Friday, December 31, 2004

Metropolis (2002)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen (again) 26 December 2004 in Jay's Living Room (DVD)

There are a great many good movies made every year. There aren't quite so many great ones, but they've accumulated, so there are great movies to be seen on a regular basis. Enough that I don't always remember the initial impression a masterpiece. I remember exactly what went through my mind as I walked out of the Kendall Square theater on 2 February 2002: "I want to see this again. Right now!."

Putting the DVD in the player a few years later, I initially find that my excitement has waned a bit. The opening is still majestic, and Toshiyuki Honda's score is still jazzy and fun. That soundtrack has been in whichever CD player I'm near ever since the film's US release, because it's so incongruous: We've grown to expect science fiction to be scored with a symphony, or something electronic, but instead the Metropolis Committee hired a jazz sax player, and he creates a group of themes that are flexible enough to show the bustle of a vibrant city, a foreboding of danger, and hope after disaster. But, somehow, since the last time I saw it, I lost my affinity the Tezuka-styled character designs. I maybe giggled a little at the movie's attempts at profundity.

But after a while, that cynicism wears off. Screenwriter Katsuhiro Otomo (famous in his own right for Akira packs the movie full of story, suggesting that what's happening is the culmination of much more, and making our view of a detailed fantasy world comprehensible without sacrificing its complexity. Director Rintaro does one of the best-ever jobs of integrating cel and CGI animation, and that's no simple task; in adapting one of Osamu Tezuka's early works (in an interview on the DVD, Rintaro and Otomo admit that they'd wanted to make Metropolis for years but Tezuka nixed it while he was alive), the cel-animated characters retain their cartoonish style while many of the environments are highly-detailed, built to awe.

The story is what you make of it - Ban, a detective, and his nephew Kenichi arrive from Tokyo hunting for Laughton, a mad scientist. Little do they know that this scientist is in the employ of Duke Red, the city's foremost citizen and architect of its gleaming new Zigguraut, who has a contentious relation with Rock, a robot-hunter who thinks of Red as his foster father. The lab is destroyed, Ban and Kenichi are separated, and Kenichi finds himself in the company of Tima, an android built by Laughton for Red, with both initially unaware that Tima is anything other than a human girl. As Ban and Kenichi try to re-unite, they find themselves in the midst of a battle for control of the city. And then...

And then, Ray Charles. Ray Charles shows up on the soundtrack in a moment of musical audacity that must be seen and heard to be believed, but as much as the song ("I Can't Stop Loving You") seems to contradict what's happening on screen, it cuts right to the heart of the movie: A boy who loves a robot even as its human exterior and heart is stripped away, a son who loves the father who won't acknowledge him, and a man obsessed with his lost daughter to the point of recreating her. It's an action scene built to make the audience cry.

And it does. By the end of the movie, I want to see it again, because it's just that fantastic, no matter what foolish doubts I'd had an hour and a half earlier.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Get Shorty

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen (again) 25 December 2004 in Jay's Mom's Living Room (DVD)

Get Shorty isn't quite as good as I remember it being; it gets a lot of points for being a movie about people who love movies as much as its audience does. It was one of the first movies I bought on DVD, so got a lot of play because I couldn't watch VHS any more but only had something like five movies. And, let's face it, most of the cast and crew hit their apex here, and haven't been as cool since.

Go ahead, check the IMDB: John Travolta? Two movies with John Woo and a whole lot of nothing. Rene Russo? Tin Cup the next year, but that's not really cool, and then the parts dry up as she passes 40. Danny Devito? A few good parts, directs Matilda, but also directs a couple movies that are a bit too mean-spirited for the general audience. Dennis Farina? There's a lot of crap around stuff where he's probably cooler than he is here, like Out of Sight, Buddy Faro, and Snatch. Gene Hackman has a nice 2001, highlighted by The Royal Tennenbaums, but this is the end of a good run for him. Bette Midler? Ugh. How the heck is she so perfect in this uncredited role when you look at just about everything else she's done?

And, man, we shouldn't even talk about director Barry Sonnenfeld. He moves on to Men In Black, which hasn't aged quite so well, and then has Wild Wild West destroy his career. He produces some absolutely fantastic TV, but no-one watches. MGM didn't even bring him back for the upcoming Get Shorty sequel, Be Cool.

It certainly shines a light on Scott Frank's adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel as possibly the real star of the show (combined with his screenplay for Out of Sight, you have to wonder what MGM is thinking having someone else adapt Be Cool). Watching the movie, I was struck by how the first act felt a lot like the opening of a certain style of book: Quick little vignettes, obviously linked but also separate. In dead-tree form, these scenes run a page or a page and a half, then there's a blank line, then another one. Sonnenfeld's contribution (along with his editor's) is crucial here, too, negotiating a lot of tricky cuts between scenes, making jumps and putting in little bits of space to separate them, making the tricky set-up portion of the movie work. It could have been smoothed out, or done more in flashback, but instead, it feels like the filmmakers are doling out random little nuggets of story even though it's mostly presented in chronological order. On the other end, though, it's all movie, finishing with a cut to an epilogue that merrily skips over a bunch of detail. It's also a sneaky ending - Frank and Sonnenfeld don't really build to it; they take advantage of how there are is no way to tell how close you are to the end of a book by how many pages are on each side of the crease to just spring it on you. Not to mention that there are no clocks in a theater; watching it on video, you lose that a little, unless you've got all of the counters and clocks out of your line of sight.

At the center, of course, is how we like Travolta's Chili Palmer and Russo's Karen Flores. They're both dissatisfied, although not necessarily aware of how big the emptiness in their lives is. Palmer is a thug, though one who prefers persuasion to physical thuggery, and doesn't really think his love of movies could be anything but a hobby until chance brings him to Los Angeles. Leonard and Frank chose to make him democratic in his love for movies, able to compliment Russo's scream queen as sincerely as he does Orson Welles's Touch of Evil. He's confident with Devito's movie star, but equally as impressed with James Gandolfini's stuntman. And even if he's not really creative, he is well-suited to the role of a producer.

Karen, on the other hand, is a little more cynical. It must have been tempting for the producers to make the character a little younger, but her world-weariness is appealing. She recognizes she's getting too old for the horror movies she's working on, but doesn't have the confidence to step behind the camera until she sees Chili go for it. She starts out thinking she's washed up, only to gradually realize that she's outgrown her old role - she's not too old to be a starlet, but she's capable of more. And unlike the rest of the cast, she doesn't try to imitate Chili Palmer when impressed by his confidence; she simply shows herself to be his equal.

It's not a perfect movie - the jokes are spread a little thin, and another decade of entertainment journalism and DVDs packed with Hollywood Insider stuff has perhaps blunted the premise a little. Travolta's performance doesn't quite hold up, either - he's too singular a character, too iconic when surrounded by people with foibles. But it may just be the character; the supporting cast in Be Cool-the-novel sticks in my mind much more than Palmer did.

But it's still a very good one. My DVD collection's large enough by now that I don't revisit it nearly as often as I used to, but it still satisfies.

Blade: Trinity

* * (out of four)
Seen 24 December 2004 at Regal Clark's Pond #1 (first-run)

Getting back to something's roots is generally thought of as a good thing, but that may not be the case for New Line's Blade franchise. Part of the problem is that the general public considers Blade's roots to be the first movie, while screenwriter/director David Goyer is all too aware that Blade was a comic book character first.

Not that there was a "Blade" comic before the success of the first movie; the character first appeared in a 1970s horror series named "Tomb of Dracula". It's a clever reference when the movie starts with vampire archeologists uncovering said resting place; less so when one character actually whips out a copy of the series' first issue. But comics are Goyer's thing (in addition to the Blade movies, he also did scripts for Hellboy and Batman Begins, with The Flash in development), and a couple of the sillier comic tropes get some use: Abraham Whistler (Kris Kristoferson) gets the Jean Grey "For Crying Out Loud, Is He Dead Again" Award, and his daughter Abigail (Jessica Biel) places in the Green Arrow "Seriously, The Compound Bow Is The Best Weapon For Urban Combat Ever" category. Wacky ideas about evolution abound.

The latter is kind of disappointing, since one of the good things Trinity mostly retains from its predecessors is the idea of taking a supernatural story concept such as vampires and placing it in a science-fictional context. Neither the humans nor vampires are terribly interested in musty books or prophecies; the vampire hunters are more likely to genetically engineer a virus to take the bloodsuckers out. That the science used is chuckle-inducing is somewhat forgivable, since the science-over-superstition theme is a good one that deserves to appear in better movies.

So what goes wrong? Well, there's the cast. Or, more specifically, the performances.

After the movie ended, it was not hard to imagine a day early on during shooting when Ryan Reynolds looked around, realized he could walk away with the movie and nobody else would offer any resistance. Wesley Snipes, for all anybody can tell behind his dark glasses, could very well be sleepwalking. Jessica Biel doesn't seem to have much to do other than stand around with her bow, looking good; maybe she'll be Jennifer Garner when she grows up. Parker Posey angrily chews scenery as the villainous mastermind, perhaps distressed over what a once promising career has come to. Dominic Purcell goes the "too full of himself to be truly malevolent" route as Drake. Natasha Lyonne has a lifeless extended cameo as a blind geneticist. They're in a movie about vampires, but aside from Posey and Reynolds, they might as well be zombies.

Ah, Ryan Reynolds. The character he plays, Hannibal King, was more noteworthy for his iron will than his smart mouth in Tomb of Dracula (King was a "vampire detective" who resisted the urge to drink blood or use his vampiric powers), but here is written to Reynolds's strengths. Sort of "what if Berg from Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place was a badass vampire hunter?" He gets just about every good line in the screenplay and delivers them in sarcastic, laid-back style. This could be the part that makes him a movie star in the way that Van Wilder didn't. It's an entertaining performance, but is it a Good Thing for a comic sidekick to so completely dominate an action movie?

Ultimately, these weaknesses have to be laid at Goyer's feet. He's not a bad screenwriter, but his work here suggests that he does his best work with a strong collaborator. Snipes, if you remember, was pretty darn good in the first two Blade movies, but offers nothing in this one. Same with the rest of the cast. He also seems to subscribe to the premise that anything is cool when you film it in slow-motion; there are actually two shots of Abigail putting her headphones on, because she likes to listen to MP3s as she dispatches the undead. It's comical. The action scenes also don't have the same zing as they did in the first movie (it doesn't help that Drake has the annoying habit of turning into a CGI monster just when things are getting good).

It's an open question how good a movie this would have been if Guillermo del Toro had directed it instead of doing Hellboy; maybe he would have been able to coax something out of Snipes, or curbed some of Goyer's fanboy tendencies. Or maybe not. At any rate, this will probably be the last Blade movie, although there's talk of spinning Reynolds and Biel off into a "Nightstalkers" movie. I must admit, I might go for that, although I'd maybe like someone else in charge of it.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

A Thief of Time

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 December 2004 in Jay's Living Room (American Mystery! Specials)

Sometime, over the last ten years, I stopped getting my murder mystery fix from books and started relying on procedural TV series like Law & Order. There were several reasons, but one that stands out is my developing skepticism with continuity. It was fun to see Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn get married, and reading "The Adventure of the Empty House" without "The Final Problem" is kind of pointless, but I was young and catching up on a hundred years of detective fiction - even if the order mattered (which it generally didn't), I could inhale the books one after the other at the library. Once I was caught up to the point where I had to wait for Sue Grafton's latest alphabet murder, the recurring characters and continuing threads started to become a nuisance; I just didn't remember them well enough from the last time I was immersed in this author's world, twelve months earlier. And if you've read them out of order, well, you probably won't have the guilty party spoiled, but you can cross some people off the list of suspects.

That's what seems to have happened with A Thief of Time; though it's the third Leaphorn & Chee movie produced for Mystery!, it appears to take place between Skinwalkers and Coyote Waits. Or maybe not, but the way Jim Chee (Adam Beach) flirts with local attorney Janet Pete (Alex Rice) and talks about a possible transfer to Washington that is a source of bitterness in Coyote certainly suggests it. So does how Emma Leaphorn (Sheila Tousey) mentions her chemo will leave her bald despite stating her hair had grown back in the previous movie. Thus, when Graham Greene shows up as hustling Christian preacher "Slick" Nakai, who also appears in Coyote Waits, it certainly seems unlikely that he'll be heading to jail this week. In addition, Lt. Joe Leaphorn (Wes Studi) finds a link to someone from an old case (Peter Fonda), and the reveal feels like it should be familiar to the audience as well. Perhaps it's from one of Tony Hillerman's early Leaphorn solo stories.

It's not just the continuing story that's familiar from Coyote Waits; the individual mystery seems similar, too. Once again, there's a missing archeologist/anthropologist on the trail of something extraordinary (this time, support for a theory on how the advanced Anasazi tribe disappeared) somehow connected to a crime Chee was unable to prevent in the opener. Everything here is initially much more muted, though - I don't think we have an actual corpse until halfway through. The low key nature of this investigation figures into the subplots: Leaphorn, a former big-city detective, is semi-retired and unfulfilled by a job which frequently has him merely serving summonses; he feels guilty when one of the academics flirts with him. Meanwhile, Chee's apparent lack of drive to go on to bigger and better things frustrates his girlfriend Alex.

Chris Eyre is in the director's chair again, and he maintains a tighter focus than he did with Skinwalkers. The movie mostly sticks with Chee and Leaphorn as they investigate, and doesn't make a whole lot of diversions into "Navajo life in general". The weakness comes from the writing, though it's unclear whether Alice Arlen's script or Tony Hillerman's novel is at fault. The link to Leaphorn's old case feels shoehorned in, and since that drives much of the novel's last act (telegraphing the final confrontation far too clearly), it kind of feels like a cheat. And if there's one thing a mystery story can't even seem to be doing, it's cheating.

And yet, if WGBH and Granada produce another Leaphorn/Chee movie next summer, I'll be all over it. Wes Studi is just too good in this role to pass it by. Maybe if some enterprising studio exec were to talk to Hillerman about a weekly Leaphorn series...

Monday, December 27, 2004

On The Waterfront

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 December 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #8 (Special Engagement)

Ten minutes' difference in getting out of work, and this is a completely different entry, because it means I catch the train instead of the bus, I reach Kendall Square an hour earlier, meeting up with Laurel plenty early enough to take in the preview of The Life Aquatic. Instead, I take three buses and a subway, even after it's clear things aren't going to break just right, because I at least owe her an explanation.

It's a little like that for Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront. He's made some bad decisions, and the easiest thing might be just to do nothing, but there's a girl, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), and she deserves something. Of course, she's got a dead brother, not just an hour in bitter-cold weather. She knows why her brother's dead, too - he talked to the police about the corruption in the longshoremans' union - so she doesn't need an explanation. She wants action.

In the fifty years since On the Waterfront was first released, perceptions have changed. Marlon Brando went from a working-class, ruggedly-handsome leading man to a bizarre, corpulent eccentric (but without the outsider-genius rep of Orson Welles). Organized crime's influence on labor unions has gone from being something known but unsaid to black comedy to the kind of stereotype that one awkwardly apologizes for being aware of. Malloy often speaks in a peculiar argot (at least, peculiar to a middle-class guy in 2004), and Edie is reamarked upon for studying to be a teacher. Lesser movies may age poorly because of such things that root them to a specific time or place, but the ones that endure don't show their age. On the Waterfront is still the product of a specific time, but it's still young and vital, despite the decades between its time and our own.

Part of the reason for this is that director Elia Kazan never sets out to shock his audience. The corruption of the union isn't surprising in the least; you get the impression that the Crime Commission has been looking for a way to prove something everyone knows is true for a while. When the mob moves to murderously protect its interests, there's no great amount of suspense; that these threats of exposure are eliminated is to be expected. Kazan and company are simply telling a story, and although it's a ripped-from-the-headlines social justice story (literally; Budd Schulberg's script is credited as being suggested by articles by Malcolm Johnson), it isn't an exposé of a corrupt system, but rather a story about the person who stood up.

Whistle-blowers like Terry Malloy are popular subjects, of course; especially for biopics. Even without knowing that Malloy is based on a specific individual, though, he comes off as more real than many of those pictures' subjects. He captures a lot of basic insecurities - potential he knows he hasn't lived up to, specific chances he's missed, a girl who's out of his league (something he's loath to admit exists in the first place). He's afraid to bring down a system that he knows is corrupt and wrong, which has hurt him specifically, both because he fears reprisal and because his brother is part of it. He's not that smart - it takes him a while to work all this out, despite how his book-smart maybe-girlfriend implores him. He is, however, able to grasp his importance as a symbol toward the end, even if Edie doesn't or doesn't want to.

Modern moviegoers used to location shooting and exact recreations may smirk at the production values, but may not. Boris Kaufman's black-and-white photography is active, always pointing at exactly what the audience needs to see. The sets describe the places they represent well: Cramped living quarters, or work areas overfilled with people. Characters look grimy, or too slick, or pure and virginal almost (but not quite) to the point of exaggeration.

On the Waterfront has a boatload of awards, and it's earned them. The new print struck for the anniversery is sharp. My only real complaint is that the cartoon Landmark attached to it was just as awful as the feature was good.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 December 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run)

The art-house action movie is a strange phenomenon. They are foreign imports almost by definition; a domestic action movie would open in multiplexes, with few exceptions (Equilibrium is the only recent example that leaps to mind); on the other hand, the boutique audience isn't always willing to appreciate a good action scene as something worth striving for on its own, advancing the plot be damned.

Though, to give it its due, House of Flying Daggers holds its own in the plot department. The title refers to a group of rebels operating just outside the capitol; having received information that the rebels have a new agent placed inside the Peony Pavilion brothel, the police send one of their number, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), undercover. When they find out the beautiful new dancer Mei (Zhang Ziyi) is blind, well, the old leader had a blind daughter, didn't he? Hoping that she'll lead them to their leader, a disguised Jin breaks her out of prison. As his partner Leo (Andy Lau) informs him during a secret meeting, though, an overzealous general is troops to stop them, or at least make the escape appear convincing. It's enough to make Jin question whether he's on the right side.

Lau, of Infernal Affairs, is once again playing the infiltration game, only this time it doesn't take place in modern China. And, of course, there's a pretty girl involved, meaning that the matter will become personal at some point. It is a believable whirlwind romance, though, even when characters become aware of the multiple levels of deception involved. It may be unnecessarily tragic toward the end; though it makes for grand opera, but do people really think in such operatic terms? I'm not sure.

