Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Das Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment is quite famous in the annals of psychology, in spite of being fairly poorly run and executed. Making one group prisoners and the others guards, it all quickly got out of hand, with rampant mistreatment of prisoners by the guards ensuing. It was inept, poorly handled, and unethical. So, imagine if it got even worse! That's the motive behind Das Experiment, a German film inspired by the events.

Here, we have taxi driver and sometimes journalist Tarek (Mauritz Bleibtreu) as one of the prisoners, attempting to get things completely out of hand in order to get a better story. He gains the attention of guard Berus (Justus von Dohnanyi), who is in the process of going quite literally mad with power. Their antagonism is one of the drivers of the story, though eventually Berus just goes completely nuts, kills a guy, kidnaps most of the scientists, and gets all the guards to go along with him because they think this is all part of the experiment. It gets out of hand.

Also, Maren Eggert is Dora, she wanders around in her underwear. Her characters has no purpose whatsoever.

For the most part, the movie is a pretty interesting tale of psychological warfare. The Berus/Tarek conflict is a strong base for the film to build on, contrasting Berus' pathological need for control nicely with Tarek's need to get a good story. It's an interesting attempt to get to the psychological implications of the experiment, and by telling the story through the perspective of someone trying to ratchet up the intensity, it has a compelling anti-hero at its core.

In the need to keep continually raising the stakes, it also wanders in the river of implausibility. It's not so much implausible because of the treatment prisoners receive, nor is it implausible that some guards would develop sadistic tendencies. No, what's implausible is that the guards would turn on the bosses themselves. See, in the experiment, the people in charge of payment are the scientists. Locking up the scientists and assaulting them? Not going to happen, for the same reason the wardens at real prisons aren't locked up and assaulted: If you do that you're going to get fired and go home without pay.

The last act is meant to ratchet up the tension, but it just becomes completely unbelievable. Is it seriously going to get to the point where the guards even turn on the scientists in charge? Even if the lead guard is in it to beat guys up and overcompensate for smelling bad, the others will remember that he's not the boss, the scientists are, and beating up the scientists is a bad idea.

Also, real prison guards tend to not kill the prisoners. That's a pretty basic part of prison guarding, don't kill anyone.

It's not like the ineptitude of the inspiration needs to be enhanced anyway, and it could become just as compelling a film even without the outlandish last act. The need to ratchet up the tension does not serve the story, because it is unnecessary. Why do we need more than the regular batch of inhumanity? It's good enough to make the real story compelling, and at least it doesn't tread deeply into the realm of implausibility.

Friday, August 27, 2010

District 9

Science fiction is often used to give a little distance between the viewer and a hot button topic. Sometimes it doesn't work, such as in Star Trek VI, which was such a heavy handed allegory about the collapse of the USSR it rang false throughout. Sometimes it does, such as the best film about immigration and racism I've seen all year, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1136608/">District 9.

So, here we're in South Africa, where a big alien ship has stalled, and the passengers have been moved to a slum called District 9. They're treated poorly, and then people complain that they commit crimes and are unruly, not realizing that having them in a slum situation likely doesn't help matters. Since they are planned to be relocated to a new district, clueless bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copely, in a star making turn) is charged with serving eviction notices and generally getting them to cooperate. It goes quite badly, and leads him to become more like them than he anticipated.

So the entire thing has a bit of an obvious allegory going on, and that's pretty unavoidable given the content. It doesn't help itself by making a lot of the human characters obviously evil, which is usually a death knell for subtlety. The late film hero moments can feel kind of awkward for this reason, as Wikus does sort of kill lots of people.

So why does it work? Well, Copely sells the weedy bureaucrat who is forced to go against what he used to just accept. He's never a perfect character - even late film he does some extremely cowardly and dick-ish things, rare for a hero - but he's strangely likable, even when he's right there with the evil company doing bad things. He's a nice guy, the kind of guy you probably wouldn't want for a boss but who you'd go for coffee with and buy a couch from. He's a recognizable happy center.

It also works because it's such a good action movie that it doesn't give you time to recognize how simple it is being drawn. The themes are obvious, and ever present, but nobody ever dwells upon them. It is a big, impressive action spectacle that relies on the themes to give a purpose for the action.

Still, being a big action movie leads to the people killed, and one wonders if they couldn't learn, like Wikus before them, that the aliens are actually nice guys. If we learn more about people - or space people - by hanging out with them, I wonder if some of the cannon fodder could have gotten along with the aliens if given the chance. I can understand some characters being just completely bad, but most of the soldiers are just soldiers, it feels somewhat uncomfortable just blowing them up.

