Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Guest Blogger: Mabel Vautravers: Desu nôto (Death Note) (2006)

Although the live-action adaptation of the Japanese manga Death Note did not lack for interesting plot twists or originality, its ultimate downfall is in the fact that its leading man generates so little sympathy.

Bozo meets the Grim ReaperDeath Note revolves around university student Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara) who finds himself in possession of a journal called the “Death Note.” Inside the Death Note are instructions on how to use it and also a lot of blank pages. Although rules of conduct and tips for usage are revealed to the audience throughout the movie, let me break it down like this: You write somebody’s name in the Death Note and 10 seconds later they die of a heart attack. Anybody, anywhere. If you want something snazzier than an out-of-the-blue heart attack, the owner of the Death Note can even specify what time, what place and other details of their victim’s final moments. The Death Note’s former owner, Ryuk (Shido Nakamura), a creepy-ass CGI-ed “Death God” who looks like he was taken right out of Guitar Hero, hangs out with Light for no apparent reason other than some comic relief.

After a brief period of skepticism about the Death Note’s actual power, Light starts in on his reign of criminal terror. This is where your initial endearment to our passionate protagonist begins to wane. Light goes from killing a few convicted murderers, to pretty much massacring anyone who shows up on his television screen. His initial good intentions transform into something more sinister. You know that when your friendly neighborhood Grim Reaper is telling you that you’re “worse than a Death God, a true devil” things are bad.

I actually really liked this movie. I was drawn in by the whole concept of the Death Note and the Reapers. I liked the way Good Vs. Evil was portrayed; was killing these criminals actually “ridding the world of evil and fear” as Light at one point proclaims, or is he being unfair, killing so mercilessly and without proper evidence? This movie does not get a five out of five stars for me because besides taking on an erratic, yet unnecessarily leisurely pace Light’s actions toward the end of the movie lose their sympathetic, understandable edge and dive straight into the realm of out and out sadism without any explanation as to why.

Here’s hoping the sequel will kick it up a notch.

Director: Shusuke Kaneko

Country: Japan

Genre: Supernatural crime thriller

Run time: 126 minutes

Scale: 4

Mabs Mabel Vautravers is a happening teen, newly arrived in the US after four years in Denmark. She likes Japanese cinema, punk and edamame. She hopes her stomping will take her places. (Editor's note: Keeping our fingers crossed.)

The Lookout (2007)

Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a janitor. He works after-hours at a bank. He has a serious brain injury and struggles with everyday tasks. A car accident left the former high school athlete on a radically different path than the one he started on. But, Chris, has made strides. He learned to write notes to himself to remind him to shower, find the can opener and make dinner. Lewis (Jeff Daniels) is Chris' blind roommate. He brings light to Chris' lonely life. He is Chris' wing man; his Litmus test for this carefully paced life.On a quest

(Spoiler Alert: Read at Your Own Risk!)

Then, the bad guys enter, of course. When they do, it's disappointing--they are flat and predictable. They befriend Chris and flatter him. They ply him with Luvlee (Isla Fisher) (did they need to assign her a lame name?). They believe their fake friendship will make Chris comply with their plan, but he doesn't fool as they'd hoped. It's not until his goal of upwardly moving at the bank is dashed by "the man," that Chris turns. There's also, Deputy Ted (Sergio Di Zio), the bumbling cop who nightly checks in on Chris, bringing him donuts and backhanded insults.

I discussed this movie with someone who survived a car accident with resulting brain damage. She had to relearn how to brush her teeth. She had to get reacquainted with family and friends because the only person she recognized was her mother. Suddenly, the movie felt more authentic. I still have issues with the 1-D characters but the rest has more grit. The true standouts are Levitt's Pratt and Daniel's Lewis. When these two share scenes, forgot about it, they bring it to the us, the lucky viewers. The ending has a dash of clever; it's also tied together too neatly with some hard-to-believe bits and ultimately, unsatisfying.

Writer/Director: Scott Frank

Country: US

Genre: Drama/Thriller

Run time: 95 minutes

Scale: 3

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Vals Im Bashir (Waltz with Bashir) (2008)

This documentary-meets-animation story begins with two friends trying to recall an experience. Ari Folman meets with friend and fellow veteran of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. He recounts to Ari a recurring dream that he's being chased by a savage pack of dogs. Is there a connection to their service in the war? Ari, not able to recall that period, embarks on a memory-reconstructing mission. He tracks down other fellow veterans and as he interviews each one, his own memories start returning and we are right there with him and the interviewees, piecing it together.

