Friday, February 26, 2010

Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro

If there's one person on earth who knows what makes a good family film, it's Hayao Miyazaki. Take Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro, for example. If I was 10, I would be watching this movie every day. Even now, long after I was 10, this is still a great time that pretty much anyone can enjoy. It's perfect for that age when you can handle a bit more action and a bit more drama, but are still looking for fun in your films. It's an animated adventure aimed squarely at anyone who loves a good animated adventure.

The story follows Lupin III, the latest in a line of master thieves, picking up the scent right after a major robbery. Alas, the robbery doesn't net much more than a big collection of counterfeit bills, leading Lupin and friends to go after the source of the counterfeit money, which is in the Castle of Cagliostro, located in a tiny country that even smaller than Luxembourg. There he sees a beautiful bride on the run from thugs, leading to an adventure with an evil count, plenty of action and a complex mystery. It ticks pretty much all of my 10 year old equivalent's buttons, and even now I appreciate the fun involved. As a kid who grew up on Inspector Gadget and Darkwing Duck, I lived for this kind of thing.

This is very early Miyazaki, so it is clearly much lower budget than many of his later and increasingly detailed works. Yet, his animation is still beautiful, and is actually reminiscent of all those cartoons kids wasted their Saturdays watching. He's still got that trademark attention to detail, with the slightly cartoonier Fiat 500 - all Fiat 500s are cartoon to an extent - that Lupin drives being a pretty much spot on replica. Everything from the elaborate gearwork in the climax to the smallest design flourish is clearly thought out.

Still, all the detail in the world wouldn't matter if the film wasn't any good, and this film is just plain fun. Yes, the sound effects are a bit wacky, but it's animated slapstick, it's appropriate. Lupin is such a likable character overall that one can't help but be drawn to him and his adventures. The villains are exaggerated and it often gets silly, but it should it's a fun movie, that the family can enjoy.

Well, the family can enjoy it provided they're not watching the Magna International dub, at least. Here's the thing Magna, this is a movie that was designed for the family. In short, young boys and girls will be watching this with their moms and dads. Know what moms and dads don't like? Swearing. So why is the dub so sweary? I mean, I have no problem with profanity in my own life, but it doesn't fit the tone, it doesn't fit the characters, and it actually distracts from the movie as a whole. To take the language even to PG-13 levels is distracting, and reeks of a company trying way too hard to be cool that they can't understand something as subtle as tone.

Still, a bad dub isn't the film's fault, and when someone figures that out and does a much needed re-dub, this will again be the perfect family picture. Miyazaki just knows what kids like, and the children of the world will be poorer off when he stops making movie. Luckily for all of us, he seems to be dragged out of retirement a lot.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Shawshank Redemption

Here's something interesting, the Shawshank Redemption was a flop. Yes, the film voted the best ever by the borderline illiterate folks at the IMDB was a failure when released. Yet, being both a failure and a film that's extremely well regarded makes perfect sense here, in the strange and often contradictory world better known as reality.

So why did it fail, first off? Here's the thing, read an IMDB comment board. Now, imagine the person writing those comments saying "I would like two for the Shawshank Redemption." Plainly, there is no way that they could do it. The very people who like it best could never see it, because they couldn't read the posters. As they couldn't read the posters, they would assume that the movie is much too highfalutin' for them and go see, so they'd watch The Little Rascals instead.

(Yes, I recognize the irony of linking to the IMDB and mocking the users, thanks)

So then why is it a success after the fact? Well, it's partially because it was played every day on TBS at one point, so you could see it pretty much whenever you wanted. Still, there's a very good reason why the Shawshank Redemption is #1 on the IMDB and other TBS favorites like Rush Hour 2 continue to be overlooked for accolades. The fact of the matter is, Shawshank is a crowd pleaser.

