Saturday, January 03, 2009

Sizzlin' September, Commissioner Gordon!

Yep, comparatively, September was truly sizzlin', with two of my favorite movies of the year. If only every month had such quality!

Oh yeah, and since it's already 2009, I should really try to rush through the rest of the year.

犬神家の一族 (The Inugamis, a.k.a. Murder of the Inugami Clan)
This is an old-school whodunit in the very best sense, and it's also quite literally old-school - the director's remaking one of his early movies and uses the same lead actor in both. There's no updating in this remake, and everything still feels nice and quaint, like an old leather-bound library book. The performances are great, if stylized to the point where they might become targets of derision for modern audiences. But what really works is the slow-burning suspense and delicious twists and turns of the plot - a plot that always plays fair and isn't stupid (a real rarity these days).

Изгнание (The Banishment)
This award-winner from Russia is chock-full of religious symbolism, which feel too in-your-face for comfort. The somewhat over-meticulous shot compositions also add to the level of detachment of the audience, making the characters all seem very distant and vague - people that we are observing from afar with all the emotional involvement of a laboratory scientist. Still, it does look gorgeous and is well-acted. Too bad the overlong running time make it a real pain to sit through.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall
The Apatow factory produces another romcom that both guys and gals will enjoy, tempering the sweetness with their trademark brand of raunchy humor. As usual, the pacing's a little too loose for comfort, and the film meanders quite a bit all over the place. However, the main characters are all well-drawn and multi-faceted, and the supporting cast is fantastic. Especially hilarious is Russell Brand as the barmy British rock star. One sour note is the film's treatment of Kristen Bell's character, which borders on misogyny.

歲月 (The Days)
A rather weak debut from a local filmmaker, this coming-of-age tale is full of gangster clichés and raw acting. Some of the cast, though inexperienced, have charisma and are inherently watchable, but the stilted dialogue tests one's patience sorely. There's plenty of pointless animated sequences to string everything together, and even a plot twist in the secret ending that seems to exist for no real narrative reason at all. Sigh. When will filmmakers learn that plot twists that exist for the sole purpose of being twisty is meaningless and does nothing but annoy their audience?

Mamma Mia!
If Speed Racer is cotton candy for attention-deficit adolescents, then this is the equivalent for middle-aged women. Well, except it's a lot more sedate and unimaginatively shot and staged. There's nothing more pathetic than a movie that relentlessly tries to convince you that you're having a good time. In fact, it's downright sad and desperate, just like the needy middle-aged women that populate it's visually boring musical sequences. But the power of nostalgia is not to be scoffed at, for it's rare that a musical this thoroughly unspectacular makes so much money. Oh, and Pierce Brosnan. Cannot. Sing. At. All. Ugh.

Boy A
It's a lot harder for me to write a rave about a movie than a rant. Ranting and coming up with fresh insults is easy. But it's a lot more difficult to come up with reasons why I love a movie, because they're usually the same for every one - compelling writing, fantastic performances, stunning cinematography and/or visual effects, delicate nuances and subtlety in all areas. So let me just say that all of the above apply to Boy A, which is an absolutely brilliant drama that practically demands you soak in all the subtle nuances of the storytelling and the top-notch acting, and in exchange, leaves you with a beautifully tragic emotional experience.

Argh. Another wonderful film that I don't know what to write about. Suffice to say it fully deserves every accolade it receives. This is a fantastic work of artistry, full of stunning visuals, masterful storytelling, genuine laughs and lots of heart. It's so good, takes my breath away; it's probably the best Pixar film ever made, and that's really saying something.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars
A beautiful animated work of art is followed by... a hideous animated steaming turd. The rubbish plot jumps from video game scenario to video game scenario, decorated with bad dialogue (well, that's one thing about the live-action movies they're faithful to), lame jokes and awful character animation. I thought Lucasfilm was state-of-the-art? Why, then, does everyone move like they're marionettes? The busy battle scenes just manage to scrape by with a passing grade, but everything else around them is a waste of time and money and the efforts of hundreds or thousands of people who worked on it. When will Lucas stop plundering the corpse of the franchise?

Youth Without Youth
There's one thing you can't accuse Francis Ford Coppola of, and that's lack of ambition. His first film after a long hiatus is one with a pretty good sci-fi concept - only it resolutely refuses to be a sci-fi flick and obsessively heads down the other, "artsier" path. Unfortunately this results in a schizophrenic movie in more ways than one, and while there are stunning visuals aplenty, none of it makes very much sense at all. But hey, at least it's not boring. I'd rather see this over Mamma Mia! any day.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Woody Allen's latest is a marked improvement over Cassandra's Dream, and one where he abandons the heavy drama to make a simple, fun and breezy movie. There's not much substance to it, but it's all very entertaining nonetheless, watching the leads go through the revolving doors of their relationships. Penelope Cruz, especially, is fantastic and hilarious; pity there's far too little of her. Everyone looks like they're having a blast, even the director (who knew he'd be capable of having fun when he whines in all his movies?), and you will, too.

畫皮 (Painted Skin)
This is a confused mess of a movie, with silly jokes, slapstick, heavy drama, romance and martial arts all rolled up together haphazardly. Thank goodness for its female leads Zhou Xun and Zhao Wei, who elevate their roles above and beyond the thin caricatures on the page, providing a compelling emotional hook. Too bad that only comes to the fore in the third act, far too late to rescue the thoroughly mediocre fare that's around it. The movie tries too hard to be too many things, and fails at every single one of them - even Donnie Yen is wasted - and he's not that easy to waste; you just need to throw a few decent fight scenes in for him. Scarily enough, this was Hong Kong's pick for their Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination - and in a year when I can easily name 5 Hong Kong films off the top of my head that were better.

My Magic
I've usually been able to find something I like about all of Eric Khoo's movies (well, except One Leg Kicking), and this one is no exception. Sure, it's slow-moving and sometimes feels repetitive and disjointed, not to mention exploitative - did we really need so many close-ups of the main character piercing his body with random objects? What's the point of making your audience squirm so much in their seats, and so many times too? But thankfully, the genuine emotions and real chemistry between the father and son come through without once slipping into melodrama, and the ending is beautifully moving. Oh, and it also has a really cool, retro poster in the style of old-school local cinemas, painted on canvas. Check it out: