I'd rather be nine people's favorite thing...

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Movie time!
It's Tuesday, July 13th, and to be honest, things have been pretty stressful lately. So I figured I might take a stab at clearing my head with an old review post! Today's old reviews are:

Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li
1.5 stars

It's a shame, really. Kristin Kreuk is a likeable heroine, Moon Bloodgood and Michael Clarke Duncan are typically watchable, martial arts uber-master Robin Shou plays a great part, and Neal McDonough is, as usual, amazing. If only someone had written a more realistic, better-scripted, less-cheesy Street Fighter movie for them to act in. Karate-stunt lovers will probably enjoy the fights, but fans of the video game will question character interpretation and game-to-movie translation, and people who like good action movies will probably wish they rented something with more of a plot, tighter lines and a bigger lack of Chris Klein.

4.5 stars

When you get right down to it, there really are relatively few films that actually get better with repeated viewings. Even those that require two or three viewings just to understand what's going on (as Snatch in fact might itself) usually don't keep their appeal too far beyond those two or three. Well, I have owned Snatch since 2002, and I've lost count of how many times I've seen it since then, and each time I see it I actually like it a little more. I'm certainly not tired of it yet.

As far as cohesion, comedy and pure craziness goes, few casts can beat this one. From Alan Ford's sardonic and sadistic fight promoter to Dennis Farina's highly grumpy American jewel broker to Rade Serbedzija's profane and bulletproof Russian gun dealer to Brad Pitt's badass yet aurally incomprehensible gypsy boxer to Vinnie Jones' unfailingly polite hitman to Jason Statham's snarky entrepreneurial boxing promoter to Benicio Del Toro's hazy gambler...the list goes on. Every single character is onscreen just enough to be decently developed, get some sympathy from the audience, and be absolutely hilarious in his own way. And the ways in which their various combinations play off of each other is absolutely priceless. And since many of the plot twists and hooks come about because of those interactions, the plot is as a result both jaw-droppingly intricate and incredibly tight and sharp. Charles Dickens would be impressed.

And I've already said more than I need to repeat here about Guy Ritchie as a director and filmmaker, so I will simply add that in this film, he is at his absolute best. If you only see one of his films, this is the one you should pick.

Seven Pounds
2 stars

Okay, here's the thing. I wanted to like this movie. I did. I mean, I really, really, REALLY wanted to. And it even had some elements in it that made it potentially likeable--decent plot twists, a fairly developed romance, and a basic undertone of altruism and redemption, for example. But Seven Pounds really shot itself in the foot right from the get-go.

For one thing, it tried way too hard to be mysterious. Yes, it had me guessing to figure out what Will Smith's character was doing and why he was doing it, but after about six minutes of that, any mystery turns into confusion. Nothing he does makes sense, and trying to justify any of it in any but the most abstract and general ways is an exercise in futility. All you can do is sit there and ask yourself, repeatedly and with growing intensity, "What the fuck is going on here?" And by the time the film actually does start to fill in the gaps and Smith's actions do start to take on a logical sequence, the question changes to "Is this serious?" I had a really hard time relating to Smith's character even after his motivation became clear, because that motivation was literally so out there that very few normally adjusted people would ever take self-sacrifice to such a literally self-sacrificing extent. And because the film was so INTENSE, wondering why a person would do such a thing very naturally expands into asking why the movie was even conceived and filmed in the first place.

To add even more difficulty, Smith's character is, in addition to being inscrutable, also arbitrary and a jerk. He may feel he has charitable motivation, and in the end he does, but he sure does do a lot of playing God on the way there. He never asks the recipients of his charity if they wanted it, if they appreciated a stranger stepping into their lives, even for their permission to help them. Instead, he pries into their personal lives, treats them like dirt, cons them, and makes them accept his interference without ever telling them why. I mean, yes, the end results are really touching, especially Woody Harrelson's blind character getting new eyes and conducting a children's choir, but with all the abuse and meddling Smith puts everyone through to make sure they "deserve" his help just seemed like unnecessary overkill. Even his whole romance with Rosario Dawson's character turned cruel when he removed himself forcibly from her experience as the final step in effecting his redemption. That his doing so also saved her life seemed like almost an afterthought compared to the pain in her eyes.

Likewise, the film's emotionally triumphant ending rang largely hollow in the face of all the confusion and frustration that came before it. I ended this movie feeling like I'd been put through a wringer--for no good reason. And while I often like Will Smith as both comedic and dramatic actor, in this film I found him incomprehensible, unconvincing and intrusive. So while, as noted above, I really, really wanted to like Seven Pounds, quite frankly I didn't. At all.

