Monthly Archives: March 2008

The Invasion (2007)

The fourth remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a more interesting behind-the-scenes story than as a film. German director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) created a movie that was described as more psychological thriller than action chase movie. The studio and producers scrapped many pieces of the film, hired the Wachowski brothers to rewrite portions of the story and cram in some action, and then James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) directed the reshoots. As a result, the movie is wildly displaced and hacked together and never feels whole. There’s a slow burn of intrigue and mob madness and paranoia that gives way to chase scenes, car wrecks, and a ridiculously contrived happy ending. I’m sorry, but when you do The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you cannot have humanity win; that destroys the entire point of the story. It’s like having King Kong climb the Empire State Building and deciding to live there and dance for peanuts. Nicole Kidman and her lithe frame seem like an odd choice as humanity’s last hope with a gun. The Invasion flirts with some philosophical ideas about free will, assimilation, and the cost of peace, but then it speeds headfirst into an abrupt finish. This movie is unsatisfying to all parties.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Into the Wild (2007)

Undeniably well made, I just couldn’t emotionally connect with the main character, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirch). Chris turns his back on his affluent parents and his bourgeois lifestyle and heads off into the wilderness to experience nature and find what has been missing in his life. Director/screen adaptor Sean Penn turns Chris into a Jesus-like figure that touches all those who he encounters on his cross-country tour that will meet its end in Alaska. I found the character treatment to be a tad naive and off-putting, and his lack of communication with his family, especially his younger sister who was in the same boat with him, seems especially cruel. And yet, the movie has its share of transcendent moments that bury themselves deep inside you, like when Chris befriends an 80-year-old widower (Oscar nominee Hal Holbrook) who is given new life. The closing moments, when Chris has accepted is fate, is profoundly moving and exceptionally performed, and this is coming from a guy that felt an emotional disconnect from the main character. Into the Wild is lovely to watch with top-notch cinematography, a fabulous score by Eddie Vedder, and fine acting by a diverse cast. I’m very impressed by what Penn has accomplished here. However, I admire the movie more than I can embrace it, and it all goes back to the character of Chris. He’s a mystery and both romantic and frustrating, which is kind of a fit summation for the movie.

Nate’s Grade: B

Persepolis (2007)

Marjane Satrapi has, by all accounts, a very unique life. Growing up under the repression of the Islamic Revolution, she settled in France and created a series of acclaimed best-selling graphic novels called Persepolis, based upon her life growing up in and out of Iran. The movie was France’s official entry for the 2007 Foreign Language Oscar, bypassing the equally lauded and inventive Diving Bell and the Butterfly. And yet Persepolis did not even make the short list of nine nominees, which eventually gets parred down to five (neither did 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, which WON the Best Film from the European Film Awards, over other movies that managed to make the Academy’s five nominees). I consider this a glaring omission. How could anyone not be entranced by Satrapi and co-director Vincent Paronnaud’s masterwork?

In Tehran, the capital of Iran, young Marjane and her family watch as rebellious forces overthrow the Shah in 1979. The Shah was the ruler of Iran and could readily be described as a dictator. He was friendly to Western countries and wanted Iran to follow their lead. Large forces unified and deposed the Shah, setting the stage for Iran to have its own system of rule that the people would decide upon. Marjane’s father swings her around in his arms and excitedly proclaims that democracy has come to his country at last. Landslide numbers “vote” for radical Islamic leaders to take control of the government, and Iran becomes a militant theocracy. Privileges and reforms are revoked, and women will have to wear long burquas and veils to be righteous. Marjane is too outspoken and her parents, fearing for her safety, send her to Europe to be educated. While she is absent Iraq attacks Iran and the countries are engulfed in a decade-long border war.

Persepolis is a gem of a movie, at once a personal coming-of-age account that manages to be fascinating and honest and also a universal tale of struggle for cultural identity. The evocative black and white animation is a joy to watch. The crisp drawing style manages to express so much with the seemingly simple, clean images. At times the visuals take on a lovely German expressionistic feel, and the world feels like it is made out of folded layers of paper. I would fall in love with a movement, a facial expression, that fact that smiles look like boomerangs, something small yet immeasurably enjoyable that struck a deep chord inside me. The arresting black and white visuals do not distract from the story in any way, in fact they help to mirror the repressive nature of what befalls Iran. A silhouetted group of protesters is shot at and one of them falls to the ground. Great inky blackness seeps out of the fallen body and merges with the rest of the screen, adding emotional heft that color could never capture.

Told for long stretches from the perspective of a child, Persepolis manages to find unique perceptions. The child point of view allows the film to unfold naturally with innocence and inquisitiveness, qualities that would soon be hard to recapture once the promise of revolution turned sour. Young Marjane feels jealous and competitive that her cousin can brag that her father spent more time as a political prisoner. It’s an odd stance for an adult and yet it feels entirely within reason for children. Marjane deals with issues she cannot fully understand as a child but she tries her best. The eyes of children also let the filmmakers mingle with the fantastic. Marjane speaks to God at points, and after a horrible tragedy God is trying to apologize and explain but little Marjane will not hear any of it. She orders God to leave her and so He departs. A little girl turning her back on God will hit you is the kind of devastating stuff that can put a permanent lump in your throat.

