Thursday, March 31, 2011

Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days

I guess I should have known what I was getting into. Everyone who played this when it came out said it wasn't a very good game. I was still interested in playing it though, because of some of the things they were doing with the presentation, and how it seemed different from other games. So I got it for fairly cheap, and it turned out to not be a very good game. I didn't hate it, but I did enjoy it less than the first game, and while I still found those other things interesting, they weren't enough to really care what is otherwise an unexceptional cover-based shooter and nothing else.

The game is ugly, possibly the ugliest I've ever played. I don't mean the technical work done by the artists, which is fine if unexceptional. I mean the creative direction of the game is grotesquely ugly. The game is designed to look like it was filmed on a cheap video camera, with the image shaking constantly and becoming distorted and the colors and lights separating. It doesn't really make sense because there's no one who would be filming them, but it adds to the brutal, gritty feeling of the story, which is also hideous. Some time after the first game, Kane and Lynch meet in Shanghai to pull off a deal that will let them leave their violent pasts behind once and for all, so they can just spend time with their remaining loved ones peacefully. Of course that isn't really in the cards for a duo as messed up and dysfunctional and psychotic as those two, and it all goes to hell as they just try desperately to get away with their lives. You follow them as they run away from cops, get captured, do anything to survive and just go through hell over the course of the brief campaign. I appreciate how far the developers went to make the game and its characters entirely irredeemable, though I wish it was accompanied by something more fun to play.

Because while Dog Days is a functional shooter, it's not a very exciting one. The original game wasn't exactly the bee's knees, but it had interesting moments. There were high speed getaways and moments of calm and high-concept heists, and the shooting itself had elements like the command system and having to watch your team's back to make sure you all made it. Dog Days is ducking behind walls and shooting dudes as they pop up, and that is it. Almost every single encounter follows the same basic formula, and there's little to separate one gun fight from the next. There are explosive canisters you can chuck at enemies and shoot to blow up, but there are no grenades, and their absence is irritating. Maybe it wouldn't make a lot of sense to find military equipment like that when you're just shooting gang members in back alleys, but eventually you reach a point where there's no reason the designers couldn't have added them if they wanted to. Even if you aren't good at killing enemies with grenades in shooters, they're still useful for flushing them out of hiding spots and stuff like that. As it is, the bad guys in Dog Days have a tendency to scurry around from cover to cover and stay hidden for too long, which drags out fights and makes the bread and butter (or in this case the bread, butter, and everything else) of the game more annoying than it should be.

You play mainly as Lynch this time (in single player, co-op mode is back and probably works I guess), and for most of the game it's just you and Kane, with fewer instances of other supporting characters coming along and no ability to tell them what to do. Once in a while a character might suggest something that could make a battle easier, but there just aren't enough tools in the game to sustain the existing shooting mechanics even to the end of a notably short story mode. I honestly have no idea how such a bare and short game ended up taking two and a half years to release, unless they had to scrap a concept with much grander scope and then realized they just had to come out with something. Again, it wasn't awful to play and I found the darkness of the story and some of the visual touches intriguing enough to keep going until it was over, but it seemed like a lost opportunity when many acknowledged that the first game had issues but still had elements worth a closer look. Instead IO Interactive decided to drop all those elements and simply make one of the most boilerplate third person shooters in years and dress it up with an absolutely hideous aesthetic. An attention-grabbing aesthetic, but a hideous one nonetheless. I don't hate the idea of Kane & Lynch yet, but I'm definitely glad IO's returning to the Hitman franchise for their next game.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hannah and Her Sisters

Hannah and Her Sisters is another comedy/drama about relationships by Woody Allen, and while I didn't think it was as good as a couple other examples I've seen, it was still a very good movie. It shows the intertwining lives of three sisters over the course of two years as they go through relationship woes and sometimes don't get along too well. Mia Farrow plays Hannah, whose husband played by Michael Caine feels attracted to her sister played by Barbara Hershey, who is also in a relationship with an artist played by Max Von Sydow. Dianne Wiest is a struggling actress who butts heads romantically with her friend and business partner played by Carrie Fisher. Woody Allen plays a TV writer who has a history with both Farrow and Wiest, and believes he may have a tumor. All of these plot threads dance around each other and come together repeatedly around Thanksgiving, when the whole family gathers to pretend nothing is wrong with their lives.

While I have enjoyed other films by Allen more, I think this one actually impressed me the most with its direction. The unique use of title cards, the way things are cut together, the way some of the scenes are shot, are all really interesting. It's certainly the best case I've seen so far for Woody Allen as a great artist and not just a guy who makes cute, funny movies. There's some of that too though, especially in his subplot, which is mostly tangentially related to the other stories until near the end. It involves him worrying about his mortality and looking for solace in religion, but because he's neurotic, nebbish Woody Allen the way he goes about it is really silly and amusing. He's mostly there to provide laughs while everyone else is doing heavier lifting. Caine and Wiest both won Oscars for their work, and they along with pretty much everyone in the film do great jobs with the material, sympathizing people with often very unlikable traits, which can be difficult to do. I can see why those two were singled out for their work, but the whole thing is a pretty outstanding ensemble. It's not quite as fun a movie as it could have been, but I liked what it did.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Color Industry - Quotidian

I'm not going to pretend that I'm not good friends with the two members of this band. I mean, it would be pretty conspicuous to say I'm done doing music reviews and then just pick a random local group to come out of retirement for. So yeah, I know these guys. I also think they make good music. They describe themselves as making lo-fi noise pop, which is a better description than I could probably come up with. One of the reasons it's hard to pin down their sound is that they don't really have one, exactly. I mean, you can tell from one song to the next that it's the same people, but they try a lot of different things and come up with a lot of different results. No two tracks really feel terribly similar, certainly not as close as two tracks on an average album by a modern band.

Skip to a random song and you might hear something that could have been made by a shoegaze act in the early 90s, or an early 00s punk single, or something that maybe only The Color Industry could make. It might make the whole album seem a bit schizophrenic, but as the first collection of songs by a group figuring out what they want to do, I think it's pretty darn good. The first half is very entertaining, and while I think the second drags a bit in comparison, there's still some very interesting ideas and experimentation to check out. I really like the mix of acoustic and electric guitars throughout, and the use of feedback and other little tricks is always intriguing as well. My favorite tracks are "Oxytocin", "Thoughts", "Elroy", and "Tale", though you should really find your own by listening to the album here. Stream it, download it, read the lyrics, whatever. It's all free, they just want their music to be heard, and I think it deserves to be.

