Monthly Archives: November 2011

Anthologies — New York, I Love You

By Nathanael Griffis

I suppose you could call it a sequel, which perhaps could excuse or explain some of the problems, but New York, I Love You is in a lot of ways an entirely different film from Paris, Je T’aime. Sure, they’re both comprised of love stories all taking place in a single city. The major difference though is that Paris, Je T’aime is good.

I may have been a little harsh in that sentence, but I had such an amazing time watching Paris, Je T’aime that there was no chance New York, I Love You could have lived up to it. Still, that’s no excuse to be bad a movie. It has its moments, but they’re sporadic at best. It ends strong, which was a pleasant surprise considering the awful opening. Any film that relies on Hayden Christensen, though, is immediately in danger of… well… sucking, is the only appropriate term I can think of.

Before I break down the various segments, let’s get the complaining out of the way.  The film has a different, almost montage structure, which could have been interesting, an added challenge, but instead feels contrived. There are little transition segments throughout the film that jump out and merely seem to take up space and give you cliché pictures of New York. The opener is the worst. Bradley Cooper and Justin Bartha get into a cab and argue about the best way to get somewhere while avoiding traffic. Eventually, the cabbie joins in and we have an annoying picture of what the world thinks of New Yorkers. This is not the case; they are not all argumentative people who are selfish, brusque, and yet charming for being such. Some are, but not everyone. To be honest, a lot of this movie feels like the idea of what people think New York is instead of an actual fresh look at the City.

The transition segments, which are normally barely over a minute, also cause confusion more than anything else. It’s harder to tell when one story ends and another begins. They detract from the power of the previous segments by creating new implications as we see past characters interacting in new and different ways. This could have been used to add complexity, but no, it’s used to show us Hayden Christensen playing basketball to impress a girl.

They also don’t take full advantage of New York as a setting. There is no clear sense, like in Paris, Je T’aime, that each of these segments is in a different place. Every now and then there is a shot of a street sign, but that’s not enough. Natalie Portman and Joshua Marston’s segments are the only exception as they give us excellent, complex looks at Coney Island and Central Park. Still, where’s Chelsea, East Harlem, Washington Heights, Grant City, Van Nest, Roxbury, SoHo, Hollis, Gravesend?–and that list hasn’t even scratched the surface. Heck, they could have done Long Island, which keeps insisting on being included in NYC until they start feeling elite again.

Please kick his ass, Andy Garcia, please.

My point is that for the most part, with a few exceptions, this film failed to grasp the point. They didn’t utilize their setting and give us love stories that matter within said setting. In fact a lot of times the love stories are weak and cliché. The dialogue is not as good. It can’t manage to create rounded-out characters. This wouldn’t be a problem if the directors wanted to make segments with less talking, but most segments, even the good ones, rely heavily on dialogue. It was like a Quentin Tarantino movie written by Skip Woods (he wrote X-Men Origins: Wolverine). The first few segments are weak and taint the rest of the film. The first segment with Hayden Christensen as a pickpocket who gets shown up by Andy Garcia is especially clunky. Brett Ratner’s prom segment could have been good if he hadn’t been more concerned with a surprise ending and forcing a voice over, and also if he hadn’t directed. There’s also a definite preoccupation with sex, which I believe people may think makes it edgier or more realistic, but just reduces the most complex of emotions into a single physical action. One or two segments about sex, sure, that could be an interesting chance to explore some dynamics; four or five and you’re lacking depth and originality.

There are good moments, though. Ethan Hawke is great anytime he’s on screen, and he single-handedly makes his segment worthwhile. Skekhar Kapur’s segment, which was written by Anthony Minghella and stars Julie Christie, Shia LaBeouf, and John Hurt, saved the entire movie. It pushed the film back up to the level of quality it needed to be at. The segment Natalie Portman directed of a father walking her daughter through a park is a sweet look at love within a family. The final segment with Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachmen as a bickering old couple makes it all worth it, though. They are two amazing actors proving they are still on their game. It’s heartbreaking, hilarious, and ultimately sweet despite the slight clichés it evokes. The Orlando Bloom and Christina Ricci one wasn’t bad, but his whiny persona got annoying by the end.

Best scene in the whole film.

