Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Little Princess

Hey, wait a minute. A Little PRINCESS? This is a GIRLS movie! What am I doing reviewing a girls movie, you ask? Well, for starters, it's directed by the great Alphonso Cuaron. And for continuers, I have a five-year-old niece that I want to like me. And for finishers, my wife has been trying to get me to watch it for years.

So this perfect storm of circumstance has finally got me to watch A Little Princess, a movie I would never have otherwise thought to see. And you know what? It's a nice little movie.

A Little Princess is about a nice little girl, raised by her loving parents in India. She enjoys telling stories and is told that every little girl is a princess, no matter what their station in life. When her mother dies and her father goes off to fight in WWI, she is sent to a strict boarding house for little girls in New York City. There, she goes about telling her fantastical stories and spreading her princess philosophy to all the other nice little girls, and teaching little lessons to the not-so-nice ones. Then, tragedy strikes, and she is forced to learn the value of hardship and put her princesshood to a test.

Okay, that shouldn't very interesting to me, so I can't imagine that it is for you. But it is actually a very good film. Alfonso Cuaron knows how to make a good movie. Warner Bros. clearly thought they had something special on their hands that wasn't getting the exposure it deserved. The above poster is practically begging us to go see this movie. The cinematography is lovely and rich. There are some neat fantasy sequences showing us the stories the girl tells. They use mid-90's-era CGI, but they use it sparingly and it's very stylized, so the effects still hold up reasonably well.

Initially, I had hoped that my niece would let me interview her about the movie so I could put her thoughts into this review, but she got a sudden case of the shyness, so that put an end to that plan. I can say this, though: it held her attention all the way through, and that's quite a big thing. Also, while we were watching the movie, she would periodically turn to my wife and say, "I really like this movie". So there you have it, that's about as good a review as you can get.

In conclusion: If you are a five-to-ten-year-old girl, and you're reading this blog, you should probably check out Alfonso Cuaron's A Little Princess. If you are a 30-year-old man who likes things with samurai swords and puppets in them, you probably don't need to seek it out unless you

A: have a 5-to-10-year-old girl in your life; a daughter, a niece, an arranged bride, etc.

B: have a wife who loved the book as a kid and makes you watch it and you have no excuse after making her sit through MacGruber.


C: are a huuuuge fan of Alphonso Cuaron, and Children of Men and Y Tu Mama Tambien just aren't doing it for you anymore.

If any of those are you, this movie will not hurt you, but you are in danger... of being charmed. (???)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Captain America

LinkIt's been a long summer of event movies, and at this point, I have to say, I'm kind of sick of them. Event movie fatigue is the summertime equivalent of seasonal affective disorder. Among those event movies (a few of them were pretty good), were many superhero movies. First up was Thor, which I thought was a lot of fun, if maybe a bit brainless. Then came X-Men: First Class, which I thought had some really cool stuff, but maybe turned on the nitpicky part of my brain too much. Then came Green Lantern, which was, frankly, a piece of crap.

And so ends this summer's superhero season, not with a whimper, but with a bang. Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel Studios' second entry of the year, is their strongest entry since the first Iron Man. It manages to break a little from the mold of the superhero origin story, tell a crazy sci-fi WWII period piece, and set up next summer's Avengers movie, all the while never losing track of the characters.

Captain America is Steve Rogers, who starts the movie as a skinny kid from Brooklyn, too sickly to serve in the military. His perseverance and spirit is noticed by Dr. Erskine, a brilliant scientist who has developed a Super Soldier Serum and believes Rogers is the perfect candidate to try it. The serum works, but circumstances follow that Steve can be the only successful subject. Meanwhile, Johann Schmidt, AKA the Red Skull has gotten his hands on the Cosmic Cube, an Asgardian artifact that can power his Nazi war machines indefinitely and turn the tide of the war.

The movie is good-spirited, fun, and full of adventure, reminiscent of the Indiana Jones movies, which is no surprise, since the director is Joe Johnston, who actually worked on the Indiana Jones movie. Johnston is also no stranger to period superhero pieces; he directed The Rocketeer, another well regarded comic book adaptation.