Monday, March 28, 2011


Several of Woody Allen's films will be expiring from Netflix' Instant service shortly, so I made sure to watch a few of them this weekend. They coincidentally all co-starred Mia Farrow, and the first one is Zelig, a mockumentary about a man with a mental disorder that causes him to physically transform to resemble those around him. Allen plays the titular character, and is surprisingly dedicated to the documentary conceit, as a very large portion of the film is narration over still photographs and period footage, with the story taking place mostly in the 20s and 30s. Any scene using live action, whether intended as archive footage or as a modern interview, is usually pretty funny, though the focus seems to have been on the fake documentary stuff rather than humor.

I would say that the joke of the character isn't enough to sustain a whole movie, even one that doesn't quite last eighty minutes, though the fact is that the joke isn't the whole thing. It provides some laughs as Allen transforms into other races or gains copious amounts of weight to fit in with his current crowd, but the condition actually sort of explores the idea of identity and wanting to be liked in a way I wasn't expecting. It's a surprisingly effective story beyond the comedy. The relationship between Zelig and his doctor played by Farrow is also one of the nicest I've seen in an Allen film, mostly because it doesn't involve a lot of infidelity or anything like that. The one thing I found odd was that the entire style of the film and narration seemed to be like an old newsreel or something, but the footage from the (then) modern day interviews clashes with that. Still, with so many mockumentaries these days that barely even bother to play with or acknowledge the concept, it was fun seeing a film that threw itself into it entirely.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

In the Mood for Love

In the Mood for Love is an extraordinarily beautiful film, both literally in the way it looks and figuratively in the story it tells. Its look isn't overly flashy, and it doesn't call attention to itself, but it's still a gorgeous film, effortlessly using color and careful composition to create an almost heavenly portrait of 60s Hong Kong. There's a recurring motif of the same piece of music being played over slow motion footage that effectively paces the story and never gets old, and there are plenty of little touches and camera moves that enhance the mood throughout. This is the only film I've seen by Wong Kar-wai, but it's enough for me to declare him one of the best visual directors working today.

The movie is a love story, though an unusual and sad one. Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow move into rooms in adjacent apartments on the same day, and feel a shared sense of loneliness and isolation from the couples they move in with as their spouses are always working late or on business trips. It is not too long before they realize that their spouses are probably cheating on them with each other, and they begin to spend time with each other commiserating on this fact before deeper feelings develop. The political turmoil going on during the time of the plot plays a large factor in their lives, as it helps keep them apart when things might have otherwise happened differently. It's a very subtle and simple plot, told with simple conversations and little physical details that sometimes require close attention to discover the real meaning behind. I ended up feeling depressed by the whole thing, but it was impossible not to recognize the skill behind the direction and acting. Good film.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Yakuza 3

The fourth game just came out in the States a week or two ago, but I'm just now finished with the third, which was released here last year. A year late seems like the right way to play this series - it's too quirky and occasionally clunky for me to justify paying $60 for the experience when it's brand new, but as a budget purchase a bit later, it's definitely worth it to experience the series' oddness and charms again. The jump to current generation hardware doesn't do much to change the general gameplay, though the upgrade in visuals and putting the camera behind Kazuma instead of in static places when exploring is certainly welcome. Like in Yakuza 2, you spend the game bouncing between the franchise's trademark location of Kamurocho and another, in this case a city and nearby beach on an island in Okinawa. The differences between these locations are much greater than the differences between fake Tokyo and fake Osaka in Yakuza 2, not just in the look of the place but what you tend to actually do there, which makes it a more distinct entry in the series with more diversity of tone.

The third game finds Kazuma finally retired from gang life, and running an orphanage by the beach with Haruka. Of course eventually stuff happens that pulls him back into the criminal underworld he's been trying to leave for years, though the story spends a significant amount of time just having you help out and watch over the kids in your care, to a surprising degree for a series best known for having you punch the hell out of a lot of dudes. All of the kids get developed and fleshed out a bit, and the laid back tone the game takes on in these sections was pretty refreshing after something like the desperate suicide mission in Mass Effect 2. The game never totally abandons this either, always giving you little bits of flavor in between all of the violence that gets going as the story kicks into high gear. I didn't think the overall plot was quite as good as earlier games, not having the first's emotional connection between Kazuma and the villain or the second's outright insanity, but it's still a capable, generally entertaining tale of betrayal and corruption with a few moments that stick out. The ending kind of pulls a switcheroo for no reason, and it can get embarrassingly over-the-top here and there, but it's all forgivable.

The gameplay is pretty much exactly what series veterans probably expected, though I was a bit disappointed by how similar it felt to the PS2 games. The combat system in the series has always been fairly fun, but a bit shallow in its execution and frustrating when it tries to actually challenge the player. Kazuma has the same attacks and movements he always did, and they added a number of new features like customizable weapons and some new context-specific moves, but it's still pretty much the same system they've always had, and it's wearing a little thin after a new generation of hardware and three games. It's not annoying enough to truly damage the experience, but it's always a pain when an enemy just seems to block everything you do and you have to find whatever single technique will be effective at all against him. I like how the random fights now transition directly into the combat mode without a loading screen, but I wish they had pushed the whole thing farther than that.

When you're not fighting dudes you're generally running around in whatever city the game wants you to be, looking for the next plot trigger, though this is where a lot of the fun is, because there's always tons of things to do besides find the next cut scene. There are people to help, side quests to do, shops to buy items from, and mini games to play. I think it's stupid that Sega removed some of this extra content from the American release because they thought we wouldn't understand it if it was "too Japanese" or something, because if we're already playing a game with subtitled Japanese dialogue we're probably okay with it. But the truth is, I never really felt that absence because there was always more new stuff to do if I wanted and I hardly scratched the surface.

So the game gives you all this stuff to do, and occasionally something in the story will force you to a new location or change things a bit so you have to fight or sneak through the city before dropping you back into the regular game. It's a simple formula that generally works, though there are occasions when it all feels a bit dated. Plot bits awkwardly transition between text boxes and full voiced dialogue, and the implementation of a bit of action will be sometimes seem poorly though out, things like that. But while it's not the most advanced game there is, its flaws didn't annoy me very much, even if they might have placed a cap on how much I really could have been into the experience. The Yakuza series is in this weird place where it's half big action game and half quirky Japanese oddity, and definitely has a weird charm to it. I wouldn't be surprised to find myself talking about the fourth game a year from now.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The 400 Blows

French New Wave. It's a thing. This is an example of it. Francois Truffaut is certainly a name I've seen bandied about, and I've actually seen one of his movies before, though I was pretty young and I didn't like it much. It was Small Change, and was a mostly plot-free comedy about being a kid. The 400 Blows is also about being a kid, though the angle it takes is much darker. It stars a boy named Antoine, who has trouble with his parents and the teachers at his school. He doesn't necessarily want to be bad, but his mistakes sometimes get him in more trouble than he probably should, and the combination of bad guidance and poor circumstances lead him to eventually get into worse situations than a kid his age ever should.

