January 10, 2005

Film Bits

I haven’t been keeping up on reviewing movies, so here’s a quick-as-possible rundown of some recently-viewed video. I’ll list them here and you can see my opinions in the full entry. The reviews range from almost-complete-reviews to just my 2 cents.

  • Garden State
  • The Blind Warrior Zatoichi
  • Wicker Park
  • The Guyver (Animated Series ca. 1986)
  • Resident Evil: Apocalypse
  • Species III
  • Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.
  • Arrested Development
  • I’m Not Scared
  • Ju-Rei: The Uncanny
  • Jersey Girl
  • Alive (2002)
  • Gozu
  • The Stepford Wives (2004)
  • The Chronicles of Riddick
  • Saved!
  • Close Your Eyes

Garden State

I started out watching Garden State in a thoroughly depressed mood and immediately thought I’d made a horrible mistake. It’s about a guy whose life has become aimless living in L.A. and is called back home to N.J. after a 9 year absence when his mother dies.

As we delve deeper into his life we see a past and present full of repression and numbness. A random encounter with a slightly odd girl leads him to step outside himself for a brief time.

This film is comprised of thoroughly enjoyable performances by writer/director/actor Zach Braff and Natalie Portman. It somehow avoids beign sticky-sweet and hits “endearing” just right. This is a “cream of the crop” twentysomething movie. The soundtrack is top notch and this film is worth a rent just as a way to preview the CD.

The Blind Warrior Zatoichi

(aka. Zatôichi) The title character, a masseur/swordsman, is something like an uber-samurai. Under the guise of a weak old man, Ichi is actually a supersensitive warrior with a blade that puts Wolverine’s adamantium claws to shame.

A feast for both the eyes and ears, the plot follows Zatoichi as he wanders among a cast of characters who are at odds with each other and about to clash. Among the players are the heads of 2 local gangs, an old warlord who is hiding out, training his replacement, two street-wise, vengeful geisha hiding a secret, a bumbling gambler and a humble and generous middle-aged woman, a powerful ronin who has lost his honor and will take on a new job as yojimbo and the ronin’s deterioratingly ill wife who would prefer her husband not have to kill to care for her.

This is one of the best recent samurai movies I’ve seen. Perhaps as a reference to Ichi’s blindness, this film seems especially creative with the sound, even to the point where there is a big dance number (!) at the end. This comes the closest to a samurai-musical I’ve seen, but mostly the sounds are worked into the plot. You;ll have to see it to get what I mean.

Also, the swordplay and copious blood appear to be computer-enhanced. This is a pretty gory film, as battling samurai don’t pull punches. I give it one of my highest recommendations - very entertaining.

Wicker Park

The trailers led me to believe Wicker Park was one of those weird Single White Female films. In fact, previews almost seemed like a ripoff, with a couple of small twists.

This film is more about mystery, character and emotion. There’s only a bit of the psycho roomie vibe thrown in.

Pretty-boy Josh Hartnett lost his true love years ago when she disappeared mysteriously, and now finds himself on the verge of engagement to his boss’ sister. A chance overheard phone conversation leads him to think that his true love is closer than he thought.

Hartnett does pretty well with mediocre dialogue, he’s got some acting chops. The plot is revealed in a series of flashbacks, some Rashomon-style, as you learn that something unusual has been going on. You’ll need to pay close attention; the plot is, at times, difficult to divine as you sort out who knew what, when and when X, Y and Z happened.

To the credit of the writers, they do sew up most, if not all of the plot holes, though it doesn’t always seem that way. If the movie was at least diverting, I found the ending simply horrible. In the final analysis, this is less a thriller than a date movie. But I can’t dismiss it entirely, as the plot reminded me of some aspects of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Well, and Three’s Company, for that matter. In the final analysis, I give it a “lukewarm.”

The Guyver (Animated Series ca. 1986)

TV anime from Japan (Kyôshoku sôkô Guyver), dubbed for English-speakers in the late 80’s. Almost bearable story about a young man who finds a powerful super-suit. The best thing about this series is how it reminds one that the only value of really old TV anime is in the nostalgia of it. As I never saw “The Guyver” - that nostalgia is missing. So, my review is “bleh.” Not even really suitable for children.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse

Also not suitable for children. Nor for adults.

The precursor to this film, Resident Evil, was a slightly-better-than-mediocre action/horror/SPFX-fest. Throw in Milla Jovovich and you’ve got yourself enough box office to warrant a sequel. Based on a video game, the original Resident Evil film was of the “lets explore this dangerous area where man has been playing god and a computer has gone insane” variety. Lots of chances for creepy stuff to happen deep in the government research facility. And zombies.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse, on the other hand, eschews the previous film’s success and they instead play up the zombie angle. This movie was released during a time when everyone seemed to want to redefine what a good zombie film was. Three of those attempts were at worst entertaining and at best truly pushed the boundaries and reinvigorated the genre (from least to most creative: 28 Days Later…, Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead). Every other recent film with zombies has pretty much been a stinker, this one included.

