Thursday, June 28, 2012

Review: Shion Sono Double Feature

Disclaimer: Previously I have been clear or not if a review will contain spoilers or not. Some do, some don't. This double feature I would like to place this warning that I will be giving away a lot of details to their stories. This is because these films go together even though Noriko's Dinner Table isn't called Suicide Club 2 (Thank the Lord). So there will comparisons and contrasts, and I want to talk about my personal feelings and reactions to elements from these films. These are great films with a unique experience so going in as a blank slate is recommended but not required. With that said read ahead if you wish, otherwise you can't say I didn't warn you.

*Feature 1: Suicide Club

My Edition: Standard definition, fully uncut edition running at 99 minutes and presented in it's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

History: An original story written and directed by Shion Sono. It was produced independently on a budget of roughly $250,000. The basis for the film is Japan's incredibly high suicide rate and the film served as social commentary on the subject. It was a huge commercial hit in Japan and also played at many film festivals where it received similar praise. At the Fant-Asia Film Festival it won an award for being the Most Groundbreaking Film. For it's international releases it was renamed Suicide Club for cultural reasons.

Personal History: I got this film as part of a box set I ordered that also came with 2LDK (An awesome dueling flick!) and Moon Child (A not so good vampire movie, I don't have it anymore). I saw it once when I first got it and then this was my second viewing.

Review: Everyone has their key film they always remember whether they like it or not. Chances are this film left a mark on them in some way. I think it's obvious most people remember the ones that bring them joy. A lit of favorites that never get old (I've got to review UHF one of these days) but some people have their key film that left a scar. One common title I've heard over the years is A Clockwork Orange which makes sense to the squeamish. Usually it's because of a harshly dark tone, extreme content, hell maybe even too gross of humor. I certainly have a long list of films like this because I tend to be interested in films that push the envelope or are taboo, a topic I am currently working on doing a Second Disc episode on since it's one of my favorite film topics. It's strange that I would throw myself into films since they have a strong effect on most people who watch them. I would say I do it because it gives off the same thrill as going into most horror films. People enjoy the shock and scare for the excitement of it. I'm also interested in seeing the new directions film may go to. These directions are not always going to translate into mainstream cinema (i.e. un-simulated sex scenes as opposed to simulated) whereas others will (The gore in 40 year old horror films which were once considered horrific now look silly compared to modern, R-rated horror). I wouldn't say Suicide Club did a lot that translated into mainstream cinema. What it did makes it unique and worthwhile instead of being a film that is similar to a later film that copied it.

I think it's safe to say that this film is not for everyone entirely based on the title. This film has a TON of on screen suicides. I mean A LOT of them. This has more on screen suicides than kills in some slasher films. It gets that crazy. I knew right off the bat this one would be a challenge to get through. Suicide is something not seen in films a lot. Usually when it is it's very tense and emotional involving a main character. Nothing else is quite like this film. In one sense it's a slasher film where the kills are all suicides. It's much more disturbing than typical slashers, though. I should really backtrack because I can't call this a slasher. It's even a little difficult calling it a horror film. Hard to explain, I'll try my best to. The reason why I initially knew it would be tough to get through this one is because of the form of death chosen for the film. Suicide is terribly sad. Okay, death in general is sad but suicide is especially sad. An individual decides for whatever reason to just end their life. Not only is it them who faces their fate in death but it takes a hit on everyone around them as well. Whether you're their parent, spouse, family, friend, or had a crush on said person, when they decide to go the suicide route it's horribly sad. So the fact that this film is based entirely around suicides made it all the more disturbing. Throwing suicide into a film doesn't automatically make it super sad or disturbing, it's the execution as well, as one would expect.

Speaking of execution, I want to get some of my criticisms out of the way to focus on better points of the films. As I stated in the history section of the film this was done on the mega cheap. It was independently put together followed up by taking the film fest route. Usually when a cheap budget is combined with wild stunts the outcome isn't the best. There are certainly plenty of moments when a better effects budget would have helped this film out. I can think of a few deaths that looked pretty poor if not comical. These deaths involved the suicide being jumps off the side of buildings. In one shot we see the body falling, then SPLAT with a blood splatter than would make most American audiences think of the famous yellow jumpsuit sword fighting scene from the first Kill Bill. It does not flow well. I wasn't too worried about realism with this one. I just feel like the approach to it could have been done much better. But again, with realism, I knew anything was possible in a film that had an introduction where 54 high school girls all throw themselves in front of a train and it literally rains blood after they're torn apart. It really takes the viewer out of the experience with the way it's executed. Again I really shouldn't complain too much since it was done independently. I've got to say it's pretty ambitious to take on something as huge as this film gets on such a small budget. It's not without it's flaws of course. And going back to the 54 high school girls... 54? I realize this film is about a stream of unstoppable suicides but... 54? This is how the film starts. Even in a film of this nature it feels awfully excessive. Usually the theme of Asian horror is in it's subtlety but this one took subtlety and switched it with a punch to the face, as if to say "STRAP IN BITCH! YOU'RE IN FOR A WILD RIDE!"

