Monday, July 30, 2007

Chad Betz Review of Paprika


As an explosion of dream imagery, Paprika wows. As a cogent narrative, it amounts to about as much as most other "important" Japanese animated films -- inscrutable plot machinations developing towards a cosmic battle between absolute good and absolute evil. Expect a lot of talk about existence in the positive and the negatory, and frogs banging on drums.

Paprika is one of a long line of modern Japanese films that overcompensate for their society's past repression of women by imbuing the heroine with god-like power and ultimate purity. The titular character is half-Kiki, half-Virgin Mary; she is cutesy and mythically well-endowed, pseudo-climactically canceling out the film's pitch-black antagonist through a metaphysical sort of confrontation that's beyond absurd, a Godzilla vs. Mothra staging that's basically a blow-up of what happens when particles of matter and anti-matter make contact. The film, however, also couches this confrontation in terms of woman being the answer to man. And, as a man, I have to ask: are we really that bad? I admire Paprika's attempts to deepen its text with psychology, but psychology is a complex tangle of gray areas, and when most of the film's primary characters end up reductively yin and yang, inner drama is lost to showy theatrics. And a big naked girl swallowing a big naked man-shadow.

Make no mistake, though, this is some of the most captivating animated imagery this side of Miyazaki. Even rivals Miyazaki, and with its adult rating and more oblique ambitions, occasionally marries Miyazaki with Murakami. It's unfortunate that the whole's not more nuanced, that the characters are too conceptual, and that half the time you're wondering what the four-letter-word is going on.

-Chad Betz
Guest Reviewer

Sunday, July 29, 2007


All hail, Danny Boyle! May he reign for as long as he lives!

Sunshine finds a way to make space beautiful and terrifying at the same time. Out in the middle of God's creation seperated from home. When things go wrong (and they do) you're on your own. On your own to save the world. From a solar winter. During which little kids wear winter coats and make snowmen. The latter being the vision of the terrible world a dying star has made. It's hardly what I expected to see after all the hub bub in space. It seemed much worse up there - losing oxygen, fires, decoupled airlocks, faulty sun shields, and what have you. That's where the real danger is.

There's lots of beauty in the film. Even when the film starts to race near the end to build toward its dramatic finale, it finds time to flash pictures of space, the sun, and the scientists trying to survive both.

The film was primarily story driven. There's so much going on in Sunshine that it is difficult at first to get more than a surface introduction to the film's characters and their personalities. Certain actors get chances to shine (pun intended), slowly building their characters as the action builds along side them. Cliff Curtis (Three Kings, Bringing Out the Dead), Chris Evans (Fantastic Four franchise, Not Another Teen Movie, Cellular), Rose Byrne (28 Weeks Later, Troy), and Cillian Murphy (hail him while you're at it) all get their time in the sun (pun intended). I expect good things from Curtis and Murphy, but I was pleasantly surprised by Evans and Byrne. Each of these two performers have been likable enough in the past without actually standing out among their peers. But they're good in Sunshine. Evans is macho, but bears the weight of the seriousness of his crew's task and is forced to voice his unpopular opinions in order to keep them blind to all else but that all-important mission: re-ignite the dying sun. Byrne gets to play the sweet natured scientist perhaps too human to save humanity.

And well, Murphy...he can't seem to help but turn in wonderful performance after performance after performance. He's always interesting, always stretching while appearing to be moving effortlessly through his characters' facial expressions (those eyes!). But what really gets me every time is his voice, how he can turn a line over with his tongue to inject all sorts of subtlety and emotion into his words. He also has what many actors and actresses would kill for: screen presence. When he is on screen, I am watching him. There's a lot going on in the film, lots of interesting developments along the journey to the sun, but I was never more interested as when Cillian was on screen acting. It's more than charisma. I think Evans has that. It's a magnetism that can only be observed without truly being explained.

After all that gushing, I must reinterate that the stars of the film are actually the story and the visuals. They pack a punch. Alex Garland, the screenwriter, knows how to plot a suspense movie. He also knows how to have characters spout out science jargon and make it sound real, credible, and utterly of the moment. There's a lot of mumbo jumbo, but I was never lost.

