Friday, March 09, 2007

Document Dump number two

Since there still are problems with the Greenwich Villiage Gazette, here's the reviews for this week.

Warner Bros. Pictures, 91mins, R

Written and Directed
by Zack Snyder

Shot on a bare soundstage with a minimum of props, this is a masterpiece of digital art. As one of the most beautiful and grotesque films of the decade, it's also bad history and an ambiguous political statement. Zack Snyder has created one of the most stylish and intense comic book movies ever made-period.

That the history is bad does not matter that much. This is art for art's sake, after all, and the artistic license is stretched to it's breaking point, Frank Miller's comic book is followed as a template, and the film is a series of tableaux with theatrical overacting.

In the year 480 BC, King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and his Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) rule over the insane city-state of Sparta, where all male citizens are drafted into the army at the age of nine and are turned into brutal, insane lunatics. None more so than Leonidas himself, who killed a hungry wolf in the wilderness, when he was sent out in the snow with nothing but a loincloth and a spear while still a young prince.

After a minutes-long course in Spartan culture, which ends with that story, our hero is visited by a Persian Emissary (Tyrone Benskin), who promises him overlordship of all Greece in return for an oath of aliegence. As brutal lunatic, he murders the emissary and everyone else in the Persian party, thus precipitating the invasion of Greece by Persian king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his million-man army.

Even though he is forbidden to by the evil and monstrous Ephors to go and defend Sparta with his army, he decides to go anyway with only three hundred men, led by himself and Captains Artemis (Vincent Regan) and Dilios (David Wenham) [who narrates].

The three hundred Spartans, with the assistance of a few dozen “Arcadians” [in reality, there were well over a thousand Greek troops], head over to the Hot Gates, which is what Thermopylae means in English, and prepare to do battle with a million Persians.

It is here the cartoon nature of the film comes to the fore. The battle pits around 400 Greeks against an uncountable multitude, and this multitude is an army so inept, so incompetent, that the Greeks can build hundred-foot high walls with their bodies, For most of the film, the Persians never land a blow. Not one. That is until near the end. Snyder fills the eye with all sorts of marvels that collapse against the wall that is the 300. There is no reality here, nor is there supposed to be. This is the telling of myth, and the Spartans are supermen and hence, invulnerable. The bad guys, from the pathetic hunchback Ephialtes(Andrew Tiernan), to Xerxes himself, are presented in a grotesque, cartoonish manner which bares no resemblance to anything authentically Persian.

All this doesn't mean that the film isn't vastly entertaining. This is one heck of a ride, and is well worth the price of a ticket, and may look even better on the IMAX screen. Go see it, then read a history book to find out what really happened.

Beyond the Gates

Directed by
Michael Caton-Jones

The Holocaust in Rwanda in 1994 is probably one of the most shameful incident in the history of the United Nations. Eight hundred thousand people were hacked to death while the powers that be in the rest of the world just sat there and told the UN peacekeeping forces to keep all the peace to themselves.

This is the story of a bunch of people heroically doing nothing while over half the population of a country went criminally insane.

Joe Connor(Hugh Dancy) is a missionary teaching school at the Ecole Technique Officielle, which is jointly run by the Catholic church and the government. The guy in charge is Father Christopher(John Hurt), who is a jolly old soul who loves his work with the less fortunate in the capitol of Kigali. Everyone, at first appears to be happy. Joe is a bit of a goof, and commentates as Marie(Clare-Hope Ashitey), a Tutsi teenager, runs laps. We notice how easygoing everyone is just before the fact. Francois(David Gyasi), the school's Hutu custodian takes Joe to meet his parents, showing how friendly everyone was.

Then the UN shows up, led by a certain Captain Delon(Dominique Horwitz), who sets up camp on the school's grounds. Soon the killing starts and the refugees begin arriving. Both Joe and Father Chistopher venture out to discover that old friends have succumbed to the genocidal madness.

The scenes of graphic violence don't start until well into the movie, and aside from Marie, and to some extent Francois, none of the African characters are more than ciphers. An explanation for what was going on is not forthcoming. All demand an explanation and there are no answers. Aside from pure hate and some veiled accusations against the French and Belgians, I guess there are none.

The performances are fine. Hurt is especially good, but then he always is, and the bit parts of the Africans are well acted as well. But this still is an extremely disappointing movie. There are no heroes, really. It just gets the viewer mad. That's modern cinema, I guess. But it explains why this took over two years to get a release here in the 'States. Not worth the bucks.

The Host

Written and Directed
by Bong Joon-Ho

The South Koreans have an ambiguous relationship with the United States. They hate us because they're sick of having to be grateful. It's a normal reaction. So in the tradition of blaming us for anything and everything, an evil American medical worker (Scott Wilson) orders his Korean assistant to pour a few dozen bottles of spoiled formaldehyde down the sink and into Seoul's Han River. In a couple of years there's a monster swimming in the river and a couple of years after that, we get to start the fun.