Okay, okay, okay. Yes this film is far from perfect. Out of all of Shion Sono's films I have seen so far this one I had not enjoyed as much as most of his other films. I did leave this one with a very unique reaction the first time around. I found myself haunted by this film. It was a slow burn before it got to the haunting, though. The first scene when the 54 high school girls all collectively throw themselves in front of a train is haunting in thought but not quite execution. Again any time someone simply decides to end their life it feels so sad. Especially when they're full of cheer right before/as they're doing it. Seeing as how I keep on mentioning it I figured I'll show it to you. I have found on youtube the intro to this film. I think it goes without saying view at your own risk:

After that very explosive intro I was fascinated with where the film would possibly go. The first subplot that briefly comes into play right after this is about a couple of nurses and a security guard that all tend to a hospital/clinic (never made fully clear) during the night shift. One of the nurses leaves to grab some food only to take an incredibly long time to get back, causing worry. In the meantime the other nurse mysteriously vanishes. The room she was last seen in has the window open (Wonder what she did?). Eventually the other nurse returns explaining that the nearest shop was closed so she had to go around town to find a different one that was open so late at night. To make a long story short it is heavily implied both of the nurses eventually commit suicide that night but don't show the actual suicides. First impressions on my first viewing were not great. The explosive beginning gave the impression that the film was going to be pretty gory and here we are only minutes later without really showing anything. On top of that it was using cheap tricks as attempts at scares. Cheap tricks like dramatically turning off all the lights. It just didn't flow with the beginning with what was set up. Upon my second viewing after living through night shift (only at a hotel not a clinic) I could feel the sense of fear or minor terror at what's hiding in the night. Being all alone in the middle of the night in the dark, even if that dark is only outside and all the lights inside are on it can be creepy. But I kept wondering where this was going. It felt so cheap, even a bit lame. Okay, maybe not lame. A better word would be disappointing. Things pick up when the investigation starts. One of the most unique aspects to this mystery that they address is how what they're doing aren't technically speaking crimes. Still not cool, but not exactly crimes. It's not homicide.... or is it? A theme that comes up a few times in the investigation is how there's a white bag left at the scene of the suicides. These bags contain a series of stitched together chunks of skin in one long line and rolled up like scotch tape. They figure out there are skins from many different people, possibly connecting them with the mass suicides. This is easily the turning point when things go way creepy and only get creepier. Simply an image of this rolled up bath of skin makes your own skin crawl... take a look.

For me personally there are three key moments in this film that hit me as deep as horror may go. The first is a scene on the roof of a high school. It's what appears to be lunch time or at least a break in the action of the school day. There's a circle of friends who start talking about all the suicides going on. Now I imagine a good deal of those reading this may have for a joking manner talked about "yeah we should totally do that!" but never really meant it or at least not on a serious enough level where you would actually go through with it. Out of nowhere one of the teens yells "we should all kill ourselves!" followed up by cheers with the usual sigh and disgust from one student who clearly thinks it's all stupid in that childish way. They all line up one by one on the edge of the roof continuing to yell "Suicide! Suicide!" it's really disturbing since it's handled so... lightly, almost. As soon as the students begin to fall it takes a far more serious turn on the scene, yet there's still that disturbing nature of the scene lingering. The next scene that gets to me, probably the most, is what I call the suicide montage. It's a slightly slow buildup all leading to kill after kill some of which are in odd situations. What I found the most unsettling about this scene is the context in which most of the suicides happen. There are a couple one would expect to see, a girl sitting next to an over preparing to shove her head in. The other ones are a bit more odd. In a way it's as if these people just up and decided they were gonna kill themselves because they felt like it. One of them happens right in front of a crowd during a comedy show. The other, which I found the most unsettling, was when a mother does it right in front of her own 5-6 year old daughter. The daughter tells her dad she wants a treat so he tells her to ask her mother who is in the kitchen. She goes to ask the mother who is cutting up some veggies. The mother essentially ignores her child as the knife continues to chop up the veggie and onto her hand cutting off her fingers with blood pouring everywhere. Not understanding what's going on exactly the daughter runs bacl to her father in the other room and says to her dad, "Mom is acting weird." The whole montage is accompanied by upbeat music by the fictional band Dessert who is featured in this story. Overall I find this scene the hardest to watch with it's conflicting tones and disturbing nature of the scene. The third of these key scenes isn't as intense but still haunting. To be brief it involves a bad guy stomping a small dog to death while it's stuffed inside a sack.

