Friday, September 5, 2008

The Host

There's a line in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead that says something to the effect of "audiences know what to expect. And that's all they're prepared to believe." That pretty much sums up why I loved this movie.

We know what to expect. We know that when the basketball star misses the final shot at the beginning of the film that he is about to embark on a journey of self discovery which will inevitably end with him making the shot in the end, and winning the big game. No surprises there.

Some screenwriters put in terms of an ending being inevitable, yet surprising. No matter how undeserving or inappropriate their desires we must have each character get what they want in the end. Because we Americans? We love the underdog to win. We NEED the underdog to win.

The Han river is invested with a giant formaldehyde-created sea creature, and when a dad sees his daughter eaten by the creature the family falls into bickering and blaming in their despair. But when the dad gets a crackly phone call from his daughter the next night, the family pulls together to plunder through the quarantined city to find the little girl.

What's so baffling and amazing about this movie is the way Joon-ho Bong manages to find that perfect balance of inevitable and surprising. Pretty much nothing happens the way I expected and yet, it was a very fulfilling experience. I was so aghast by the artful nature of the ending that I realized I was willing to give up some pieces of a cohesive story and enjoy the ambiguity of the situation.

Technically this is a monster movie, but the monster is a side note (and somewhat laughable) to the exploration of one families dynamic. It's a scary movie, but it's not scary. And for me to say that it must mean something. There are cringe-worthy moments, and moments so intense that I practically smothered myself with a pillow in anticipation. But overall the film is so beautiful it's difficult to remember anything else. Be sure to watch it in Korean with English subtitles because the performances of the Korean cast are essential to the experience.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

The first time I saw this it was as a play in Bath. What's that? Yes, that would be in a foreign country. I remember thinking, "wow, that was really good. Entertaining, fun, and smart." The End. I didn't think much else about it.

Then I took a Shakespeare class which whetted my passion for everything Shakespeare. Naturally I couldn't pass up this gem, especially considering I'd already put in my requisite time with Lawrence Olivier and Kenneth Branaugh. I decided that this was the time for some Gary Oldman.

The story follows the narrative of Hamlet, but from the perspective of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet's oldest friends who get caught up in the action and inadvertently betray him. The running joke in Hamlet is that no one can seem to tell them apart, they are constantly correcting themselves but without any guidance from Rosencrantz or Guildenstern.

In this retelling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern know nothing more than the information presented in Hamlet. They are as characters brought to life, having no knowledge beyond their own role in the story. They know they're going to Elsinore, but why? They were requested. They hear Hamlet is their oldest friend and thus fulfill their role for the simple reason that they don't know what else to do. In the context of Hamlet, this not only explains the confusion surrounding their identities (they don't even know which is which) but also makes sense of the way the two friends become pawns of everyone they encounter.

As the two men make their way through the narrative they constantly take the opportunity to stop, and question the metaphysical psychology of their situation. In one particularly funny scene they physically act out a match of "questions" on a tennis court, switching sides for service, and artfully shifting between and game and a natural inquisition.

One famous aspect of Shakespeare's Hamlet is the use of a play within a play to seek out the guilt of Hamlet's uncle Claudius. Naturally, this retelling uses the same technique to foreshadow the fate of the pair, and it could even be argued that we are seeing a play within a play within a play within a play. And that's exactly what makes the film so much fun.

While there are numerous revealing allusions to Shakespeare's Hamlet, there are an equal number of independently amusing moments that will appeal to all audiences. Whether they are Shakespeare scholars or merely fans of clever puns and witty banter.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Elsa & Fred

One of my favorite things about Seattle is the number of independent movie theaters at my disposal. The other day I saw Elsa & Fred at one of these theaters, mainly because it was touted as showing "For One Week Only!" which caught my attention and implied that it must be at least semi-decent. Hooray for the power of suggestion!

Elsa and Fred are elderly widows, living next door to each other in Spain. When Fred moves in Elsa wastes no time praying on his emotions and finagling her way out of paying for the damage she did backing into his daughters car. The film is in Spanish but that is quickly forgotten once you see Elsa threaten a young boy by slicing her throat with her hand. The story is a little jagged in places, jumping between incongruent scenes, but you're so won over with the characters each finding new meaning in their lives that it's easy to overlook.

This is a common theme I've been running into more and more, the idea of elderly people feeling useless, and finding something that gives them a purpose again. It was the central idea of Young @ Heart, (AMAZING btw) and a novel my book club read (The Ladies of Covington Send Their Love.) In this movie it's a much more subtle message (and you know how I love subtlety) and could easily be interpreted for a younger audience as the importance of living life while you've got it. Even though I was the youngest person in the audience by an easy 30 years, it was still an emotional and inspiring experience.

As coincidence would have it, I read a review of this movie by Roger Ebert before I'd ever heard of it, and didn't realize the reference until midway through seeing the movie. I don't really know what to say other than it's incredibly sweet and funny and you should read Ebert's review. I don't think he liked it as much as I did, but I just can't resist old people falling in love and playing in fountains.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Baby Mama

I was resistant to seeing this movie for a long time. Which is why I waited until it got to the dollar theater. I just couldn't bear the thought of watching Tina Fey, who is one of my favorite comedy actors, being subjugated to the strained writing and cheap laughs I was sure the movie was filled with. In my mind the movie became more of a statement of the quality of roles for women in the film industry, particularly for funny women.

Happily, I was wrong. Not that the movie was so much funnier than expected, but because it was so DIFFERENT than I expected. Granted, I was mildly amused throughout the film (Poehler's admonitions of wanting heavy drugs during childbirth actually made me laugh out loud. LOL if you will.) but on the whole the dynamic between the two women was much more interesting.

