Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Movie: UP

December 27, 2009 Comments off

MrsDoF and I just watched the Pixar animated movie UP.  She asked for the movie for Christmas and I must have dutifully bought it for her, and wrapped it, but then had a “Did I leave the iron on” moment of self doubt over whether I got the right movie.  When she unwrapped it, I was relieved.

The story is about an old man who ties balloons to his house and floats away for an adventure, with a little kid from the neighbourhood.  In the beginning it’s a bit slow (more on that in a moment) and toward the end there’s more dialogue and full-on Indiana Jones levels of action. I wonder if it might even be too intense for young children, but it’s been a while since I watched a movie with young children.

I hope that kids who see it will catch some understanding of the sense of loss that accompanies advancing age; people with AARP cards will certainly catch on.  But the story is also about renewal and finding the good even if your original goal wasn’t accomplished.  Like most movies aimed at kids, it isn’t particularly subtle. 

At the beginning the movie feels like an indy animation project; almost no dialogue and storytelling almost exclusively by pictures.  I’ve seen lots of independent animation projects that used this technique but on big-budget animations only Wall-E and UP.  I hope to see more of this kind of visual storytelling in the future.  Only kids’ response to it will tell.

You may have heard that the movie sets an amazing standard for animation and this is true.  Also amazing is how the cartoon characters fit into a photo-realistic cartoon environment. 

In his book, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud discusses how identifying with characters is easier when the characters are visually abstracted. (Maybe this explains the appeal of XKCD!  Well that and the incredibly original writing)  And sure enough, despite the photorealistic animation, the characters are cartoony enough.

While the visualisation is realistic, the story isn’t on most levels; both toon physics and toon probability applies.  But hey, it’s a cartoon!  Has anyone shown it to their kids?  Did the kids like it?

Categories: Movies, Reviews

Movie review: Predator 2

August 14, 2009 Comments off

I just finished watching Predator 2, with Danny Glover, as part of my “watch movies while doing cardio on the treadmill, so I don’t die of boredom” program. If you like to play “Cop-movie or Science-Fiction Cliche Bingo” (which I do) you’ll find it very enjoyable.

Glover pays a violent, renegade cop who is always in trouble with his boss – essentially the same character as Jack Slater in Last Action Hero.  Only instead of drug lords (they’re getting killed too) he’s being stalked by one of the same species of aliens who went up against Arnold Swarzenegger in Predator.  The baddies come to our planet to hunt for sport, and we’re the prey.  They’re tremendously strong and agile, invisible when they want to be (which makes DARPA strategists drool, including the obnoxious government MIB who wants the alien’s technology), wear lightweight armor, and use sharp-edged but very advanced combat weaponry.

In a brutal, hand-to-hand battle at the end of the movie, Glover kills the alien, only to find himself surrounded by more aliens.  One of the aliens hands him a pistol taken from somebody, according to its engraving, in 1715; they’ve been coming here a long time.  Then he is allowed to leave while they blast off for their next adventure. 

I thought humans couldn’t have been much sport back in the 1700’s; we had no way to see in nonvisible spectrums of light, had no armor to speak of, and only primitive weapons.  So with our technological advances, we would be getting more interesting to the aliens as sport animals.

It also occurred to me that we routinely kill animals that don’t stand a chance against us.  If you hunt deer with a high-powered rifle, I’ll observe that you like to spend time outside in the woods.  When you hunt bears with a sword, I’ll start thinking that physical courage is involved.

Fun movie, but be warned there’s no intellectual content, and no non-cliche characters, but plenty of naughty words and a high body count if you clutch your pearls at that sort of thing. 

Categories: Movies, Reviews

Movie Review: Gran Torino

August 10, 2009 Comments off

There’s one advantage to being the last person on Earth to review a movie: I don’t have to explain the plot.  Or at least, not in much detail.  And I don’t need to worry about spoiling Gran Torino for anyone.