As you can tell by my frequent use of the word I find this film to be very disturbing. A lot of that I believe comes from it's untraditional style of killing off it's victims. This film is really rough to get through on the first viewing. Since this viewing was only my second I felt a different reaction. Understandably the first time around I had no idea what would happen next. I was not expecting a lot of what happened so it was freaky. Coming from the mouth of someone who adores and immerses himself in horror to have a horror film actually freak himself for once is saying something. This time around it wasn't as intense. I think I even built up my memory of it over the time since I last saw it, making it even freakier than it may have actually been the first time around. A second viewing does a lot of good for finding a lot that wasn't noticeable the first time around. Sadly not all these things were good. I actually this time around found the film to be very confusing. Keep in mind this film is less than 100 minutes long. It is incredible how much was crammed into such a short time span. There were far too many characters and side stories going on all at once for such a short film. It really deserved an additional 30-45 minutes at the very least if it wanted to cram in everything it did. Because of this cramming not many if any of the characters were properly fleshed out. The original cut of the film ran at just over two hours and in the trailer there's a shot from one of those cut scenes. However this was partially an expansion on an affair two characters were having. Characters that didn't need an expansion on their story by the way. Not like some of the more key characters could have used. Also just when it seems like everything was wrapped up another twist was thrown our direction. I do like twists! That's for sure. However this only added onto the pile of confusing elements giving us more questions that weren't answered. This is why there was both a book and a sequel... but more on that in just a bit.

Despite it's flaws and disturbing nature this film is vastly entertaining. I was more immersed into this film than others I've watched recently, even films I hadn't seen before. Much like another great film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, when it's over it doesn't feel like it should be over. It's a 90+ minute film that feels like 45 minutes. I didn't want it to be over when it was over. I would have gladly sat through a version of this that lasted over two hours. I wish it were that way. Good thing there sort of is in the form of a sequel...

*Feature 2: Noriko's Dinner Table

My Edition: Standard definition DVD running uncut at 159 minutes and presented in it's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

History: An original story written and directed by Shion Sono based on the novel Suicide Circle: The Complete Edition which he also wrote. This is the sequel to Suicide Club but the story takes place before, during, and after the events of the first film in an effort to answer questions not answered. The film was released on September 23rd 2006. While not as big of a success as the film that came before it, it still gained a good amount of recognition including winning an award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Replublic. Yet another sequel was planned but is yet to be produced.

Personal History: I saw this once before shortly after seeing Suicide Club. This is my first viewing since. While I've owned Suicide Club for some time now this is a more recent addition to my collection.

Review: Right off the bat I know this sequel is different than most because it doesn't follow it's title with the number 2. This was in fact something the Shion Sono intended to make right from the beginning as as I stated in the history section of this one it's based on a book he wrote that expanded and added to the Suicide Club story. I really wish there was an English translation of the book so I could read it. I will sooner wait for that than try and learn Japanese first. That language is tough. Don't know if I have what it takes to go that far. So as with a few other reviews I've done so far I have not read the source material. After watching this film I felt like I had just read a novel. The film is far from short. Running in at just over 2 1/2 hours it is a lot of movie, just about an hour longer than the film it's a sequel to. I don't mean that comment in a harsh way either. It's a compliment to the way it's put together. The title alone makes it feel novel-like. How often do you see the sequel to a novel called "insert name here 2?" Not very often. They're creative in how they put it together. The author gives it a new title because it's a new story that uses the original as a jumping off point. That's what I like so much from this story right from the beginning. It feels like I'm watching a well put together book. This is also assisted with the use of dividing the film up into chapters which were utilized quite well! I immediately think to another film that split itself up a similar way, Melancholia. But where that film failed this one succeeded. In Melancholia the division of part 1 and 2 of the same film with the same characters and everything was executed in a way where it felt like two totally different films barely connected. The flow between the multiple chapters in Noriko's Dinner Table was nearly seamless. Despite going black for a moment with a title card it keeps on moving.

