Sunday, August 30, 2009

District 9--see it on DVD--no spoilers review

District 9 is a relatively low budget sci fi thriller set in South Africa that's had generally positive reviews by the critics--especially compared with Hollywood's usual crop of conceptually stale by-the-numbers summer action thrillers.

However, my wife found the violence and language too off-putting for her. I didn't mind that, but after seeing it in a theatre and going home and reading a bunch of reviews on the Rottentomatoes website, I was surprised to find that not one of them mentioned that this film was designed to be watched on a big screen TV at home.

To wit: it uses 16:9 big screen TV formatting rather than the normal movie theater widescreen ratio. And it's filled with tight close-ups and medium-range shots, which again optimizes it for TV viewing. Something like "Master and Commander" was great in a theatre, with beautiful, crisp, cinematography and shots that really exploited the movie theatre scale and format.

I'm not complaining about the director's choosing to optimize this film for DVD. Many films are, and that's fine. It's a good format, and I've enjoyed watching many films on our 46" Samsung LCD TV.

I am complaining about all those movie critics missing this fact, which was glaringly obvious in the first 5 minutes. If I'd known this I would have waited for the DVD.

BTW some critics didn't like the performance of Wikus, the central character. I thought he was fine, though, and so did my wife, and both of us are film buffs who love Kurosawa and other high art directors. He plays a doofus who's hamming it up for the documentary crew. But the actor isn't hamming. It's the character who is.

Some of these critics really should be working in a shoe store or something.

As sci fi films go, this isn't as fully realized as, say, "Serenity." OTOH the script is vastly better than anything George Lucas ever "wrote."

Really this is in the old Hollywood B movie tradition, with both that tradition's faults and virtues. It's gritty, downbeat, morally complex (think Todd Browning's "Freaks"), with an efficient plot and some very effective, somewhat grainy (purposely so) visuals. The image of the giant floating spacecraft is iconic.

So I'd say see it on your wide screen at home when it's released on DVD, or if you do go to a theater, sit farther back than you would normally; warn those with queasy eyes and ears to leave the room; and don't expect one of those everything-neatly-tied-with-a-bow endings.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Ponyo review: see it--on DVD, in Japanese, with subtitles

Few films even start to get at what my spouse and I experience in the ocean when we're scuba diving. But this does, a little. And the scene of the trawler scraping everything off the seabed should be made into a clip and distributed to every organization trying to save the sea from human depredation.

As for Ponyo--we liked it. Little kids will adore it. It's not as sublime as Spirited Away, but what is? It would make a great companion piece to My Neighbor Totoro, though, which is still pretty great company.

We're glad we saw it.

But--we saw it on our big screen TV, in Japanese, with English subtitles, on what appeared to be a legit DVD from Taiwan (if that's not an oxymoron.

So this is a preview of the DVD that will be shipped to American audiences, no doubt in a few months.

I say wait for the DVD. As other reviewers have noted, dubbing is an abomination in general, and that's true even for an anime where the mouths are rarely drawn closely enough for the different facial movements for different languages show. But still, it's a Japanese film, and even though everyone looks Caucasian, they act Japanese in every way. You really won't see the movie unless you see it in Japanese with English subtitles.

Just wait. I know it's hard if you're a Miyazaki fan, but do it anyway. Vote with your dollars for original language with subtitles.

While you're waiting you can always get the Swedish live action film about a pair of 12 year olds, titled \"Let the Right One In.\" It's out on DVD. (Just kidding--this is so not a film for little kiddies, and it's as dark as \"Ponyo\" is full of light. But I enjoyed both greatly.)


I posted that review on Amazon. It got a critical reply that said Miyazaki wanted us to see his films in theaters (necessarily dubbed, I think), and that we should support filmmakers we like through providing box office receipts. I said:

These are serious objections to what I said. I'll address the dub/subtitle issue, then the theatre/home issue.

1. Dub vs. subtitles: C.Moon urges deference to Miyazaki's desires that we see the film in a theater. But I'm sure Miyazaki also wants us to hear what he put on the sound track (at the price of having subtitles, I acknowledge).

I don't speak Japanese, but I know something about linguistics. English is something of a classless language, though to be sure all our dirty words come from the Angles and the Saxons who the French knights ruled over after 1066 AD, while most of our hoity-toity words came from those French masters. But Japanese is a stack of languages, each calibrated to your social class and that of the person you're talking to. For example, "I" in Japanese is watakushi, watak'shi, wata'shi, or boku, each variant successively more informal.

Likewise, while Americans behave differently depending on whether we're carousing in a bar or attending church, our body language doesn't differ as much as the Japanese culture mandates. For example, the angle with which you bow and the associated body language conveys important meaning about what you believe your social status to be relative to the person you're bowing to.

If you're listening to a Japanese movie in Japanese, you can see how their class-conscious spoken language and their class-conscious gestural/facial/body language go together. It goes way beyond lip-synch (which as I said isn't a problem with nearly all animation; not yet at least--someday I expect it will). Also, another review pointed to the care with which Japanese voice actors are cast, and their status in the Japanese arts. They are not an afterthought, and their work is generally serious and nuanced. And after you see a few dozen Japanese movies in Japanese, these nuances will start to come through. You might even consider getting one of those little Lonely Planet pocket guides with a phrasebook etc., or the like. This small investment will pay off handsomely.

Perhaps Disney picked the best American voice actors imaginable (though I get the impression they hire Big Names to goose box office, rather than necessarily the best in the business). But say they did. And also say that subtitles are also challenging to do. They'll never get all the nuances; it's just not possible. So either way you're viewing the movie through a filter that reduces your access to the total movie. You must pick your poison, and I could make an argument either way. It's not anywhere near as clearcut an issue as it with live action films, where I find the dubbing intolerable (except when it's intentionally used for humorous effect, a la Mystery Theater 3000).

I opt for subtitles, and in doing so I hope I'm pushing the distributors and the film makers to take subtitling seriously and do as good a job as possible.

The theater is a great place to take your young children to see Ponyo. I don't have children, however, and for me (except for a few "2001" ish films or ones in 3D) I've found viewing them at home provides a better viewing experience. However, that's only been true since I bought (through Amazon) a 46" 120Hz LCD screen TV coupled with a 6-speaker home theater.

Conversely, you can't see "2001" in a theater, even in a revival, because it requires Cinerama, which doesn't exist any more. And even for other films, the screens have gotten smaller and smaller. And the audience courtesy seems to have diminished correspondingly, with some people chattering with each other throughout the film.

We don't even have Blu-Ray, but the upconversion qualities of a modern DVD player, coupled with a screen this big in a smallish room (we live in a condo), the angle of view subtended by the screen from your eyeball is comparable to a back-row seat at the average cineplex.

And I can control my viewing environment far better than the theater viewer can. I actually find the bright neon EXIT signs somewhat distracting, for example. This TV replaced a 32" Sony Trinitron CRT TV, and I certainly agree that watching movies through that was grossly inferior to seeing a movie in a theater. I've heard, BTW, that the biggest regret big screen TV buyers have is that they didn't buy a big enough one. They went cheap and lived to regret it. I don't believe anything smaller than our 46" unit would be competitive with the theater experience, regardless of room size. Absolute scale matters.

The challenge is teaching the people you're watching it with to take the viewing experience seriously and not treat it as you might, say, like watching a lightweight sitcom.

It also lets fidgety children move around some and go to the bathroom, if they need to, without forcing you to miss 5 minutes of the film.

So though I laud C. Moon's desire to support Miyazaki with theater sales, I'm also supporting Miyazaki with DVD purchases, and with that support I'm also supporting making the DVD product as high quality as possible and not an afterthought. Interestingly, the price for a recent, non-BluRay DVD is pretty comparable compared to tickets for two.Miyazaki's movies deserve to be taken seriously. C. Moon and I agree on this. Where we differ is in what "taking serioiusly" consists of.

C. Moon and I went another round, with him pointing out the the DVD I'd watched was most likely a bootleg, the idea of writing film distributors and asking for a subtitled version for specialty theaters/late night viewings, and more about home vs. theater, with C. Moon alluding to watching films on a 5 ft. projection screen. I said:

Spinoza defined freedom as arranging your chains as comfortably as possible.

I think that's germane to the topic of seeing movies in theaters vs. on DVD. Actually Hollywood did figure out how to get film buffs like me back into theaters: 3D. It won't be possible in homes for years, and probably never on my own $2K investment.

We've seen "Bolt" and "Up" and in both the 3D was sublime--a far cry from "Bwana Devil" of the '50's with it's poke-you-in-the-eye crudity. Now try to imagine a 3D Miyazaki film.

As for bootleggery--like you I'm sure, I won't knowingly buy a bootleg DVD, nor allow my own DVDs to be copied for someone else, neither for money nor for free, unless they're out of print.

The Ponyo I saw was brought here by some friends who bought it in Taiwan while they were visiting relatives. They're holy rollers (hence honest I hope), and the packaging looked legitimate to my superficial inspection, but I know what percentage of Asian DVDs are boots (nearly all). It could only be played on a region-free player, however, since it wasn't region 1. So perhaps it is legit, else why do a bootleg with region copyright protection? I hope that's the case.

