Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Ninja Assassin" / "Gomorra"

Ninja Assassin - Directed by James McTeigue, starring Rain and Naomie Harris - Rated R

A little slow at first, but then...Ninjas!

Ninja Assassin...when a film has a name like that there should be no mistaking what you are about to see. Ninja Assassin is about a clan of ninjas that assassinate people; fairly simple, and awesome. There's a story in there about lost love and whatnot, but if you are considering watching this movie at all you are mainly concerned with the action, so I'll save the in depth plot synopsis for later.

The action in Ninja Assassin is pretty impressive at times. After all, this is from the filmmakers behind The Matrix trilogy and V for Vendetta. The movie starts off extremely violent as practically invisible ninjas cut a room full of gang members to pieces...literally. The film slows down to a crawl after that sequence, however, but does regain momentum in the end. It slows down to get into that pesky plot I mentioned earlier, which I think was a misstep by the filmmakers, but back to the action. I referred to the ninjas as invisible because this film emphasizes the shadow warrior aspect of ninjas. That may sound cool and everything, but it's not necessarily fun to watch. Just hearing a woosh! followed by a limb being cut off or a splash of computer generated (CG) blood is okay here and there, but when it takes up entire action scenes it can get kind of boring. The action is much better when the ninjas are forced to fight near a light source. So struggle through the boring middle of the film and you'll be pleased with the last half hour of the film, as I was.

One thing that is prominent even in the extremely dark action scenes is blood. This film is absolutely drenched in CG blood with a little bit of practical blood as well. I'm a traditionalist, so I prefer my onscreen blood to be good old fashioned corn syrup and red dye. I had a problem at first with all the CG blood, but eventually it just became comical and made some of the dark scenes funny. So I don't mind the CG when it's overused to the point of being funny, but I find it hard to believe that using a computer is cheaper than mixing syrup and dye. Maybe it isn't such a big deal to other people, but I assume if you're into movies like this, then you have a stance on the fake blood issue.

The film slows down into boring, but bloody, territory because the filmmakers felt obligated to give a reason for all the violence. Personally, I don't need a good reason to watch ninjas do battle. Just let me know who the good guy is and who the bad guy is and let them fight it out for a sacred relic or something. This film, however, felt the need to make this about a Europol agent (Naomie Harris, a.k.a. the voodoo lady from the Pirates movies) who is searching out the ninja clan behind assassinations over the last few centuries. Her story is cross cut with that of Raizo (Korean pop star/actor Rain) who trains in his apartment while he has flashbacks from his childhood within the ninja clan (they take orphans in to replenish their clan). I don't mind martial arts training scenes, but I thought there were far too many in this film. If they had been done in the vein of Kill Bill Vol. 2 they could've been much more entertaining. And then there's a whole forbidden love angle tossed in there that could've been set up in much less time as well.

Of course the Europol agent and Raizo cross paths eventually and team up to survive against the hordes of ninjas stalking them. This is when the film gets its much needed jumpstart. I can't stress enough how much the last half hour saved this film. I went into this movie expecting insane ninja action and the middle of the film didn't deliver on that at all. But by the end, I was just waiting for characters to start yelling, "Ninjas!" (pronounced NEEN-juz, of course). The last part of the film is the fun, crazy time promised in the previews and it made it all worthwhile for me.

Gomorra - Directed by Matteo Garrone - Not Rated (easily an R rating, though)

Might not be a regular mafia movie, but it's still interesting.

First off, Gomorra is easier to enjoy if you have a little backstory. The title is a play on words, referencing the biblical cities Sodom and Gomorrah and the crime syndicate of Naples, Italy known as the Camorra. It is based on a book of the same name that exposed the actions of the Camorra and the author of the book is supposedly under police protection for life because of the threats he has received. So this is not a glorification or celebration of the mafia lifestyle. In other words, this film isn't going to be considered cool or "gangster." It has a City of God feel to it but with more of a focus on realism and less on style. If you're looking for the Italian version of Goodfellas, you won't find it here. But it's still a good film and it may stick with you when it's over.

