March 27, 2009

Movie Review: Paranoid Park

If you helped commit a crime and never told the truth, would the guilt eat you alive? This is the quandary teenage skateboarder Alex finds himself in. Director Gus Van Sant gives this film a dreamlike quality. The truth of what happens that night unravels slowly piece by piece. By the time we know the truth, we are completely on Alex's side and are worried that he will be discovered. We know that Alex visited Paranoid Park with his friend Jared. We know that a security guard has been murdered. And we know that Alex almost called the cops and threw up. But we don't know until late into the movie what happened between visiting Paranoid Park and Alex throwing up. Alex has the look of a trauma victim. He doesn't respond to anything with emotion. He walks around in a daze, like he's not really there. To emphasize his displacement, Alex has conversations with people where their voices fade in and out or music plays over them. We know Alex isn't really having a conversation. He is merely in the room.

March 17, 2009

Movie Review: Watchmen

***First published in the Cary News on March 17, 2009***

Split open the mind of a scientist, add in superhero strength and struggles, set it in a doomsday world, sprinkle with some saucy fan service, shake, and you get The Watchmen.

But this film is more than its parts. The Watchmen is based on Alan Moore’s mind-blowing graphic novel. I am reviewing this movie separate from its graphic novel form, but check that out if you get a chance.
They had to simplify the story a great deal to make it manageable in a film form.

The plot is somewhat complex, but in fact, it matters little to this film. This movie is all about characters, culture, and the mood of the film. The story is set in an alternative United States history. It’s 1985, and Richard Nixon has been elected to his third term in office.The doomsday clock has been set for five minutes to midnight — midnight being the time when either Russia or the U.S. will launch a deadly bomb and the idea of world peace will forever be obliterated.

The Watchmen are a group of “superheroes,” although none of them (with one exception) have superhuman abilities. The story is laid out in a non-linear fashion: We see the past, then the present, then the more distant past. We find out bits of the story through memories, conversations, and photos on walls.

The main conflict is that The Comedian, one of the former Watchmen, has been murdered. Rorschach, our narrator, is convinced that someone is targeting the Watchmen and picking them off, one by one. He sets out to discover who it is and to warn the rest of his former teammates.

March 14, 2009

Understanding Movies, Chapter 2: German Expressionism and Russian Montage

This post will be continuing the course I wrote about here and here called Understanding Movies. In this section, we are learning about silent movies still, but these filmmakers took the art of silent film to its max. I really enjoyed this chapter and had a lot of films to watch, which is why it has taken so long to get this 2nd chapter up.

The main movements discussed are German Expressionism and Russian Montage. In German Expressionism, we are looking at using film to create a heightened emotion. If you remember, in chapter 1, we looked at cinema as a way to reflect everyday life, in a documentary style, and as a way to explore the imagination, such as a fantasy. German Expressionism is closer to the latter, but it is beyond that. Rather than an emphasis on the story, filmmakers took a special interest in creating a mood or feeling--mostly a dark mood. There was a special interest in what impact the movie would have on the audience. Some of the staples in this genre are mad scientists, dark shadows, deranged madmen, or crazy camera angles.

There is also a constant battle between man and society. Look for that in most of these films.

The first film I watched was Metropolis. I have heard of this movie but never took the time to watch it, especially since I find many silent movies to be boring. This film is about a contrasting world. Above ground you have the beautiful wealthy people who don't work. Down below you have the poor who work constantly and live in the darkness. A man who lives above ground, Freder Fredersen, falls in love with Maria, a woman from below. He bravely enters the darkness below out of concern for her. What he finds is horrifying, but this same woman whom he loves has inspired a community of underground dwellers to hope for the chosen one who will unite the head (the city planners above) and the hand (the laborers below). She calls him the heart. As I watched this movie, I was surprised at how engrossing it movie is, even though it was made about 80 years ago. The director is Fritz Lang, and he is the master.

Like Lillian Gish, the actors do get melodramatic somewhat. Everything is overacted, but that's part of the expressionism style. Each facial expression and gesture speaks volumes. You can tell this is expressionism because there is little logic. We don't really understand what the underground workers are tasked to do. One worker just has to move the hands of the clock to match the lights. If he does not keep up with this task, something explodes. It doesn't make sense, except on an emotional level.

You can see how Lang used many things in this movie to create a heightened emotional experience for the viewer. There is fog, darkness, the catacombs, candlelight. The special effects are still impressive today.

Here are some clips.

March 03, 2009

Movie Review: Confessions of a Shopaholic

I have been a longtime fan of the Sophie Kinsella Shopaholic books, which feature the lovable but compulsive Becky Bloomwood. So I wasn't sure what to expect out of the movie version.
Rebecca Bloomwood is a lovely redheaded young woman who loooooves to shop. I am not talking about the reasonable kind of love where she goes monthly or even weekly to see what's new at her local boutique. I am talking about an addiction as powerful as any drug out there. When she walks past a store, the mannequins talk to her and convince her that this, only this, particular item has the power to make her feel better, more attractive, more alive. She shops using 12 credit cards, including her Gold Card, which is encased in a block of ice in the freezer in case of emergencies. The tone of the film is comic, so it's not a tragic type of addiction, but we understand that Becky has a problem and she needs some serious help.
Rebecca also has her own personal bill collector stalker type person following her around named Derek Smeath. All told, she owes Mr. Smeath some $16,000. After losing her job as a journalist, she decides to apply for her dream job: fashion correspondent for Alette magazine. For Becky, this would be equivalent to an alcoholic working in a brewery. The job gets filled before she can arrive, but a sister magazine from the same magazine group, Successful Saving, is hiring. The man at the front desk assures her that the magazine group is a family, and once you're in, you're in. The only problem is that the magazine that ends up hiring Becky is a financial advice magazine. Not exactly the type of place that suits Becky's lifestyle or assets.