And the downside was that the friend's player didn't have the upconversion capabilities of my player. So I'll have to see it again when the American DVD is released.

I have a wish for DVD I hadn't mentioned--the hope that miniseries will someday be released straight to DVD, perhaps with TV airings of their pilots. So many shows I've loved have been cancelled (Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, Firefly, Life, to name a few) prematurely. Perhaps if DVDs become more accepted such series can continue on DVD. For example, DVD sales of Firefly were robust enough to justify a feature-length sequel in the theaters (which did a miniscule fraction of the business of a Star Wars film, despite being vastly better by any measure).

As for projection TVs--I think they're terrible. All that I've seen at least. Dim and grainy. My TV has true 1080p resolution and great contrast and saturation. It's really a different ballgame than any projection TV I've seen.

I do understand the argument for an immersive experience. That's why I saw "2001" 13 times in a Cinerama theater in San Francisco--not because the story itself was that great, but because at the time it was best way to experience deep space. I think it was far better than IMAX, which usually feels like sitting in the front row of a theater, even if I'm all the way back. And the form factor--pretty much square--is inferior to Cinerama's. Sigh.

"2001" is the most immersive movie I've ever seen. "Apollo 13" was good, too. "Lawrence of Arabia" of course. Perhaps Kurosawa's "Kagemusha" and "Ran." "Saving Private Ryan"'s first half hour. "Grand Prix."

Actually the most immersive experience most humans can have is scuba diving, which my spouse and I do. That's one reason I liked Ponyo so much, as my review noted. And no, I don't mean it's because you're immersed in ocean. It's the visual universe you experience underwater. Beyond amazing. We go diving in Indonesia pretty much every year, and I recommend it for any Miyazaki fan. His reverence for nature and appreciation of stillness dovetail perfectly with what we've experienced.

OTOH I can't immerse myself in a nice big theater when yahoos are talking around me. You can avoid that to some extent by going to the first matinee, but it's still a crapshoot. In an ideal world I'd have a wall-sized screen in our home or have the wherewithal to book a theater. I saw Jurassic Park that way (one of the computer companies involved had booked the theater and I got invited). That was pretty cool. And we certainly loved seeing "Bolt" and "Up!" in a theater.

Theater vs. home theater--from a viewer's perspective, each is better than the other. Pick your trade-offs.

If you want a truly cool theater experience, I recommend the movie theater in Casino Point in Avalon on Catalina Island, near LA, which is a fully restored Art Deco movie palace; the Stanford Theater here in Palo Alto, also fully restored (only shows old films though); and the Sony Metreon in San Francisco, which has 3D/Imax capabilities, and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, with fab projection facilities and an endless repertoire of art/foreign films. I practically lived there when I lived in Berkeley.

It's only in the last two years that home viewing became competitive with good theater viewing. If you haven't tried a state of the art LCD big screen--it's time. I realize the studios mostly make decisions based on theater box office, but I think this new technology is so good that this will change soon. Especially since with Amazon and whatnot it's possible to have discussions like this about movies--we aren't so dependent on mainstream promotion to decide what to see.

As for subtitles--not for a kid film in a theater, of course. Late night showing is an interesting idea. Reminds of those Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight showings that went on for decades. Would we all go dressed as anthroporphic fish?

BTW subtitles are a must for the hearing-impaired. We have a nearly deaf friend who always needs them even for movies in English. So for her our home theater is 100% preferable to a movie theater.

One last note--films can be immersive in ways other than visual. The French film "Ponette" immerses you in the inner world of 5 year old children--a remarkable achievement. Visually it looked made for TV, but that didn't matter a bit. Or the documentary "Born into Brothels" which will rip your heart out and squish it into little red bits, despite, again, being visually unpreposessing. Or another French film, "Water Lilies," which immerses you in the obsessions that can swamp the mind of a teenager (I wrote a review of in in Amazon--check it out). Or "Groundhog Day" the first Zen Hollywood comedy, which immerses you in time itself as a human dimension, or "Lost in Translation" which immerses you in stillness and unspoken longings. Or the art museum segment of Kurosawa's "Dreams," which immerses you in Van Gogh's head, or, similarly, "Being John Malkovitch"--I'm thinking of the Malkovitch Malkovitch restaurant scene.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Review of the vampire movie "Let the Right One In"

Reviewers like to tell you whether a movie is good or not, and whether they liked it or not.

But you want to know whether you'd like it...or not. Why should you care what I think, unless you know our tastes are the same? And you certainly don't want all the surprises in the film ruined for you.

So I'll try to help you decide whether to see this or not, without spoiling anything.

