Category Archives: Film Review

Hollywood History X: The Intro

With every movie I see comes the discovery of scores more I have yet to see.  Today’s films—even those that aren’t a sequel, prequel, adaptation, remake, or reboot—often pay homage to the classics, to the well-known films, genres, and filmmakers that have defined our pop culture.  I have the misfortune of beign born after most of these must-see movies.  Four years of being a Film Studies major only took me down very specific, relatively obscure film paths: Italian Neorealisim, French Impressionism, Japanese New Wave.  Rarely did it expose me to the blockbusters that shaped modern movies.  Sure, I can see how Tim Burton mirrors the style of German Expressionism films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but references to Bond villains whoosh over my head.

I figured I now have the time and resources to educate myself in the crucial movies that college didn’t.  I will choose a genre, filmmaker, or franchise that play a role in today’s film world (i.e. that get referenced a lot).  I will watch the essential films within each category, including any modern adaptation, by release year.  I will do a write-up after finishing each category, giving my thoughts and mini-reviews for each film.  I will call this project Hollywood History X.

The Categories:

  • Zombie films (the Romero series, the Living Dead series, and the modern classics)
  • Alien/Predator franchise
  • Westerns (less John Wayne, more Sergio Leone)
  • Golden Age of Hollywood (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_Hollywood_cinema#The_Golden_Age)
  • Samurai films (mostly, if not only, Kurosawa)
  • Bond films (yes, all of them)
  • 1950s Sci-fi (a la Metropolis, The Day the Earth Stood Still, etc.)
  • Woody Allen films
  • Mel Brooks films
  • Steven Spielberg films
  • Others I haven’t thought of yet.  I await your suggestions.

*I have already compiled the films within the “Zombie category”—and there is no debate over the arrangement of the Alien/Predator franchise nor the Bond films—but I will need help deciding which films to watch in the other categories.

Braaains!!!

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Film Review: Avatar (2009)

Avatar

2009, Dir. James Cameron

Avatar (2009) has been churning about in James Cameron’s head for the past 15 years. He intended to release it right after Titanic (1997), but decided to wait for technology to catch up to his vision. At an epic 160 minutes, Avatar was well worth the wait.

The story follows a paraplegic Marine of the mid-22nd Century who jumps on (figuratively, of course) the opportunity to travel to a distant world and control an Avatar: a biological-created life form resembling a Na’vi. The Na’vi are the intelligent, peace-loving, tribal species of the Earth-like moon Pandora. By adopting this body, the Marine will not only be aiding Earth’s effort to integrate with the local population, but he’ll also get to walk again. Of course, humans didn’t travel 4.6 light years across the galaxy to make friends. No, Pandora is the source of unobtainium, a mineral worth millions on a resource-depleted Earth. Clan integration via Avatar is the humane scientists’ attempt to peacefully deal with the Na’vi, convincing them to move before the evil industrial military folk rape their land of the precious rock, destroying their village in the process.

A military man thrown into the clan of the native population his side is trying to take over? Nature and peace threatened by a money-loving industry? Gigantic military spaceships? One can pretty much guess the rest the plot from here. While Cameron directly cited Dances With Wolves (1990) as part of his inspiration, to me it was an epic, sci-fi version of Fern Gully(1992). It “sampled” from the Pocahontas story as well. Needless to say, Avatar’s storyline is about as original as a P. Diddy song. Also, the characters were formed from oft-used molds: a gun-toting hero with a heart of gold, a terse yet passionate scientist/humanitarian, a diehard military leader, an attractive chief’s daughter that shows the outsider her clan’s way of life. The list goes on. And yet, despite these worn-out clichés, I still held my breath during the narrow escapes, felt grief during the village attacks, and cheered when the good guys won. Why? Although Avatar does not work your brain too hard, it will capture your imagination. Last night, it captured mine and, frankly, still hasn’t let go.

One reason I think Avatar worked so well is that its cutting-edge animation technology supported the core parts of the film (story, plot, actors, setting, etc.), instead of the other way around (cough—Star Wars prequels!—cough). The final film is a reported 60% computer animation and 40% live action. Though I could easily deduce one from the other, they blended so well together that the hybrid nature of the film was not a distraction. However, more amazing than the grand views of Pandora—and my, were they grand!—was how easily the actors’ movement came through. Apparently, the new motion-capture technology they used maintained about 95% of the actors’ performance, and it showed. Their movements were tight and subtle, not sweeping and exaggerated like we’re used to seeing in typical animation, CG or otherwise. Specifically, the Na’vi facial expressions were what really blew me away. I could sense the characters’ thoughts and emotions in the small way their eyes changed or their mouths moved. And—I promise you this—I realized that Neytiri, the lead female Na’vi, was played by Zoe Saldana by facial recognition alone, not only in the structure of the face but its movement, as well. I had no idea Saldana involved going into this film. That, my friends, is how spectacular animation supports the film instead of taking center stage.