There are also two interesting bonus segments on the DVD that weren’t including in the film. One was directed by Scarlett Johanssen and stars Kevin Bacon as a film noir-esque character who travels to Coney Island for a hot dog. It’s technically very good and a pretty cool little short film, and that is all. The second film by Andrei Zvyagintsev is good as well. The story is simple: A young man films two people breaking up and builds and emotional connection to them without ever meeting them. At first it surprised me that these weren’t included, because they’re better than most of the others in the film, but after thinking about it, they just didn’t fit the aesthetic. They would have fit in Paris, Je T’aime, because it was more free-form. New York, I Love You has a stronger montage feel. Everything has to connect and flow together, which may be the restriction which tears the entire thing apart.

If Paris, Je T’aime is the reason to watch anthology films, New York, I Love You is the reason to avoid them. There is just too much you have to bear watching to get to the three good seven-minute segments. The amazing city of New York is better than this. It deserves so much more. It is a diverse, rich, and complex place that is like no other, and when you reduce it to bars, proms, and one-night-stands, it’s a little insulting. There is so much more this film could have done with its setting and theme, and it should have been easy with New York as inspiration, but apparently not.

Webstuffs — “The world’s only turkey-monster anti-drug pro-Jesus gore film!”

Hello, Rant Pad readers. In honor of Thanksgiving (though it’s a dubious honor at best), and because I simply haven’t had time this week to work on an article of my own, I present to you an old personal favorite. I discovered the Agony Booth in late 2006, though it had been around since January of 2002, and it quickly became one of my favorite sites on the web. Having long been a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fanatic, I was in bad-movie-lover heaven when I came across this site that did in-depth written reviews of bad, bad movies–often scene-by-scene recaps, in true masochistic bad-movie-lover style. Without a doubt one of the lowest quality and most bizarre films reviewed on this site is “the world’s only turkey-monster anti-drug pro-Jesus gore film,” Blood Freak. I am so hoping to review this film for myself someday, but until I get my hands on a copy of this obscure rarity, re-reading this article will have to suffice. But it does more than suffice–it makes me laugh out loud each time I revisit it. Enjoy your turkey, and Happy Thanksgiving.

–Tom

Korean Cinema — The Host

By Nathanael Griffis

This weekend I had an interesting experience that took precedence over my normal writing schedule. Mind you, I fully acknowledge that I have heretofore been incapable of keeping a normal writing schedule, making the divergence from it the norm and the previous sentence moot. Anyway, all qualifications and space-wasting aside, I had a nerd party this weekend. A nerd party is if were you dress up in suspenders and bow ties and watch sci-fi movies–so a normal Friday evening for me but with cake and friends. I brought down my extensive collection of sci-fi films that I thought people would be interested in. More out of the thought to gain the film the slightest exposure I threw in The Host. I was pleasantly surprised when it was chosen. I let them know it was Korean, and would be subtitled. I told them it was a bizarre movie and hard to describe. But they insisted.

I think my trepidation was linked to my love of the film–this was my eighth viewing, and my love the movie only grows with each sitting. Still I was worried, because we’ve had that experience where you sit down to show someone Casablanca and they fall asleep, or think Humphrey Bogart isn’t that cool (for your information he is), so I had my doubts. How would a group of young not-so-into-film people take what is one of the most challenging, thought-provoking, beautiful, horrifying, and straight-up hilarious films ever made?

I’ll explain the movie first, then let you know their response. (I know, I know, you just want the answer, but that’s not how it works–of course, you do have the ability to scroll down, so feel free to use it.) The Host was my very first introduction to Korean cinema, and I owe it a debt of gratitude for that. It was my first viewing of actor Kang-ho Song and director Joon-ho Bong as well, so my debt is massive. I think for a lot of Americans, The Host brought about an interest in the South Korean film industry. We knew the country existed and knew they made films, but for the average American viewer we just lumped them in with China and Japan. The Host exposed Western thinking to a completely unique cultural form of expression.

I think giant monster will beat bow and arrow.

(Editor’s note: Possible spoiler ahead–though all it really gives away is the driving plot point of the film.)

The premise of the film is simple: A monster surfaces from the Han River and starts feeding on people. The monster takes a little girl named Hyun-seo, played by Ah-sung Ko, and her family then tries to find her when they discover she may be still alive. The thing that is so wonderful about this film is that it does nothing you’d expect, but everything that realistically you should. In the real world, four people would be incapable of taking down a monster. They’d make mistakes along the way that often have terrifying consequences, but this is rarely shown in movies. At least not to this extent. Movies go one of two ways for me I think. Normally a character will make a mistake they have to atone for, so they pull up their boot straps go through a training montage with 80′s keytar music overlaid, and become a hero; or they continue down a spiral of destruction that ruins their life entirely and we’re left with a gray-washed frame of their blood-shot eyes to comfort us.

