Monday, July 30, 2007

The Host

The Host
Dir – Joon Ho-Bong

Viewed: From the Balcony


[This is an unrevised review written back in March after I'd seen it in the theaters. Paddy didn't get a chance to check it out so I'm posting it now since the DVD just came out.]

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll shit your pants. That probably shouldn’t be used to describe any movie, but nonetheless, The Host, a wildly fun and inventive monster movie from Korea, successfully manages to walk the line between just about every tone you can hit in a movie. When we talked about Tears of Black Tiger I might have mentioned that it too tries to hit every note – comedy, melodrama, action, suspense, tragedy, but does each one of them half-asssed hoping to mostly skate by on its perceived charm, some visual flair and good intentions. The Host hits this mix with a rivet gun and sets its perverse tone beautifully in a scene early on after our mini-Godzilla runs amuck along a park located on the bank of it’s birth place, Seoul’s Han River. Our protagonists are a dysfunctional family that runs a food stand on the park and have just lost their youngest member to the monster’s clutches. Placed in a shelter with the rest of the witnesses, they gather together around a photo of the young daughter/granddaughter/sister/niece. At first it seems like this is going to be a poignant scene of mourning but it somehow flawlessly dissolves into wonderful absurdism with the family rolling on the ground kicking at each other, crying, blaming one another. But that doesn’t mean the movie refuses to go down that poignant alley. It does, but on its own terms.

I’m tempted to keep this one short and sweet as it’s the kind of movie that can be ruined by too much information. Suffice to say the family comes together to hunt down the monster that took their precious Hyun-seo away from them – they learn to put away their differences and realize that they love each other and all that, just like Little Miss Sunshine! Except this family is actually more relatable than that one, the performances more honest and touching, and it doesn’t end with a fat girl dancing that makes everything all better.

The scale of this movie impressed the hell out of me. I’ve been watching a good share of Korean movies the past few years and none have been as “big” as this one. If you’re familiar at all with South Korean cinema you might think of the Ki-duk Kim movies like 3-Iron or Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring or the revenge trilogy from Chan-wook Park or the bizzaro masterpiece Save the Green Planet!. They’re definitely big movies as far as the emotional punches they can hit you with but the Host is the first time I’ve seen South Korea put out something that beats Hollywood up and down the block at what it’s famous for. The overgrown frogsquid monster is some of the best cgi character work ever done. Certainly puts some of those second trilogy Star Wars characters to shame.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the most fun I have in a movie theater this year. And I’m one of those guys who’s looking forward to Spiderman 3. It might have to do with that feeling you get going into a movie with mild expectations and getting blown away. That experience will always trump going into something with huge expectations and being satisfied.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Fast Food Nation

Dir. Richard Linklater

Viewed: From the Couch

Paddy starts us off:

Of all the movie arguments Sean and I have had over the years at various Cambridge taverns, none has been as heated as “The Great Sell-Out Debate.” The way it usually works is as follows:

  1. I criticize a director whose work I previously admired for giving up his integrity in favor of a Hollywood paycheck.
  2. Sean, who doesn’t trifle over dichotomies like artistic expression vs. mind-numbing entertainment, says “ah…like whatever man.”
  3. My head hits the bar.

When it comes to Linklater, the debate is especially intense, because the stuff of his I love (Slacker, Before Sunrise/Sunset, Dazed and Confused, A Scanner Darkly) I really love, but his more mainstream efforts, like Bad News Bears and The Newton Boys are just brutal. My way of reconciling this is that Linklater’s bad movies are simply the result of him trying to cash a paycheck, while his pure genius can show through when not burdened by a big budget. Sean counters that Linklater has always been an entertainer and never an auteur, and that the guy has no real artistic vision to begin with.

I still think anyone who makes as perfect a movie as Slacker has some vision, but after seeing Fast Food Nation, Linklater’s literally shitty adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s best-seller, I’m beginning to think Sean is right.