Gomorra consists of five intertwined stories that are not directly related to each other, but share a connection through the Camorra. There's Toto, the young grocery delivery boy who's trying to get his start in the mafia. There's Roberto, who is exposed to the corrupt side of waste management. There's Don Ciro, a money runner who is caught in the middle of a mafia war. There's Pasquale, a fashion designer who sees that some people take clothing design very seriously. And finally there's Marco and Sweet Pea, two young hoodlums who keep stepping on the toes of the local mafia. I mention Marco and Sweet Pea last because I felt that they represented a strong message. We first see these characters as they play act a scene from Scarface. These are the kids that grew up glorifying American portrayals of crime and want to live out their Hollywood fantasies with a very real mafia. I saw Marco and Sweet Pea as Gomorra's way of saying, "Hey! This lifestyle is not glamorous." I'm not knocking Hollywood mafia films or anything (I count most of them among my favorite films of all time) but they do glorify the lifestyle quite a bit, even if it's not intentional. There's no mistake that Gomorra is a condemnation of the mafia lifestyle and Marco and Sweet Pea's story is the best example of it.

Don't confuse my focus on Marco and Sweet Pea as a putdown to the other storylines. They each have their moments and I found all of them compelling, I just found Marco and Sweet Pea to be the most interesting. I suppose it is because they struck me as realistic and dangerous. The scene in which they fire guns just for the fun of it is chilling. They cheer and yell like five year olds as they fire off automatic weapons as if they were toys. They are toys to them. They have no fear of repercussion for any of their actions and their lack of respect to their superiors (even if the superiors are criminals) is disturbing. They were the most annoying characters in the film, but also the most important.

The film is not perfect or anything, though. I think it would have been better if one of the characters was dropped, but I suppose the diverse stories give you a better overall picture. I just wish that picture was a bit more succinct. And I don't know how realistic the music choice was, but these gangsters listen to some awful music. It was distracting at times, but when you're being immersed into a different culture, issues like that are bound to crop up.

There's really nothing else to say about this film. It may be a bit hard to follow, but if you devote some time to it you should come away with something. You may not be entertained and you may be disappointed, especially if you're going in hearing claims that it's the best mafia movie in years. (It doesn't help that the film starts with the words: Martin Scorsese presents...) But if you give it a chance and go in knowing that it's not a "normal" mafia movie, then you will probably come away pleased.

Gomorra is available on DVD.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Antichrist - Written and directed by Lars von Trier, starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg - Not Rated (if it was, though, it would at least get an NC-17)

I broke a rule for this review. I usually never read reviews of movies I plan on reviewing until I've written my own. But I had to read some responses to this film first. I mention this because I'm going to repeat what a few of them say: I (dare I say it) liked Antichrist, but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone...ever. I don't want to be held responsible for putting you through the film. I'm not saying it will scar you emotionally or anything (it made me cringe, but I'll survive), but at the very least you might feel angry for having watched such a movie and then your opinion of me might never recover. Oh, and you might think I'm a sick human being for claiming to "like" the film. So don't watch this movie. But if being told not to watch something intrigues you, then read on.

I'll get into some of the reasons why I wouldn't recommend the film later. For now, let me summarize the relatively basic premise. The film opens in black and white, extreme slow motion as He (Dafoe) and She (Gainsbourg) have sex while their toddler climbs out of his crib and falls out of a window to his death. The scene plays out like a graphic opera and I thought it looked amazing. (Note: "He" and "She" are not the characters' names, it is how they are credited since they never call each other by name.) She is obviously quite depressed after the incident and her therapist husband takes it upon himself to cure her. He thinks the best way for her to deal with her grief, pain, and despair (three prevalent issues in the film) is to face what she fears the most: the woods surrounding their cabin (Eden). Then stuff gets crazy, to put it lightly.

That may not sound like the most messed up plot in the world, but you can tell that this movie isn't a feel good film. Dark, evil things happen in this movie. When that's the case you usually need a clear-cut hero to side with. Antichrist doesn't necessarily have that, but it didn't bother me. For me, the acting was good enough that I didn't care whether or not I liked the characters. I liked the performances. Gainsbourg gives a painfully impressive performance; she is thoroughly convincing as a depressed and troubled woman. Dafoe is perfect in this film, down to his appearance. I can't imagine anyone else attempting the role. His weathered face speaks volumes during the slow motion scenes.

