Dave and Rachel's movie reviews.

*THERE WILL ALWAYS BE SPOILERS*

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Casshern

Year: 2004
Running time: 142 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: Japanese
Screenplay: Kazuaki Kiriya, Dai Sato, Shotaro Suga
Director: Kazuaki Kiriya
Starring: Yusuke Iseya, Kumiko Aso, Akira Terao, Kanako Hiquichi, Hiroyuki Miyasako, Mayumi Sada, Jun Kaname

I’ve been struggling to think what to say about Casshern for some time. I have been trying to decide whether I like it or not, or more precisely, whether I understand it or not. My first thought was simply to have ‘Eh?’ as the entire review, but on reflection, there is more to say.

First off, unless I’m incredibly stupid there is one very simple message behind Casshern and all of its complexities, and that is that war is bad. Really bad. Not good. At all. Many stories make a similar point, but I guarantee you that no film has made the point in quite this way before. Adapted from a 1973 anime, the set up is truly great, if complex. I'll try to cover the basics. The world of the future is simply an endless war between two superpowers, and even when that war is technically over, the victor is struggling to suppress pockets of resistance and, more urgently, the human race has been brought to the brink of self-annihilation, and is unable to repopulate the planet. Cue scientist Dr. Kotaro Azuma (Akira Terao), who is developing a way to rebuild humanity using techniques involving rejuvenating the body parts of the dead that are rather dodgy, ethically speaking. An unexplained and inexplicable bolt of lightning (which seems to become a solid structure) causes life to emerge from the raw material in the lab (whole humanoids, not just parts, somehow), life which is promptly destroyed by the military, apart from Akubon (Hiroyuki Miyasako), Sagure (Mayumi Sada) and Barashin (Jun Kaname), who manage to escape. Dr. Azuma then brings back his son Tetsuya (Yusuke Iseya), killed in the aforementioned war, who makes use of a newly designed super-suit to become the superhuman Casshern to fight for humankind against the robot army randomly discovered by Akubon and co. But remember, war is bad. So there is less distinction than you might think between which side is supposed to be good, and which is bad. Because war is bad, which means each side is as bad as the other, and the true heroes are the ones that finally realise this and are able to stop the killing and forgive the wrong that was done to them. Of course, they usually have to die for this to happen. The story is actually far more complex than that, but I don’t want to spoil the fun of working out for yourself exactly what the hell is going on.

The place where Casshern falls down the most, I feel, is in the one on one fight scenes, where the two opponents try to out-pose each other first while some awful techno-rock is playing, then when the fights start they have that Pok√©mon / Beyblade look, and when Casshern is running up buildings and the like, he looks rather like Sonic the Hedgehog, only not blue. Obviously, the filmmakers didn’t have the hugest budget, but I think that these moments are a little over-stylised – to the point of being cartoony, and not in the cool Manga way I think they were going for.
However, it's not all negative. The moral, although being a tad simplistic (ironic considering the ridiculously random complexity), is an honourable one, and the consequences of humankind’s insistence on forever being at war with itself are appropriately tragic. The price that all of the characters pay for their deeds is truly devastating. But the thing about Casshern that will undoubtedly bring me back to watch again is that it is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. Excepting the fight scenes mentioned earlier, every frame, every background, every moment has an astonishing mix of colour, style and CG wizardry. In particular, there is a scene in which Tetsuya and his love interest Luna (Kumiko Aso) converse where different visual styles are used to portray each character's viewpoint which is spellbindingly gorgeous to look at.

So, on reflection, I think I did like it after all.

Score: 7/10

Further reading:

This guy liked it more than me, and Gabriel thought much the same as I did.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sunshine

Year: 2007
Running time: 107 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne, Troy Garity, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benedict Wong, Mark Strong

Sunshine is a great idea for a film.  Set in the future (although only 2057, which has the effect of making it recognisably still our world (so to speak) but so inconceivable as to be impossible to completely suspend disbelief), it centres around a mission to save our dying sun.  Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy) is plagued by disturbing and disjointed visions, so it's no stretch to guess that it soon turns into a Shining / Alien / Event Horizon cross-over, as our intrepid crew face starvation, sabotage and a growing insanity as they glide ever closer to our star.  Things get worse when they come into contact with the ship from the previous failed attempt and meet crazy ex-captain Pinbacker (Mark Strong) who has made the same mistake the ancient Inca civilisation did and turned the sun into a god and is now intent on killing everyone.  Unfortunately, it’s neither as good as its central idea nor any of the films it is influenced by, which is a shame, as Danny Boyle is certainly a director that is usually reliable and should be able to pull it off.  Like Kubrick, he seems to be on a mission to make a classic film in every genre.  Unfortunately, he'll have to take another stab at sci-fi some other time.

One of the reasons it falls short may be budgetary, as although most of the effects are very impressive, particularly for a measly $40 million, there are some moments where it just looks and feels a bit, for want of a better word, cheap.  As the story comes to its climax, it becomes increasingly hard to follow what’s going on.  I’m not one that usually has to have it spelled out for me, but the last 15 minutes are just a collection of images that are incoherent.  Maybe the idea is that your own mind is supposed to be flying apart, like the characters', but I just lost interest.

Nowhere near as good as it could, or should have been.

Score: 5/10

Further reading:

Ebert rather liked it, but Bill had similar problems to me.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

There Will Be Blood

Year: 2007
Running time: 158 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, Kevin J. O'Connor

There is something special about Daniel Day-Lewis. When he inhabits a role, he appears to genuinely live it, be it Bill the Butcher in Scorsese's Gangs of New York (which he is by far the best thing in), Last of the Mohicans' Hawkeye or any of his other all-too-rare roles. He has an uncanny knack of making many of the characters he plays iconic. His Daniel Plainview, the 'hero' of Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood has, for me, gone to the top of that short list.

Plainview is greed personified, his entire reason for being the acquisition of wealth; amoral and utterly without conscience. Especially in the first mostly dialogue-free 30 minutes, as he goes from scrabbling for small nuggets of silver to burgeoning oil baron, he is mesmerising, and you can't help but admire his willful perseverance, despite coming to loathe every other thing about him. There Will Be Blood could be seen as the story of the birth of American corporate greed, with Plainview pursuing the business of oil with a single-minded intensity that is uncomfortable to watch. When a partner dies in a horrifying accident early on, leaving behind an orphaned baby, Plainview takes on the care of the child HW (Dillon Freasier) not because of any moral reasons or any sense of duty or respect to his lost partner, but because he can see a potential way to use the boy to his advantage.

Coming to California looking for cheap, oil-rich land following a tip off from Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), Plainview locks horns with Paul's preacher brother Eli (also Dano), opposing him on behalf of his small community. It isn't long before it becomes clear that corruption also runs deep in Eli, and he simply wants to be the community's alpha male, and seeing the charismatic Plainview gaining influence over his flock, does all he can to frustrate him, regardless of what it might cost others. His faith seems to clearly be an act, and such conniving fakery makes him as unpleasant as Plainview, and you can't decide who disgusts you more. Dano does his best, but it is clear he's not in the same league as Day-Lewis. Luckily this actually works to the film's advantage, as Eli wilts in the face of Plainview's intensity and it's clear he'll never get the best of the man. As examples of the early roots of corrupt capitalism and corrupt religiosity it is extremely effective, and exposes much of the human greed both things are built upon.

Despite having no-one to really root for, the conflict between the two men is absorbing and the visuals are captivating. There is a scene in which an accident causes an explosion and a fire which is both upsetting and beautiful to behold. The young boy HW is caught in the explosion and loses his hearing. Terrified and desperate for reassurance, he clings to Plainview as if his life depended on it (which he surely thinks it does), but the monster of a man cannot leave him behind fast enough to get to his precious oil, burning away into the night. It's heartbreaking to watch. And yet, as Plainview stands silhouetted, watching the fire burn, the red glow and smoke gives the impression of curving round the lens into a suggestion of a baleful eye, completely unnatural and an unforgettable image, possible only in the medium of cinema. When a man turns up claiming to be Plainview's half brother Henry (Kevin J. O'Connor), it seems there is a small chance for the man to show a little decency, but upon discovery of fraud his despicable and unforgiving side returns to the fore more powerful than ever. The ending is about as grim as these characters deserve. Desperate for cash, Eli attempts to make a deal with the now obscenely rich Plainview, only to meet a ghastly death at the hands of the dreadful man. Considering himself beyond the reach of the law (much like today's corporate giants and oil magnates), he doesn't even try to hide the fact of the murder from his butler. The final image of him, sat next to Eli's body, the words "I'm finished" falling from his mouth illustrates better than any other shot the sheer loneliness of a self-serving existence such as his. It's doubtful the inhuman creature even realises his life is missing anything.

With a sickening but captivating turn from Day-Lewis at its heart, this is beautiful but disturbing, cinema distilled into its purest form.

Score: 9/10

Further reading:

Empire and Andy feel as I do, but Bill would say we over-rate it just slightly.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Little Miss Sunshine

Year: 2006
Running time: 101 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Michael Arndt
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Starring: Abigail Breslin, Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, Steve Carell, Alan Arkin

Another day, another indie movie about a dysfunctional family. And yet, like Juno, The Royal Tenenbaums, Napoleon Dynamite and Donnie Darko (all completely different, yet all have a barely functioning family unit at their hearts), Little Miss Sunshine still manages to be engaging and original. Set around a family's road trip to enter their young daughter into the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, there's almost nothing but arguing and complaining throughout the entire trip, but you still find yourself liking them. Each character is self-involved almost to the point of ignoring everything and everyone else and it's a testament to the performances and the writing that you find yourself forgiving each character their faults and sympathising with their plights.

Sheryl Hoover (Toni Collette) is the mother barely able to hold the family unit together, her husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) investing everything into marketing his self-improvement technique, which he finds difficult due to the fact that it clearly doesn't work. Dwayne (Paul Dano) is the miserable son who has taken a vow of silence until he achieves his ambition of being a jet pilot. The granddad Edwin (Alan Arkin) is a favourite of mine, working on dance routines with his grand-daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) and giving life advice to Dwayne ("Fuck a lot of women.") Into this Sheryl brings her brother Frank (Steve Carell), who has recently attempted to commit suicide after losing his lover and his professional reputation.

There are moments of both comedy and drama on the road, but the moment that sticks with me is when Dwayne finds out he is colourblind, which prevents him from ever realising his pilot dream. He breaks his vow of silence in an outpouring of grief which takes the form of scathing criticism of his entire family. Dano does an impressive job of expressing the frustration of a young man stung by the unfairness of life, denied the only thing that means anything to him. Perhaps this is why he is the first to see the inevitably disastrous result of his little sister's attempt to become Little Miss Sunshine - his own problems no longer consume all of his energies and he opens his eyes to those around him.

Despite them apparently hating each other, the ending is oddly touching, as they all come together in support of Olive to save her from ridicule and embarrassment. The film does a grand job of staying funny and at the same time showing just how disturbingly sinister and disgusting the pre-teen beauty queen market in America is. On the surface it appears to be wholesome and sugar-coated, but there is an ugly undercurrent that reeks of displaying the young competitors as adults and all the sexuality that implies. It seems odd to inflict such a psychological torture upon one's supposedly treasured offspring.

Highlighting this hypocrisy is the moment when Abigail does an overtly sexual dance routine (which is strangely hilarious), shocking the judges. At the same time the other young girls walk around in make-up or are prancing about in swimsuits. The judges are likely upset at being faced with the truth buried underneath 'innocent' pageants like these. When it is simmering under the surface while pretending innocence it's all the more disturbing.

A quality comedy which shows how often the most mismatched family will come together in support when it's required.

Score: 7/10

Further reading:

Empire and I are on the same page, but The Guardian sees something different.