And those visuals! Near the beginning of the film a character talks about how darkness is the lack of everything, it is nothing. But the beauty of the light is that it fills that seemingly endless space. It washes over nothing and creates something. I heard the words and I liked them, but the filmmakers went further and greater and kept showing me time again how exciting and scary that creation is.

I drove to Cleveland to see the film and I am fully prepared to drive back to see it a second time. For those interested, Cedar Lee is a neat little theater in Cleveland Heights that shows indie movies year round.

I recommend ending your pre-viewing experience here. Don't read anymore reviews, feature articles or interviews, or those great trailers off of They're all great, but Danny Boyle gives away too much when he speaks about the movie and the trailer gives away key plot points all the way into the third act of the film.
Be safe. Watch the movie first. Protect your viewing experience. The power is yours!


Thursday, July 26, 2007

Milwaukee, Minnesota

I picked up this independent film from the library mostly because Troy Garity is in it. I wanted to get a sense of the actor before I saw his performance in Sunshine this weekend. I had low expectations, and the small movie failed to reach them.

The film follows a mentally challenged man as he sifts through lies and truths after his mother dies and two sets of people go after his championship fishing winnings after his controlling mother is killed. It's an interesting premise, but I wasn't aware of this information until I had already started watching the film. I became wary of the possibility for an awkward performance from Garity. After all, it can be a very thin line between authenticity and condescension. Luckily, Garity delivers the strongest performance in the film. Too bad everybody else fails miserably at feining believabilty.

Case in point: Allison Folland as one of the people trying to con Garity's character out of his money. She is always too much - too venomous, too vulnerable, too too. Her performance never stays on any level of authenticity, but rather punches every line and snarl 'til it's dead. She really bothered me. Same goes for her character's brother played by Hank Harris.

The film also has two Academy Award nominees among its ranks. Randy Quaid and Bruce Dern plod through the movie like shaky charactures masquarading as characters you cannot believe as people in that place, time, and situation.

There is an awkwardness to the script that leads me to believe the writer, Richard Murphy spent all his time plotting and no time thinking through dialogue that could naturally flow from well-developed characters.

There is a twist that got me. Like most good twists, the writer and director present you with the necessary information to predict the outcome but disguise it with a lack of importance placed on the deciding details earlier in the script. The old switcheroo always gets me, and it really never should.

I do love the final shot as well. Color against a dull white canvas.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Bourne Identity

If you spend some time looking over the reviews for The Bourne Identity on, you'll find a lot of talk about how smart it is. I won't deny that. You'll also read about critics calling it a throw back to older spy and action films. That I cannot comment on, mainly because almost all of the genre that I have seen has been of a fairly recent nature. I do wish that these critics wrote about how much fun the movie is. It contains some of the coolest action scenes in recent memory including a car chase that has long been one of my favorites (I'd probably say that the 18+ minute car chase extravangaza in The Matrix: Reloaded is my favorite. Fun = kung fu fight on movie semi truck.). The scene in the field at the farmhouse has always got my heart beat moving faster. I am barely able to restrained myself from pumping my fist into the air The Breakfast Club style. There's also a little awesome meter blowout in the stairwell scene near the end.

But that's not all. It is well made. The cinematography is swell. Doug Liman knows how to put an action scene together. The script is tight, although the brevity and subtlety in the dialogue definitely improves in Tony Gilroy's script for The Bourne Supremacy. The acting is good not great. Franke Potente has some wonderfully subtle looks where you can see the gears in her head turning. Matt Damon is not nearly as subtle, but the intensity in Bourne's resolve and practiced assassin moves is palpable. I also love a movie where Chris Cooper gets to act grumpy and weathered (for lack of a better word). The guy's a pro. Even though it's a fairly straight forward character and performance, Cooper rules.

The inclusion of a beautiful stranger oddly attracted to the mystery and action of Bourne's life is a nice move. I couldn't necessarily understand why in the world she wanted to go through all that even when given opportunities to get out, except that perhaps getting out meant getting back to an aimless life always moving and passing through. I think she reveled in the opportunity to latch onto something or someone interesting and exciting and dangerous. She was smitten.