This brings me to one of my favorite parts of this film. It flows incredibly well. If there's one thing Shion Sono knows well it's flow. Another one of his films I saw shortly after seeing this one, Strange Circus, which was made around the same time as this one as well had a similar feel to it. Beautiful flow. Didn't feel like it's length much like any of his films I've seen so far. I'm sure you still remember how much was going on in Suicide Club. Well this films has a lot going on as well, and I mean A LOT is going on all at once. Since this isn't a traditional sequel it has to introduce some new elements the audience isn't familiar with yet. All the events in this film take place before, during, and after the events of Suicide Club. The characters involved have only a light connection or involvement in the first film as well. So many characters all with rich back stories flashing right before out eyes. As soon as one story is fleshed out in comes another great character with an equally rich back story, or unique I guess I could say. Like a character who was born in a locker at a train station apparently. These stories are executed by following a non-linear timeline jumping from one moment to a previous to the present too a not as far in the past to an eventual event and the list goes on. I wouldn't say this is a timeline similar to Pulp Fiction. It's different than that. For the most part it does follow a straight forward story arc only when extra details are needed there's a quick cut to it and quickly cut back without a break in the action. Even some of the lengthier jumps back in time (or whenever the hell the timeline goes) feels like another cut away and it never forgot about the main story at all. Not only was this accomplished by the film's excellent writing but in it's score, too. The score feels never ending. It's constantly flowing from scene to scene feeling like one long track overall. It's what helps the film become so seamless. Only halfway through a sub plot or new character story will you realize that it flowed so easily into it.

Another one of the positive things of this film is that it helps answer questions that were brought up first in Suicide Club. One of the big elements that the audible is left wondering is if this suicide club everyone keeps mentioning even exists in the sense that it's presented to us. That question is sorta answered in this with yes and no. The main plot of this installment is about a teenage girl who runs away from her piss poor family to Tokyo. She meets another girl who she met in an online chat room. They quickly become friends and her new friend even takes her along with her family almost immediately. They meet with grandparents on all ends almost instantly even. But something feels off about it all. Hard to say at first but it just doesn't feel right. It is soon revealed she was recruited into a job where people of all ages and genders are hires to be family, friends, whatever they want them to be. The job handles people of all types even ones who may be physically and/or emotionally damaging. With this sort of dedication comes lethal consequences. The kick off went of tue first film when the 54 high school girls all throw themselves in front of the train was part of this hiring process. Three girls who had a minor focus in the story were found to be hired for it. This group of people are that dedicated. So technically speaking the suicide club does not exist because these are people hired to do whatever the employer hires them to do, even kill themselves. On the other hand the audience is left to go with their own theory that it may actually exist while not existing at the same time. It doesn't exist as an actual club people join with the intent to kill themselves. However the influence brought up by rumors of the club cause many people to kill themselves anyhow. They believe in what this supposed club promotes. It's as of all these people were killing themselves cause it's a fad.

The overall feel of this film is stronger in it's dramatic elements, not horror. While it isn't a horror film there are still sprinkles of chilling moments simply out of the scene's context. The number one scene that comes to mind is when a girl is hired to play the part of a murder victim by an overly attached boyfriend/lover. The lead up to the scene sends chills down my spine. They're talking of this expected murder as something that's expected of them, exciting, even honorable in a way. Moments before the hired event her and another girl just chit chat acting like it's another day, another job, not thought about how someone is about to DIE! The act begins. The overly attached boyfriend flings the door open, grabs the girl and throws her into the hotel room/apartment (again, not made clear). She is yelled at by the boyfriend and eventually stabbed multiple times in the stomach eventually finding her way on the bed where the stabbing continues. The murder victim's friend this whole time is laying on the bed as if it were something typical on TV on a Sunday afternoon. Afterwords the man who hired his murder victim after the act was done looks like he just got a really good back rub instead of killing someone, but I guess that's how some people react to murder. Again with the calmness of the characters and the calmness of the tone makes it plenty disturbing. Afterwords back at the... company?... the other employees are so excited over her death. They're even excited to get hired for a similar job which eventually leads to the 54 high school girl jump.

While plenty of questions are answered in this film there were still plenty that weren't answered. This may be partially due to the fact that this was second in a planned trilogy. It's been quite some time since this one came out and it was a few years before that when Suicide Club came out. Not sure if that last one will ever happen. Part of me wants it to, part of me doesn't. It could be very underwhelming. I wonder how many things were intentionally left open or left to interpretation in the end. The biggest thing that comes to mind is what happens around the end of Suicide Club. One of the leads in Suicide Club gets drawn into some trouble, almost cult-like group at the end. She does not appear in Noriko's Dinner Table but that's not what I am wondering about. What I'm wondering about is all the talk about being "connected to yourself" and why a young pop group is sending out subliminal messages to their fans to commit suicides. Many things are left vague and unanswered. I like it that way. I wouldn't even say the bad guy was taken down so to say. The protagonists win but the bad guy hasn't been defeated. By the end of these movies there's really no sign of the suicides stopping. Without those answers it leaves the whole "terror is not knowing" element alive. I don't think this was a lazy move, either. Shion Sono is a smart guy and a great writer. He knows the answers to the questions he's brought up. He is choosing not to answer those questions, though.