The film feels fairly modern despite being made in the 50s, and Truffaut shows some real skill despite this being his first feature. He pulls good performances from his cast, especially the young Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine. The two apparently worked together so well that they made four more films together about the same character over time. To be honest, I appreciated what the film did more than I really enjoyed watching it for most of the (pretty short) running time. The movie got stronger as it went on, though, a bit more adventurous with the style and more interesting to watch. The last few shots in particular were pretty amazing, consisting of some long tracking stuff that I was really impressed by. I don't really have much to say about this movie, though it was certainly a worthwhile film to see. I'm not that anxious to see more of Truffaut's work, though I might be interested in the next Antoine movie.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tokyo Story

I'm not sure what caused there to be so many noteworthy Japanese directors in the 50s and 60s, but Yasujiro Ozu is another one to add to the list. His style is much more restrained than others he might be grouped with from the period, but I'd say he's certainly in the same class of using film to tell powerful human stories. The film is about an elderly couple leaving their village to visit a few of their adult children in Tokyo by train, including the widow of their son who was killed in World War II. She's actually the kindest of the people they visit, with their eldest son and daughter too preoccupied with work to spend much time with them, and their grandchildren not terribly interested in the ways of senior citizens. The husband meets up with some old drinking buddies, and the wife tells the daughter in law how much she respects her for putting up with her son when he was alive and asking her to remarry. Eventually they return home, though the story doesn't end there.

It's been described as a very calm film, though a less euphemistic way to describe it would be slow. There's some inventiveness in the outdoor scenes, but almost every single indoor shot is unmoving, from a position near the floor, watching the scene unfold. It doesn't use long takes exactly, but it's still a very static method of filming something that's not terribly energetic to begin with. I can see people being driven nuts by the effect of seeing a whole movie this way, but I thought it fit the mood of the story, with everybody being nice to each other on the surface but rarely engaging any deeper than stiff formalities and politeness. And while I found myself not terribly invested for most of the film, by the time things really started happening I realized I cared after all. The film is perhaps most effective in the way it portrays the actual events of life. There's no guy with a camera making our world look exciting and dynamic, and sometimes things happen before you even realize what's going on. In that way it's a very effective story, even if it's not the most exciting thing to watch.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a pretty bad teen horror comedy that is notable for two reasons. Obviously, it led to the much better and more successful television series and media franchise with the same title. Also, it stars some surprisingly talented actors, and features an abnormally large number of people in bit parts who would later go on to reasonably big careers. There's a pre-multiple-Oscar-wins Hilary Swank as a vapid high schooler, a pre-being-more-famous-than-he-should-be David Arquette as a punk-turned-vampire, and even a pre-Good-Will-Hunting Ben Affleck as a basketball player with one line. There's an early Stephen Root performance as a school administrator, and Thomas Jane apparently played someone named Zeph. Paul Reubens and Rutger Hauer play powerful vampires, Luke Perry found time to play a deadbeat who finds himself thrust into the sidekick/love interest role while he wasn't filming 90210, and Donald Sutherland is Merrick, a Watcher like Giles who is immortal for some reason. Star Kristy Swanson is practically the least currently famous person in the cast.

But anyway, I'm getting away from the movie, which was not very good. The script is credited to Joss Whedon, and while apparently several changes were made, I read the comic that was based on the same script, and a whole lot of it is the same, particularly the dialogue. The fact that the film is so amazingly unfunny despite using a lot of the same lines as the decent comic further proves something that was revealed in Alien Resurrection - as fun as Whedon's dialogue can be, in the hands of the wrong director and cast, it can be disastrous. Without the right attitude, it comes off pretty awkwardly, much more like somebody reading a script than talking. With the right talent it shines, but otherwise it can be bad. Buffy is the only character shared between the movie and show, and Swanson's interpretation just doesn't work. She's a pretty blond, but that's pretty much the extent of her similarity to Sarah Michelle Gellar's version. Buffy begins the series as a fairly normal teenage girl, but there's always that snarky undercurrent that kept her interesting right from the start, and the Buffy here is just too much the stereotypical popular high school student. Reading the comic in the show's voice showed how the material could have worked fine, but they just go another way with it that fails.

And with the dialogue failing so badly, a lot of the comedy gets shifted to the physical side of the movie, which just doesn't work either. There's a certain cheesiness to the martial arts action on the show, with some obvious stunt doubling and overly elaborate movement for simple results, but the tone makes it seem like an old action movie rather than a big joke, which is what it is here. There's hardly any real fighting at all - Buffy does some flips and hand springs and a limited bag of tricks, but any time there's actual physical scuffling it's just incompetent. Reubens' character was probably supposed to be intimidating, but it doesn't work because he's god damn Pee Wee Herman, and the best we get out of him is a weird piece of anti-comedy where he is apparently killed by repeatedly fails to actually die. Hauer's character's evilness is also told more than it's really shown, and the role is a major waste of his innate menace as an actor. And the changes made to Merrick and what the Watchers are for the movie add up to a whole lot of nothing.

I watched it because I wanted to see the background of what causes Buffy to move to Sunnydale and let the series begin, but some cuts to the script remove a couple pivotal events anyway, and the few people besides Buffy who are mentioned in the series that appear aren't really the same characters, so it doesn't serve that purpose well. It was pretty much just a waste of my time, even if the movie was shorter than a two-part episode of the show. There are no real likable characters, it's not funny, it's not scary, it's not exciting. And it's not capable of building an ironic cult following because something that was actually good grew out of it. All it can be now is a curio for fans of the series. Without Fran Rubel Kuzui the Buffy franchise probably wouldn't exist, and she deserves some credit for that. But the film she actually made was poor.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Other Guys

Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay continue their fruitful partnership of serviceable and occasionally brilliant but often flawed comedies with The Other Guys, a send up of buddy cop movies (which are themselves already pretty silly in nature) with an odd sense of humor and an even odder political stance against the seedy nature of big money in America. The bad guys in the story are basically using fraud to cover up losses, and the entire end credits of the film feature animated information about things like how Ponzi schemes work and the average salaries of CEOs in comparison to regular workers over time. This is probably the wrong movie to throw an issue like this into, though I appreciate the effort.