There are themes of finding yourself and facing the ghosts in your past. Neither is whispered. These themes are obvious and often voiced directly. The film likes to spell out its conflicts. That is not surprising for the genre. Even though the film has a bit of a twist near the end when we find out how Bourne ended up in the water where the fishing boar found him, the surprise in minimal. The genuine pleasure of those scenes is seeing how Bourne responds to his revelations about his past. The constant longing for memories and clarity soon becomes a tight rope walk where Bourne could fall if he keeps learning about his checkered past. He wants to know more, but he's scared it'll keep turning up dark.

In the special features on The Bourne Files recent DVD collection, the makers of the film keep saying that Bourne is a special kind of hero because he is human, but they keep showing clips of him doing superhuman feats. If Bourne was as human as I was, I am not sure I would get as excited about the film. Bourne is certainly not ordinary. As common as amnesia is in movies and TV, I don't read about it too often in the newspaper or see feature stories about those suffering about it on the evening news. It is a sensational character affliction that instantly adds mystery and drama to any genre. But it's an unusual occurence in real life, so the inclusion of it already raises the stakes and reality of the film. It's not normal. Bourne is not normal. Sure, the guy's human. He regrets things he's done. I imagine the entire human race can relate to that. But he can also memorize maps, shoot a gun like nobody's business, drive like a messy pro, drop an enemy with quick moves from a Bruce Lee film, and make split sceond decisions where the ordinary person would be crippled with panic. I like that kind of guy. I want to watch that kind of guy. In an action film anyways.

There was also a lot of talk when the second movie came out that the sequel had surpassed its predecessor, but I think it's really subjective to the viewer rather than a tangible fact. If you like slicker flicks, The Bourne Identity is probably the one for you. If you like gritty, handheld flicks, The Bourne Supremacy is probably your favorite cup of tea. Or you could be like me and have great difficulty in choosing one over the other.


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Fail Safe (2000)

I imagine that the LIVE factor of the broadcast was meant to add excitement and gain viewers who were eager to see if their favorite stars would mess up right before their eyes. It didn't work. Even with a premise that lends itself to great human drama and emotion, the film is lifeless. Exposition early in the film is necessary but dull and awkward. The film incorporates interesting camera work, providing a technical acheivement for a LIVE telecast. But remarkable technical achievements can't save the actors from muddling through their lines. Wonderful actors like Don Cheadle, Harvey Keitel, and James Cromwell among others don't seem to take well to the confines of LIVE television. Particularly Keitel has trouble making his lines feel alive and of the moment.

The story is interesting enough. I could use a little less of the right-on-the-nose dialogue explaining the situation over and over. Subtlety is thrown to the wolves. Emotion would have been welcome, but it is largely absent from the production. I must admit that I was bored for most of the film's duration.


Monday, July 23, 2007

Danny Boyle Interview on recently posted this round table interview with the 28 Days Later, Trainspotting, The Beach, and Shallow Grave director, Danny Boyle. The subject is mostly his new movie Sunshine with some SPOILERS included that you have to skip over.

The Lives of Others

This film was a nice surprise. Sure, it won the Best Foreign Film Oscar over Pan's Labyrinth last year, but I didn't really know what to expect. I hadn't read much about it prior to seeing it, so I was a clean slate ready for a fresh cinematic experience.

The film hinges on the motives of Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), a German Democratic Republic interrogator/sound spy (for better lack of a description) who becomes entralled and intimately involved in the lives of two artists in 1980's East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. His motives are never really clear, and they change quickly and dramatically early into his observations in the room at the top of the artists' apartment building. Wiesler appears to be a hardened Socialist with little concern for the lives his interrogations and reports of his observations ruin. The film lets us know he's lonely when he asks a prostitute whose services he has just received to stay longer with him. He appears to be vulnerable for the first time, and soon he proves to be suceptible to the passion and love of the man and woman he is supposed to ruin. The junp creates an ambiguity of his motives. Does he change his political views, or is he merely so involved in the lives of his subjects that he begins to protect them from the law and themselves? Both? The change in the man is apparent, though I feel I needed more explanation for the change.

But I let myself suspend my disbelief and immerse myself in the human drama and suspense of the film. Particularly excellent are the scenes when Wiesler comes face to face with his subject, first with the woman in a bar, then with the woman in an interrogation room. My stomach was churning during the interrogation scene. Wiesler was forced to keep his loyalty to Socialism and prod the woman for information that he actually didn't want her to give. The worry hiding under his hardened facade as she begins to break is priceless and a triumph of acting, direction, and writing.

