27 April 2010

District 13: Ultimatum

I loved the first District 13 movie, so I was totally stoked to hear they were making a sequel. Alas, it basically sucked. Unlike the first movie, which has totally sweet fight scenes, a thrill ride plot, and some compelling political resonances, D13: Ultimatum is just... boring. The plot aims for political commentary, but decides to do it by "revealing" the evil at the heart of Halliburton (cleverly called Harriburton in the movie). So it's not exactly daring. The fight scenes are surprisingly unexciting, and overall, there's nothing of quality that wasn't already in the first one. Except, perhaps, a new badass chick, who wears less clothes than the one in the first movie did, and has a pretty cool tactic of killing people by attaching a blade to her braid and whipping it at people.
Still, it's pretty disappointing overall.

25 April 2010

The Princess and the Frog

Of course I had to go see The Princess and the Frog. Who could resist the urge to see how Disney managed to pull off its first black princess? I went in with my critical faculties at ready, and left in a haze of warm fuzzies, utterly won over by the predictable charm of Disney. It's such a sweet movie. I am such a sucker.

So, to begin though, I should say that I've been skeptical of all the angsting over the whole race issue. I mean, I agree, it's a major issue, and Disney needs to be sure to get it right (I don't remember, though, quite so much angst over Mulan, or Princess Jasmine, or Pocahantas...). And obviously, Disney has a lot to apologize for, particularly in its depiction of black people. But people were critiquing the movie months before it even came out. She's not black enough! She's too black! Why isn't the Prince black? Oh, she can't have a white prince? She turns into a frog?!? From where I was sitting, it seemed like there was really no way that Disney could make everyone happy. No wonder they'd never tried this before. So while I was ready to be attentive to the portrayal of race in the film, I wasn't looking to be quite as hypercritical as some other people (her body language isn't black enough? come on.).

So, to begin with what for many will be the main point - I thought they did a decent job with the black characters. I think in terms of getting the voices authentic versus the dangers of caricature, they maybe played it a hair too safe. So that while Tiana and her family did have a touch of drawl, they sounded a wee bit artificial - especially Tiana as a little girl. But I think that in the interest of not taking it too far, they did ok. Meanwhile, some of the less central characters, like Ray the Firefly and Mama Odie, they felt a little more comfortable going all out on, and did well.

In fact, the only real caricatures in the film were the white hillbillies the heroes encounter in the swamp. They were definitely a fairly appalling caricature of white rednecks. But I doubt anyone really minds that, eh?

Next, the gender issue. This was actually a little heavy handed. Tiana is a hard-working young lady who knows that you can't just sit there and demand your desires of a star, you have to get off your ass and make shit happen. Cool. Tiana's big flaw, in fact, is that she doesn't know how to have a good time. Ok. There's an interesting sort of moment where she has to decide between her man and her career, and she kind of picks career, and then she's kind of sad about it, and then she decides she can maybe have both, and it works out fine! Luckily, her man doesn't have career plans of his own. One could pick on this, but why? It has its heart in the right place.

Actually, one of the most striking things about the movie is its reflection on class mobility. Tiana's father worked his whole life and couldn't rise above his position (but it's ok, because he had a family who loved him, the movie tells us), but he desperately wanted Tiana to. And she manages to save up her money, only to then be turned down in terms that subtly suggest racism/sexism. Ultimately (yes, I'm giving it away a little bit here), she does get what she wants, but the thing is - no amount of hard work will suffice. Ultimately, you DO need to wish on a star/marry a prince. This is a strangely pessimistic moral, but also one totally in keeping with Disney's overall message. In other words, it's good old Adorno again - you get the princess who could be you, and whom you can identify with and live out her fantasies, but all the same, you can't actually be her, because she got a prince. If you can get a prince, you too can join the upper class, but obviously that's not exactly easy.

Anyways. Enough of that. I really wasn't thinking about all that while I watched the movie. I was busy oohing and aaahing and being mushy over all the cute characters and their lovely stories. I didn't cry, but I did laugh, and generally quite enjoyed the whole thing. As a final note, I'd like to add that the movie is a pleasure, visually. Lush colors, lovely scenes, and a very nice nod to other animation in the restaurant dream sequences.

All in all, quite well done.

22 April 2010

The Runaways

My desire to be Joan Jett started when I was 9 years old or so* and was only slightly, perhaps, eclipsed in later years by my desire to sleep with Joan Jett. So it was kind of obvious that I was gonna see The Runaways, despite the fact that it did not appear to be a particularly good movie. And indeed, it wasn't, though it definitely lives up to its guilty pleasure status. Actually, overall, I was surprised at how much better it was than I expected.