Sometimes it can be too clever. Flipping between documentary style and more typical film making is an interesting choice - and the documentary talking head interviews are a great way to do exposition without being really annoying about it - but it seems a bit indecisive, as though it doesn't know what it wants to be.

It's far from a perfect movie, and there are also some points where the script doesn't consider if a twist quite makes sense in context. Still, it's possible to be imperfect and still quite good, and as a statement of purpose, District 9 is evidence that director Neill Blomkamp is one to watch.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Ghost Writer

On release, it was impossible to talk about The Ghost Writer. Everything was filtered through a lens of director Roman Polanski's transgressions, interest in which was revived quite close to the film's release. To discuss the film was to discuss Polanski, and more than one critic read more into the experience than what was intended. It was a potential last film, it could be historic, after all.

To be fair, the film is about a man in exile due to crimes which happened several years before, not unlike Polanski. However, former prime-minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) is not meant to be Polanski by any means, instead being a slightly smarmier Tony Blair. The ghost writer of the title is Ewan McGregor, brought in to replace the old ghost writer after he kills himself under lightly mysterious circumstances, eventually leading to the uncovering of an elaborate conspiracy surrounding the otherwise quite mundane Lang.

It's actually a clever tactic, making the former Prime Minister as boring as possible. The assignment, in the beginning, is straightforward. The new ghost is brought in to punch up Lang's autobiography because it is, frankly, terrible. It's presented as just a dull job, and constant shots of McGregor sleeping reinforce this. It's funny, because it makes the twists seem all the more interesting, since on the surface we're not looking at a spectacular or interesting man, just another PM. Ho-hum, right?

Polanski, for all his faults, knows how to make a thriller, and I seriously doubt it's even possible for him to make a bad one. So the Ghost Writer isn't a bad thriller. There are twists, it's a slow reveal, and one is often intrigued by just how deep things go. It's something Polanski has done before to great effect, and here it is clearly the work of a master of pacing and atmosphere.

Unfortunately, that master is just going through the motions on this one. To quote one of the characters, the words are all there, they're just in the wrong order. The story is actually good, but the leaps required to hit the right beats don't hold up very well. A key twist relies on a poorly designed website - never, ever a reliable source - and some characters just don't seem to exist, if that makes sense. They're there, they have dialog, but they're not really blessed with personality or interest. Also, while the final shot is beautiful, the questions it prompts are not quite the ones which it intends to.

That said, it's exactly what you expect, a competent thriller made by a guy who could make one in his sleep. This is no bad thing, and even flawed and imperfect there is a good movie here, one which is constantly interesting and compelling. Just not the greatest movie, and maybe that explains why just as much attention was paid to the director's troubles as the film itself.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Clash of the Titans

I've seen the original Clash of the Titans, though it's quite telling that I don't remember very much about it. There was some charming stop motion, a kraken, and assorted Greek things. Given that the film was such a memorable event, it stands to reason that the new Clash of the Titans is something equally memorable and distinct.

Given that it's 2010 rather than 1981, a few changes have been made to the formula. For one, stop motion is out like Ricky Martin and Lance Bass, replaced by shiny, shiny CGI - and I do mean shiny, the armor of the Gods is so glittery it's reminiscent of a prom photo circa 1987. The camera swoops and shakes, the script is slightly darker and more extreme, and the film owes an obvious debt to Lord of the Rings, especially in how it takes in sweeping landscapes.

The story largely does remain the same. Sam Worthington is Perseus, the generically handsome demi-god, who grows up with a family so wholesome you know they won't make it very far into the film. After they're completely expectedly killed, he decides he doesn't like gods very much, and is charged with slaying the Kraken, which is to be released by Hades, played by a combination of Ralph Fiennes and CG glitter - not sure why Hades has glitter, but there you go - as part of an elaborate plot to weaken Zeus, played by Liam Neeson and even MORE glitter. He goes on an epic quest involving giant scorpions, a disapproving Mads Mikkelsen, a sexy Gemma Arterton, lots of landscape shots, and a need to behead Medusa, as often happens in these greek myth movies.

Surprisingly, for all the mythology and big CGI battles, the film is surprisingly boring. One culprit might be the general overuse of CGI in all movies. While the original was charming in its silly stop motion animation, CGI can take the wonder and imagination out of a picture. There's no question of how they did the various stunts, we know, they had a bunch of computers render big beasties. When anyone with a PS3 and God of War 3 can see equivalent visuals, the magic is kind of sapped.