The twists here are just not good enough. Our main character, Alice, is now genetically enhanced. Whoopie. Also, instead of just zombies we have some jumping creatures with exposed brains (mutants, I think) and huge mutated killing machines with guns, one of which is Alice’s former friend. The government wants to see them face off in Racoon City, where the zombie outbreak has been locked down.

And frankly, I don’t give a damn. You probably won’t either. Do yourself a flavor and see Shaun of the Dead instead.

Species III

“Daddy, why do some movies go direct to video?”

Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they make a stop off at the SciFi Channel first. Like Species III. They even got Natasha Henstridge to make an appearance, briefly. But nothing can save this movie from the bowels of mediocrity. Exactly what you’d expect from a channel that has replaced good SciFi (like Farscape) with psychics and ghosts.

I had low expectations, and they were not met.

Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.

Gojira tai Mosura tai Mekagojira: Tôkyô S.O.S. is not a fan or critic favorite. But it’s at least as good as genre films from the 90’s and outshines quite a few of the old Godzilla films. Yeah, those older ones are loved for their cheesiness, and some of that is still here, too. But Tokyo S.O.S. is just good ol’ G pounding Mecha-G and vice versa, with Mothra thrown in for good measure. The underlying plot is that the original G’s bones (which are used to construct Mecha-G) must be returned to the sea for the Kaiju to be at peace. So say the tiny Cosmos, little fairy women who have returned to issue their warning.

No reason to quibble here. It’s a Godzilla movie. I liked it, and eagerly await the next one (the last one?).

Arrested Development

Arrested Development? You must see this show. Rent it if you have to. It’s the best comedy on TV. A wealthy family has fallen on hard times with their scion imprisoned, and the responsibility falls to Jason Bateman to hold it all together.

Problem is, as the title implies, they are all no better than children. Excellent dialogue. Excellent narration by Ron Howard. Funny actors. I don’t want to tell you much at all about this show, just see the damn thing. Renews my faith in TV comedy.

I’m Not Scared

I was curious about this Italian film Io non ho paura after seeing the trailer with “Super Size Me.” A young boy discovers something mysterious in a hole in the ground while playing with friends. His father returns from an absence and things don’t seem quite right.

This film is told from the boy’s perspective, and in many ways could almost be an Italian Spielberg film. Almost a non-extraterrestrial version of E.T. However, this film takes a much darker turn. Very suspenseful.

Ju-Rei: The Uncanny

Ju-lei: shinrei misuterii fairu is a DV-cam-made exploitation of the recent ghost-tales we’ve been getting from Asia. Ghosts are similar to what you’ve seen with Ju-on and Ringu. The innovation in this story (actually, it’s been done before) is that it’s told backwards. A number of interrelated stories about ghosts are thrown at you in reverse order. Ghosts may be people you’ll see alive later in the film.

A couple of the segments were genuinely creepy. But most are of the form “there’s a ghost here. Eeeek! Isn’t that scary?” The exception was the segment about a little boy waiting after school to be picked up by his mother. He’s in a stairwell with a malfunctioning light. “Mom… is that you…?”

Skip it, unless you’re a fan of the genre.

Jersey Girl

Jersy Girl. I don’t have time to give this the full review it doesn’t deserve. Suffice it to say that this movie just wasn’t for me. I’m a fan of Kevin Smith’s work. All I can conclude is that he’s trying to branch out to reach people other than me. Loved George Carlin in it. Disliked pretty much everything else. Ben Affleck, many times, didn’t even seem like he was taking the film seriously. Come to think of it, he comes off like that in a lot of films, doesn’t he? Anyhow, I didn’t like it. See Chasing Amy instead. Far superior even with Ben Affleck.

Any film with Liv Tyler in it suffers a bit of a minus, in my book. LotR was good enough to eclipse her, but, on average, she is an acress I avoid. Why Smith thought he should get the no-chemistry duo from Armageddon back together again is completely beyond me.

Alive (2002)

No, this isn’t that 90’s survival movie. This is Alive , the weird Japanese film by Ryuhei Kitamura based on some even weirder manga. A parasitic creature lives on the body of a host, possessing it and giving it destructive power. It will only move if it can find a body with a stronger will. Otherwise, it kills everything it encounters.

Convicts are used to test the strength of the parasite. And it turns into a long excuse for many fight battles with Matrix-like SPFX layered on a pretty thin plot.

Still, it was better than Resident Evil: Apocalypse. By a lot.

Gozu

I can’t summarize Gokudô kyôfu dai-gekijô: Gozu. Anyone familiar with Takashi Miike knows his stuff is weird. Odishon? And violent. Dead or Alive? This is a cross between them. A Japanese mafia movie as if written by David Lynch.

All I can say is, it was out there. Weirdest movie ever. There is no one I can recommend this movie to, for fear they will look at me funny for the rest of my life. “You told me to see that???”