To begin with the weak points, the storyline is kind of meh, and the dialogue is generally pretty bad. Dakota Fanning is not especially impressive as Cherie. You learn damn near nothing about the other members of the Runaways, except that they seem to be totally awesome and it'd be really nice to know more about them. The whole Cherie story is, sorry to say, one of the least compelling things about the movie.

BUT oh man Joan Jett is so awesome. She really comes off as this raging badass who's also, like, super understanding and tolerant of Cherie's flakiness, and passionate about being known for music instead of sex**. Kristen Stewart does a pretty decent job, I have to say. She's not amazing, but she could certainly be worse.

Visually, the movie is well done. I was particularly impressed by the Cherie-Joan sex scene, which is really, really cool. It's kind of funny; I have this kind of prudish hey! it's fucked up to sexualize 15 year old girls! thing, so I was really impressed by the way the movie handled it. It's not explicit, but it's actually pretty hot. Overall, I have to say, the movie did an interesting job handling the sexuality issue, in that while the girls are hot, they're also very clearly 15. Especially when you see Dakota Fanning prancing around in lingerie, I at least was like man... she's cute, but she's not really sexually appealing. Maybe in a few years when she fills out a bit or something, but she just looks like a skinny teenager.

Finally, it was generally awesome to see a movie where chicks are raging badass rock stars, doing all the rock star stuff and generally being every bit as awesome as any dude could be.

So yeah, it wasn't a great movie. But I enjoyed it.


*What's amusing is that my initial fascination with Joan Jett began, not by hearing her music or seeing her, but by reading some young adult novel where one of the characters was obsessed with Joan Jett and dressed like her and spiked her hair. She was obviously the coolest character in the book, so it was obvious to me that this Joan Jett person was a model to be emulated.

**So, I've never really been that into The Runaways - I'm really just a Joan Jett fan. But when I got home, I got on the youtube to check out some videos. So a few points:
1. Cherie does actually have a pretty cool voice. A good example of the contrast is the song Cherry Bomb. Here's the Runaways version, and here's Joan's. Cherie does this neat vocal thing on the Hello daddy, hello mom! part that Joan doesn't do, and it's actually pretty cool.
2. Watching The Runaways version also made me appreciate the movie more. Here's the movie version. Not only did they basically nail the look, though updated a bit to make it more attractive than the 70s, but Dakota Fanning also does a decent job emulating Cherie's vocal stylings. All in all, pretty cool.
For added fun, here's Joan Jett and Cherie Currie reunited on stage in 2001 performing the song together. Note how Joan Jett is still ungodly hot, even now.

17 April 2010

Kinamand

I am a total sucker for cross-cultural romances, especially ones where the couple starts out not even knowing each others' language. I know it's probably a total fantasy and completely unrealistic, but is it really so different from the schlock that Hollywood peddles?

Kinamand is a bittersweet, touching story, very well acted, and overall lovely. Much recommended.

My only complaint is that the Chinese isn't translated. I understand that the point is that we're encountering events from the perspective of the protagonist, so if he doesn't understand, why should we. Nonetheless, I think it would generally be a good thing if movies like this provided subtitles for all of the dialogue, rather than leaving the "foreign" language strange and mysterious. Ling isn't speaking some kind of gibberish, even if we don't know what she's saying. I have no doubts that the film is enhanced when you understand her actual words. So why not translate them?

Up in the Air

Having read this scathing review, I had fully expected to hate this movie. So it was a pleasant surprise when I found myself increasingly amused by the film as it progressed. It wasn't quite so pleasant overall that I ultimately really LIKED the movie, but you know, it made those 2 hours at least somewhat enjoyable.

The review linked to is, in some ways, correct. There is something morally dubious about being expected to root for the guy who fires people during a recession, who's boss is literally gleeful when he cites figures of the declining economy. But that shouldn't be surprising in a movie from the makers of Thank You for Smoking (which I thought was terrible), and anyhow, plenty of great artists have created a main character out of someone who would otherwise seem villainous and made an audience love them. I agree with the reviewer that there's a fair amount of condescension in the movie, but even though I came to the film primed to expect it, I really didn't think it was that heinous. The problem was really that most of the characters were caricatures, and therefore any that you weren't supposed to like that much seemed condescending.

And this is the big problem with the film, overall - the characters. The supreme case being George Clooney's - as with Thank You For Smoking, the movie is centered around a guy who is kind of an asshole. It seems as though the film is meant to be a psychological investigation of this guy, yet there's this distinct sense of uncertainty about him. Is he actually a good guy, beneath it all? Is he a thoughtless jerk? Maybe he's just emotionally immature? The movie can't really seem to make up its mind, and ambulates between options. I think somebody thought this would make it seem complex and nuanced. It doesn't. In fact, there's a decided instability to the film overall - the tone shifts rather puzzlingly throughout, from satire to sentiment and soul-searching, and it's really hard to say whether you're supposed to be touched or ironically amused at the character's expense. Maybe it's just me, but I found the whole thing really uneven.

