Wednesday, November 26, 2003

REVIEW: Inner Senses

Seen 23 November 2003 at the Brattle Theater (Eye-Opener)

* * ½ (out of four)

I must confess, I don't know if I've ever seen another movie starring Leslie Cheung. I know he's one of Hong Kong's most popular and respected actors, but that would mean seeing good Hong Kong cinema, as opposed to the narrow spectrum from Kung Fu to John Woo. So, I can't really say anything about how Cheung's last movie fits in with his body of work; just how it is as a ghost story/thriller.

And that's not so well. The set-up is okay, with Karena Lam as a young woman seeing ghosts and Cheung as the psychiatrist who works with her. He doesn't believe in ghosts, and that the girl's problems are more earthly (she has attempted suicide multiple times), but also grows fond of her.

There are a few problems here. The ghosts Lam's character sees don't have any connection to her; some are connected to her apartment, but that's the closest to a personal stake they have. The first half of the movie is pretty clunky at times, with a lot of inner monologue/exposition awkwardly delivered. And then the movie takes a sharp turn midway through.

Normally, I like that. Here, though, it doesn't quite work - the plot of the first half is wrapped up in too pat a manner, abruptly reducing an intriguing lead to a bland supporting character. Also, there are scenes where I got the impression that the writers initially wanted to go one way with whether the ghosts were real or imaginary, but decided to go the other without making the rest of the story consistent.

Monday, November 24, 2003

REVIEW: The Matrix Revolutions

Seen 23 November 2003, at the New England Aquarium (The IMAX Experience)

* * (out of four)

Random comments my brother Matt and I passed back and forth from the time we met at the Simons IMAX Theater to when we went our separate ways at Park Street (and later embellished):

"She's not really bringing that kid, is she?" (Not only is The Matrix Revolutions rated R, but the sound system in an IMAX theater could do serious damage to the ears of a girl that small)

"Look - they're not kidding. Those 'Chocolate Covered Bugs' have 'insect larva and/or cricket' listed in the ingredients. Who buys that?"

"Hang on - you actually counted how many seats were in a row and divided by two to decide where to sit? You can't just eyeball it like everyone else on Earth?"

"You know, Ryan [our racing fan cousin] will absolutely explode when he sees there's a Nascar 3D movie coming out."

"If a program you wrote started spouting philosophy rather than searching a database, you'd consider that a bug, wouldn't you?"

Bonk. Bonk. Bonk. "They need to make these seats higher. Us tall people really get hurt when a bad movie makes us pound our heads against our seat backs."

"Should we keep a count on how many times someone says something needlessly cryptic? Or just do it for the Oracle?"

"You know what's keeping me in this theater? $14, that's what."

"Are we supposed to believe there's some kind of chemistry between Keanu and Carrie-Anne Moss?"

"Sure, it's just endothermic - it reduces heat."

"I say we find whatever costumer made Monica Belucci's breasts look grotesque and kill him multiple times."

"Do you think that if they keep telling us Neo and Trinity are in love, we'll eventually believe it or care?"

"I love this character - the one who's supposed to be a stubborn, unlikable hardass but because everyone else in the movie is so damn stupid ends up being the only one talking sense. Still, it's never a good sign for a movie when it has this character."

"Good lord, just how many characters from Reloaded did I completely forget exist?"

"Laurence Fishburne and Jada Pinkett Smith - endothermic?"

"You mean there's supposed to be something between them?"

"How on earth does Trinity not realize that's Agent Smith?"

"Oh, Lord, not The Kid. Does anybody care about The Kid?"

"Neo's just having a complete Ted moment here, isn't he?"

(mostly silence - the attack on Zion was pretty sweet)

"I wonder what this day on the set was like for him. Sit in the chair, wave a couple joysticks around, and scream. Again, and again, and again."

"Biggest. Deus ex machina. Ever."

"Gee, I'm glad you told us that was beautiful. Not like we couldn't tell on our own."