Visually, this film is a stunner. Director Zhang Yimou saturates the first half with color, with the scenes at the Peony Pavilion a sight to behold, especially during an "Echo Game", in which Leo throws stones at drums and blind Mei must repeat their sequence. He also uses this part of the movie to establish the style of the action scenes: They are unusually digital effects-intensive, with the camera following thrown objects or flying through the scene in slow motion.

As an aside, I find it an amusing irony that the action movies that become boutique-house successes in the United States feature a lot of FX trickery - digital weapons, extensive wire-work - while the Jackie Chan and Jet Li stuff which works based upon the incredible athleticism of its stars is relegated to the grindhouse. Aren't the boutique types usually the first ones to dismiss an American movie for being nothing but digital effects?

Flying Daggers is more, of course - its plot holds together pretty well, aside from being an excuse to string action scenes together. The characters are well-drawn and well-acted, and Yimou brings more artistry to this kind of movie than one might expect. During the final action sequence, for instance, the season seems to change from summer, to fall, to winter. The characters don't fight for four whole months, of course, but Yimou is able to make this metaphorical change in the world work, when in a less sure hand it might seem pretentious or nonsensical. One of the giants of world cinema, Yimou has only recently turned his hand to action/adventure (Flying Daggers is his follow-up to Hero), and he brings more attention to detail and storytelling sense than some of the genre's other practitioners.

House of Flying Daggers serves as a reminder that action movies don't have to be stupid, and that movies about human feelings can be illustrated with bold, physical confrontations. It's the epitome of the art-house action movie, and it would be a fine thing if we could see more like it.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Coyote Waits

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 December 2004 in Jay's Living Room (American Mystery! Speical)

Although the second Chee/Leaphorn movie has a more complicated story than the first (Skinwalkers), it feels like a more streamlined movie. It's certainly more focused; where its predecessor ran off in several different directions, Coyote Waits is first and foremost a murder mystery. Running a close second is how it follows up on Officer Jim Chee and Detective Joe Leaphorn; the travails of living on a Navajo reservation are a much more distant third than they were in Skinwalkers.

These elements are not totally absent; they're quite present. For instance, Leaphorn (Wes Studi) does a bit of speechifying about how if he had one wish, he'd eliminate booze, having seen how it changes people, especially Indians. And this isn't a story that could easily be dropped into any other environment; the peculiar jurisdictional issues that arise from the semi-autonomy of the reservations figures in. These issues are simply treated as part of the environment in which Leaphorn and Jim Chee (Adam Beech) live, and they are important in terms of how they affect the investigators going about their work, not as points for the audience to be made aware of.

The movie takes place some time after Skinwalkers, and things have happened to Chee and Leaphorn in the meantime. Mrs. Leaphorn's cancer seems to be in remission, for example, and public defender Janet Pete (Alex Rice) has declined a job in Washington, presumably because of Jim Chee. As the movie opens, Chee is heading into the station, but stops to pick up a college student hitch-hiking to work. Because she's in the car, he doesn't follow procedure and immediately render aid to a fellow officer; when he does arrive, the officer's car is on fire (Chee burns his hand badly enough to be taken off active duty), and an old man with a gun and a bottle of thirty dollar whiskey is stumbling away.

It's an open and shut case, except that the man is part of the same clan as Leaphorn's wife, and she asks that he investigate. When Alex draws the case, Chee begins to investigate, too, to make sure he made a good collar. What both end up realizing is that, no matter who did it, the crime is definitely more complicated than an old man doing something stupid after getting liquored up. A license plate leads to a Vietnamese professor at the local university, while a tape of oral histories leads to another member of the faculty. And then the FBI steps in...

Coyote Waits is, first and foremost, a solid franchise mystery. We've been introduced to our detectives, so let's put them on a case and let them run. The mystery story plays fair with the audience, not giving Leaphorn or Chee access to information that gives them an unfair advantage in solving the case over the audience at home. The case itself has the requisite number of red herrings, strange revelations, and intriguing motivations to keep the viewer guessing, and leads up to a nifty conclusion.

The biggest improvement between the first and second movie is in the character of Jim Chee. Where I think the first film suffered from a desire to cast Chee a sort of ideal, this movie lets us see his imperfections more. He doubts both his abilities and worthiness as a medicine man, isn't nearly so confident in his dealings with Alex, and spars with Leaphorn when they're approaching the case from different sides. Being a less-perfect protagonist agrees with Adam Beach; he actually shows some chops when he has to make Chee a bit of a self-pitying jerk rather than the noble Indian in touch with both the old ways and modern life who can do no wrong. Wes Studi still blows him off the screen when they share a scene, but what can you do? Studi's a better actor with an older, more experienced, more multi-faceted character.

The quality of the production is something of a surprise, not just because it is a co-production of a PBS station and Britain's Granada TV, but because of the people involved. Writer Lucky Gold's career is mostly soaps, which prizes generating large amounts of acceptable writing quickly more than a solid hour and a half. Director Jan Egleson is a veteran of TV-movie filler. They're dependable workhorses, but don't come with the repuation Chris Eyre brought to the first movie in the series. Still, they get the job done, and stay focused on the mystery elements.

Thus far, PBS's American Mystery! series isn't bad; I hope it's getting enough of a response to increase production from more than one movie per year (and perhaps take on some other detectives).

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Mothra (1961) (Mosura)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Midnight/Matinee Madness)

Would-be filmmakers should take Mothra as either encouragement or a warning. On the one hand, it shows that even if you have very little to work with, it can still find an audience and be remembered for years to come. The flip side of this, of course, is that a movie with quite frankly hilarious shortcomings in the production values department can dog you for generations. Director Ishiro Honda spent much of his career doing this type of movie, so maybe he isn't embarrassed by it, although he may just have been a good Toho employee.

If he was embarrassed, he shouldn't have been. Amused, perhaps, that forty-plus years after its initial release, this movie is still remembered and held in enough esteem to get new prints and a limited run in repatory theaters. Mothra belongs to that class of monster movies that are so simple in their conception and exuberant in their execution that they manage to work despite their obvious budgetary shortcomings. It also taps into something real - it's not as close to Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the original Godzilla (itself written by Honda), but the spectre of radioactive contamination and the fears of America running roughshod over its allies were still prevalent enough in the Japanese mindset (and, to a lesser extent, everywhere in the world) to make this story seem somewhat topical.

Here, "America" is disguised as Rolisica, an island nation that nonetheless conducted nuclear tests on Infant Island and takes total control of an "international" mission to investigate the island, when Japanese sailors stranded there say that they were saved by natives. When the Rolisican impressario who funded the expedition, Clark Nelson (played by American-born Jerry Ito, he has an Anglophone name but Japanese features) kidnaps two foot-high girls they find on the island, the natives call on their island's guardian, Mosura (transliterated as Mothra), to retrieve them - and the Rolisican Embassy gives him sanctuary, even as Mosura (in its larval form) is laying waste to Japan. Eventually, he flees to his own country, but Mosura follows, its moth form ready to do as much damage to "New Kirk City" as its larval form to to Tokyo.

What you're working with here is basic dime-novel fiction, giant-moster style; you've got the journalist main character (Frankie Sakai), his photographer assistant (Kyoko Kagawa), and an initially reclusive linguist who sort of winds up being a general-purpose scientist. The foreign villain likes to throw his head back and laugh. The editor is gruff and demanding. There are native populations who can surround a party without a sound. And there's a scale model of Tokyo to crush. Honda is familiar with all this stuff (he also wrote Godzilla and directed Rodan), and he knows exactly how far he can go without overplaying his hand.

The production values on movies like this walk a fine line between impressive and laughable. There's great attention paid to detail in terms of how well the miniatures are built, for instance, and they look good coming down. However, both the Mosura larva and later moth form look quite goofy, and a lot of the action looks to be done with toys. Seriously, when you see Nelson pick the "tiny beauties" up, they're clearly Barbies (or whatever the equivelent Japanes 11.5-inch fashion doll is named). And I wouldn't be surprised if the tanks were remote-controlled vehicles that anyone could get off the shelf; the soldiers' heads peeking out are immobile and don't exactly look like they were sculpted and painted by someone used to working at that scale. The cars flying through the air as Mosura approaches New Kirk City? Matchboxes.

But it's kind of charming, too. I don't know if "charming" would be the right work to describe it had I seen it in 1961, but in 2004, it's possible to admire how much Honda did with so little, making up for what his effects team couldn't do with what he could. Kitsch looks better with a little distance.

So Mothra ends up being a lot of fun, and embeds itself into Japanese pop culture to the point where the giant bug has appeared in the four most recent Godzilla movies, 40 years later. it endures, more than can be said about many movies of its age.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener; projected video)

It's almost impossible to count the number of ways in which animation grand master Hayao Miyazaki excels, and probably even more foolish to try and discriminate as to which is most important. Still, one has to start somewhere, and for me it's his kids.

Even though their forms are exaggerated, they still seem more believable than the children in many live-action films. They're in nearly constant motion, they yell in delight, they break into tears when they don't get their way. Four-year-old Mei is still soft with baby fat and is prone to wander off, while her more responsible older sister Satsuki is drawn with skinny, angular limbs that poke out from under her clothes. Along with their University-professor father, they've moved out to the country to be near their mother while she recuperates from some illness, to a house that seems to be haunted.

It's not actually haunted, though; it's just filled with tiny spirits of dust and disuse that can be found in any house which has stood empty for so long. As soon as the family has let light into all the house's disused corners, the float out, retreating to the camphor tree that seems to be the source of the area's magic. It is under that tree that Mei finds a gigantic, furry beast with pointy ears and a deep voice that calls itself Totoro.