Clint Eastwood plays a retired auto worker.  We gain insight into his character at his wife’s funeral: he’s bitter, cynical, and bitter.  (Did I mention bitter?  He should receive an Oscar just for his facial expression in the first scenes of the movie.)  Soon after the funeral, we learn that his deteriorating neighborhood is being taken over by foreigners, all of whom he detests.

When the Hmong neighbor kid (named Thao), tries to steal his classic automobile (guess which model) as part of a gang initiation, he confronts the kid with his Korean-war era rifle, thwarting the theft. He and the would-be thief are forced together by the relentless Hmong women of the neighborhood.  In a tradition similar to a Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program, they send him to Eastwood to work off the dishonor of having tried to steal his car.  Eastwood tries to refuse, but he is told it would be a great insult not to accept. 

Of course he has no problem insulting anyone, but he laments; “Those Hmong women, they’re like badgers!”  That brief soliloquy is delivered to his dog, in whom he confides most of his inner thoughts.  And since we are listening in, we have a doG’s eye view.

In addition to being bitter, Eastwood’s character is about as racist as they come, yet paradoxically he becomes the protector and benefactor to the Hmong family next door.

In a stunning and completely unexpected development, he and Thao become friends.  When both Thao and his sister become victims of gang violence, Eastwood locks Thao in his basement and goes to settle the score with the gang. 

Eastwood is one of the few actors who could deliver the line “Get off my lawn!” in memorable, quotable way.  There’s a funny scene where he’s beating the crap out of a gang member.  The camera looks up into Eastwood’s ancient face, distorted by rage, when he says “If I have to come back here, it’s gonna get f*ing ugly!”  Well you had to be there, I guess.

My favorite parts are where he (figuratively) tortures the local Catholic priest with his cynicism.  You want to perfect your Eastwood imitation to master “Well halle-f*ing-lujah!”.  If you like that sort of thing;  I may have rewound and played it back a couple times just to be sure.  But don’t worry about the priest; he does all right for an “over-educated 27-year old virgin who likes to comfort superstitious old women with talk of the afterlife.”

Eastwood’s musical talents are also on display in the movie, as is his ability to actually think about a story and what it means as a reflection of cultural realities. The movie touches on race, generational conflict, gender roles, even religion.  At the end, Eastwood confesses to the priest, but mercifully it does not appear that he had changed his mind about religion.  Rather, it seems he does it to honor the memory of his religious wife, and because he did have something on his mind that was bothering him.  Something that would have surprised his sons.

Gran Torino is a “mentor movie” in which an aging action hero takes an uncertain youth under his wing, and teaches him how to be a man.  It’s also a movie about how a young person (Thao’s sister) helps the old man make a little bit of final sense of his life.  Think of this as a much-better retelling of Finding Forrester.  (Don’t tell anyone, but I actually enjoyed both movies.)

Categories: Movies, Reviews

Movie review: Taking Of Pelham One Two Three

June 10, 2009 Comments off

You may be thinking; “But DOF! Taking Of Pelham One Two Three hasn’t been released yet!”  Oh, but it has, back in 1974 and starring Walter Matthau as the cynical NYC transit cop Zachary Garber.  It’s a heist film about a group of criminals who hijack a subway car.

For me that was the original hook: how the heck do you hijack a subway car?  Where would you go?  The story makes it work, though, and it has a lot of humor seamlessly mixed in with the violence and one grisly scene.  It maintains dramatic tension, and respects the audience’s intelligence by not explaining everything in tiresome detail, allowing the viewer to make their own connections.  The final moment of humor is without dialog – a cough and a look.

The villains each have their own personalities – one is the mastermind of the heist, another a disaffected subway car engineer, and a crazy mercenary.  I couldn’t help being amused by the hijackers’ demand for “one million dollars”.  That was a lot of money back in 1974, but the phrase is forever linked to Doctor Evil, now.

Everyone has their own ideas about how to stop the hijacking.  Garber has the difficult task of navigating between the demands of the hijackers and the hotter heads in law enforcement who want to go in guns blazing into a hostage situation. He needs to be very tough to stay on course, not least to assert leadership with saving as many hostages as possible.