The movie starts out bombastically with a ridiculous car chase through New York City as Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson attempt to stop some drug dealers. It's one of the most wonderfully absurd action scenes played for laughs I've seen, and it's a great start for the movie. I would watch a whole film about Johnson and Jackson as these superhero cop characters. But it's not about them, it's about the other guys, played by Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. Ferrell plays a number cruncher and paperwork doer who'd rather stay in the office than chase bad guys, and Wahlberg was a promising young cop who had his career derailed after he shot a famous athlete. They're mostly the subject of ridicule, but they see an opportunity to make a big case after they arrest a businessman played by Steve Coogan and he is then kidnapped by armed thugs. People with money don't like Ferrell and Wahlberg sniffing around their affairs, and they are harassed at every turn by their fellow cops and other things working against them.

The structure of the story could have pretty much just been a regular buddy cop movie, but it's the specific weirdness of the situations and dialogue that make it a Will Ferrell comedy. The film just comes up with a ton of running gags and lets them ride, and some of them end up being pretty funny. Some of the better ones include all the horrible things that happen to the interior of Ferrell's Prius, his dark past, and Wahlberg's habit of studying fine arts so he can make fun of people who enjoy them. Some bits are weirder; Ferrell's innate attraction to beautiful women is cute but offset by what's basically an emotionally abusive marriage that's played for laughs.

Ferrell's mix of low key and very loud methods of being funny are in full effect and enjoyable as usual, and while I would say Wahlberg definitely isn't a natural comic actor (or a natural actor at all, really), his hit rate on one liners is generally pretty decent. Michael Keaton is great as the police captain, and his role is another I'd love to see revisited in a Rock/Jackson prequel. The movie is overstuffed to the point of bursting with recognizable comedic talent, and most of the cameos usually have at least one decent joke attached instead of just being their for their own sake. Ice-T's narration in particular is memorable. Not every joke is a success and I would have preferred a less self-serious plot, but it was a pretty fun movie.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

MI-5 - Seasons 5-8

I'm finally caught up with this show, as far as America is concerned anyway. A ninth season already aired on the BBC, and that should be coming over some time soon. And it's still pretty good! It's gotten a bit silly in places, because there's really only so many realistic terrorist threats you can do before your writing staff gets a bit bored and decides something a bit too far from what might actually happen would be a great idea. The show's gritty, simple nature is what attracted me to it in the first place, and while it's become more of a typical Hollywood-style spy thriller since then, they at least haven't gone fully overboard like say, 24 did. The lack of serialized storytelling might have helped them keep it contained, although they dabbled a lot more in that area in these four seasons, especially in season six, which was almost entirely based around a continuous struggle between Britain and Iran over the latter's attempts to become a nuclear power. It generally plays like a typical season where each episode is its own caper, except they all deal with the next natural step in that conflict. It worked pretty well, and while the next two seasons plots were both weaker in terms of plausibility and execution, it shows a definite switch in focus on continuity besides just regularly killing off and introducing new characters.

They haven't stopped that at all by the way, with Harry remaining the sole character to ever stick around for more than four seasons before having to disappear or dying on the job. It's almost depressing watching these people knowing that the odds are their lives will be destroyed within the next couple years, and while it was fun to see a character actually return from exile for once, it just increases the odds she's going to die anyway. I guess it's sort of a conundrum, one that I've mentioned before but deserves to be again. The fact that any of the characters could so easily die in any episode makes the stakes always high... but the fact that characters dies so often makes it hard to allow yourself to care about them... and if you don't care about them, it doesn't matter how high the stakes are. It's not a major problem yet, it's just a curious situation.

I'd also just like to mention some of the less plausible stuff that's been popping up more. In addition to the people protecting a whole country from outside threats having computer interfaces that have always looked like they were created in a simple art program with heavy use of the gradient tool, there have been instances of the dreaded image "enhancement", like a person being identifiable by zooming in on their eye with a security camera, and silenced pistols apparently being quiet enough to get away with shooting someone on a crowded street in daylight. The show's still fun, I just can't help partially regretting its trend towards slick action over delicate espionage. It's been subtle enough that I never felt like I suddenly wasn't watching the same show anymore, but I could see it being enough at this point to turn someone off. And with seemingly every new threat apparently being backed by a secret global conspiracy, I'm not sure how much longer it will sustain itself before really getting dumb.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Fanny and Alexander

While the previous Ingmar Bergman films I've seen have been complex thematically and required careful attention to really understand, they at least weren't particularly long. The version of Fanny and Alexander I saw, on the other hand, was over three hours long, and apparently cut down from an even longer, multi-part film. It was the last movie he made with the intention of a theatrical release, and you can tell he was thinking that because he puts so much into it. It's almost too much Bergman to handle. It still works despite the length and difficulty of the material though because he's just such a talented creator. Not my favorite movie of his, but definitely a good one for fans of film as art.

Plenty of films spend a great deal of time merely establishing tone and character before getting into the meat of the story, and Fanny and Alexander really takes that to a new level. You can see the origins of the work as a series, as pretty much the entire first hour focuses on an annual Christmas party held by a wealthy family after performing a play at the theater they own. Fanny and Alexander are the two children of one of three brothers, who all bring their families to their mother's house each year and have a big celebration with the servants and everything. We see how the members of the family get along (or don't), and learn about their wants and needs. Then the story changes when a death causes an upheaval in their lives, eventually leading to the two titular characters being forced to live in much worse conditions and they struggle with their new surroundings.

The film is most carried by the young actor playing Alexander, and he does a pretty great job as the character, a boy who isn't the bravest but can be defiant when he needs to. It seems pretty hard to find good child actors, but for whatever reason a lot of these classic films have done good jobs about it. I don't really know anyone from the cast (except one of the maids who apparently grew up to be Darth Vader's mom), but they're all generally solid and seem like a family. Gustav Adolf is particularly entertaining. The plot gets a little weird and dreamy in places, with ghostly appearances and unexplainable happenings especially near the end, and I was never totally clear on the exact course of events after a certain point. But it all worked to create the intended mood, and those touches certainly help it fit in with the rest of Bergman's work. He's become one of those directors whose work I don't enjoy easily enough to actively seek out as much as I can, but I'll probably always be willing to see more of.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Top Gear - Season 16

This was sort of a low-impact season of Top Gear, though it was still Top Gear, so a lot of fun was had. The show introduced its third Stig after the second one outed himself, some new records proved the most recent Reasonably Priced Car is definitely the fastest one they've had, and the three hosts generally made asses of themselves in entertaining ways. Not much about the show has changed since I started watching it a few years ago, and for the most part they haven't really needed to. The formula just works, and as the first few minutes of the American version proved to me, messing with it in any way, even if it's just changing which three guys are involved, might not be such a good idea. The scripted elements are getting a little too obvious at times - we all know that a lot of the wackier moments are staged, but it's more fun when they seem like they could have been real anyway, and it's pretty clear that Jeremy didn't actually set someone on fire during the combine snowplow test.

