Paradise Murdered (2007, Kim Han-min)

Paradise Murdered is particular kind of murder mystery… I’m having trouble coming up with a good adjective. I need something to take various elements into account: it’s uncanny, post-paced, engaging… it’s also laugh-out-loud funny. So I guess it’s madcap. Or zany. I’ve never seen a film so deftly toggle between being funny and being disturbing.

As a mystery, Paradise is basically an Agatha Christie mystery, just without a detective. There are seventeen people and one of them is a murderer (or isn’t). Red herrings and McGuffins come up from the second scene in the film and some of them are neon, making the dimmer ones’ digestion discrete. It’s all very masterfully put together, because the element of the uncanny, at times, gives it a bit of a Shining feel… only less embarrassing… and better. (There is one neat Shining reference I’m not sure I would have noticed if the fiancée hadn’t made the comparison a few minutes before).

The acting is all first rate, which is a bit of an achievement, since a) everyone’s a suspect and that situation usually lends to some real hamming and b) because there are at least two crazy characters and crazy characters are hard to pull off. Park Hae-il is the lead, I guess, but he’s that great kind of lead who fits in with the rest of the cast. It’s a combination of the direction, the script, and Park’s performance. I knew there was someone famous who I should have recognized but it wasn’t until afterwards I looked it up and realized it was Park. He integrates really well, an important factor in such a large cast.

The director, Kim Han-min, also wrote the film and it’s a surprise. His direction and attention to characters is entirely dispassionate. While his composition is adequate and he directs actors well, he can’t sustain any urgency for more than a few minutes. The times when Paradise actually gets disturbing or scary (though my fiancée wholly disagrees–she didn’t find it scary at all) obviously took a lot of work and Kim really has to pull all the stops (is that expression correct?) to get it to register.

But, like any Christie-esque mystery, the point is to engage while the film is running and Paradise Murdered does so… even introducing that adroit comedic element.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kim Han-min; director of photography, Kim Yong-heung; edited by Shin Min-gyeong; music by Bang Jun-seok; produced by Choi Du-young; released by MK Pictures.

Starring Park Hae-il (Woo Seong), Park Sol-mi (Gwi-nam), Seong Ji-ru, Choi Ju-bong, Kim In-mun and Park Won-sang.


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Collateral (2004, Michael Mann)

I actually had to go do some IMDb research (that bastion of scholarly data) before I started this post, because I had to know if Michael Mann intentionally made a movie starring Tom Cruise, with a reasonable Hollywood budget, and intentionally shot it to look like an episode of “Cops.” And he did. He wanted to make DV look like crap instead of like film. It’s interesting, all the things DV doesn’t work with–acting, for example. It’s particularly noticeable with Jamie Foxx, who doesn’t exactly give a crack performance, but he’s not terrible and there are these things he does with his expression the DV picks up, things film wouldn’t have picked up. Acting tells. Cruise probably has them too, but the DV makes his makeup look like he’s about to turn from Larry Talbot into the Wolf Man (a nickel to whoever gets that particular Pynchon reference). I kept expecting his eyebrows to fall off.

Mann’s handling of DV was far superior in Miami Vice–maybe it was technological, maybe it was understanding what kinds of scenes work in DV. A lot of Collateral is well-written. Probably the first hour and ten minutes, before Jamie Foxx starts to turn into an action hero. There’s some great dialogue at the beginning and a nice romantic scene, which Mann is always good with. But after a while, it ceases to be interesting. The story wraps up in a predictable manner and it’s rather limp.

It’s probably the wrong project for Mann… the characters are enigmatic, which he doesn’t do. His characters may be insane or something, but they’re always the protagonists. The closest thing Collateral has as a protagonist is the viewer–Cruise is the villain, Foxx is the pawn. Mark Ruffalo’s got some good scenes as a cop, but his pursuit of Cruise is ludicrous and hard to take serious (and who thought Ruffalo looked good with slicked back hair and a pierced ear?).

I could list the other ways Collateral fails–the music, specifically the soundtrack choices–but it’s all in the execution. It’s a sixty-five million dollar Hollywood movie… if it weren’t in DV and it had a less experimental director, it might have been a fun, empty suspense picture. But Mann’s use of that crappy DV and the presence of Cruise (in his most ineffectual performance in a while–he’s not bad, he just doesn’t have a character to play) suggests it’s supposed to be something more and it isn’t.

Thank goodness for the Panavision Genesis camera, which is gaining popularity. I never thought I’d see Michael Mann pretending he was making the Blair Witch Project. Worse… at least Blair Witch matched its story and its presentation. Collateral is kind of like… I can’t even think of a belittling simile. It’s embarrassing (not my figurative failure, but Mann’s actual one–especially given how strong the first hour is, when the DV was just a severe irritation).

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Mann; written by Stuart Beattie; directors of photography, Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron; edited by Jim Miller and Paul Rubell; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Mann and Julie Richardson; released by DreamWorks Pictures.

Starring Tom Cruise (Vincent), Jamie Foxx (Max), Jada Pinkett Smith (Annie), Mark Ruffalo (Fanning), Peter Berg (Richard Weidner) and Bruce McGill (Pedrosa).