Shit is front and center in this movie, care of a White Castle-like chain that discovers high doses of fecal matter in their new burgers. Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear), the man who dreamt up the new ad campaign, is sent off on a mission to discover the cause, and in the process interviews speechifying former ranch workers (Kris Kristofferson), meat buyers (Bruce Willis) and franchise owners (Essai Morales). At each stop, Kinnear simply stares at these men while chomping down on a burger, listening to the dark tales of the fast-food industry.
If this moralizing were not enough, we also have two parallel plots concerning a group of illegal immigrants and a band of activist coeds. While the scenes dealing with the idealistic college kids are the best part of the movie, the movie is all too obvious in presenting each student as a moral archetype rather than as an actual person.

But it is the immigration story that really brings down the movie, despite fine performances from Wilmer Valderamma and Catalina Sandino Morena. The problem is that while the story of some illegal immigrants is both tragic and important, it is a subject deserving its own treatment and need not be shoehorned in to a story about corporate greed, mass consumerism, misplaced idealism, and about a hundred other things. There is also the irony that a movie about beef would focus on immigration, when far more illegal immigrants are employed in agriculture then in the meat industry.

And this seems to be the fatal flaw in Fast Food Nation’s morality tale. What is set up at first as an anti-corporate movie, or an anti-mass consumption movie, or an anti-exploitation movie turns out to be none of the above: FFN is an anti-meat movie, pure and simple.

Evidence for this claim comes in the final, dramatic scene, where Morena is finally exposed to the gruesome killing floor or the meat processing plant that is responsible for mixing cow feces with Grade A beef. While the scene is moving, it draws its power not from the constellation of events in the movie, or because of a political point; but because of the simple disgusting act of cows being butchered. The problem here is that this disgust at the slaughter of a cow would still take place even if you removed the immigrants, or the big burger corporations, or the greedy middle men. The butchering of a cow is an awful process to witness, even if done is a more private intimate way, such as kosher killings. For Linklater to entangle very serious political issues with basic repulsion is intellectually dishonest; that, or else he is as politically naïve as the college kids who earlier try to spring the cattle from their pen.

While I’ve always enjoyed the aesthetics and style of my slightly older Gen X peers, FFN is another example that disaffection and coolness do not easily translate into an honest and genuine engagement with political issues. If this movie indicates that Linklater – as good a barometer for his generation as anyone – is getting up from the couch and into the fight, I’m not impressed.

So Sean, has Linklater run out of steam, or worse yet, weed and ripped couches?

===============================================

Ah… like whatever, man. In my dictionary the term “sell-out” has a pretty specific definition. It defines a sell-out as a person that corrupts his or her own personal ideals or views for money. They don’t make the movie/album/work that they truly want to. When an artist puts out an album or a movie in which they censor themselves or change their beliefs due to “the man’s” wishes. In nowaywhatsoever do I think Richard Linklater has ever done this (for this reason, not my disinterest in art vs. commerce, do I laugh off the repeated implications). The Newton Boys was story from the history books of Texas that Linklater felt very passionate about (the resulting movie’s quality is pretty fuzzy to this old man). The Bad News Bears shows no signs of not being the movie that he intended to make. The fact that it isn’t a very good movie is beside the point.

This holds true for Soderbergh, Nolan, Singer and any other director that you want to place that lazy tag onto. These people are creating the movies that they want to make. They might not be making the movies that Paddy wants to see every single time, but because they don’t have the same narrow, strict ideology that you do it shouldn’t be a strike against them. If anything they should be applauded for it. Most people, especially filmmakers, and even the curmudgeons among us, like some diversity in their movie library. If every movie was like Sex, Lies & Videotape or Slacker I’d probably shoot myself; at the very least I wouldn’t be a film geek. To borrow a phrase, I wouldn’t want to eat steak every single night, sometimes a good salad is in order; variety is the spice of life, and other such appropriate clichés.

I think it’s a safe bet so say that if one were to devote their lives to working with a certain medium that they would have an appreciation for all aspects of that profession – be it music, movies, literature, food, wine, beer, etc. If I were to become a food critic, but say I only like filet mignon and truffles, well, I wouldn’t be a very good food critic. I’d at least have to have an appreciation for the other things that make up this medium. Myself, I don’t particularly like musicals, but I can appreciate the genre and I know Busby Berkeley made some good ones back in the day, and I’ll probably watch Once when it comes out on video. Point being, these directors are having fun playing in some popular genres, and if you can’t find any merit in them whatsoever, than that’s not their fault if they, and I, disagree with you.