Still, they've yet to go too far, and the overreaction to a throwaway line about Mexico proves the show still knows how to push buttons and entertain a gigantic audience. The Middle East special was one of their most daring stunts yet, and the race against the sun's rotation shows they still haven't thought of everything that can be done with the format. Jeremy mentioned in an interview that the three guys all agreed that it's just assumed at this point that the show will keep going like this until one of them dies in an accident, and while I'd hate to see that happen (and it almost did a few years ago), I admire their dedication to putting an entertaining and informative show on the air. I look forward to more later this year.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Apparently Woody Allen disliked this movie so much that he begged the studio not to release it. This I do not understand. It's not quite as good as Annie Hall, but very few movies are, and it's both a highly amusing and occasionally heartfelt look at romance as well as a love letter to New York. It's shot in black and white, and that along with the George Gershwin score lend the movie a great old fashioned sense of style, as the protagonist played by Allen worries in the opening narration that society is going to hell as we lose our values and get addicted to cheap pop culture. Of course the movie itself is guilty of numerous insider pop culture references, but I don't think the irony is lost on Allen.

He stars as a divorced TV writer in a questionable (and somewhat prescient) relationship with a seventeen year old high school student. He worries that he's told for her, though his concern becomes more acute when he finds out that his best friend is having an affair with a journalist played by Diane Keaton, and he begins to have feelings for her. Eventually he begins to see her as well, and everything turns into a big mess as people try to figure out what they really want to do and who they want to do it with, but it's done in a real way where the drama and controversy doesn't overwhelm the human feelings that drive all of it. People get hurt, but nobody is really a bad person. Although sleeping with an underage girl is pretty bad when you're in your 40s.

Still, the fact that the characters are sympathetic despite some of their actions is an accomplishment. The central actors are all very good, and Meryl Streep has a nice role in a side plot as Allen's lesbian ex-wife who's writing a book about the break up of their marriage. There are a few story elements that don't really go anywhere, but they add to the flavor of the movie and make it seem more genuine. It's a very funny movie, maybe not as original or creative as Hall, but it provokes a lot of laughs while it lasts, and the general Allen-style of a bunch of characters talking and going on tangents and interrupting each other is in full effect. It's more striking visually than Hall, obviously with the black and white photography at the center of that but there's a few other things that contribute to it as well. I really should have seen more movies by Allen by now, his movies are quick, to the point, and a lot of fun. Luckily, there are a bunch streaming on Netflix right now.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Pianist

I keep watching Roman Polanski movies and they keep turning out to be really damn good, so I decided to learn about him a little more. I didn't know that he escaped the Holocaust in Poland as a child or that his pregnant wife was murdered by the Manson Family. It obviously doesn't excuse what he did a few years later, but it does change my perspective a bit. He definitely uses his experience in the Jewish ghettos and avoiding concentration camps to realize The Pianist, a similar story about a real man who also avoided the camps before returning to the radio booths and concert halls. Movies about this terrible period history seem like they sometimes rely too much on the obvious horror of what's happening to seem powerful, but there's a certain frankness about the way this movie was shot that makes it all the more effective without trying too hard to shock the audience. The things that happen are brutal and awful to be sure, but they're not sensationalized, just shot naturally and letting the events speak for themselves. We're not forced to feel sorry for these people, we just do.

This simple approach makes the drama effective but also could have made the film a bit dull, if it was just two and a half hours of people suffering. But the pianist's story eventually takes some turns that are a bit less familiar and interesting to watch, and there are also a few moments where the specific nature of the natural approach makes the action immensely compelling. Several scenes where the brutality and violence of the film are at their highest pitch are shot entirely from various upper story windows, which has the effect of distancing you from the visceral nature of what's happening and making it feel completely real in the process. It seems more like a documentary at these moments, and it's more gripping than some of the most expensive action scenes I've ever seen.

Of course there's also Adrien Brody's performance as the titular character. The acting in this movie is generally pretty low key in keeping with the natural style, and not many members of the cast really stick out much. Brody also doesn't do a lot to call attention to himself, but there's a quiet, moving quality to his work that makes his struggle to survive interesting. His transformation from dignified artist to shambling, desperate mess is pretty intense to watch. It's a much more subtle performance than usually seems to get called out at the Oscars, and while I'm sure the status of the film itself helped him along, it seems like a good choice for the award. I have to admit that Polanski was deserving as well, though I probably would have replaced the Screenplay win with a Cinematography one. The script is fine, but the quality of this film is definitely in its execution.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Blood Diamond

Edward Zwick seems to have a strong affinity for ethnically-charged war films and thrillers. As is pretty apparent from the title, this movie is about African conflict diamonds, specifically ones coming from Sierra Leone during a brutal civil war in the 90s. Blood diamonds aren't as widespread as they were a few years ago, but they're still in circulation, and as long as people are making violent action dramas anyway, it's nice that sometimes they can actually be about something. I haven't always been Zwick's biggest fan, but he did a nice job with this film, one which is further elevated by strong central performances.

Despite 2006 being the year The Departed came out, Leonardo DiCaprio got his Oscar nomination that year for this movie, playing Danny Archer, a native slugger who gets caught up in the war while trying to help a fisherman named Solomon Vandy get his family back in return for a gigantic diamond he found and buried. DiCaprio is pretty great in this movie, intense and not entirely noble, but still a relatively good man at heart. He puts on a strong South African-or-thereabouts accent, and while I can't really say exactly how accurate it is, it sounds convincing and the general response from actual Africans is pretty positive. Solomon is played by Djimon Hounsou, whose name isn't as big as it is hard to pronounce, and he's also pretty great, getting award consideration himself. Jennifer Connelly is also good as an American journalist who wants the real blood diamond story and helps Danny in return for information, of course getting close to him in the process.

