The Cube Trilogy

The three movies in the Cube trilogy (Cube, Cube 2: Hypercube, and Cube Zero) are a bunch of psychological horror/thriller/sci-fi B-movies. I don’t know many people who have seen them. If they sound familiar, maybe it’s because you saw them on the shelf of your local video store or a friend mentioned them to you. You wouldn’t be faulted for not picking any of them up. There’s no well known writers, directors, or actors, and they all had very limited theatrical/festival runs, if at all. But I wouldn’t bring up some unknown thrillers from years ago without reason. With the exception of the third (prequel Cube Zero), these are really good movies.

Cube

Cube

Cube. The first. The best. It came out in 1997 (11 years ago!) and is still one of the better movies of it’s genre. 6 people are thrown into an enormous cube, made up up thousands of smaller cubes (about 14x14x14 feet). Some of the rooms are safe, but some contain deadly booby traps. Obviously, these victims want out, and thus try their luck going from room to room, always hoping the next one is the exit and wondering what the hell is going on the whole way through. We get to see the true nature of each person as little by little, they lose their sanity. The movie was actually filmed in a single 14x14x14 foot room, using various colors and angles to make it appear like they’re in physically different rooms. Actual claustrophobia, what a great way to get actors into character.

Cube 2

Cube 2

Cube 2: Hypercube gets an extra dose of sci-fi and dials down the gore. The cube in Cube 2 is much more different than the original. First of all, it’s not just a cube, but a hypercube (or tesseract), which is a 4 dimensional cube. I’m not even going to bother explaining it, but they attempt to give some sort of reasoning in the film (and you could also try reading the Wikipedia entries on hypercubes and tesseracts). In addition to adding an extra dimension, the cube also looks different and has very different booby traps. Everything is bright and white, as opposed to the dirty, dingey cube of the original. And gone are the blades and flames from the first, here we have an entirely new set of traps that aren’t easily explained. They involve a different type of physics which allow for things like rooms with variable time speeds and centers of gravity. The second film in the trilogy isn’t quite as good a movie as the original, but it makes up for it by going crazy with the whole 4th dimension thing. Honestly, Cube 2 could have been a much worse movie than it actually is and I would still love it based on the premise alone.

Cube Zero

Cube Zero

Cube Zero (released in 2004, only 2 years after the second film) was kind of a dud and a sad way to end the trilogy. There’s still some of the same “people in the Cube” thing, but we get the added dimension of outside people. We see the regular guys who keep an eye on things in the Cube and I think we’re supposed to feel some pity for them, or at least not hate them, because they’re not directly at fault for such torture but rather they’re “just following orders.” If Cube Zero had to be made (which it didn’t, the mystery was part of the allure), it still had such potential, answering everyone’s questions about the who/where/why/how, but unfortunately, not many questions are answered (not the right ones anyway). And it’s far too cheesy. The writer was either trying too hard, or not enough. I’m not sure which. The two workers we see for most of the time have such forced dialogue, it’s absurd. And their characters are sooo cliche. If you’re going to watch these movies, it’s probably better if you skip this one. Unless you are really grasping at straws for some answers, in which case, have fun, but don’t expect much.

As great and original as these three movies were, I think the idea has been exhausted. There’s only so much you can take of watching a handful of people go through the same booby trapped rooms over and over again. It was fun while it lasted, and we got something of an explanation in the end, but please don’t do any more. Not that that’s stopped film makers before, but here’s hoping they leave this one alone.

Blip Festival: Reformat The Planet

How many of you have heard of chiptune or 8 bit music? Raise your hands. For those of you who didn’t raise your hands, you probably won’t care too much about this documentary unless you’re feeling especially adventurous or interested discovering new music. Blip Festival: Reformat The Planet is a film that explores the origins and future of 8 bit music via the 2006 Blip Festival (a music fest in NY comprised entirely of 8 bit musicians from around the world). For those curious as to what type of music this is, I shall quote the chiptune Wikipedia article: it’s “music written in sound formats where all the sounds are synthesized in realtime by a computer or video game console sound chip.” In simpler terms, it’s using an NES or GameBoy or similar video game system as an musical instrument. The result is music that sounds like it could be from an old video game but is usually more engaging and dance oriented. (Check out the 8 Bit Peoples website for lots of free 8 bit music.)