Chris Evans stars as Steve Rogers/Captain America. He plays it with an old-fashioned pure-heartedness that is difficult not to be won over by. He doesn't want to go kill Nazis, he just wants to be of use, do his part. As lucky as he was in getting the Captain America treatment, you get the sense he would have been just as happy getting shipped overseas in his earlier, sickly condition. There's a great moment when he's at a theater watching a morale-boosting movie serial he's starring in with an audience of kids. You see this lovely, complex look on his face that shows a little bit of embarrassment at what he's been put up to, but also some pride that he still gets to serve his country in some small way. Evans pulls that kind of stuff off excellently.

Hugo Weaving is awesome as the evil Red Skull, playing it with a dead-on Werner Herzog impersonation, an absolutely inspired acting choice on his part. Besides Heath Ledger's Joker, he's easily the best villain we've seen in a superhero movie in quite some time. Definitely the best of the Marvel Studios series. It's so fun and easy to hate Nazis, and this guy is a crazy super-Nazi. His army has energy weapons that can disintegrate victims in a burst of blue light.

The cast is rounded out by several more colorful and interesting characters. Stanley Tucci leaves an impact as Dr. Erskine, a good man who gives Steve Rogers a moral compass to guide his actions by. Tommy Lee Jones gets a lot of great one-liners as Cap's commander. Toby Jones plays Red Skull's weaselly mad scientist lackie, Arnim Zola. Not to mention Cap's buddy Bucky Barnes, his unit The Howling Commandos, his love interest Peggy Carter, and Tony Stark's Howard Hughes-esque father, Howard Stark. Everybody in the cast has at least one good moment.

Captain America also is the final building block in Marvel Studios' ambitious plan of setting up The Avengers, and as such, there are crosses and references to the other movies. Howard Stark gets a great intro, mirroring a memorable Tony Stark scene in Iron Man 2. The Red Skull is on a hunt for an Asgardian artifact, referenced months ago in Thor. And if that little teaser after the credits doesn't get you pumped, I don't know what will.

A minor issue, early in the movie, is the special effect of putting Chris Evans' head on a skinny body. Half the time, it looks pretty damn convincing, but the other half, the head tilts in a slightly strange angle, or the shading seems a little wrong. Whatever it is, it was enough to pull me out of the movie a bit whenever my brain picked up on it.

So in conclusion, if you're going to see one superhero movie this summer, then this probably came along too late for you. But if you're not sick of them after three, then Captain America is worth your time, and will certainly wash away the stink Green Lantern left in your mind.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Knack ...and How To Get It

As comic book nerds, most of us think of director Richard Lester as the guy who took over directing Superman II after Richard Donner was fired, and then Superman III, the one with Richard Pryor in it more than Superman. As music nerds, most of us remember Richard Lester as the director of The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night and Help!, two of the greatest and most important rock and roll films of all time. Besides those two distinctly different sets of movies, Richard Lester's talents are not very often recognized, at least in the states.

1965's The Knack ...and How to Get It was Lester at his best, riding high between Beatles films. It won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Though it's based on a play, you can tell that this was the more personal film he got to make after the huge success of A Hard Day's Night.

The Knack ...and How to Get It is a playful exploration of the lives and sexual politics of young people in London in the 60's. It follows Colin, a young schoolteacher in London, who has difficulty talking to women, and opens the movie expressing his sexual frustration by imagining beautiful women lined up outside the bedroom door of his housemate, Tolen, a womanizing drummer who refuses to acknowledge that he has a first name. Timid Colin asks Tolen for help with the ladies. Tolen's philosophy is all about aggression and dominance. Rounding out the trio of guys is Tom, the third lodger in Colin's house, who wears all white, paints everything in the house white, and acts as a neutral third party to all the action. Into their life comes Nancy, a young woman, fresh off the bus to London and looking for the YWCA. Nancy and Colin begin to hit it off, while Tolen uses his mystique to go in for the kill.

Richard Lester brings his signature style from the Beatles movies to The Knack. His scenes are loaded with spirited back-and-forths between the characters, while simultaneously loading his backgrounds with fun little visual gags. Colin addresses the camera, and we sometimes hear the voices of disapproving older people commenting on the action. There's a fantastic sequence where Colin, Tom, and Nancy all go to the dump to get a bigger bed for Colin. They take an old metal bed on wheels and roll it across town, back to his house.