As his male subject joins the West Germany anti-Socialism movement, the stakes rise for each character - for the two artists, Wiesler, and his power-hungry superior. The suspense is always real because the performances are grounded in the reality of the time and the characters.

There were a few times during the many epilogues that I thought the film could have ended and would have been better for it, but the ending is earned and welcome. There were just a few too many "two years later..." or "seven years later..." or whatever time frames they included. I kept waiting for another one to pop up because it never seemed like the film would satisfy its need for closure.


Saturday, July 21, 2007

Spiderman 3

I was completely on board with this movie until the onset of the third act. Try as they might, the filmmakers could not disguise the awkwardness of tossing together all the subplots together for the grand finale. I could nitpick for a couple pages, but I will simply say that I did like the film. It's fun, even zany (successfully) at times. And I know the romance scenes aren't supposed to be the draw here, but I think that's where Alvin Sargent succeeded where David Koepp could not. He added a believable, deep (you know, for a $250 million dollar summer superhero movie) dimension to Spiderman. I will say that I think Kirsten Dunst has really grown into her role over the years. I am not really a fan of the actress, but I can be pleasantly surprised by her from time to time. She ends up delivering the most grounded performance of the movie, except maybe for Rosemary Harris as Aunt May. Who couldn't love a gal like Aunt May? It's a little long, but I think it's worth a watch.


Eyes Wide Shut

I had seen this movie years ago as a teenager for all the wrong reasons. But I remember it haunting me a little. I couldn't really remember why. About a year ago, I stumbled upon Jeffrey Overstreet's very positive review of the movie and it clicked. I rewatched the film this weekend and am again haunted. It's scary. I felt uneasy the whole time. It's chills are earned with constant raising of the stakes. Precarious situations only escalate further from the smallest slip of the tongue to the death of a hooker from a orgy ball with masks and cloaks and the creepy "plink (pause) plink (pause) plink" piano of the score. Alice (Kidman) tries to hurt her husband, Bill (Cruise), with a harsh story of missed passion. Jealousy ensues and drives Bill toward...what? Anger, infidelity, lies, hurt? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. The impact of a mean word shared between stoned spouses erupts into something awful. Even when Bill fears for his safety after the ball, he keeps moving toward destruction.

And I could see it. Stanley Kubrick incorporates a walking motif. His main characters, primarily Bill, move towards the camera, or away, but always moving. Moving towards nowhere. Bill thinks he's going to hurt Alice the way her story devastated him, but he can't satisfy that hurt. When he stops, when he finds the mask next to her sleeping body, then he can deal with what he had been spending the whole movie moving away from - his wife.

This role is easily Cruise's most restrained performance. Instead of his usual intensity, he favors quiet looks of regret, fear, and devastation. Kidman gets some great chunks of dialogue that seem to say more about the movie's intentions than a viewer could surmise on their own. The title's meaning becomes clear in her final piece of dialogue. Wake up.

There is that crazy orgy ball scene. Try as he might, Kubrick can't make it seem believable. Although, the chief fault with the scene is not his, but of the necessity of the costumes. It proves difficult to pull emotions from a face behind a mask. Still, I can clearly see that the scene stands out not for its believability but for the surreality it creates. It's weird, scary, creepy, and dare I say sensual (arc of eyebrow)? And this crazy combination of feelings and visuals create one surreal, frightening, and memorable cinematic moment.

Side note: Apparently, the answer to marriage difficulties is sex.


Sunday, July 8, 2007

Little Children

Even when the absurdly suburban characters in Little Children ring false they manage to be painfully real at other times. It's another movie anout people messing up their lives and the lives of the people around them, but this time there's hope that something can not necessarily be made right again but at least wrong can be stopped and the reality of family and decency revisited.

I'm starting to become a fan of Todd Field. He's got a knack for character-driven drama. It's when Little Children infuses a dry, dark sense of humor (usually from the documentary-type narrator giving insights and sometimes literal play-by-plays) that I felt bumped out of the tone of the film. It was because the film could be so zany that the more serious moments stood out. The film never finds a way to balance its shifts in tones.

