Movie Review: Okuribito (Departures) (2009)

August 29, 2009 in Movie Reviews by pacejmiller

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I don’t usually review movies that are not ‘new’ at the cinemas, but in the case of ‘Okuribito’ (aka ‘Departures’), the Japanese film that won Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Academy Awards, I’ll have to make an exception.

Quite simply put, it is the best film I have seen in quite some time.  Without giving away too much, it is the story of how an ordinary man unwittingly becomes an Okuribito – a person who prepares the deceased for their ‘departure’.

As often is the case with movies about death, Okuribito is very much about life.  It is at its core a moving drama, infused with incredible sadness, but at the same time director Yojiro Takita has managed to blend in much humor without losing sight of the film’s message.  It is also very Japanese – and even though I consider myself acquainted with Japanese culture I found the film to be educational in many ways.

okuribito

To me, the film’s strength lies in its ability to remain touching without becoming overly melodramatic or sentimental (some may disagree on this point).  Much credit must go to the seamless cast, which will be largely unknown to Western viewers – Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki and Ryoko Hirosue (some might remember her from the film Wasabi with Jean Reno).  Each character has a story to tell.  Even the minor characters have subplots that are likely to leave lasting impressions.  From the blazing orchestral score to the haunting cinematography, it’s a deserving Oscar winner in every respect.

Highly recommended.

5 out of 5 stars!

[PS: It seems my blog has recently turned into a movie/book review blog.  Unfortunately I had accumulated a huge backlog of such posts so I felt I had to get them out first before I could re-focus on writingOkay, from now on, back to work on the novel!]

Movie Review: The Ugly Truth (2009)

August 27, 2009 in Movie Reviews by pacejmiller

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Expectation can be a funny thing.  When I first saw the poster for ‘The Ugly Truth’ directed by Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde and 21), I had zero interest.  None whatsoever.  Sure, it had King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and the pretty girl who starred in and then trashed Knocked Up, the film that made her a star (Katherine Heigl), but I couldn’t even care to find out what it was about.

But then a friend told me his wife watched it and thought it was pretty good.  My brother-in-law then recommended it.  A third person (who I can’t recall) suggested I should watch it.  And so I found myself watching ‘The Ugly Truth’, all of a sudden expecting it to actually be a great film!

Well, I came out of the cinema perplexed.  The film wasn’t as terrible as I had expected when I saw the poster for the first time, but it was miles off the superior romantic comedy I had anticipated when I stepped into the theatre.

I don’t like giving away the plot of any film, so I’ll keep it brief.  ‘The Ugly Truth’ (about male-female relationships) is what Gerard Butler’s character spews out unashamedly on his TV show, and Katherine Heigl is a TV producer who tries to prove that his theories are untrue.  Think He’s Just Not That Into You but with only 2 characters (yes, I watched that too…).

The film’s biggest problem is predictability.  Anyone who has seen more than a couple of rom-coms will be able to guess exactly what happens in ‘The Ugly Truth’ several scenes in advance.  Think of the most cliched situations possible and chances are you will see them in this film.  There were definitely a few ‘this better not happen next’ moments, followed by ‘I can’t believe it really happened!’ moments.

It does, of course, attempt to separate itself from other rom-coms with the vulgarity and political-incorrectness of the conversations and jokes.  More sensitive viewers may be turned off, but the younger generation that grew up on American Pie, Superbad and The 40 Year Old Virgin may find the jokes more down their alley.  However, most of the jokes didn’t elicit more than a subdued chuckle from me.  It was no more or less funny than your typical rom-com starring Katherine Heigl (eg Knocked Up, 27 Dresses).

Cheryl Hines and John Michael Higgins

Cheryl Hines and John Michael Higgins

So in the end, a bit of a disappointment.  I do like the leads and I am a  fan of John Michael Higgins (everybody’s second favourite lawyer on Arrested Development, Wayne Jarvis).  Some of the ‘wisdoms’ espoused by Butler’s character also ring true to me, as I am sure they will to many other male viewers (and I believe this is probably where the film’s charm lies).  But at the end of the day, ‘The Ugly Truth’ is an average, somewhat forgettable film with just a passable laugh quotient.

2.5 stars out of 5

[PS: I kept waiting for the moment where Butler would scream ‘THIS – IS – THE UGLY TRUTH!!’ and then kick Heigl down an endless black pit.  Then flex his abs.  That alone would have been worthy of 2.5 stars.]

Book Review: ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy

August 24, 2009 in Book Reviews by pacejmiller

The movie tie-in version of Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road'

The movie tie-in version of Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road'

I first heard about Pulitzer winner ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy from one of my bosses at work a couple of years ago.  He couldn’t stop talking about this harrowing tale about a nameless father and son duo, making their way across the country in post-apocalyptic America with nothing but the clothes on their backs, a pistol, and each other.

Sounded promising, but it wasn’t until I was in the UK that I decided to have a look at it – and I must admit, my first attempt, in the Borders at Cambridge, ended up with me dozing off.  My second attempt, at the same Borders, didn’t fare much better.  I barely made it past the first hundred pages.

It wasn’t that it was badly written – in fact it was the opposite – but I just couldn’t get into it for some reason.  A lot of short snippets and images, casual dialogue, searching for and consuming food – over and over.  It was repetitive and monotonous, and felt like the story wasn’t heading anywhere.

HOWEVER, I didn’t give up on the book.  After my fellow blogger at theninthdragonking convinced me to give it another go, I bought the book on special and started from the beginning again.  And this time, I took my time, trying my best to imagine and visualise the type of world the characters were living in.  After the first hundred or so pages (which I still found a little slow and repetitive), I started to understand what all the fuss is about.  Of course, the fact that more stuff happened helped, but it was the harrowing images that McCarthy burned into my brain, and the touching relationship between father and son, that eventually got to me.

