Thursday, January 29, 2004

The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 January 2004 at AMC Fenway #12 (first-run)

It's me. I know it's me. It must be. I seem to be the only person I know who sees these movies and doesn't react strongly to them. As fine a movie is Return Of The King is, there were few moments in it that I enjoyed as much as the trailer for Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow which preceded it. That's not surprising; I don't tend to be fond of sword & sorcery stories. Even ones set in a time of myth like LOTR seem to romanticize ignorance, fear, and blind loyalty to hereditary leaders.

I mean, look at the opening of this movie. Two friends are happily fishing, but, when they find the Ring, the series's substitute for technology, the made thing, it turns one of them into a murderous sociopath, and has such an effect on almost all who would come in contact with it. The object itself is evil, rather than being something designed for evil purposes that evil can be done with. The only one who survives contact with it with his mind intact is a blindly loyal servant with no interest in the world beyond his village.

Much of the movie (and series, since one really can't seperate the three films) seems to run on rules that I find arbitrary at the least and disagreeable almost as often. What was the whole thing with Liv Tyler's character about, anyway? And why should Pippin be treated like crap in the first act for displaying some curiosity? Maybe if Gandalf had just freaking told him what the spehre was and why it was important nobody else handle it, as opposed to snuggling it like a teddy bear while he slept, Pippin would have left it alone. But, no, the lesson is to listen to authority figures and not be curious about the world around you.

And, while we're on the subject of things that bugged me about the film - the last sequence before the endless epilogue. It features the clichéed return of a villain despite him taking a pretty nasty fall, as well as some extraordinarily dodgy military strategy - let's stand still while allowing the enemy who is on their home ground, has superior numbers, and air support to surround us! Brilliant! It's a good thing that this enemy army apparently just loses interest when something bad happens to their leader miles away.

Whew. Okay. Venting over. Let's get to what I liked about this movie.

Quite a bit, actually. There's some solid spectacle here, with the siege of Gondor's capital (heck, the entire design of that city, period) being a feast for the eyes. Gigantic monstrous elephants, cool trebuchet action, hails of arrows... It's all good. I liked the heck out of pretty much any scene Miranda Otto was in (liked her in Human Nature, for that matter). The scenes with the army of ghosts were fantastic.

My favorite sequence, though, was probably a scene in which a signal fire is lit, and relayed across the land. It's beautifully shot, and as the audience realizes what's happening, they take to scanning the whole frame for where the next blaze will appear, and thus soak in the beautiful scenery while Howard Shore's music plays. It's a great moment that truly hammers home how grand the scale of the threat is; before, I'd had a hard time looking at Middle-Earth as really a world to save, as opposed to a collection of sets and locations.

I admire The Lord Of The Rings more than I actually like it; there are parts that do it for me, but the genre leaves me cold. While I'm astounded by Peter Jackson's achievement, and never had less than a good time at any of the three movies, I'm glad he's finished so that he can do King Kong and, hopefully, things which are completely his.

Beat The Devil

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 January at the Brattle Theater (Humphrey Bogart: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of)

Heh. The Brattle listing calls this one a "self-parody", but I prefer to look at this 1953 movie as just being about 40 years or so before its time. It's a wonderful movie about inept scoundrels trying to get one up on each other with people who are innocent to the point of parody throwing a monkey wrench into their plans. Though it was adapted by John Huston and Truman Capote from a more serious James Helvick (real name Claud Cockburn) novel, it's the sort of thing that fans of Barry Sonnenfeld and Elmore Leonard would feel right at home with. Bogart's character has been hired by a quartet of thieves to help steal a plot of land loaded with uranium, but the boat which will take them to British East Africa is delayed, so they're killing time in a small Italian village. Also waiting for the boat are the Chelm's, an English couple consisting of a very proper Englishman whom the Bogart character's wife (Gina Lollobridigida, a sexpot name if I've ever heard one) takes an immediate shine to and a clever, perky blonde (Jennifer Jones) who quickly finds Bogart much more interesting than her stuffy husband.

There's a plot, to be sure, but the thing of the matter is, there are all manner of things going wrong and preventing it from actually advancing. No problem, though, as it allows the cast of eccentrics to play off each other in delightful fashion. The quartet of would-be villains are a mix of physical and emotional types - the gigantic Robert Morley, the sad-faced Marco Tulli, the small but combustible Ivor Barnard, and the ever-dependable Peter Lorre (Quentin Tarantino must occasionally weep about never getting a chance to use Lorre in a picture). The diversions grow more and more outlandish, but by the time the characters have washed up on the shore of the wrong part of Africa, the audience should be enjoying the gleeful absurdity.

This has probably been my favorite discovery in the Brattle's recent Bogart series; indeed, one of my favorite classic films period.

In A Lonely Place

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 January 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Humphrey Bogart: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of)

I love movies that start out as one thing and then become something else. In A Lonely Place isn't as extreme an example of this as, say, From Dusk Til Dawn, but it does make a pretty nifty transition from a light mystery to a darker drama with thriller elements.

It starts out with Bogart playing Dix Steele, an alcoholic screenwriter, genial to his friends but somewhat dismissive of others around him (most of whom richly deserve his contempt). He's given the task of adapting a best-selling novel which he really doesn't want to read, so invites the coat-check girl who has read it home with him. The overly-perky girl soon gets on his nerves, however, especially when they bump into his pretty next-door neighbor, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). He eventually sends the girl away, only to be told the next morning by an old army friend now working for the police department that she's been murdered. The neighbor is able to offer an alibi, though, and confesses her attraction to him. What she'll soon discover, though, is that beneath his intelligence and wit, there's a dark side.

The woman-in-peril movie is a genre that has probably never been out of vogue; this is one of the better examples I've seen. Bogart, a movie star who's perfectly capable of being a creep, is perfect casting, and Grahame is quite convincing as someone who thinks she knows what she's getting into only to be surprised by the extent. Having the investigating officer be an old army pal of Bogart's character seems a little contrived (especially when he and his wife invite Steele to dinner in the middle of the investigation), but the investigation becomes somewhat secondary over the course of the movie as it shifts focus to Dix & Laurel's relationship and pasts.

