Monthly Archives: November 2009

Review: Ninja Assassin

ninja assassin one sheetNinjas in the modern world?  Isn’t that something from 16th Century feudal Japan?  The basic premise of the entertaining and graphically violent film Ninja Assassin is that the clans still exist and that they are behind some of the most mysterious of assassinations, all paid for using the ancient calculation of a man’s life being worth 100 pounds of gold.

The film opens with a tough guy Yakuza gang leader having a tattoo inked on his back by a mysterious old man who talks about the four nobel professions, the five rings, and other cliché Japanese cultural mumbo-jumbo. The set piece changes when a henchman enters the lair and announces “I got something for you, boss”. Turns out it’s an envelope that’s just full of black sand. Nothing else. 
The old man (Randall Duk Kim) explains that it’s a sign that he’s seen before, seconds before everyone around him was slaughtered by ninjas. He shows them a scar on his chest where his heart would normally be “but I was born differently, my heart is on the other side of my chest.”
Seconds later the ninja assassins descend and without ever seeing more than a fleeting glimpse of any of them, the entire room is graphically, methodically slaughtered. The “splattered blood on the wall” motif is established and subsequently appears again and again as this astonishingly  violent film proceeds to its predictable, but still reasonably satisfying climactic scene.

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Review: Best Worst Movie

troll II one sheetI’m an unabashed fan of old, low-budget movies, but even having seen tons of them, I still hadn’t seen what is considered one of the very worst films ever made, Troll II. It’s so bad, actually, that it’s become a cult favorite, in the same spirit as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Dawn of the Dead, and more.

The indie film Best Worst Movie is a documentary about Troll II, about how an unassuming group of actors who never really had any successes in their careers got pulled into a ridiculously low budget film written and directed by surly Italian auteur Claudio Fragasso.
The film is directed by Michael Paul Stevenson, who played the young boy Joshua Waits in Troll II (you can see him in the poster on the right), and it starts with him talking about watching the film for the first time a year after finishing production. He put the video in the VCR player and, as he describes it, “ninety minutes later, my dreams of being a child star went up in flames. I hated this movie and I ran from Trolls II.”
Best Worst Movie mostly centers on the extraordinarily affable George Hardy, a dentist in small town Alabama and much loved by everyone. For one fleeting moment in his life, however, George was a movie star: he played Michael Waits, the father and lead in Troll II. To say that it didn’t lead to greater things in Hollywood would be an understatement.
And yet, Trolls II gradually grew in popularity precisely because it is so amazingly bad, to the point where there are special screenings and people who drive for hours to attend. I’m sure it’s quite entertaining, actually, as is the delightful paean to cult film stardom and the reality of an actor’s life that is Best Worst Movie.

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Pixar’s ‘Up’ Academy Awards Screener Package

up awards screener title

Though I can’t say that I’m an unabashed fan of the recent Pixar animated film Up (see my review of Up), I did enjoy it and certainly feel that the first 30 minutes or so stand up as some of the best scenes in a motion picture I’ve ever seen, animated or otherwise. 

That’s why it was interesting – and darn cool – when Disney sent me the entire Awards Screener package for Up, known in the business as a “For Your Consideration”. Awards?  It’s none other than the Academy Awards and it’s the package sent to members of the Academy with the hopes that it’ll influence nominations and voting and generate more awards for the film.
Since I’d never seen a full Awards Screener package before, I thought I’d share with you so you could see what showed up in an otherwise surprisingly nondescript brown envelope earlier this week…

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Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox

fantastic mr fox one sheetIn a world of children’s films increasingly characterized by technological accomplishment and sophisticated rendering in lieu of good old-fashioned storytelling, it was a breath of fresh air to enjoy the stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Tapping the considerable voice talents of George Clooney (Mr. Fox), Meryl Streep (Mrs. Fox), Bill Murray (Badger), Michael Gambon (Franklin Bean), Owen Wilson (Coach Skip), Willem Dafoe (Rat) and Jason Schwartzman (Ash), director Wes Anderson has managed to take the quirky children’s story of the same name (by the talented Roald Dahl) and craft an engaging movie that is simultaneously edgy and delightful.
Like Where the Wild Things Are, the story of Fantastic Mr. Fox is deceptively lightweight: Mr. Fox, upon learning his wife is pregnant, swears off mischief and thievery, but in a sort of vulpes version of a mid-life crisis, later can’t resist the urge to pull off one more great caper. His nemesis?  The three farmers across the valley, Boggis, Bunce and Bean.
Boggis (voiced by Robin Hurlstone) runs a chicken farm, Bunce (Hug Guinness) has a pig farm and Bean (Gambon) has a turkey farm and apple orchard, the latter of which he uses to produce hundreds of gallons of alcoholic cider. They are perfect targets for the sly and savvy Mr. Fox with his incessant plans. What he doesn’t plan on is their aggressive response to the thefts…
Adding to the mix, Mr. Fox’s brother is suffering from double pnemonia and nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) comes to stay with them, pushing out their son Ash (Schwartzman), who acutely feels his inability to measure up to the talents and mystique of his cousin.
I wasn’t entirely sure I liked Fantastic Mr. Fox when I first walked out of the theater, but it grew on me as I thought more about the story and how Anderson has turned a children’s book into a film about finding yourself and your true purpose in life. A bit edgy and not without its moments of adult language and dialog, it’s an interesting addition to the Christmas movie mix and worth seeing, though perhaps not for the youngest in your family.