A great thing about this film is that it can stand on it's own. It is helpful to have seen Suicide Club first but it isn't necessary. It's, it's own thing. Yes it would be true there are parts of it that would be confusing without the prior knowledge. I would actually love it if these films were put together into one big film. Cut out some of the BS that only made it more unnecessarily complicated into one 4+ hour long film. It's hard to say whether or not this is my favorite Shion Sono film. I can't decide if this is my favorite of his or Love Exposure. It's like me deciding whether or not I like The Shining or 2001 more in the realm of Kubrick films. None the less I can consider this to be one of my favorites. I cannot stop singing it's praises. Also it's length is something that does not bother me at all. At 2 1/2 hours, much like the first installment, it does not feel like it's length. It's not even that it flies by. It gets the viewer so immersed into it they just don't want it to end. I wish this story could keep on going. I wish I knew Japanese so I could read the book that eventually became this film.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Review: 300

Version I Watched: High definition blu-ray.

History: An adaptation from the graphic novel created by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, and directed by Zack Snyder. The film is very heavy with special effects and specialized costumes. So while it only took 60 days to shoot the film there was at least two months of pre-production and then post-production took almost a year. Every shot an scene with the exception of one was shot in front of a green or blue screen so the film could get it's signature style down right. It was a massive hit theatrically bringing in a total of $456 million worldwide, making leaps and bounds over their original estimated budget of $65 million.
My Personal History: This was the first full length feature I saw on the IMAX screen. Before this all I saw were the short educational documentaries through class outings and other vacations. This is also one of the first blu-ray films I ever bought. I have seen this multiple times since buying it and it was easily one of my favorite films the year it came out.
Review: I want to get this out of the way before continuing. I get that this is not based on history. It's based on a graphic novel which was inspired by a historical event when a very small group of Spartan soldiers defended Sparta against a large group of Persians many many MANY years ago. The graphic novel took a different spin on the history and became it's own thing. So to put it very simply I am not comparing this in terms of historical accuracy as nobody should. At the same time I am not comparing it to the graphic novel. It's hard for me to because I only had minor exposure to it in the past. Although I feel as if I should. The film has been noted as being a shot for shot recreation of the graphic novel. I do admire this ambition on a project keeping it close to it's source material. But then comes the irony of a film being too accurate in comparison to it's source material. A strange criticism that I heard a few times for Watchmen a few years after this one came out. So it's easy for me to assume that it is close to the original source material after what I've read about the shot for shot reproduction into a film format. This brings me to my first criticism. The problem with being too close to the source material is it brings over all the things that only work in the original medium it started with. There are things that only work with books, only with film, only with comics, only with TV, etc etc etc. As a whole and on the technical side this is a well put together film which I'll expand upon in a little bit. However in order to stick with the shot for shot idea causes a poor transition and execution in the visual choices made. What this comes down to is some of the editing. There are a few key moments that I felt were poorly put together because of wanting to stick to this. These moments are things like a soldier flying through the air, swinging his sword down, and then awkwardly cutting to a sliced off arm heading in a strange direction one wouldn't guess based on the way it was sliced off. This was the same for a similar moment later on during a decapitation. It just comes off as really poorly put together, momentarily taking the viewer out of the moment wondering what just happened. This is me being really picky about what's only a few specific shots in a nearly 2 hour film.
What does make this film great is it's action and it's technical execution. I think we all can agree that we all watched this film for it's intense, fast paced action sequences. That's what's so great about this one. There is a ton of action with minimal dramatic sequences between the setup and going back to Sparta to see what's happening politically during the battles. With every battle it feels like the next one is trying to top the last one which is pretty excellent. Even as early as the first big battle when the Spartans create their wall of soldiers defending against an army way bigger than their own was excellent and exciting to watch. Here's hundreds of enemies coming all at once yet none of them can seem to kill a single Spartan. Yet all the Spartans are able to destroy the enemy one jab at a time creating a pile of corpses at their feet like it was nothing at all. Not only that but these guys look good doing it. I am as straight as an arrow but I can still say totally heterosexually that these guys looked beefy great. This is what someone would imagine these characters look like if all they heard was the story without seeing it. This is one of the most powerful small armies in history so one would expect to be in far better shape and filled with more power than any foe they face. The hard work and effort all the fighters put into their pre-shooting workout routine paid off big time. Those expectations are fulfilled from that imaginary sense with an enhanced assistance from an actually well done, well placed narration.
