Monday, March 16, 2009

Monday Movie Day Reviews

Let the Right One In (2008): In my seventh grade math class, I was taunted and tormented by an eighth grade bully. There seemed to be no reason for his bullying apart from the fact that he was bigger and I was smaller. I remember coming home with hurt muscles and a hurt dignity. I wished I was stronger, yet lacked the self-confidence to know how to handle the situation. This sense of helplessness and loneliness is prevalent during early adolescence; we feel like we're all alone to figure out how this life thing works. We don't know who can help. Sadly, the people who can truly help--parents and loving adults--tend to begin disconnecting from this age group due to a lack of understanding. The right ones to offer support and strength are the very ones who disengage.

Let the Right One In reveals this culture of adolescent isolation in wintery 1980s Sweden. Twelve-year-old Oskar plays out his fantasies of standing up to the bullies by stabbing trees in his snow-covered apartment complex. Underneath his quiet exterior lies a frustrated boy with a vibrant personality. Friendless and disconnected from his divorced parents, Oskar is left to mostly fend for himself in this world. Then Eli moves in next door, and everything changes.

Eli is different. She stands out in the wintery night without shoes or coat. She has an air of wisdom about her that makes her seem older than twelve. Oskar and Eli quickly form a bond, a friendship born out of loneliness and the camaraderie of being misunderstood. Theirs is a child-like romance where both can find a glimpse of hope and happiness. As their relationship grows, so does Oskar's self-confidence. But when Oskar offers to seal their bond with a childish "blood oath," Eli's disturbing reaction reveals the truth: she is a vampire.

With a hauntingly beautiful backdrop that bears resemblance to Krzystof Kieslowski's The Decalogue, Let the Right One In is a hypnotizing coming-of-age romance. The connection between Oskar and Eli is unique and remarkable, an original look at the vampire myth in a modern-day context. Oskar becomes the sympathetic friend for Eli; Eli becomes the protective guardian of Oskar. The fact that she is a vampire is essential to the story, yet not the centerpiece. Eli is first and foremost Oskar's friend, and their growing relationship is the key to the film. The horror aspect of the film seems more like the atmosphere or context for their simple romance. And don't be mistaken--this is a horror film (just see the screen shot above). Not as startling or graphic as other vampire films, there are nonetheless some disturbing images that left me breathless with their quiet intensity.

Spoiler Alert! The ending of the film is perhaps the most memorable, with a scene in a lonely pool that both displays creative cinematography and allows the audience to come to their own conclusions. The scene could either be described as a savage act of vengeance or a beautiful display of protective love. I prefer to see it as the latter, despite its violent nature. Eli protects Oskar in such a way that he'll never worry about where his strength lies again. But should Eli be Oskar's guardian? Where are his parents or other adults in this world of violence and isolation? Eli and Oskar fill the roles of both "friend" and "parent" in each other's lives. They take care of each other, protect each other, provide for each other. Nothing reveals this more than the final 15 minutes.

As I interact with junior highers on a weekly basis, I see this bleak reality--that students are becoming increasingly isolated from the world of adults, left to fend for themselves, forced to learn about life on their own. The adults in this film--like adults in our culture--disengage from the children, then wonder how things went so wrong. Let the right one in. Where are the right ones? It is an plea to find those who will protect us, care for us, offer us strength and love even when we fall short. Sometimes the "right one" isn't who we expected. Sometimes we're called to be the right one to someone else. Sometimes the right one is us.

Synecdoche, New York (2008): Caden Cotard is a theater director who cannot direct his own life. Given a "genius grant" to create a masterful piece of art, Caden spends the next 20+ years of his life creating...well...his life. In an enormous New York warehouse, Caden orchestrates the most elaborate re-creation ever: a to-scale model of his life in New York, filled with actors playing himself and the people in his life, then more actors to play the actors. An entire community is created around a play with only Caden as the audience.

Expansive and ambitious, Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut is an extremely frustrating film to watch. Kaufman is known for his metaphysical and self-reflexive style--this is the guy who wrote Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Adaptation--but he manages to top his previous existential efforts. Caden (skillfully portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a lonely man who creates an entire world around himself, yet never seems to find true connection. He pours himself into relationships with the women surrounding him, all portrayed by phenomal actresses: Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, and Dianne Wiest. One of my favorite aspects of the film is that Emily Watson plays an actress portraying Samantha Morton, poking fun at each other about their similarities and differences. Caden creates and creates and creates, yet never taps into the Divine Creator, the ultimate Director, the One who is orchestrating it all. He catches glimpses of hope in brief interactions and memories, but that feeling of contentment always seems beyond his grasp.

The film is a profound meditation on identity and artistry: where is the line drawn between creation and creator? Can such a line be drawn? I remember taking a literature class in college where our professor argued that the author's intent became completely independent of themselves as soon as the piece was complete and out of their hands. They couldn't argue with anyone else's interpretation of their art, and we as an audience were not to judge the quality of the art on the quality of the person. Yet I cannot help but believe that art and artist are intertwined at some level, that a piece of me is poured into every word that I write and speak. There is a sense that art exists beyond us once it is completed. But what if it is never complete? What if our very lives become the medium, our own histories become the script?

If these questions seem aimless and philosophical, then Synecdoche, New York is probably not the film for you. It's slow at times and permeated with symbolism; clocks, mirrors, and flashbacks play with time and perspective. It's either repetitive metaphysical drivel or a masterful meditation. I choose to see it as the latter.
Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (2009): I'll say it right up front: this has the potential to be the worst film of 2009. I went to see this with Gus the Intern just to spend time together and chat about life and ministry. Getting into my car after leaving the theater, he said with a look of surprise and disgust, "that...was...atrocious."

Atrocious is a great description for this video game-based film. Played by Kristin Kreuk, Chun-Li's father is kidnapped by an evil businessman, Bison (Neil McDonough, in one of the worst casting jobs ever done). Chun-Li seeks revenge and tries to take down Bison's evil empire, Shadaloo. Beyond all this, the story is a mess and the plot riddled with holes. Things simply go unexplained. I was never entirely sure what Bison was trying to accomplish, nor could I figure out why Chun-Li's father was kidnapped. Bison was raised in the slums of Bangkok, yet speaks English in an Irish accent? Chun-Li's mentor can shoot fireballs? Bison's daughter somehow disappeared and ends up in Russia after being born? None of this is explained, it's simply expected to be believed.

Other useless characters join in on the fun, such as Moon Bloodgood and Chris Klein who play idiotic police officers who offer nothing to the plot. They mostly sit around and eat food. And we wonder why Bison has never been caught yet. Chris Klein manages to give one of the worst acting performances I have ever seen in film. I'm nominating him for a Razzie right now. His over-the-top execution of lines such as "it's a bomb! Get out now!" are almost painful to withhold. Other video game characters include Michael Clarke Duncan as Balrog and one of the Black Eyed Peas as Vega. They're mostly there for Chun-Li to beat up.

The only redeeming factor in the film are a few fight scenes that are somewhat interesting. Kreuk does a decent job in the titular role. But this is nothing we haven't seen before. A terrible action film based on a video game? Try Mortal Kombat or DOA: Dead or Alive. Hey, wait a minute: Robin Shou, has been in all of these films! Go figure. Here's my suggestion: stay as far away from this film as possible.


  1. Brian, out of everything I just reviewed, your response is "Moon Bloodgood!"? ;)

  2. It really was just terrible...I still owe you one movie for that one.

  3. Have you seen this yet? Looks like they tamed down the subtitles in the DVD release. I'm pretty sure I saw the original version. Why do studios have to do this?