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Review: Planet 51

planet 51 one sheetIf we land on another planet — or back here on Earth — and find something other than what we expect, who is the alien in that situation, the modern day Earthman, or the local? It’s a plot staple of the classic old Twilight Zone series and the basis of a lot of films, including the entire Planet of the Apes series. It’s the allegorical mirror of Pogo’s famous “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

This is also the starting point for the lackluster but amusing Planet 51, starring the voice talents of Dwayne Johnson (as NASA captain Charles Baker), Justin Long (as the boy Lem), Jessica Biel (as Neera), Gary Oldman (General Grawl) and John Cleese (as dorky Professor Kipple).  It seems NASA has mastered galactic flight and has sent the dashing Charles Baker across the universe to explore an uninhabited, but Earth-like planet.
Later we find he’s following the Wall-E inspired “Rover” probe, which vanished once it landed on the planet, but at the beginning the film starts by showing us an idyllic suburban small town a la Hill Valley in Back to the Future. The setting is mostly the 1950′s (hence the “51″ in Planet 51, presumably, because it’s hard to imagine a stable solar system with over fifty planets) though there’s a bit of 60′s hippie bleedover, including a VW van covered in peace slogans and the long-haired teen rebel Glar (Alan Marriott).
Ultimately, though, the sight gags and light storyline of an alien populace terrified of invasion and the table-turning irony of it being an Earthman — one of “us” — who ends up being the invader from another planet are not enough to sustain this pretty, but vacant children’s fare. That’s why I’d suggest this is a good DVD rental with its bright colors and bouncy narrative, but not worth $20+ of your hard earned cash to take the kids to a matinee.

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Review: Caja Negra (Black Box)

Showing at the Starz Denver Film Festival, I was sent a screener of the curious film Caja Negra (Black Box), a short (80minute) Mexican thriller, directed by Ariel Gordon. In Spanish with English subtitles, it’s almost two completely different films spliced together, but in a very interesting manner.

The film starts out with an animated sequence that explains the widespread corruption in Mexico, focused specifically on manipulation of the stock market to enable the low cost acquisition of a Mexican mining company. Then a slick narrative device introduces us to the main story, surveillance footage assembled into a cat and mouse game between dying loser Juan (Hernán Mendoza) and an agent of a shadowy syndicate Emiliano (Juan Carlos Remolina). The setup?  That Emiliano can erase all of Juan’s debts and set his family up for the future – including a lovely little house – if Juan will assassinate a well-known former presidential candidate.

caja negra still
Juan (Mendoza) pulls a gun on Emiliano (Remolina), who encourages him to pull the trigger.

This is the same basic moral dilemma as the recent Cameron Diaz movie The Box, but with a considerably more thoughtful approach. The caja negra of the title refers to the recording device that’s used in airplanes to analyze the events leading up to an accident or crash, and the entire central portion of the movie, presented as roughly edited surveillance camera footage, serves the same narrative purpose.
What makes Caja Negra so interesting isn’t the animated introduction or Emiliano’s back story about being kicked out of the Stanford PhD program and coming back to Mexico in shame, just to be pulled into the syndicate, but how Juan and Emiliano play each other as the situation unfolds. Shot primarily in an abandoned warehouse, we see them studying video footage of the target and Juan walking up to a mannequin and shooting it repeatedly in the liver because “we need some time for the media campaign.”
Back and forth, Juan threatens Emiliano and refuses to do the job, and Emiliano reminds Juan that the power dynamic of the situation is not with Juan at all, and that “you forget I can kill your wife and children at any time. is that really what you want?”
This is exactly the kind of smart film I hope to see at a film festival, actually. Thoughtful, visually interesting, paced very differently than a Hollywood blockbuster, and unlikely to get wide distribution in the US, alas. If you have a chance and aren’t suffering from MADD (movie attention deficit disorder, where you need to have an action scene every 90 seconds), Caja Negra is well worth your time.

Review: 2012

2012 one sheetCan you hear that sound? It’s a crack slowly but unceasingly running through the Earth, a crack that will tear buildings apart, leave gaping crevasses where previously there were roads, and rip children out of their parent’s hands, to plummet to their deaths as the world collapses.  But all is not lost, a few hundred thousand people have a secret plan to escape the worldwide destruction and start humanity anew, reseeding the Earth post-apocalypse.