If your only exposure to Walter Matthau is Grumpy Old Men you should treat yourself to some of his dramatic movies.  He played a brilliant but frightening nuclear war strategist in Fail Safe (parodied, I think, in Doctor Strangelove of the same year).  In Kotch he played a grandfather at loose ends trying to help a pregnant teenager.  In the hard-to-find black comedy A New Leaf, a destitute trust-fund loser trying to marry a rich woman – and murder her.

I’ve seen the ads for the new movie, starring John Travolta, and it looks like it might be very good except for one thing: I hate knowing about the personal lives of actors.  I can’t look at Travolta anymore without seeing the private-jet-owning global-warming hypocrite Scientologist whacko. It just ruins the story for me.  When people start discussing actors’ lives, I try to steer clear. I’d rather not know anymore!  Maybe it’s a conditioned response from years of respecting Jimmy Stewart.

Which reminds me: if you’ve never seen Stewart in the 1965 Flight Of the Phoenix, it’s an awesome classic ‘guy’ movie.  You won’t be sorry.

What movie was I reviewing again?  Oh right – the original Taking Of Pelham One Two Three.  If you don’t mind seeing polyester suit jackets, check it out.


Categories: Movies, Reviews

Movie review: “Milk”

April 26, 2009 Comments off

I may be prejudiced against gay films, from not having seen very many.  The few snippets of Brokeback Mountain (see MrsDoF’s review) that I’ve seen were, to say the least, not impressive. A gay documentary I saw recently was so poorly done that I refrained from reviewing it. Bits and pieces of other gay films I’ve seen on YouTube failed to attract me to the genre. I’ve long felt that in Hollywood, even home movies could win an Oscar as long as they were gay home movies. 

(To be an equal-opportunity grouch, I’m not much on any movies that have mushy scenes in ‘em.  And since most movies are bad, and there aren’t very many gay movies, it stands to reason that there aren’t very many good gay movies.)

So I wasn’t expecting much from Milk, the 2008 biopic of gay politician Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) and his assassin, Dan White (Josh Brolin).  And when, five minutes into the film, Penn is making out with a guy he just met in a stairwell, it seemed on track to be pretty trite/boring/preachy/etc.  But popcorn and a large box of dark-chocolate raisins kept me in my seat long enough to be pleasantly surprised; the film is actually a good docu-drama of a time in US history when gay rights began to show up on the national radar.

Maybe that’s a good reason to hit the concession stand.  At least at the historic Normal Theater, where popcorn is only a buck and theater-sized candy is two bucks.

The film did a good job of portraying the destructive side of gay promiscuity in the Castro district, and also the tragic motivation behind political activism and how even straight people began to realize the humanity in ‘queers’.  If relationships are forbidden, what’s left but furtive encounters?  One thing I liked about it was clips of news footage from the time.  I remember Walter Cronkite talking about gay rights’ initiatives in various states, and I remember Anita Bryant’s disingenuous expressions of “love” toward the gay community she was trying to push back into the closet. 

(A side note: it was actually Anita Bryant, and not any gay activists, who first got me thinking that maybe there was something to the idea of gay rights, after all.)

Milk stands up even as a political film.  As initiatives go down in flames, but then a vital one passes, the sense of dispair and triumph is as palpable as film is ever likely to make it.  So chalk up one good gay movie.

Categories: Movies, Reviews

Swing Kids, the movie

March 15, 2009 Comments off

History teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure. – Thurgood Marshall

I finished watching the movie; Swing Kids, starring among other famous names, Robert Sean Leonard and Christian Bale.  It was, as I mentioned earlier, a truly scary movie about a bunch of kids who liked Swing music, which did not endear them to the Nazi regime.

A lot of recognizable names in the movie (some not even credited), including music by James Horner, and it shows.  I am especially fond of Robert Sean Leonard, who now plays opposite Hugh Laurie in House and is an extraordinary actor.  Would you have thought that a person could convey a tortured agony of the soul while dancing alone to Swing music?  Me either. 