For those who are already fans of 8 bit music, Reformat The Planet will probably be a very exciting documentary, if only for the extensive footage from the 2006 Blip Festival held in New York. There are plenty of live performances ranging from chiptune veterans like Nullsleep and Bit Shifter plus newcomers like The Depreciation Guild and Anamanaguchi. Portions of the movie feature almost entire songs from these artists, merging documentary with music video. And the interviews with the musicians are fascinating, allowing us to discover how these people approach making chiptunes and where they think the future of the scene is headed.

Reformat The Planet does an excellent job of filming a 4 day music festival and using the footage to create an interesting and informative documentary about a mostly underground music scene. Instead of making a documentary about a specific festival or a new music genre, director Paul Owens does both and with great success. I can only assume Blip Festival: Reformat The Planet won’t resonate with the majority of people due to it being so niche, but those initially interested in the idea of making music with video game consoles will most likely be very pleased with the results.

Right now, Reformat The Planet is neither in theaters nor on DVD. It is currently streaming on Pitchfork.TV until the 21st, so check it out there if you’re interested. Otherwise, you’ll probably have to wait for a DVD release.

Daft Punk’s Electroma

In light of my recent re-watching of this movie (it came out on DVD on July 22), I thought I would share my original review of it when it screened at The Brattle Theater in Boston. This review was originally written for my now-all-music blog, Anti-Gravity Bunny, and was published on February 28th, 2008.

Electroma played last night at The Brattle Theater for one night only and from what I could tell, the place was sold out. Which is understandable. Everybody loves Daft Punk and their movie, Electroma, hardly had a proper release. It’s doing more of a tour than anything else, similar to the way Sigur Ros’ Heima was put out. If a movie theater wanted to show the movie, they would have to contact the proper people in order to get it. So Electroma has been a difficult movie to see, even though it’s debut was a year and a half ago at Cannes in 2006. When you have a popular band making an obscure movie, you get hordes of people dying to see it.

There’s really not too much I can say about the movie without ruining anything. It’s almost 80 minutes long and is about 2 robots on a quest to become human. It takes place mostly in the desert. Everything about the movie is slow and subtle. This is not a Daft Punk music video and if you were expecting to hear their music, you went to see the wrong movie. This is the soft, quiet side of Daft Punk. I feel like this is Daft Punk’s version of 2001. Sound (or the lack thereof) is a major part of the movie and there are long shots that could bore many people. Even some of the themes are the same, in 2001 there’s artificial intelligence and evolution and in Electroma there’s robots. More parallels will be drawn between these movies in the future, I’m sure.

There are only about 9 or 10 actual scenes in the movie and each scene is stretched out to it’s maximum length. They’re long enough already, and I’m sure many people might have trouble sitting through them, but if they were any longer, there would be the risk of people getting up to leave. Some of the shots themselves last for 5 minutes straight, consisting of the two robots walking in the desert. I’m sure this could turn a lot of people off, especially fans of Daft Punk who want to see the visuals usually found in their music videos. However, I loved this movie and found it beautiful and beautifully shot. It’s aesthetic is definitely one I appreciate. There was one part of the movie, though, that felt too long for me, and that was the desert scene. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what part I’m talking about. The song in that scene was pretty bad, I just couldn’t get into it. There was something at the end that made it worth the wait, though. It was only one shot but it was priceless.

While the plot to Electroma can be boiled down to a simple sentence, there’s much more to it than you would initially think. It’s actually kind of a depressing movie but it’s the kind of depressing that you laugh at. Some of the scenes are just so sad but the imagery is hilarious (I speak mainly of the chase and the bathroom scenes). And while these two robots are trying to become human, you feel for them somehow, even though you can’t connect on the literal level. At the risk of sounding cliche, this is a really deep, sincere movie. Highly recommended for those without ADD. You definitely don’t need to be a fan of Daft Punk in order to enjoy this movie. You just need to have a heart and maybe a place in there for robots.

The Last Winter

I saw an ad for The Last Winter in a magazine and, not having heard anything prior to that or even gaining any relevant information about the movie from the ad, was immediately interested and knew I had to see it, regardless of what kind of reviews it had. The reason being it starred Ron Perlman and the ad was gorgeous. If the movie was to look anything like the ad, I would love it on that basis alone.