In A Lonely Place is a well-done genre movie, with a pair of very good lead performances, wit, suspense, and an excellent ending. That's something I've been noticing about older movies lately - between having all the credits up front and not feeling the need for epilogues, their endings seem much more powerful. There's no time wasted after the critical event, and as a result, movies like In A Lonely Place seem to have a greater impact than many of their modern counterparts.

REVIEW: Dead Reckoning

* * (out of four)
Seen 26 January 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Humphrey Bogart: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of)

The next time someone says "Hollywood just doesn't make them like they used to any more", and I feel like the "there's always been crap" rebuttal rather than the "there's great stuff out there" line, Dead Reckoning is one of the movies I'll pull out. It's not really awful, but it's decidedly mediocre, and is evidence that having pretty horrible dialogue despite five credited writers is not a new phenomenon.

Returning home from World War II, Captain "Rip" Murdock (Bogart) and Sergeant Johnny Drake are due for the Congressional Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross. But Johnny bolts from the train when photographers show up, and Murdock is sort of charged by the army with locating him. This leads him to Gulf City in the south, where he finds that Johnny wasn't who he seemed and a murder just before the end of the war still casts a long shadow, with Coral Chandler (Lizabeth Scott), the widow of the victim and Johnny's lover, in the center.

Despite Bogart probably being an A-list star by the time this came out, it is definitely a B movie, a pulp full of tough guys and gangsters and useless police officers. Rip and Coral seem to fall in love all too quickly, Rip seems to forget he's investigating on behalf of the Army (which could make his dealings with the local cops much more smooth), and the last act contains an excess of plot twists and reversals, though many of them are painfully telegraphed. Director John Cromwell also makes some unusual stylistic choices, like keeping Bogart's character in shadow for the framing scenes (much of the story is told in flashback) even though we've already seen his face; perhaps the chase scene which opened the movie was originally meant to come later. It also features, in a moment of unintentional hilarity, Ms. Scott singing, and all the other characters remarking on how great a singer she is, when, quite frankly, she's terrible, and not in a "tastes change over time" way. It's one of those numbers which grind a picture to a halt and make a modern audience beg for it to stop.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

REVIEW: The Agronomist

* * * (out of four)

Seen 25 January 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

ThinkFilm will be releasing Johnathan Demme's profile of Haitian journalist/activist Jean Dominique sometime in April. Demme and Dominique were friends, and this documentary reflects that - any faults the man may have had are glossed over. Though he's presented as a man of the people, one can easily deduce that he was still a man of some means, as bespoken by his education, endeavors, et al. Even in Haiti, buying a radio station costs money.

Still, it's tough not to like Dominique. As we get to know the man, via news footage, interviews with his family and friends, and videotaped conversations he had with Demme during one of his exiles in New York, we're struck by a number of things - first, that he's very intelligent. He studied agronomy in Paris, he speaks English, French, and Creole fluently, and has expertise in fields as diverse as agronomy, radio journalism, and film. He's very passionate about the fight for human rights in his country, and is not afraid to speak his mind, even when it means criticizing Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the democratically elected leader who winds up falling short of his ideals.

What struck me most, though, is that he smiles much more than one tends to think of an activist smiling. Most political documentaries, or news coverage, is full of dour people making dour pronouncements. Dominique, though, seems to take great joy in his work, in art, and in the people he attempted to help. He's also unusually content to be a journalist - though he reports and campaigns vigorously, he never (at least, in this film) takes or is apparently offered a place in the government upon his returns from exile and the overthrow of various dictatorships.

I came away liking Dominique quite a bit. It's a good, if flattering, portrait, and also does a good job in illuminating the situation in Haiti over the course of Dominique's life.

REVIEW: Crippled Avengers (Can que)

* * ¾ (out of four)

Seen 23 January 2004 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Midnight Kung Fu Madness); print shown was dubben in English

This movie goes under a lot of names - the print actually displayed the title "Mortal Combat", and the DVD is titled "Return of the 5 Deadly Venoms" (the cast had worked together in a completely unrelated movie before). But what's in a name? I suppose you could try to sell it to people multiple times under different names. The structure of the movie is incredibly familiar and formulaic, if only from being parodied so often, but to details are just peculiar enough to set it apart.

The movie is clever enough to mess with expectations at the beginning - martial arts master Tu Tin Tao's wife is murdered and his son's hands are cut off, and we flash forward about 15-20 years to see Tu Jr. getting a new pair of mechanical hands. But he isn't the Crippled Avenger of the title. Oh, no, he and his father have become bitter tyrants, taking anyone who doesn't hide their hands in their presence as mocking the son. A group of travelers and an outspoken blacksmith learn of the Tus' capriciousness the hard way - they are blinded, made deaf and mute, have their legs cut off, and their skull compressed to cause brain damage. And the townspeople are told not to patronize the blacksmith's business. But, the one made an idiot was delivering a note to his martial arts teacher, so the others decide to take him there, and learn kung fu...

Crippled Avengers has everything we mock about Kung Fu movies (but secretly love). The training sessions, the speaking of a move's name as it's executed, the literal army of goons who choose to fight our heroes one-on-one rather than working as a team or just overwhelming them with sheer numbers. Each of the heroes gets to dispatch a ton of goons, then a "boss"-like character who has special weapons or skills, then they team up to fight Tu Tin Tao. The fight scenes are athletic and well-choreographed, and there is a campy appeal to the dubbed dialogue and formulaic story. And, of course, there's a late-70s Hong Kong political incorrectness to it - it doesn't exactly make jokes about disabilities, but can be somewhat irreverent. And you can't help but raise some eyebrows at the buff bad-guy who never wears a shirt, the bad guy with the simpering dubbed voice whose weapon is "flying balls", or the way the blind and deaf-mute guys spend much of the second half of the movie holding hands (to communicate via tracing letters on each other's palms) - especially since there's been no women in the movie since Tu Tin Tao's wife was killed in the first scene. Or maybe I've got a sick mind.

Like most of the shows in the Ass-Kicking/Kung Fu Madness series, these are a lot more fun in a group setting; it's a better value for your money to spend $6 on a ticket to the movie at the Coolidge than $3 renting the DVD.

Friday, January 23, 2004

REVIEW: Sabrina (1954)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 January 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Humphrey Bogart: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of)

Okay. Perhaps I was a bit harsh when I told my brother that I would have to burn my VHS copy of the Harrison Ford/Julia Ormand/Greg Kinnear version after having seen this first adaptation of Samuel Taylor's "Sabrina Fair". There are, in fact, some things that the remake does better - David's fianceée isn't so disposable a character, for instance - but it's interesting to note how many scenes in the remake are exactly like those in the original, right down to Linus shooting his astounding new product with a gun he keeps in his desk drawer for no apparent reason. (This scene may or may not appear in Yeh Dillagi, a Bollywood remake)

Still, trying to surpass Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn is a fool's errand. Hepburn is luminous on screen like no other actress before or since, and Bogart scowls and makes wiseass remarks with similar ease. Director Billy Wilder does a good job of creating a fairy-tale environment, from the opening narration to making Hepburn's Sabrina seem innocent even while she's quite matter-of-fact about trying to steal another woman's fiancé. It places us in a world of the ridiculously rich, with servants who feel happy in and, indeed, proud of their stations, and while never acknowledging the triviality of the characters, seldom looking down upon them or stooping to melodrama.

When reviewing The Barefoot Contessa, I mentioned that there is a difference betweeen a movie star and an actor, though many people can fit in both groups. Here, Bogart, Hepburn, and William Holden are doing their best as movie stars - Bogart has a wonderfully snarky exterior with a decent human being buried underneath, Hepburne is the impossibly sophisticated/naïve girl-woman she almost always played, and Holden an almost-caricatured playboy. They are fun to watch, though, and because they're in a fairly tale, their simple characters are iconic rather than flat. And because these folks are good at being movie stars, you're comfortable and familiar with everything even as the movie begins.

REVIEW: The Barefoot Contessa

* * (out of four)
Seen 20 January 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Humphrey Bogart: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of)

The difference between an actor and a movie star is that a movie star brings a certain persona with them and makes it work, the downside being that they have to be extra convincing in roles that are some distance from that persona. Humphrey Bogart, for instance, has a certain harsh edge to him; when playing the hero, he's a little cold and ruthless, although there is a core of decency in all his characters.

Seeing that core so close to the surface is more than a bit disconcerting; even more unusual than seeing Bogart in color. As the movie starts, he's a humbled director on his last chance, and as it continues, he becomes the friend and confidant of Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner). It's really Gardner's film, anyway, even though Bogart gets top billing.

The problem is (and it's the worst problem a movie can have), this film is boring. None of the characters are particularly interesting, and the conflict that drives the last act of the movie (and leads to the funeral that opens it) strikes me as ridiculously contrived, though that may be applying twenty-first century standards to a fifty-year old film. Still, even if you're against premarital sex, not telling your young, sensual girlfriend about your impotence before the wedding is something of an idiot plot.

Writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz also makes the mistake of seldom letting us see Maria except as others see her; she remains an enigma but not a particularly interesting one. The Hollywood/show business satire is also tame by current standards, and probably by the standards of the day, as well.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

REVIEW: Revenge Of The Shogun Women

* * ½ (out of four); * * * (out of four) seen in 3-D

Seen 17 January 2004 at Coolidge Corner #1 (Midnight Kung Fu Madness); print shown was dubbed in English and presented in 3-D using polarized glasses, with an intermission

Revenge Of The Shogun Women isn't a great movie, not really. It's not a bad one, though, and for a movie that didn't feature any real names for the Coolidge to advertise, the action scenes were pretty good. Without the gimmick of 3-D, this would be a definite B movie, kind of fun to catch on late night TV but otherwise unremarkable. Add the 3-D, though, and it becomes something special, or at least unique.

The plot is remarkably straightforward - the Chinese countryside in the 18th century is best by bandits, who rape, steal, and kill with abandon. The girls they rape are sent to convents, since they are apparently unsuitable for marriage, no longer being virgins. There, they learn martial arts to defend themselves (and hopefully others) while serving and honoring Buddha. One attack takes place before the opening titles. Then, after the credits roll, there is a brief period where we meet a merchant's daughter, the doctor she fancies, and the artist who fancies her. The doctor is betrothed to her for a hilariously contrived reason (her dizzy spells can only be cured by accupuncture of the breast, and it wouldn't be proper for anyone but her husband to perform it), and at their wedding, the bandits attack. The doctor is then sent to escort the women of the village to the convent, so that the nuns can protect them, and the ass-kicking begins.

(In the 3-D print I saw, all of this goes on with dubbing that is actually a decent lip-sync match, but is rather unemotional. It's funny/campy, in a way)

The use of 3-D in this film is actually quite good. Although there are obvious scenes where things are thrown or stabbed at the camera for cheap "jump" moments, director Mei Chung Chang also has a knack for framing in 3-D, as well - objects are often placed in the foreground to create the impression that we're looking into a room, rather than actually on the inside, or simply to create depth of field. In a martial-arts movie where the people fighting each other are sharing space, it's actually important to get a sense of where they are in relation to each other, and the 3-D enhances that. I would, actually, really like to see more 3-D martial arts films - I'm trying to imagine what Jackie Chan or Sammo Hung, with their nifty use of environments, could do with the medium.

Aside - it's worth noting that I had a little trouble viewing it, especially things in the background. I didn't hear anyone else complaining, so I figure it's me (I have sort of the same problem at IMAX films and, to a lesser extent, at Spy Kids 3-D). If I closed my left eye with the glasses on, I could see fine; close my right eye and everything's fuzzy. It led to the picture not necessarily resolving itself completely.

REVIEW: Sex And Zen (Rou pu tuan zhi tou qing bao jian)

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 16 January 2004 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Midnight Kung Fu Madness)

I hestitate to write about this one because... well, quite frankly, because my mom might be reading this. But here goes...