A lot of the plot and general action aren't particularly exceptional or original, but the casting and often brutal situations make it a more compelling movie than it could have been. The real African issues like the diamonds, corrupt governments, and child soldiers also make the whole thing seem more important and authentic, and add weight to the drama behind the shoot outs and explosions. It could be considered exploitative to use these topics to sell what might otherwise be a normal thriller, but I'd say it's better for more people to know about these things than to make sure the source of the information is 100% pure. And besides, it's a pretty darn good thriller.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Sherlock Holmes

How much you like this movie seems to depend largely on how much you care about maintaining the integrity and tone of the original Sherlock Holmes stories. I mostly don't care as long as they get the essentials right, and since seeing the core idea (an eccentric, detail-obsessed detective and his doctor chum solving elaborate mysteries) translate so well to the modern world in last year's British TV adaptation, I was totally ready for the thought of it also making the transition to big budget, special effect-heavy action movie directed by Guy Ritchie. He's one of the first directors I noticed to have a distinct and interesting style when I was still figuring out how different and interesting movies can really be when I was a young teenager, and I think Sherlock Holmes is his best movie since Snatch. Obviously most people would say that's not saying very much, but I liked the movie and its prospects as a series a lot.

It definitely starts with Robert Downey Jr.'s performance as Holmes. Originally Ritchie wanted to use someone younger, and have the movie act as sort of a Holmes origin story I guess, which sounds like a terrible idea, but the casting of Downey allowed them to get rid of that concept. Instead we just jump right in with Holmes and Watson, who have been working together for years. The action movie thing might not have worked at all without the right actor, but Downey is pretty much always the right actor when it comes to intelligent yet intimidating protagonists, and the whole thing just ends up succeeding. The way they integrate Holmes' incredible attention to minor details into his fisticuffs (which are an actual element of the original stories by the way, according to the all-knowing Wikipedia) makes the fight scenes more interesting than they might have been otherwise, and just every bit of the performance is a joy to watch. Jude Law makes a worthy companion as Watson, and Mark Strong is a pretty good villain as Blackwood. I didn't like Rachel McAdams much as Irene Adler, though she didn't kill the movie for me either.

So while Downey does a lot to make the movie fun and enjoyable, it probably would have been at least decent without him anyway. Of course some elements of the script wouldn't have been there without him, but the final work itself is pretty good, mashing together a pretty interesting pseudo-supernatural plot with some unique and entertaining action sequences. There are moments for many of Holmes' little tricks like his penchant for disguise, and while some of the deductions were disappointingly simple after a lot of the genius stuff in the British TV show (things like identifying family members merely by them having the same rare eye color feel like easy shortcuts), I think the combination of influences worked a lot better than you might expect. Ritchie's direction does a lot to further separate the movie from regular blockbuster fare, spicing up some scenes that would otherwise have been obvious with unique and unexpected choices. Some bits are a bit too familiar, and help prevent the movie from being a real genre classic, but it's about as good as you can reasonably expect something with its box office expectations to be. And while I don't think the intention was to actually imply that Holmes and Watson were ever lovers, the way some of their interactions were played in that light was generally humorous without going overboard. Definitely a movie that benefited from the talent working on it, and it's good to see they're coming back for the sequel. Also, apparently Stephen Fry will play Mycroft, which is just fantastic.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Up in the Air

Jason Reitman is now three for three with me when it comes to make films that are both very funny, and touching or moving on at least some level. He's back to directing his own screenplay here, although it's again based on a book, though one that doesn't seem easy to translate to the screen. It's about a man played by George Clooney who travels all over the country all year long firing people for companies who don't want to get their hands dirty doing it themselves. He spends most of his days getting yelled at and pleaded with by all of the people he breaks the bad news to, and has developed a highly optimized system and unusually disconnected philosophy of living, where he feels no real attachment to anything where he lives when not traveling or even his family, and merely goes about his job, sleeping with the occasional fellow traveler and racking up millions of frequent flier miles.

The scenes showing him go about his routine are slickly filmed and edited, and the role fits Clooney like a glove, a little smarmy and arrogant but not unlikable. But of course that's not the whole movie, as things start to change when two women entire his lives. The first is a talented new colleague played by Anna Kendrick who has come up with a way to use the internet instead of flying everywhere to do their jobs, which could eventually phase out the travel aspect of his job completely. The second is an attractive fellow frequent flier played by Vera Farmiga, who's interesting enough that he eventually develops deeper feelings toward than just wanting to get her in bed. The three all got nominated for Oscars, and they're all fairly outstanding in the film. Clooney gets closer to both women over the course of the story, and they both help him grow as a person, and at least attempt to get something more out of his life. Jason Bateman is also good as Clooney's boss, and there's plenty of small appearances by recognizable, solid comic actors like Danny McBride and J.K. Simmons that add flavor to the scenes they're in.

I can see an argument that Up in the Air is style over substance, and that it's capitalizing on the bad economy and job market to appeal to people emotionally. But I thought that stuff made all the scenes of the characters working have more weight and importance, and I can't help but wonder why people wouldn't want to see such a well crafted and produced film. Right from the stylish and classy opening credits, the film is just impeccably put together, and immensely satisfying and enjoyable from start to finish. I guess I can see how one would think Jason Reitman's style is just a touch too polished, too spot on, not experimental enough. But I think people might not give him enough credit for just being good at getting the little things right. The cast and their performances are great, the script is tight as a drum, and the film has a lot of powerful moments without hitting you over the head with them. Little stuff here and there that adds up over time to a film that is at no time annoying or boring or nonsensical. It all fits together into a movie that I have a hard time seeing anybody call their favorite, but that very few should have difficulty liking. And I liked it a lot.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Children of Paradise

When it came out, some people called Children of Paradise France's answer to Gone with the Wind. Maybe I should have seen that movie first. I'm pretty sure I've actually seen clips of this movie before, in a class where the professor was trying to demonstrate pantomime if memory serves. Theater is a large part of the film's story, as a couple of its main characters make a living there, and a significant amount of screen time is devoted to just showing them plying their trade on stage, in scenes that often but don't always co-mingle with the machinations of the plot. It's about a woman named Garance who is pursued by four very different men, all of whom are based on real people from the period. It's an epic story of love that takes over three hours and two parts to tell, and I was partly surprised by how much I liked it. It seems like the sort of thing that should have dragged interminably, but the look at early 19th century theater was actually interesting, and the writing and acting were generally pretty solid. I can only hope that when I eventually watch Wind it holds up as well over its nearly four hours.