The Stepford Wives (2004)

Apart from some entertaining twists (like adding a gay couple) this is pure dreck. I expect that’s partly because of too many cooks. Frank Oz probably had a different vision for The Stepford Wives, judging by the outtakes, but I’m willing to bet he wasn’t given a very free hand. Oh well. This movie stinks. See the original, which I barely remember.

The Chronicles of Riddick

In The Chronicles of Riddick, the director wanted to go in a different direction than its precursor, the very satisfying Pitch Black.

Turns out, it was a bad idea. Lots of action, lots of SciFi, but it comes off as a slightly-better-than-average Sci-Fi Channel direct-to-video. With better production values.

Yes, Riddick is an interesting character, but I pretty much hated all the other characters, and most of the performances. Thandie Newton? ACK! Get yourself in a better film. And while your at it, your acting was way over the top.

Saved!

Maggie and I both enjoyed Saved!, but it pulls far too many satirical punches to be highly recommended. In the end, it’s got some great characters and they poke gentle fun at a heavily religious school. However, it is extremely gentle fun, for the most part.

By the end, you realize this is really a teen movie. Judged as that, it is a very good one. But in general, I found it to be only slightly better than a decent diversion.

Close Your Eyes

The original title of this film was “Doctor Sleep.” The title of Close Your Eyes was chosen by a focus group, I can only assume, as a recommendation and warning to all future possible audiences.

I have to go along with that recommendation.

Posted by James at January 10, 2005 7:41 AM
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Comments

I don't watch a lot of movies, but I'd love to throw in my two cents on the few that I did watch.

Wicker Park --
The writer chose to draw the viewer in through confusion rather than through emotional investment in the protagonist's situation. Confusion is easier -- just show everything out of sequence. I mean, it was clear that poor little Josh Hartnett was obsessed and unhappy, but you're watching the same way you slow down to see an accident. Frankly, we were waiting for blood. The writer's choice made the ending suck, as James noted, because you've been confused, now you're irritated -- you don't really care. I get it now, just let it be over. So, since your'e annoyed, and now that you can put it in the correct sequence in your head (like cut and paste activities for Kindergarteners -- do you put the toothpaste on the brush first, or wet the toothbrush first) you look for plot holes. And you won't have any trouble finding them. For one thing, why didn't the characters use their ever-present cell phones when it would have prevented the entire thing from happening?? Obsessed, unhappy, *and* stupid.

Jersey Girl --
Argh. The very first scene, with the little kids saying extremely unrealistic things about their families, turned me right off. Aren't they cute? No, they're some guy who's apparently never met a kid's warped idea of what's funny. And it went downhill from there. I've never found Kevin Smith's dialogue even remotely believable -- people don't give speeches in real life, nobody stops to listen unless they're too stuffed from the lobster dinner to move. The characters aren't real characters, they're placeholders for plot and delivery devices for the dumb little speeches. Blech. And who can like Ben Affleck in a movie? He seems like he might actually be a nice guy, but he can't act!

(I didn't make it through this one.)

Stepford Wives --
Yech. I didn't make it through this either. I love Bette Midler. She was funny. The gay couple, as James mentioned, was funny. The rest was stupid and annoying. They probably could've made it really funny if they'd been a little creative with the writing, but I guess the best thing they could come up with was a wife who's an ATM and a reading club reviewing a Christmas Crafts book. Buy _Is Martha Stewart Living_ , it's funnier.

Posted by: Maggie at January 10, 2005 5:54 PM

If you see Wicker Park, do yourself a favor and stop watching just before the end. In fact, just as he runs into his almost-fiance after you haven't seen her for almost all of the movie.

How will you know it's almost the end of the movie? Of course because these movies always end in the same place. The airport.

Posted by: James at January 10, 2005 6:10 PM

My $0.02.

Garden State is my favorite movie of the decade. But then, I am a twentysomething. Natalie Portman has recently taken over the number one spot on my celebrity girlfriend list (stolen from Scarlett Johansenn).

And I just saw Saved! this weekend, which you're spot on about. I have to say, though, I totally had to rethink Mandy Moore, who I had originally lumped in with Ashlee Simpson. Good stuff. My evangelical aunt knew all about that movie, which she had heard about at church as being a Christian bashing.

Posted by: Bil at January 10, 2005 9:49 PM

Scarlett Johansenn has been toppled from the throne?

Aii, carumba!

Well, you made a good choice for her replacement, anyhow. She's great in "Garden State." It's easy to believe that she is that odd girl. But from what I've seen of her, she's nothing like that. So, obviously, very good acting.

I probably should mention that, even though it's a 20something film, Garden State is recommended by me. Which is the importantest reccomendation of all!!! Wheee!

Posted by: James at January 10, 2005 10:40 PM

Nice recommendations. I've added a few to my Netflix queue based on your previews.

I haven't seen Saved! yet, but someone's observation on the web cracked me up. Something about the trailer was okay but it was priceless to see teeny heartthrob say she is filled with Christ's love.

Posted by: Mike at January 11, 2005 2:29 AM

Mandy Moore, that is. Left that part out.

Posted by: Mike at January 11, 2005 2:36 AM

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