Archive for January, 2008

Grump Select – Ghost in the Shell: STAND ALONE COMPLEX

January 30, 2008
CHICKEN FRIES

After nuclear World War III and non-nuclear World War IV (the so-called Second Vietnam War), the world is a very different place. Japan has since risen as a major superpower once more, despite Article IX of their Constitution, which prevents them from taking part in actual combat. Instead, using nanotechnology, the country turns the tide with microscopic machines that scrub the environment clean of radiation, thus making nuclear weapons less of an advantage. The wars end and the geopolitical climate shifts considerably, most notably, the splitting of America into three separate nations – the American Empire, the Russo-American Alliance and the United States of America.

Meanwhile, Japan has flourished. It’s home to amazing technological achievements including full-body prosthetics and intelligence-enhancing brain implants, making total recall and vast information storage possible. Cyberbrains and cyborgs are commonplace. Androids and artificial intelligence are advancing exponentially. Robotics like mechanized armor and multi-pedal tanks ensure some country or privatized military are heavily armed. The Internet has evolved into a single global ether that any individual with a cyberbrain can tap into in real-time. Cyberspace is as real as you make it.

Japan also flounders. The country has no idea what to do with the three million war refugees it gives ill-equipped shelter to. The shadow of the ultra-nationalist American Empire looms over the mostly-ineffective Japanese government while big companies and manufacturers secretly hold the reins. The proliferation of advanced technology brings a dark side as well – cybercrime, a new brand of terrorism. Boundaries are blurred; man and machine are almost the same and reality itself is in question. Espionage and subterfuge is at an all-time high.

This is the backdrop of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, perhaps the greatest work of cyberpunk science fiction put to screen.

omg YES

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Mercury Meltdown Revolution

January 28, 2008

Over the years there has been a handful of puzzle games that involve rolling an object through an obstacle course. You can go as far back as the arcade classic Marble Madness or as recent as the Super Monkey Ball series. Though it has failed to generate similar name-recognition, my favorite from this sub-genre has thus far been Mercury Madness Revolution. Mercury Madness is available for the PSP and PS2, but do trust me on this: the Wii version is best thanks to the excellent control scheme.

I should mention that though my last review was for “The Seventh Guest” (an old-school PC puzzle game), I am not a puzzle game purist. I generally prefer action-adventures, side-scrollers, platformers, RPGs, strategy games, empire-builders and FPSs. So when I thumbs-up a puzzle game, it generally means I think it has some cross-over potential for those who occasionally like to dabble in the best of the puzzle offerings.

Let me be clear, though, that the Mercury Madness Revolution (MMR from here on out) is a pure puzzle game. Both casual and hardcore gamers are invited, but those with absolutely no interest in non-narrative straight-up puzzle-play shouldn’t even bother to show up. This is not Zelda or Vagrant Story where puzzles are a single factor of the game. Nor is this an eye-popping graphics showcase for your next-gen system: you can expect just pleasantly tasteful cel-shaded visuals and innocuous techno music that falls short of catchy. It is, however, one of the best of its breed.

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Rambo

January 28, 2008

The first First Blood is pretty good. More of a monster movie than a traditional action flick, the movie’s focus is on the pig-headed white-as-rice cops and their pursuit of Rambo, who’s a rampaging beast poked in all the wrong places. He just wants to be left alone, but of course, that can’t happen – the cops fuck with him, he pushes back and then escapes into the woods to hunt his pursuing prey. It’s all about suspense. You know these cops are gonna get it, and they do, but it’s also about how Rambo is way out of place. He shoots up the town and blows up its stores but it makes sense – he really doesn’t belong there. He’s the animal that escaped from its cage and, confused and angry, he lashes out. The recent Cloverfield’s another perfect example of that, if the actor and filmmaker interviews are correct in stating that the monster in that movie is really a lost child. Rambo’s similar, an aborted creation of the government, except he has his mentor Colonel Trautman to reel him in and make everything safe again.