As for the pluses though - I have kind of despised Vera Farmiga for awhile, especially after her role in The Departed. I thought of her as that melodramatic rabbit eyed woman. But she was phenomenal in this movie - I take back all the mean things I've said about her. Actually, though a tad unrealistic, her character is by fat the best part of the film. Anna Kendrick, who plays the assistant, was also pretty good, though her character was the most egregious example of caricature. But for all that, she managed to infuse it with a little bit of personality. Also, a lot of the dialogue was well done. I wouldn't call this a modern Cary Grant movie, but there were some funny bits and some fairly interesting banter. The conversations were marred somewhat by the characters themselves, but they had potential.

The gripes (ie, the relatively minor things that contributed to my negative feelings about the film):
#1, first and foremost - cliche. There are some many scenes in this movie that feel like they've been ripped off from other films. I don't want to give anything away, but you'll know the Big Lebowski moment when it happens. There's even more cribbed from Intolerable Cruelty, which isn't really surprising, given that George Clooney is essentially playing the same character in both.
#2 (comparatively minor, but still) I thought it was really neat that the movie had a sexy text message exchange. "sexting" as it's come to be known (I am trying to advocate for sexmessing instead) is an increasingly common phenomenon in today's world, and it's high time movies did something with it. Not to mention, I'm all for good erotic scenes (Vera Farmiga wearing nothing but the necktie was pretty awesome). But the thing about pushing the envelope is that you have to actually be willing to push it, and include some genuinely sexy messages. You have these two jet-setting, techy type-a personalities who are obviously freaks in the sack - and then you give them these pathetically tame texts? Weeeeeeaaaaak.
#3 (again, minor) These people spend hours and hours on planes, and yet they never crack open a fucking book? Gah!
#4 Is it just me, or does it seem like there are a lot of scenes where something is covering up part of the camera lens? At first I thought it was a mistake, but then I started noticing that there are a lot of shots where there are these odd hulking shapes dominating most of the frame, and the point of interest is kind of squished between them. But the hulking shapes are generally just that - shapes - like on the airplane, it's a big blob of a seat, or something. I don't know, a lot of the movie was visually quite appealing, but that sort of annoyed me.


06 April 2010

The Extraordinary Adventures of Foundling Mick, by Jules Verne

Another "lost" Jules Verne novel - a better one, fortunately. But still not that good. This is Verne's tribute to Dickens, ie, attempt to write a Dickensian novel. Except he sets it in Ireland. So it's basically a kind of sentimental picaresque, which is Dickensian, sure, but Dickens is a lot better at it. I'm trying to figure out why, and all I can really think of is that his characters are more compelling, even when they are almost wholly saccharine. Verne does a fairly admirable job mustering outrage on the condition of Ireland, and getting in plenty of jabs at absentee landlords and colonial oppression, but the novel is still riddled with stereotypes. Full of "Irish" characters whose Irishness is repeatedly trumpeted. It really makes you appreciate Irish literature of the period, and its bizarre semi-ironized deployment of these same tropes, a lot more. I'll take Maria Edgeworth, or even Lady Morgan, any day over this. Sorry Jules.

04 April 2010

The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan

As with The Omnivore's Dilemma, what makes this book worth reading isn't the prose, but the ideas. Although the introduction sets up an idea of considering the world from a plant's point of view, and there are recurring themes that run throughout the book, the whole reads more like 4 interconnnected essays. The first is about apples (really, about Johnny Appleseed), the second about tulips, the third marijuana, and the fourth, potatoes (particularly genetically engineered ones). It feels somewhat hastily connected, or maybe as though Pollan freely allowed himself to be overrun by tangents. Which is fine - as I said already, the ideas are fascinating. The book is also fantastically well researched (I was really pleased to see that he cited Catherine Gallagher's essay about the potato) and generally very interesting.

It's not, however, as good a book as Omnivore's Dilemma, for several reasons. One, that the material just isn't quite as interesting. And at moments, it really drags. But another is that the writing is clumsier - there's a lot of repetition, or just self-indulgence. I found myself wishing that he had a better editor.

Still, it IS an interesting book. The apple and marijuana sections are where it really shines - the potato is somewhat interesting, but covers a lot of the same material as OD, and the tulip section is pretty forgettable. Not a bad book, but not one I'd really wholeheartedly recommend.

02 April 2010

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland

I don't like Tim Burton. So I wasn't really excited about this movie, despite the fact (or maybe especially because) I love Alice in Wonderland. Nonetheless, this movie far surpassed my expectations of suckitude. It was so unbelievably bad that I don't even relish hating on it. It was just an utter waste of my time.