"Let the Right One In" is, above all, a serious movie. The concept, the plotting, the cinematography, the casting...everything serves a serious purpose--something like a meditation on what it means to have to take others' lives to keep your own...and what it means to know someone in this position. Of course none of us are, or know, vampires, but at the deepest level we have all taken advantage of others to help ourselves in some way at some time. Except my spouse, who's a saint, of course, just in case she reads this!

There's also the moral complexity that comes with the fact that many people who do great wrong to others often have a tender side. The family man who's a serial killer, the concentration camp commander who's a great father to his own children, the poet/dictator. Others are just monsters 24x7, but most have some redeeming traits. And such people are far more interesting than the Leatherfaces of the world. Even Saddam Hussein wrote poetry and doted on this children.

There is enough violence in "Let the Right One In" to justify an R rating, but none is gratuitous, and much is off-screen, in the manner of a good Hitchcock suspense movie, rather than some gorefest. The blood you see is there for good reasons, not just to shock you or titillate you.

It was done on a low budget by Hollywood standards. The sparse special effects are good enough to advance the plot but they aren't going to wow you by themselves. The actors are not Hollywood-beautiful, though I think the casting is perfect.

The main characters are children--more or less--but it's not a film for children (unless they're unusually deep children, if you know what I mean).

It's also not a film for those whose moviegoing expectations are entirely based on big-budget Hollywood movies.
I'm not criticizing such movies--I've seen many & loved many--but this ain't that.

In particular, many moviegoers want everything explained. This film doesn't do that. It explains nothing, actually. Not because the director wanted to keep you in the dark...but because a lot in life goes unexplained. Someone cuts you off on the freeway, nearly killing you, then vanishes into the night. You never know why he did that, and you'll never learn why. There were reasons, but you're not privy to them.

That's what this film delivers. Mostly you see things through the perspective of a 12 year old boy, and rarely know more than he knows. And the children in the film don't deliver long speeches explaining what they're up to, why they're the way they are, yada yada.

One reviewer hated this film because nothing is explained. He couldn't accept the fact that not all kids are highly self-aware extroverted, eloquent chatterboxes. "Where did you go?" "Out." "What did you do?" "Nothin'."

These kids are average kids in non-average circumstances. So are the adults and other kids around them.

You might also be disappointed if you're looking for a hero to a admire and a villain to boo. This film has neither.

I loved the TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel." Those have heroes, and their stories are the stories of the hero's journey. Their central characters are physically beautiful, their dialog is witty and knowledgable and often poetic. And the production values (after Buffy's first two seasons, which were shot in grainy 16mm) are great for late '90s TV. However, "Let the Right one in" is really, really different from these shows, and I'm sure it's equally different from Twilight.

Actually, it's a gritty, realistic vampire film, oxymoronic as that may sound. The closest equivalent to it that I can recall is the underrated Jude Law film "The wisdom of crocodiles." Or, more distantly, the Japanese TV anime show "Vampire Princess Miyu."

Finally, a word about the casting. The 12 year old boy is the whitest white boy I've ever seen this side of an albino. He perfectly embodies the quirky loner he portrays. The girl is also perfect, and while she's not Hollywood-pretty by any stretch, she has huge, hypnotic eyes--almost like the kids in those wretched Keane paintings you see at tourist art galleries, next to the clowns and seascapes. I couldn't think of any child actor today or earlier who could play this crucial part better. She's as well suited to this part as Peta Wilson was to playing La Femme Nikita in the eponymous TV series.

The working-class Swedes around them look the part perfectly as well.

The film isn't set in any beautiful urban setting, like you'd find in downtown Oslo or Gothenburg. It's set in a sea of utilitarian apartment blocks in a nondescript town, with the action taking place entirely in a Swedish winter. It's the beauty of bleak.

I loved this film myself, but I don't want you to get it or watch it unless what I've said here suits you. If you do buy it, please manage the expectations of those you see it with. The pace is generally slow by Hollywood terms--necessary to generate the needed atmospherics. However, the story is linear, and ultimately not obscure at all except for not explaining how the people you see got there in the first place. So it's not hard to follow at least.

It has now been several days since I saw this with my brother, who had the same feelings about it as I did. The film has stuck with me. You know how some films you see then forget the instant the screen goes dark? This isn't one of those. It's haunting. I didn't actually figure out the true nature of the two central characters' relationship until the next day, after the film had percolated through my brain for a while. I won't say what that is, since I promised no spoilers. But it will send chills up your spine.

And here's one moment to look for. You know how vampires can't enter your home unless you invite them in? (hence the title of this movie BTW) Watch what happens in this movie when that rule is tested. You'll remember this scene for the rest of your life, and I'm not talking about gore.