The animation is stunning and lines are contorted and jerky to convey the atmosphere of living amidst war. The ominous dark shades contrast nicely against the rich muted tones. So surreal, I often forgot I was watching an autobiographical tale and not fiction. Spots of humor are carefully placed. There's also a detail reminiscent of filmmaker John Hughes (RIP)--many scenes depict background activity while maintaining the main action in the foreground, adding to the already rich eye candy. However, you never get away from the war and its atrocities. As a civilian, I often hear about war, yet watching this made me realize how abstract it is to me. I don't visualize what it would be like to be left behind in enemy territory after most of your troop has been executed while running from the enemy. Waltz with Bashir is a tale of survival, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the folly of war. The movie ends with live footage of the aftermath of a particularly bloody mission--the culmination of war and the horrors Folman struggles with and hopes aren't repeated.

Writer/Director: Ari Folman

Country: Israel

Genre: Animation, documentary

Run time: 89 minutes

Scale: 5

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

El Vez at the 2009 35th Annual Ballard Seafood Fest (July 25)

El Vez--the Mexican Elvis--and the Elvettes put on a sweat shakin' performance, even after 20 years. At the recent Seafood Fest, I had the pleasure of watching El Vez and the Elvettes sing, dance and connect wtih the crowd (and a huge one turned out). On a sweltering Saturday with temps well into the 90s, El Vez and the Elvettes didn't shortchange their numerous fans. Complete with costume changes, back-up band and bountiful energy, El Vez and the Elvettes are an act to savor. If you've never seen them, it's a treat and the outdoor stage added to the excellent vibes.

Le Tigre El Vez

Part of the show?







 Just a caterpillar...






  The butterfly emerges














 Funhouse El Vez

If you read my Greenwood Seafair Parade blog entry, you know about the plethora of drill teams who participated and will understand the next picture detailing the beer garden sponsor:

Creating an empire

The Schneider keychain







 The Smokeshop barmaids (and bystander)















Troll Wrap







The End

Monday, August 17, 2009

Weeds, Season 4 (2008)

Nancy and the Gang Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) is officially a thug. In previous seasons, she signed on to thughood reluctantly; in Season 4, however, she indulges in it. The soccer-mom-who-never-was turns unscrupulous dealer. She's got some standards--when heroin and cocaine enter the realm, she doesn't want any part of it; it's the human trafficking that unhinges her. With Captain Roy Till (Jack Stehlin) still on the trail of the elusive operators of the burned down grow house, Nancy, Doug (Kevin Nealon), Andy (Justin Kirk), Silas (Hunter Parrish) and Shane (Alexander Gould) devise a plan to throw the DEA off their scent, at least for a while.

Season 4 kicks off with the Botwins fleeing Majestic after the fires burn down the community. They find themselves in Del Mar with Andy and Judas' father, Lenny, (Albert Brooks) and grandmother, which present struggles. Nancy's season 4 love interest is a handsome Mexican mayor, Esteban Reyes (Demián Bichir), who is also a narcotics trafficker. Has Nancy finally gotten in too deep? Don't forget what I said--Nancy Botwin is now a thug. Each time another season of Weeds ends, it gets more complicated and tense. You fear time is running out for Nancy and the crew, but it takes effort to keep a resourceful thug down.

Weeds has created the new anti-hero. Is it social commentary? What point does the series make about pot and its illegality? What about Nancy's role as an absent mother? Part of the reason she is absent is because she's making the bacon, but she also gets off on the thrill of this life that's sometimes dangerous, often risky and rarely quiet. Andy and Silas get closer in Nancy's absence and both fill the missing father role for Shane. The message of Weeds is tricky...depending on who you ask and what s/he gets from it. Certainly, any any conversation that ensues after watching the show will be spirited. Looking forward to Season 5.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

12 (2007)

The jolting opening scene doesn't prepare you for what follows in 12, a remake of 12 Angry Men (1957). It begins as the trial of a Chechen teen accused of murdering his soldier stepfather has just finished and jury deliberations are about to start. Because of courthouse construction, the school connected to same building allows the court to use their rooms. The school gym becomes the setting for the deliberations. They predictably start with 11 of the 12 jurors ready to return their guilty verdicts. When the lone not-guilty juror explains his position, we learn about motivations and backgrounds, which affects each of the juror's vote. The humor stands out--you get stoic deliveries, theatrics, slapstick and silly jokes. The movie occasionally dips into melodrama. It goes long and, at times, preachy, especially with so many litanies. The music conspires to escalate the tension while moving along the story.

All this said, the movie provides edgy social commentary on juries and the court system. You learn differences about the Russian legal system and also about racial tension between Russian and Chechnya. They didn't identify an alternate juror (maybe it would've screwed up the title) and the defendant was kept in a cell resembling a cage in the back of the courtroom. What was similar is the aversion to jury service. These jurors wanted to get out of there as soon as possible and return to life and work. (Most of the jurors I've served with have been considerate and engaged, but they often want to get back to work as soon as possible.)

12 was nominate for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. Watch it and don't miss the gags, symbolism and atypical ending. Plus, there is a juror who is a dead ringer for the late John Candy.

Writer/Director: Nikita Mikhalkov (co-written with Aleksandr Novototsky)

Country: Russia

Genre: Crime drama

Run time: 157 minutes

Scale: 4