Well, I'm never calling American Pie "raunchy" again. Consider: In American Pie, Alyson Hannigan breathily goes on about how one time, at band camp... until late in the movie where she shocks the main character (and the audience) by stating she'd used her flute as a sex toy. Meanwhile, in Sex And Zen, you've got a scene with two girls, one flute, and a pretty clear view of what's happening. Not completely unobstructed - it does manage an R rating rather than an NC-17. There are potential ratings board jokes to be made (it's evidently okay to show a penis not attached to anything else and undergoing terrible bits of slapstick, but cover it up when it's attached to a man).

I couldn't enjoy this movie, not because I was embarrassed, or because it wasn't funny at times, but because its violence made me uncomfortable. The movie is billed as a "sex comedy", but oftentimes the sex involved seemed to be on the border of spousal abuse and rape - and no matter what side of that line you eventually land, it's not fun to watch. I suppose there's an argument to be made that it's cartoon violence, but I didn't laugh, and was quite confused when it shifted into a more comedic tone right after some woman was practically attacked by her husband. My brain doesn't adjust that fast, and I don't think I'd want it to.

REVIEW: Capturing The Friedmans

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 January 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Recent Raves)

Where Spellbound (shown as part of a double-feature with Capturing The Friedmans at the Brattle) was a transparent documentary, Capturing The Friedmans allows its makers hands to be very visible. Director Andrew Jarecki does very obvious juxtapositions between opposites - for example, two Sex Crimes detectives describing how to deal with children as potential witnesses and victims - and discusses how father Arnold Friedman and oldest son David filmed their family constantly, resulting in this footage being available. It doesn't make the film less dramatic, but it does counter the fly-on-the-wall feeling somewhat. Which may not be a bad thing, because who wants to be that close to pedophilia and child molestation?

I do feel this movie is somewhat misrepresented - I didn't find it terribly ambiguous at all. I think that by the end of the movie, it's clear that Arnold and his youngest son Jesse are not guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted (hundreds of counts of child molestation). In some ways, I think Jarecki does the audience a disservice by making the case look as strong as he initially does; the real interest, to me, is in how the justice system failed them; while there's a certain voyeuristic interest in watching the family fall apart, it's very specific to that family, as opposed to the more universal idea that justice can be too blind.

It's a good movie, disturbing in multiple interesting ways. That you can sometimes see the hand of the director manipulating your perceptions isn't the worst thing that can happen with a documentary, although it does distract from an otherwise very interesting movie.

REVIEW: Spellbound

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 January 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Recent Raves)

One of the signs that Spellbound is a great documentary is that I have almost no desire to talk about it in terms of filmmaking; director Jeffrey Blitz has made a film so transparent that my interest in it comes almost entirely from the subject and the people involved. That's a neat trick, considering that the first half consists largely of talking heads - kids and their friends, family, teachers, etc., talking directly to the camera about their participation in the national spelling bee and what it means for them. The second half is a well-edited presentation of the 2000 National Spelling Bee; where the eight subjects (and 241 other junior high-schoolers) compete and are eliminated until one is named champion.

I never did spelling bees in junior high; I don't even know if Greely Junior High participated in them. Math team was a similar type of event, though, and watching this movie reminded me of why I was only moderately successful there (one trip to a national meet in Jr. High, one in high school, both where I got my butt kicked) - it's hard work. Natural talent can only get you so far, and several of the top spellers we see here spend hours after school memorizing long lists of words and quizzing themselves on them. That sort of dedication is admirable, but in several cases it crowds everything else out. Many of the kids in this movie express relief when they finally reach the national bee and even when they're eliminated, because it's over, and no matter what their motivations were for getting into competitive spelling, they're going to have a lot more free time on their hands.

There are some things that caught my eye, though - a sequence where seven of the profiled kids are arriving in Washington, DC with their family, staying in hotels, all excited, while native Ashley White just climbs on the subway alone. The capital is a destination for the others, but a dreary place for her; I got the impression her goal was to put it behind her. And I found myself wondering who suffers more - the kids who put pressure on themselves, or those who are pressured by parents, teachers, and others who feel that they have the kids' best interests at heart.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

REVIEW: Manhattan

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 January 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Snubbed! - Best Picture)

It's almost gotten to the point where I dread the Brattle showing old Woody Allen movies - it's hard not to look at them and then wonder just what the hell has happened to the guy in recent years. I mean, sure, we know what has happened to him, but how does one fall, creatively, from something as good as Manhattan to something as wretched as Anything Else, especially when the two are representative (if not typical) of his work at the time?

There's genius in Manhattan. Certainly, at times, it's a little much - the characters' discussions of art and philosophy often come off as the writers trying to show us how smart they are via their characters (doesn't it always?), but it at least doesn't sound horribly dated. There's a great silent-movie feel to the opening shots of the city, though, even as Woody's character tries to start his novel in voice-over. The composition of the images is much more interesting that anything Allen has done lately, and he makes wonderful use of both the widescreen canvas and black-and-white stock. And it's funny - Allen, back then, was able to walk a fine line, and say things that were both intellectual and joe six-pack at the same time. Telling a group of partygoers how a scathing editorial in the New York Times really doesn't make a point the way bricks and baseball bats do is just plain entertaining, and Diane Keaton gives a great performance opposite him.

It's tough to know just what to make of Mariel Hemingway's character in this movie, in retrospect. At times she seems more mature than any of the adult characters, but at others she just seems unaware of how the adult world works. And while she may be the best match for Allen's character, the film doesn't show us just how these two met and started seeing each other, which is almost guaranteed to skew the relationship to the creepy side. Of course, that's probably a smart, deliberate decision on Allen's part.

I don't quite see the "love-letter to the city" aspect so many talk about with this movie. Certainly, it's there in the opening, but I don't know how Manhattan-specific the rest of the movie actually is; it's a story that can take place anywhere you find smart but emotionally stunted people (and they're everywhere). It's still a great movie.

REVIEW: Paycheck

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 January 2004 at AMC Fenway #11 (first-run)

Call it Minority Report Lite. Like Spielberg's movie, Paycheck is based on a Phillip K. Dick story, focuses on being able to see the future, has some rather obvious product placement, and has a few good action sequences. Heck, Kathryn Morris, Tom Cruise's wife in Minority Report, shows up in the first section. The bulk of Paycheck could be seen as an expanded riff on one of its predecessor's most clever sequences, the chase scene aided by precognition.