Arletty plays Garance, and she does it pretty well. Despite her being in her late 40s at the time it's believable that every man she'd meet would want her badly, and her flighty way of going through life is interesting without getting annoying. Baptiste and Frederick are masters of pantomime and acting respectively, the former being extremely talented at his art and also the film's most tragic figure, and the latter being the movie's best source of levity and humor. The other two men have a bit less screen time to flesh themselves out as characters, but they're still nicely woven into the years-spanning plot, and provide their share of entertaining exchanged and dramatic moments. William Shakespeare gets referenced repeatedly in the movie, with Frederick even donning the black face to play Othello at one point, and his style of tragedy seems to be what they're going for here. In any case, they got the clever dialogue, heartache, and dramatic bloodshed right. It's long, but I liked it.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


In some ways Moon is a very simple movie, though for the most part I think it works in its favor. The cast is quite small, with the main character played by Sam Rockwell, and the only substantial role besides that being a voice performance by Kevin Spacey as his computer assistant. Otherwise it's just him, some equipment, and the moon, with an interesting though basic-for-sci-fi story about a man who discovers a dark secret about the facility he works on to provide energy for the earth. The twist comes fairly early in the film without too many surprises after that, but I still don't feel like giving it away because it was one of my favorite moments of dawning realization in a while. It might be easier to guess the twist if you're really looking for it, but I mostly let the story wash over me as the film went on and enjoyed myself a lot.

First-time director Duncan Jones had a very small budget to work with, but he stretched it pretty far with a narrow focus on what he was trying to do. The computer effects are not very elaborate but they're effective, and the set and overall design of the picture is very evocative of the classic, pulpy story the film tells. There's some pretty clever work done throughout, and the movie feels like a well-tuned machine that knows exactly what it wants to do. Sam Rockwell is always a charismatic presence, and he nails every bit of a very multi-faceted role, appearing in pretty much every scene. He basically has to carry the whole thing and does it with pretty noteworthy skill. I also loved Spacey's voice work, because of its reverse-deception. He does the quasi-charming creepy voice exquisitely, but the way the story turns the robot-going-against-its-programming trope upside down and has it actually benefit the hero is even more fun, and the fact that the voice turns out to be genuine after all is kind of great. I'm a bit skeptical of Source Code based on the way the trailer presents its plot, but Jones looks to be a promising young genre filmmaker. Also his dad is David Bowie, which is pretty cool too.

Monday, March 7, 2011


Machete is a pretty good companion to The Expendables, another bloody ensemble action film that came out in the late summer of last year. It's a little more low budget and skews a bit differently with its cast, featuring more well-known women than men and a bunch of character actors. They both have their strengths and weaknesses, and I hesitate to declare one or the other the truly superior film, but they're both mostly enjoyable, hilariously violent movies.

The movie stars the instantly-recognizable Danny Trejo as Machete, a Mexican federal who gets betrayed, crosses the border, and gets betrayed again, when he decides to finally fight back against all those who have wronged him. It's a pretty extensive list, including Jeff Fahey as a slimy businessman and Steven Seagal as a slimy ex-federal. Robert De Niro plays a slimy politician with a fake Texan accent, in one of the more obvious jabs in a movie full of easy commentary on the whole immigration issue. I didn't bother trying to really understand what the movie was trying to say, because it was clear from the beginning that the real purpose of Machete was to be a silly Mexploitation film, and the politics are just there so a bunch of Mexican people can make speeches and then fight a bunch of white people. Basically, our economy needs cheap illegal labor to run, and if you try to totally get rid of it, bad things will happen. In real life, people would lose money; in the movie, they might get shot or blown up.

But anyway Machete joins an underground criminal network in an attempt to get back at the many villains the film quickly introduces. To sum it up simply, much like Once Upon a Time In Mexico, the plot is kind of an overstuffed mess. There are too many characters who don't have enough to do and the movie doesn't take enough time to make them all worth the effort. Luckily, unlike Mexico, Machete mostly makes up for it by generally acknowledging its own silliness and letting the fun come from a bunch of silly one-liners and especially absurdly gory and occasionally honestly clever action scenes. There's also some pointless nudity and winking celebrity cameos, this movie did come out of the whole Grindhouse project after all. Rodriguez has proven himself pretty consistent at making entertaining low-brow movies on the cheap, and he did the same thing again here. Things kind of peter out once you realize there's no way he's going to resolve everything in a unique and satisfactory way, but if you just let it be a stupid action movie with a lot of mediocre-to-good ideas, it's not bad.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others is easily one of the most recent films to find itself on my list of unseen classics, but I can see how it found its way on there. It's a German film about the period when the country was still divided and under outside rule, depicting the methods of the secret police who monitored artists and activists for illegal activity. It begins as an agent played by Ulrich Mühe starts a new mission by bugging a playwright's apartment, and listening to everything that happens pretty much around the clock. Early on the film does a good job of establishing his harsh methods and dedication to the state's goals, but for some reason this mission is different, and he finds himself sympathizing with the target and even indirectly interfering with the investigation to change things in his life.

As the film goes on, the writer moves towards real criminal activity and the agent has to decide whether to report his findings or to fudge the facts and keep the target safe. The movie is never terribly explicit about his motivations, being very low key in general and just letting peoples' shifts in opinion and perspective occur gradually. It probably has something to do with the writer's girlfriend, who seems to have a bewitching effect on everyone around her, and proves key to the continuing development of the plot. It's a quiet, contemplative film, which works with the uneasy tension of the story. It's also a very beautiful film, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and his crew painting an interesting portrait of a pretty oppressive time and place in history. It makes you wonder why his next film was something like The Tourist. I wasn't engrossed by it the entire time, because it is a bit slow and oblique in places. But The Lives of Others is certainly an artistic accomplishment, and for the most part a very good movie.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

To Kill a Mockingbird

The primary reason to watch this movie is Gregory Peck's performance. As an adaptation of the classic book, it has to make a lot of sacrifices in the transition. The book was a story all about growing up, as the main character Scout has a lot of different experiences while coming of age in a transitional period in American history. But the film couldn't or just didn't try to cover that whole thing in a couple hours, so they decided to focus on the two most memorable parts of the book - the trial and the mystery of Boo Radley. Although it feels like a kind of old fashioned movie for the time, that's at least partially the point, and for what it is it pulls off what it attempts pretty darn well. The re-focused story places more emphasis on Atticus Finch, and as I started this by mentioning, Peck does a fantastic job in the role. The movie could have still been enjoyable without him, but he brings such a dignity and power to the part that you can't help but be in awe of his quiet manliness most of the time. Brilliant casting and acting.