Speaking of slow motion, this film has a great style. Lars von Trier might be full of himself (he claimed he was the best director in the world at Cannes), but he has made a beautiful film. The images, of nature or of grotesqueness or of dreamlike quality, all look great. His camerawork is interesting as well. The slow zooms were a touch I enjoyed in the film. And even the simple framing of a conversation could lead to a discussion. Well, a discussion with me, anyway. The standout images all involve the cabin, Eden, and its wooded surroundings, though. The cabin is reminiscent of the cabin from Evil Dead and that's fitting, because some creepy things happen there.

Creepy is one word, but sick might be used as well. One review referred to this as an "art house" horror film. I suppose that's fitting, but it still retains a few images that are more gruesome than any regular horror film I've seen lately. It's psychological, but it's also shocking. I'm not going to spoil any part of the film in this review, so let me put it this way: the theatre I watched this in offered squeamish guides. The guide let you know when to look away. The theatre also usually serves alcohol (it's an independent theatre, which is why Antichrist was playing there to begin with), but they would not serve any to anyone watching Antichrist due to the graphic nature of the film. While I think that may be going overboard a bit, I must say that a few moments of Antichrist stick with you. (If you just have to know what happens in the movie, go to the message boards on IMDb or check out the Wikipedia page for the film.)

Whenever a film presents such graphic and possibly sickening images, I have to ask, is there a point? I say there is. The themes of the film (there are many, but I'll just focus on a few) require some of the brutality. The film probably would've gotten its point across by just implying some of these things, but it's stronger and more disturbing by showing them. In other words, I'll remember this film for a long time, whether I want to or not.

I don't want to dwell on what this film means (especially since it's open to interpretation), but I will say that there is a point to it, and a compelling one at that. Okay, maybe I will dwell on what I think the point is for a moment. The film has been called misogynistic (it even won an anti-award for it) and I can see how people could come to that conclusion, but I would disagree with it. Sure, there are moments that might make it seem that von Trier is calling every woman inherently evil, but it could also be a statement on how some individuals succumb to stereotypes about themselves. Plus, it's not all about women and whether they are evil. The film is called Antichrist and their cabin is called Eden, so biblical issues are abound. I think it's quite easy to apply the story of creation and knowledge of evil to this film. Just watch how von Trier distorts the images of the outside world or how he shows you nature in its violent simplicity while the cabin seems to be a safe haven...from nature, anyway. There are multiple possibilities out there(one of the best involves the idea of Munchausen syndrome by proxy), but I think applying gender issues, good and evil, and nature is a safe bet.

No matter what your interpretation might be, this film will definitely lead to discussion and I find it hard to say a movie like this is good or bad (hence the absence of a "villain rating" this week). I said I liked this movie at the beginning, but I'm not sure if that's right. I did find this movie extremely interesting and I think that means something. Antichrist isn't a movie you like, it isn't a movie you recommend, it is a movie that makes you think, though, and while I may enjoy the mindless, fun movies more often than not, I still thoroughly enjoy a disturbing, beautiful, and, most importantly, thought-provoking film like Antichrist.

Monday, November 16, 2009

"2012" / "The House of the Devil"

2012 - Directed by Roland Emmerich, starring John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Woody Harrelson - Rated PG-13

Destruction is nice and all, but the rest is a bit weak.

"This is how the world ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper." Director Roland Emmerich would whole-heartedly disagree with T.S. Eliot on that point. Emmerich destroys the planet in the loudest possible way he can and when he's showcasing the planet's destruction, 2012 works and is entertaining. When Emmerich tries to build characters and emotional connections; not so much.