Which makes Paycheck clever. Where it falls short of Minority Report is that clever is as far as it goes; it doesn't have the moral ambiguity, the detailed future world, the strong performances, or the ingenious Moebius strip of a plot. That's not an indictment; Paycheck is still great fun to watch, and more than once I found myself saying "heh, good one" at some piece of ingenuity on the part of the filmmakers. I criticized The Cooler a couple weeks ago for being overly cute with its contrivances, but in a way, not trying to be a serious, character-based movie helps Paycheck succeed by doing the same thing - things happen because they need to happen, but the structure of the movie makes it a plus. The audience is in on the joke, and what might otherwise seem lazy is clever and maybe even somewhat satiric.

Another thing the plot of the movie does is allow the audience to not be subjected to an awkward romance between Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman's characters. They meet cute, sure, but one cut later three years have passed and though Affleck's Michael Jennings may not remember what went on, you don't have to worry about why Thurman's Rachel Porter is so suddenly attached to this fugitive with a nutty story. Which is good, because Rachel is a fun character, diving right into the action to a degree that's almost alarming. The girlfriend's role in these movies often seems to be "designated hostage", but this one is a valuable partner, whether it be unorthodox use of a motorcycle safety helment or grabbing a laboratory control panel and doing some robot-arm-fu.

John Woo directs with the usual John Woo-isms. People stand three feet apart and stick their guns in each other's faces with outstretched arms; a dove flies through the final big fight scene for no apparent reason. Still, there aren't many people who can choreograph a gun fight so well, so just appreciate the signature moves. Similarly, the Red Sox references around Affleck's character are forced (why they kept what they did and cut the line about the Red Sox having won three World Series that he had wiped from his memory, I don't know).

Paycheck kind of disappeared among the holiday hype, which is too bad - it may not be a masterpiece, but it's a very entertaining action piece.

Friday, January 16, 2004

REVIEW: 21 Grams

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 January 2004 at Kendall Square #5 (first-run)

You can't fault the acting in this movie. The cast is top-notch, and they perform up to their capacity. There's one from each good-actor category: Sean Penn is a guy whose brilliance is widely known, and there's never a moment when his Paul Rivers isn't believable. He manages to balance the man's self-destructive tendencies with a certain amount of charm he can dig up when he needs it, along with a kind of surprise at his own ability to feel joy. Meanwhile, Benicio Del Toro is a "that guy" type, who has (since The Usual Suspects) appeared in what seems like two or three movies a year and seemed to be the best thing about them. He's not an A-list guy whose presense will sell a movie to the general public, but he does reassure people in the know. He plays Jack Jordan, perhaps the most interesting character - an ex-con who has found religion and seems to be on the straight and narrow. His strong religious views often seem a bit frightening, especially in the scenes with his family, but Del Toro creates the sense that they are all that is holding his worse nature back. He wants to be a good man so badly that his guilt when he feels he has failed that may destroy him. Meanwhile, Naomi Watts has sort of backed into being a movie star, mostly based on The Ring and Mulholland Drive (which was, of course, meant to be a TV show), but she's not just a pretty face. She's great, too, as Cristina Peck, a suburban wife and mother who loses her family and is unsure how to define herself afterwards, except in terms of grief. She gets most of the histrionics, as she's the one hit with the most loss and hurt, but never goes overboard with it.

There is a certain crowd that will grumble about the disjointed nature of the movie, how it's cut into many small scenes which are assembled in a non-chronological order. 21 Grams might be revealed as a fairly unremarkable story if recut to simply run from beginning to end, and doing otherwise just manipulates the audience. Of course, I'd argue that manipulating the audience is a filmmaker's job, and editing is as valid a tool as the close-up to accomplish it. Cutting it that way also shows the potential in people for many types of behavior, as opposed to making it entirely dependant on circumstance. When you don't find out why someone is doing something until later, it becomes a choice, as opposed to just following the script. It shifts the focus of the plot from "what will happen" to "why and how will it happen", which is clearly what the filmmakers want.

Indeed, this might be a four-star movie except for the end. I won't reveal it, but it's as though telling a good story about interesting people suddenly became not enough; suddenly, there had to be symbolism, and symmetry, and a voice-over about the soul. I suppose it can fit in with what I said in the previous paragraph, that people can do anything in a given situation, even if it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but it left me feeling empty. The story ends with an utterly symbolic gesture, after a fairly unpretentious previous hour-forty-five. It's not a bad ending, per se, just neither the most likely one or the most fulfilling one.

REVIEW: Monkey War 2: New Pilgrims To The West

* * ¼ (out of four)

Seen 9 January 2004 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Midnight Kung Fu Madness)

As with Thrilling Bloody Sword, this has to be a children's movie. A children's movie with at least one nasty scene where a character is sucked into a bottle which is then shaken until only blood pours out, and where the Monkey King must apparently protect his monk master from angry demons who want to eat him, sure, but it's got the sort of feel of something made for kids. There's no (subtitled) swearing, the fat guy shows far more skin than the attractive women, and many of the villains tend to see the error of their ways after being defeated and join the heroes on their quest, even one who was apparently eaten by the heroes (I'm sure, in Chinese culture, this makes perfect sense to show to children). The Monkey King learns humility and loyalty, and though the movie doesn't end so much as stop - since this is Monkey War 2, perhaps Monkey War 3 picks up where it left off, but only the first Monkey War is listed in the IMDB - it feels like some sort of lesson has been learned.

The fight scenes are not that exciting - Monkey King has some skill with a magic staff, but much of what goes on is "magical" combat, rather than the intricate choreography I go to these series for. The performances are good enough, and the make-up is surprisingly good - it's more subtle than the goofy suits people wore in Thrilling Bloody Sword. The facial hair on the Monkey King actually looks somewhat monkey-like, but still gives him an expressive face; the pig-demon has goofy ears and that's about it. It sort of reminded me of what Terry Jones would later do in The Wind In The Willows (which really, really, really needs to be out on DVD).