The most fun part of The Knack ...and How To Get It is definitely all the sexual innuendo. Lester mischievously pushes a lot of boundaries, and there are even some jokes in it that I couldn't imagine being deemed appropriate even today. Towards the end, Nancy figures out how to turn the tables on the power play between these two guys, and how she does it is hilarious and even a little bit shocking for our modern sensibilities.

One last thing I noticed: Hey, I think this movie is an influence on one of my favorite directors and frequent namedrop in this blog, Edgar Wright! I was reminded many times in this movie of his TV Show, Spaced (20-somethings in London in the late 90's) and his most recent film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (20-somethings in Toronto in the nows). Wright shares Lester's visual wit, and penchant for layering his scenes with background gags aplenty. Both Wright's and Lester's movies sort of inhabit a zany hyper-reality. Nobody breaks out into kung-fu battles in The Knack, but it wouldn't have felt too out of place if they had, you know?

Update: This came in on Twitter not long after I posted the link to this blog:

I was right! Thanks, Edgar Wright! Love your work!

This movie is a whole lot of fun. If you're a fan of clever comedies and the groovy style of the British Invasion era, like I very much am, you should definitely seek this out. It's currently on Netflix Instant, so get to it!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Oh, boy, I've been waiting a long time to write this review. You see, a few months ago, on our way in to see Paul, we were stopped by a magical man who offered us passes to see a mystery movie the next Saturday afternoon. He was not allowed to tell us what movie it was, just that it was a major release for this summer.

We spent the next week speculating on what movie we would be seeing. Super 8? Not bloody likely. Thor? Coming out too soon. Smurfs? With our luck, probably. Finally Saturday came along. We went into a packed theater, the whole audience was whispering to each other. You could hear rumbles in the audience that it was going to be Harry Potter. Finally, a guy came in with a microphone and confirmed that rumor. The audience erupted into applause.

The test screening went great. The audience went crazy for the movie, despite the incomplete effects, editing, and score. I personally dug the heck out of it. You could tell they were going into this screening with a pretty confident, nearly complete cut of the movie, and they just wanted our opinions for minor tweaks and clarifications.

After the movie was over, we were given survey cards to fill out to rate aspects of the movie and write in comments of what we thought were the strengths and weaknesses. My wife and I were brought to the front row to be part of the focus group to elaborate on their questions. After listening to the group, we wondered which parts of what we said were going to be taken to heart by David Yates and the rest of the filmmakers.

Which brings us to tonight. I held back writing my review for HP7II until I saw the completed version. It seemed unfair to talk about a work in progress, even if I did really like it. Plus, I thought it would make a really fun review if I were able to talk about the ways the movie changed, based on our own response to it.

So, let's get started. The movie was much the movie we saw a few months ago, with completed special effects and a full score instead of temporary music taken from the other films in the series. It was tighter and more focused, and as a result, more enjoyable than the first time. The audience reacted enthusiastically to the completed work, but not as enthusiastically as we did when we found out we were going to be the first audience ever to see it (brag brag brag).

Did the movie change? It did, but not a whole lot. Most of the changes were very minor. All of the ones we noticed reflected issues the audience brought up in the focus group and we had put on our surveys. Spoilers come up ahead. You've been warned.

There were several lines added in ADR while the characters backs were turned that clarified things for the audience. People were confused on what the nature of the Resurrection Stone was, and it was made a bit clearer. There was a montage sequence in Harry's head at the beginning with Voldemort that was also made clearer. I believe the shot of the dark wizard raising his want to Fred or George Weasley (presumably whichever one of them died) was inserted. Lots of little things like that. It was pretty impressively done.

There were four things done that were bigger and more noticeable to me than the rest, all toward the end of the movie, and they are as follows:

1: The scene where Harry looks into the pensieve to see Snape's backstory was changed pretty drastically. Everybody in the focus group wanted more of it, plus there were some clarification issues. Some people thought it was implying that Harry was actually Snape's son. The whole thing was made much clearer, longer and more linear. Snape really deserved this moment after 8 movies, and they took measures to give it to him. Good work, guys!