There isn’t a lot of graphic violence onscreen.  For example there’s torture but we don’t see it; we see the victim’s son realizing later what it all meant. We don’t see gas chambers, we see a cold, brutal delivery in a nice inlaid box.  We see kids soon to be caught in the thuggish maw of history. 

This is another one of those little historical tidbits I never knew about, but apparently there really were Swing Kids in Nazi Germany.  They didn’t single-handedly bring down the Reich or anything, and many of them paid for their lives for the desire to enjoy an art form that wasn’t approved by Himmler.  They started out, apolitical; they just wanted to dance and enjoy their subculture.  The film is an impassioned answer to the question; “Why not just go along?  What does it matter if we sing one song for the Fatherland?”

If we think we regulate printing, thereby to rectify manners, we must regulate all recreations and pastimes, all that is delightful to man.
- John Milton

I guess totalitarian regimes need to control the artists.  At one end you have Steve Martin paying for the production of a play he wrote that got banned from a high school, then the school authorities that banned it, and then Tipper Gore trying to keep smut and violence away from kids.  Somewhere to the right-of-center you have Nazis insisting that all art glorify the Fatherland, and at the far extreme you have the Taliban destroying all the musical instruments they can find.  They are the answer to the question: “What would it be like, a society without art?”

I don’t read a whole lot of fiction but when i do, the fact that it IS fiction allows me to enjoy it as a pastime.  It is a dramatization, not a documentary, but it recounts a real time and real situations.  In the not-so-distant past, our kind actually went there.  Standing between us and a repeat performance is the poet, the playwright, the musician, the dreamer, the intellectuals and artists.  You know, the ones who misshape the human spirit to fit in a totalitarian box.


Categories: Movies, Reviews

2009 Oscar Shorts

March 1, 2009 Comments off

MrsDoF and I saw the 2009 Oscar Shorts last evening at the Historic Normal Theater.  These are short films that you pretty much never see except at film festivals.  Which is a pity, because there’s something about having to tell a story in five to thirty minutes that concentrates the creator’s mind wonderfully.

Among the animated stories my favorite was ‘Lavatory Lovestory’, a charming Russian piece about a lonely middle-aged woman working as a lavatory attendant, and her secret admirer.  The film was drawn in the style of a New Yorker cartoon, with simple lines.  Other animated shorts featured gloomy Japanese expressionism, and over-the-top CGI 3D that didn’t do much for the stories. They were (mostly) entertaining but not memorable.

Among the four live-action shorts, I most enjoyed;

  • “Toyland”, a Dutch film about trying to shield children from awful truths in Nazi Germany
  • “The Pig”, a Dutch film about religious freedom versus freedom of speech
  • “New Boy”, an Irish film about an African immigrant boy trying to adjust ato an Irish grade school
  • My favorite was “Auf Der Strecke” (On The Line), about a lonely Swiss department-store security guard in love with one of the clerks.  He makes one, awful momentary decision, and finds himself tangled in intractable guilt, along with the grief of the woman he loves.  This is an incredible piece of storytelling.

The fifth live-action film was “Manon On Asphalt”, about a pretty girl dying on the pavement after a bicycle accident, and her thoughts as life ebbs away.  It was a little heavy-handed on the “live every day as your last” moral lesson.  That death comes at random times, and that a person’s totality matters more than the last sentence out of their mouths, is something I think most people understand about others, but not so much about ourselves.

I’ve noticed the European films seem less obsessed with tying up every loose end in a story.  Sometimes you don’t learn how it turned out.

Short films can be tremendously powerful.  Find “Auf Der Strecke” if you can.

Categories: Movies, Reviews

Movie Review: ‘Man On Wire’

October 24, 2008 Comments off

A documentary film?  Yes, but much more.  A heist movie?  Yes, a really good one, excitingly told, but much more.  Also a privileged look into the human soul of art in the face of death, Man On Wire does all three these things well in just 90 minutes.

It is the story of Phillipe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York.  Journalists demanded to know ‘Why?’ but there simply is no ‘why’.  We meet a full cast of people who carried off the heist right under the noses of the authorities, stringing a steel cable between the towers so the artist – no other word applies – could throw open the perception of human boundaries farther than anyone could imagine.  That was his gift to the world. 