The story has all the right elements. There's a man convicted of a crime he didn't commit in Andy Dufrense (Tim Robbins), who meets fellow inmate Red - as portrayed by America's Grandfather and Voice of God, Morgan Freeman - whose soothing narration lets us know that everything's going to be okay. It lets people into an interesting world, strings along a fairly entertaining tale as Andy goes around implementing various schemes and improving the prison, leading to a twist ending that's satisfying and happy. It's the kind of film you can enjoy, with strong performances, and characters that it is easy to get attached to. We're allowed to be sympathetic for the characters because one was framed, the other was repentant, and the rest we really don't know the pasts of. I'm not immune to the charms myself, and while I'd never call it the best movie ever, it is a solid choice for an evening's entertainment.

Yet, it's got what I call the Shawshank Conundrum. We are in a prison. In prison, people tend to be there because they did things like murder, rape, robbery, and tax evasion. Since this takes place over a number of years, we can assume that tax evasion is not the primary reason why these likable characters find themselves behind bars. Yet, in order to like these characters, we can't exactly dwell on the fact that they might be slightly less noble than having the voice of Morgan Freeman might suggest. Also, because they're likable characters, having prison seem too awful might make the audience sad. So prison is played like a summer camp with light sodomy rather than a serious place which exists to lock up criminals. In spite of the loneliness inherent in spending many years behind bars, it never seems that bad. There's a line that goes "everyone in prison is innocent," and one can't help but think that they're being played that way.

It's a completely satisfying caper, sure, but it's also a little bit too squeaky clean. There's a bit of an edge, but not quite enough to make one think that, you know what, prison is a crappy place, I hope I never have to go there. So long as you don't think too deeply about the things the various characters have done and why they're there. Just enjoy the antics, become amused by Andy's antics, and laugh as all the pieces fall together. That might not sound like the best movie ever, but hey, it doesn't have to be the best to be good.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Man of the Year

Every time I see a movie from Brazil I wonder if it will be the one that breaks the streak. See, I haven't seen a bad movie from Brazil yet, but there simply has to be one. There's a bad movie from every country, and for Brazil to have such a solid run of good simply has to be luck on their part. Well, after watching Man of the Year I still haven't found that elusive bad Brazilian movie. That said, I do have some reservations about it.

Now, this is the story about how Maquiel's (Murlio Benicio) life got flipped, turned upside down. In Rio de Janerio, born and raised, losing soccer bets was how he spent most of his days. Chilling out max and relaxing all cool, drinking some cola outside of a, err, bar. Well, a guy, he was up to no good, started making trouble in his neighborhood. So Maquiel shot him.

If there's one thing I learned from a class on Shakespeare, the difference between tragedy and comedy is the body count. Man of the Year, until about the mid-point of the film, could easily go in either direction. Maquiel trying to be a normal guy while everyone else is appreciative of him killing the local punk could lead to humor, and until a key death, it remains darkly comic, as Maquiel tries to be good and normal but keeps finding his life gets better whenever he engages in some light murder. It only goes tragic when we can see Maquiel begin to enjoy murder rather than simply stumbling into it.

It's a really neat story, and one can really understand Maquiel and his actions. His actions always seem perfectly sensible at the time, and one can understand how he can pave his path to hell. Murlio Benicio plays the reluctant assassin well, and one can tell when the film is taking a turn for the sad simply by watching how he becomes increasingly comfortable with the path of destruction in his wake. It's also a story that could be only told in Brazil, a country known for a volatile combination of poverty, drugs and a corrupt police force.

It's also a beautifully shot film. There's a conscious effort to film some scenes in an almost dream-like manner, to underscore how Maquiel just flows with the currents around him, instead of really making a difference in his life. All of the pivotal moments seem to be distant from what he would choose to do at any given moment. As he narrates, it seems like a conscious effort to distance himself from his actions, a clever choice.