The stupidly titled Rambo: First Blood Part II puts him back in his place, the muddy jungles of Southeast Asia. This is where all the parodies come from, the Rambo everyone knows: shirtless, muddy, shooting exploding arrows with outrageous aim … It’s the stupid 80s action movie of the series, released at the height of the stupid 80s action movie era, 1985, the Year of Commando. It’s dumb but a lot of ironic fun with some memorable characters and moments – Rambo’s love interest (yes, there’s a love interest) asks him “What do you believe in?” and Rambo takes out his cock knife and says “This.” The action is simple and silly but it’s spread throughout the whole movie so it’s never really boring. Add in some revisionist Reagan monologuing and you got yourself a classic.

And who gives a shit about Rambo III.

20 years later we get Rambo IV, or, just plain Rambo. And what do we know about it? It’s gory. It’s gory as hell. I love blood and guts as much as the next stunted man-child but once that novelty wears off – and it does in the latest entry in the First Blood/Rambo series – what’s left? Story? Character? Barely.

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Alexandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain: ?!?!?!

January 23, 2008
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Giant Whale on Stilts – Cloverfield

January 19, 2008

For a gimmick movie Cloverfield sets out to do what its trailer promises and it does it well. The first-person monster movie trick succeeds in an entertaining, mostly successful way, even if none of it is all that new. Just be ready for lots of blinking. My eyes had to refocus a lot. Bourne and Blair Witch ain’t got nothing on Hud’s shaky hands.

The documenter, named Hud – why that name? Perhaps HUD for the Heads-Up Display in first-person shooters or Hudson, the wisecracking Marine from Aliens – is, well, the wisecracking buddy of Rob, who’s off to Japan, or he would be, if it wasn’t for the giant monster that trashes his going-away party. Manhattan’s under attack so what’s a band of good-looking 20-somethings to do? Help save the girl who might have sex with Rob again, that’s what! And that’s just what Rob sets out to do, with Hud in tow and camera in hand, Rob’s brother Jason and two girls, they try to escape the rampaging beast and reach Rob’s would-be lover uptown. By walking through miles of subway tunnels and dozens and dozens of flights of stairs.

HOT NEW YORKERS

The main characters’ actions are really what require the most amount of disbelief suspension, their initial motivations are more of a MacGuffin than anything, just an excuse to get the movie rolling. And it rolls, tumbles, crashes and explodes (mostly) satisfactorily. The first-person shakiness really does amp the immediacy and places you right there. Obvious 9/11 news footage comparisons aside, producer/brainguy J.J. Abrams has a knack for transmitting audiences into his worlds – what would you do if you were on the island in LOST? – and it’s all very entertaining and swiftly and confidently executed. The movie builds up these schmucks, places them in mortal peril for a while, then stops in record time. It tells you right at the beginning where it’s going to end.

Is it the revolutionary event film it’s hyped up to be? In some ways, sure. This movie isn’t eye-rolling dumb shit like Godzilla or anything Roland Emmerich has touched. It’s pretty damn well made. There’s no soundtrack until the end and it does feel like found footage at times. It’s a solid flick with tinges of excitement and suspense, but that’s all I got. Tinges. I do like it more the more I think about it and it’s also the best film of 2008 so far but it just didn’t send me marching down the aisles trumpeting its genius. The worst thing about it is the talky character bits outnumber the scary monster bits. And the scary bits? Well, I wasn’t really scared by Cloverfield. It’s certainly not the next Alien although the monster’s final reveal is sort of similar.

Metaphor? Nah.

Besides Alien I can’t help but feel I’ve seen it all before. There’s a whole history of monster-attacking-metropolis movies like, y’know, Godzilla or the very recent The Host. There’s also a video game genre, I mentioned it before, maybe you heard of this too, called first-person-shooters. The best of them, Half-Life 2, did everything Cloverfield does years ago: giant monsters, treks through dark underground tunnels, military bombardments, even the monster concepts and accompanying sound effects are the same. Cloverfield does have the distinction of not focusing on patriotic presidents or war heroes or scientists. It uses real, dopey people so it’s got that going for it.

I wasn’t disappointed in Cloverfield. I got exactly what I expected. But why no mention of the Hanso Foundation in the credits. C’mon, J.J. you did it with M:I-III Mission: Impossible III, why not this?! Maybe the Hanso Foundation will be a Black Mesa rival in the eventual Half-Life movie. Directed by J.J. Abrams! Starring the new Spock! C’mon, cinema! Catch up, already!

Something familiar

(grumplet) High and Low: Literally

January 8, 2008

After Film Walrus so graciously gifted me with a Netflix account, I decided to immediately take advantage of it to check out a movie I’ve wanted to see for a good while now, but never had the opportunity.

Akira Kurosawa is a legendary Japanese filmmaker, probably most famous for his samurai period pieces such as Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Rashomon. While those are all well and good, Kurosawa also made contemporary Japanese cinema, as well. Having already seen the phenomenal, powerful Ikiru, I entered High and Low with high (no pun intended? \:3) expectations.

High! n__n

Kurosawa’s BFF, Toshiro Mifune, is Gondo, an executive of a shoe company that has poured his heart and soul into over the years, to the detriment of his family life. When other executives plot to take over the company and make cheap shoes, he mortgages all he owns in order to stage a coup to take control of the company. Then the worst possible thing happens. He gets a phone call saying that his son has been kidnapped, and the kidnapper will safely return him if Gondo gives him… almost all the money he was able to raise by mortgaging. Flabbergasted at all of this, he’s of course ready to do anything to get his son back… until he sees his son walk safely through the door. Turns out, the boy was playing with Mifune’s chauffeur’s son, and the kidnapper got them mixed up and kidnapped the wrong one. Now Gondo has to make an excruciating choice: do the right thing and save the boy at the cost of everything he’s worked so hard to get, or ignore the demands and keep his posh lifestyle.

I LOVE movies with difficult ethical/moral dilemmas such as this. And this was no different. Watching Mifune try to choose between doing what’s right and doing what’s right for himself is riveting. But that’s only half the movie. The other half deals with the police attempting to catch the kidnapper and dredging through the absolute nadir of Japanese society. Obviously Kurosawa was trying to make a statement about the disparity between the fortunate and unfortunate and what makes those people different from each other. Gondo lives high at the top of the hill and the kidnapper looks up at him from his slum at the bottom. Instead of taking the typical, easy route of saying “WEALTHY PEOPLE ARE CORRUPT AND POOR PEOPLE ARE NOBLE,” Kurosawa gives us a resolution far more complex and satisfying.

Low. ;_;

I’d recommend everyone try out this movie, but it has rather limited availability. It’s Criterion Collection, which means that its release has been pristinely preserved, but priced out of the realm of casual buyers and doomed to a limited printing. It’s too expensive for a blind buy and Blockbuster most certainly won’t have it, but if you’re open to good Japanese cinema and have a Netflix account, I strongly urge you to give this one a shot.

2007: Lists lists lists

January 6, 2008

It was a momentous year! I created this blog, graduated from college and the most expensive movie of. all. TIME!!!!!!!! was released. What better way to reflect on the events of the past 12 months than to condense it all into arbitrary lists?

