Sunday, November 7, 2010

Wind Chill (2007)

At a glance:
The chill wind whips through the assorted plot holes in this well-acted, entertaining yet flawed thriller/horror film

Our review (with spoilers):
A young college student accepts a ride from an eccentric guy who has been at least partially stalking her. When he takes a snowy shortcut, they are side-swiped by an oncoming car and get stuck in a drift. Soon, other problems arise when they are visited by a parade of ghosts, some of whom are malevolent.

Wind Chill tries to be so many things. It is a weird love story (despite the fact that the guy exhibits some stalker tendencies). It is a thriller, a murder mystery, and a horror story. There’s a bit of philosophy thrown in. Despite its flaws, it’s still a mostly enjoyable, worthwhile film, and this is a credit to the lead actors (Emily Blunt and Ashton Holmes), both of whom are solid in difficult, illogical roles. The supporting cast is also very good.

The girl is a good example of a character written to further the plot. Who is she anyway? She starts as an aloof slackpacker who accepts a ride from a stranger. Her whole attitude is haughty and unconcerned. Then, after he has done nothing other than act a bit eccentric, she starts calling him a psycho. This is not the type of person who should be accepting rides from strangers. And if she truly believes he is a psycho, she should not be telling him she feels that way. She should just get out.

Here are some other nits/illogical behavior:

1)    The guy says he is going to walk back to the gas station, then returns soon after, saying it was closed. It’s obvious that he did not walk all the way there, yet the girl accepts his story. Later, he reveals that he turned back because he was coughing up blood and realized that he would never make it, then didn’t tell her because he didn’t want to worry her. How about telling her so she can walk to the gas station instead?

2)   Ghosts and apparitions sometimes appear in the waking world, sometimes interrupt dreams, sometimes just look and ignore, and other times seem able to actually inflict physical damage.

3)   It is explained how the guy knew the girl was taking the bus to Delaware – he looked at her phone over her shoulder – but how did he get the message to her phone suggesting that she look on the message board? Wouldn’t she have known that this message was from someone else? And it is never explained how he knew all about her favorite foods.

4)   A few hours after they are stuck, the engine dies. The girl looks underneath and sees that the car has been dripping gas from a cracked tank. Gas is really smelly and they have a permanent window open on the car. They would have smelled gas leaking long before this.

Rating: 2 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Despite its failings, Wind Chill represents a road rarely taken by 21st-century American horror films: Original (in the non-remake sense of the term), subtle and restrained."
- Maitland McDonagh (TV Guide's Movie Guide)

Not Quite Hollywood (2008)

At a glance:
This doco provides a sharply edited history of Australian exploitation cinema, narrated by the people who made the films

Our review (with spoilers):
If you’re a true lover of exploitation film and Australian exploitation film in particular, you’ll love this fast-paced, clip-laden homage to Ozploitation. Narrated by the people who made the films, and with numerous comments by Ozploitation adorer Quentin Tarantino, Not Quite Hollywood traces the rise, fall, and rise of Ozploitation from the 1960s to the present day. This was true gonzo film-making: Dennis Hopper boozing it up while trying to show Mad Dog Morgan; stunt people risking their lives for the perfect shot.

Eventually, this film’s length, combined with overly kinetic and modern jump editing, makes this a slightly tedious process for all but the strongest exploitation lover. But that’s not to say it isn’t worth the journey. You’re just not going to get this kind of look into this movie culture anywhere else without poring through hundreds of films.

Rating:  3 of 4

Please Give (2010)

At a glance:
Writer/director Nicole Holofcener expertly creates characters that portray the difference between caring, pity, and indifference in this gentle New-York-based comedy/drama

Our review (with spoilers):
Wonderful slice of life dramedy about Kate and Alex (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt), a middle aged couple  who live quite nicely by buying furniture from the children of recently deceased New Yorkers. Kate’s got a conscience, however, that is being exposed by her incessant profit-taking. It isn’t helped when she and Alex buy the next door apartment and have to deal with the ‘direct’ elderly woman (Ann Morgan Guilbert) who lives in it, along with her very different twenty-something daughters.

There are poignant moments as well as some laugh out loud ones in this gentle drama. Keener and Platt are both wonderful, but it was especially great to see Guilbert (who started her career long ago as Millie Helper on The Dick Van Dyke Show) still going. There also good supporting work from Rebecca Hall, Elise Ivy, and Sarah Steele. This is my first acquaintance with writer/director Nicole Holofcener, and it was a pleasant one.