On the subject of Fast Food Nation, though, I do agree with you. It’s a muddled, disjointed, mess of a film and all the good performances, especially Bobby Cannavale as the evil UMP (fictional meat processing plant) factory supervisor, can’t save it. I will disagree with you on a couple points in your review though. I found the whole student activist part fairly tedious. In fact, the entire Amber storyline was grating, boring, annoying and basically lazy writing. The story of the illegal Mexican immigrants is really the meat (sorry) of the story. Even though it didn’t come through to you, theirs was the only story that gave a clear point. Showing the kill floor at the end wasn’t just an anti-meat statement. Yes, killing a cow whether it be at a profit-generating factory like UMP or at uncle Jim’s farm, is going to be a gruesome sight no matter which way you slice it(again!). But if you were to walk by Jim taking down a cow to sustain his farm and stepping inside the kill floor and be literally surrounded by thousands of different parts of cow swinging and sliding past you to make happy meals – you can’t say it’s the same thing or would have the same impact on a person. Also, you can’t say that these factories could exist on the same level they do without the illegal Mexican immigrants. One of the points they hammered home was that the reason the shit’s in the burgers is because you can over work and abuse these people in a way you can’t do with the average American worker. Things would have to change if you took these people out of the equation, you wouldn’t be able to run the line as quick.

Adapting a book like Fast Food Nation, which has no narrative to speak off, into a cohesive film is no small challenge. I know that one of Linklater’s favorite tools to use is the half-mute character who basically walks around, bumps into interesting people who end up talking their ear off. That can work, as it does multiple times in Slacker, and to varied success in Waking Life. Or, in this case, as with Amber and Don’s characters, it can come off as cringe inducing, uninspired and contrived. This is due in part to the decision to have these multiple storylines weaving past each other for the entire length of the movie. I agree with you that the issue of the Mexican immigrants is one that deserves it’s own movie, and If they had gone with focusing on one half-mute illegal Mexican immigrant, or a husband and wife, followed them to the UMP factory and had Kris Kristoferson, Bruce Willis, and Essai Morales do their speeches either to them, or have them overhearing them, well, it might have been an easier pill to swallow.

It’s hard to criticize a movie like FFN that is only trying to shed some light on a serious situation and to get people motivated to get involved in it. But this is my biggest problem with the movie, I can’t picture anyone getting motivated to do much besides maybe lay off the fast food a bit. Not only is there hardly any liveliness in the movie (Ethan Hawke tries, god bless him), but you have three stories that basically end with statements, “Well, I tried, but nothing came out of it.” If anything this movie could promote even more apathy in people. I’m not saying any sort of happy ending should have been tacked on the end of this but you have to give your target audience something to grab onto besides bleakness. I was left with a bigger sense of hopelessness than anything else in this movie and for something aimed at getting people involved, that shouldn’t happen.

In the end, we have here is Linklater showing his limitations. To juggle three separate storylines for two hours and not drop a ball is one of the biggest challenges you can give a director. Linklater excels in allowing actors to shine and giving characters room to breathe in a series of long takes with gentle, flowing camera movement delivered at a nice and easy, getting to know ya pace (see: Dazed, Sunrise/Sunset, Tape, SubUrbia, School of Rock). While he didn’t exactly shit the bed here, he didn’t do his subject matter any favors by attempting this high-wire act of story-telling. Hopefully, he’ll come away with this as a lesson learned and return to what he does best and leave this stuff for Soderbergh and Iñárritu.
Well, I’m out of steam. Any last thoughts, Paddy?