The movie does not mention 9/11 and that is entirely fitting.  The WTC was itself an extraordinary achievement and how wonderful to associate it with an artistic triumph instead of one of humanity’s darker moments.  That is a different story, one full of heroism that overshadows evil, which deserves its own telling.

Seriously, see this movie, in the theater if you can and on DVD again later.  I don’t need to worry about building up expectations too high – it is moving and funny and exciting and beautiful.  (It will be showing tomorrow night and Sunday, 25 and 26 October, at the Historic Normal Theater if you’re in town)

Categories: Movies, Reviews

Movie Review: Wall-E

June 29, 2008 2 comments

Just on impulse I Shanghaied MrsDoF to see Wall-E this afternoon.  After all, it’s from Pixar, and they did Incredibles, which I thought was wonderful.  And it got a somewhat over-the-top review from one of the ScienceBloggers I often read. 

The movie is about a lonely robot, the last of his kind left behind on Earth to clean up the environmental mess.  He encounters another robot dropped off on a reconnaissance mission, and attempts to make friends with her.  Because, though neither robot is humanoid, there isn’t any doubt about the expressive gender of either one.

And watch out for this chick, Wall-E!  She packs a punch.  But they establish a relationship amid the mountains of trash, and all goes well until Wall-E presents her with a little green plant, and then things go terribly wrong…

The movie is fine for kids and adults won’t be bored.  Aside from the awesome Pixar animation, I enjoyed the tribute references to other science-fiction movies and stories.  The ship’s computer is so clearly HAL, only more bad-tempered.  And see if you can spot the brief reference to The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

Categories: Movies, Reviews

Movie Review: Iron Man

June 1, 2008 2 comments

Back in college a friend and I were discussing an issue of Swamp Thing, a comic series about a scientist who was turned into a tortured monster by exposure to fire, chemicals, and immersion in a swamp.  The theme of the series was nothing important; only humanity and what makes us human.  He was writing a paper about it and we were making a couple Xerox copies in the library.

The librarian overheard our conversation.  He asked what we were working on, and he said; “Waste of time.  An utter waste of time” and walked away shaking his head. I wondered if he would have said the same thing about Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, a similar, though smaller treatment of the theme of humanity.

Believe it or not, some comic books are not about themes of intelligence or humanity or identity or anything like that; some are just for fun.  Mostly that describes the series Iron Man, though it does have its philosophical moments.  The basic idea is that a self-absorbed genius billionaire inventor and arms manufacturer is captured by hostile forces, and escapes by building himself a high-tech suit of armor.  Inspired, he returns home to build a much better suit of armor and becomes a superhero.

Occasionally really great movies result from turning comics into movies, and this was one of those times.  The story has been updated from Vietnam to Afghanistan, but all the characters were done exactly right.  Robert Downy, Jr. made a perfectly reckless and obnoxious Tony Stark; you really don’t mind him being beaten up by terrorists. But of course you don’t mind him returning and kicking their asses, either.  And the final battle between Iron Man and his brute-force evil counterpart was pure Marvel Comics, exciting and improbable and funny (but don’t look for scientific accuracy if you want to enjoy it).  If you have ever read and enjoyed an Iron Man comic book, you’ll probably like this movie.

The movie was in the new Wehrenberg Galaxy-14 super-mega-monsterplex theater out by Farm & Fleet.  I must say that Wehrenberg theaters has done a better job of building theaters than GKC; we were able to enter and leave easily, the theater itself was small and comfortable and we were within good viewing distance of the screen, the sound was excellent and yet we could not hear other theaters, and all the facilities were, if a bit glitzy, very nice.  We often go see movies at the beautiful art-deco Normal theater downtown and I had gotten to hate multiplexes.  But I didn’t mind this one. 

Is this a “guy” movie?  Well sure, but MrsDoF went with me and we had a lot of fun.  Afterward we went to Carl’s Ice Cream for burgers and onion rings and talked about the movie – a good date.

Categories: Movies, Reviews