2012 takes the ending of the Mayan calendar (12/21/12) and shows the doomsday scenario that some people believe in (though most everything I read or watch concerning the date now try to stray away from claiming the apocalypse is near). If you've seen the previews, you know what you're in for: mass destruction and a bunch of close calls for John Cusack and company. Cusack is trying to get his ex-wife, two kids, and their stepfather across the world to China in the hopes of catching a ride on some kind of ship being built by the world powers. Of course he's always just one step ahead of the spreading destruction. His escapes (especially the one featuring a limo) are quite ridiculous, but they look great for the most part. Emmerich, after Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, has become quite good at staging destruction.

Destruction scenes are nice and all, but it helps if you actually care about the characters running away from the danger. I didn't care one way or another about them (which is the problem I had with The Day After Tomorrow, along with the awful CG wolves in that film). I normally don't like John Cusack in anything he makes, so that didn't help matters for me. It also might have something to do with the fact that I've seen all of this before. The characters seem like they didn't make the cut for Independence Day. Of course Cusack is divorced, but there still seems to be something between him and his ex (Amanda Peet). His son kind of hates him, but if the end of world can't bring father and son together, what can? Forming the government/science side of the characters are Chiwetel Ejiofor (a waste in such an effects driven movie) as the scientist with a code of honor, Oliver Platt as the scientist without it, Thandie Newton as the president's daughter, and Danny Glover as the president. All standard doomsday movie characters, but Woody Harrelson, as the conspiracy nut, stands out and makes his short but sweet scenes genuinely fun.

The rest of the film is a series of tearful goodbyes, missed opportunities to reconnect, and characters saying variations of, "I think you should see this." Seriously, count how many times a character says a line like that, it's insane. I wanted to yell at the screen, "Hey, just stay in the room with the guy because something is probably going to happen every five minutes!" I guess it's all to be expected in a film like this and maybe the emotional scenes will actually work for some people, but it was all lost on me. One thing that wasn't expected, though, was the running time. This film lasts nearly two hours and forty five minutes. It basically pounds you into submission before letting you go with this formula: destruction, tearful goodbye, destruction, minor character death, destruction, tearful phone call, etc. It's just tiring and I was glad to leave the theater.

I suppose 2012 never really had a chance with Emmerich behind it. He made a fun summer movie with Independence Day but his latest two films don't allow for much fun. Comic relief or light hearted moments just seem wrong in a movie featuring the deaths of billions of people. How can you root for a Russian trophy wife's tiny dog to survive when you know people are dying all around? It just doesn't work, but hey, it looks impressive and it's all just a movie. It just made me want to watch Independence Day again. But it was better than The Day After Tomorrow, so that's something, I guess.

The House of the Devil - Written and directed by Ti West, starring Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, and Mary Woronov - Rated R

"Happy Halloween, ladies!"

*This film is in limited release in theaters at the moment, and is available to rent On Demand (which is how I watched it, since limited releases are pretty much nonexistent in this area).

The House of the Devil is the horror film made in the vein of the 1980's that is earning raves from horror aficionados. I don't count myself among the horror experts out there, but I still enjoy these types of films. I can't tell you what everything in The House of the Devil is a reference to, but I can tell you that it is quite enjoyable. This film has what all great horror films has: tension.

Before we get to the tense moments, though, I need to set up the story, which is refreshingly simple. Samantha is an innocent college girl who wants to start renting a house. She's a little short on cash, though, so she has to take a babysitting job on the night of a lunar eclipse. Samantha goes to work for the Mr. Ulman (the always creepy Noonan) who is in desperate need of a babysitter. The Ulmans have a slightly eerie house and you can tell something is not right with the situation. But the movie doesn't jump right into gory craziness, as most modern horror films do. Instead we get (I hate to use this term, but I can't think of anything better) a slow burn of a film that, in my opinion, has a worthy and quick payoff.

I can understand if anyone watches this and claims that it is boring. Sometimes there is a fine line between boredom and tension. The film worked for me and it's arguably slowest moment was the most tense for me. When Samantha is goofing off in the Ulman house it didn't seem pointless to me, it seemed realistic. And I was just waiting for the crazy to happen and the longer I waited, the more on edge I became.