The Host challenges us to see people for what they are: strange, yet loving and lovable, capable of making horrendous mistakes that we can’t forgive them for but also can’t help but see the humanity in them. Kang-ho Song, who plays Park Gang-du, the father of the stolen girl, gives the performance of lifetime. He drives the film through its web of complex emotions. Each scene is a strange blend of humor, tragedy, horror, and social commentary. In one of my favorite scenes, as an example, the family is gathering to mourn the supposed death of Hyun-seo. The characters all react in different ways, but by the end they’re writhing and tripping over each other. It’s disturbing and haunting to see a family so vulnerable, but also comical to see four adults tripping and rolling on top of each other. In the midst of all this a government agent in a full chemical suit comes walking in. It’s a dramatic transition that signals to the audience that we’ve got a Contagion-esque film on our hands, but then he trips. This small moment of slapsticks should seemingly remove any power or chance for this yellow plasticized man to render upon us, and yet when he orders everyone to be gassed and quarantined and Gang-du to be bagged up and taken away, it’s terrifying.

Yep, that would be the look I'd have if a monster just took my kid too.

To discuss this movie further would give away to much. It is a hilarious movie. It is a scary movie. It is a powerful family drama. It is a lasting political commentary. With all of these things coming together I was still concerned it would not be a good group movie, that all my American friends would brush it off as a stupid film they wouldn’t enjoy. For the most part they laughed and cracked jokes liked you’d do at any group movie. The film is ripe for that, though. There are monologues about farts and several moments of out-of-place slapstick. Still their moments of laughter were punctuated by small pauses. Whether or not they took away from the film the same feelings I have for it is yet to be seen, but I can say this for The Host: I had already considered it a masterpiece, but now I know it’s not a selective masterwork that only some will appreciate. This is not 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is better, because it can be enjoyed by all.

I have a passion for Korean cinema and don’t think I’ll ever stop returning to this wonderful country’s films. If you want to hear more about Korean Cinema, check Buried Cinema’s podcast on The Man from Nowhere.

 

Anthologies — Paris, Je T’aime

By Nathanael Griffis

Without ranting too much I need to explain where I’m coming from. I don’t like romantic comedies because I think they take the most complex and powerful of all emotions, love, and cheapen it. (Go ahead and enjoy them though, because I admittedly like action films, which cheapen the complex issue of violence.) I adore successful romances or good romantic comedies like (500) Days of Summer, Lars and the Real Girl, and Amélie, because these movies treat love and romance with the respect they deserve and still entertain. Now that you know that, it can inform what I’m about to say. I loved Paris, Je T’aime.

It really is an astounding feat what this film accomplished. The attempt in and of itself would have been impressive. Twenty directors each make a five minute short film, and those are all combined into one film–it’s fascinating. What is amazing, though, is that these short little five minutes carry more heft and speak to a range of complex emotions that come with love better than most movies I’ve seen.

Emmanuel Benbihy came up with the concept of getting several directors to film love stories in a specific part of Paris. If that weren’t enough, he placed restrictions on them. They only had two days to film, and the film could only be five minutes long. What’s genius about this concept is that it creates boundaries without being constricting. They weren’t told how to tell their story or what to talk about.  A setting as wonderful as Paris is easily inspiring. Love is a broad and powerful emotion. The quick filming schedule kept the stories simple, which meant the writing and the filmmaking had to utilize each frame. No shot feels wasted; everything tells you something about characters.

Willem Dafoe as the cowboy harbinger of death was pretty awesome too.

It worked out astoundingly well–better than any way that I could have hoped for, as one moment I’d be crying as Juliette Binoche holds the apparition of her dead child and the next moment I’d be laughing at Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant or smiling at the sweet reunion of Rufus Sewell and Emily Mortimer’s struggling lovers. This film really is lovely, charming, and full of twists and turns. Gus Van Sant’s “Le Marqis” segment and Alfonso Cuarón’s “Parc Monceau” have some wonderful surprises that add to the story and aren’t merely gimmicks. It’s just a pleasure to sit through. I was taking notes the entire time since it was so dense, but wanted to throw my notebook away the entire time and just enjoy what was on screen.

If anything this movie reconfirms the genius of several directors and makes me marvel at others. Wes Craven really shined here for me. His segment “Pere-Lachaise” where two very different people are reunited by the ghost of Oscar Wilde, is charmingly sweet and at the same time honest. It also manages to establish characters exceedingly fast and impress with the complex story it can tell in only five minutes. It made me wish Craven would make more than horror.  The Coen brothers’  “Tuileries” gives you that sense of being a tourist and a voyeur at the same time. It also provides their trademark humor, and Steve Buscemi on a bench. Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas’ “Loin du 16e” reconfirms that they can combine a human story and still make social commentary without preaching, because there is a genuine concern for the characters they create. It also just makes me excited for On the Road.