Let's leave aside the fact that it bears no real relation to Lewis Carroll's phenomenal books. Though it doesn't. Aside from the scene where Alice grows and shrinks to get into the tiny door at the beginning, there's pretty much nothing else from the original story at all, aside from the names of the characters. Not only do the characters not resemble themselves as characters except somewhat in appearance, they also don't serve the same plot functions. But if you changed the characters' names, you would never in a million years guess that this was Alice in Wonderland. Which of course I find annoying - why sign on for the project at all if you don't actually like the story? I understand that you may think, eh, it's been done many times, let's change it a bit, make it new. But this isn't making it new. This is just a different movie. So the only real reason, that I can tell, that it's called Alice is because he figured then people would go see it.

So let's pretend it IS just a Tim Burton movie, with no original text. You know what? It SUCKS. The plot is completely stupid and overwrought, the dialogue is painfully bad, and much of the acting - particularly Alice herself - is awful. The shining star of the film, curiously enough, is Anne Hathaway, who's surprisingly amusing if somewhat stilted. Helena Bonham Carter is pretty good, and Johnny Depp is too (though why he suddenly becomes Scottish is a bit beyond me). But they can't save this steaming pile of crap. I really cannot impress upon you just how trite, tedious, and predictable the plot is. Well, predictable isn't entirely right - you can see the ending from a mile away, but meanwhile, there's plenty of unnecessary filler that does nothing whatsoever for the story except take up time. There's plenty of sentimentalized moralizing and oddly empty politicizing - ugh. It's just so bad.

Finally, what really surprised me was how visually uninteresting it was. There is absolutely no reason to see the movie in 3D. Actually, at some moments the 3D was so clumsily rendered that I actually tried to take the glasses off. Furthermore, the look of the film - where one expected Tim Burton to really shine (albeit in fully cliche goth fashion) - was largely uninteresting. Yes, the Red Queen's big head was neat. The Mad Hatter looked rather like Burton's Willy Wonka, except with clown makeup, and everyone else was basically a slightly goth-er version of the Disney adaptation. Actually, no - the Disney cartoon is far more visually lush and interesting.

Please don't see this movie. Please let it be a crashing failure at the box office. It's not even the kind of bad where it's so bad that you should see it just to see how terrible a movie can be - it's just banal. It's really not worth your time.

01 April 2010

The African Queen

I have to say, this movie took me completely by surprise. I guess I was sort of expecting Casablanca, so the bar was set pretty high, but still, I was astonished at just how silly it was. This movie has been around for ages, so yes, there are some spoilers ahead, though I'm not gonna blow it completely.

The first 45 minutes are straight up terrible. It's boring, unconvincing, and just plain stupid. Hepburn is a missionary's sister who ends up on a boat with Bogart, who's meant to be a hard-drinking sleazy sort of guy. They are supposed to not like each other very much. Problem is, Bogart is actually a perfect gentleman, and Hepburn is surprisingly laid back for a prissy prude. Then they actually get into an argument. And then... they fall in love. But what's curious about that is that it actually dramatically improves the film. The chemistry between them is actually really lovely. They do a perfect job as a middle aged couple in the throes of first love. It's touching and sweet and it fills you with joy as they call each other old girl and dear and brave the wilderness together. Hepburn's character, given the times, is a raging badass yet still rather demure, a very nice female character for once. Bogart is a total sweetheart. It's all very nice. By the end though, you can't help but roll your eyes a little bit. I mean, it's just so over the top. The whole adventure plot is completely subordinated to the romance in a really extreme way. The obstacles they face become more and more extreme, and their solutions become more and more implausible, but it's ok! They LOVE each other! Still, it's sort of charming. Probably the greatest scene in the movie is when Bogart does an impression of a hippopotamus and Hepburn laughs with delight.

One does feel compelled to point out though, that Achebe's famed critique of Conrad's Heart of Darkness - or more broadly, of Western depictions of Africa - has rarely been quite so fully illustrated. Africa in this film is nothing more than a symbol of wilderness and adversity. The continent is represented by the landscape, which is basically the unknown, full of terror and danger. The few scenes with actual Africans are mostly of chaotic masses speaking a language that's incomprehensible to most viewers, and behaving basically like a mob (shooting happily at the ship, fleeing in terror, singing discordantly in church). Though here, as in Heart of Darkness, it's worth considering how the other Other of the work figures in. Namely, The African Queen also features lots of Germans, who are either represented metonymically by scenes of destruction, or in groups, speaking an incomprehensible (to most viewers) language and killing stuff. I think there's still a difference between the two, but still, it's worth considering.

Overall - I can understand, I guess, why this movie was so loved in its time, in that it IS Hepburn and Bogart, and a very sweet love story. But time has not been good to this movie, and watching it now, you have to admit that it's pretty ridiculous and over the top, not to mention, it takes a long time to sort of get in the swing of things after a pretty drab beginning.