===============================================

Glad we can agree on the movie, and I’m thinking this really isn’t the best place to explore the sell-out debate. However, I’ll just say my definition of sell-out is a little broader; anyone who takes the money (and you must agree that all the above names certainly did get paid a lot more) to do a film with little to no artistic value is a sell-out. You might argue that Batman Begins, or the X-Men, or Ocean’s 24 would be worse if done by a studio hack, and you would probably be right. But the point is these movies shouldn’t be that good. Batman and Cyclops are just not deep enough or interesting enough characters to warrant the sort of psychological investigations or blindingly obvious allegories that mars most of the recent generation of “smart” action films. I don’t necessarily need all indie fare (I would kill myself if everything were like sex, lies, and videotape), but directors who have shown an eye for developing original characters and plotlines are wasted when handed a big Hollywood project. It is simply a question of quality; if Singer, Nolan, Raimi or Soderbergh (well, maybe not the last) had spent the past 5-10 years making movies somewhat broader then the mind of Stan Lee, we would be seeing better movies.

I also don’t want to talk too much more about FFN, because it is a bad movie, and not even bad in an interesting way, but I completely agree that this kind of movie is outside of Linklater’s talents, one of those talents being making a great movie without much of a budget. I don’t know how this project came together, but I can’t believe this is the kind of movie he dreamed of making while maxing out his credit cards in Austin. I also completely believe that if Linklater had had no budget, no access to “stars” like Kinnear or Willis or Avril or Kristofferson, and had to scrape by with no-names and poor production values, he would have made a much better movie.



Sunday, July 8, 2007

Sean's Summer Round-Up Pt. 1 of 3

Though the Netflix queue may be in a sad, semi-stagnant state, I've managed to see a good number of the summer fodder being tossed to the masses this year. Being about one month into the season let's do the first in a three parter here and take a look at a few of the ones that came first out of the gate.

Knocked-Up

The Judd Apatow Movie Factory has already produced a couple of winners over the past few years - the Will Ferrel vehicles Anchorman and Talladega Nights. But it was the dark horse success of Apatow's own directorial debut, The 40-Year Old Virgin, that's given him creative freedom to produce and direct what might otherwise be considered some risky propositions in Hollywood. Like putting Seth Rogen as the lead in a very R rated, 2 1/2 hour comedy about making an odd-couple relationship work in the event of an unexpected pregnancy.

The movie's hilarious, touching and if it weren't for Hot Fuzz, it would be without competition for the funniest movie this year. Super Bad, the next movie to come out of the JA Factory, might give both of these a run for that title, but I digress.

There are three detractions to this movie that I've heard and I'd like to debunk these quickly. One, the movie is misogynistic. The Phoenix's Peter Keough has always been a lame, predictable, pretentious blow-hard but he used to have a smidge of a sense of humor. But I now consider him to be a humorless, lame, predictable, pretentious knee-jerk liberal of a blow-hard. Possibly for fear of this movie coming off as too much of a guy-movie, Peter tackles the movie in the role of an over-sensitive feminist, finding misogyny around every corner of Knocked Up. Reading his review reminded me of listening to Bill O'Reilly give his opinions on the latest Michael Moore movie three months before its release based on what his lunch date told him it was about.

Ok, maybe not that bad, but Peter was like a bulldog with a new toy -- he grabbed onto one aspect of the movie and couldn't let go, couldn't see past it. Yes, Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann, has the juicy yet thankless, role of the, well, kinda bitchy sister to the title role's character. Indeed, she's not a very likable character for the most part -- but she earns a nice redemption at the end that Peter didn't even mention. Is she also supposed to represent what marriage is like for men? I would say no, she's what marriage is like for Paul Rudd's character. Another thing Peter didn't mention is that the men in this movie come off no better -- yes, in fact worse (but in some sort of double-standard playing men coming off as asses is just funny whereas women coming off as asses isn't?) -- than the women do. And also, that this is a comedy, and that generally in these kinds of roles tend to be exaggerated.

Which gets me to the other complaint -- where's the abortion? Hmm, as my girlfriend said, I'm sure there's a hilarious movie waiting to be made about a couple discussing whether or not to get an abortion, sadly Knocked Up isn't that movie. To the people who kept propagating this argument about why abortion wasn't brought up in the movie: First of all, it was. She briefly discussed it with her mother and that discussion had a lot to do with why she didn't go that route. Secondly, this isn't a movie about an odd couple having to make a decision about what to do with an unexpected pregnancy. It's a movie about an odd couple who decide to have a kid. Fer cryin' out loud, the movie's already 2 n' half hours long -- you want to add another 10 minutes in there for the hilarious abortion discussion?