Only the children can see Totoro, the two smaller creatures of the same type, and the cat-bus that populate this film's world with magic. But to Miyazaki's credit, he doesn't harp on this, or have the adults act with disbelief or be patronizing when Mei first describes Totoro. That children are more open to the fantastic is assumed, and even if the girls' father or the old lady who watches them while he works in the city assume that Totoro is a product of the children's active imaginations, they don't rain on the girls' parade.

As with all of Miyazaki's films, Totoro is a joy to behold. Backgrounds are active and detailed; faces are simply drawn but highly expressive. The design work is striking, as usual - kids can probably sketch Totoro with a few quick strokes, but that doesn't make him limited at all. The cat-bus is acreations that would probably make the Disney company nervous - it's got a dozen legs, a smile so large as to be almost sinister, glowing eyes... And yet it's so full of wonder that it will more often be the stuff of dreams than nightmares.

A person obsessed with plot might find this movie unsaitsfying - though the last act of the movie deals with Satsuki looking for Mei, who has gone missing, this is not a movie where a conflict is introduced in the first act, with tension increased in the second and finally a resolution in the third; nor is there any particular meaning given to the fantasy elements. A family moves to a house, some odd things happen, and then life goes on. Along the way, the audience will see beauty and experience feelings and events vicariously. But, then again, isnt't that how we remember childhood, as something both scary and magical, almost divorced from our adult lives, as opposed to the rites of passage emphasized by the movies which need a story structure?

There aren't many Hayao Miyazakis in the world. In animation, he stands alongside Walt Disney and maybe Osamu Tezuka, although John Lasseter and Brad Bird may join them when their filmographies are as long and varied as they are distinguished. This film is from the middle of Miyazaki's career in features, which is part of what makes it truly astounding - that he was still able to improve afterward.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002) (Gojira tai Mekagojira)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 December 2004 in Jay's Living Room (DVD)

I must say that I find the attitude that the more recent Godzilla movies take toward series continuity refreshing. Where other long-running series which have had multiple creators - think James Bond, Star Trek or Marvel/DC comics - force the later writers to work around convoluted, anachronistic, or flat-out contradictory history, the rules from Godzilla 2000 on seem to be simple - the original 1954 Godzilla is always in continuity, but aside from that, start as fresh as you want.

It's pretty much the ideal amount of flexibility - the characters in the new movie don't have to spend time learning everything the audience already knows about the big green guy, but the filmmakers can go in whatever direction they want. I didn't find it quite so well-made as the movie which preceding it (Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monster All-Out Attack!), but it's not bad. The inevitable part without men in suits are enjoyable enough, and there's some decent action too.

A the film opens, it's 1999. Godzilla isn't the only giant monster to rampage through Tokyo in the last forty-five years, but he was the worst, and when a new Godzilla appears, he easily rebuffs the weapons used by the AMF (Anti-Megalosaurus Force) to combat the likes of Mothra and Gaira. Japan decides on an audacious plan - to build a Godzilla-sized robot on top of the skeleton of the original Godzilla to combat this new one when he inevitably returns. Four years later - though scientist Yuhara Tokmitsu's (Takuma Shin) daughter Sara hasn't seemed to age a day - the robot is ready and armed to the teeth, with a controller (Shaku Yumiko) whose actions during the last Godzilla attack cost several soldiers their lives looking for redemption. Good thing, too, because a certain radiation-spewing giant lizard has been spotted off the coast. There's just one catch - the DNA-based computer used to run "Kiryu" uses Godzilla-DNA...

There's potential here - while to a certain extent, all you need here is Godzilla, a scale model of Japan, and competent direction, there are some interesting plot threads, and I'm not talking about the obligatory single dad with a daughter who has been withdrawn since the death of her mother being attracted to the guilty soldier. There's some interesting stuff off to the sidelines, such as concern from the world at large that Japan building a giant robot with all sorts of guns and missiles and an "absolute zero ray" just might be considered re-arming, which I imagine would make Korea, Russia, and other neighboring countries nervous. The DNA computer is a fun sci-fi concept, especially when it leads to a great "ghost in the machine" moment. The brief hope of a Godzilla movie worth watching for its story, though, is quickly extinguished.

And, to make matters worse, Godzilla doesn't even stomp Tokyo; he does in some military hardware and a gigantic water park. The action scenes are pretty keen, though - as much as CGI in a Godzilla flick seems wrong on a fundamental level, seeing the big guy blast plane out of the air with his radioactive breath is, in fact, cool. Same with a bunch of heat-seeking missiles homing in on him. It's too bad Mechagodzilla is such a relatively featureless design; even next to Godzilla, it looks fake.

It's an average Godzilla movie. You like Godzilla, you'll likely enjoy it. It probably won't become a favorite, but it won't be the opposite extreme, either.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

National Treasure

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 December 2004 at AMC Fenway #8 (first-run)

The reason I will likely never actually get paid to give my opinion of movies is that I can't give something like National Treasure the sort of extreme reaction it seems designed to draw from critics. I can't be the shill that sticks superlatives on it, but it doesn't create the desire for my review to have the nastiest, most smart-ass intro on all of Hollywood Bitch-Slap.

National Treasure is competent. It doesn't break any new ground in its storytelling, acting, or staging. Director John Turteltaub is not as flashy as some of producer Jerry Bruckheimer's usual collaborators, letting the story unfold with a minimum of distractions. The screenplay (credited to Cormac & Marianne Wibberly from a story by Jim Kouf, though the one-sheet listed Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio as well) hits the expected spots at the expected times, and doesn't give the cast much to do that's particularly memorable.

It is a fun story, though - Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) is the latest in a family that has been entrusted with a vague clue that supposedly leads to an incredible treasure, brought to America by the Knights Templar, a group which the movie tells us became the Freemasons. Many of America's Founding Fathers, of course, belonged to this group, and Masonic symbols still appear on American currency. Gates's search for this treasure is being financed by one Ian Howe (Sean Bean), but it doesn't take long for Howe to reveal himself as the film's villain. Having determined that the next clue is written on the back of the Declaration of Independence, Gates, assisted by tech whiz Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), races to steal it first. Along the way he picks up Abigain Chase, a cute archivist (Diane Kruger) and clashes with his father (Jon Voight), who has given up on finding the treasure. Along the way, there will be chases, standoffs, and the ever-popular "hidden chamber with a bottomless pit in the center".

There is a sort of optimization to this movie's casting that fascinates me. At the top, you have Nic Cage, a legitimate movie star. Star power, however, isn't additive, so the sidekick and love interest can be almost complete unknowns. The villain is a B-list guy, once pegged as a leading man, but never actually attaining that goal; thus he's a credible threat to the hero but won't actually steal the picture. Guys with good reputations forged a generation or so ago but not much to show for it recently play the hero's father and grandfather. A workhorse with indie cred (Harvey Keitel) reminds the audience that the FBI agent in charge of investigating this mess is important. I find myself wondering whether replacing Nicolas Cage with, say, Mark Wahlberg would have meant upgrading Justin Bartha to Seth Green and replacing Sean Bean with someone like Arnold Vosloo to compensate for the difference in star power.

So, let's run down what we've got - a fun basis for the movie, a producter known for delivering the good production values, an able enough director, and a decent cast. The bad news is that nobody overachieves and delivers more than you would reasonably expect; the good news is that nobody screws up. So the movie winds up being a couple of enjoyable hours, though nothing that will merit buying a DVD so that you can own it for ever and ever.

On the plus side, it's fairly kid-friendly. I don't think anyone bleeds - heck, even the [i]bad guys[/i] use non-lethal weapons on a guard while breaking into the National Archives. There's only the mildest sexual innuendo (or, unfortunatley, tension), and the rest of the language is kept clean, as well. At one point, Gates and Riley tut-tut about Abigail swearing, even though it sounded to my ears like she said "dumb" instead of "damn". Some in the audience won't see the PG rating as an asset, but it works for this picture. Its secret societies and conspiracies aren't sinister, so it wisely concentrates on the fun aspects rather than the gritty ones.

I suppose it comes down to where a person wants to draw their line and establish their standards. National Treasure is a pleasant adventure/quest movie, whereas Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a great one (at this point, feel free to imagine me looking at their relative success at the box office and grumbling about the world not being fair). "Pleasant" was enough for me on that particular night, but may not be enough for everyone.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 November 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

Reconstruction is "clever", "self-referential", "meticulously constructed", and, dare I say it, "post-modern". These are all fine things for a film to be, although they are all descriptors of an intellectual nature. Which would be fine if, in its earliest fit of self-awareness, the narrator didn't assure the audience that even though the whole thing is artificial, a construction, the audience will come to care as if it were real anyway, a goal that it only sporadically meets.

That is, of course, the sort of promise that is implicit in any work of fiction. There are many interpretations for why co-writer/director Christoffer Boe included the explicit statement, from pretension to desperation and back to wanting to underscore one of the film's themes. Or perhaps it is merely forewarning, because otherwise one's initial impression of the film would be that of a well-written romantic fantasy, and may be disappointed when it becomes something else.

The story initially seems straightforward - Alex (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) meets Aimee (Maria Bonnevie) in a bar, and hits on her, dispite having a girlfriend Simone (also played by Bonneville) while she is married to August (Krister Henriksson), a writer who also serves as the narrator. They have a tryst while August is out of town, but when Alex leaves Aimee's hotel room, he finds that his entire life has been erased - his apartment no longer exists, while his landlord, friends, father, and girlfriend no longer recognize him. And when he meets up with Aimee again, it's unclear whether she knows him or simply finds him attractive for the same reasons she did before.

