Reviews from the Old Site, pt. 2

These were written back in 2008.

Movie: Almost Famous (2000)

Here’s how the story goes.  Four years after his rebellious sister (Zooey Deschanel) leaves home to become a stewardess, leaving behind her collection of records, William Miller (Patrick Fugit), an aspiring fifteen-year-old journalist, is given an assignment by a rock & roll critic (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to write an article on Black Sabbath at a local gig.  After a turn of events, he meets with the band Stillwater and a group of “bandies” who, unlike groupies, follow bands for the music rather than the sex.  Of these bandies is Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), a mysterious and beautiful woman who seems to have a relationship with Stillwater’s guitarist Russel Hammond (Billy Crudup).  Much to the discontent of his mother (Frances McDormand), William eventually gets the opportunity to accompany Stillwater on their national tour to write an article about them, and the longer he stays with the band, the more he is disillusioned of the gloriousness of rock & roll as he learns more and more about the real lives of the band members and their affairs; and yet, even as the unpleasant truths unfold, he maintains his true, honest spirit and his love for music.

What really pulls this movie through is the acting.  As to be expected, Crudup, Hoffman, McDormand, and Hudson are great, but Fugit unexpectedly shines.  I’ve seen him in Wristcutters, but Almost Famous came six years before that, and it’s amazing just how good he is in it.  The actors playing in the smaller roles, such as the other bandies (Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk), the band managers (Dick Roswell, Jimmy Fallon), and even Deschanel, are also very convincing.  I personally think Kate Hudson and Patrick Fugit steal the spotlight, and whenever they’re both on screen, sparks fly.

The acting is great, but I guess it helps that they had such good stuff to work with, thanks to Cameron Crowe, the director and screenwriter, the same man behind Say Anything…, Jerry Maguire, and Vanilla Sky.  I expected this movie to be good, but I never expected anything like this.  As with his other films, there are plenty of smart and memorable quotes to eat up.  His trademark direction makes the film feel strangely fantastical yet realistic at the same time.  Everything looks great, from the messy hotel rooms to the stages full of fans.  Though I know nothing about 70’s music, the soundtrack for the movie is great, with plenty of pleasurable tunes to sugar-coat your ears.

The movie is about 70’s rock & roll?  Maybe the first thing to come to your mind is sex, drugs, girls, and beer.  Well, yeah, there’s plenty of that, but that’s not what this film is about.  It’s about the music, it’s about the fans, it’s about the people you meet in life, and it’s about life itself.

Movies: Lost in Translation (2000)

So, I had a lot of movies lying around. After a few minutes of reading through the titles and little plot summaries, I narrowed it down to About Schmidt, Closer, Lost In Translation, and Sideways. I went on IMDb and searched the trailer for each movie. Closer looked very intimidating, with the very dramatic feel and the star power of the four leads: Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Jude Law, and especially Natalie Portman. It’s definitely a movie that I’ll be watching, but I wasn’t in the mood for it today. About Schmidt had a little less star power, with Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates the only really big names. It also had that very dramatic sense to it, but it was toned down with the very funny moments. Sideways looked even funnier, while still carrying that same dramatic sense to it. Paul Giamatti, the only huge star, was simply undeniable in the trailer. And then there was Lost in Translation.

There was no dramatic feel, and it really wasn’t all that funny, but it had such an appealing feel to it. I guess I can say it felt magical, like how Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind felt as it travelled back in time. While watching the trailer alone, I felt a sense of amazement and an odd but welcoming warmth. And so the decision was made, and I popped in the DVD to see… pink undies covering Scarlett Johansson’s butt.

Lost in Translation is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. The two leads Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson were absolutely fantastic in the scenes where they were alone. But whenever they were together, sparks flew from the screen. Murray plays as Bob Harris, a former actor on a trip to Japan, away from his family, to advertise wine. Johansson plays as Charlotte, a recently married woman abandoned in Tokyo while her husband, a photographer, goes around on photoshoots. Bob and Charlotte, two Americans lost in a foreign land, meet randomly in the elavator and in the bar of the hotel that they happened to both be staying in, and with nothing better to do, they spend their time in Tokyo together.

Hm. Two separate married people having fun together? It’s an affair, isn’t it? Wrong. They really are just two people who are completely out of place and just have fun together to pass the time. He’s almost twice as old as she is, and they’re both married to different people. So they share a few drinks, and they do lie on the same bed in one scene (they’re fully clothed!). But even just a couple of kisses on the cheek feel amazingly awkward. The bond they share is as innocent and charming a friendship as can be. And that’s what this film is about.

Sophia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette) directs the film amazingly, creating a vivid image of many aspects of life in Tokyo, from the busy train stations to the stripper joints (yes, there is nudity, but other than that, the film really shouldn’t have gotten the R rating it has in the US). I felt that much of the storytelling was done without words. Of course, there is dialogue, but most of the dialogue doesn’t carry the story. The story is told through lingering shots of Murray’s and Johansson’s facial expressions when they’re alone, and through the magical, colorful, and sometimes beautifully realistic scenes they share. Many of the shots in this film are simply unforgettable.