Turns out, The Last Winter is a horror movie of sorts. Kind of like a cross breed of John Carpenter’s The Thing and Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow. If that sounds like a weird combo, you’re right. Here’s a quick sum up of the storyline. An oil company is attempting to dig for oil in Alaska and sends an environmentalist (a scruffy James LeGros, the same guy who played McBeth in the fantastic and relatively unknown Scotland, PA) to keep on eye on the crew (led by Perlman). They’re unable to bring in the heavy machinery necessary for oil drilling because the temperatures are too high and the permafrost is melting, making the ground too soft. And that’s when strange things start happening.

The Last Winter isn’t like The Thing where you actually see the monster but rather takes a more psychological approach. Being out in the middle of the tundra for weeks on end tends to take it’s toll on people, and eventually they can go a little crazy or get “big eye” as they call it in Winter. So at first we’re never really sure if everybody is going insane or if there are actual beasts attacking them. I really love it when the director leaves plenty to the imagination of the audience, allowing us to get sucked deeper into the story.

So The Last Winter is successful on that front, and it is gorgeously filmed, especially the outdoor shots. Wide expanses of nothing but white, so much so that the horizon becomes nearly invisible at points. Beautifully minimal, it really emphasizes just how alone the characters are. Sadly, though, Winter ultimately screws up. And in a really big way. The audience is given way too much information at the end. ***minor spoiler*** Instead of leaving us with the assumption that almost everyone has died, we’re given a cheesy and ridiculous ending that looks like the beginning of 28 Days Later. Someone emerges from a hospital and finds the town in chaos, deserted. ***end spoiler*** It’s completely unnecessary and pretty much destroys everything the movie built up.

Sometimes it’s important to know when to say when. I doubt writer/director Larry Fessenden had too much pressure from the higher ups to end it the way he did. I feel like he just thought it was better that way. But when you have such a subtle, delicate movie, it seems so wrong to disregard it all just to over-explain something that couldn’t possibly be explained to begin with.

Regardless, I still recommend The Last Winter. The first 85 minutes of the movie are great, with wonderful performances by most actors and beautiful cinematography. If you don’t mind being let down in the last 15 minutes, then I say go for it. Or better yet, don’t bother watching the end. You won’t be left with a sense of closure but with this kind of movie, you don’t need it.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars = Big FUN!! **minor spoilers**

Official Clone Wars 1-sheet

Official Clone Wars 1-sheet

I’m a bit of a Star Wars nerd. To illustrate this point, I’m going to share a picture of myself with you. It’s clear at the end of this post. Enjoy.

I was, therefore, delighted that a Star Wars film was coming out this summer. Now, I need to characterize myself, because Star Wars fans fall into a lot of different camps re: all Star Wars material outside the original trilogy. Prequels. Overall, they were completely terrible. The scripts were bad, the acting was bad. They were a complete train wreck. But I still enjoyed them quite a bit, despite all the flaws. The only one I really don’t care for is Attack of the Clones, but even in that film I enjoy the fight scenes and if it’s on, I will watch it. So I have a love/hate relationship with them. I very much enjoyed the CN animated shorts. I loved the stories and the animation style. So when I heard we were going to get a full-length film that would launch a TV series, I was pretty stoked.

I was a touch nervous about it, because I wasn’t completely sold on the animation style, probably because I so unreservedly loved the style of the first CN cartoons. Also, the first trailer didn’t wow me. Still, I had

Perfect! Right?

Perfect! Right?

hopes that we’d get a good Star Wars movie this summer.

And you know what? We did. It’s freakin’ awesome! The thing I love the most about this movie is that it’s just unadulterated fun. It’s not particularly mature. In fact, I think a lot of people are going to absolutely hate this film for exactly that reason. There’s plenty of slapstick humor, which I guess maybe would be annoying except for the fact that it’s really funny. But if you look at Star Wars as a whole, we started out with this trilogy about a farm boy from nowhere who realizes his destiny and saves the galaxy from the oppressive empire all while redeeming his evil father. It’s a beautiful story about one person making a difference, about taking a stand, about redemption. The next trilogy is not beautiful. We go back in time to see an innocent child grow up and be corrupted and destroyed. Not very light hearted. Not hopeful. Bleak. Depressing. Ugly.