The script is also pretty dull, in the end. When you're working with material as well known as Greek mythology, the last thing to do is just go through the expected motions - oh boy, I wonder where the shiny shield is in Medusa's cave? - and Clash of the Titans doesn't stray very far from the beats followed by the original. Since the original wasn't that interesting to start with, it keeps it from being too compelling.

Putting Mr. Excitement himself Sam Worthington at the middle of the film is another stroke of dullness. I know, the guy was the star of Avatar, but he's still an actor most remarkable for how unremarkable he is. He's just some guy, and while that works in some contexts - like Avatar - when he's supposed to be a demi-god it kind of deflates the title.

At least Worthington has a bit of restraint in his performance, something nobody else in the film does. The acting here is bizarre, with over emoting, and BIG. ACTING. MOMENTS. which would make William Shatner hide in shame. It's bizarre, nobody in the film acts like a real person, the king of the bad acting being Luke Treadaway, who plays Prokopion. He's amazing, it's an acting train wreck, and he flails around wide-eyed. You just have to ask what is wrong with this character, and while that might be partially intentional it's blissfully distracting.

Still, it says a lot when the lunacy of one minor performance can trump the entire rest of the film. The CG battles won't stick with me, though I do remember one being confusingly edited. The story, I've seen it before, done better, and I'm not referring to the 1981 original - I am, however, referring to a Saturday morning cartoon series of which I can't remember the name. I'm not sure wh

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Repo Men

Forest Whitaker, Jude Law, Liev Schriber, come clean about that hooker you murdered. Maybe Alice Braga should also come clean about it, though I suspect she's just taking any Hollywood role she can find to establish herself as an actress. Regardless, we all know you killed that hooker guys. Why? Well, you're all talented actors who have a bit of a box office draw. You're all actors who should, by all logic, have free reign to choose your projects and pick anything which you want. You are all actors who, by no means, should be starring in Repo Men.

In a world which looks like Blade Runner with extra gushy gore, Jude Law and Forest Whitaker are Repo Men named Remy and Jake. What do they repo? Organs! Sweet, gushy, artificial organs, after people default on their sub-prime loans, issued by Liev Schriber's Frank, who is so slimy he apparently is also on a Nickelodeon game show. Remy loves being a repo man, even though his wife does not approve, and he and Jake go on many repo adventures as they murder hundreds of people to get their organs back, serving a business model which can't possibly sustain itself. Eventually, Remy has a change of heart - both metaphorical and literal - and realizes that he's pretty goddamn evil actually. Also, there's Alice Braga, who plays a singer who had every body part replaced. Her character is of dubious importance, though since I like her I'll say she was great in City of God and leave it there.

Repo Men packs one hour of story into two hours, stretching the premise so thin that it could be used as a salad strainer. Everyone in the film has a shiny new artificial organ, though everyone's also past due on their payments. How does this business model work exactly? We all know that the sub prime mortgage collapse did in a lot of large companies - the film seems to think it's clever to reference such an event years after the fact, because it's cutting edge - and if everyone's defaulting on their loans - and has to get an expensive repo job on their body parts - how does the company profit exactly?

If we were going to talk about plotting, there are so many rabbit holes to go down. The first half of the film is accompanied by Jude Law's ridiculous, half-jokey narration, which doesn't really add much in the way of context or anything, and presents a misinterpretation of Schrodinger's Cat so egregious that millions of quantum physicists were literally angry with rage. In the second half, we're presented with massive plot holes, ridiculously sloppy writing and some extremely heavy handed moments. Of course, there's a reason for this, that reason being a plot twist so awful that M. Night Shyamalan would find it beneath him.

I felt for the actors. These are talented people who just happened to kill that hooker - there really is no other logical explanation - and they are given a script with dialog that causes physical pain and doesn't make any sense. You want to rescue them, take them away from this set and to a production of a good movie, that isn't awful in every way.

Action movies can often get away with an awful script if the action is good. The action is not good, just gory. There's lots of squishy gooey surgery scenes, and people are stabbed with alarming frequency. There's also a fight scene that tries to rip off Old Boy but then decides it takes too much effort to film such an intricate sequence and just becomes quick cut and filled with unnecessary stabbing. A good stabbing can sometimes be a valuable piece of punctuation in a good picture, but when everyone gets stabbed what's the point?

It's amazing that something so awful can get past script approval, budget approval, shooting, editing, test screenings on the way to wide release. Producers want to make money, that's their job, so surely someone down the line thought "Wait, what are we making? Why are we doing this? Why did I approve this script? This is terrible! The reviews will be universally awful! Audiences will stay away in droves! What was I thinking?" Perhaps the producer also killed a hooker?

The soundtrack's good though.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Little Mermaid

Yes, I am watching a large number of Disney movies lately, what's it to you?

In a short, and not especially detailed version of a fairly long amount of history, Disney had turned itself irrelevant by 1989, becoming a theme park company and TV studio rather than a film company. Worse still, animator Don Bluth decided to make his own animated movie studio, with blackjack and hookers*, and his films were doing better at the box office. Then the company was almost taken over, Michael Eisner was given the reins, and The Little Mermaid stumbled onto a formula that Disney rode like the town bicycle: make it a catchy musical!

*The presence of blackjack and hookers is unconfirmed and possibly an awkward joke.

Oh, and what a catchy musical! The songs here are plain solid, no question, from the downright hilarious "Poisson Poisson" song to the catchy "Under the Sea" to the very pretty "Part of your World". Disney had gold here, and they learned how to mine that gold pretty consistently for the next 10 years. I sometimes wonder if the film's success might have been partially due to everyone humming "Under the Sea" when leaving the theater.

The Little Mermaid is based on the premise that teenage girls are stupid. Teenage girls ARE stupid, there's no way around this, and teenage boys are just as stupid. People are idiots from about 14-20, I'm sure there's a study confirming this. Ariel, today's teenage girl, is rebelling against her father, because he doesn't let her hang out with humans. Then she spots generically handsome Prince Eric, who she immediately falls deeply in love with and makes a series of increasingly dumb decisions in order to get closer to.

Teenage girls love generically handsome men - witness the current popularity of the Twilight series, or the previous popularity of boybands and people named Corey. In the interest of fairness, teenage boys love attractive ladies who wear only seashells, so it's understandable that our prince falls for Ariel at first glance. It's one of those love stories where you wonder how long it'll last, because hell, this relationship is based on ogling.

I might be down on the film, but while it moves towards a pre-ordained happy ending, it actually is pretty effective at capturing the problem with teenagers. They're rebellious for no reason, consumed by lust and hormones, and very stupid. The villain is evil because she takes advantage of these flaws we humans all share, that being our love of our kids and our immense stupidity in our teenage years.

The happy ending does throw a strange wrench in the gears, simply because there's not really enough of a consequence for their actions. While getting there is inconvenient, they do get married at the end, which kind of confirms their instincts were right. I know of more cases of teenage stupidity where the instincts were wrong from beginning to end, and they didn't end in a pretty ending with fanfare.

Then again, I know of relationships forged in moments of teenage rebellion and idiocy which worked, and 30 years later the couple is stronger than ever. Yeah, it's the exception more than the rule, but maybe it means a story like the Little Mermaid isn't necessarily all wrong. Sometimes love works, even if everyone involved is making ridiculous decisions to get there. The Little Mermaid is just a rare example of raging idiocy working out in the end.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Cowboy Bebop - The Movie

The common complaint when a TV series reaches the big screen is that it's like a regular episode, but bigger. It's a bizarre complaint, because the creators are trying to bring what is good about the series to the screen, and deviating too far would make it something completely different from what the series was in the first place. When you watch a series like Cowboy Bebop, an extra long episode is what you want anyway, because the episodes work as really good little movies.

Taking a completely different tack from Serenity, Cowboy Bebop doesn't use the film to unravel unanswered questions and put a neat little bow on things. Granted, the TV series actually ended the way the creator wanted to, so there's less incentive to do that. Instead, we've got a mystery that's a bit more complex than usual, taking place mid-series. The Bebop's crew is investigating some guy named Vincent, who's spreading a complicated biological weapon and killing lots of people, culminating in stopping him from killing even more people.

Placing the film mid-series kind of deflates a bit of the tension. You know none of your leads are going to die, and you know the day will be saved. I'm not sure that matters though, because even in the regular series there was really no danger of Spike and Jet dying, at the bare minimum, and while Faye and Ed's connection were more tenuous than the two central characters there was a confidence that they would come back. So the film works the same way the series does, just longer.

That's a good thing! The series was always best when it explored complicated villains, and there was always a lot of good action, and it filled 25 minutes with more character development than some long running film series' do in their entire run. Now, we get 2 hours to go deeper, explore characters more thoroughly, and have the mystery take a little longer to unravel for us. This is a great idea, and the idea of watching long Cowboy Bebop should be appealing to everyone.

Not that it's perfect. The villain's motives seem a little muddled, and the ending is surprisingly abrupt. Yeah, the plot itself had pretty much finished, but it seemed like there was still a little more story to tell. Faye also spends a lot of time tied up on the floor, which felt a little gratuitous.

Still, watching the world's longest Cowboy Bebop episode is a great way to spend time, and there's plenty of action and mystery to go around. When people complain something is just a longer version of a regular season episode, point to this, as an example of why that's sometimes what you want.

Friday, August 6, 2010


Do you like Phil Collins? Do you looooove Phil Collins? That's the question you have to ask yourself if you intend to watch Disney's Tarzan, a mostly acceptable Disney film which also features liberal sprinkling of Phil Collins and montages.

The story goes that one day a man with an awe-inspiring mustache and his wife move to Africa. They build a big elaborate cabin and listen to lots of Phil Collins music. Also fans of Collins are a family of apes, who just had an adorable baby. Unfortunately, there's a big mean leopard about, and it eats the adorable baby. In spite of his abilities to grow amazing facial hair, the leopard also eats the man and his wife, though their child survives. As a result, said child is adopted by a lonely ape, and we learn valuable lessons about love, adoption, fitting in, and listening to the music of a former Genesis drummer and current bald man.

It actually is a mostly interesting film. Tarzan's journey to find himself and learning about where he came from is pretty good, and his interactions with Jane and trigger happy evil man Clayton are just as compelling as the wacky ape parts. It's also very beautifully animated, meshing 3D and 2D in often fascinating ways, proving that they can live together in perfect harmony and are actually more attractive this way - I'll take a million Tarzans over something that looks like Bolt.

That said, there's also stuff that is less successful. Rosie O'Donnell, who plays best buddy ape Turk, is annoying. Actually, the middle part of that sentence wasn't really necessary on second thought. There's this elephant that hangs around who doesn't seem to fit in anywhere but as a plot device, and I am really quite sick of Phil Collins now.

It's pretty standard fare and I'm not going to call it the best thing Disney has ever done. On the other hand, it's solid entertainment and has a number of really interesting quirks and twists as it goes. It's pretty good entertainment, and it is actually fairly decent as a whole. Unless, of course, you don't like Phil Collins. The number of people that applies to is surprisingly high, isn't it?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


When you hear about something based on a true story, somehow you begin to expect something that is a bit less true than is being advertised. A bit of sensationalizing, perhaps, a combing through of the parts people expect with a large quantity of dramatic license to massage it through. So if Badlands is based on the true story of a young couple hiding out after one of them kills lots of people, you'll likely expect something that's a bit of an action thriller about young love and copious amounts of sex. That's not what you get when you watch Badlands.

Okay, it's about young love, that much is true. Martin Sheen at his sexiest plays Kit, a sexy garbage man who is sexy, and 25. Sissy Spacek is Holly, a 15 year old girl who does music lessons and baton twirling. They fall in love in a slightly creepy relationship, which Holly's dad (Warren Oates) does not approve of, for obvious reasons. Kit kills Holly's dad and she goes on the run with him, because teenage girls are stupid.

However, instead of being about these hot and sexy young lovers sexily loving each other in a young way, it turns into something very different. It is, more than anything, a meditation on loneliness, as the pair's only companion is the car they steal and acres of empty space. This is partially due to Kit needlessly killing everyone he comes across, so you're not quite sympathetic for them, but the film does a good job of emphasizing just how alone and apart from the world they are. Sometimes they're just the only object in frame apart from an empty sky and an emptier field. It just emphasizes their isolation.

The film is also quite pretty, in spite of the awful '70s film stock which was de rigueur. Shot composition is often breathtaking, always beautiful, and sometimes does a better job of telling the story than the script. It's about two people in the middle of nothing, and the shots are perfect at emphasizing their situation.

That said, the film is far from perfect. Spacek's narration doesn't really serve much purpose, apart from reminding us that she's a teenage girl and thus stupid - this is a trait shared with teenage boys by the way, it's just that there aren't any in the film to call out for their stupidity. Kit's character is obviously charming, a point emphasized by the later scenes where he charms all the people who tried to arrest him, but he's not very consistently charming, which undermines it a bit. Also, mountains of Saskatchewan, are you serious? Gales of laughter right there.

Still, it does what it seems to have intended all along, and it does a good job. The film presents the loneliness of people who brought it on themselves in a surprisingly sympathetic manner, and is pretty strong overall as a film. It could easily be seen as boring, but if you're in the right mindset, it's almost therapeutic.