2: This was my favorite change. They really beefed up the part of my favorite character, Neville Longbottom. He proved to be really popular with the audience in this movie. They didn't add a lot, but he definitely had more screentime, and the scenes he was already there for felt bigger and more significant. They added a line for him about Luna Lovegood that was pretty satisfying. Evidently, he tested so well, that they gave him his own character poster! (See above)

3: When Harry is killed by Voldemort, but comes back, Draco Malfoy's mother checks to see if he's really dead. In the test screening, she wordlessly checks, and then when Voldemort asks, she lies and says he's dead. The audience, myself included, was a little confused by this. Did she think he was dead, or was she lying for no reason? This was clarified in the final cut, with her simply whispering to Harry, "is Draco still alive?" and Harry nodding. They clearly already had the scene shot, and I'm glad they inserted it back in, because it was pretty important.

3: And lastly, the epilogue sequence. Now, personally, I wasn't a fan of the epilogue in the book. Still don't think it was necessary for the movie. I think the way it flat out tells the readers that Harry Potter and friends lived a quiet peaceful life and never went on any more adventures does a disservice to the readers' imaginations. My opinion aside, I knew a lot of people would want to see the epilogue.

The audience laughed at the sight of the Potter kids, 19 years later with no kind of aging done on them, dressed normally. It seemed pretty ridiculous that these kids were supposed to be 37, even though they carried it reasonably well in their mannerisms. Well, I was happy to see that they did some subtle digital aging on everybody, simply adding a couple of those smile wrinkles under their cheeks and maybe a bit on the eyes. They did a pretty good job, considering the disaster it could have been. The audience still chuckled, but it wasn't the same kind of chuckle, a little more with the movie than at it. They also added a shot of an aged-up Draco Malfoy dropping his kids off at the station, which I thought was a nice addition.

So, that's what I noticed. It's been a few months, so there were certainly some things that I missed. Overall, I thought this was an enlightening experience, and a good deal of fun getting a peek at the creative process that goes into making such a major motion picture. I loved the fact that I got to see that our input and opinions really did make an impact on the outcome of the movie, and that it ultimately made it a better viewing experience for everyone.

I would also like to say how much fun it has been watching all these characters grow up over the last decade. It was pretty emotional at times watching everyone wrap up their stories after 8 movies. I don't believe such a complete journey has ever been accomplished in film (mostly) in real time, with the cast (mostly) intact. Let me finish this little review with a fun little fact, demonstrating some of the importance these movies had on my life: I told my girlfriend that I loved her for the first time on the day Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban came out. Since then, we've moved in together, relocated to Chicago, and got married. I've grown up watching these movies as much as those kids did.

Good night, everybody!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Samurai Rebellion

Masaki Kobayashi's Samurai Rebellion is a powerful 1967 film about the spirit of defiance. It stars the great Marlon Japando himself, Toshiro Mifune as the obedient patron of a samurai family, who, through a series of horrible injustices acted upon his family by his lord, is slowly pushed to act out in open rebellion. Like many samurai films of this era, it's a pretty dark story, and, well, these things just don't tend to end well in Japanese stories.

The story is actually pretty dense. As stated above, Mifune plays Isaburo, a low man on the samurai totem pole who has spent his entire life laying low and doing as he's told. He is regarded as a great swordsman, but has always lacked the drive to really stand out. He married his wife out of duty and political convenience, and has thus spent the last 20+ years in a loveless marriage.

His circumstances change when the lord he serves under demands that his son take a girl as his wife. The girl in question is considered damaged goods, as she was a former concubine of the lord, who, after bearing him a son, physically attacked the lord. Isaburo tries to refuse, despite the political repercussions these actions would have on his standing and his family. His son, raised with his father's sense of duty, steps in and volunteers to take the girl as his wife.

Cut forward two years, Isaburo's son and now daughter-in-law have fallen in love and had a daughter of their own. Things are going well, until the lord's own son and heir dies, and the son the girl bore is now his heir. Seen as dishonorable that the heir to the realm does not have a mother, the lord demands the girl back.

Moved by his son and daughter-in-law's love, and the threat of her being taken away, Isaburo is pushed to take a stand, along with the two of them. This tears his family apart, and puts all of their lives in danger, but for the first time in his life, Isaburo feels alive. I don't want to spoil the whole thing, but it gets pretty dark.

Kobayashi's filmmaking is superb, from the very opening scene, pulling focus from Isaburo's sword in the foreground to Isaburo himself in the background (likening him to his weapon), to his first subconscious act of rebellion, walking off the stone path in his yard, and leaving a trail of footprints in the neatly raked zen garden. The tension builds slowly and then bursts at the end with two bloody, fast-paced action sequences. I also loved the flashback-within-a-flashback utilized when Isaburo's son tells him of when his wife told him her side of the whole ordeal with the lord.