I'm not looking to encounter any sort of anger for my next comments. I think Jackie Earl Haley's performance is overrated. I think because the writing and atmosphere of the film is so good it elevated the scenes with the actor. He was good, but I couldn't help thinking that any number of character actors could do just as good or better. It was an interesting choice for casting because by choosing someone no one would have recognized without all the press surrounding the actor's comeback, the character was made more real because there wasn't a famous face (like Winslet, Connelly, and what's his face from Phantom of the Opera and The Alamo, even Noah Emmerich from Beautiful Girls and The Truman Show) behind it. He was new to me, so it helped the character be fresh and interesting.

Another interesting casting choice - Kate Winslet as the "boyish" suburban housewife. I'm not sure anyone has ever thought of Kate Winslet as "boyish," and I am certainly not going to start now. I did really dig her speech at the bookclub. She started out so sure of herself and the power and truth behind her words, but then the truth spit back at her by the nasty park mate wounded her position and confidence in the quality of her affair. Winslet changes emotions with slight, subtle changes in voice and body language, fully capturing a woman at war with herself and trying to hide it all in front of some old women and the nasty park mate.


Saturday, July 7, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth was a blind buy for me. I was rewarded for my gamble. I was surprised by how grounded the film was in balancing it's fantasy sequences with the drama of the Spanish Revolution and the venous Captain Vidal. I was frightened of the guy even when he was just shaving. He was a monster, scarier than even the creature with eyes in his hands surrounded by paintings of him killing and eating children. It's a sad, melancholy film with frightening and beautiful visions of fantasy and reality and the excitement when the two mingle. We are also granted the gift of a young heroine that I think will return in memories of viewers each time they see a new film with a little girl daydreaming of escape and tales of bravery and magic.

Is it real? I'm surprised I haven't heard more discussion of the matter. I didn't think the girl's fantasies were real at first (Vidal couldn't see Pan), but now I think otherwise (think of the dead blooming and paths opening).

I think the writer/director Guillermo Del Toro should be thanked not only stretching his imagination to create wonderous fantasy, but also using that same imagination to create such a engaging reality.


Requiem for a Dream

I felt like I needed to see this film, like I was supposed to see it. So I did. And it was good. Almost great. Maybe great. I don't know. I'm still turning the film around in my head. And that's a very good thing. I felt like I discovered talent: one from long ago but new to me (Ellen Burstyn), some I've seen before but never better (Jennifer Connelly), some who I don't have too much respect for as performers but did admirable work (Marlon Wayans, Jared Leto), and one visionary talent learning magic and pathos (Darren Aronofsky).

I loved The Fountain, but I can't really say it's an important film. But there is no denying Requiem for a Dream is. I can't say it'll transform lives. I can say that it not only means something, but gets it across somehow with a subtlety tempered with what at times can be like a shovel to the face. But unlike other shovels to the face, Requiem is calculated, it is constructed like a work of art that is supposed to convey meaning to all those who see it. And I got it. I don't know that I can explain to you or myself, but I got the movie the way I got that the sky is blue and the grass is green. It just works out that way.

I must admit, it seemed like a little too much hocus pocus visually at first, until the action onscreen truly melded with the meaning, the feeling, and the story. And the performances always grounded the visuals. There was reality in the surreality all around it. It helped me believe and experience a taste of something I haven't actually experienced: drugs and the depravity of man trying to do right, but always messing up because something worse always seems so much better.

I loved Burstyn in the movie. There was a bit of hoopla surrounding her performance in 2000, but she lost the Oscar to Julia Roberts for Erin Brockovich (in which she was good). I used to prefer Laura Linney for You can Count on Me, but I have to say Burstyn was a revelation. That word gets thrown around a lot in movie reviews, and I'm reluctant to use it here, but Burstyn was like a profound discovery to me. She was new. I had never seen what she did on the screen from anyone before. Not that I can remember. She somehow found a way to make a character that could have been too-over-the-top real in a harsh way. It hurt to see her hurt herself in the way that she did. I can say the same for all of the other characters. They earned (or deserved) their fates, but I couldn't help wishing for something better than the disasters of the lives they made.