As I keep stating over and over this is not actual history, it's fantasy history. One may even call this mythology. As a big fan of Greek and Roman mythology usually when I read or hear those stories I let my imagination go wild with the details and fantastic tales that go throughout it. What tends to happen in these tales of mythology is it could and usually is based on something that really happened only over time the details were exaggerated. So when Xerxes comes to King Leonidas offering him anything he wants as long as he kneels before him, he comes in on a throne that's the size of a small apartment. Carrying that throne is a couple hundred men directly beneath it. It's exactly what I would imagine that detail to look like after hearing it from and old Greek whose had the story passed down from many generations. This is also true for the brief moment when it rains arrows as well as the size of the army the Spartans face. The idea of such a small group of men facing off such a huge army tends to be a thing heard in legend. These details help make the narration of the film actually worth while. Those who are familiar with some of my opinions may know I do not care for narration in general. I feel it insults in the intelligence of the audience who apparently has to be told exactly what's happening on screen. This on the other hand is exactly the way the story should be told. A story of legends battling the world's worst evils there are. It makes it very exciting to listen to. The visuals help assist this. When using your imagination it's not always a realistic image that comes to mind. It tends to be heightened or with a distinct style depending on your imagination. What I felt the computer generated imagery did for this film was very complimentary. Not to mention it stayed consistent. It didn't use CG against a real world, on location setting and used CG when necessary. What this did was create an entire world with a distinct tone, feel, and hell even color to the world. It decided what it was and stuck with it. It's use of CG was really well done and didn't feel as fake because of this consistency.
So it's pretty safe to say I really like this movie. I do like this because of the intense action and it's comic book style. Very fun, exciting, action packed. That's not to say it's without it's flaws. I don't usually take too much of a close look into these things when watching it mostly because I try and avoid those flaws for the mindless action. Sometimes it's good just to be entertained and this is one of those. With that said I have two main complaints for this one. The first is ironically some of the tech in the film. While the visual style and editing is really well put together. There are some very noticeable moments of poorly done tech work. The first that comes to mind is the slow down/speed up style of editing. Now slow motion looks awesome. It's dramatic, intense, gives the right feel for a powerful situation. Keeps a focus on the scene and raises the tension in a situation. Now I get the idea of slowing down an action packed moment only to speed it back up to say normal speed making said action in the action sequence seem like a harder hit than it really is. What 300 did that didn't quite work is it went from half normal speed to twice the normal speed really rapidly. Instead of making the hit more intense it makes the film look sloppy. This wouldn't be as big of an issue if it were only a couple times it was done, but with Snyder's trigger finger on his editing style he went pretty nuts putting it in spots that was unnecessary. Slow down looks cool, speed up looks like Benny Hill. On a similar level some of the after effects used in this were also really sloppy. I realize this is a comic book movie but that does excuse the poor, poor looking blood splats that come out of the wounds inflicted. The blood splatter tends to look very 2D as if it isn't really there. Not to mention one of the other moments I felt was poorly put together was the scene with the rhino attack. When the rhino is charging ahead it's taking out soldiers along the way. However the execution on them flying away is pretty bad. What was probably used for this were wires that were eventually removed obviously to make it appear they are flying through the air. The big thing that makes it look bad is when the rhino swings at them sending them into the sky it doesn't even look like it's making contact, and delayed, it just looks really poorly done.
My other complaint is in the story department. Lucky for those who came for the action are given a film where it knows what it is technologically and stylistically speaking and stays consistent to that. However when it comes to the overall story it doesn't quite cut the mustard. One of my biggest annoyances with action films is when they try really hard to incorporate a bunch of story which keeps them FROM THE ACTION! I paid my money to see some of the good old ultra violence. I am not interested in hearing about the politics of the city at the time, mostly because this is FANTASY HISTORY! It makes sense to have story at the beginning to set up the reason they're at war and of course to show King Leonidas' origin story (which makes him even more badass) but every time they cut away from the action to sit in on the equivalent of anything C-SPAN broadcasts any time of the day puts a bore to the film only wanting the audience to get back to the action. On top of that this film takes itself a bit too seriously in it's dramatic sequences. With a film that has the creatures for enemies it does, the way Xerxes is presented, and the stunts they pull making it worth it's title of fantasy history and then go over to delivering it's serious story in such a straight face does not fill the overall feel that well. Stick primarily to the action, please! If I wanted a serious dramatic piece I have plenty of other options I would enjoy far better.
Overall this is very fun and I love putting it in for some cool, fast paced action. This is definitely a popcorn flick at it's core and I don't really see it as anything other than that. The style is great and looks cool. I also have three key images in this film I enjoy quite a bit specifically for their artistic looking style. The first is when King Leonidas returns from his exile in his origin story. Upon his return the city bows down to him. The image is shot from a portrait angle with the snow falling down. It's beautifully put together and I can imagine seeing a similar image as a painting one would find in a museum filled with ancient art. The other that's similar to this is shortly after it when the Persians first arrive in Sparta. The Persian messenger comes to the gates of Sparta holding a batch of skulls in his hand while his horse pulls it front hooves up in the air. It's looks beautiful and quite similar to the image I mentioned before it. The last is the same idea only a different visual perspective. It's the image toward the end after the Spartan army was defeated. It starts with a closeup on King Leonidas dead. The camera slowly pulls back showing body after body of the defeated army. This is my favorite image of the film and it looked especially good on the IMAX screen when I first saw this. It truly looks like a work of art.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Review: Away We Go


Version I Watched: Standard definition DVD.

Starring: John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, and Allison Janney

History: An original story written by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida and directed by Sam Mendes. The film was produced with a budget of $17 million but only wound up getting a return of just under $15 million in the end, technically calling this film a flop. However it was released on limited screens. The film received a lot of positive response from the critics mostly pertaining to John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph's performances as well as the change of pace for a Sam Mendes film, who previously did mostly films with a much more gloomy tone to them.

My Personal History: I remember when this hit a few years ago never really knowing what it was about, only knowing the critics loved it. This is my first viewing.

Review: Do you know what the difference between an indie film and an independent film is? It may seem like I'm talking about the same thing but I'm not. Indie is a term that came from the 90s and were films by nobodies for next to nothing, see El Mariachi, Slacker, or Clerks. Independent tends to still be made independently but doesn't have the same style and production value as indie. Independent tends to have a strong case of starring or directed by people who already have an established career (And this is the only prescription). Then of course there are films that may try to establish this style that indie or independent films have. This tends to be a very solemn style, quirky, depressing, totally serious, totally funny but not in an outrageous manner, very "real", pretty much any combination of those styles among other things. Taking all that into consideration a film that is either indie, independent, or shares a common theme or style with indie or independent either comes out completely and utterly depressing or in the form of a comedy-drama, or dramedy. Dramedy is a genre I have very mixed feelings about. I don't know about you but I like my genres to be consistent. If it's a comedy I want to leave laughing, action I want to feel excited, horror I want to be scare, etc etc etc. So in a dramedy I feel the tone either changes too much or at the worst times because it has an excuse to almost, or feels it is allowed. So either dramedy is a genre that is incredibly inconsistent and unrealistic or the most realistic genre that reflects real life. Real life is incredibly inconsistent. No matter who you talk to I'm sure they could share with you a moment that is shared as the most horrifying, hilarious, romantic, saddest, etc, moment in their life and it all happened over the course of maybe one conversation. Things change quick so expecting a genre to stay consistent is almost selfish of me to ask from it.

Away We Go is a prime example of a dramedy that fulfills what I was describing in my last paragraph. It's a low budget film that gives off an independent film vibe. It was released by Focus Features which is a pretty pretentious company but they did release Burn After Reading so I won't pick on them too much. First I want you to take a quick look at the poster design for this film. Does this remind you of anything? Maybe similar a design to, oh, Napoleon Dynamite? The Juno blu-ray cover art? What type of films are those? Quirky, solemn, and have a soundtrack that would make Zach Braff proud. I know it's not right to judge a book by it's cover but this one was easy to judge by it's cover. I knew exactly what I was getting into and believe it or not I was correct. Aside from the very familiar independent style of this film I did also know how it considered to be a very sweet and enduring film. I still was thinking how it would include some super serious and probably super depressing scenes like dramedies tend to do, yet I was at least anticipating a good relationship as well between the leads. And it turns out there was a lot I was right about, not that it was too hard to predict. The most notably by the average viewer would be the soundtrack. Nothing but acoustic guitars and really soft singing. At it's core nothing wrong with this soundtrack. It's just how much it's been used makes it feel pretty unoriginal. Then again what is original these days? So as a dramedy I'm anticipating a lot of drama and a lot of comedy.

The film's drama is rooted in this couple who gets pregnant. They don't have a lot of money it seems and they're trying to find just the right place for them to start their lives with their little bun in the oven. The comedy aspect is very rooted in the bizarre characters they run into along the way in their travels. These certainly aren't strangers cause it's family and friends they run into along the way. The main problem I have is with their execution of the comedy. It's not that it's not funny. I did find myself laughing quite a bit. The problem I had with it is that the comedy seems to rely solely on the awkward and weird nature of the people causing the awkward humor. Again, this isn't my problem with it. My problem with it is the perspective of the main characters is "Everyone else around us are so weird! Good thing we're not that weird." The feel of it was so full of itself and one sided it was really distracting. And the worst part of that is that the characters they run into are either so horrible or obscure that any person I've met wouldn't be able to stand or put up with a lot of the crap these characters pull. The first pair they run into are Burt's (John Krasinski) parents. At first I was really off put when their first "better than everyone else" reaction was at the dinner table. It's made clear that his parents are religious. So at the dinner table they, understandably, say grace before they eat. While they have their eyes closed and are praying we are graced with a shot of Burt and Verona (Maya Rudolph) staring at them as if they're drinking their own piss. I was really hoping they wouldn't continue with the obvious view the film has on religion and I am lucky this was the only instance. After that what happens really does frustrate the audience but still makes them laugh at the obscurity of the situation. Burt's parents have been planning on temporarily living in Belgium for many years and it's now the time they can do it. Burt and Verona find out they are planning on leaving a month before the baby is due and they'll be gone for two years. If I was Burt I would be furious at my parents. I also must say the way the parents act out the scene is pretty hilarious with their excitement at the situation. There are two other awkward experiences and one more dramatic experience involving Burt's brother that create chapters to the story all of which seem to try and top the one before it (With the exception of the last one, it's super serious).