"Yes, Neo, it's very sad. But, um, the clock is ticking on the fate of all humanity here."

(Points at watch)

(Makes "move it along" motions)

"When did this become the Wizard Of Oz?"

"Y'know, if I were an evil computer virus that had replicated several million times and was confronted with the man I hated more than anything, I'd be all over ganging up on him."

"New. Biggest. Deus ex machina. Ever."

"Really, I'm shocked the crucifixion symbolism took this long."


"So, let me get this straight - all the human beings inside the Matrix are likely dead, the machines still rely on their body heat for power, and there's a big hole over the planet's only other source of human beings. And Zion is celebrating?"

"Man, it's a good thing we're easily impressed by new and creative ways to blow shit up."

REVIEW: The Executioner

Seen 19 November 2003, at the Allston/Bombay Cinema #1 (Weekly Wednesday Ass-Kickings)

* (out of four)

So... Let me get this straight. This is one of Quentin Tarantino's favorite Sonny Chiba movies, heck, one of Chiba's own favorites... And the only print in the US is the one we saw, with horrific dubbing by the cast of Speed Racer? Ooooooo-K.

This is, let's say, pretty bad. The story is comical in its absurdity, the character interaction is almost never believable, and the fight scenes themselves are not particularly exciting. It's too slapdash to be good camp, but too silly to be a straight action movie.

REVIEW: How To Marry A Millionaire

Seen 18 November 2003, at the Brattle Theater (Make It Wide - Celebrating 50 Years of Widescreen)

* * * (out of four)

It's a good thing this movie's wide, because it's not much in the other direction - this film, based upon multiple stage plays, clocks in at roughly an hour and a half, with perhaps ten minutes at the start given over to Albert Newman conducting the studio orchestra, followed by five minutes of opening credits. Then, in the middle, there's another long scene where a group of models (including our main characters) are paraded in front of a man ostensibly shopping for his mother (but more interested in Lauren Bacall).

It's a thin movie - Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, and Betty Grable each get two suitors to choose between and something like an hour and a quarter between them to do it in. Naturally, they're going to choose the ones who like them for more than their beauty. It could be called dated, and in some ways it is, but consider that the plot of my favorite comedy of 2003, Intolerable Cruelty, also involves marrying for money, the only difference being that Catherine Zeta-Jones's character doesn't trade freedom for security.

REVIEW: Die, Mommie, Die!

Seen 17 November 2003, at Loews Copley Place #2 (Sundance Film Series)

* * * (out of four)

I arrived a bit late for Die, Mommie, Die!, so I missed out on the credits. A shame, because it probably had a credit sequence as clever as its utterly hilarious trailer. But, the rest of the movie was worth it.

What surprises me, in a way, is not that it worked - I'd enjoyed screenwriter/star Charles Busch's Psycho Beach Party - but that both of these movies had started out as stage plays. They're lampooning such specific genres of film that doing them on stage seems in some way unnatural. However it worked on stage, though, it's a ton of fun as a film - Busch casting himself as Angela Arden, the film's leading lady, is almost necessary to kick the absurdity level up another notch or two over an authentic piece of melodrama.

I liked the supporting cast, as well. Jason Priestly is only too willing to chew as much scenery as he can fit in his mouth, and he's given tons of opportunity, with the chance to seduce nearly every character in the film, male or female. Both Natasha Lyonne and Stark Sands are very funny as Arden's equally dysfunctional kids. Philip Baker Hall doesn't fare quite so well, having little to do but be grouchy for most of his screen time. Complaining about hemmeroids just isn't in and of itself funny.

Parody's a tricky thing to do well, especially for a genre that manages to make itself look absurd without much help. Die, Mommie, Die! manages it, though, even while mostly playing fair as a murder mystery.