Part of the enjoyment here is, admittedly, the ... um... the minimal effort put into this movie at some points. You don't need elaborate sets when wandering around the desert, and the special effects can't be called any kind of "good". The subtitling is so bad that the title is actually spelled "New Tilgrems To The West" on-screen. So, we have another movie that is campy fun for a group of adult Americans... Though, naturally, that's probably the last audience that the filmmakers were thinking of.

Friday, January 09, 2004

REVIEW(s): Morgiana and Who Wants To Kill Jessie? (Kdo chce zabít Jessii)

Morgiana: * * ½ (out of four)
Jessie: * * * ¼ (out of four)

Seen 7 January 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Czech Horror & Fantasy On Film)

I've got no good excuse for missing these movies. Sure, Clinton McClurg may have complained about the Museum Of Fine Arts only running them in the afternoon on the Boston Cult Movies List, but I'm currently unemployed (of course, that does make the $10 single-admission ticket at the MFA less appealing). Then it shows up at the Brattle, an easy walk from where I live, and I only make it to one night's worth. Ah, well. Maybe some of the folks reading this (on some days, one has to take off shoes to count them all!) will, um, check out the series when it reaches their town. Of course, according to the official website, it looks like the Brattle was the last stop.

But on with the movies. Morgiana reminded me of a Hammer film in style, though with less in the way of the supernatural. It features a slow-acting poison that is impossibly perfect for the film's needs, though that is likely a holdover from the source material. It's a bizarre film, featuring a cat's-eye-view camera for no particular reason, a sort of arty credit sequence, and probably the least subtle soundtrack this side of Signs. Costume design and make-up are interesting, as they run the gamut between incredibly elaborate and almost slipshod. This might be intended, however - the elaborate costumes belong to women of means, whereas the servents and soldiers in this period piece are dressed in what look almost like hand-me-downs.

The story itself is a contrived Victorian-era melodrama. Sisters Viktorie and Klara (both played by Iva Janzurová) each inherit a house and staff when their father passes on. Viktorie, the older sister, is jealous of Klara's popularity (and house in town as opposed to country), and to make it worse, Klara is nothing but kind, even trying to have some of her suitors pay attention to her sister. Soon, Vikkie has obtained a supposedly untraceable poison that will work over time, giving her the opportunity to appear the concerned sister and divert suspicion. But, as the poison is working, her supplier blackmails her...

Quite frankly, the story is absurd. Vikkie is such a thoroughgoing villainess I'm surprised that she doesn't grow her fingernails a foot long and cackle more than she does. The sisters are pretty clearly labeled, with Vikkie always dressing entirely in black and her black hair in a severe bun, and her makeup in harsh shapes. Klara, on the other hand, is dressed in white with flowing red hair in lovely ringlets. This is not to say the movie is valueless; there's fun in melodrama, and director Juraj Herz uses his leading lady well - despite being a 1972 film from an Eastern Bloc nation, it's never terribly obvious that the same actress is playing two roles. Herz chooses a narrow aspect ratio - 1.37:1 or 1.66:1 - and uses close-ups to make sure only one sister is on-screen most of the time, and makes good use of doubles and the very occasional split-screen shot. He may have been trying to use some of the artsier, showier techniques to camoflage the double role. If that was his intent, good job.

Who Wants To Kill Jessie? is something entirely different, a thoroughly deadpan comedy-fantasy. I'd happily buy it on video if it were available, but, alas, special screenings in series like this seem to be the only way to see it. The story is a simple high-concept: Ruzenka Beránková (Dana Medrická) has created a formula that can remove elements from dreams (you can tell they've been removed, because there's a nifty television screen capable of showing a subject's dreams). What she doesn't realize is that these elements manifest themselves in the real world. Bad enough when it's the gadflys of a cow's nightmare, but when she uses it on her husband (Jirí Sovák), whose dreams include the characters from the comic strip "Who Wants To Kill Jessie?"... Well, it's bad enough that Jessie is a beautiful, blond, voluptuous girl (who is also a scientific genius), but the two men chasing her, a musclebound superhero and a gun-toting cowboy, cause serious damage to the apartment building and later city of Prague. And when the courts decide the husband should be liable - they are, after all, his dreams - more chaos ensues.

Jessie is quite short - IMDB lists it at 80 minutes - but doesn't waste any of its running time. Nearly every minute has something funny happening, whether it be a cow's dreams or the comic strip characters' penchant for speaking with word balloons. The film is shot in anamorphic black-and-white, and I'm not sure color would have helped it; it could have easily come out looking like the Batman live-action TV series or Austin Powers. The look of this 1966 movie suggests bright colors, but keeps it from looking garish or dated. It's also played perfectly straight - that Mrs. Beránková has a dream monitor in her bedroom isn't remarked upon, and the reactions to these comic-book characters running around Prague is stoic as can be.

A good many movies are filmed in Prague nowadays, and there are many reasons for it - labor is cheap in Eastern Europe, the Czech Republic is one of the more stable countries to emerge from the fall of communism, and there are many scenic locations that require little redressing for period shooting. But these two films, at least, suggest a strong film tradition, not just in terms of creative people at the top (every country likely has had one or two geniuses emerge), but of an actual film industry capable of lending strong production values to even films as lightweight as these going back thirty or forty years.

Monday, January 05, 2004

REVIEW: Tremors 4: The Legend Begins

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 January 2004 in Jay's Living Room (video premiere)

Tremors has, throughout its 15-year history, been about defying expectations. The first movie was surprisingly clever and witty, with nifty casting and enough genuine points where it makes the audience jump to make the leap from "guilty pleasure" to "quality monster movie". The first direct-to-video sequel retained most of the original's creative staff, which itself was unusual, and could certainly have justified a theatrical release. Tremors 3 wasn't quite so hot (though it was better than expected), but the TV series was surprisingly entertaining.

The Legend Begins is an interesting idea, transplanting the Tremors creatures back to 1889, and features the ancestors of several of the characters from the previous movies. It's also a throwback to the first movie in terms of creature design, as the villains are once again giant worms, rather than making use of the more complex life-cycle described in the rest of the series. This also lets the filmmakers revert back to primarily using practical effects as opposed to CGI, which is probably a good thing, considering the limited budget.

