Friday, February 19, 2010

Android, my android

Byung-chun Min’s Natural City is both shockingly new and maddeningly derivative. At once, you can see its antecedents: Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, The Matrix, and Battlestar Galactica to name four off the top of my head, and a slew of other South Korean movies I have viewed recently. Much of this has been done and seen before, yet there is something fresh and compelling about the story of R and Ria the droid who loves him.

The plot twist that propels Natural City is the shockingly short lifespan of the androids, both military cyborgs and pleasure dolls: they only live for three years. There is even an aural countdown as repeated public service announcements remind the droid owners of their planned obsolescence and of how to dispose of them. Further, the droids themselves wind down as they near their end.

This is a wrenching reality for the rogue military policeman known only as R ((Ji-tae Yu, Won-mo in Lady Vengeance and Won-jin Lee in Old Boy). He has fallen for a doll who dances at a night club owned by a mobster with whom R has done dirty business. Ria ((Rin Seo), nearing her expiration date, no longer has the coordination to dance and R talks the club owner into giving her to him in exchange for chips R illegally liberates from defunct cyborgs to sell on the black market. It is the first of many bad deals R will make in order to save his doll.

R’s desire to rescue Ria dovetails with the plans of a renegade cyborg named Cypher (Jeong Doo-Hong) and the diabolical plans of the enigmatic Dr. Giro, all of which revolve around a gamine-eyed sex worker/fortune teller named Cyon (Jae-un Lee).

The post war world of Natural City is beautifully rendered, with a gleaming new metropolis co-existing next to the partially submerged old city (the movie was filmed in Busan, Korea and in Thailand). There are Fifth Element-esque flying cars and Blade Runner-esque barrios and noodle bars. The wire work of the choreographed fight scenes are impressive but lack a certain wow factor because it has all been seen before. Some visceral excitement is goosed from the brutal firefights between the black clad military police and the black battle droids but it is often difficult to tell who is shooting who.

While Natural City is worth seeing, it is, on final reckoning, unsatisfying. A much better movie seems to be lurking in the sum of its uneven and diverse parts.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Criminally Good

Shutter Island begins with a woozy, sea-sick U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and neither he nor the audience will gain their equilibrium for the next two hours and twenty minutes. Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name, is a wonderfully actualized piece of filmmaking. Scorsese has concocted a savory stew out of Lehane’s story of paranoid isolation and ever ratcheting psychological trauma. Stripped of their guns – and their power - at the ironclad gates of the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, Daniels and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are set adrift on a remote and barren penal colony where everybody is a suspect and no one is a reliable narrator. Saturated with color, and full of elements as primal as a hurricane, Shutter Island plays like the kind of movie Alfred Hitchcock would have made - if Hitchcock had had Scorsese’s prodigious talent.

Shutter Island may be the best movie Scorsese has ever made. It is Casino good. Masterly directed and sure-footed, Shutter Island shows all the colors of Scorsese’s palette without any of the showy pretentiousness that sometimes upstaged his earlier work. Everything he has learned about camera placement and movement is utilized here but all is in employed to illuminate and advance the story. Some of the framing is absolutely gorgeous. Shutter Island is Scorsese’s valedictory turn.


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Little Black Girl

A stranger was seated next to a little black girl on the airplane
when the stranger turned to her and said, “Let's talk. I've heard
that flights go quicker if you strike up a conversation with your
fellow passenger.”

The little girl, who had just opened her coloring book, closed it
slowly and said to the stranger, “What would you like to talk

“Oh, I don't know,” said the stranger. “Since you are an Afro-
American, do you think that So-called President Barak Obama is
qualified for the job?” and he smiles.

“OK”, she said. 'That could be an interesting topic. But let me ask
you a question first. A horse, a cow, and a deer all eat the same
stuff - grass. Yet a deer excretes little pellets, while a cow turns
out a flat patty, and a horse produces clumps of dried grass.
Why do you suppose that is?”

The stranger, visibly surprised by the little girl's intelligence, thinks
about it and says, “Hmmm, I have no idea.”

To which the little girl replies, “Do you really feel qualified to discuss
President Barak Obama...when you don't know shit?”

The Help Haiti Didn't Receive

My first column as a new Community Columnist for the
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: