Monday, March 24, 2008

Ocular Optometrical - Vol. 2: Recent Rentals

Too tired to watch subtitles lately, but made it through:


Joshua (2007)
- An enjoyable little horror-thriller starring Sam Rockwell & Vera Farmiga as a professional couple (very much from a yuppie template for the new millennium) coping with the birth of their new daughter along with Jacob Kogan, their slightly-off, over-achieving 1st born. The movie does a great job of twisting tighter and tighter as the family's life spirals out of control and you are kept wondering if everyone could just benefit from a little sleep, if the little boy suffers from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or if he's Rosemary's Baby part 2. The movie obviously doesn't have a huge budget, but smartly fits the story well within that framework and relies on a solidly creepy performance by Jacob Kogan to keep you guessing until the last frame. 3.5/5 stars.


K Street (2003)
- This HBO series, a melodramatization of the real world of Lobbying firms, hooked me in the 1st episode by including presidential hopeful Howard Dean getting coached on his debate strategy. It just reminded me of how ludicrously railroaded out of that primary he truly was. Directed by Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brokovich, Oceans 11...), the series tracks James Carville & Mary Matalin, playing themselves, as they set up a fictional lobbying firm in DC and deal with the quid-pro-quos of the business. The characters bump up against a lot of real Senators, Representatives & media type and they make lots of gentle jabs at real issues. It's presented very dryly, with a lot of Soderbergh's telltales like hand-held cameras, mussed hair and desaturated colors, but the style suits it. Some of the storylines surrounding the fictional partners at the firm get a little too soap-opera sordid but the introduction of the ripped-from-the-headlines Plamegate really gives the 1-season show its anchor. 3/5 stars.


Night Of The Living Dorks (2006)
- A German, high school, zombie comedy, Night Of The Living Dorks doesn't really reach for the stars in terms of writing. In fact, it feels a lot like an episode of Saved By the Bell with the same broad acting and gags you see coming a mile away, but the humor dips into the crude American Pie territory. Of course it's different in that it's subtitled in German and the main characters become zombies. All said, it's pretty dumb and if you want horny, teenager zombies you're much better off with the underrated Idle Hands. 2/5 stars.


The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971)
- I've been watching a lot of documentaries from the 60's, and what i enjoy most about them is that while there is an obvious editorial hand at work in where the camera is aimed, they often have no omnipotent voiceover telling you what to think about what you're seeing. Like most great documentaries, The Murder of Fred Hampton didn't start out with its end product in mind. The Murder of Fred Hampton began as a film documenting the life of the famed Black Panther Party leader, capturing some of his speeches, big and small, some of his meetings with other Black Panther Party and local organizers, and his interactions with his community. It's great, raw footage, that may aim to further the politics of the Black Panther Party, but shows it warts and all. Scenes that demonstrate Hampton's overwhelming passion and his unwillingness to capitulate to entrenched political conclussions also illustrate his difficulty in sometimes communicating his platforms, even to sympathetic ears. When Hampton all but takes credit for the beating & robbing of an ice cream man to give the children of his neighborhood free ice cream, he takes pride in the story, believing it to propigate his Robin Hood-esque image, but it also illuminates the ambiguous moral space the Black Panther Party sometimes operated in. Then, halfway through filming, the Chicago police & the FBI killed Fred Hampton, and the documentary stops documenting a hopeful program for social progress and begins to sift through the debris for answers. 4/5 stars.


Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)
- I just read the graphic novels in preparation of checking out this animated movie from DC Comics. Even though I liked Darwin Cooke's art style and feel like he did a good job of conveying the story & had above average characterizations of DC's biggest super heroes, I also felt like it was just a rehash of every Silver Age Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Flash story I'd ever read, or seen on the Justice League cartoon. The fact that it all took place in the 50's & 60's and referenced real people & events was okay, but that's what made Marvel Comics special. DC had made a conscious decision to invent fictional cities and have fictional presidents so that their characters could be bigger-than-life pop icons, so it feels hollow shoehorning them into the social movements that Marvel was documenting when they were happening. Since I was slightly underwhelmed by the source material, it wasn't a shock to find out that I was underwhelmed by the cartoon adaptation where DC & Warner Brothers also scrub some of the edgier elements (like the story of John Henry fighting the KKK in the south) to peddle it to as broad an audience as possible. The designs loosely pay tribute to Darwin Cooke's retro/deco style but still fall pretty heavily to the Bruce Timm house-style that DC has used for Batman: The Animated Series, Superman, & The Justice League. I like that style (even though they haven't used the simplified geometric style to their advantage in terms of lighting & perspective since Batman: The Animated Series) but the art in The New Frontier was probably 70% of its selling-point and could have been referenced much more closely. All in all, Justice League: The New Frontier feels like a good multipart episode of the Justice League cartoon, which was often surprisingly mature, but doesn't really ascend to the level of a separate movie. 3/5 stars.


Rocket Science (2007)
- A decent indie comedy about Reece Thompson as a stuttering high school outcast who is recruited to the debate team to fill the shoes of its legendary debater who quit mid-competition in a fog of spiritual crisis. The unlikely new competitor joins the team because his recruiter is a pretty, motivated classmate who may be one of the 1st people in his life to pay him any attention, especially anyone of the opposite sex. The high school setting dictates much of the tone, but if you enjoy Heathers, Clueless or even a little bit of Welcome To The Dollhouse, Juno & Rushmore, you can probably get down with Rocket Science. The story is unique, and even though there is a slightly hightened quirk to the atmosphere & characters, there are some honestly hard life lessons for the protagonist. The movie definitely felt like it was aimed at a slightly younger audience than me, high school upperclassmen & the college set, which wafts the dust from my craggly, old tear ducts just a little. 3/5 stars.


Sunshine (2007)
I was excited to revist this film, and I have to say that it holds up quite well. The ending still really detracts from what is otherwise a great space film in the tradition of Solaris, 2001 & Alien but the stunning visuals and strong performances from the cast hold strong. The DVD has 2 entertaining commentaries, one from director Danny Boyle and one from the technical science advisor, and they both make very good cases for the film, even quieting some of my misgivings about the 3rd act. 4/5 stars.

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