(I have a feeling that Super Bad may top Knocked Up and Hot Fuzz for the funniest movie of the year. And next year's The Pineapple Express will be the crown jewel. Hear me now.)


Pirates 3

Yeah, so I liked the first two Pirate movies... They're by no means great movies. The first one still stands as pretty damn good if only for reminding people that Johnny Depp is one of our national treasures, even if he decides to reside in France. Sadly, it's true that with the third time around a lot of the charm of the first one has led to a bombasticness that doesn't so much thrill as try hard to keep you interested in the proceedings. The criticism that these proceedings are hard to follow is what has marked the decline of the series is something I find a bit ridiculous. These character's are not very complex -- it's not like were watching a David Mamet movie here, the apparent double/triple crosses are all fairly meaningless. This is one of those complaints that you'll find professional critics spout about summer movies all the time so that they don't sound like joyless bastards.

There's still a good enough time to be had with this one. I enjoyed it less than the second but that's simply because it's kind of the Jedi of this trilogy. There's a pretty good beginning, but the ending just didn't knock it out of the park like the last one did. I'll say right now that I don't want anymore of these movies to clog up the summer movie faire, but give it ten years or so, I could see returning to the characters as a very cool ONE MOVIE project.


Spider-Man 3

This one caused a lot of hullabaloo. Thor knows why. Having been going over the pages of geek debate when this came out -- the majority of it stems from the "evil Peter Parker" sequence and having too much going on by having two/three villains in the movie. I can see where they're coming from on the last point there, but the "evil Peter Parker" musical sequence was, and still is, one of the most memorable film moments this year. And that's coming from a film AND comic book geek. Back off, I got the long boxes to back this shit up.

The real problem with Spider-Man 3 was that they peaked with #2. Really, it's a fool’s job to try and top that one. So they went with the obvious choice... go dark, get into some relationship issues. And that's what Spider-Man 3 is all about. And I say bless the shoes Sam Raimi walks in because he's got the nerve to actually keep himself interested in this series even though we all know he didn't want to put Venom up in this. So ok, you say someone else should have done the Venom movie. Yeah, someone like a fucking Ratner a Tim Story, or a Mark Steven Johnson? Someone that would creatively bankrupt the series yet given you all your bang boom jollies? To hell with that noise. Cross your fingers that Raimi continues the series or at least has a voice in who picks up the ball. Because if he doesn’t you know they’re going to try and reduce their budget by picking up someone with a cheap price tag who’s just competent enough to film an action sequence.


Fantastic 4-2

If Sam doesn’t have a say in the next Spidey, you'll most likely end up with the shit storm that is the Fantastic Four film franchise. I'll tell you right off the bat that I didn't see the first one. Even on video. It just looked horrible. First off, as much eye candy that Alba is I can't justify putting dying her hair blond and putting her in the role of Susan Storm. For shit's sake there are, I'm sure, dozens of capable blond actresses who could act circles around Alba. Why have a walking paradox emoting in your movie?

The Thing. Thing is the meat of the F4 comics. If we can't wait for technology to catch up to us, can we at least employ some of the tricks we pulled in Lord of Rings. Ian McKellen isn't three feet taller than Elijah -- Robbie Coltrane isn't an actual fucking giant. Can't you give us a Thing that is more than 5 foot fucking 8 and a half?

That isn't the biggest crime in this horrible, greasy fart of a movie. There's just no camaraderie. The whole point of enjoying a Fantastic Four story is the interaction of the family joining forces to defeat whatever evil of the month it is. In this lame duck there's one (count 'em, one) scene with the four of them working together. And what does this scene function as? To tell us that they can't work together. Sure, that's a little misleading since they've been given the Silver Surfer mojo, but we don't get anything remotely go team after that. Hell, this movie isn't worth any more words than this. Horrible. For the record, I'm ok with who they have playing Mr. Fantastic and Johnny.


Ocean's 13

Ahh, like cracking open a beer on a Sunday afternoon. The Ocean's movies are doing their job of making up for the lack of Steve McQueen in our generation. Three cheers for Soderbergh and the rest of them. I say. The summer movie viewing process is like journeying from one hot house to the next – watching an Ocean’s opens up the windows and gives you a nice breeze and a sunset. (I'm sure Paddy will enjoy that analogy.) We're not here to see a guy with adamantium claws fuck shit up; we're here to see some casual badass motherfuckers fuck shit up for a guy that doesn't follow the badass motherfucker's code. I’m not one to advocate remakes. But in the case of Ocean’s they’ve taken the idea of the original movie and made it something tangible to this generation. There’s even a nice meta theme through out this one – A guy who’s shaken Sinatra’s hand should know better than to fuck with another guy who’s shaken Sinatra’s hand.

I don't think these movies are any sort of guilty pleasure either. I don't really believe in guilty pleasures. You have a great director who works as his own great cinematographer and a handful of some of the best actors working in the business. And yes, watching actors work off each other can be worth the price of the ticket alone. How else do you explain the lasting value of movies like Roman Holiday, Neil Simon movies, and ensemble comedies in general. Again, this is going back to those rat pack movies themselves and why they were popular. Not to mention that the heist movie genre is something very dear to my heart.

Well, my time's up here. I'm off to the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago tomorrow morning so I have to get some sleep.

Stay tuned for a contest to win a new, unopened, perfect condition Second Season Twin Peaks DVD set. I just have to figure out what the contest is...


Sunday, July 1, 2007

3 Monts Flanders Golden Ale

So summer's here. The ol' tv's gone from dvr overload to the next batch of 15 minute of fame reality crap that makes me want to punch my tv for even suggesting I watch this crap. So why aren't the movie reviews being tossed on RFC like baloney on a stripper's ass on the Howard Stern show? Well, summer is also the time of vacations. Damn. Paddy, why can't we be like the rest of the blogowonderland and not have places to be and months where escaping the dull glow of the computer screen is the entire point? Well, Paddy is doing just that. Going off the grid. But on his way out he dropped a couple of reviews in my mailbox, so we'll at least have a couple of 2fers this month.

This gives me a good place to venture into my other love. Beer. Now, RFC's mission statement was always to review anything from two perspectives. Well, there's always the comment's section, right Paddy?



Brasserie De Saint Sylvestre
3 Monts Flaners Golden Ale
1 Pint 9,4 FL. OZ.

Purchased: Whole Foods (Cambridgeport, MA)
Price: $8.99

Again, yes, summertime. So! we like to keep the beers on the lighter-side of the beer scale, right?

This beer comes from France and has all the loveliness you want in a summer beer with none of that banana lemon shit that bogs down some of those other summer beers. This big guy has crisp pilsner-like taste that fans of the high life and pbr will enjoy. Poor this one slowly, [on the bottom of the label it says: FERMENTATION HAUTE SPECIALE. I'm not exactly sure if this means it's bottle conditioned, meaning you can store it for a while (I would venture to say it very well might improve with age)] a foamy white head produces quickly that leaves a nice web as the beer goes down. There is an intimidating latch on the top of this beer that pops off when you put your thumbs at the bottom of the latch and push forward.

As with most summer beers there is a bit of lemon in there which gives it a nice fresh flavor to go with the sharpness. Very easy drinking, but there is a good reason it comes in the 1.9.4oz bottle. Don't put a fucking lemon wedge in this. If your beer needs a fucking lemon wedge it isn't a very good beer, is it? Save 'em for the cocktails.

I wasn't expecting this one to be such a great summer beer. Yet, it dominates. I bought this bottle along with a six pack of Ipswich Summer Ale, which I already know is pretty good and discovering that the Brooklyn Summer is good too {the Brooklyn Beer thing will have to wait for another session]. Yet, this one beats them all as well as most of the hefeweizens that are out there.

Ok. Now that we have our beer of choice, let's watch a movie...