Friday, November 21, 2003

REVIEW: The Animation Show

Seen Sunday, 16 November 2003, at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagement)

I don't recall a "Spike & Mike's Festival of Classic Animation" either this or last year, which is too bad - I never was terribly interested in the "Sick & Twisted" one, there's something of an after-the-fact feeling about the "Oscar's Shorts" package at the Coolidge (and, presumably, the one that played Copley Square this summer), and what you get for animated shorts at the Boston Film Festival is pretty slim pickings. Happily, though, Don Hertzfledt and Mike Judge have teamed up to present this new collection of animated shorts, which they intend to make a yearly event.

Focused as it was on recent Academy Award nominees, I'd seen a number of these shorts before. For the most part, this was an uneven show, but the good shorts were very good indeed. I'll just run down what I saw in (roughly) the order of presentation:

  • "Welcome To The Show" by Don Hertzfeldt (2003) - Even though Hertzfeldt is probably the most simplistic animator in the show, he's also one of the funniest working today. Here, two of the little fluffy guys from "Rejected" (who look like cornflakes to me) show up to explain what animation is. It being a Hertzfeldt short, it starts out just looking odd and quickly becomes surreal.

  • "Strange Invaders" by Cordell Barker (2001) - Sort of cute, in a grotesque way. A childless couple who watches the neighborhood's children from their telescope. When a spacecraft crashes nearby, the tiny, big-headed alien inside seems like fine baby, but their dog knows different. This is one that seems to go out of its way to look bizarre, which is a style I'm not overly fond of.

  • "Mt. Head (Atama Yama)" by Koji Yamamura (2002) - I saw this in March at "We've Got Oscar's Shorts"; it didn't appeal to me terribly then, and I like it just a little better now. It's got some amusing parts, and some nice visuals, but ultimately plays like a fable without a moral.

  • "Ricardo" short-shorts by ??? (????) - The stop-motion is good, but I'm always unsure with this type of bit - are they supposed to be making fun of a retarded kid or laughing with his youthful naiveté?

  • Excerpt from "Mars And Beyond" by Ward Kimball (1957) - Wow. I don't believe I've ever seen this, but I am really, really hoping that Disney includes the complete version on the upcoming "Tomorrowland" Walt Disney Classics set. What you've got here is science-fictional imagination combined with smooth Disney animation, and it's just phenomenal.

  • "Ident" by Richard Goleszowski (1989) - An early work from Aardman Animation. Like a lot of the shorts here, it's going for surrealism, but I find I've got to either get some sort of story or idea from it unless it looks really pretty to enjoy it.

  • "Billy's Balloon" by Don Hertzfeldt (1998) - Yeah, this is some nasty, twisted stuff. It's also gut-bustingly funny, and the movie that first made me love Don's work despite the obvious crudity.

  • "Katedra" by Tomek Baginski (2002) - Another I'd seen before, but this one grew on me. It still comes off more as a tech demo than a short on its own, but it does manage to tell a story and look real good without any dialog, a real plus in a visual medium.

  • "Intermission In The Third Dimension" by Don Hertzfeldt (2003) - Pretty straightforward; characters in a two-dimensional medium expressing awe and wonder at a mythical "third dimension" was done on a Simpsons Halloween episode once, and jokes about the lameness of 3-D movies are shooting fish in a barrel. It still manages an enjoyable absurdity.

  • "La course a L'Abime" by Georges Schwizgebel (1992) - Nifty piece with a painted appearance. No real story, but it does look and sound pretty.

  • "Parking" by Bill Plympton (2003) - One of the new entries, a very funny Plympton work about a parking lot attendant trying to eradicate the small plant which threatens the pristine beauty of his asphault, while impatient patrons just want to park their cars.

  • "50 Percent Grey" by Ruairi Robinson (2001) - Slickly rendered CGI with a soldier not coping with the afterlife very well. Kind of a bleak, one-joke short.