Park Kang-Du(Song Kang-Ho) is a slacker working in a food stand next to the river in downtown Seoul. He works with his father Hee-Bong(Byun Hee-Bong) and the two are raising his young daughter Hyun-Seo(Ko A-Sung). The only success in the family is the sister Nam-ju (Bae Du-na), who's a champion archer. All is going well, at least for a slacker in a teen comedy, but then the monster, comes out of nowhere and starts chasing pretty much everybody in the park. This was done done by San Francisco-based The Orphanage, and it's brilliant. What they do with it is amazing.

The monster eats Hyun-seo, or so we think, and the family is mourning in the refugee clinic, where Nam-Ju and brother Nam-Il(Park Hae-Il), who is doing slightly better than Kang-do, arrive and soon K-d is having visions. He thinks his daughter is alive, which isn't that strange, considering how he comes to this conclusion.

The family escapes, and its one chase after another until the semi-happy ending. This thing has it all. Comedy, tragedy, excitement, pathos, you name it, its here. This is probably the best horror comedy of the decade. South Korea made a mistake in not submitting this for the foreign language Oscar [Not that the one they DID submit was bad, mind you…] see it.

Maxed Out

A Documentary Directed
by James D. Scurlock

The issue here is an old one. Charles Dickens put it succinctly almost a century and a half ago, when he had Mr. Micawber say in 'David Copperfield': “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.” In this film, James D. Scurlock sets out to prove it.

What Scurlock's thesis is, is that the people who get themselves into into mountains of debt aren't the least bit responsible for what they do. It's those big, mean, corporate banks who are to blame. After all, getting people with bad credit to make those minimum interest payments for the rest of their lives are pretty damn profitable, right?

Then of course, there's those companies like that bank who was recently fined that was fined $400 million dollars for SHREDDING customers checks to charge false late fees, and other usurious institutions that will be happy to lend you a couple of hundred bucks on your car if you agree to pay fifty percent interest a month.

Scurlock interviews a few dozen people, ranging from Harvard Law School economics professor Elizabeth Warren, who shocks us with the revelation that "Consumer lending is obscenely profitable," to a retarded man snookered into refinancing the mortgage on his house at much higher rates…and oh yeah, a lot of these poisonous shenanigans are done by institutions owned by some of the biggest banks in the country. Whoop-de-doo.

The film gives a good description of many of the scams that are going on, and the Bush administration and Republican congress's so-called “reforms” which make bankruptcy harder for the middle class. As an educational tool, this is rather good, because it gives warning to the young about how to start properly looking after one's finances. If you want a credit card, go to a college campus in September, where they give them out for free and provide free Frisbees besides.

The interesting thing about this documentary, is that it gives absolutely no solutions to the problem. Scurlock merely denounces the Republicans in Congress and the Bush administration.

Sadly, this sort of thing will go on forever. People are smart and others are dumb and the former will always prey on the latter. That's life. IN the meantime, it's always good to be prepared.

The Namesake

Directed by
Mira Nair

The structure of film is partly based on time. For instance, Jhumpa Lahiri's epic novel, on which this film is based, spans decades, going from the 1970s to the 2000s, and while this has a small set of characters, this doesn't have an actual focus on which generation of the Ganguli family the filmmaker wants to look at until well after much of the story has unfolded.

The film starts in Southern India where a young Ashoke Ganguli (Irrfan Khan) is on his way to visit his grandfather when the train he is on derails. We see him in traction briefly before, meeting Ashima (Tabu), the pretty daughter of a rich Bengali family, who is given to Ashoke in marriage. Apparently, he's a professor of something and he's teaching in New York, so they go off to the New World and build a life for themselves, falling in love with each other and having two kids: Gogol(Kal Penn) and Sonia (Sahira Nair), the former, named after the Russian writer, is the namesake of the title.

We see them grow up quickly as the years pass, Gogol comes to despise his name, and is you're typical American slacker, of the kind Penn has made a career of portraying. Here, he proves he can actually do something else, a revelation to be sure.

This is the American experience. The immigrant parents and their American kids. Gogol changes his name to Nick and falls in love with a rich blonde named Maxine(Jacinda Barrett) whom his parents don't like for ethnic reasons, but when Ashoke dies, Nick decides to embrace his ethnicity and eventually marries Moushumi(Zuleikha Robinson), whom is ethnically correct, but turns out to be less of a catch than has been promised.

Sooni Taraporevala's screenplay is much like a long Russian novel. It has its moments, but goes on and on, and when it slows down near the end, it begins to stumble a bit, Still, the film is affecting, and the acting is terrific. We can understand why Tabu is India's biggest star. Robinson is sure to get more work out of this, but it is Kal Penn who's the biggest revelation. This could make him.

See this, but bring a pillow.

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