As tragic as Samurai Rebellion is, it does end with a little bit of hope for the audience to latch onto, but man, it's a bit of a tough ride getting there. I don't mind downbeat movies once in a while, but generally, I'm a happy ending kind of guy. I certainly couldn't watch movies like this one all the time. That said, I'm glad I saw it. I just wish they would make a movie called something like "Three Happy Samurai on a Sunshine Mission of Love and Blood-Spurting Decapitations" once in a while.

Friday, July 8, 2011


Hey, isn't that poster awesome? Don't you wish movie posters were a little more like that now? I'd love to see a Pixar poster with hand-drawn, more cartoony versions of the characters. In fact, has Pixar done this? Am I forgetting something? It seems like something they would do.

As some of you followers of this blog might know, I'm on a quest to revisit, or visit for the first time (I don't even know which ones I've seen) all of the classic Walt Disney animated films. I started with Fantasia and continued with Sleeping Beauty. And now comes Pinocchio, only the second animated feature ever made. Once again, I'm not sure if I had ever seen it all the way through.

When I was a kid, I remember really not liking this movie, or maybe just the story, or the clips I saw. I think it was the stuff about all the bad boys. Even at a young age, I was a pretty righteous little turd, and couldn't really relate to these rebellious little boys. I didn't really see where the appeal was or where the temptation could be found in what was, in the '30's, "boys will be boys" behavior (obviously to an excess). In fact, looking back, I was much more Jiminy Cricket than I was Pinocchio.

Last year sometime, I caught the second half of Pinocchio on TV and realized, hey, this is pretty awesome. Now that I've finally seen it from beginning to end, I can now confirm that notion. It's a pretty dark and weird film, and the animation is more daring and ambitious than their previous precedent set by Snow White. The story moves forward quickly from one imaginative adventure to the next, balancing the darkness with plenty of well-timed comedy.

I'm sure I don't need to go into the story, but in short: Eccentric toymaker Gepetto wishes upon a star that his puppet boy becomes his son, it comes true, but the blue fairy gives Pinocchio the task of earning his humanity. With Jiminy Cricket as his conscience, Pinocchio gets lost in the huge world outside, and must overcome the temptations and corruption found there.

I Honest John the fox, who acts as Pinocchio's first temptation. He sings the "Hey Diddle Dee Dee" song. Anyway, he's a conniving, greedy, rat of a fox, but as far as that stuff goes, he's pretty low on the totem pole, so he's a little more likeable than say, the fat guy who keeps Pinocchio in a cage, or the coachman who sells him to a child-to-donkey slavery ring.

Speaking of which, there's some pretty disturbing imagery in the Pleasure Island sequence. Those kids transforming into donkeys is pretty intense. And there's that shot of them all huddled together and crying for their moms while the slavedriver looms over them with a whip.

Hey, you know what else surprised me? The nose growing scene. It only happens once! Don't get me wrong, the scene is brilliant. I guess I just thought it was sort of a motif of Pinocchio. It's the part we all know best. If this movie were made now, it would have happened 12 times, including a climactic scene where he uses lying to make his nose grow to save the day.

My favorite sequence in the whole movie is at the end, when Gepetto is eaten by Monstro the whale. Monstro is such a cool design, and probably my favorite animation in the movie is after he sneezes them out and he's chasing them. The look of the torrential rain and the waves splashing off of him is striking. The rain is all done with white lines over the action.

So hey, Pinocchio is another winner. I don't think I was into it as much as Fantasia or Sleeping Beauty, but still very much a masterpiece. The next Disney classic I plan on buying on Blu Ray is Bambi. So little was my childhood interest in Bambi, I don't think I've ever seen it all the way through, and we even had it on VHS. It might be a couple months before I get to it, but I'm looking forward to giving it another shot.