  • "Early Pencil Tests and Other Experiments" by Mike Judge (ca. 1990) - Mostly amusing stuff. I liked "Inbred Jed" the best, and still have no idea what people find so funny about "Office Space". I did find it kind of odd that the two co-producers of this festival are the ones whose animations are perhaps the least advanced technically

  • "Vincent" by Tim Burton (1982) - My brother was somewhat surprised that Disney produced something like this, not aware that Disney occasionally had a little edge, pre-Eisner. This is certainly a treat to see, though, stop-motion in a style that is about one evolutionary step away from The Nightmare Before Christmas. Can't go far wrong with Vincent Price's narration, either.

  • "Rejected" by Don Hertzfeldt (2000) - "Rejected" being nominated for an Oscar is about the most surprising thing I can remember about the awards. If you haven't seen it, it's simply hilarious, at once a parody of the pap audiences often expect and the incoherent work artists often supply. Really, sublimely absurd.

  • "Das Rad" by Chris Stenner, Arvid Uibel, and Heidi Wittlinger (2001) - I think this should have won the Oscar over "The Chubbchubbs"; the stop-motion effect is nice and the basic idea of observing civilization in "rock-time" was very clever.

  • "The End Of The Show" by Don Hertzfeldt (2003) - I laughed so hard at this. I won't describe it, except to say that my brother and I were yelling "ROBOTS!" at each other all afternoon.

  • Looking over the list, I come across as more critical than I mean to be. While none of these shorts except possibly "Mars And Beyond" are perfect, keep in mind that most of those paragraphs took longer to write than the shorts did to watch, and my first reaction was almost uniformly positive. Also, it was great to see all those styles together, showing off the range of animation as a medium.

    Monday, November 17, 2003

    REVIEW: The Event

    Seen Sunday, 16 November 2003, at the Brattle Theater (Eye Opener series)

    * ¾ (out of four)

    I'll admit it - it just might not be possible for me to enjoy a pro-suicide movie. Especially one, like The Event, that exists to exalt assisted suicide. Even if I were in Matt Shapiro's position, dying of AIDS and not responding to treatment, I couldn't imagine killing myself, because a cynical (or is that optimistic?) part of me would just know that some kind of breakthrough would be announced the next day, and how stupid would I look then? And assisted suicide? That's putting the people you love, care about, and trust into ethically and legally precarious positions so that you can avoid responsibility one last time.

    But even if I agreed with this film, I don't think I'd like it. Although writer/director Thom Fitzgerald peppers it with some amusing black humor, he has made an "issue movie" which neither engages in debate nor makes anything close to a strong argument for its cause. It portarys Shapiro (Don McKellar) as a saint, and his mother (Olympia Dukakis) even refers to him at one point as a "hero", akin to a police officer who died in the line of duty.

    The woman she makes this observation to is Nick (Parker Posey), an assistant district attorney investigating Shapiro's death (the "goodbye party" which precedes it is the "event" of the title), along wtih a number of other apparent assisted suicides who were all connected to the same doctor (Brent Carver). Nick could have been an interesting ethical counterpoint, someone who believes life is precious and feels that the willingness to end another's life erodes respect for life in general. But, instead, she's just working the case because it's the law and upholding the law is her job, even apologizing to the doctor at one point.

    I'm not sure where my disagreeing with this movie ends and where my disliking it begins. I think the filmmaker is so certain of the rightness of he beliefs that he didn't allow any conflict or drama in, and that in the end the film (and the audience) suffers for it.

    REVIEW: Master And Commander: The Far Side of the World

    Seen Friday, 14 November 2003, at Loews Boston Common, Screen #14 (new release)

    * * * ½ (out of four)

    It's good for the soul to sit through the credits for a film like Master And Commander. The sheer amount of glossy, well-produced, technically astounding features that Hollywood sends to our local cinemas every week can cause a frequent moviegoer to take for granted just how much effort goes into producing these films, especially one with the degree of difficulty this has.