I don’t really have the time (you might, but I’ve got better things to do, like eat cake) to go through each small bit, but they are all amazing. From the sweet relatable honesty with a slight fairy tale quality of the opening “Montmartre” to the bizarre send off to silent gothic vampire films of Vincenzo Natali’s “Quartier de la Madeleine.” From start to finish it’s a fantastic achievement. There’s even a mime segment that doesn’t make me want to shoot myself, or a mime, which is very impressive. The only other anthology film I have seen that succeeds this well is Short Cuts, which hopefully I’ll write about. There’s just too many names and too much to talk about. I could literally do a twenty part series on each short, but then my year of blogging would disappear; still, it’s tempting. If you’ve been curious about what a good anthology film is, this is it.

And for sex appeal--Steve Buscemi!

The Hacker Under the Stairs: Smarter than the CIA and living in mom’s basement

By Steven Moore

In this series of brief articles I’m going to take a look at technological clichés and plot holes in a variety of films. While some are pervasive clichés that illustrate a fundamental lack of understanding on the part of filmmakers in general, occasionally, I will look at specific films to point out plot holes that could have been avoided had the writers stopped to think for a few seconds. I’m a computer geek, and these are the things that annoy me when I watch movies.

The worst cliche that has somehow become a film institution is the plot point when the protagonists must seek out the most brilliant hacker in the world, and they find him still living in his mom’s basement. I say “his” because filmmakers can’t seem to accept women as computer scientists, so in their films girls rarely know how to operate a computer, despite the historical fact that the first computer programmer was a womanLive Free or Die Hard, Enemy of the State, even as far back as Hackers–writers seem to confuse an ability to operate the command line with brilliance. This unemployed, Cheetos-dusted typist who can change directories from the terminal is smarter than all of the CIA, FBI, and Cyber-Military combined. Yet, he or she can’t seem to find a job or even be bothered to bathe. The reality is that a 25-year-old kid still living in his mom’s basement actually spends 90% of his time arguing with 12-year-olds in Call of Duty, and if he is a decent programmer, he is making enough money with a spambot to afford his own place. Of course, the movies think they are modeling Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg types, but neither of these people were brilliant hackers. They were decent programmers with a nose for business. Rarely does brilliance coincide with a good business mind, which is why people like this are so successful, not because they kept their brilliant hacker mind out of the spotlight. What irritates me about this stereotype is that it completely undercuts all the hard work that it takes to do anything worthwhile with a computer.

I’ll leave you with XKCD’s summing up of the problem:

Webstuffs — John Landis & monster movies

This is a new feature to the Rant Pad where I bring attention to good movie-related articles from other sites around the Web.

I’m a sucker for monster movies, and An American Werewolf in London is one of the all-time best, so when I found this Underwire article by Angela Watercutter in which director John Landis talks about his new book Monsters in the Movies, I had to share.

For my own part, I absolutely love those pre-CGI special effects films from the 80s when directors and their makeup and special effects artists had be really innovative with practical, in-camera effects. Few sequences in the history of horror cinema are as memorable and effective as the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London. At 30 years old, that scene still puts recent garbage like Universal’s The Wolfman remake to shame. (For a bonus, here’s another related article from the A.V. Club that made me smile quite a bit.)

You can read Watercutter’s article here. Enjoy.

–Tom

Anthologies — The Ten

By Nathanael Griffis

David Wain is an interesting writer and director and an acquired taste in some ways. If you’ve seen his shows Stella or The State you’ll understand; even Wet Hot American Summer is somewhat bizarre. He gets really good actors, though, and has a knack for taking the strange and making it stranger. The Ten is no exception: it’s ten shorts with a loosely connected premise revolving around the ten commandments. Narrating it all is an 11th short with Paul Rudd as the narrator deciding between Famke Jenssen or Jessica Alba.

I’d heard a lot of bad things about this anthology film: “not funny,” “offensive,” “a big waste of time,” so naturally I decided, yeah, let’s watch that. What I walked away with is supremely more disappointing. The movie is hit and miss, so I can’t bash it because it’s not bad enough to be torn apart. It’s also not great enough to recommend. The ten sketches have little bright moments that made me laugh, and it was interesting how they were all held together and how characters continued on through the sketches. Overall the concepts were strange, which is to be expected. David Wain does some real absurdist stuff. The first short, for example, is about a man (played by Adam Brody) who jumps out of the sky without his parachute and ends up being stuck in the ground. He has to stay there and becomes a celebrity, getting his own TV show, T-shirts, that sort thing.

The problem is the concept is so strange and funny in a lot of ways, but everything around it doesn’t hold up to the brilliant concept. With only one exception the fifth segment with Jo Lo Truglia and Liev Schreiber as competing neighbors who can’t stop buying catscan machines is perfect. The easiest way to discuss this film is to give you a rundown of the 10 shorts and the 11th which breaks them up, so if you do decide to watch this film you can skip what is dumb.

1 No other gods: Adam Brody gets stuck in the ground and Winona Ryder his fiancé struggles with living in an empty field as Brody’s celebrity rises to idolatrous levels. This wasn’t terrible. There are some funny bits and a few good lines, plus a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Jon Hamm cameo, but only worth it to explain a later and better sketch.

2 Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain: Gretchen Mol travels to Mexico and meets up with Jesus (Justin Theroux), the real Jesus Christ who’s just bumming around Mexico carving prosthetic legs instead of starting up the apocalypse. They make love a lot and Gretchen’s librarian character calls out his name during sex, breaking the rule you see. There’s a strange Spanish narration in this segment that cuts in on the sound a lot and is distracting and not funny enough to matter. The subject matter could clearly offend, but even worse it lags and relies too heavily on sex jokes.

3 Murder: Ken Marino’s Dr. Glenn Richie makes a goof and kills a patient, so he’s thrown in jail. This segment is really a big waste of time. It’s not funny in the least.

4 Honor your mother and father: Kerri Kenney-Silver has to tell her two black sons who their real father is, but she gets Arsenio Hall confused with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and then hires Oliver Platt to do Schwarzenegger impressions so the boys can have a semblance of a father-son relationship. This one is strange, but pretty good. It has a few moments, but doesn’t really tie in with the rest of the film like the others do and that might be a strength.

Liev Schrieber and Jo Lo Truglia deserve a lot of credit.

5 Don’t covet goods: Liev Schrieber and Jo Lo Truglia get into a competition over who can own the most catscan machines and then accidentally cause the death of 75 children with radiation poisoning. This short is amazing. I laughed a lot and it was great from start to finish. Just skip ahead to this one and watch only it and you’ll be happy.

6 Don’t covet wife: Return to Dr. Glenn Richie in jail, but instead of coveting a wife, it’s about coveting a prison bitch. This one is grossly bizarre, and we get the concept a minute which makes it drag after that. The Shakespeare monologue over a rape scene at the end is unsettling too. Avoid this one.

7 Stealing: Winona Ryder’s character who’s now engaged to Mather Zickel’s news anchor from the first segment falls in love with a ventriloquist dummy. This one’s pretty good, mostly because of the acting and the strange concept. You don’t really need to watch the earlier segments though to get the jokes, because the jokes are mostly spoofs of bad lifetime movies.

8 Bear false witness: An animated segment that is a retake on the boy who cried wolf, except about a lying rhino. Naturally, H. Jon Benjamin is involved, because it’s an adult cartoon. This one is disturbing with a lot of blood and orgies and such. Skip it.

9 Adultery: Paul Rudd’s narrator is the focus of this story when he dumps Dianne Wiest (who does not appear on sceen but is just name dropped) for his former wife Famke Jenssen. This is really short and kinda feels like a rush to finish up the movie. No reason to watch it really.

That's the luckiest ventriloquist doll I've ever seen.

10 Sabbath: A bunch of men avoid church, hangout naked, and listen to Roberta Flack. This is a pretty funny concept that devolves into the final musical number and a bunch of orchestrated nudity.

Oh right, the 11th segment with Paul Rudd. It’s got a few good one liners and some strange bits. It’s the best I’ve seen of Jessica Alba; no wait, not really, I’m lying. It’s not that good and just feels like more failed jokes. This film is an attempt at pushing absurdist sketch comedy onto the big screen, but David Wain isn’t Monty Python. Even when their jokes failed they still succeeded. Here most of the jokes fall flat, and since the movie is trying to do little more than make you laugh, because it never really addresses the whole Ten Commandment things, it fails. Not miserably enough for me to hate it, which kinda makes me hate it all the more, actually.

Next I’m going to transition to anthologies that have to do with just a place, and I’m looking forward to Paris Je T’aime.