The idea of a rewritten reality that only one person can remember is one that has been in play a lot over the past decade. The most recent high-profile example is probably The Forgotten with Julianne Moore; perhaps the most jaw-droppingly cool is Alex Proyas's Dark City. A cult TV series named Nowhere Man still has its fans. Perhaps one of the most obscure, but closest to what Boe is attempting here, is comic-book philosopher Alan Moore's "Book of Mercury", a book containg the complete history of the universe (one that can be emended) which appeared in an otherwise undistinguished line.

Those works, though, have stories in which the characters acknowledge the oddness of their situations, where this remarkable, impossible thing pre-empts everything else, but here, it just seems like a distraction from Alex's interest in the two women. Of course, he may just be written that way; it soon becomes clear that AUgust's writing is affecting Alex's life. Is he trying to steer Alex away form his wife, or is there actually no Alex at all? After all, the uncanny similarity between Simone and Aimee suggests that one or both of them is something other than she seems. It's an interesting setup, which raises interesting ideas, but there's no story to it.

It's a well-made movie - the acting is good, especially from Ms. Bonnevie, who essays her two seperate parts well enough that it's not initially obvious the same actress is playing both roles. Boe's direction is excellent, especially for someone directing their first feature. He uses a grainy film stock in order to highlight the story's artificiality, and establishes scenes with extreme overhead shots that serve as maps for character locations. It's a visually striking film, certain enough.

It is also a film that often seems primarily designed to make smart people feel smart. It throws ideas around, little dollops of them, and when these ideas don't add up to a real story, the audience is meant to be impressed at how ambiguous and open to interpretation the final result is. And that's a perfectly fine response, and I don't begrudge anyone any enjoyment they get that way. Boe was one of the founders of the Dogme 95 movement (though he must have been an intern or something), and although I liked it more than Dogville, it rubbed me the same way - so impressed with its own cleverness that it forgets to be anything but clever.

Actress Apocalypse

* * (out of four)
Seen 4 December 2004 at Coolidge Corner Theater #1 (Midnight Ass-Kickings)

My strongest obligation Saturday night was to my brother, a theater/cinema major at Northeastern University who had a play to perform. After that was done, there were only a couple of hours to kill until the start of Actress Apocalypse, a film co-written, produced, and starring Garo Nigoghossian, the fellow who programs the "Midnight Ass-Kicking" series as the Coolidge. Now, I don't actually know Garo - I could pick him out of a lineup, but he probably couldn't reciprocate. But anyone who has attended one of his screenings at either the Coolidge or the demolished-and-replaced-by-a-Staples Allston Cinema over the past couple years will recognize his enthusiasm for grindhouse movies of all stripes. And when you're looking at a microscopically-budgeted movie, enthusiasm counts for a lot.

I don't doubt that Garo and company had fun making this movie. I mean, hey, naked girls, and they're working a kind of self-referential vibe that probably makes it easy to deflate anyone on the set who starts getting too full of himself. And with so little discernable acting talent on display, fun had better be part of the equation.

The plot, such as it is, involves a man trying to make a movie with his brother; what we see was supposed to be the making-of documentary. That the director (Nigoghossian) thinks his movie about a woman being terrorized by a big, mulletted Indian will merit supplemental features on its eventual DVD release is indicative about his mindset; he makes grand pronouncements about this being the greatest movie ever made, despite the fact that it is being made in a shed behind his house. The trouble starts on the first day when only one actress shows up for work; disgusted, she doesn't return for a second day, leading the group (which includes a cameraman and a thoroughly incompetent key grip) to argue, regroup, and reconsider the movie. Things get worse during the next round of auditions, when the brother strangles the auditioning actress.

Actress Apocalypse is a more professionally made movie than what it chronicles, though not by a huge order of magnitude. The actresses in the movie were cast, as one might have already suspected, by director Rich Aransky's wife taking a job at a Florida Hooters and recruiting there. The cast, for the most part, does a bit better than just reciting/reading their lines, but not enough so you'd offer them a job doing this. The production values are sub-Troma, and the editing...

Oh, Lord, the editing. The more movies I see that were edited on someone's Mac, the more I appreciate that this may be the hardest part of making a movie. Good editing doesn't stick out the way a nice score, an amazing performance, or a beautifully composed shot does, but bad editing absolutely kills a movie in a way few other elements can. Here, there's just too much editing, with shots of the actresses doing stripteases in what were apparently secret earlier auditions are intercut with scenes of another movie entirely, and bits of text appear for a few frames at random. The line between filling the screen with stuff that will be fun to find when you can pause the DVD and taunting the people who buy a ticket with stuff they can't possibly take in isn't exactly fine, and this movie is on the wrong side of it.

(Admittedly, I'm not sure how many beyond the 53 of us at the Coolidge will ever pay for a ticket.)

So how does it get two whole stars? It's got one trick that it does very, very well - the funny scene transition. Nearly every intertitle basically contradicts the director character's stated hopes at the end of the previous scene, in a positively withering way. This movie is not quite so skilled at it as, say, Arrested Development, but it is nevertheless able to punctuate its chaos with frequent zings. Garo's pretentious and deluded director is also a funny character, if not always a well-acted one.

Movies like Actress Apocalypse are true independent films, even if their ambitions aren't nearly as high-minded as the productions we associate with that label (which are made for mere six- or seven-figure budgets). Thousands probably get made every year, dying when festival programmers and video distributors aren't interested. This one got to play a midnight show at an independant theater and will get a release on DVD via Crash Cinema in 2005, which means it's already more successful than most of its brethren.

And of course, when people look at my 2004 film list, they'll say "you put that above Dogville?"

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Murder By Death

Okay, I'm thinking as this movie starts, we've got opening titles by Charles Addams, some pretty dead-on riffs on classic detectives by a spiffy cast, and a screenplay by Neil Simon. This is going to be fun. I settle in, and although I can't pin down the exact moment when the movie loses me, but I think I can guess why.

For the first half or so, this movie is all about the gag. Yes, the characters are very specific parodies of specific fictional detectives, but the jokes themselves are easily accessible to someone who didn't swallow Agatha Christie books whole as I did in junior high, which incidentally was followed by champoning Mystery! over Twin Peaks and Cheers in high school and becoming a fan of Humphrey Bogart and William Powell as an adult. Of course, for those of us that do fit that description, it's even funnier.

And the cast is pretty top-notch, and well-matched to their characters. David Niven could easily have stepped into William Powell's shoes for a few new Thin Man movies as "Dick Charleston". Peter Falk actually did another movie with the same writer/director as "Sam Diamond". Peter Sellers may not quite steal every scene he's in as Inspector Sidney Wang, but it's not for lack of trying (I swear that there was a "Sidney Wong" series, but can't find anything online; he's probably spoofing Charlie Chan). Elsa Lanchester is okay as "Miss Jessica Marbles" (though the Marple stories were never favorites of mine). James Coco certainly looks the part as "Milo Perrier", although the surprise here is James Cromwell as his assistant Marcel, a dead ringer for how Hugh Fraser would appear as Captain Hastings fifteen years later in LWT's Poirot series. Alec Guinness is fantastically funny as the blind butler, "Jamesir Bensonmum".

But look at those character names - they're straight out of "Mad" Magazine. And while "Mad" is great when you're ten, it can seem pretty trite to an adult. The movie winds up collapsing the same way a typical parody comic in that magazine does - under a crushing lump of self-referentiality, topped off by a snotty disdain for the subject matter that winds up pushing the fan away. I can laugh about the silliness of these characters' quirks, but parodists have got to respect that I love them, too. If all the filmmakers can bring is mockery, if they're not putting something fun back into my treasure chest of beloved film and literary bits to replace what they're casting aside, then the result is a mean-spirited, petty work.

And, by the end, that's what Murder By Death has become. The friendly jests of the opening half which brought genuine wit are replaced with arbitrary, cranky jabs at the mystery genre. This, one can't help but think, isn't nearly as much fun as it should be, or even nearly as much fun as it was an hour ago.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

A Shot in the Dark

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 27 November 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Being Peter Sellers)

In my review of The Pink Panther, I mention that the first film in the series is somewhat atypical; it is in A Shot In The Dark that Clouseau truly emerges as a lucky dimwit who thinks himself brilliant, surrounded by classic supporting characters. In a way, The Pink Panther and A Shot In The Dark are like parents to the franchise that would later emerge; the later films appear to have features from both.

Which makes sense; though they share a star, co-writer/director, and main character, the movies do not have the normal hit/sequel life-cycle. They were shot back-to-back, but A Shot in the Dark was actually filmed first. The character of Clouseau, however, was created for The Pink Panther, and inserted into Shot when director Blake Edwards decided to mostly scrap the original play that the movie was based on. Then, when Panther was a hit, this film was rushed into release by United Artists mere months later, after sitting in the studio's vaults.

In retrospect, it's amazing that a studio would have sat on a movie as flat-out funny as this; how many awful and now forgotten films did UA release in 1963 instead? Still, comedy coming from violent death is perennially something that make studio executives nervous, and I imagine that being able to tie it to a hit was able to ease their minds.