Sex Drive
2 stars

I have to hand it to Sean Anders and the people who put this film together: they are experts at just not taking themselves too seriously. If the theatrical movie itself does not convince you of that, watch the intro to the unrated version, and you will see exactly what I mean. But even without that five minutes of self-mockery, it is clear that Sex Drive is both going way over the top and making fun of movies that go way over the top. And in some ways, in doing so it ends up being quite hilarious. Clark Duke's character is a laugh a minute, and Seth Green contributes a priceless comprimario as a very worldly Amish man. And of course, the ending wraps up all the crazy hijinks in a perfect bow, which is practically necessary in a movie of this type.

Here's the thing, though. Despite the fact that some of this film's gags ended up being funny, more of them ended up entering the American Pie School of Pushing the Envelope for Its Own Sake. A dildo on a donut suit, Amish Girls Gone Wild, stripteasers for abstinence, a freaky trailer trash gas station cashier, lying over the internet to get virtually laid, the road trip gimmick itself, the huge level of patheticness evinced by the protagonist, and of course the hot best friend who falls in love with him...I'm thinking to myself "I can't believe they actually did that," and not in a good way.

In other words, after seeing three American Pies, both Van Wilders, both Waitings, three Road Trips, Animal House, both Porky's and There's Something About Mary, to say nothing of the respective collected works of Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow, I'm really becoming very inured to the type of puerile gags that Sex Drive is filled with. They are becoming progressively more predictable and progressively less funny. So what I'm sure Sean Anders et all felt was a great coming-of-age journey with substantial humor...wasn't. I really hope that the movie wasn't supposed to have undertones of Homer, because about the only thing Sex Drive has in common with The Odyssey is that both protagonists could have used a travel agent.

Oh, and I'm pretty sure this movie will be the end of James Marsden's career for a while. He's had so many great roles recently, and I've had him on a short list of the better character actors working today...and then he took his "angry yet latently homosexual older brother" role in this film (speaking of lame gags), and I lost literally 95% of the respect for him I previously had. I was mentioning his name along with Stellan Skarsgaard and Jean Reno; now I think of it along with Seann William Scott and Ryan Reynolds. What a waste.

Repo! The Genetic Opera
4 stars

Apparently people either loved or hated this movie. And I have to admit, even though I personally loved it, I can see why and how some people hated it. It was, after all, co-created by the same mind that created and directed part of the Saw series. Its premise is squeamish at best and somewhat sociopathic at worst, its post-apocalyptic setting is downright creepy, and the plot and characters are often more weird than sympathetic. But like the punk band Ludo's "Broken Bride Suite" and some of the more out-there and/or gory movies recently (from Pan's Labyrinth to Planet Terror to Sweeney Todd to Rendition...the list goes on), Repo! hides many great performances and heart-wrenchingly evocative characterization behind its curtain of blood and rubber. Anthony Stewart Head is masterful as the villain who is as much a victim as his own victims. Alexa Vega doesn't overdo her innocent curiosity. Terrance Zdunich steals several scenes as a high-belting goth graverobber/narrator. Sarah Brightman evinces great soiled dignity (and apparently can act as well as sing--who knew?). And Paris Hilton's face falls off--what more do you want?

Moreover, like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Repo! uses the medium of a rock opera to tell a spooky yet endearing story that shares as many roots with Rapunzel as it does with Blade Runner and Reservoir Dogs. The music isn't incredible, but what it lacks in depth it makes up for in energy--the post-apocalyptic world of Repo! is very well represented in the post-Rocky-Horror punk-Broadway soundtrack.

I've heard this film called a cult classic waiting for its cult, and I think that description makes a lot of sense. I hope that both the people who liked Saw and its ilk (I didn't) and the people who love rock operas (I do) will allow this movie to grow on them, so that cult following can be established. Repo! will probably never be mainstream, and in many ways it is quite ridiculous, but it is one of the most unique, hard-hitting, edgy and epic movies to hit video stores in 2009. It should be recognized and enjoyed as such.

Sukiyaki Western Django
2.5 stars

Lucky Number Slevin. War. Romeo Must Die. Arena. Hell Ride. Angel of Death. Big Trouble in Little China. Even Boondock Saints. There's something just incredibly thrilling and adrenaline-pumping about films that introduce one man (or small group) into a (rival) gang environment and have them just go to town on everyone involved, upsetting the carefully laid balance of the status quo for their own mysterious but very badass agenda. Sukiyaki Western Django, in the tradition of the spaghetti westerns that may have started the film genre I just described in the first place, features a lone wanderer with a hot gun hand who allows both red and white gangs to think he could become their secret weapon, while actually setting both up to hit each other and fall hard. And the whole thing is conceived by Quentin Tarantino. What could be more awesome, right?

