Picofarad #25 movie review

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Sucker-Punch (2011)

Review by Chris French

Directed by Zack Snyder
Running Time: 110 minutes

This is it, then-- the first-ever proper live-action feature-length anime movie. Original story-- check. Over-the-top-rope multilayered story-check. Ultraviolence to make Alex from A Clockwork Orange a happy little droogie-- check. Females who can get it done while wearing stripperific costumes... focus, French, focus....

The focal character in this is known only as "Baby Doll", played by Emily Browning-- Violet Baudelaire is all growed up, now. And apparently, Count Olaf won-- our heroine is packed off to a Home For The Emotionally Interesting after a series of unfortunate events [ahem] involving her stepfather, her sister, a firearm, and violation of Safe Weapon Handling Rule Number Two ("Verify the area around your target", to ensure, among other reasons, a bullet can't ricochet...). She is cued up for a frontal lobotomy in best 1950s style-- and that's when the movie's LSD habit kicks in. Suddenly she is now a slave (for lack of a better word) in a period strip-club, where everyone in the loony bin is now working in the club, where she is expected to dance for customers; but the only way for her to dance is to slip into another fantasy world, where the aforementioned ass-kicking in +5 Armor of Male Attention Distraction occurs. And all the while, she is planning with other girls to escape the club-- or is she?

If this is starting to sound like "Inception plus Wizard of Oz plus 'Bohemian Rhapsody'"-- um, I know I say this a lot, but: there is a reason for this.

As I wrote earlier, this is, for all intents and purposes, an anime using live-action and CGI instead of animation-- in the course of the festivities, our heroine takes on a Japanese statue wielding a Gatling cannon; a brace of steam- powered WW1-German zombies, plus a zeppelin and some other random Fokkers; a dragon (with our heroine and crew using a B-25 bomber against it, no less); and a group of cyborgs on a monorail. Simply spoken of, the above makes no sense whatsoever; yet in the flick itself, it makes perfect sense. (Though I did find myself wondering exactly what Mr. Snyder was putting on his pancakes in the morning; it makes Bill Lee's marijuana flapjacks look like a McDonald's Happy Meal.) Scott Glenn's role as the Yoda-figure simply puts the icing on the weird cake (was Sam Elliott unavailable?).

That all of the top-tier dream sequences, the first-tier dream sequence, and the reality of the situation are all tied together neatly shows Mr. Snyder knows his business, which is a damned sight more than can be said for a lot of writer-directors these days. I suppose one could complain the ending, and the use of the freeze-action-then-kick-into-overcranked-mode filming device, are a little too reminiscent of a previous Snyder flick, 300 (particularly considering how the heroine achieves "victory"), but these are minor quibbles. (Plus, there's sort-of two Queen songs on the soundtrack, which makes up for a lot.) Overall, this is a live-action flick for those who have always wanted to see an anime whose characters weren't long-time denizens of Uncanny Valley-- it warrants a Watch.

Source Code (2011)

Directed by Duncan Jones
Running Time: 93 minutes

Source Code is directed by the same guy who was largely responsible for Moon. That should be enough reason to see it.

But since I've got to fill out this review space, let's talk plot. As a commuter train makes its way through IMAX nature film footage outside Chicago, Coulter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up in the body of a history teacher named Sean Fentress. Before he can completely work out what's going on, the train is bombed and he finds himself back in an experimental capsule in the middle of a secret military research project (is there ever any other kind of military research in movies?). Stevens is being hooked up to the brain of a blast survivor, reliving the last few minutes of his life to try to find out who the bomber is.

As you watch the next couple tries, you will be thinking it can't possibly work the way it's working. Here is where most movies require you to stop thinking in order to enjoy them. But in this case, you're right, the writer (Ben Ripley) knows it, and a more satisfactory explanation will be coming by halfway.

Source Code is a "thriller", but that hardly does it justice. It's solid sf with a piece of murder mystery built in. Special effects occur, but they are kept firmly at the service of the plot at all times. The only unintelligent thing about this movie is the title (sorry, computer programmers, no actual programming is involved).

Movies hardly ever feel too short these days, but this one manages it. After 93 minutes, there are enough legal, ethical, and practical questions to fill a sequel. But some part of me hopes they never make one; it can't be as much fun as speculating about the answers.

Cars 2 (2011)

Directed by John Lasseter and Brad Lewis
Running Time: 106 minutes

As many of you know, one of Pixar's guiding principles is that it never ever stoops to making a sequel, unless it is called for, nay, absolutely demanded by the lure of enormous merchandising sales. Thus was ordained not only Cars 2, but likely many more to come. (This is also probably the reason it comes with a Toy Story short, about which the only meaningful thing to say is that viewers of a certain age should be warned that the animators thought it would be funny to throw in a photo of an actual shark.)

So we return to Radiator Springs, where Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) is hoping to enjoy a quiet off-season. Almost immediately, due to an unfortunate confluence of Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), a big-screen TV, and alcohol (kids, this is why you shouldn't drink), he finds himself preparing for the Race of Champions World Grand Prix, with events in three highly photogenic cities, starting with Tokyo. Almost immediately upon arriving there, the truck himself is dragged into the middle of a plot involving a conspiracy to sabotage the series and the efforts of two secret agents to stop it.

