Sunday, February 29, 2004

House Of Sand And Fog

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 February 2004 at the Arlington Capitol #2 (second-run)

It's sad to see good performances in service of an idiot plot. I can't really complain about anything the actors do in this movie; Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley are both outstanding, and though I'm not quite so sure I see Shohreh Aghdashloo as an Oscar nominee, she's well above-average.

But, man, it's frustrating to watch. It starts out with an interesting hook, with Connelly's Kate losing her house because of a county tax screw-up, though she was admittedly complicit, ignoring her mail. When Kingsley's Iranian emigre buys it at auction, they both have the right to see the house as theirs, and both are deeply flawed characters. At first, it's a movie without good guys and bad guys.

Enter Ron Eldard as the sheriff's deputy who helped evict Kate and takes a liking to her. He's the guy who winds up pushing the movie into cheap melodrama, taking everything too far, taking a delicate situation and giving it a forceful shake. The tragedy of the last reel thus goes from sad to ridiculous, more deserving of snickers than tears.

That's not the only issue; it's also one of those movies where you wonder what these characters are doing when they're not involved in this plot. Kate has a job as a housecleaner that seems to evaporate; Behrani starts out working two jobs, one of which you see him quit, but both menial. There is a long scene where it is suggested that he is deceiving his family about what he does for work, but it's never followed up on, despite possibly being a good parallel for how Kate is lying to her own family.

I guess that sums the movie up - wasted potential. There's good stuff to work with, but screenwriter/director Vadim Perelman just doesn't get it right.

Mister Blandings Builds His Dream House

* * (out of four)
Seen 26 February in Jay's Living Room (WGBX)

I remember really enjoying The Money Pit when I was a kid, but that wasn't why I had the ReplayTV record this one. It had just been too long since it had grabbed a Thin Man movie, and Myrna Loy was in this. So, what the heck, why not?

Sadly, the movie is not very funny. It starts out with an amusing montage about what a pain in the neck city life can be, which is whimsically cut and narrated. Soon, we're introduced to the Blandingses, and while there's some humor in how a family of four gets in each others' way in a downtown apartment, it's here that the film's weaknesses soon become apparent: First, the parents aren't terribly sympathetic characters. Part of this is due to watching a 1948 movie from a 2004 perspective, but it's difficult to muster much sympathy for their money troubles in the second half of the movie when they've got a maid and Mrs. Muriel Blandings doesn't work. Even at times when I'm NOT unemployed, it's kind of hard to work up much sympathy for people who seem to have it pretty good.

More frustrating, the pacing seems to be just off. There's something very stage-y about the delivery. Again, maybe it's my MTV-generation brain finding a simpler time frustrating, but it's not just the lack of overlapping dialogue or other methods to hammer home the chaos of the situation. It's often like the performers are still rehearsing the sight gags, performing them at half speed. There's an early scene where Cary Grant and Myrna Loy are trying to share a bathroom that would be hilarious slapstick if it were given the sort of choreography you find in a musical, or a Jackie Chan movie, but instead it feels like everyone is aware of how precise they have to be. The comedic timing's just not right.

In the end, I'm not sure whether Blandings is a lesser movie or whether the medium has advanced enough to leave it behind. I'd like to think it's the latter, although I've seen plenty of movies that clearly represent an earlier era but still hold up. I guess that's what makes them classics and this movie a relic.

Saturday, February 28, 2004

Mystic River

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 February 2004 at AMC Fenway #11 (awards re-release)

Clint Eastwood is one of those directors whose principle talent, at first glance, seems to be staying out of the way. You don't really notice Clint's hand on Mystic River; everything that is good about it seems to be coming from writers Dennis Lahane (novel) and Brian Helgeland (script) and the top-notch cast. Yet the movie works as more than the sum of its parts, what could have been "merely" a solid crime drama instead becomes an exceptional movie.

Okay, so I laughed at some of the accents (nobody I know talks like that, although I admittedly live in Harvard Square as opposed to Roxbury or Charlestown). But otherwise, this is a movie without much in the way of artifice. The only thing that can even vaguely be called an editing trick is a flashback, and occasionally thick accents aside, the acting is very good, with an exception or two - mainly, I think Marcia Gay Harden overdoes it a little, but otherwise the cast is strong.

What impressed me the most, I think, was that Eastwood was able to balance the dramatic, interior story - the stuff that's about the characters of these three men who knew each other as kids, but went different directions after one was kidnapped and abused - with the police procedural aspects. Most of the time, while watching a movie like this, I notice that the crime which served as the kickoff for the story gets lost, or the movie becomes a strict procedural with interesting, well-played characters aggravatingly on the periphery. Mystic River, however, works as both a crime DRAMA and a CRIME drama, so to speak.