Top 10 Movies

  1. Eastern Promises – David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen teamed up again and managed to make an even better film than the fascinating A History of Violence. Maybe because no one invited William Hurt to this one. Not only does it cast one of my favorite actresses, Naomi Watts, in a lead role, not only is London a dreary, gritty, AWESOME backdrop, but Viggo turns in undoubtedly the finest performance of his career so far. He can insinuate so much menace with a glance or a word, it’s fantastic. And the movie behind it is pretty interesting, too, which is rare for a movie so obviously centered around a performance. If you haven’t seen this yet, please do so. It’s been released on DVD so it should be a simple thing to find.
  2. Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex: Solid State Society – This probably won’t come as a surprise to most of you, but I loved this movie. Loved, loved, loved it. Not only did it successfully apply the TV’s formula of futurist post-modern intellectual action and drama to the tight confines of a movie, but it refined every aspect to a level unseen before. Just looking at the masterful scene with perennial lame-o Togusa being taken over by the Solid State Society proves my point. The fusion of suspense, music and even acting (gasp! In an anime, no less!) is perfect. There’s no other word for it. Add in a soundtrack from anime music maestro Yoko Kanno so varied, textured and representative of Ghost in the Shell‘s feel and you have one of the best ways to spend 110 minutes in front of the TV. By far the best movie adaptation of a TV series I’ve ever seen.
  3. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer – This might have technically been a movie from last year, but it was released so late and I just now saw it, so I’m going to be a little more lax than the Academy about the rules. Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) delivered an amazing motion picture based on an “unfilmable” novel. The story centers around a young orphan who has an almost supernatural sense of smell. He can smell things normal human beings can’t possibly smell. The tragedy is, unfortunately, that he has no smell himself. He becomes so obsessed with the smells of everything, especially beautiful young women, that he decides to find a way to distill their scents into a powerful perfume… by any means necessary. It’s a fantastically unique plot, given the 18th century French backdrop, with some great acting from the protagonist and Alan Rickman (let’s forget Dustin Hoffman is in this), gorgeous, inventive cinematography and a spectacular soundtrack. The climax of the movie is beautiful and surreal, more than making up for any shortcomings of the extended cast. This is the best movie of the last year you never heard of, and the one you should try out as soon as possible.
  4. Children of Men – Another movie that technically was last year, but only came out in theaters where I live well into January, so I’m not gonna count it as 2006. Alfonso Cuaron shows that his unique adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban wasn’t a fluke and turns in a new sci-fi classic. In the near future, women have been infertile for about 18 years and the outlook of the human race looks bleak, leaning towards fascism and terrorism. England is gritty and ugly and our hero Clive Owen has given up on it all, until an unfortunate entanglement with a terrorist organization gives him hope for the future of the human race. Do I even need to say the cinematograpy is phenomenal? So many one-take shots, and they’re so good! The gritty realism hammers in the fact that no one’s life is safe, which the story echoes in its somber portrayals of death. The score is quite fascinating and alluring, too. The only blemish on this film is probably its too-transparent symbolism, but it’s easily forgivable. Again, to people that haven’t seen this yet: WHY NOT? :(
  5. Lust, Caution – I was really sort of bitter against Ang Lee for the past few years. Not only did he go absolutely nutzoid with the Hulk, but he made perhaps the safest, most boring movie about gay cowboys possible. So it’s with astonishment that I sat down to see Lust, Caution to witness a complete 180 in approach. This movie is daring with its portrayal of a dangerous affair in Japanese-occupied China. It comes by its NC-17 rating honestly, showing you everything but blatant vaginal penetration between the two lovers. And I use the word “lovers” lightly. It’s one of the more morally repugnant romances I’ve seen on screen, but then again, I’m not nearly as encyclopedic as some others. But its charm doesn’t only lie in its ability to scandalize you. Ang Lee shows why he makes the big bucks in this movie by having such sublime control of the emotion and atmosphere of his scenes. One scene from early in the movie where newcomer Wei Tang (who carries this burdensome movie on her surprisingly capable shoulders) is riding in a bus and feeling the night air with her hand… it’s so in-the-moment and personally sublime that it still springs to mind when I think about this movie. Oh, and the soundtrack by one of my personal favorites, Alexandre Desplat, beguiles as well. My biggest grief is that it’s a fairly long movie and the ending doesn’t really pay off as well as it should. I simply didn’t leave satisfied. But the rest of the movie was mesmerizing enough to top the movie that is currently getting its dick sucked by critics across the nation…