That's the main issue to be found with this movie - by the time you get to a third direct-to-video sequel, you're reaching a point of diminishing returns and budgeting accordingly. Gale Anne Hurd and Ron Underwood are no longer involved in the production (that Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson, the original screenwriters, are is somewhat remarkable), and the sole remaining cast member is Michael Gross, here playing Hiram Gummer, the great-grandfather of his usual character; the rest of the cast has scant credits. That Billy Drago gets prominent "and Billy Drago as Black Hand Kelley" billing shows what kind of limitations they were working under.

But, give Wilson, Maddock, Nancy Roberts and company credit - they stitch an enjoyable movie together from this. Maybe it's only as enjoyable as can be expected, but it's not bad.

REVIEW: Thrilling Bloody Sword

* * ¼ (out of four)

Seen 3 January 2004 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Midnight Kung Fu Madness)

There's an entry on the Web Film Release Schedule about a "martial-arts remake" of Snow White And The Seven Dwarves. I don't know whether it would be a direct remake of this bit of lunacy from 1986, but if it's being made by Disney, or any Hollywood studio, I doubt it will feature the pure, utter insanity of this Hong Kong kid's film from 1986.

At least, I think it's a kid's film. It's got a talking chicken, after all, and a small fairy of the forest, and a thoroughly chaste romance between the hidden princess and the handsome prince. It's got garishly colored supporting characters, and a script that's even goofier than most Hong Kong action movies. And some of the costumes... My lord, the monsters (as well as the bear that the prince is turned into) are sub-Power Rangers level.

It also has some outright bizarre stuff, too. Like the fleshy, disgusting egg the queen gives birth to when she's touched by a falling star, that later "hatches" the baby princess. The seven dwarves are generals from another kingdom, turned into dwarves by the film's villains. One has a French mustache; another has bagels on a string around his neck. Another is apparently dressed as a woman. Or is a woman dressed as a man. It's really ambigous. And then there's the magic sword and garment which the prince finds - which has no pants. The heroic prince basically spends the second half of the movie wandering around with less than a cheerleader's outfit covering his groin. And, while wearing this, he must fight four magic warriors, which can only be slain by stabbing them through their vulnerable points. And, wouldn't you know it, the final one's vulnerable point seems to be right up the...

Anyway, there's some innuendo here.

This is a Z-movie. It gets 2¼ stars because the audience at the Coolidge was into it; this would be no fun to watch in one's living room, by oneself. But, when you're surrounded by other folks who paid $6 for it, it takes the pain away somewhat.

REVIEW: Something's Gotta Give

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 January 2004 at AMC Fenway #3 (first-run)

Something's Gotta Give isn't a bad movie; that 2¾-star rating puts it somewhat above average. Its characters are likable, there's good chemistry between Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton, and the laughs are full-sized ones. It peaks too soon, though, and the second half of the movie feels like just going through the motions. We all know Nicholson's Harry and Keaton's Erica are going to wind up together, so why reintroduce Keanu Reeves? His character is pleasant enough, but he's also an obvious, contrived obstacle.

There's something vaguely wasteful about how some of the supporting characters are used in this movie, too - Jon Favreau, Amanda Peet, Reeves, and Frances McDormand have all been leads at various points in their careers, and that gives their interactions with the main characters some strength, but by not tapping their potential, writer/director Nancy Meyers has nowhere to go when the main plot is beginning to drag. And it does drag; about a half hour could be cut out of its 128 minutes and not be missed. Say, that entire montage of Keaton's character laughing, crying, crying, writing, crying some more, laughing-that-turns-into-crying...

I don't want to be too harsh. Something's Gotta Give has a lot to offer - good performances, funny scenes, a likable romance, and some worthwhile thoughts on two mature individuals falling in love. If they could have just gotten the pacing right, it could have been a real winner.

Saturday, January 03, 2004

REVIEW: License To Steal (Long feng zei zhuo zei)

* * ¾ (out of four)

Seen 2 January 2004 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Midnight Kung Fu Madness)

I will miss the Weekly Wednesday Ass-Kicking at the Allston Cinema, but the Coolidge Corner theater isn't much further away (indeed, I think it took me the same amount of time to walk home as it did to wait for and ride the T to the theater last night) and the screen is better. Indeed, the main difference is that the Coolidge has that snazzy marquee and plays cream-of-the-crop boutique movies; the environment isn't quite as underground as Allston, where the next screen over was some wacky Bollywood musical. I swear, the Allston Cinema probably had the same floor-plan as one of the lesser Showcase Cinemas I worked at in Worcester, MA, but it had that underground vibe, like something out of an eighties movie. The type of place that had to be saved before The Man shut it down and made it into a parking lot, or Starbucks, or something similarly soulless. (Like a Staples, or a multiplex, or, if you believe the sour-grapes crowd at Boston Sci-Fi, the Coolidge itself)

But the movie's the thing, right? And, truth be told, I'd been kind of let down with the November/December edition of the WWAK. There was gore, and nakedness, and camp, but the most important element - people punching and kicking at each other with brilliant choreography - seemed to be missing. And without the punching and kicking, what's the point?

Fortunately, License To Steal delivers the goods, most of the time. Sammo Hung is listed as a producer and was probably involved in the fight choreography (the star, Joyce Godenzi, later became his wife). And fights can break out at the drop of a hat. The main plot, such as it is, features Hung (Godenzi) in a fierce rivalry with her foster sister Ngan (Agnes Aurelio) - they'd both been part of a band of theives, but Ngan had betrayed her to take control of the gang. They'll fight. They're being pursued by the police, and the senior policeman has a crazy nephew who thinks he's some sort of mythical Swordsman (Yeun Biao). And since the main characters are thieves, there's guards and gang members (including Billy Chow). The plot makes almost no sense whatsoever, but you can hang six or seven fights off it.

