficult (like knife fighting with real cuts) but the boy is motivated because he wants to go after the rogue assassin who killed his father. Of course nothing is quite like it seems, but there are so many holes and questions in the plot that the whole thing is a bit silly, but if you’re in the right mindset, the thing’s so much fun you don’t mind. Just go with the flow and ignore the stupidity and you’ll have a good time.

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Fri, Jun 20, 2008

: Get Smart

This is one of those films that could be great or mediocre, but fortunately this one is more the former. It’s very funny and fun and well-done, with the character of Maxwell Smart perfectly running the borderline between idiotic stupidity and idiotic genius. It’s also different enough from the TV series to be new and interesting, yet similar enough to be enjoyable by old fans. Two thumbs up.

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Sat, Jun 14, 2008

: Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

Fascinating documentary on genius director Roman Polanski and his legal troubles stemming from a case in the 1970s acusing him of having sexual with a 13-year-old girl. In short, he and the judge agreed to a plea bargain, but when the media criticized it, the judge backtracked and was not going to honor his decision, so Roman fled the country and has never been back to the U.S. where he is still subject to arrest. It’s a sad and complicated tale that has some gray areas. While it seems Roman did commit a crime, there is evidence that the sex was consensual, and though that does not make it right, when you consider Roman’s foreign background, it is possible he didn’t even realize what he was doing was illegal here in the U.S.A. (he apparently was very open with police officials in the investigation as though he didn’t think he’d done anything wrong). What’s really bizarre in this case is the judge, who was a publicity hound, and went along with public opinion while hanging out with celebrities. The bottom line is that the trial was a real mess from beginning to end, with excessive media coverage, the little girl wishing she hadn’t come forward, Polanski’s career damaged, and no satisfactory resolution for anything or any one. Even stranger, it sounds like the judge’s plan was to deport Polanski anyway, so the current result is about the same either way. Very strange situation and it brings up all kinds of things about how celebrities are treated. In some ways, Polanski got off easy — but there’s also the possibility that if he hadn’t been famous and wealthy and already tainted (his wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by Charles Manson), the case would have been forgotten in a week, in which case it was his celebrity that made him a scapegoat. This is a good documentary but still leaves a few questions unanswered and unexplored, most likely because there are no answers, unfortunately. But as a glimpse into controversial history and a look at a rare artist, it is enlightening. Recommended.

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Fri, Jun 13, 2008

: The Incredible Hulk

I did not like the Ang Lee movie and hoped this one would be better. The good news is that it’s more fun and more like the comic book hero, but it’s not a great movie — not even a great comic book movie. The story is much more traditional and linear. The opening sequence tells the tale of David Banner’s exposure to gamma radiation and we meet him hiding out in Brazil, searching for a cure for his “problem.” Of course the government catch up with him, the Hulk makes his appearance, all hell breaks loose, and in the end, the Hulk saves everyone. Nothing too earth-shattering storywise, but decent enough and well-done. The special effects are pretty good (the Hulk transitions are excellent) and even the digital Hulk’s acting is better than the Hulk on the TV show (Lou makes a fun cameo as a security guard). But the main villain of the story is a soldier who injects some Hulk DNA to turn himself into a Super-Hulk, and the two creatures have a climatic battle. Unfortunately, that’s a lame idea, and battle feels anti-climatic because duh, we know who must win. In the end this is not a bad movie. It’s fun and has some interesting moments, and I definitely liked it better than the previous version or the silly TV show. But just don’t go in with high expectations.

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: The Happening

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Shyamalan has made his reputation making suspense movies with unexpected endings. These have not always worked as they often rely too much on the gimmicky ending. They also can be inscrutible during the watching as you have no idea where the film is going or what is happening. This one follows the latter formula, but fortunately or unfortunately, it has no twist ending. Instead, the mystery is never fully explained. In a way, that is good: it’s different and it fits with the film’s message, but it’s also exasperating if you’re expecting a resolution. Instead you leave the film just as bewildered as before you went in! That said, I still liked the film. The premise is interesting — a toxin of some kind is causing mass suicides and panic spreads as people flee to towns to rural areas to escape, and we follow a couple and their friend’s daughter as they run away. No one knows why this is happening or how to stop it, which is the mystery which is never solved. But some of the characters are interesting (the wife and little girl are particularly good, though Mark Wahlberg as the man is poorly cast) and there are some shocks and frightening scenes which keep you intrigued. One thing Shyamalan did that was smart is to keep the film short: if it was longer than 90 minutes it would have felt too long. As it is, it’s just long enough to feel creepy and fascinated, but not so long as to get annoying. I ended up liking the film, though it’s certainly nothing remarkable. It’s mildly interesting and has some good scenes and an idea or two, but in the end, like most of Shyamalan’s recent films, it depends too much on a single idea and there’s not enough depth or story. As entertainment, it’s not bad, but don’t expect much. Get out of it what you can. I did and liked it, but your mileage may vary.

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Tue, Jun 10, 2008

: Kung Fu Panda

I loved the concept of this, but it’s one of those easily messed up ones and I half-expected it to be disappointing. Instead, I loved it! It’s silly and goofy and clever, but never too much of any of them. For instance, the plot is pretty obvious — a unlikely Kung Fu warrior, a fat panda bear, saves the world — and most movies would try to complicate that with pointless sub-plots or feeble attempts at a surprise ending. This movie just accepts reality and gives you plenty of other entertainment besides the predictable plot, and thus it’s just enjoyable, not annoying. The jokes are a bit, um, heavy on the fatness of the main character, but he’s so lovable and doesn’t seem to mind and even uses his fatness as a weapon and thus such humor doesn’t come across as negative or in bad taste and we feel comfortable laughing when the panda struggles to get up the 1,000-step climb to the Kung Fu headquarters at the top of the mountain. The violence in the film is cartoony and harmless (no one dies or is even injured) so the film is appropriate for youngsters, but there’s enough here that adults will find it pleasant. The conclusive moral is terrific as well: what makes you great is belief, not destiny or some secret charm. The film doesn’t get much deeper than that, but that’s just fine for this kind of movie. Lots of fun and you don’t have to be a martial art fan to enjoy it.

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Fri, Jun 06, 2008

: You Don’t Mess with the Zohan

Warning: this is a very funny movie, but it’s also extremely crude with a lot of sexual material. It is not a family movie and the trailers don’t hint at that and I feel a lot of parents will be unpleasantly surprised, especially compared to Adam Sandler’s tamer films. There’s just a lot of raunchiness here that’s unnecessary and distracting, which is disappointing, as the core story is hilarious — the premise is a top Israeli secret agent who fakes his own death so he can move to New York and become a hairdresser — and makes an appropriate mockery of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The casting is great, the sight gags are outrageous to the point of utter absurdity, and the whole thing would be a terrific goof except for the adult nature and crude humor scattered randomly through the thing. Not as bad as Borat, but similarly flawed. Disappointing, but only because it could have been terrific; in the end I still liked it more than I hated it.

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Thu, Jun 05, 2008

: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

This is one of those films I’ve seen snippets of, but never the whole thing (at least that I remember). It’s a pretty funny story about two con artists trying to out-do each other. A lot of classic scenes but a tad uneven and occasionally slow. Great fun overall, though.

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: To Live and Die in L.A.

Interesting gritty 80’s crime drama I somehow missed; it’s a very good tale about a Secret Service agent who will do anything, even break the law, to nab a ruthless counterfiter who killed his partner and mentor. The ending is grim and not expected, but realistic.

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Wed, Jun 04, 2008

: Cheaper by the Dozen 2

Slapsticky, routine sequel. Not unpleasant, but not one moment of originality.

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