Thus the two plotlines are set: the Mistaken Identity Idiot Plot, and Ignatz the Egg, the old chestnut where everyone hates Ignatz, or rather Mater, because he's weird and ugly, but eventually it turns out he has some special talent and everyone learns a valuable lesson about friendship. At this point in the typical Pixar movie, you can just make a checklist of the standard plot points and check them off in the expected order.

But Cars 2 goes a little further-- maybe just from necessity, but it's welcome nonetheless. The most fun can be had watching the spy gadgetry in action. Someone had to engage their higher brain functions to rework everything for anthropomorphic cars, and the result is fascinating.

Sadly the brains were switched right back off again for the rest of the movie. Someone completely missed, for instance, that the two utterly British secret agents are in fact Swedish (a Volvo and a Konigsegg, according to my in-house automotive specialist). Someone also failed to ask, "Could we make the implications about the disabled less disturbing?" (Although if that bothers you, you were outright apoplectic at the apparent message in The Incredibles that everyone needs to be kept down in order for a few people to feel special, and this will feel comparatively mild.)

The fact that it is possible to get annoyed about these things is enough demonstration that Cars 2 rises beyond the typical mechanically produced Pixar fare, but only to the level of a summer popcorn flick. Don't feel bad about waiting for it to show up on basic cable.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, parts 1 & 2 (2010/2011)

Review by Chris French

Directed by David Yates (both)
Running Time: 146 minutes (pt. 1) / 130 minutes (pt. 2)

OK, first order of business: You're asking "why one review for two movies?" I reply "It's two parts of one movie, or did the 'Part 1' and 'Part 2' parts of the title slip past you like Harry into Hogwarts?"

Which leads to the first Big Question: "Did this story need two parts to be told?" The answer is a Jeremy-Clarkson-esque "Nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnno." In fact, the first movie's important points-- departing the Dursleys; establishing what the titular plot devices are (and the animation sequence giving the story of the Hallows is absolutely excellent); annoying Ron; killing Dobby-- could have been dealt with in about 40 minutes; if I wanted to watch extended camping sequences, I'll get the DVDs for Man vs. Wild (which leads inexorably to a really unfortunate suggestion as to what other cast-offs of a person can be put into Polyjuice Potion-- but this is a family-friendly 'zine). When I inevitably get the DVDs for The Editor of this august periodical for Christmas (oops...), I may try editing together my own 3-hour edition, just to show that if I can do it, it could as easily have been done by the studio. At any rate, the first movie is pretty-much gratuitous; fast-forward to the relevant bits, and move on to the second part.

Ah, the second part-- the one people like me have truly been waiting for: Running gun-battles in the halls of Hogwarts, and stacking students up like cordwood. Except, of course, the makers suffer from one salient handicap: They're making a kids' movie, which means they can't show the real effects of war anyway. So we get a lot of shots of crumbled buildings (yes, Britain, we get it-- you got bombed within living memory; you know what rubble looks like), the odd person lying on the ground inert, and a lot of distant shots of people flicking sticks toward one another. Given my personal DVD collection includes films like 300, I think I can be forgiven for being entirely unimpressed with the battle sequences Part 2 provides; I distinctly remember thinking, "You know, most of those spells are Ranged Weapon Fire; could we perhaps come up with assault tactics slightly more advanced than "a buttload of Token Mooks charge headlong towards a nice narrow bridge-- does the phrase 'running the gauntlet' mean anything to anyone? I didn't know Voldemort was the reincarnation of Ambrose Burnside at Rohrbach Bridge." Moreover, we get to see exactly one Bad Guy properly killed by a Good Guy during the entire course of the two parts (OK, it's actually one Bad Girl killed by one Good Girl; and that should tell you exactly who each of the characters in question are); the rest of the time, Bad Guys simply get flung into the distance, so we wind up with the cinematic equivalent of the trolls on FAILblog who comment every video with "did he died"? ATTENTION FILM-MAKERS: It is permitted for Good Guys to kill Bad Guys, and it is permitted for you to show Good Guys killing Bad Guys.

And what genius thought it would be a good idea to kill off Snape, and then have Alan Rickman demonstrate his dramatic chops? It's a sad comment when a character's best work is done after he's been killed off. At least Neville Longbottom gets to take a level in badass, and live to tell the tale.

One other serious issue, though this is a problem with the book itself as much as the movies: There are entirely too many characters to keep track of. There is footage of a werewolf Death Eater killing and starting to eat a Hogwarts student; the problem is, rather than thinking "Oh, no-- a student is dead", I'm thinking "who the hell are these two, and why should I care?" I understand war is chaotic, but most well-made war movies manage to ensure the viewer knows who is who; DH's makers assume the viewer knows who is who-and every soldier knows the rest of the cadence-call for "A-double-S, U, M, E", right?

So, in the end, the purists will be dismayed by the cutting-down of material from the book; and cineasts will be left wondering what in Hell is going on. There are some enjoyable parts, but ironically DH is "a fine messenger to summon Death, for it takes a long time about its business", and doesn't rate any higher than an Eh.

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