I was dumbfounded at the emotional depths the film plumbs in a scant 95 minutes. This is an incredibly powerful tale, richly told with poignant insights and grace. There were several times I was overcome with emotion and had to dab my eyes. Satrapi achieves great emotional resonance with minute details, making the film exciting in how engaging it continues to be from beginning to end. Marjane’s relationship with her family anchors the movie and you can feel the power of their love and bonds. Imprisoned uncles who spouted communist dogma are released only to be seen as a danger once again. Marjane’s mother is worried when Marjane keeps showing a fiery outspoken spirit. One day she shakes a teenage Marjane, screaming at her the horrid possibilities that can happen to women under this regime. She cites one teenage girl who was executed, but they don’t believe in killing virgins, so the guards took care of that bothersome roadblock. Marjane’s mother is wild-eyed with fear and what might await her little girl, and her gnawing concern is resoundingly powerful. Marjane’s grandmother serves as her emotional compass throughout her life. Grandma stresses that Marjane should be proud of her cultural identity and stay true to herself. When Marjane gets older she hears her grandmother’s voice to set her straight in times of doubt.

But while the movie can be heartwarming, it does not fall victim to sticky sentimentality. Satrapi deals with some harsh truths about life in Iran and also her time in Europe as a blossoming woman without a country. She doesn’t sugarcoat reality and Marjane’s parents make it a point to be up front with their daughter about what is happening; an uncle tells little Marjane, before he is executed, that knowledge must live on and she, the youth, must be the one to keep it alive. The Iran-Iraq war ends in a stalemate with millions in casualties. Persepolis details life behind the veil and the shift the country took to radical Islamic rule but the film isn’t all doom and gloom. There’s a natural curiosity about a story of a girl who becomes a woman in a repressive society. Marjane’s spiky rebellious spirit makes for genuinely human comedy. She shops for Iron Maiden tapes on the Iranian black market, wears a jacket that states, “Punk is not ded,” and screams with joy at ripping her veil off during a car ride and letting the wind gust through her hair. There is a bounty of humor to be found in unexpected places. Marjane is running to catch a bus and is stopped by two policemen who complain that when she runs her butt moves “in an obscene way.” She simmers and finally yells, “Then stop staring at my ass!”

If Persepolis has any shortcomings it’s that the narrative peaks a bit too early. Seeing a child come of age during the Islamic Revolution is generally more interesting than watching a teenager navigate unfaithful boyfriends in Europe. Persepolis never stops being entertaining or relevant, it just so happens that the greater emotional rewards are tied to life and family in Iran.

Persepolis is a marvelously moving and unique coming-of-age tale set against a unique time. Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novels have fluidly been translated into a film that resonates with great emotional turmoil and inspiration. The alluring black and white visuals and clean animation style dazzle the eyes, while the enthralling personal story reaches deep inside and touches the heart. The film is brilliant, beautiful, harrowing, deeply human, fascinating, and ultimately inspiring. It’s rare to find a movie that can hit so many emotions with finesse, animated or live action. Persepolis is a bold vision and a revealing and lovely film that I cannot wait to revisit often. This is more than just a cartoon, folks. This is art.

Nate’s Grade: A

Meet the Spartans (2008)

Writer/directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer are, and I do not say this lightly, the worst filmmakers of all time.  They are worse than Ed Wood, they are worse than Uwe Boll, they are worse than Harold P. Warren, who wrote and directed the worst movie of all time, Manos: The Hands of Fate, because of a bet that he couldn’t make a movie (I’m fairly certain he still lost). Friedberg and Seltzer are the antithesis to funny. They mock funny, they spit at funny. Meet the Spartans is their third spoof in three years, or, as I see it, their third miscarriage of comedy.

The plot to 300 is the framework for Friedberg and Seltzer to purge their juvenile gags. King Leonidas (Sean Maguire, who actually used to be a pop singer) leads a band of 13 Spartan warriors, including Hercules‘ Kevin Sorbo, against the mighty army of Xerxes (Ken Davitian). Back at home, Queen Margo (Carmen Electra) must seduce Traitoro (Deidrich Bader).

Meet the Spartans would be hard-pressed to fit the definition of a movie, no matter how generous you are with the term. True, it is a collection of moving pictures, but surely we must have greater stipulations for our movie going entertainment. The actual flick is only 65 minutes long, barely a little over an hour, and then it’s crammed with 15 minutes of outtakes and needless extra scenes to be strewn over the credits. I should be more upset by the total transparent laziness to even construct a film of suitable length, but every minute I was spared more of this junk was an act of divine mercy.