The plot, here, serves as little more than a delivery device for gags. In a wealthy Paris home, the driver has been stabbed, and all evidence points to the maid, Maria (Elke Sommer). Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Sellers) is dispatched to investigate the murder, however, and is immediately smitten with her, and continues to free her with hopes that she will lead him to the real killer, despite all logic and a mounting body count. Clouseau's investigation makes his superior, Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) a nervous wreck.

There is no build-up from relatively normal to absurd, as there was in Panther; Clouseau is pratfalling and being a fool from minute one, without the pathos of his being cuckolded. The slapstick character of Kato (Burt Kwouk) literally jumps out of nowhere early on, testing Clouseau's reflexes. Recurring jokes are set up early and hit almost every time, especially as Edwards re-uses almost the exact same location, camera angle, and composition for scenes in which an undercover Clouseau is taken away in a paddy wagon.

With Sellers's Clouseau solidly in the center of the movie, all of the other characters fit in their orbits around him. Lom's twitching is brought on by Clouseau, Graham Stark engages in repartée as his partner Hercule Lajoy, George Sanders is alternate delighted and frustrated by the detective's idiocy (when you need an investigator to be a bumbling fool), it is perhaps best to observe it from a distance. And Ms. Sommer's Maria is a perfect match for Clouseau; she's perhaps a little bit dim herself, but not so much so as to be unattractive despite her beauty. There is a sort of childlike innocence to both her and Clouseau that makes them quite likable despite how dangerous it seems to be to be around them.

Though it is a far more absurd film than The Pink Panther, A Shot in the Dark is also more focused; it sees its job as extracting comedy from a specific silly character, and performs that duty constantly and consistently for its entire run-time. I'm almost loath to see the other Clouseau films, now, for how can they improve on this?

The Pink Panther

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 November 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Being Peter Sellers)

Most of us have some large gaps in our movie-watching experience that stun our friends. At Thanksgiving this weekend, while playing the "Scene It" movie-trivia game, my brothers would routinely veto several questions before deciding on one, just to keep the field level; they'd likely be surprised to learn that prior to Saturday, the only Pink Panther movie I'd seen was the godawful Son of the Pink Panther.

These gaps are, in a way, nice to have. They mean that I can go into a screening of The Pink Panther at the age of 31 and enjoy a certain rush of discovery: Hey, this is the first time that Friz Freling character appeared; the first time that particular Henry Mancini theme played; etc. There is the risk of a film not living up to expectations, but (a) that is not the case here, and (b) one shouldn't judge a film (or any creative work) based on external pressures, but simply on what it is.

This is particularly useful during The Pink Panther, since I had absorbed a certain amount of knowledge of Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau and the series just by paying attention to pop culture over the course of my life. As with many popular characters, Clouseau's first appearance is somewhat different from how he's remembered; where the later movies would show Clouseau as basically a bumbling fool, here he is simply a fool in love. He has a beautiful wife whom he adores (Capucine), and is blind to her at-times obvious deceptions and infidelities. The familiar supporting cast is also absent; indeed, Sellers gets second billing in what is very much an ensemble cast.

The movie itself is structured as a classic farce; while the title refers to a beautiful jewel targeted by gentleman thief Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven), the diamond itself does not come into play until close to the end. Before then, the action mostly surrounds hiding one's lover from one's spouse, jealousies, and the like.

Co-writer/director Blake Edwards was in fine form here; though his reputation would diminish in later years (in part due to too many Panther sequels), this film is a reminder that he was, at his peak, easily one of Hollywood's greatest directors. Panther features one of cinema's greatest slow builds; the opening sequences could come out of straight caper films, and it's not until we see that the master thief's accomplice introduced as the wife of the inspector on the case that the playfulness of the film's credit sequence truly starts to assert itself. After that, the film does the opposite of what many less successful cop-and-robber comedies do, making each comic sequence more elaborate and funny. Far too often, the crime and plot push the jokes out of the way. This movie is happily back-loaded, though, with the last act featuring the sort of goofiness that the audience wasn't quite ready for at the start (gorilla suits, for crying out loud!).

Edwards has a nice cast to work with, although it is easy to see why Sellers's character became a franchise for United Artists. Claudia Cardinale as the owner of the jewel, for instance, isn't nearly as funny as she is beautiful. David Niven and a young Robert Wagner as father-and-son ne'er-do-wells initially unaware that the other ne'er does well, do their bits with aplomb and competence, respectively. It's only Capucine who is any match for Sellers, displaying a charisma to match her beauty that makes her charming despite how she misuses her poor husband.

I'm a latecomer to the films of Peter Sellers in general and the Panther films in particular. I don't regret it, though - if I had seen this while in my teens (or younger; plenty of folks brought their kids to the Brattle double-feature), I might not have recognized Edwards's craftmanship as I do now.

Screaming Men (Huutajat)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 November 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

Screaming Men is a documentary about a group - the Finnish Screaming Male Choir - that, like their leader Petri Sirviö, takes pride in its absurdity. The opening, in which Petri is joined by his choir on a glacier (they arrive by icebreaker), has a portentious appearance which is gleefully mixed with the silliness of one of the members constructing his rubber tie by attacking a tire liner with a pair of scissors.

Here's the thing, though - absurdity and silliness aren't enough to sustain even this film's 76-minute running time unless there's something behind them. Sometimes it can be a point to be made, and sometimes pure artistic inspiration is enough. And while one can, if one tries hard enough, find a certain meaning in Sirviö's creations - a large part of their repetoire is national anthems, and having them shouted at you does tend to emphasize their generally martial nature - what is most striking is Sirviö's ability as a composer/arranger. He has managed to take perhaps the crudest tools available to a musician - a group of men with little musical training (one applicant mentions that he is just looking to find a way to fill time) and loud voices - and created interesting performance pieces. At one point, the choir is literally yelling a section of the tax code unaccompanied, and it's good music.

Writer/director Mika Ronkainen is a former(?) member of the group, and his affection for it and its leader comes through loud and clear. He shares the same quirky sense of humor, too, using bits of wordless stock footage to finish sentences and using irony to set the scene of the Choir's hometown of Oulu (a line about the city being at the forefront of high technology shows an Atari 800 or Commodore 64 running Music Construction Set). This film is another that can be misconstrued as being fun because it doesn't take itself seriously, but both Rokainen and Sirviö do, in fact, take their work seriously - they just recognize that humor is intrinsic to that work. The bookend sequences with the icebreaker alone was dissected at length at the eye-opener discussion afterward, and as the choir travels the world, their program is adapted for not just the city in which they play, but often (only days before the performance) for the facility as well.

The "Male" in the choir's name is no extraneous adjective; though the women in the audience clearly enjoyed both the subject matter and the documentary, participation is clearly A Guy Thing. The members are scruffy, working-class guys who sweat like pigs (Sirviö brings up the smell in several interviews) and unwind with fart jokes. There's a very Monty Python-ish feel to some of their interactions with their audience - a "lecture on screaming" Sirviö gives in Tokyo is especially amusing.

Though the title refers to the Choir as a whole, the focus mainly stays upon its leader. Petri Sirviö is, in fact, a trained musician, but a hand injury ended his career as a bass player early. He spends a lot of time talking about his family and how they wish he would do fewer international tours; he's a contrast to the other members. It's not an overwhelming focus, but the bond Ronkainen does create with the audience is in large part to Petri.

After seeing this feature, much of the audience wanted to know what it would take to book the group for a Boston show or two. Watching Screaming Men likely won't change the audience in any meaningful way, but it will entertain them with both interesting subject matter and presentation.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Machinist

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 November 2004 at Loews Harvard Square #4 (first-run)

Man, Brad Anderson has gotten dark. He's good at it, but I'm starting to wonder if he's got another Next Stop Wonderland or Happy Accidents in him.

This is Anderson's first feature based upon another person's screenplay, and it's fairly clear. His previous films had a much more evident spark of creativity to them, whether it be the background Sam claims in Accidents or the literally dangerous atmosphere to the mental hospital in Session 9. Writer Scott Kosar's other credits are for horror movie remakes, and certain elements of The Machinist will seem very familiar.

The story unfolds at a leisurely pace. Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) is a machinist at a tool and die company who hasn't been able to sleep for a year. He tries, but it just doesn't happen, and he fills his time off the floor by seeing a hooker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and by coffee and conversation with a waitress (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) at an airport diner. His apartment is sparse, devoid of any ornament, and he's wasting away - both women remark that if he were any thinner, he wouldn't exist. Soon, though, a man named Ivan (John Sharian) appears at his workplace, and when he distracts Trevor at one point, it sets of an accident that causes a co-worker to lose an arm. During the insurance investigation, though, Trevor is told that Ivan doesn't exist.

It's not terribly difficult to predict the trajectory of the movie after this - Reznik will get paranoid, he'll be shunned at work, and the audience will figure out well ahead of Reznik that someone who has gone seven thousand hours without sleep may not have the most reliable perspective on any given situation. That hampers the movie a bit, because when the audience knows something terribly obvious that the main character obviously doesn't, that character is always going to be a step or three behind. The only way for the audience not to feel frustrated with how dim the protagonist is then becomes "withheld information", which merely delays aggravation.

Anderson makes the movie visually striking, though - the desaturated colors are a good indicator of how numb Reznik seems to be growing to the world, with the occasional object rendered in full color (such as Ivan's red convertible) thus seeming to have significance. A sequence in an amusement park house-of-horrors ride is certainly disturbing. And the way in which Reznik opts to make his claim of a hit and run believable enough for the police to give him information on Ivan is not for the squeamish.

Still, the most talked-about visual in the movie is Christian Bale's insane weight loss. Dropping a third of the mass from his six-foot-two frame to a final weight of 130 pounds, Bale is so skinny as to make the audience uncomfortable. Heck, he tripped my reality filter - I looked at him and thought "that's a CGI effect; he doesn't look human". It certainly makes Reznik look like a ghost, fading away from his life. It occasionally overshadows the story and character, though, making me feel more like I was watching a freakshow than a movie.

And it can't be healthy. If I ever hear of my theater-major brother doing something like this for a role, I will call our mother and make sure that he is inundated with cookies and pies and cakes until he relents.

The story is of the variety that comes together well enough by the end, but starts to look a little less plausible about ten minutes later. As with many unreliable-narrator stories, that's when you can start to piece together what literally happened and what may not have, and that's fine, but when you try to figure out where the stuff that may not have comes from, why it interjects itself into Reznik's mind at that point and in that way, that's a little trickier.

Whether you ultimately like or dislike the movie, Bale's emaciated body will stick in your mind, probably well after the somewhat derivative story and decent performances fade.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 November 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

The title of Tony Montana's and Mark Brian Smith's Overnight implies some sort of change, but the truth is that Boondock Saints writer/director Troy Duffy was probably a jerk before he got a movie deal. That said, his unpleasantness is right out there for the world to see - one must infer it for Montana and Smith.

The movie starts with news coverage of the deal that Troy Duffy signed with Miramax - where he would not only get to direct his screenplay, but his band would do the soundtrack, he would have casting approval, and Harvey Weinstein was buying him the pub where he'd been tending bar for good measure. His band, The Brood, includes his brother Taylor and a couple others; this documentary's directors are the band's co-managers. They probably intend for this documentary, started in 1997, to cover Duffy's rise.

Duffy is full of himself, though, and soon alienates people at Miramax. The band's record deal evaporates, and he lashes out at Tony and Mark, saying that they don't deserve to get paid for what little they'd done for the band, that all the group's success came from him. This is likely the moment where Overnight stopped being a documentary and started being a hatchet job.

One might wonder, though, why Montana and Smith kept up with it, or why Duffy let them keep following him around. If I'd basically been called worthless and told I wasn't getting paid for my services, I'd be looking for actual gainful employment. But, then, I'm not a hanger-on, which seems to be the best way to describe Montana and Smith based upon what we see in their movie. And apparently hell hath no fury like that of a pair of hangers-on scorned. They take great delight in showing Duffy getting his come-uppance, and because Duffy is a pompous ass, the audience enjoys it too. As to why Duffy let them keep following him around, well, I've never had hangers-on, either. Losing them must be like losing some sort of ongoing validation that you're important and matter.

But, underneath it all, I couldn't help but find something I liked about Duffy. I never want to meet him, or work with him, mind you, but I can't help but admire that when all is said and done, he made a movie, one which has something of a cult following, and wound up doing it for half the budget he'd originally planned on having. He doesn't seem too bright (he didn't get a piece of the TV and video action where the movie has made most of its money), and he made a classic mistake: He didn't realize that the industry was filled with people smarter than he was - or if he did, he thought being hard-headed would be enough. His perception that he could make it by being as big a bully as the Harvey Weinsteins he met up with didn't bear out, but it's born out of the same drive that made him a worthy documentary subject in the first place.

So... now that I've gotten through my emotional reaction to the subject matter, I suppose it's time to say what I thought of Overnight as a film. It's not bad at all, once you've made the adjustments for who is making it and their readily apparent antipathy for their subject. The film compresses five years of time into an hour and a half, and they must have had a lot of footage to sift through. The editors do a great job constructing a coherent, attention-keeping narrative from that raw material. There is, of course, the question of selective endpoints - the film sort of treats the Boondock Saints screenplay as something which came into existence on its own, giving no indication that writing it must have been hard work, or really any depiction of who Duffy was before the fame/infamy. The IMDB shows Duffy at work on a sequel to Boondock Saints, but you'd never know he was anything but finished by the end of Overnight.

Overnight is an entertaining movie and a useful parable about a man living the dream and then pissing it away because he couldn't grasp how lucky he was. You'll laugh at Troy Duffy and probably come away with some small feeling of moral superiority. Just keep in mind the likely motivations of the filmmakers.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Paper Marriage (Guo bu xin lang)

* * (out of four)
Seen 13 November 2004 at Coolidge Corner #1 (Midnight Ass-Kickings)

Here's what I don't get. Say you were a sociopathic monster, and you had built a nuclear/chemical/biological weapon, one which can cause the sort of complete eradication that most evil geniuses can only dream about. For a delivery system, would you mount it in the finest ballistic missile you could purchase, or would you instead get yourself a bunch of homing pigeons, tie strings to each of their legs, and hope that they can carry your WMD to its prospective target?

That's what Paper Marriage does. Put the ugly metaphor aside, and you have a series of pretty darn impressive action scenes at the end, but a truly horrendous delivery system. I'm not exaggerating here - there is no punching and kicking for the first hour of this ninety minute movie; instead, the audience is treated to some rather not-funny comedy. I don't think it's much exaggeration to say that when there is no fighting going on, this movie will remind you of something produced, written, directed, and acted by elementary school students.

Sammo Hung is former lightweight boxing champion Bo Chin (those who have seen Sammo recognize that this may be the funniest thing in the movie), but he's out of the sport and running short on money to pay his gambling debts. To earn enough to pay them off, he accepts money to marry Jade Lee (Maggie Cheung) so that she can secure her immigration papers and then, in two years' time, marry her boyfriend (there is an obviously shorter path here, I know). But when he skips out with the money, they have to try and get along, and come up with enough money to pay off the gangsters he owes.

Here's the biggest problem - Chin is a jerk, and we never really buy that he can be something else. When he starts to come around and have feelings for Jade, as the plot dictates he must, we hear him saying that, okay, now he likes her and understands that his hang-ups are really with his first wife, but it's not something that has been built up. As much as I like Sammo, I'll admit that once you get beyond his gimmick - the moves of Jackie Chan despite having the body of Jackie Gleason - he isn't exactly much of an actor, especially in this older movie. He doesn't have his co-star's expressive face or comic timing.

I don't know how bad the material they have to work with really is; bad subtitles can make anyone look like a poor actor dealing with an awful script, but the science experiments Chin subjects himself to for money are the funniest parts of the movie, and there's a hefty exchange premium as they try to convert "silly" into "funny". Speaking of the exchange rate, an early letter home from Jade specifies that she's in L.A., but a later scene takes place in the West Edmonton (Alberta) Mall - specified by name. Also, everybody in North America apparently speaks Cantonese, which would be less odd if an early scene didn't raise the issue of how well Jade speaks English. And just to point out how sloppy the script is, it can be divided fairly neatly in two - you'd think the money Chin owes the gangsters would be a ready-made set-up for the hostage situation and beatdown that must end the movie, but, no, that is actually resolved and a new problem added in order to get there.

But that does get us to the Edmonton Mall, where Chin and his friends (some of whom had been enemies before, but there are worse guys) confront the guys holding Jade hostage, and suddenly Sammo, Cheung, Billy Chow, and everyone else is in their element. A switch is flipped and the last twenty minutes is a nifty blend of "damn, that's cool" and "ooh, that's gotta hurt". If there's a pane of glass, someone is going to go through it, even if there's a ten foot drop on the other side. And even if it's made in Canada, it's still a Hong Kong movie - there's no doubt that someone has gone through the window, fallen, and landed on an unpadded floor. Everyone is good and bruised by the time this fight has gone up and down escalators, waterslides, and even a pirate ship set for a floor show set up in the middle of the food court?

So, there's the question - is twenty minutes of very cool martial arts worth an hour of pretty painful "comedy"? I don't know. On a recent message board thread, I told someone that they were missing out on some good stuff after they said they had a three-star cutoff, because a two-star movie can certainly have four-star portions.

That's certainly how Paper Marriage is - if I had this one on DVD, I'd probably seldom watch the first hour. Maybe that's the best way to experience it.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 November 2004 in Jay's Living Room (American Mystery! Specials)

As I've mentioned before, where mystery franchises was once dependable workhorses for studios, they've mostly been banished to TV in recent decades. Even there, PBS has scaled Mystery! back from a weekly Thursday-night series to a late summer fill-in for Masterpiece Theater. The upside is that WGBH has also started adapting American mysteries along with their English counterparts, so far producing one new adaptation of Tony Hillerman's novels per year. Skinwalkers, is a solid first entry, although it still has room for improvement.

The story is solid enough - when a local medicine man is murdered within the confines of a Navajo reservation, the Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn (Wes Studi) is assigned to investigate, with uniformed officer Jim Chee (Adam Beach) assisting. The murder weapon is an arrowhead made out of human bone, something associated with Skinwalkers. Leaphorn immediately dismisses evil shapeshifters as fairy tales, but it's interesting pathology. When the attempt to consult with another medicine man on the subject turns up another dead body, the mystery deepens.

Though the murder mystery is often looked upon as a somewhat limited genre - there are thousands of individual tales to be told, but a perception that they are basically variations on a theme - there are at least three distinct areas of focus. There is the Agatha Christie-style puzzle mystery, perhaps best experienced as short stories, where the reader is encouraged to test their wits against those of the detective. There is the procedural, which currently rules network television (and cable - my last roommate would happily watch four hours of true crime every night) in the form of Law & Order, CSI, and the like. And then there's a third, more mainstream type, where the crime mainly provides structure for an exploration of characters and issues.