Rating:  3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Nicole Holofcener, who writes the most interesting female characters in the movies, delivers another dazzling role to her muse, Catherine Keener, in Please Give, a delightfully dry dramedy about guilt."
- Roger Moore (Orlando Sentinel)

Four Boxes (2009)

At a glance:
This low-budget film squeezes heaps of suspense and intrigue from live action combined with a voyeuristic website

Our review (with spoilers):
Trevor (Justin Kirk) is a privacy fence salesman during the week. His weekends are spent rummaging through stuff belonging to the recently dead. On this particular weekend, he and his partner Rob (Sam Rosen) rummage through a house that presents mysteries. There are scrawled notes from a depressed soul, intriguing collections of nuts and bolts, and weird line patterns that might be coded clues. Meanwhile, Rob is into this cool website called Four Boxes – four hidden camera views of an apartment that used to belong to a young, often nude girl, and that now seems to be populated by two very suspicious terrorist types. Rob hooks Trevor into watching too, and soon Trevor is starting to formulate his own theories about what is going on in Four Boxes. Meanwhile, complications ensue when Rob brings Amber (Terryn Westbrook) into the house. Amber used to go out with Trevor and the awkward factor ramps up when she is there, along with the sexual tension.

I won’t ruin anything with Four Boxes so that you can enjoy it as much as I did, but let me say that writer/director Wyatt McDill proves that he can make an effective thriller with little more than a one-house setting, a few clues, and a love triangle dynamic – and that’s impressive. The only drawback to such effective tension building is that it is almost impossible for the resolution to avoid being a letdown – and through some careful morality, this is just avoided here.

Rating:  2.75 of 4

Red (2010)

Movie quotes:
Marvin Boggs: Why are you trying to kill me?
Frank Moses: Like why would I be trying to kill you?
Marvin Boggs: Because last time we met I tried to kill you.
Frank Moses: That was a long time ago.
Marvin Boggs: Some people hold on to things like that.

At a glance:
Bruce Willis recreates his standard action hero role, this time as a ‘retired’ CIA agent pulled back in by a major US conspiracy, in this lighthearted and fun, but ultimately hollow, action film

Our review (with spoilers):
Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), a  retired CIA agent, survives an attempted assassination, pulling him back into the action. He drags along old buddies Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren (yes, as a machine-gun-wielding assassin) and Brian Cox. Also dragged into harm’s way is Frank’s new girlfriend, Sarah (Mary Louise Parker). They face a CIA gone rogue, led by a talented, dedicated agent Cooper (Karl Urban). Let’s face it: Willis has been playing slight variations on this same role for more than a decade. With his bald top and chiseled face, he hardly seems to have aged. He’s good at this one character, so as long as you only have to see him play it every couple of years – and the script, thank goodness, doesn’t take itself or him too seriously – he’s a pleasure to watch. But the film is made to capitalize on genre combined with star quality – there is no strong underlying message, so it is a hollow film.

And there are, of course, those stock tricks used that we’ve seen before and will seen again. For example: Joe (Morgan Freeman) is approached by an assassin. In the next scene, Moses is talking by phone to someone at the home and we see Freeman’s nurse in tears. Moses’ face seems to show sorrow (well, as much sorrow as Willis’ face is able to emote, anyway). Later, we find out that Joe turned the tables and killed the assassin, and, I assume, disappeared. Why was his nurse crying, then?

Later, we see a very brief scene of Cooper at his home, checking on his sleeping children and wife. We know that the purpose of this scene is to establish that Cooper cares about his family and that means they will be placed in danger later, probably by Moses. Bingo! Finally, Victoria (Mirren) is blasting the vice president using a machine gun on a tripod. Cooper sneaks up from the other side. We see the machine gun must be still firing, because bursts of light are coming from where it is obscured by a parked car. Immediately, veteran movie watchers know this means when Cooper comes around to the other side of the car, the machine gun will be automatically firing in unmanned mode and Victoria will be long gone. Bingo!

Watching John Malkovich, one of my favorite actors who is capable of so much more - play such a broad caricature of a drugged-addled conspiracy nut is a little painful at times. Helen Mirren with a machine gun is almost as wild as the machine-gun-wielding height-challenged woman standing on the bar wearing negligee in Total Recall.

Rating: 2.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"The winking, self-reflexive tone mutes any possible emotional investment."
- Robert Levin (Film School Rejects)

Black Kiss (2004)

At a glance:
This Japanese horror/drama has enough style and quirky acting to overcome its convoluted plot
Our review (with spoilers):
My favorable opinion of Black Kiss is far from subjective. It is skewed by my appreciation for unusual, thoughtful films. It is enhanced by my fond memories of my brief visit to Japan in 1999, and for my desire to see more of Tokyo and Shinjuku again. Blessed with strange, occasionally stylistically fast editing, and cursed with an almost fanatical tortoise-like speed in revealing its story, Black Kiss is a study in contrasts. Amid the photogenic doll-like beauty of young Japanese women/models, there is a sickening murder mystery and a series of gruesome murders. A man’s bloody body is shredded and spread like a paper flower. A woman’s still living torso is shipped in a box. A killer commits a murder, then performs a Houdini-esque escape from a locked room. A tormented former model takes a na├»ve young newcomer under her wing, and either curses her or blesses her. A strange paparazzi stalks the newcomer.
I particularly enjoyed the unusual, understated performance by Shunsuke Matsuoka as junior detective Yusuke Shiraki. He discovers information about the case that often disgusts or confuses him, causing him to shrink into himself, his head retreating into his neck much like the tortoise that prowls Kasumi’s apartment.
On the negative side, this is a long film that ultimately makes no sense. It’s a triumph of style – and good acting – over plot.
Rating: 3 of 4