  6. No Country for Old Men – The Coen Brothers continue to broadcast their contempt for humanity with this dusty, violent Texan crime drama. In what is surely a return to form after Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, they go back to what they do best: normal people making stupid decisions and getting caught up in dirty dealings with dangerous criminals. The main cast, which includes Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones, is fantastic, if reserved. The story keeps things tense even while occasionally injecting some humor into the proceedings. The closest I can liken this movie to is Ethan’s and Joel’s first movie, Blood Simple. A tight, resonant indictment of human nature. It’s just that I prefer the Coens when they blend violent drama with equal parts comedy. My favorite work of theirs is still Fargo, but hey, this movie helps us pretend that they didn’t release anything else since O Brother Where Art Thou?.
  7. Hot Fuzz – I didn’t quite warm up to Shaun of the Dead (having only seen the final half hour of that and only being mildly amused by it), so I didn’t enter into this movie with high hopes. It then proceeded to floor me with how well-made it was not only as a comedy, but as a movie, too. The fact that this may be one of the few comedies released into theaters in recent memory that didn’t trade largely on pop culture jokes and stale racial stereotypes is very impressive to me and should be to you, too. The humor in it often worked on multiple levels at the same time, leading not only to more laughs, but richer laughs; laughs I didn’t feel guilty about. Not only that, but it’s also probably one of the more entertaining action movies of the year. It’s not often that comedies get a recommendation from me, but this is definitely one that deserves it.
  8. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – I’m not overly fond of musicals, especially clap trap specifically designed to reel in a certain type of viewer (e.g. Dreamgirls, Hairspray). But there have been musicals lately that have been more than enjoyable on their own (e.g. Moulin Rouge, Chicago). Who would’ve thought that Tim Burton would throw his hat into the ring as well? But if I were him, how could I possibly refuse material as Burton-y as Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd? It’s a perfect match for his pop-Goth aesthetic. And as surprised as I was he chose Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter to star in it, they both do a fine job as the psychopathic barber bent on revenge and the cannibal meat pie mistress who loves him. The supporting cast is also very talented, although it includes the disturbingly omnipresent Alan Rickman. And the disturbingly beschlonged Sascha Baron Cohen. The story’s nice, but not amazing. The music’s pleasant, but not memorable. The acting’s appropriate, but not award-worthy. I suppose it’s better than the sum of its parts. The gallons of European-style blood sure helps.
  9. Planet Terror – I could technically put this and Death Proof in the same entry, but where’s the fun in that? Well, the fun is in Planet Terror, actually. The movie is an absolute blast. The plot is fairly pulpy and trashy, the effects are spot-on and everything is done with tongue shoved against cheek. I saw this with two friends and we were all smiling and chuckling non-stop throughout the entire thing, if not outright howling with laughter. Fergie being not only the first prominent victim, but being called brainless? Awesome. Josh Brolin transforming into a festering boil-ridden abusive husband? Outstanding! Escaping the zombie apocalypse while riding a Big Wheel? Fuckin’ A! Add to that Rose McGowan in her most fitting role ever and a bitchin’ soundtrack and you have a B-grade horror movie virtually guaranteed to be a fixture at the midnight movies for decades to come.
  10. Death Proof – I am not going to apologize for liking this movie. I know Quentin Tarantino can rub people the wrong way with his Tarantino-y ways, but dammit, I enjoyed myself watching this. The snappy dialogue between the girls, the visceral, terrifying car chase (sure to be in car chase lists in years to come) and a hilariously satisfying ending made this an ideal a welcome follow-up to the glorious Kill Bill.

So did my list SHOCK you to your VERY CORE? If not, I have even more lists to amaze and titillate.

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