The other reason I believe Avatar captured my imagination is because Cameron worked hard to create a world in which I could immerse myself. Filmmakers have been creating alien worlds and alien species forever, but they often stopped when they have everything named. Cameron went a few steps further and created a culture, a society, and a language (the Na’vi language consists of about 1000 words, sentence structure, conjugated verbs, and so on). He created flora and fauna. He created an entire ecosystem with mystical understanding and scientific explanation. The kicker, though, is that he created a whole new world whose intricacies are accessible by viewing the film alone and not through “expanded universe” books and whatnot (George Lucas may have created a galaxy far, far away, but it was hundreds of Lucas-approved authors that drew up the intricacies of said galaxy, accessible through beyond-the-film merchandise). I found myself caring about these remarkably-animated characters because I believed in the world from which they came and the cause in which they fought.

In conclusion, although I had walked into Avatar apprehensive about the latest big-budget, CG spectacle film of the season, I walked out wanting to see it again, to return to the world of Pandora, to care for the Na’vi, to cheer on the protagonists and hiss at the villains. The story is familiar, as is the not-so-subtle “imperialism is bad” message, but that pales in comparison to how well it’s told and how beautifully it’s shown.

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YMWW #8: HIFF Film Festival

Monday, November 9, 2009

(Originally posted on Facebook)

I don’t know how insightful or humorous this next piece will be since it’s just a collection of film reviews. It could be awesome. It could be boring. I wouldn’t know, this stuff is never planned out. But I did get a degree in Film Studies, so it seems appropriate to dedicate at least one entry to film reviews.

At little background first: HIFF stands for Hawaii International Film Festival and they held their 29th annual festival last month. Thanks to connections established through my cousin Jill, I had the opportunity to work as a volunteer. In addition to a really cool free t-shirt, I got a free movie ticket for every four-hour shift I worked. Now, I’m not going to glorify my volunteer duties—I stood outside the theaters collecting tickets and ballots, or sat at the information booth, but mostly just waited around with the other volunteers—but I had fun volunteering and met some pretty cool people. And isn’t that what life’s all about: having fun and meeting people? And movies? Yeah, I was in my element. I worked enough shifts to see four films for free. Unfortunately, those did not include The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (info) orBarbarian Princess (info), but I feel like I’ll get another opportunity to see those in the future. Here’s what I thought of the films I saw (and probably will never be able to see again):

Dance, Subaru!

(trailer and info)
Japan 2009, Japanese w/ English subtitles
Saw on October 21st

I mentioned this film in my last entry because it stars that foxy little Japanese actress-slash-singer-slash-model Meisa Kuroki. Her picture adorns the bottom of blog #7. . . as well as my desktop background. Anyway, she was the only more-than-mediocre aspect of the film. The story was cliché, the plot was predictable, and the acting—as far as I could tell as a non-Japanese speaker—was below par. Dance, Subaru! is about a young Japanese girl who lost both her twin brother and mother to some brain disease. Both her brother and mother loved ballet, but her father *gasp!* thinks it’s a waste of time. Despite her father’s wishes for Subaru to spend her time studying, she instead works at a cabaret house where the crazy-but-lovable owner allows her to dance ballet. Nothing risqué, of course, she’s the wholesome star of the film. Subaru is discovered and befriended by an international ballet champion, invited to dance at a recital by her enemy who hopes she’ll fail, and attracts the attention of a guy who breakdances underground. All around the same time. Oh yeah, and her father learns to be proud of her. The movie then suddenly introduces an international ballet championship that she attends where her international ballet champion friend turns out to be an enemy, her enemy turns out to be her friend, and she ends up with the guy. All while beating out the competition. . . and the hereditary brain disease that killed half her family! Don’t worry, though, there is enough exposition to keep your mind off all these crazy plot turns. You can instead just focus on Meisa.

My rating: 4/10 + 1 (for Meisa Kuroki)

Dehli-6

(trailer and info)
India 2009, Hindi w/ English subtitles
Saw on October 23rd

I had high hopes for this one. The synopsis for it in the HIFF guide made it sound like an intriguing social commentary on the shifting identity of young, hyphenated Americans (i.e. African-American, Asian-American, etc.). Roshan, a young American of Indian origin, brings his ailing grandmother to India so she can live out the rest of her life in her true home. It is Roshan’s first time in India and he isn’t used to the culture. He eventually falls in love with an Indian girl, Bittu, who is trying to break free from the stereotypical Indian social structure. . . just as he starts to embrace it. Sounds thought-provoking, yeah? Well, it ain’t. The film does a poor job developing its characters; their transitions from one state to the next are sudden and unexplained. The plot points involving Roshan’s shifting views of Indian culture seem thrown into the film’s already messy storyline, which involves a mysterious creature known as the Black Monkey that terrifies the city. The initial plot of the ailing grandmother eventually disappears into the background as, in the third act, the film beats into your head the analogy of the Black Monkey as the evil inherit in everybody. The film ends with Roshan in a monkey suit and Bittu falling in love with him for no reason at all. Oh, and is it really that necessary to make every Indian film a Bollywood musical? Way to destroy Indian stereotypes, Dehli-6! Seriously, this film shifted from drama, to musical, to pointless comedy, to action flick, to just plain bad.

My rating: 4/10 – 1 (for the monkey suit)

Pidgin: The Voice of Hawaii

(trailer and info)
United States 2009
Saw on October 25th

Of the films I was able to see at HIFF, this was the one documentary I chose to watch. One overarching goal I have with my move to Hawai’i is to learn as much as I can about the Hawaiian culture, and understanding Pidgin is one of the biggest pathways to do so. Pidgin—a mix of English and Hawaiian with influences from other immigrant languages—is more than just island ebonics, it is representative of the ethnic makeup, history, and multicultural identity of the Hawai’i. The documentary explains how it was born on sugar plantations, where immigrants who couldn’t speak each other’s language communicated through the little English they knew. Just like the people of Hawai’i, Pidgin mixed many different cultures into something uniquely Hawaiian. The film then addresses the controversial discrimination of people who speak Pidgin, whether or not it is its own language, and the dual-identities of locals who need to speak differently in different situations. It was pretty thought-provoking, delving deeper into Pidgin than I thought possible. The only downside to the film was the touch of tackiness that highlighted the low budget value of production. If the film had better equipment and more seasoned filmmakers, it could be taken more seriously. Still, if you get a chance, see it.

My rating: 7/10

Pidgin example: because I know most of you have no idea what it’s like. Here’s a story I found about the need to speak both Pidgin and standard English to get by:
Wen I wuz small kid time, I neva kno I wuz tahking li dis. Us guys wuz jus tahking li dis. Den my fada wen tell me, “Son, you must learn to speak in proper english to get anywhere in life.” Den I wen school, an da teacha, Miss Cha, wen tell me, “Robert, proper english is the key to success in life.”

Den I had dis smaht baseball coach, Mistah Wago, who wen look me in da eye one day and said, “Eh boy, If no can tro strikes, you not going pitch fo me.” I wen undastan dat. Den I wen tro one strike, and da umpia wen call um one ball.

I wen see Mistah Wago go fo da ump and say, “I don’t believe you understand the strike zone. It is defined as the area over home plate which is between the batter’s armpits and his knees when he assumes a natural stance.” I understood that, too.

From den, I wen learn you gotta no bote Pidgin an good kine english for survive in Hawaii.

Castaway on the Moon

(trailer and info)
South Korea 2009, Korean w/ English subtitles
Saw on October 25th

Simply amazing. That wasn’t my opinion of the film just as credits rolled, but all throughout.Castaway on the Moon was so perfectly put together it was hard for me to even begin to review it (indeed, everything before the review was written the day before). The story is simple yet intriguing, and allows intellectual investment on all levels. Song-geun is a man down on his luck. Buried in debt and the depression of a break-up, he tries to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge into the Han River. He fails at that, too. Adding insult to injury, he finds himself stranded on a tiny island in the middle of the river. . . in the middle of the city. Unable to escape, he must learn how to survive, and why he’d want to. About a half an hour into the film, we are introduced to the other main character, a young woman who lives in a room of a high-rise building that overlook’s the island. She literally lives in that room: interacting solely through message boards and text messages, leaving only to use the bathroom. . . when no one else is home (the Japanese call these people hikikomori). She starts observing Song-geun’s daily struggle with much interest, eventually reaching out to him with messages in a bottle. When he starts responding with messages in the sand, a bond is formed and the two castaways—one isolated by chance and the other by choice—discover the importance of human connection. OK, my description may have made it seem kind of corny, a sentiment supported by the trailer I linked, but it is so much more than that.
The characters are surprisingly easy to relate to; their development natural and believable. The writing and narration are clever and simply humorous. The cinematography, while beautiful, is also simply humorous. Example: Song-geun finds one of the messages in a bottle in the top of a tree. After an intense shot-reverse shot of his glaring eyes and the stranded bottle, we assume we’ll seem him struggle up the side of a tree trunk. Instead, the film cuts to a wide angle where Song-geun kicks the trunk and the bottle falls. Beat. Cut. Brilliance.
Castaway on the Moon takes its viewers through the whole spectrum of emotions, the most prominent being satisfaction. If I had spent money on this ticket, it would have been well worth the price.

My rating: 10/10

Reader’s Poll: What film would you give a 10-out-of-10? Please list just one, and briefly explain why.

‘Til next time!

You guys are in luck. I found the Official Roxy Photo account on Flickr 😉

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