Hey, thanks for reading, everyone! Feel free to leave comments and let me know what you think. I hope you're not getting too bored of this recent string of Japanese movies, kids movies, and Japanese kids movies. It just worked out that way. I'll try to throw in a crappy 80's action movie or something in the near future to mix things up.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Fright Night Part 2

The first Fright Night is one of those movies that I somehow managed to miss out on my entire life, right up to last year sometime. When I finally did see it, I was pretty well blown away by it. It's a funny, well made horror comedy with a great premise, great characters and great creature effects that hold up well to this day. I think it's my second favorite vampire movie behind only Let the Right One In.

Not long after I saw Fright Night, I found out that there was a lesser-known sequel. So lesser known, in fact, that the DVD is incredibly rare, a downright collectors item to horror fans. I was talking about it with a friend of mine at the comic store, and he said he has it. Now, nearly a year later, I finally got the chance to see Fright Night Part 2.

Now, I don't want it to sound like I went into this movie with high expectations. I mean, horror sequels are rarely any good, and there's probably a reason that Fright Night Part 2 is so little known. I know this. But I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little bit excited to see the further adventures of Peter Vincent, Vampire Killer, and Charlie Brewster, Horny Teen as they battle the vampire Evil Ed...

...Which leads me to the first big disappointment: They couldn't get Evil Ed back. He turned the role down. If you've seen the first movie, you know the awesome sequel setup at the end. Well, necessity forced them to forget about it completely. What a missed opportunity! The dude gave such an interesting, weird performance in the first movie.

Instead, the story leaps forward a year or two, with Charlie Brewster away at college. He has a new girlfriend now, a roommate, and he's still in touch with Peter Vincent. But he doesn't believe the events of the first movie ever happened to him. His shrink has convinced him that it was some kind of mass hypnosis or something. Charlie spends much of the movie rationalizing all the weird vampire stuff that happens to him. I kind of hate it when sequels run through circles to reset the characters to where they were in the first one. But you know what? I'll give it a pass, because they actually have some fun with it.

Peter Vincent, the B-Movie star-turned TV host-turned vampire hunter, played brilliantly by Roddy McDowall, returns in the sequel unscathed. They don't reset his character, in fact, the events of the first movie have caused him a whole new set of problems in his life. People think he's cracked, and his show is again in danger. Forget that it was never really explained how he got his canceled show back at the end of the first movie. It's on the verge of cancellation again.

This time, our vampire villain is Regine, the vengeful sister of Jerry the Vampire, killed by Peter Vincent and Charlie in the first film. She comes to town with a whole gang of vampires and a werewolf in tow. She's using her vampiric hypnosis powers to dig her way into Charlie's mind, change him into a vampire, and screw with his friends' and girlfriend's life, much the way Jerry did in the first movie. OK, there are a lot of similarities to the first movie. A lot of retreading, with a few new flavors thrown in.

Regine's gang as pretty awesome in that they're hilariously and unapologetically 1980's. Regine passes herself as an avant garde performance artiste. There's a vampire girl on roller skates, an androgynous looking vampire, that big dude that was in Buffy a few times, and Jon Gries as the werewolf (not the same character he played in Monster Squad, though. I wonder if he worried about being typecast?).

There are a lot of weird and silly moments in Fright Night Part 2. Like when Peter Vincent gets fired from his show and replaced as host by Regine, who then just does a seductive interpretive dance for like five minutes. Really? When is she going to introduce the movie? And how awkward would that introduction have been, if after writhing around and cutting herself she looked at the camera and went "and now back to Ghost of Frankenstein"?

I liked Charlie and Peter Vincent again. William Ragsdale is fun, despite his newly acquired MacGyver Mullet, and Roddy McDowall really seems to appreciate the respect and dignity he's given in the role. Regine doesn't really have the menace and weight that Chris Sarandon brought to the villain role in the first one, but the addition of the gang makes up for that in some ways, I guess. The makeup and effects are about as good as they are in the first film, which is to say, pretty damn good. The showdown at the end is cool, and Peter Vincent, Vampire Killer's method of killing the vampire is actually quite clever.

A big problem I had was they were really unclear about the rules of being a vampire. The first movie very simply established that vampires followed the rules of Dracula. They can turn into wolves, bats, and mist, crosses and holy talismans hurt them, a stake to the heart kills them, etc. In the second one, there's some weird think with roses. And some blanket thing too. I didn't really get it, because it didn't make much sense in the context of the first movie. Why add rules? It was just like when Superman turned the S on his chest into a net and erased Lois Lane's memory with a kiss in Superman 2. Where did the new powers come from? Just stick with what was established!