    The plot is nothing new - you have your basic beloved, veteran captain and ship; the more intellectual, relatively pacifistic foil; the stealthy, more advanced, unseen enemy ship; orders being exceeded in a way to put the crew in serious danger; the officer who does not have the crew's confidence and respect; the need to sacrifice some of the crew to save the ship. The difference between Master And Commander and, say, Crimson Tide is one of details.

    But what details! Few movies in the genre are so well-researched, and the way the tactics and necessities of 19th-Century naval warfare are described in an offhand, but precise, manner are impressive. The shots on the water are gorgeous, especially the opening image of a fog bank being illuminated from within by cannon fire.

    Performances are generally solid, though the movie tends to drag for a few minutes before the crew begins preparing for the final battle sequence: They're doing standard sub/ship movie stuff, and I was anxious fort hem to get back to what makes this movie unique, as opposed to what was mostly familiar.

    Still, highly recommended - director Peter Weir is not known for messing around and he delivers what may be the greatest fighting-sailor movie ever made.

    REVIEW: Dragon Fight

    Seen Wednesday, 12 November 2003, at Allston/Bombay Cinema (Weekly Wednesday Ass-Kicking series)

    * * * (out of four)

    Despite what the three-star rating would seem to indicate, Dragon Fight is not really a good movie. In fact, it is decidedly sub-par in almost every area other than fight choreography - which is, in fact, rather impressive. Jet Li and his sparring partners do a nice job without much (if any) wire work.

    This movie does gain a certain amount of camp appeal, though, by sheer dint of how hard it tries. It must have been a considerable expense (relative to the genre) for a Hong Kong martial arts movie to shoot in San Francisco, even closing off streets to stage some vehicular mayhem. But while great attention is being paid to detail and craft in some areas, the movie is terribly sloppy in others. Characters speaking English invariable sound ridiculous; I had to rely on subtitles to understand what some of the Chinese Triad bosses were saying. But even the white and African-American characters sounded awful. The producers must have hired people they found on the street, or perhaps the director just kept screaming for a more "intense" performance, whether it matched what real people sounded like or not.

    I enjoyed it because, he, Jet Li can kick some ass, and it was a good (if small) crowd, which had been softened up by trailers for Taoism Drunkard and stuff like The Gravy Train. In another environment, though, the cheesy production might have been annoying rather than oddly charming.

    Sunday, November 09, 2003

    REVIEW: The Human Stain

    Seen Sunday, 9 November 2003, at 11:40am, Landmark's Kendall Square Theater, Screen #1

    * * (out of four)

    The Human Stain doesn't really do much wrong, but I'm not sure I really see the point of it as a movie. It's got some terrific actors - really, Ed Harris and Gary Sinise seem to be overkill for their parts - and is nicely shot. But there's also no escaping that it was adapted from a book, one which was undoubtedly able to spend much more time on each of the characters.

    Anthony Hopkins's character, Coleman Silk, gets the most time. He's an interesting choice for the character, for reasons I won't get into because I think I may have enjoyed the movie more had I not known his character's secret. After a hammy beginning, his performance settles down nicely. Nicole Kidman is also strong as Faunia Farely, the janitor forty years his junior that he falls for. Nothing wrong with Harris as Faunia's ex-husband or Sinese as Nathan Zuckerman, a writer friend of Silk's.

    Much of the early part of the movie seems contrived, though - Silk loses his job for calling two students who haven't shown up to class "spooks". I guess I'm ignorant, but I have never heard of that being considered a racist term. The way in which he meets Zuckerman also defies belief. And even if I bought into Wentworth Miller playing the same character as Hopkins, only 55 years younger, he seems stilted, not like a real college kid at all.

    The structure also seemed off. Sinise's character narrates as if it were a book, and indeed in the end speaks about the book - The Human Stain - he is writing. Which may have worked fine, in the book. In a film, though, it's an intrusive device

    I can't quite recommend The Human Stain, the film. The book may well be a different story.