Or maybe it’s just the sound of people gnashing their teeth in frustration as they try to follow the cliché-ridden storyline that loosely holds together the mayhem and destruction that is at the heart of Roland Emmerich’s new end-of-the-world film 2012.
To be fair, I was quite impressed by the first hour of the film. It unfolded very well, starting with Indian scientist Dr. Satnam Tsurutani (Jimi Mistry) explaining to US government scientist Dr. Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) anomalous neutrino count measurements due to solar flares.  “Neutrinos,” he explains, “appear to have mutated into a new kind of particle, and it’s heating up the Earth’s core.”
Turns out those savvy Mayans, hundreds of years ago, foresaw the alignment of our solar system on December 21st, 2012, and predicted that day would be the end of the world as we know it. More recent experts, notably a chap from back in the 1950s called Professor Hapgood, theorize about Earth Crust Displacement, the idea that a sufficiently cataclysmic event (like heating up the Earth’s core) will cause the tectonic plates to shift quite significantly which ends up as the heart of this exciting special effects rollercoaster.
If you’re going to strap in for the ride, though, make sure you go to the restroom first — it’s incredibly long with a theatrical release of 158 minutes (just shy of 2 1/2 hours) — and make sure you check your credibility at the door. The dialog, the quiet interstitials, uh, sorry, scenes between the main characters are often so painfully banal and tedious that I almost wanted to see the “all destruction!” version where they just edited out those scenes.

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Review: Pirate Radio

pirate radio one sheet

Any film that’s built around the fabulous music of the mid-1960′s starts out with one thing going for it: a great soundtrack. That Pirate Radio goes beyond that and offers up an entertaining and poignant story about the loss of innocence is what makes it a film well worth your time.
There was so much rock and roll coming out of Britain in the 1960′s that it’s generally referred to as the “British Invasion”, and it included bands like The Beatles, The Animals, Manfred Mann, Petula Clark, Herman’s Hermits, The Rolling Stones, Donovan, The Who, The Kinks, and The Dave Clark Five. What you probably didn’t know, though, was that the British Broadcasting Corporation (The “Beeb”) refused to play this “seditious” music and that the only rock that could be heard on the Brit airwaves was from pirate radio stations set up on old freighter and tanker ships anchored off the coast of England, in international waters.
That’s the basis for Pirate Radio, and the story, set in 1966, is simultaneously of the cast of characters that were the DJs and staff of the station and the British government officials who earnestly spent almost a year trying to find a loophole in the law that would let them shut down the broadcasts forever.
I really enjoyed Pirate Radio, both for the wonderful music and the witty storyline. I had no idea that this really had happened in England (and I was born there!) but sure enough, unlike the mock “based on real-life events” films like The Fourth Kind, you can justify seeing this funny movie by saying “mum, it’s a history film. really.” 

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Event: Starz Denver Film Festival

sdff logoIf you’re in Colorado, you owe it to yourself to check out the lineup and go see a film or two at the terrific, world-class Starz Denver Film Festival, opening tomorrow, Nov 12th, 2009.  Here are some interesting facts to whet your appetite:

 
FACTS
  • Total number of films: 210
  • Number of “sneak peaks”: 1
  • Number of documentaries: 56 (including shorts)
  • Number of features: 124
  • Numbers of shorts: 86
  • Number of U.S. films: 115
  • Number of Colorado films: 21
  • Longest film of the Festival: Raging Sun, Raging Sky (191 minutes)
  • Shortest film of the Festival: Enter the Sandbox (2 minutes)
  • Total number of minutes of film to be screened: 12,460 minutes
  • Number of countries represented: 37
 
2009 SDFF DETAILS
The Starz Denver Film Festival will run Nov. 12-22 and will feature more than 200 films representing the work of filmmakers from all corners of the globe. More than 80 film artists will be in attendance to introduce their works to enthusiastic Festival audiences.  
 
All regular screenings will take place at the Starz FilmCenter at the Tivoli on the Auraria Campus, the home for the Denver Film Society. Opening Night (Nov. 12), Big Night (Nov. 14), Saturday-at-the-Movies (Nov. 21) and Closing Night (Nov. 21) will take place at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, located in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. Special screenings will be shown in the King Academic and Performing Arts Center on the Auraria Campus.  

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Review: The Box

the box one sheet

The Box is actually two movies clumsily grafted into a single narrative story line. It starts out with a provocative ethical dilemma: would you push a button that you knew would kill someone, somewhere, a stranger, if you were to be paid a million dollars?  That’s the movie I was hoping to see, and to be fair, the first 30-40 minutes of the film are focused on just this situation.
But then Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz) presses the button (hold on, that’s not a spoiler: the trailer already revealed that this happens).
At that point the film seems to get tangled up in an X Files storyline, where there are aliens, a government conspiracy, mind control and all sorts of goofy plot twists that ultimately ruin the movie, dooming us to an unsatisfying ending because, well, there was nowhere for the story to go.
If it were the late 1950′s, the latter part of The Box could have been a satisfying story about mind control, the dangers of conformity and the slanted portrayal of foreign leaders as coming from other planets, because how could they possibly be human and not embrace good old American values?  It could have been a fascinating film in the same vein as the terrific Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the original, not the pointless remake).
Unfortunately, it’s not. To put it plainly, if you want a clean, logical storyline, this is not a film for you.

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