And that’s why I love this film. Because I know what happens to Anakin Skywalker. And the prequels didn’t do much to make me feel for him or sympathize with him. But in this film he’s just a Jedi Knight doing his job. He doesn’t spend the entire film tortured by his demons and we don’t see him being horribly manipulated. He’s the Jedi Knight his son heard tales of. He’s the hero who was “killed” by Darth Vader. And you can have hope for him and be happy for him even though you know how it ends. And it’s about time, because in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith it was pretty hard to get behind this kid. He was petulant and whiny, and entitled, and not someone you’d be all that sad or surprised to see fall. For me, this movie’s success is that while I was enjoying the fight scenes and laughing at the slapstick humor, and for once, really enjoying Anakin Skywalker as a Jedi, in the back of my mind I know how it all ends. Sure, most of the jokes are targeted at 10 year olds and the newest addition to the Star Wars universe is a kid. Somehow it worked. It lightened the darkness of what came before and what is to follow.

A few plot and character spoilers here, so if you want to remain spoiler free, skip to the next paragraph. Plotwise, it’s pretty straightforward Star Wars. Basically the Jedi need to help Jabba the Hutt recover his kidnapped son, a favor he’ll repay by granting the Republic’s war and supply ships safe passage through the outer rim. But there’s always more than meets the eye when Palpatine’s in the mix. And I’ll leave it at that. It’s a simple plot overall. But the story was such that we got to see some of our favorite Star Wars characters in action, such as Jabba, and some of our favorite clone commanders. Commander Cody is present throughout. And while I enjoyed every second with Jabba and his disgusting, yet cute offspring, we meet a new Hutt who I really just couldn’t stand at all. He’s basically Jabba’s stereotypically flamboyant, gay, drag-queen uncle who sounds a lot like Eric Cartman. I guess I have to acknowledge that Cartman is a touch Huttesque. At least when it comes to chins. But I’m wondering what we’re going for here with this effeminate dandy of a Hutt who lives in decadence on Coruscant. He wasn’t particularly funny. Just irritating. Maybe they just wanted to give Jabba a creepy drag-queen uncle? Because he is creepy. And not entirely because of his make-up and feathers.  Also, he spoke English. LAME! Totally LAME. I have no idea where such a ridiculous character could have come from. I mean, seriously. You’re going to take a set of stereotypes that are usually applied (not always kindly) to gay men, and put them on a Hutt? Really? Thoughts on this topic welcome.

Note the curved body and additional chin

Note the curved body and additional chin

There were a few things that made me scratch my head a little. The first was when we got the traditional “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” after which one expects John Williams’ Star Wars theme to come blaring through the speakers. Well that didn’t quite happen the way it was supposed to. Sigh. And there was no crawl. Maybe I’m being an old fart about that, but to me, that’s how a Star Wars film starts. And it was jarring to say the least. Also, the score overall gave me pause. It’s not Star Wars music. Which is fine, I guess. I think for the most part, while some of it was jarring at first, it grew on me, and I could see that maybe the music was appropriate, just not what I’m accustomed to when watching Jedi Knights kick butt. In one case, however, I thought it didn’t fit at all. I’m interested to see what others think of the score.

Also, I thought the dialog was a little bit forced in the beginning, for two characters in particular. The problem seemed to vanish, but it seemed like Henry Gilroy might have been pushing the characters a little bit too hard instead of letting us get to know them a little more organically. Although some of that could have been a function of the story–that these characters are uncomfortable with each other and hence trying too hard. Either way, as I watched that part of the film, I felt the writer’s presence saying, “THIS CHARACTER IS IMPULSIVE AND DOES NOT RESPOND WELL TO AUTHORITY.” But that problem did not last through the whole film, so it’s not a huge gripe.

A word about the animation. I thought it really served the battle scenes where you’re looking at droids battle clones, but the lightsaber scenes were not as fluid as they should have been. The characters seemed to have stiff joints or something. Also, when the characters were standing still, they looked like they were carved from wood, or maybe made of clay. That really bugged me at first, but by the end I’d gotten to kind of like it. My one hope is that for the TV show, the lightsaber battles will be improved upon.