It may be hard to say based on what I've said so far if I even enjoyed this film. I really did for what it's worth. As much as I have an issue with the way the comedy was pulled off I still found it to be very funny. This was helped by it's great performances by it's grab bag of decent to pretty good actors. The notable list of actors that appear in this film include Catherine O'Hara, Jeff Daniels, Allison Janney (or Juno's step mom as I like to call her), Jim Gaffigan, and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Everyone brought their A-game with each of them bringing something to the table that we may not normally see. One of the supporting actors that especially stands out is Jim Gaffigan. I mostly state that because I had not realized it was him while I was watching. I'm reminded of a "similar" performance by Mike Myers in Inglourious Basterds, that was mostly due to the make up yet at the same time his performance was enough to make me not realize it was him. A transformation and not realizing who is playing the role is enough to grab my attention and what I see as some of the best performances out there. Another example is damn near anything Daniel Day-Lewis has done. As for the leads I had a similar reaction to their performances. It wasn't quite a transformation yet their range and variety based on what they've done before this was notable. Between John and Maya it was Maya who stood out the most. Usually when a wild, wacky comedic performer moves over to drama it's not always the smoothest transition. The most notable work I've seen her in before this was SNL, Bridesmaids, and Idiocracy, all of which are pretty wild and silly in their style and execution. Away We Go was a far different story than any of those were. Maya was still very funny in this film just not in the same way. It was a far more down to earth funny and character she brought to the table, making her a very likable character. John on the other hand, while still did a great job, didn't quite make as much of an impact. When an actor is on a TV show for many years and suddenly they're in something totally different it's really difficult to see them as anything other than said famous character. To the twenty or so people who may not recognize him he is one of the leads in The Office. The nice thing about this performance even though it was similar execution it was at least a more mature performance overall.

I guess when it comes down to it the biggest issue I have with this film is it's writing. It really just wasn't grabbing me by the story line. I can't say I really felt like I was along on a journey with a young couple trying to find a home for their future child. As I stated in the last paragraph their performances drew me in. The writing, not so much. Just felt like it was a case of a series of events rolled together into a movie without too much of a satisfactory outcome. Outside of the awkward characters who were put there for nothing other than the laughs I thought elements of this story were very unbelievable. We're given the impression that these two are living on next to nothing a day. We're given examples how rough they have it at home where their power can blow out so easily leaving them to sleep in an icebox the rest of the night. They hardly have any money. Then why or how are they going on all these trips to all these different parts of the country? And they're not driving, they're flying. Flying isn't cheap! I cannot conceive how they are able to afford all these things when the idea of how poor they are has already been written in stone into our minds. Not only that but when they decide to meet up with Burt's brother it wasn't even in their original list of places to go. It was spontaneous. It just drives me nuts that they expect the audience to believe they can barely afford heat yet they travel all around the country, flying no doubt, with no problem at all.

Another thing I did with this film mentally was having fun by extending it's story. I remember when I first saw The Last Kiss I sorta looked at it as a spiritual sequel to Garden State. Same actor utilizing a similar but different enough performance in a story that could logically reach where it was by going through the events of Garden State first. This comparison goes along with my thoughts on not being able to get John's character from the office out of my head. I thought it would be funny if this was somewhat a spiritual sequel to The Office, but with some switching around. First our story would begin right at the end of the fourth season. The Dunder Miflin Paper Company hit hard times only to inevitably close down after losing so much business. Everyone lost their jobs. Jim and Pam's life becomes far more stressful because of this. Jim still intends on getting married to Pam but she is skeptical, not feeling comfortable starting a life off together without jobs and continuing to lose money. Sadly this causes tension between the two. They break up. Jim moves away finding a job with the insurance company he has in the film I'm reviewing. After working so hard to get together with Pam this causes him to be depressed so he doesn't date for a really long time. This causes a change in character. He still has the sense of humor he had before only now he's more exhausted from the tough times he's had in life so he has really calmed down. Eventually he meets Verona, they start dating, and cue the story for Away We Go.
Not meant to be taken seriously but a fun idea to think about.