I mentioned I had some reservations, but it's really down to one major one. This film needs a bit of tightening up in the screenplay department. While the various subplots actually do pay off, along with giving the audience an early indication of the motives of Maquiel's benefactors, it gets a bit lost. There are times when it just seems lost in the machinations of its plot, unsure of exactly where to move or how to get there. It gets stuck repeatedly, which can be a bit of a drag, especially since you don't know where they're going. As Maquiel's life is sorted into different boxes which don't touch, it's often a struggle to care that they will connect. I can't help but think that streamlining several scenes and tightening up others would make for a superior film.

That doesn't make it a bad movie so much as it becomes merely a decent one. It does have a good overall story, one born from the overall situation in Brazil. As a result, it's something that's worth watching, and continues Brazil's neat avoidance of bad films. I'm sure Brazil's bad film is out there somewhere, but I haven't found it yet.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Happy End

Regular readers might know that I generally am not very fond of what I've called a pity movie. They generally get a special amount of bile from me, and each one I'm subjected to gets a new and unique rant about how they're the scourge of cinema, and acclaimed quite wrongly. So, you might be surprised to know that I've found one I don't hate. In fact, Happy End isn't all that bad at all. How did a movie about miserable people manage to keep me from unleashing all my hatred?

Was it the story? Here, we have a career minded woman named Bora (Do-yeon Jeon), who apart from being career minded is also having quite explicit sex with shaggy website developer who shares my sense of style Il-beom (Jin-mo Jeu). She isn't finding her way to his bed just because of the raw animal magnetism inherent in a love of checked shirts and hair that's slightly too long, it's also her way of getting away from her sad sack husband Ki-min, who is played by the generally excellent Choi Min-suk, who takes care of their infant daughter when he isn't hanging out in the used book store. As inevitably happens, things go badly for everyone involved, and the title becomes ironic as one might expect.

By the numbers, I should hate it. Everyone's depressed because they're stupid, and it all leads to a deadpan misery throughout. It's also slightly misogynistic, which can be very annoying the more that you think of it. But, somehow, it actually works quite well, perhaps simply because it doesn't judge the characters.

Here's the thing, everyone in the film does awful things. This causes themselves and others a great deal of misery, and makes them wander around moping all the time. But, that said, they aren't viewed as awful or overtly sympathetic. There are no heroes or villains, just people, good and bad wrapped into one person.

There's also no unseen force in the screenplay making everyone unhappy just for the sake of it. Too often everyone in this type of movie is punished constantly for just daring to try to be better than they are. The people here merely face consequences of their actions, even if the consequences can sometimes be a bit overdone. It's just three people, caught in a love triangle and dealing with the emotions inherent.

I'm going to admit I don't love it, but I don't hate it, and can respect it from a distance and recognize that it's a fine example of its breed. The lesson here is that it's possible to make a film about miserable people being miserable. The trick is, you have to actually make them people apart from their misery. In spite of their many faults, the characters of Happy End are people, for better or - in this case - for worse.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl

Once, when one of my nephews was about ten, he told me a story. It began as a story about Little Red Riding Hood, but quickly turned into a twisty, incoherent narrative filled with action, digressions, and jokes about flatulence. It was amusing, especially as the narrative went progressively off the rails and quickly became an outlet for his odd sense of humor, but really it made no sense after the first sentence. It was great that he had a wild imagination and a gift for fart gags, but let's be honest, it was not screenplay material. Racer Max Rodriguez had a similar story, but his dad is Robert Rodriguez, famous filmmaker and hat enthusiast. So his insane story was made into a film called The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl.

In order to have the fact that it makes no sense somehow make a little sense, it's all about dreams. Cayden Boyd is Max, a dreamer, who dreams up the story of Sharkboy (Taylor Lautner), a boy who is raised by sharks, and Lavagirl (Taylor Dooley) his partner in awesome, who is made of, well, lava. They live on the ridiculously named "Planet Drool". Obsessed with his dreams, he presents them as what he did last summer, earning the scorn of Linus (Jacob Davich) who bullies him, and the concern of his teacher Mr. Electridad (George Lopez). But the joke's on them, because his dreams - which involve a lot of bad CGI, incidentally - become real, and he has to save his dreams from evil and his big angry bully friend.