The world which McCarthy creates is dark, cold and terrifying, and I don’t just mean the natural elements.  Cannibalism, slavery and even catamites (for those who don’t know what they are, see here).  The darkest side of humanity is in full display.  It’s sickening and yet somehow rings true.  It is a warning to us all, but at the same time it is just a simple story about the unconditional love a father feels for his son and their will to survive.  It’s the type of book that can continue to haunt you long after you’ve turned the final page.

McCarthy is a brilliant writer.  He doesn’t waste words and he doesn’t colour his images with unnecessary or flowery descriptions.  You would probably see no more than a couple of adverbs every five pages.  That’s definitely something I can learn from.  Sure, for some reason he disregards a lot of punctuation in this book (speech and apostrophes in particular), but I didn’t have a problem with it.  I wouldn’t submit my manuscript like that, but he’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, so he can do whatever he wants!

I’m very interested in seeing the movie adaptation starring Viggo Mortensen and directed by Australian director John Hillcoat, to be released in October 2009.  It’s a difficult book to adapt in so many ways, so I hope they can pull it off.  If it’s anywhere near as good as what they did with No Country For Old Men then it will be awesome.

4 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

August 23, 2009 in Movie Reviews by pacejmiller

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One thing I’ve always liked about Quentin Tarantino movies is that they are unpredictable.  You may know the basic outline of the story, but rarely do you know where the scene is heading.  Anything can happen.  Anyone can die.  You just go along for the ride and have fun.  His latest, Inglourious Basterds, is an entertaining, enjoyable film that contains much of Tarantino’s trademark dialogue, humour, gratuitous violence and wacky characters, but it’s not quite the Tarantino masterpiece I had hoped for.

Inglourious Basterds is set once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France, and tells a two-pronged, history-altering tale through 5 interrelated parts.  The less known about the plot the better, or it would spoil some of the neat little surprises (isn’t it always the case?).  Let’s just say there are Nazi hunters, Jew hunters, SS officers, movie stars and cinema owners.  As Tarantino intended, it feels like a western movie set during World War II (complete with western-style music).

Each of the 5 parts has a lot of build up, filled mostly with engaging dialogue.  And that’s the great thing about Tarantino – he can fill a scene with slow, creeping tension just from a couple of guys talking.  However, I got the feeling that Tarantino may have fallen in love with the story and the characters of his own movie too much.  Some of the conversations were just too long and occasionally felt a little tedious – and this is coming from someone who loves Tarantino’s dialogue.  The movie is 2 hours and 29 minutes long, but perhaps could have been about 15-20 minutes shorter to make the overall package a little tighter. 

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Christoph Waltz is dynamite as Colonel Hans Landa

That’s my main complaint.  Everything else was pretty darn marvellous.  From the meticulous sets to the costume designs to the camera angles, it’s clear Tarantino knows what he’s doing.  Like some of Tarantino’s best works, there are several memorable scenes and images that fans will no doubt re-enact themselves with a chuckle.  And needless to say, the acting from the ensemble cast was superb.  Brad Pitt is hilarious as Aldo Raine, the leader of the Basterds (though entirely replaceable in my opinion), and Eli Roth is both creepy and amusing as the ‘Bear Jew’.  Michael Fassenbender also impressed me with his screen presence as Lt Archie Hilcox.  Of the two main female cast members, French actress Melanie Laurent outshines Diane Kruger, though both are excellent.  The one that absolutely blew me away, however, was Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who deservingly won the Best Actor Award at Cannes for his portrayal of the brilliant Colonel Hans Landa.  If the Oscars were held now he’d definitely get my vote for Best Actor.

4 out of 5 stars!

Movie Review: District 9 (2009)

August 20, 2009 in Movie Reviews by pacejmiller

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District 9 is a film that I really liked but wish I liked more.

Produced by Peter Jackson and directed by Neill Blomkamp (previously best known for his 3D animations), the film has an original and fascinating premise with a political message – aliens stranded in Johannesburg, South Africa and segregated by an apartheid government into the titular District 9 (a reference to the infamous South African ‘whites only’ District Six of 1966).

However, the film was not as political as I expected – while it may have started off that way, before long it morphed into your more typical action sci-fi film, complete with an impossible mission, robots and alien blasters.

Stylistically, the movie was also somewhat uneven.  It commenced with a documentary-infused style which utilises a mixture of news footage, interviews and a ‘live’, nausea-inducing hand-held cam (which made my wife ill).  It was fresh but after half-an hour of it I was beginning to get sick of it (both mentally and physically).  But as the film started to become more personal and action-oriented (and for where news cameras would not have been available), it started to return to more traditional film-making and story-telling techniques.  Strangely, it was at this point that I began to really enjoy the movie.  Perhaps it was because characters finally started emerging and plot started moving.  Regardless, it was fun.

Speaking of characters, the human actors are largely unknowns (to me anyway), and they put in credible performances.  The lead actor, Sharlto Copley who plays Wikus van de Merwe, really annoyed me at the beginning but he grows on you as the film progresses.

Needless to say, the special effects were seamless.  So was the make-up.  I especially liked the alien design, a far cry from your slim, grey-skinned extra-terrestrial with the big black eyes.  They were funny (and provided much comic relief) but human enough for audiences to relate when required.

So overall, an unusual, solid film – one that I’m likely to remember a few years from now.  There were some glaring plot holes and inconsistencies, but District 9 is impressive enough in most other areas for me to recommend it.

3.5 stars out of 5!

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