That's only part of what makes this film work, though. I mentioned that this film was "in the vein of the 1980's" but it is actually a period piece. It doesn't make fun of the 80's or anything. I know this has been said about the film already, but I have to say that this film could pass as an 80's film. Not just because of the clothes and the just looks like an 80's horror flick.

I don't think this is the best horror film of the decade or anything (as many critics are claiming), but it was refreshing compared to the never ending flow of slasher movies spewing out of Hollywood. And even though I liked Paranormal Activity more, I'm more likely to watch this again and maybe, down the line, I will consider this a horror classic. For now, it's just a wonderfully tense and mysterious horror film.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

"The Men Who Stare at Goats" / "The Box"

The Men Who Stare at Goats - Directed by Grant Heslov, starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey, and Jeff Bridges - Rated R

Some really funny and absurd comedy...with goats.

Goats are funny. At least, I think they are, which is why I read the book that The Men Who Stare at Goats is based on. I found it very interesting that the military adopted a "psychic spy" program that included an attempt to kill a goat by staring at it. (For the record, one former spy claims to have "dropped" a goat, but did not kill it.) The book is obviously meant to be a bit comedic, but it does delve into darker issues like the Abu Ghraib debacle and methods used at Gitmo. The film decides to lay off those issues and go for laughs throughout and I think it works out for the better.

The film starts with General Hopgood (Stephen Lang) attempting to run through his office wall. After he smacks into it face first and falls to the ground, you know you're in for a goofy movie. The actual story starts off with journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) interviewing a former psychic spy who claims to have killed his hamster by staring at it. Bob sees the interview as a joke and doesn't think much of the psychic spy stuff. But when his wife leaves him, he decides it's time to go and do some real Iraq.

This is where the movie lifts off, because Bob soon meets Lyn Cassady (the hilarious George Clooney) and Lyn takes him into Iraq to tag along on a psychic spy mission. That's really all the plot you need to know about, because the majority of the film is played out in skit comedy form. The movie uses multiple flashbacks (and even flashbacks within flashbacks) to tell the story of the golden days of psychic spying (the late '70s into the '80s).

It all starts with Bill Django (a terrifically goofy Jeff Bridges) when he falls out of a helicopter in Vietnam. He has a vision on the battlefield (after being shot) and gets the army to fund a journey into peaceful warfare. In other words, Django goes on a hippie trip for a few years. When he comes back, he lays out the guidelines to create warrior monks. The plan is basically to disarm the enemy with kindness. This doesn't go over very well, but when the army discovers the part of the plan that includes "remote viewing" they get interested. "Remote viewing" consists of a psychic soldier staring at a picture of a missing person (or a foreign target) and spying on them from the comfort of an army base.

The snippets shown during Django's warrior monk training make for the funniest moments of the film, like when he gets Lyn to loosen up and dance with all the other recruits. I can't help but laugh when I see a group of soldiers dancing around to hippie music in full uniform, especially when one of those soldiers is a shaggy haired mustachioed George Clooney. Clooney's earnest performance carries the film. He truly seems to believe all the craziness. I think that your enjoyment of the film hinges on what you think of Clooney. Me, I just start laughing when I see him with that moustache, so it completely worked for me. His deadpan performance works perfectly with the light-hearted mood of the film.

It's not all about Clooney, though. Bridges gives his funniest performance since The Big Lebowski. Kevin Spacey does a good job as a slightly menacing psychic spy rival. And Ewan McGregor creates a likable, though doubting, guide for the audience. I was a little worried about McGregor after hearing his voiceover in the previews. I'm just not a fan of his American accent, but it didn't bother me too often. What bothers me is that the author of the book is British, and McGregor is British, so why did they change the character into an American? Aside from that, though, it's great for the Star Wars alum to be in the movie just so he can react to Lyn's claims of being a "Jedi." It's amusing to hear Obi-Wan Kenobi ask what a Jedi is.

The Men Who Stare at Goats isn't a perfect comedy by any means, though. The reliance on flashback storytelling leads to an overall weak narrative. I thought that the film became a bit too ridiculous in the end as well. But I'm quick to forgive a film with a premise that involves killing goats by staring at them. How could it not end being ridiculous? I'm also quick to forgive its faults because those flashbacks it depends on are quite often hilarious.