Besides Peck, the movie's fine enough. The kid actors aren't great, but their straightforward performances fit the old fashioned tone, and the rest of the adult actors are okay. It's odd seeing Robert Duvall playing the mysterious Radley, because while I'm sure it was effective at the time with him being unknown, he's so pervasive now that it clashes with the original intent of his appearance. The courtroom stuff really works though, despite the specifics of the case being a bit too on-the-nose to the point that it obscures the intention of the whole thing a bit. But director Robert Mulligan does most of his best work in those scenes, letting the tension and gravity of what's happening speak for itself without trying too hard to make it dramatic. And Peck does some of his best work as well in those speeches and interrogations. It all adds up to something that's not a perfect adaptation of the book, but a good companion to it at least.

Friday, March 4, 2011

His Girl Friday

His Girl Friday is a screwball comedy directed by Howard Hawks, starring Cary Grant, and relying heavily on super-rapid witty dialogue to get by, all aspects it shares with Bringing Up Baby. I didn't like it quite as much as that movie, mostly because the romantic aspect feels tacked on (which it was, the original story was about two men) and less natural, with almost all of the focus on the wacky journalism caper that drives the plot. Rosalind Russell's Hildy Johnson wants to quit the newspaper life and live quietly with her new husband in Albany, but her editor and ex-husband Walter Burns, played by Grant, wants to keep her on the payroll and in his personal life. So he concocts a number of schemes to keep her in the city and reporting on the impending execution of a convicted felon, making him look like kind of a dick, but before long she can't help herself and becomes involved in the story anyway.

What follows is a series of madcap hijinks as the two leads and the surrounding supporting cast try to undermine and out-scoop each other as they try to get to the bottom of the story and get what they want out of the situation. Hawks juggles a lot of elements pretty deftly, keeping the action frantic without things ever getting too confusing, and somehow turning what could have been a pretty dark story about crime and corruption into something that was a heck of a lot of fun. Cary Grant is great as he usually is, though I thought Russell was the real standout, usually at the center of the action and nailing every mile-a-minute monologue that gets thrown at her. The filmwork and editing feel pretty old fashioned, but the story and action keep the movie feeling pretty timeless otherwise. Damn if Hawks didn't know how to make movies.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Grand Illusion

This was the first non-English film to be nominated for Best Picture, and feels a bit ahead of its time coming in the late 1930s. It's about French soldiers and officers imprisoned by the Germans in World War I, as they overcome the differences in their rank and civilian lives to try to band together and escape. The film does a great job of using a terrible war to tell a human story about how we're all really the same, and despite the climate in which it was made, even sympathizes the Germans with a prison commander who's far from the typical tyrannical villain and a woman who lives on a farm.

So it's pretty much a prototypical prison escape film at first, as the prisoners bond and share their experiences and we see how they plan to break out, with various wrinkles and setbacks thrown at them they have to overcome. The rug is yanked out from under them partway through, though they eventually get right back to planning the escape. There's an entertaining rapport among the men as they talk about their pasts and put on shows for the other imprisoned officers, and the three main characters in particular are well formed. The film hardly barely even touches on actually depicting the war going on outside, though the experience is much like what a prisoner would feel, rarely knowing how the effort is going without them. They do enough to establish how they're imprisoned, and it's not like the movie needed any battle scenes.

The introduction of the German captain is really where the movie comes into its own, I think. He knows one of the prisoners from before, and he respects the men despite being charged with ensuring their imprisonment. He is stuck with the assignment because his body has been nearly destroyed by combat, and he regrets that he is no longer able to really help his country without even getting the honor of being killed in duty. The relationship between him and the men is really interesting, and probably the highlight of a very good film. It's funny, it has moments of real poignancy and significance... it has a little bit of everything.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

On the Waterfront

Another classic Marlon Brando performance propping up what would have otherwise been a somewhat less compelling movie. On the Waterfront ended up having a more interesting story than I expected based on my limited knowledge of it, but it still didn't wow me that much. Brando is very good in a role that won him the Oscar, and the rest of the cast is solid as well. I liked Eva Marie Saint more in North by Northwest, but she also won an Oscar here in a supporting role, and a whopping three other actors also got nominated for support roles, including Lee J. Cobb, who keeps showing up in these movies with his distinct untrustworthy look and fully living up to it. But as a movie that strives mostly on the strength of its acting, it doesn't quite hold up as well as films that focus on other things, because acting styles tend to change a lot and a lot of it isn't as natural-seeming today. It's still plainly a well acted movie, but that doesn't take it as far as it probably used to.

On the Waterfront is about the mob in New Jersey having complete control over the unions that work the docks, manipulating commerce for their own profit and killing anyone who thinks about testifying against their seedy practices. Brando plays a washed up former boxer who works as sort of a low level enforcer for the mob, but he doesn't realize the extent of his involvement at first. After his actions lead to a witness getting killed, he starts regretting ever getting involved, and regrets it further when he starts to fall in love with the witness' sister. It's kind of an obvious story way to get him to really start fighting back against the mob institution, but it still turned out to be a pretty interesting and effectively melancholic underdog story. Nice inspirational couple final scenes as well. Great cast, good movie.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Rosemary's Baby

So many of these classic "horror" movies really don't resemble what we think of as modern horror in any way. The focus is on things like story and mood rather than surprising the audience to try to make them piss their pants, or pushing the envelope when it comes to gore. I gotta say, I like it the old way. While I still think he's a terrible person, I have to admit Roman Polanski's films are now 2 for 2 when it comes to living up to their reputations. Chinatown was a great, more modern film noir, and Rosemary's Baby is a pretty terrific tale of paranoia. Unlike other Satanic horror of the era that I've seen, where it's pretty obvious from the beginning that something very wrong is happening, this film had me wondering the entire time about multiple aspects of the plot. Not only whether there really was a cult after the baby, but also whether the cult's beliefs were right. The ending answers those questions pretty definitively in a scene I found surprising based on how it seemed to shift the tone away from what had been built over the last couple hours, but I thought it ended up working despite its obviousness.

The movie is pretty much the definition of a slow burn, taking a very long time to develop the characters and their relationships before really getting the plot going. Heck, Rosemary isn't even pregnant until maybe 45 minutes into the story. You spend a lot time just learning about these people and trying to form ideas about who they really are, though it's hard to say anything for certain based on the information given. There's a pretty overtly Satanic scene early on, but it isn't definitely real and after that there's very little solid evidence one way or the other. There's a delicate balance that is maintained, making you wonder if Rosemary's losing it while providing just enough hints to suggest that she might be right after all. Things are slow for a while, but especially in the second half the film turns into a great piece of suspense, with some really nice little touches and perfectly drawn out moments to keep you twisted around in the best way like a classic Hitchcock movie. I again hesitate to call it a horror movie thanks to the modern connotations, but Rosemary's Baby is at least one of the best supernatural (or is it?) thrillers I've ever seen.