Collapse (2009)

At a glance:
Michael Ruppert’s theories on the wayward path of the human race are a prescient warning of things to come, and a fascinating look at a man obsessed

Our review (with spoilers):
The simple way to define Michael Ruppert with a sound bite is as a ‘conspiracy theorist’. But this is the simple way out. He is an intelligent, emotional man who feels passionately that the human race is way off course. Agribusiness, back-ended home loan, reliance on oil – all of this, he reasons, will come crashing down unless we quickly clear our minds and find solutions to the problems. It’s a tribute to his passion and gift of speech that this film survives as one long interview. Ruppert is almost completely negative about the future of the human race until the last few minutes, when he posits the changes that need to occur to keep us from ending in total self-inflicted holocaust. Perhaps things will not be as bad as his soliloquy makes them out to be, but he makes a compelling case, especially since we have already witnessed the global crash of 2007. Either way, it is a fascinating study of a man obsessed with convincing 100 monkeys of his version of the truth.

Rating:  3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Whether you consider Ruppert prophetic or paranoid, hearing his sobering thoughts on the collapse of industrialized civilization is a thought-provoking experience. Thought-provoking and scary."
- Liz Braun (Jam! Movies)

Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010)

Movie quotes:
Wallace Wells: If you want something bad, you have to fight for it. Step up your game, Scott. Break out the L-word.
Scott Pilgrim: Lesbian?
Wallace Wells: The other L-word.
Scott Pilgrim: ...Lesbians?

"You made me swallow my gum! That's going to be in my digestive tract for seven years!"
- Gideon Gordon Graves

Stacey Pilgrim: I mean, did you really see a future with this girl?
Scott Pilgrim: Like... with jetpacks.

Envy Adams: You are incorrigible.
Todd Ingram: I don't know the meaning of the word.
[Text on screen]: He really doesn't.

At a glance:
Michael Cera is wonderful as a neurotic nerd who fights like a video game character against the evil ex’s of his new girlfriend

Our review (with spoilers):
Extremely original film, that obviously feels faithful to the source graphic novel, about a nerdy bass player (the inimitable Michael Cera) who has to fight seven of his new girlfriend’s ex’s if he wants to be with her. Complicating things are his other current high school girlfriend, his band members (which also include an ex-girlfriend), and his gay room-mate, with whom he shares a tiny apartment, a single bed often filled with his room-mate’s boyfriends. Fights, music, and characters are enhanced by words describing the sounds or by on-screen captions. In some ways, it is almost a perfect film: geared toward a young audience, but accessible and vibrantly enjoyable to anyone., with too many funny and memorable lines to remember.

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Some might see it as a great hipster parable, a postmodern epic for the Nintendo generation; I think it's simply a triumph of dizzying cinematic style, and it never misses a beat."
- Josh Hurst (Christianity Today)

Inception (2010)

Movie quotes:
Cobb: For this to work, we'd have to buy off the pilots...
Arthur: And we'd have to buy off the flight attendants...
Saito: I bought the airline.
[Everybody turns and stares at him. Saito just shrugs]
Saito: It seemed neater.

At a glance:
An imaginative core concept is weakened by the need for endless exposition and stock Hollywood action sequences

Our review (with spoilers):
Around 87 percent of the registered critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave a favorable review to Inception. They didn’t have a problem with the endless exposition necessary to explain the rules of its singular dream universe – and that’s great. I wish I felt that way too and had enjoyed this dream more. I wanted to love this film, since it was directed by Christopher Nolan (who has helmed some of my most favorite films like Batman Begins and The Prestige), but I just could not connect to the emotions of the narrative.

The story in brief: Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a professional dream extractor: one who enters and navigates the dreams of another to find valuable secrets. Due to a personal tragedy, he has been separated from his children. To get back together with them, he must do one last big extraction, so he assembles a crack team. This is a trendy, diversified cast: Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, and even Pete Poslethwaite (in a small role). It is DiCaprio’s emotional journey that must carry the film, and for me, I find his acting shallow.

There is an endless parade of exposition in the film; characters are constantly having conversations merely for the purpose of outlining this alternative universe for the audience. A little exposition is often necessary in fantasy / sci-fi, but in this film it is used throughout its lengthy running time of 2 ½ hours. Nolan tries to jazz all this talk up with a lingering bass beat in the background, but you can’t fool me.

Rating: 1 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"The dream logic of Inception -- which deals, like Nolan's far more intriguing Memento, with the architecture of memory and the nature of reality -- is stymied by a clunking script, crammed with expository exchanges and urgent blather."
- Steven Rea (Philadelphia Inquirer)

"Mixes arcane talk about dreams with traditional action sequences resulting in strange and ineffective hybrid."
- Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat (Spirituality and Practice)