Millennium Mambo (Qianxi manbo)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 February 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

Film discussion groups are wonderful things. Why, if not for the one after this, I might have come away thinking Millennium Mambo was something of a below-average movie. I'm still not convinced it's a great one, but I will accept that it's a good one. It's the kind of film that's occasionally described as "lyrical", perhaps more about capturing a feeling than telling a story.

Not that it doesn't have a story - it does, and a fairly well-defined one: A young woman (Qi Shu, probably best known in the US for The Transporter) in a bad relationship moving on to the next stage of her life. The problem is that the girl in question, Vicky, is fairly passive. She seems to initiate very little, and often comes across as fickle and somewhat cold toward the people who like her. Not that some don't deserve it; the boyfriend she lives with is more than a little bit of a creep. He searches through her purse while she's in the shower, and has a weird habit of smelling her that clearly makes her uncomfortable; it's implied that the only thing keeping them together is that once you move in and start intermingling your things, it becomes hard to disentagle yourself.

Much of the action that moves the story ahead takes place off-screen, and director Hsiao-hsien Hou uses some of the more peculiar narration I can recall - though the film takes place in 2001 (the year of its release in Taiwan), it's narrated by (presumably) Vicky looking back at it from ten years later. I say presumably because all the narration is in the third person. Some in the discussion found that reassuring, saying it likely means that by 2011 Vicky has grown up some more, to the point where she considers this younger self a different person. At the time, though, it just seemed odd to me, and somewhat annoying, since the narration often covered events that were shown directly afterward in the picture.

What you do see on screen generally looks very nice; cinematographer Pin Bing Lee has a great eye for color and composition. There's an incredible purity to the scenes that take place in snowy Yubari in northern Japan, which are also the only ones where characters aren't smoking like chimneys. Perhaps this is an indicator that this is where Vicky will reclaim her innocence and happiness.

That, I suppose, is what make Millennium Mambo so simultaneously beautiful and frustrating. There are layers to it, which bear fruit if you put in the time examining them (or are one of the lucky people who see such things naturally). But, if you just sit down to watch it hoping to be told a story, it's easy to feel like nothing happens, and in a slow, artsy manner. Wven if you tend to take that view, it's still pretty easy to enjoy the visuals.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

SF/29: The 29th Boston Science Fiction Film Festival

All films seen 15-16 February 2004 at Dedham Community Theater

After a mere three or four marathons, I think I'm getting too old for this. Not just in terms of "I can't stay up two days straight like I could in college", but I wonder if - gasp - I might be outgrowing it. The "talking back to the screen" aspect is only fitfully amusing - only one in a dozen comments is really worth it. And I just can't do the "it's so bad it's good" thing any more.

On the other hand, there are fun aspects to "the marathon". Godzilla movies in a crowded, enthusiastic theater, for instance, and the occasional hidden gem. And it's one of the larger and more enthusiastic crowds you'll ever encounter.

After spending around a dozen years at the Coolidge Corner theater, this marked the event's first year at the Dedham Community Theater, which was a definite step down in terms of facilities. The DCT isn't a bad theater, really, but it required the group be split into two groups ("Wheat Chex" and "Rice Chex", one of many jokes which predates my participation), it took me two trains and a bus to get there, and the men's room, at least, is in dire need of renovation. The screens aren't as large as those at the Coolidge, and at least in auditorium #2 ("Rice Chex"), the projection booth is not aligned to the center of the screen, resulting in the right side of the picture being fuzzier than the left. In addition, it's an old theater with a center aisle where the good seats would be, a fairly sharp slope, and a high-mounted screen, meaning that those of us who like sitting toward the front so that the screen fills our field of vision have to crane our necks. In addition, the projectionists clearly weren't used to Academy-ratio films, resulting in the tops and/or bottoms of many being cut off. Indeed, there were framing problems for nearly every film - the edges of the scope films were cut off, and even some "standard" 1.85:1 aspect ratio films were badly misframed (28 Days Later being the most egregious).

Some on the marathon's web site characterize these complaints as "niggling", which, quite frankly, irritates me almost as much as a good chunk of 28 Days Later being cut off. In some ways, the Marathon distills much of what is wrong with seeing movies in the theater today - people not being able to shut up, style over substance, etc. - so why not add poor projection to the mix? But I think we must have some standards, and it's bad enough that we often get movies mis-framed on video - when you go to the theater, there should at least be proper display.

The good folks at the DCT shouldn't take this as too much of a slight - the Marathon is a tough gig, often involving old, damaged prints with no time to do a run-off, and to have the movie running on both screens more-or-less simultaneously, the two projectors had to be interlinked. And while the men's room had problems, the lobby was clean, spacious, and comfortable, the staff was great, and the variety of snacks available at the concession stand was among the best I've seen. As much as I'd hope for a return to the Coolidge or Somerville theaters (or someplace downtown, like the Wang Center) for next year's big 30th anniversery event, a good chunk of that is convenience.

Anyway, on to the movies...

The Matrix
* * * (out of four)

After the traditional start with "Duck Dodgers In The 24th-and-a-half Century", the thon's first feature was the movie that started last year's most overdone franchise.

I rated the movie higher when I first saw it, but four years of imitation and exploitation has taken its toll. I don't really count the mediocrity of The Matrix Reloaded, the unevenness of The Animatrix, or the idiocy of The Matrix Revolutions against the original, and the legions of slick black-and-white color schemes had started earlier. They do, however, serve to re-enforce the problems which existed in the first film, as well as how the series lost its way.

There never was any chemistry between Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss, for instance, and a number of characters, such as Morpheus and the Oracle, were obnoxiously cryptic from minute one. It's also very easy to see how this film gets tied to angry teenagers, and it's not just the color scheme. There's something chilling about how Morpheus talks out of both sides of his mouth, telling Neo how everyone in the Matrix must be considered a potential enemy, and how during Morpheus's rescue, Neo and Trinity casually slaughter dozens of people without any visible emotion of any kind, much less remorse. The vast majority of the people, it's saying, are inconsequential; only us outsiders are worth considering (in the sequels, the billions of human lives inside the Matrix are almost totally ignored, and indeed are consumed by Smith without any of the outsiders appearing to get too upset).

From an action standpoint, it's still a pretty damn good movie, and the Wachowskis were able to make it seem smarter than it actually is. But that this is the movie from 1999 that is lauded in terms of being a great story with special effects which support it rather than just show off while The Phantom Menace is the object of derision... That's just wrong, and it seems even more wrong when the movies are expanded on and revisited.

"The Adventures Of Captain Marvel" (Chapters 11 & 12)

A surprisingly enjoyable comic-book serial; each ten or twelve-minute segment is packed with enough story to be enjoyable, and the special effects are not bad for the time. Comic fans will probably pitch a fit if New Line's upcoming Captain Marvel/Shazam! feature takes as many liberties in its adaptation as this does, but as it's own thing, the Captain Marvel serial is an enjoyable adventure tale.

The Giant Claw
* (out of four)

I mentioned in the open that I think I may have outgrown the "so bad it's good" mindset. Sure, if you look through the blog, you'll see me giving decent reviews to a number of martial arts movies, or at least enjoying them from a campy point of view. But most of those movies often have something they do well, generally the fight choreography, and they do it well enough that I can forgive the sloppiness present elsewhere.

The Giant Claw doesn't do anything well. The script is terrible, the acting is worse, there's no chemistry between the lead actor and actress, and the special effects are laughable in ways that are hard to conceive of nowadays. All sorts of visible strings and bad, bad, bad models. The closest it comes to respectable is a Godzilla/King Kong-style rampage through New York. Even that doesn't look good, especially considering how the model-mayhem shots don't look anything like the reaction shots. Even though we were less than four hours into the marathon, I found myself occasionally dozing off. Being a bad movie doesn't make this fun; it just makes it a bad movie.

The Dish
* * * ½ (out of four)

There was a good deal of complaining on the message board about this one beforehand, complaining that it wasn't science fiction and thus shouldn't be potentially displacing even some piece of fifties schlock. Still, I think it earns its place; it certainly has more respect for science, exploration, and the like, than a good many movies which would claim the "sci-fi" title.

The Apollo moon landings were a momentous event for the entire world, but to the town of Parkes, Australia, it was a point of civic pride. Their radio telescope was the only one powerful enough to receive and relay television signals back to NASA from the southern hemisphere. With the moon landing scheduled for when it's their turn to be relaying, this small farming town suddenly gets a lot more attention than its used to receiving.

What makes the film a joy is that it captures a moment in time when science was something that excited the world at large. Would the pretty girl who delivers sandwiches to the dish be interested in shy Glenn Latham (Tom Long) otherwise? Maybe, maybe not. But that's typical of the movie - it's filled with mild-mannered, small town folks who are quirky and friendly, so unfamiliar with noteriety that they just continue acting odd, which is a fun contrast with the momentous events. Even the visitors from out of town - NASA technician Al Burnett (Patrick Warburton, cast against type as a smart, somewhat nerdy guy), US Ambassador Howard (John McMartin), and the Australian Prime Minister (Billie Brown) - are excited, in their own ways.

There are suspenseful moments to The Dish, but it's mostly notable for being good-hearted where many movies are snide or arch. It's a pleasure to watch, and reminds me of why I like science and science fiction more than many strict genre movies.