Skinwalkers is clearly the third type, as concerned with what it means to be an Indian in the twenty-first century as it is with detailing the hunt for a murderer. You can see that in the contrast between the leads: In a switch from convention, the younger Chee embraces Navajo culture, training as a medicine man when not on duty with the Navajo Nation Police Department, while Leaphorn is a veteran Phoenix detective who left the city for his wife and doesn't feel much connection to the land and way of life. This conflict between traditional and western ways of life is a recurring theme, as when Chee and a doctor at a local hospital (Michael Grayeyes) discuss how to treat an injury.

Though this sort of thing makes for strong characters and gives the viewer more to chew on than just who done it, there is also a risk that the movie will lose its focus. There are digressions that don't really contribute much to the mystery plot, even as red herrings. While the discussion of Navajo versus American jurisdiction is interesting, and the look at how common unemployment and alcohol abuse is affecting the next generation of children growing up on the reservation is something worth bringing to the rest of America's attention, someone mainly interested in who killed the medicine men may find such things extraneous. Indeed, one lengthy set-piece seems like a drawn-out way to introduce a potential love interest (in future installments) for Chee, public defender Janet Pete (Alex Rice).

There is some decent talent attached to this picture, perhaps more than expected of a movie made for American broadcast television (even PBS). Robert Redford serves as an executive producer (his son writes the screenplay). Director Chris Eyre's debut feature, Smoke Signals, got a fair amount of buzz when Miramax released it, and his follow-up, Skins, did well enough on the festival circuit to get a limited release. He's not yet a Native American Spike Lee in terms of having the pure talent to command immediate attention even when not making films tied to his ethnic background, but he does well by his material. This is a pretty good-looking film produced on what must have been a pretty tight budget.

The cast is a bit of a mixed bag. Studi is rock-solid, as might be expected from an old pro. Beach doesn't quite measure up to Studi, seeming a little over-eager, too determined to come across as friendly and/or nice. Most of the rest of the cast is adequate, although I found myself wondering just how deep the casting pool of Native American actors is afterward. Though there aren't many bad performances, just about every cast member comes from a different nation. I'm all for casting the person who will give you the best performance even if it means fudging ethnicity, but others may differ. It would be a bigger deal if these people being a tight-knit ethnic community was a bigger plot point.

It's a good start. I look forward to more adaptations of the Chee/Leaphorn books, hoping that Beach's performance improves or grows on me.

Friday, November 12, 2004

The Incredibles

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 November 2004 at Loews Boston Common #17 (first-run)

Anticipation. This movie has more anticipation and expectations attached to it among a certain audience than any movie without the words "Star Wars" in its title (and, heck, a kick-ass trailer for the Revenge of the Sith is playing with a lot of prints) - it had a keen teaser in front of Pixar's last film, Finding Nemo, a year and a half ago, and Pixar hasn't made a bad film yet. Animation fans, though, may remember writer/director Brad Bird talking about The Fantastics five years ago, when his brilliant The Iron Giant was just released; it was to be his next cel-animated movie for Warner Brothers Feature Animation.

Well, for whatever reason audiences didn't go for The Iron Giant, Warner wound up shuttering its feature animation department, and it looked like we wouldn't get to see Bird's story about a family of superheroes. Fortunately, Pixar knew talent when they saw it, and after a name change to avoid confusion with The Fantasticks, it was back on track. And that's good for everyone.

Does The Incredibles live up to the reputations of its predecessors? Pretty much. The only possible reason for complaint is that The Incredibles is excellent as opposed to the sheer genius of The Iron Giant and Toy Story. It's a big, exciting adventure that at times is structured more like a live-action tentpole picture than Pixar's previous animated family movies.

It's a blast, too - while most of Pixar's other movies are set in some corner of our world that isn't normally accessible to us, The Incredibles is set in a fantasy world of superheroes and supervillains, in an environment that combines the sensibilities of the 1950s and the present day. The character designs are cartoony and exaggerated, placing Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) in the same scene with a fashion designer about a third his height. The combination of the simplified character designs and the detailed environments sometimes tilts the look a little in the direction of a video game, especially when the big action scenes start up.

Parents of very young children may be a little concerned about some of those action scenes - the difference between the PG rating that The Incredibles was given and the G rating Pixar's previous films received is frequently meaningless, but compared to most American animated films, there is a lot of stuff blowing up here, with pilots inside. Superheroes are shown as mortal, both in a darkly comic explanation of Why Costumes Shouldn't Have Capes and in a more sinister look at the villain's plans. There's also some very mild innuendo, tame enough for anyone who's old enough to recognize it.

This is part and parcel of the superhero genre, though, and it's clear that writer/director Brad Bird loves those stories. Where The Iron Giant referenced Superman explicitly, The Incredibles clearly owes a lot to the Fantastic Four, from the specific superpowers (though the Four don't have a speedster, they've got a stretchy person, someone who can take a beating, and a girl who can turn invisible and create force fields), the family theme, and the character Pixar lucky charm John Ratzenberger gives voice to at the end. One can only hope that Tim Storry finds the right blend of family ties and grand adventure that Bird manages here.

That the film will be wonderfully rendered is a given with Pixar; while I'm not sure they really nailed the character designs (save the Wallace Shawn-voiced Gilbert Huph, Mr. Incredible's boss in his secret identity; making him an apparent caricature of MLB commissioner Bud Selig conveys weasally greed well), everything looks great in motion and the big action sequences are a kick and a half. Check out speedster son Dash running on water and try and say it doesn't look perfect.

The voice acting is equally impressive; while other studios have gone with big names, Pixar mostly relies on unknowns and quality actors who may not necessarily be able to open a movie themselves - Nelson, for instance, and the perfectly-cast Holly Hunter as Mr. Incredible's wife, Elastigirl. The one big celebrity voice is Samuel L. Jackson as Frozone, a superhero whose ice powers fit right in with being as cool as Samuel L. Jackson. The movie also has a fantastic, score by Michael Giacchino - an upbeat, playful, James Bond-sounding thing that keeps the action going and never feels the need to stop for a pop song.

I admit, there had been a certain amount of trepidation along with my anticipation - just because Bird and Pixar had both been responsible for fantastic animated films didn't mean they'd necessarily work well together. They do, though, and I eagerly anticipate whatever they come up with next.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 November 2004 at Loews Boston Common #3 (first-run)

There's something very appealing about a movie that is specific with its metaphor and details. Sideways could have been just another movie about a couple guys on the road. The main character's oenophilia, however, means that the dialogue can't just be lifted out of this movie and put into another (or vice versa). It also means that even if two guys learning about themselves is sort of familiar territory, the discussion of wine may give the audience members some chances to discover something new.

Of course, if you take out the wine, Sideways wouldn't be a bad or rote movie by any means. Though the two men on the road trip are somewhat familiar types - Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a divorced, despairing writer unable to sell his first novel; Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is a brash, not exactly book-smart actor afraid of his looming marriage - they're well-played and don't come off as mere stereotypes. Church's performance, especially, is a notch above expectations, as there's not much on his resumé that led me to believe that he had a solid dramatic performance in him. He does, though, making Jack a man of good intentions who honestly believes in what he's saying even if he can't follow through. The trip north from San Diego is his last blast before getting married, even if the destination, California's wine country, is a closer match to Miles's interests.

Just as good are the women they meet - Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress at a restaurant Miles has been coming to every time he swings through wine country, and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a server at one of the vineyards where they stop. Jack picks up Stephanie and sets Miles up with Maya. Like Miles, Maya has been through a divorce in the last couple of years, and they sort of feel each other out, finding as much common ground in their interest in wine as in their recent history.

Co-writer/director Alexander Payne has a knack, seemingly uncommon in Hollywood, for an honest depiction of life outside the big city. All too often, when TV or the movies venture too far from a city center, the results tend to be full of yokels, or extra-quirky villagers, or, my personal least favorite, suburbanites who seem outwardly shiny but are hiding some sort of dark secret. This is Payne's first film set entirely outside his native Nebraska, and Jack is even a Los Angeles-based actor (though by no means a star), but the characters are Middle American in spirit, if not geographically. They're not freaks or archetypes, just individuals living from one day to the next.

The movie's comedy is understated, seldom coming from a set-up much more contrived than two friends with wildly different strengths: Miles isn't nearly as at ease in a social situation as Jack, and Jack is a bit out of place when tasting wine with Miles. We do believe that they're friends, though, because of other scenes, like when they're playing golf and another party tries to play through. Payne also avoids wallowing in the movie's dark parts; he lets us experience just enough to be disappointed in the characters, but never enough to turn us against them.

The movie's pacing is somewhat deliberate. It clocks in at a few minutes longer than two hours, a bit long for a small, boutique picture, but not oppressively so. The length is noticeable in part because each day of Miles's and Jack's trip starts with a caption ("Saturday", "Sunday"), and enough of each is covered to give the audience an idea of how the characters spent the entire day. While it slows the movie down and pads it out, it also lets us see that the characters have time to think, and that while a week isn't a terribly long time, it is long enough to make a difference in one's life.

Sideways isn't Payne's best movie, and is probably more a piece with About Schmidt than his earlier, more satiric pieces. I won't do the "if you liked Schmidt..." thing, because the movies aren't that similar, but it is recommended for those who've liked Payne's work.