While watching the film, I kept hoping for more of the supposedly true aspects of the book to show up, but I realized later that it was not the film's intention to be a word for word adaptation. It's supposed to be entertaining. And it succeeds on that front. So if you want more of a history lesson, check out the book (it is a quick, interesting read, by the way). If you want a lighter, more comedic side to the gray area of military experiments, watch the film, you should at least come out of the theater with a smile on your face.

The Box - Written and directed by Richard Kelly, starring Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, and Frank Langella - Rated PG-13

The Box is weird, kind of creepy, and hard to understand at times, but it's also very interesting and it has style.

The Box, from writer-director Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko, Southland Tales), is a weird film. The previews may make it look like a straightforward thriller with a sci-fi twist, but it is much stranger than that. The basic setup is revealed in the previews, though. A strange man with half of his face disfigured (Frank Langella in an unsettling performance) shows up at the door of Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) with the titular box. He tells them that if they press the button two things will happen: 1. they will receive one million dollars and 2. someone they have never met will die. You can guess what choice they make.

That sounds simple enough, I know, but this film delves into mind bending (or head scratching) sci-fi about halfway through. The film features mind control, teleportation, the possibility of aliens, NASA, NSA, a lot of nosebleeds, and some ideas about the afterlife. This is all set to the background of 1976 Virginia, which makes it a period piece on top of everything else. If I tried to explain how all of these things are connected I would just have to write the entire plot. So just know that the movie gets weirder with each passing minute and it all pretty much comes down to how decisions that lack morality can have extreme ramifications.

It may sound like I didn't care for the film based on my focus on the weirdness of it, but that is not the case. I didn't exactly love this film (I need to watch it again before I make up my mind), but I will say that it held my attention better than any other film this year. I found myself looking all over the screen and hanging on every line of dialogue. It is very mysterious and I was completely encompassed by that mystery. The film doesn't really answer all of the questions it asks, though. In fact, it leaves you with far more questions than answers. But that doesn't make it a bad film. In fact, most great films leave you with questions. Not all people like that kind of thing, though. But I predict that this will be a film that is discussed for years to come, even though it might be dismissed by a lot of people initially.

This is what Richard Kelly does. His name should be the main thing you pay attention to from the previews. If you've seen either of his first two films, you know that he doesn't make "normal" films. Donnie Darko was a time travel movie that is now regarded by many as a classic and Southland Tales was a convoluted mess of a film that turned away many viewers (though I still found it interesting). I consider The Box to be a mix of those two films. Not plot wise necessarily, but on the weirdness scale and the amount of unanswered questions.

Say what you will about the complexities and problems of this film, no one can deny that it looks amazing. I don't mean special effects (especially since a couple of the water effects look a bit goofy); I mean the way shots are set up, the way the camera moves, and symmetry of the production design. It's very Kubrickesque and I believe that The Shining must have been a huge influence for this film visually and thematically. I'm not saying that this film is as good as anything Kubrick made, but I do think it is just as interesting as any of his films. Kubrick had much more focus than Kelly does, though. I imagine I will be watching this again in on DVD and it will be one of those films that I notice something new in with each viewing.

It's not all about the visuals and the mystery; your enjoyment may depend on what you think of Norma and Arthur Lewis as well. As characters, they are easy to like. They seem to be good parents with high morals. I think Kelly takes a bit too much time creating sympathy for them, but he gets the job done. The performances are key to these characters, though. Marsden (Cyclops from the X-Men movies) does a fine job, but Diaz might bother some people with her spotty southern accent. It didn't bother me, but I've talked to people that are wary of the film based on her accent alone. Diaz's accent should not keep you from watching this film, though.

The characters and the performances were fine, but it's the mystery of the film that will either pull you in or repel you. If you need every question answered, then you need to skip this film, otherwise you'll come away disappointed. If, like me, you don't mind a little confusion as long as the film is interesting, then you should definitely check it out. Just make sure you watch it with someone, because you're going to feel the need to discuss it afterwards.