In many ways I felt this was more of a sweet "buddy" movie rather than a straight comedy. The kind of movie where two people are forced together, and gradually learn to appreciate each other. (Right now the only example that comes to mind is Turner and Hooch but I think you get the idea.) But it had never occurred to me that I've never seen a "buddy movie" involving two women. Suddenly the dynamic changes drastically and the movie manages to balance the natural compassion of these women with the growing frustration in their situation.

All in all, Fey and Poehler do the best they can with the material their given. There were several moments where any fan could imagine a retake with funnier delivery and reaction, so I have to assume that the director is somewhat to blame for the lack of belly-laughs.

Still, there are a few scenes that give you something to smile about later: Fey's boss (Steve Martin) rewarding her good work with 5 minutes of direct eye contact; Fey's mother (Holland Taylor) proclaiming that being 37 and single is an "alternative lifestyle"; and pretty much every scene with Greg Kinnear.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Get Smart

Ok, I'll admit. The real reason I wanted to see this movie was because of the preview where Steve Carell flings the phone receiver at the guy while yelling, "I think you forgot the element of SURPRIIIIIAAAHH." Thankfully, I was not disappointed. I've never seen the original show, but I was pleasantly surprised at how well done this movie was. And yet. Somehow, by a strange combination of factors the movie seems to fall forgettably between being an awful summer trash-fest, and an amazing summer classic.

Maxwell Smart (Carell) is an analyst for the CIA rival Control who dreams of becoming a field agent. And when the identities of every agent becomes comprised Max and Agent 99 are the only ones left to step up. What's great about Max is that he's not entirely incompetent. In fact, he's quite good at his job, he's just a little clumsy and still a bit green. This makes it almost as delightful when he gets it right, as it is when he screws it up. This also makes it possible for Max to be just a funny guy in general. If he's competent then it's so much funnier when he describes the bad guy as having "one of those Easter Island heads."

Whoever cast this movie deserves props because Anne Hathaway and Steve Carell play off of each other perfectly. Somehow they manage to make you feel their individual frustration with each other, all the while secretly recognizing it for foreplay. Even The Rock was great here. Oh, sorry. He's simply Dwayne Johnson now. I've always liked watching him in various roles, but never thought he was that attractive. This movie changed my mind.

As with all secret agent movies, there are moments when you wonder at the hero's logic. Why he would use the cross-bow function on a knife to cut off his cuffs? Who knows and who cares? It's more amusing to watch him accidentally pierce himself.
But even with so many great jokes, and great plot structure, and great pacing, I managed to leave the theater and immediately forget most of the film. It was a good movie, and gave a solid hour and a half of fun. And yet, I have a feeling that in a few years I'll be saying, "Wait, did I see that movie? I think so . . ."

The Happening

I don't like scary movies. Period. But it wasn't until I was sitting in the theater waiting for the show to start that it occurred to me that I was voluntarily going to see a "scary" movie. Maybe it was the influence of M. Night Shyamalan (the Shyamalan effect I call it) but I was actually kind of looking forward to being a little scared.

The story is about a strange occurrence that causes people to temporarily become disorientated, pause mid-step, then take actions to do themselves in. Not sure whether this is a terrorist attack or some strange disease spreading people begin to flee the major cities. Mark Wahlberg and his wife are two of these people. They end up on foot, running from an unknown attacker along with the daughter of Wahlberg's teaching associate.

What this movie lacks is also probably it's strongest point. For the first time Shyamalan doesn't try to catch the audience with an "ah-ha" moment. The source of the event is suggested fairly early on in the film and we gain more information as the story progresses. But by taking away the tension of anticipating a twist, he allows the audience time to ponder on the implications of the event itself. There is very limited information on the event and, without an obvious external trigger, the whole film has a pervasive sense of dread that we can never quite escape from. Even though none of the characters SAY it, you can almost hear their rationale as they realize that they're acting on the best information possible, even though it is limited and will probably lead them to their deaths.

The film ends on a bit of a cliche "everything's better in happy-land now" type note, but given that the whole film we're waiting to find out what happens LATER I think the "content moment followed by suggestion of impending doom" was about the best one could hope for. A lot of people will be disappointed in this film based solely on the fact that it's by Shyamalan. But I think that if you watched it without that qualifier, you might actually enjoy the movie. No it's not The Sixth Sense, but it's a decent movie in it's own right.

Eagle vs. Shark

Any fan of Flight of the Conchords should seriously consider seeing this movie. It stars Jemaine Clement as a socially awkward, revenge seeking, eagle loving, video game champion. Also, he's the romantic lead. Lily (Lauren Horsley) notices Jarrod (Clement) as he comes into the fast food chain she works at for lunch every day. After finagling her way into a costume part of his, the two begin dating and Lily struggles to understand their relationship while helping Jarrod exact revenge on his high school bully.

The best way to describe the tone of this movie is that it's like Napoleon Dynamite, except in a New Zealand kind of way. The one difference is that no one seems to judge Jarrod for his quirks, even the seemingly normal people. Even Lily is herself quite normal, and simply stunning, but you see her admire Jarrod even from the first frame, when we're still not sure what she sees in him.

What this film does beautifully is to distract your attention from any major conflict (the stakes are impossibly low) while all the while subtly hinting that there is something more important going on here. And I'm a big fan of subtlety. Suddenly it becomes a film about the complexity of relationship (romantic and otherwise) and the effort to live up to people's expectations. But it does all this while making you cringe in delight at the earnestness of Lily and Jarrod.

As if that weren't enough, there is one line that adeptly sums up all the aching and frustration simmering below the surface throughout this film: "I want to say two things. One: I'm leaving tomorrow on a bus. Two: That might change."

I can't tell you how much I liked this film. If I were the type of person to inflict an arbitrary rating system on you, this movie would get a full 7 out of 7 eagles. Because they're slightly better than sharks.