Well, actually, quite a few things. For all that Sukiyaki was following a well-known and popular plot device, much of it seemed very incongruous. The all-Japanese cast, for instance, looked very out of place in a set reminiscent of the American West, especially since they all, with varying degrees of conprehensibility, spoke English. The color schemes of each clan--one red, one white--would likewise have fit in a modern LA gang story, or a rival American Indian tribe story, but in a Western they seemed overdone. Aside from white or black hats, the characters in westerns were not known for their colorful attire, as any color exposed to desert wind or mountain dust would quicky become washed out. Honestly, and I don't mean this to sound racist, in this film the colors really only seemed necessary for the American audience to delineate which Japanese actor was in which clan. Even the hero was not immediately recognizable except by the fact that he alone wore neither color. And the one non-Oriental character (played, of course, by Tarantino) contributes little to the film but confusing narrative and decrepitude.

The action in this film was actually pretty good, and once the hero's motivation became clear, the plot was fairly decent as well. But by the time most of those elements start appearing, unless it is made up of big fans of live-action Japanese films, the audience has most likely already checked out. That's pretty much what I did.

The Spirit
1 star

What a waste. This film had the World's Most Badass Man for its villain, it had Frank Miller himself at its helm, and it was chock-full of some of the most insanely sexy women alive today. And with all of those, it delivered...absolutely nothing of any substance. It looked and sounded like a low-rent Sin City, but where Sin City had wit, character, sleaze and punch, The Spirit had none of those. What it had was a guy who couldn't seem to make up his mind if he was a superhero or not (he had all of the ego but no powers or jurisdiction), and a bunch of women who either inexplicably couldn't resist him or equally inexplicably wanted to kill him. (Well, actually, given the nonexistent character development and Gabriel Macht's consummately flat performance, I think maybe the wanting to kill him was pretty explicable after all.) And for all that the women were gorgeous, they seriously got in the way of each other's screen time, so practically none of them got any development either. (And what was with their names? Sand Saref? MS Word should sue on behalf of its "sans serif" fonts. Plaster of Paris? Silken Floss? Give me a break. Even obvious film-noir fantasies like Sin City got taken far more seriously than that.) I feel especially sorry for Eva Mandes and Scarlett Johannson; as two very high-quality actresses, they took quite a hit appearing in this movie. In sum, I'm very glad I didn't see this film in the theatres; I'm very sure I'd have asked for my money back.

Slumdog Millionaire
4.5 stars

I've often called movies "Dickensian" when they take fairly disparate characters, events, places and ideas and tie them together in interesting and thought-provoking ways. It's a quality of storytelling and filmmaking that I really admire, and most movies that I would describe using that adjective tend to become favorites of mine. Slumdog Millionaire is not Dickensian...exactly. It doesn't quite have the feeling that one small character or occurrence near the beginning of the film suddenly becomes vitally important near that end, as many Dickensian films do. What it does have is a sense that EVERYTHING is connected, as each flashback Jamal experiences on the show is tied to a specific question he is asked, and thus provides him with each answer in a particularly unique way. That in itself is a pretty cool filmmaking scheme.

But where Slumdog Millionaire really stops being a good film and starts being a great one is when it takes a look at that pretty cool scheme and says "Okay, we're not going to use that all the time." Several of Jamal's answers he comes up with either by actual luck, by some basic deduction, or by purposefully doing what is not expected of him by the show's host--in other words, by being himself. This decision really showed that the film was about a person as a whole, not about a person who has had just the right experiences to beat a game show without cheating. The latter situation would merely be a film about coincidence. The former is a film about humanity. And as such, Slumdog Millionaire deserves every award it's gotten.

Another thing I often give movies props for is doing great work with unknown actors. I can't say how well-known any of Slumdog's actors are in India, but just how well this movie did with American audiences is a testament to how awesome its unknown-in-America actors did. There didn't even need to be a token American, as many films decide is necessary to make their film marketable in the States, and I think the decision not to include one (if such a decision was even made, lol) actually made Slumdog MORE marketable here rather than less. Not to mention a hell of a lot more genuine.

And while I'm talking about things I usually like about movies, I have to mention the fact that Slumdog had a happy ending. I know, I know, not EVERY film needs to have one of those, but when one builds up and builds up and builds up to a very expected ending, to torpedo that ending seems like an utter betrayal of the moviegoer by the filmmaker. (See also my reviews of Cube and 13: Game of Death.) There were a couple moments where I thought that Slumdog might go the same way, and my relief was immense when it did not. That's not to say that there were parts of Slumdog that were hard to watch, because there absolutely were. But the triumph that came out of that hardship and pain, no matter how cliche that triumph seemed, was well-earned, appropriate, and just plain felt amazing to watch.

Simply put, an amazing movie on all counts.

Okay, back to the grindstone. Thanks for reading!


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I really wanted to like Seven Pounds as well, I loove Will Smith. This movie was just confusing. Nothing made sense to me, I had no idea what I was watching.

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