As a dream narrative written by a young kid, stuff doesn't make sense. Dad tries to make things come together, but like all young kid stories, it keeps going into traps and then having convenient ways of getting out of them. Things are introduced just because they need to be exist to keep the story needs to continue, even if everyone involved freely admits that it's really just stringing things along. It's sort of amusing, perhaps, but hardly something to build a story on.

It's not just an incoherent narrative, it's also an experiment in CGI sets. The look of the movie is low rent, strangely unattractive, and it looks dated and bereft of art direction. It's just ugly, and things work in an obviously artificial and overly smooth ways. It's like the worst CGI sequences of the worst games, and it just looks bad.

Not that it's all bad though. The kids are usually an engaging screen presence, even Taylor Lautner, who has since made his name in the sparkly vampire movie - and if there's a film series that will rob you of any charisma you might have, it's a sparkly vampire movie. In fact, here he brings a lot of personality to the role of Sharkboy, and one can't help but think that it's a shame that he's going to be typecast as a sparkly vampire or whatever the hell he's supposed to be (I genuinely have no idea or interest in what that series is supposed to be about) and never get real work again. The rest of the kids are actually quite good as well, with Dooley being likable even when her character gets amazingly whiny, which is a feat.

Maybe the film isn't for anyone over 10, the age group that can appreciate and create bizarre stream-of-consciousness narratives. Maybe I'm too old to enjoy something which bathes in a sea of bad CGI. But, in the end, it's a movie that's about what you would expect from a screenplay co-written by an 8 year old. It's creative and frequently interesting, but it's the kind of thing that can only happen when your dad is a famous film director.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Big Bang Love, Juvenile A

While it might seem like an odd thing to bring up when discussing the film of a completely different director, it seems like the appropriate moment to say I don't like Lars Von Trier. Perhaps it's simply because Big Bang Love, Juvenile A has managed to make me realize why exactly it is I don't like Von Trier. Simply put, I hate his almost fetishistic need for self-denial. From denying himself proper lighting and equipment with the Dogme 95 movement to denying himself full sets with Dogville, his entire aesthetic is punishing himself for some ill defined reason. This film puts that in sharp relief, because while it does use similar chalk outline sets on occasion, it's not because of a self denial, but because it can, and because it is not denying itself anything. Instead of a film of punishment, it's a chance to actively explore different methods of doing things.

The story goes that two convicted murderers, Ariyoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda) and Kazushi (Masonobu Ando) go into prison (which is between a space shuttle and an ancient ruin, oddly) and enter into an unlikely but intense relationship. However, Ariyoshi is seen strangling Kazushi, and the film explores why, or if Ariyoshi killed Kazushi. While that description may imply a typical crime narrative, that's not what you get here. Instead, the relationship and the characters are explored in a highly abstract environment, with the design being an outward expression of their emotional state rather than conforming to traditional prison rules.

One could easily accuse this film of being pretentious, and it is trying very hard to be an art film. Of course, being by insanely prolific Takashi Miike, one might also assume he just wanted to approach the material in a new way, and try something he never had before. Whatever one thinks, you can tell that the design of the picture is rooted in a sense of inventiveness and exploration. From a pure story perspective it's interesting, but it becomes rewatchable just because of the subtle clues hidden within the sets and design.

It's also beautifully shot, using light in ways to help define scenes and areas in a way that defines them and gives a striking image at the same time. The greens and purples of the interrogation room contrast with the yellows in the primary prison area, and in rare excursions to the real world there is a completely different shooting style to emphasize the disconnect of the prison world.