Overall, Fright Night Part 2 doesn't really live up to the first one, nor should it be expected to. It was kind of doomed from the moment Evil Ed said no. Despite that, it's not irredeemable either, and I had a good time watching it with my friends, and was able to enjoy it as a movie while at the same time laughing at its many foibles. If you like the first movie and get an opportunity to see it, I think it's worth checking out.

And hey, there's a remake of the first movie coming out soon, right? And it looks genuinely cool, I think. Maybe they'll set up a second movie in the same way they did in the original, and maybe it will be a big hit, and we'll get the sequel we all really wanted to see in the first place, right? Maybe?

Friday, July 1, 2011

Good Morning

I feel like we American moviegoers don't see enough of Japan's cinematic gentle side. When we think of Japanese cinema over here, we think of violent Samurai epics, intense, hyper-stylized anime, or men in monster suits pummeling each other over miniature cityscapes. There are, of course, all kinds of movies in Japan; it's just rare that a small, heartwarming domestic comedy finds it's way across the Pacific.

Yasujiro Ozu's 1959 classic, Good Morning, is just that, a gentle satire about communication and the way we all fit together. It follows the day-to-day lives of several families living in a tiny suburban cluster of homes. The wives spend their days gossiping about each other, the husbands fret about their jobs and getting by, and the local boys practice farting on command on the way to and from school.

When I said the living area is tiny, I mean tiny. No room for yards, no driveways, the homes all face each other with nothing but a narrow pathway between them. There is hardly an interior shot in the movie that isn't shot through at least one open doorway, sometimes with more in the frame. With the close proximity, crowded living areas, and paper-thin walls, there's no room for privacy either. The neighbors walk right into each others' houses to talk. One husband mistakenly comes into the wrong house after a night of drinking.

Anyway, the story kicks into gear when one of the families gets a television set, and two of the boys go over to watch sumo wrestling. They decide then and there that they want a TV too. When they ask, their parents say no. When they demand, their parents still say no. When they yell, their parents say no, and be quiet. They then resolve to do just that. Minoru, the older boy, says that adults talk all the time and don't ever say a thing that matters, so he and Isamu, the younger, decide not to speak again until they get that TV.

The two lead boys are excellent. The younger one dresses in the same brown sweater and mimics the older one's every move. I love that little boys loved farting in the 1950's. I had an inkling that that was the case, but you can't find a trace of evidence that people even farted in American movies until, let's see, the earliest movie fart I'd ever heard before this was Blazing Saddles, so let's say 1974?

The movie is loaded with little stories and subplots, all about communication, and sometimes miscommunication. The wives are in a tizzy about a new washing machine that they believe was purchased with stolen dues from the neighborhood group they're in. A pushy salesman won't leave them be. The boys' teacher has a crush on their aunt, and can't express the words for it. Everything and everybody is tied together by life. Ozu expresses this very poetically with an ever-present network of telephone wires in the background. You see them in just about every external shot, crisscrossing the sky.

Another theme of the movie is poking fun at the onset of television. The boys, of course, love it. The father worries that TV is going to create a nation of idiots. This was especially interesting to me, and even prescient, because, in modern times, Japanese culture is probably the most willing in the world to embrace new technologies. The father's hesitance almost marks the end of a generation. Then there's the issue of the boys' insistence that adults make no conversation but meaningless chatter. Isn't that just what the father is trying to prevent by keeping the TV out of the house?

That is the essence of Good Morning. Sometimes more significance can be found in chatter than in meaningful words. Sometimes a world can be communicated by saying nothing at all. Sometimes talking just leads to misunderstandings.

In some ways, Good Morning reminded me of the last movie I reviewed, Summer Wars. Despite also being a hyper-stylized anime, that, too, explored the internal workings of family, and also, mirrored it with a burgeoning new technology. I can't help but wonder if Mamoru Hosoda was in any way influenced by this movie in making his film.

I wholeheartedly recommend Good Morning. It's a nice, simple story with a theme that transcends cultures. I also think it would be a great film to show a class of, say, 10 or 11 year old kids. There's a lot to talk about in it, and it would be a great way to introduce kids to the concept of subtitles, something many Americans grow up way too afraid of. Besides, what 10-year-old doesn't laugh at fart jokes?