Throughout the first viewing of the film, I found myself always wondering what it is, and was too distracted to let the beauty of the story really affect me as much as it could have (not to mention I had to pause the film several times after my parents got home in the middle of it). Hopefully it’ll be better the second time around. But that’s what I like, what I look for in films. I want them to stay with me, to force me to revisit them. And this film truly deserves more than one look. I can understand how many people will be turned off by just how different this film is (kind of like how people would bash Amiercan Beauty for being a paper bag in the wind), but if you are able to wholly appreciate the beauty of this film, you will not be disappointed.

Manga: Solanin (2008)

I had just found the AP Lit book I wanted.  I chose the one with the most practice exams, because those were what helped the most last year.  Anyway, I still had an hour left, so I went to the Manga section of the store, counted the Bleach and Naruto volumes, glanced at some other series I was familiar with… and then, one book caught my eye.  Like a few other books, Solanin was placed with the front cover showing instead of the spine.  Immediately, I was intrigued.  The art wasn’t stylized like typical Shounen or Shoujo manga.  It was different, and yet, familiar.  I picked up the book and was surprised at how thick it was, but what surprised me even more was that I couldn’t find a number anywhere on the cover.  Maybe this was the only volume of the series?  I read the back cover and was even more intrigued.  Not only was this infinitely smaller than the average Shounen manga, it seemed to have a very realistic story, and something I could relate to.

I skimmed through the book, scanning several pages here and there, admiring the beautiful artwork, and in seconds decided: I must read this.  I only got through the first three chapters before I had to purchase my AP book and leave the store, but that was more than enough for me to realize that this wasn’t your average manga series.  At home, I was fortunate enough to come across a scanlation of the series.  When the download finally finished, I picked up from where I had left off in the store.  I had to force myself to stop.  The next day, I continued reading, and didn’t stop until the very last page.

In Solanin, a series of 28 chapters originally divided into two volumes, Inio Asano creates a vivid slice of life full of amazingly realistic situations, likable and relatable characters, and an enlightening story with sad parts as well as happy ones.  It is about a group of friends in their early mid-twenties who are struggling with the adults they’ve become and the youth they once were.  The character designs are realistic and attractive.  The background art is detailed and varied, from the college classrooms to the rock show clubs.  The story is paced perfectly, with its share of panels consisting of just setting and panels consisting of just text.  The five friends take turns narrating the story in first person, and the dialogue between them is at times heartbreakingly real.   Some scenes are funny, and some scenes are sad, but in both regards, it never beats you upside the head with cheesiness and cliche.  It doesn’ttry to make you laugh or cry, but a lot of times, it just does.

The shortness of the series is one of its strengths, because the series warrants multiple reads and you wouldn’t hesitate as much as if it were 28 volumes.  On their own, not very much happens in each chapter.  However, it’s surprising and refreshing how much the series covers in its story.  The depth of the character development truly is something, as I felt like in such a short series I got to know these characters more than I knew some of my best friends.  At this point in our lives, we are already able to relate to these situations, as these characters transition from just having fun and living their lives free from worry to being productive individuals in a society where pursuing your dreams doesn’t always work out as well as you’d want.  In this story, which spans several years, you see these characters grow, and it’s almost like you’re actually there.

Meiko works at an office in a job she hates.  Her boyfriend Taneda, an illustrator, lives at her place because he can’t pay for rent on his own.  Taneda is trying to balance his job and the band he started with Katou and Billy back in college.  Katou is a fat lazy bum in his sixth year in college with no job and a girlfriend, Ai, who sometimes questions why she’s even with him.  Billy, the only one who isn’t involved in a relationship, works at a small grocery place and, just like all of his friends, isn’t completely satisfied with his life.  As we read this series, we find that each of these five friends are asking the same question, What do I do with the rest of my life?  It’s something that everyone must go through sometime in their lives, and it’s definitely not the most secure place to be in.  The series doesn’t take you to some exotic made-up world where monsters attack the city and its defenders are equipped with superhuman abilities and swords.  It’s not a sappy love story set in high-school where the girls and the boys are impossibly attractive.  Reading this series is like watching real life happen.

I’m not much of a manga enthusiast, so I’m no expert at what’s good and what isn’t. But I can tell you for sure that no matter what you’re usually into, be it the neverending action adventures or the sappy romace stories involving gay men, you’ll love Solanin.  This is one of, if not the most engrossing series I’ve ever read.  I won’t deny it, at some points the story becomes very hard to read because of the heaviness of the emotions.  However, because of that, I felt all the more uplifted by the end.  In this review, I tried to give away as little about the storyline as I could.  There isn’t a Wikipedia article on this series, so you can’t just read a complete plot summary and be over with it (this means you, Tammy!).  If you’re intrigued by anything I’ve said in this review, do yourself a favor and pick up this series and read it.  I promise you, you won’t regret it.

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