It's up to the average viewer if these visual flourishes and some of the odder elements actually add to the picture. It could come off as extremely pretentious, and if you're not prepared for it, a little alienating. That's fine, but if nothing else, it's an experiment, and denies itself nothing. It is a film which denies itself nothing to try to get its point across. That's why I love Takashi Miike, when one watches his films you get the sense of a director who recognizes that film can be whatever you want it to be. If Von Trier would realize that instead of using it as a means of self (and audience) punishment, maybe I'd like him too.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Accidental Tourist

This seems to be a week of movies that have the life sucked out of them. Accidental Tourist, for example, is a film most dreary, an exercise in dead filmmaking, taking a script filled with quirk and turning it into a dirge.

It's about Macon Leary (William Hurt), writer of the Accidental Book series, a travel guide that takes all the joy, interest and excitement out of new and interesting places. He's also mourning the loss of his son, his marriage to Sarah (Kathleen Turner), and his ability to emote. He meets a wacky dog trainer named Muriel (Geena Davis) who is a very calculated wacky. She sings! She wears long nails! She talks a lot! They get together, because that is what happens in movies like this, after stopping by Macon's quirky but dour family and Bill Pullman trying to be the only cheery character in the film. Eventually he has to decide between the old wife, and the new quirky girlfriend.

"That sounds like the makings of a bad romantic comedy," you might say. This is accurate, but even the worst romantic comedy has life to it. Even if it's an artificial, annoying, badly implemented life, it's life. This has all the excitement of a particularly grim funeral procession. The pacing is plodding, the direction is staid, and the film is just a dirge. It isn't merely that it has no joy, it has no emotion full stop. It's a film so bereft of excitement that even the lead actor can't be bothered to wake up for it. It's two hours of sleepy drifting.

I'll admit that I've didn't expect it to be good, but being that it's directed by one Lawrence Kasdan - co-writer of Empire Strikes Back - and from my limited knowledge of him I didn't expect it to be a dirge. If the actors and director can't bother to care enough wake up for the show, why should we? I can't think of a compelling reason.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Adrenaline Drive

Here's an interesting case, Adrenaline Drive is an Action-Comedy, with a distinct lack of Action and Comedy. It is in fact the kind of movie that makes you appreciate a good director all the more, because you can see what it was meant to be in its bones, but the man in charge - Shinobu Yaguchi - just screws it all up.

Once upon a time, there was a young man named Suzuki (Masunobu Ando). He runs around in a passive aggressive relationship with his boss, whose name I can't find. His boss trying to make him angry leads to him running into a Jaguar owned by a Yakuza. This leads to him going to a Yakuza headquarters and a wacky gas explosion that kills all but him and a strangely immortal Yakuza boss, whose name I can also not find because the IMDB entry for this movie is really bad. When in an ambulance to the hospital, he meets attractive nurse Shizuko (Hikari Ishida), and they decide to run off with the Yakuza money. This leads to a theoretically madcap romp through Japan, as the Yakuza is hot on their trail and they need to get through some sexual tension in the meantime.

This is perhaps not a work of art, but on paper it could be a funny, and fun to watch film. Some of the scenes would likely be very strong on the page, and there are more than a few amusing little moments. The dialog might even be good, though the DVD I watched was riddled with typos and glaring mistakes so I might not be the best judge of that. The way that several different factions collide in the fight for the missing money at the end has been done many times, but that's because it often works. This should be a highly enjoyable romp that doesn't take itself very seriously, a decent popcorn movie for a night out.

Yet it's very boring, what happened?

It's all in the direction, or maybe it's the lack of it. Such rudimentary things as moving the camera once in a while, doing more than medium length shots from a static position or really anything to augment the action is not done. Prime opportunities for slapstick are wasted, visual jokes that were clearly written into the script land with a thud, and everyone underplays like they haven't actually seen the stage directions. It takes a script that could be fun, has some great opportunity for action, and a lot of potential and rushes through it like an indifferent high school student doing a report. So much potential fun, so little done with it.

If someone who knew what they were doing decided to tackle a remake, I'd watch it. It could be an opportunity for someone to make a really enjoyable action-comedy. But, it isn't because this time the director just didn't make the effort that the script needed to work. It's a shame really, because in another universe, someone could have a really good time with this.