So, to sum up, by no means is the film perfect. There’s a lot in it that will actually grate on Star Wars fans. But like I said, after all the doom and gloom of the prequels, I connected with the lightness of it all. You kind of have to have seen all the prequels to get the most out of what’s going on, but I think the film will still be enjoyable on its own for most non-Star Wars folks. It’s a great family flick–the kids will love it. And even if you’re old and cranky (like me) it’s a refreshing, fun Star Wars film, well worth the $8. Despite its flaws, I will probably see it multiple times, and I’m looking forward to the TV show. So even if you thought about seeing it but decided not to, for whatever reason, think again! Great action, lots of laughs, and a rare glimpse at some of our favorite Star Wars characters.

Oh. As promised. A picture of me:

Hoth Snowtrooper sporting shotgun. Vader's finest. Oh yeah.

Hoth Snowtrooper sporting shotgun.

Bonus points to anyone who can spot the two serious errors in my costume. Other than carrying a shotgun.

6ixtynin9

A funny story about 6 and 9

A funny story about 6 and 9

I’ve seen a decent amount of Asian cinema, but nothing so far from Thailand. And my first foray into Thai cinema did not disappoint. Ruang talok 69, or in English 6ixtynin9 (a more accurate translation appears in the subtitles: “A Funny Story about 6 and 9”) follows a young professional who is laid off from her job. From there it’s a horrifyingly amusing chain of events set in motion by the loose number 6 on her apartment door that occasionally turns on the single nail holding it in place and becomes a 9. Add gangsters in sweatsuits and a missing noodle box filled with money, mix well and watch everything explode.

I don’t want to spoil anything, because anyone who’s into dark comedies should check this film out. Let’s just say there’s a body count. A respectable one. And plenty of sight gags and clever dialog to keep viewers laughing throughout.

The main character, played by Lalita Panyopas, seems to be completely defeated by life in general and her financial woes to boot, and her actions are the result of an almost disinterested kind of desperation. Panyopas’ decidedly understated performance is the main source of the film’s hilarity, but also serves to shock the viewer on the rare occasions when she shows some emotion. A fine job by director and actor alike.

Also of note: I found myself appreciating the lack of gratuitous gore. The film certainly had opportunities to go in that direction. But the director chose to leave a lot to our imagination. As such, the few gag worthy moments score on a psychological level.

But I think what I enjoyed most about the film is that each character walks into the film’s crazy plot and makes conclusions about what is going on, and while they’re all completely reasonable conclusions, they’re all wrong. So what you end up with is this fantastic collision of people who all have slightly different assumptions about the way things work, and added together, they equal a nearly perfect mix of comedy, drama, and thrills.

The one gripe I had was that the subtitles were TERRIBLE. This isn’t completely unexpected, and in a few instances the grammatical errors added to the comedy in the film. To some extent, bad subtitles are part of the package when it comes to Asian cinema. Even so, the mistakes were irritating and added a element of shoddiness that took away from an otherwise well-shot film. I’m guessing the distributor is to blame for the bad subtitling, and there’s no excuse for it. It wouldn’t be terribly expensive to hire a native English speaker to create an English adaptation of the translation and edit it for spelling and grammar.

I plan to check out some of director Pen-Ek Ratanarung’s other films and will gladly report back. Until then, I highly recommend this film.

Step Brothers

You know Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. You know their shtick. They play adult idiots. They’ve done it in every movie they’ve starred in in the past few years. They started strong with Anchorman and slowly declined with Talladega Nights, Walk Hard, Blades Of Glory, Semi-Pro, and now Step Brothers. In this, their most recent, they play two immature guys in their late 30s living with their single parents, their parents hook up, and they all move in together. Hilarity ensues. Or at least, that’s what they want you to think.

Step Brothers is a decent enough comedy. It’s shallow brain candy. It’s certainly not in the league of Anchorman or The 40 Year Old Virgin, it’s more on par with Blades Of Glory, which I liked. And I like Step Brothers. It has it’s moments of hilarity but the sad part is, most of those parts are found in the trailer for the movie. There are a still few other scenes that are pretty funny, but it all feels kind of played out. I’d like to see these guys do something funny as a different character. They’ve done the idiot thing, I think it’s time to try something else.

But (and this is a big but) if you’re looking for some summer popcorn flick that doesn’t involve a superhero and big explosions, then Step Brothers might be right up your alley. Just don’t go in expecting something new and exciting.