Friedberg and Seltzer are not filmmakers but regurgiatators, wildly lampooning anything that they feel approaches their young teen male demographic. Meet the Spartans, like Epic Movie and Date Movie, cannot be classified as a “spoof” because all the film is doing is setting up references and the references are supposed to be the joke. The film is like a meaningless and random scrapbook for the year in pop culture; the film’s only function to pacify total idiots with attention-deprivation issues. That’s why the movie just continues reciting 2007 movies and 2007 cultural figures endlessly, with no context and no setup or payoff; the payoff is intended to be the reference. So 12-year-old boys can recline in their chairs and think to themselves, “Hey, I remember Spider-Man 3. Hi-larious.” When the fat guy from Borat turned into a Transformer and then hit his TV screen mid section, which played the “Leave Britney alone!” kid … I swear, part of my soul died.

photo_06(11)Friedberg and Seltzer have little grasp on he tenets of comedy. Their over reliance on lame pop culture references means that they have set a self-imposed expiration date on their movie. Once time passes this film will serve no purpose other than a crushingly unfunny time capsule. Friedberg and Seltzer think they must be the first ones who poked fun at the homo eroticism in 300. The armada of gay jokes they come up with would be on par with a sixth grade locker room. You want another cutting edge joke? They make a joke about how Angelina Jolie likes to adopt kids. Never heard that one before. Ever. In my life.

There is no such thing as wit when it comes to the comedy black hole. They are simply repeating the plot structure of 300 and throwing in aimless appearances by figures like Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and Lindsay Lohan, and blurred shots of all three’s vaginas. At one point the judging casts from American Idol and America’s Next Top Model appear inexplicably, and then they too get knocked down into the pit of death. I ask this question: had Sylvester Stallone not made another Rocky movie and released it in December 2006, would the figure of Rocky Balboa even appear in this flick? I doubt it. The core audience for these cannibalistic films has such short attention spans that they need their fragile brains stroked, and Meet the Spartans will not challenge them in the slightest.

And yet, astoundingly, the movie still feels like it needs to set up its dumb, obvious gags. The film has one Spartan point off screen and say, “Look, it’s Ghost Rider,” and then we cut to a skeleton biker swinging a chain. Gee, the Ghost Rider movie came out not even a year ago, and the character is rather hard to confuse with, say, Marry Poppins, so why did Friedberg and Seltzer feel the need to name check? It’s even more confusing considering that the audience that would go see Meet the Spartans is likely the same audience that saw Ghost Rider. It happens again when Queen Margo changes into a black Spiderman suit and the narrator assist by saying she’s becoming Venom. I got it with the suit, yeah, because everyone saw Spider-Man 3. I can also recognize Ugly Betty when I see her, thank you useless narrator. I don’t need a handicap for non-obscure pop culture bon mots.

The product placement is also insulting and annoying. At one point the Spartan narrator tells us that the fighters needed to take a break to replenish their electrolytes. We are then treated to quick cuts of the Spartans holding Gatorade bottles until one looks directly into the camera and says, “Gatorade: Is it in you?” I must have missed what the joke was when the film just repeats the advertising slogan word-for-word without any alterations in tone and context. There is also a scene where Xerxes imitates a Dentyne Ice commercial and holds the product up to the camera. What is the purpose of either of these moments? If I wanted to watch commercials verbatim I’d stay at home and tune on QVC.

If you see these guys (Friedberg and Seltzer) please convince them never to make another movie.

If you see these guys (Friedberg and Seltzer) please convince them never to make another movie.

From a production standpoint, this movie  looks really cheap. The sets and costumes and props look horrible, like something a high school production would ditch. Just because it reuses the same camera styles as 300 doesn’t mean it gets any closer to parody. For God’s sake, they couldn’t even come up with puns on character names, the only exception being Traitoro and Sonio, neither of which will induce a chuckle. Most of the non-reference “humor” is either insipid slapstick or a handful of moderately gross scatological jokes, and, oh, yes, lots of gay jokes, because those just get better the more you hear. Tasteless doesn’t always equal funny, and people drinking urine is rarely funny without some extra setup.

The actors all seem mildly embarrassed and they do nothing with their roles. It’s not their fault the material sucks so deeply, however, it is Electra’s fault for appearing in her third straight Friedberg-Seltzer spoof fest. The key to a good spoof is to play the damn thing straight. It’s annoying and redundant if the film keeps winking back at the audience.

Meet the Spartans is pop culture vomit. No, this is worse, this is cinematic diarrhea. It’s watery pop culture discharge masquerading as entertainment. This movie is offensive to anyone that appreciates laughter. This film and its ilk are offensive to mankind. And plus, it’s just not funny people, not in the slightest. There’s no wit here, no comedic payoffs, no running gags (besides gay jokes), no thought or upheaval of convention; instead, this movie is a lazy, cheap catalog of pop culture events from late 2006 to summer 2007. Even at 80 minutes (really it’s 65) this thing drags and feels exhausted long before it bows out. Just as I said in my review of Epic Movie, Friedberg and Seltzer must be stopped at all costs if comedy is to survive.

Nate’s Grade: F

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