The movie also has a charming sense of absurdity. "No. 1" and his partner stake out Hung and her other sister, but do it from a brightly colored camp tent, complete with fire. And as Hung's gang prepares for the BIG HEIST of the "Napoleon Mask" from a moving truck, they do so by (1) moving a container truck into place, (2) unsheathing a chainsaw, (3) preparing a suitcase full of dynamite, complete with an analog clock face, and (4) putting on gas-masks. I was deeply disappointed not to see what the actual plan was, because it must have been a doozy. The ensuing big fight in an uncompleted building with all sorts of pipes lying around (construction sites in Hong Kong have a lot of pipes lying around, if kung fu movies are to be believed) mostly made up for it, but, man, don't show me a chainsaw unless you intend to use it.

So, I'm feeling better about this series as it returns to the Coolidge after five months in Allston. People are punching and kicking each other - all is right with the world.

Friday, January 02, 2004

REVIEW: Stuck On You

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 January 2004 at AMC Fenway #6 (first-run)

It's hard to criticize the Farrelly brothers when they do a comedy like Stuck On You or Shallow Hal, because their hearts are so clearly in the right place. They've got a talent for seeing people Hollywood otherwise avoids - the mentally handicapped, the physically disabled, or, here, conjoined twins - as individuals, and allowing the audience to laugh at their adventures because, amid all the stupidity of the world around them, these characters prove themselves worthy of your respect. They're not just hack artists making fun of those less fortunate than themselves, and they're not patronizing hero-worshippers, either. They're just capable of looking at characters like Bob and Walt Tenner and seeing them as more than walking punchlines.

But it's kind of a backhanded compliment here. Yeah, Bob (Matt Damon) and Walt (Greg Kinnear) are likable, but they're dropped into a thoroughly bland "trying to become a TV/movie star" situation. There's absolutely no bite to any of the Hollywood jokes, from the scheming star (and that Cher is playing herself isn't funny enough) to the oh-so-predictable "Tonight Show With Jay Leno" sequence. Outside of the two main characters, it's like the Farrellys aren't even trying.

I will give them a pass on probably one of the few actual funny "Bill Buckner" jokes this Red Sox fan has had to suffer through. I kind of have to wonder, though, whether it will play as well outside of New England (or would without the sort of meta-joke that Matt Damon is a noted Bostonian). And the Frankie Muniz appearance; that was funny.

But I was turned off by the latter third or so of the movie, where (SPOILERS THROUGH THE END OF THE REVIEW) the boys are on their own. It's really kind of depressing, when you think about it - they set up the operation to seperate them as potentially dangerous, but justify it emotionally because the two have their own seperate dreams. But the two are lost without each other, and don't grow to handle it. It's like they did something terribly risky for nothing.

REVIEW: The Cooler

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 January 2004 at Loews Harvard Square #4 (first-run)

In his "Ringworld" novels, science-fiction author Larry Niven posited the character of Teela Brown, who was born and bred to be lucky. Her ancestors had won the right to conceive in a lottery going back three generations, and she'd never been less than fortunate, never having so much as stubbed her toe. Like Gladstone Gander in Walt Disney's Duck comics, she was lucky as a condition of her being. Niven claimed that she had the ultimate psi power - author control.

There is a great deal of appeal to a writer in the idea that luck is a function of some universal force as opposed to what it really is - chance. Once you allow luck to be something quantifiable, and indeed predictable in a definite, as opposed to probability-based, way, you can cease worrying about whether or not people will believe in how your characters are affected by outside actions. Their luck becomes a part of their environment.

It's tricky, though. Intacto, for instance, built a framework of rules and methods by which this "luck" worked, but never put the idea to terribly interesting use. The Cooler, on the other hand, asks the audience to take its title character's bad luck as a given, but never makes this fantasy element really fit into its gritty millieu.

William H. Macy's Bernie Lootz is unlucky, and he plays his role in Vegas by making those around him unlucky, in the service of his casino-boss "friend" Shelly (Alec Baldwin). When a pretty waitress (Maria Bello) takes an interest in him, his luck changes with his attitude, and Shelly attempts to return things to normal via extreme measures.

But the whole idea's pretty silly, isn't it? The movie presents Bernie's bad luck as a key to keeping the casino in business, but the idea that casinos actually depend on luck is childish. Casinos operate and thrive because they understand probability better than their customers. Shelly himself is a silly caricature, a superstitious thug who romanticizes thuggery. His downfall is not only inevitable, but given the time-frame of the movie, long overdue.

Now, Baldwin, Bello, and Macy all give decent performances - there's not really a bad bit of character acting to be found; even Ron Livingston's astounding un-charisma is well-utilized (and Estella Warren apparently can act as opposed to just looking good). But they're all in service of such silly ideas as to make The Cooler a well-acted goofy movie.

REVIEW: Big Fish

* * * (out of four)
Seen 31 December 2003 at Loews Harvard Square #2 (first-run)

Big Fish is beautiful, no question about it. As with most Tim Burton movies, the production design is meticulous, with every square inch of the screen part of a beautiful image. The question becomes whether that beauty is enough, or whether or not the film delivers (and needs) more.

I say that the beauty is enough. Big Fish is able to justify its existence by looking good, and occasionally displaying a clever bit of wit. Its appeals to sentimentality are more problematic. It starts with Will Bloom upset over his father (Albert Finney) being unable to keep from hogging the spotlight at Will's own wedding, but never shows the elder Bloom growing, or becoming able to respect his son. Indeed, the father, Ed Bloom (played by Ewan McGregor as a younger man) never seems to learn anything or grow in any way; he starts out fearless and larger-than-life and stays that way.

It's most frustrating when dealing with the women in his life. He falls in love with Sandra (Alison Lohman in the past, Jessica Lange in the present) at first sight, but she's a blank. We're never given any reason why she's so appealing, other than her beauty; we never know what she saw in the man she was engaged in at the time (and, on the other hand, we never see why he's so bad for her until after the dust settles). Meanwhile, the girl he meets in an enchanted town, Jenny (Hailey Ann Nelson and Helena Bonham Carter) does seem to be more than pretty, but is casually tossed aside.

But the movie is beautiful and that in many ways is enough. When it is simply telling its tall tales and not trying to deal with real life, or teach anything, it enters a realm of pure fantasy where Burton excels. So, ultimately, this is one of those movies where visuals must be allowed to trump characterization. If you let that happen, you'll find a fairly entertaining film.