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Idiocracy (2006, Mike Judge)

Idiocracy has one fundamental flaw–and plenty of little ones, but the fundamental one is too glaring and too fixable–the two leads do not have a romance and the film pretends they do. Foul-mouthed prostitute Maya Rudolph all of a sudden starts talking without slang and doing sweet things. Then, at the end, there’s supposed to be some romantic connection between her and Luke Wilson, who spends the movie thinking she’s a painter (one who’s really scared of her art manager). The romantic element isn’t part of Idiocracy because it doesn’t fit with what Mike Judge is trying to do (which is to mix Sleeper with some Fight Club cynicism–with a handful of fart jokes) and so he avoids it. But in the end, when Rudolph is finally acting–Wilson acts the whole time–the mix needs to work and it doesn’t and Idiocracy goes out with a whimper. The ending is similar to a 1960s educational film reel about… moths or something. It doesn’t just stop, it crumbles away.

Wilson gives a really good comedic leading man performance in Idiocracy, except he comes off as way too smart for the guy who’s supposed to have a hundred IQ. He’s not one of Idiocracy‘s litany of problems. And the most apparent problem, the one starting from the first minute, is the narration. Idiocracy is fully narrated (lending to the educational film reel comparison) and that method, in addition to the ludicrous fade-outs, suggests there wasn’t enough story. Even if the narration and the fade-outs were in Judge’s first draft of the screenplay… there wouldn’t have been enough story in it either. Fully narrated films are either The Magnificent Ambersons or they are not. Idiocracy is not (also because the narration doesn’t make any sense… the narrator is talking to the audience in the present day, not the people who would be listening to it in the year 2700 or whatever).

Other significant problems are the special effects. Lots of futuristic movies are made cheaply and well. Idiocracy instead goes with video game level (and not state-of-the-art) CG and it looks silly. At first I thought Judge was doing a Planet of the Apes homage, which would have been funny, but he wasn’t.

Dax Shepard and Justin Long are both funny in the easiest roles in the history of cinema (idiots), but Terry Crews does a great job in the role of the best elected official (the President of America) since the Duke of New York.

The movie’s funny (I laughed every two minutes or so… good fart jokes, anti-corporate sentiment, and a general mockery of red state Americans)–and, compared to other current comedies, it’s still inexplicable why Fox hid the theatrical release–but as Judge’s follow-up to Office Space, an incredibly thoughtful, if flawed, film, it’s an abject failure.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Mike Judge; screenplay by Judge and Etan Cohen, from a story by Judge; director of photography, Tim Suhrstedt; edited by David Rennie; music by Theodore Shapiro; production designer, Darren Gilford; produced by Judge and Elysa Koplovitz; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Luke Wilson (Joe), Maya Rudolph (Rita), Dax Shepard (Frito) and Terry Crews (President Camacho).


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Live Free or Die Hard (2007, Len Wiseman)

Remember the “Simpsons” episode where Bart watches ‘Die Hard’ jump out the window? Live Free or Die Hard–the title, incidentally, has nothing to do with the film’s content–is the first one where I expected McClane’s nickname to be ‘Die Hard.’ They come close in terms of self-reference….

Still, as a Die Hard movie, it’s about as good as a Die Hard movie featuring Bruce Willis versus a fighter jet is going to get. It’s really well cast, which carries a lot of the film. Much like the third one, it follows the short codas of the first two–which are fine for those (i.e. with Bonnie Bedelia–has everyone else forgotten the first two Die Hard movies are like a Thin Man on angel dust?)–but the movie doesn’t have a closed narrative. It has a fake ending, not going on long enough. The immediate action is resolved, then it just stops.

That good casting is necessary–and Len Wiseman’s enthusiastic direction is helpful–because the writing is terrible. Willis has some good lines and he and Justin Long have some good scenes, but it’s incredibly stupid. The Die Hard movies kept their predicaments small and manageable–even the third one kept it within reason–but Live Free is crazy big: it’s the end of the world as we know it (something left unresolved).

For half the movie, I felt like the script came from John Carpenter’s unmade Escape from Earth.

It isn’t just the dumb ideas, but a lot of the setups. McClane’s stalking his daughter in this one, which makes little sense (especially since the image of him alone, his heroism costing him everything–conjured by a discussion–is so much more striking). Luckily, there’s a lot of decently executed action. Die Hard movies always create an aura of reality, usually because of Willis’s performance and the production design–and he makes the unbelievable Live Free palatable.

As a director, Wiseman has no personality, but he incorporates CG well enough. As a Die Hard movie with CG, which means it’s fundamentally broken but it is what it is and it’s fine.

Cliff Curtis, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Timothy Olyphant are all fine. Curtis is sturdy, Winstead is fiesty and Olyphant is hissable (if a little foppish).

As for McClane versus the fighter jet… it’s the kind of ‘too much’ even Willis can’t ground. Combined with that flimsy ending… There’s also the issue of Wiseman’s blue filters, which I won’t expand on, since I want to end on a high note:

Live Free or Die Hard isn’t the best it could be, but it’s far from the worst. It’s fine.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Len Wiseman; written by Mark Bomback, based on a story by Bomback and David Marconi; director of photography, Simon Duggan; edited by Nicolas de Toth; music by Marco Beltrami; production designer, Patrick Tatopoulos; produced by Michael Fottrell; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Bruce Willis (John McClane), Timothy Olyphant (Thomas Gabriel), Justin Long (Matt Farrell), Cliff Curtis (Bowman), Maggie Q (Mai) and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Lucy McClane).


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