Have Rocket, Will Travel
* ½ (out of four)

I admit it. I've never liked The Three Stooges. Even as a kid, I found them to be mean-spirited idiots whose slapstick was oddly not funny. Later, I would figure out while watching Looney Tunes that it's not actually the anvil that's funny, but the set-up and reaction to the anvil, but the Stooges are, in general, all about the actual smacking around. This movie's no different, except that the Stooges are older and it's even less amusing to see them beat each other up.

It's not entirely worthless - there's a mildly clever line about how this alien landscape looks like Death Valley, Jerome Cowan is enjoyably snarly as the Stooges' mean boss, and there are a few decent bits of slapstick. Even for a short movie, though, that's not much.

28 Days Later
* * * (out of four)

I'd seen this last summer, though not with the alternate ending (which I sort of expected would be like the regular one, except with firebombing). It's a pretty strong post-apocalyptic movie, though from a science-fictional standpoint, it would seem that the "rage" virus should be easily contained. You're allowed one big lie per movie, though, and director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland make the rest of the movie believable enough that an audience can suspend disbelief - there's not something ridiculous happening every moment.

Most of this is because the ensemble is believable. All too often, post-apocalyptic movies rely on the idea that there was somebody who was somehow ready for the event, some sort of survivalist gun nut. None of the characters in 28 Days Later fit that description; they're practical people who caught a break and fell in together. They've had to make compromises that they never dreamed of before, trading in a bit of their soul for survival. Naomie Harris's Selena feels survival is all she can hope for until she meets Frank and his daughter Hannah; Christopher Eccleston's Major West instinctively understands the need for humanity to aspire to more, although his willingness to do harm to achieve it is chilling.

The central character, Jim, is portrayed by Cillian Murphy, and in a weird way, the movie is his coming-of-age story. Unlike the others, he doesn't see the world go to hell in a period of days; we first see him naked, on a hospital bed. In a literal sense, he's emerging for a coma, but in a way he's also being born, emerging into a confusing new world, all but helpless until he's taken in. As the movie goes on, he will lose his innocence (by killing one of the infected) and become a man by standing up for what's right.

I'm not a fan of the grainy digital video this movie was shot with. Could the movie have been made using film, with its lighting demands and longer set-up time? Likley not as affordably, which often means not at all. But it's often difficult to love a movie you can't see clearly, and between the grain, the dark lighting, and quick cutting, it's often difficult to grasp the details during the action sequences (although the storytelling is good enough that you can tell what is happening).

Also, this is probably the most screwed-up framing-wise at the marathon; a good chunk of the picture at the bottom was matted out, and you could tell where digital effects were used because those scenes were hard-matted to a more extreme extent. This also meant a bunch of heads got cut off, and a scrawled bit of grafitti that got a good laugh the first time I saw it ("The End Is Pretty F***ing Nigh") got little reaction from the crowd at the Marathon with the first half cut off.

Robot Stories
* * * ¼ (out of four)

Writer/director/co-star Greg Pak must like it up here in Boston - he came up in October to show Robot Stories at the Boston Fantastic Film Festival, again in January to present it at the Arisia convention, took the train up from Manhattan so that he could conduct an 11pm Q&A after the showing at SF/29, and will be returning this weekend (27-28 February 2004) for the movie's premiere at the Brattle Theater.

Happily, his enthusiasm is matched by most of those who see the movie. Robot Stories is four vignettes superficially about man's relationship with machines, but also with each other. The stories tackle bigger science-fictional ideas as they go on, but are always rooted in human relationships.

The first, "My Robot Baby", features Tamlyn Tomita as a young executive who, with her husband, is about to adopt a baby. First, though, they must care for a robot simulation, which rapidly becomes more than she was expecting. It's a simple enough story, recycled ad nauseum on sitcoms as teenagers must keep an egg from being hurt as part of a health class project, but the character's uncertainty about her readiness for parenthood makes it work, and the baby robot, though clearly done on a budget, manages to display a surprising amount of character by the end.

"The Robot Fixer" is also well-done, though its sci-fi content is non-existent. Wai Ching Ho plays Bernice, the mother of a man in a coma from which he will probably never awaken. She never really understood him, and still doesn't, but when her daughter finds his collection of toy robots while they clean his apartment, she decides to complete the collection, in hope that something he considered important will bring them closer together and, maybe, entice him to wake up. Bernice is an interesting character, and Wai Ching Ho plays her well (with a fine but easily overlooked supporting performance by Cindy Cheung as the daughter), but while this segment may be the strongest as a conventional drama, it feels somewhat weak in comparison to me. It just doesn't have the nifty idea that the others do.

Pak himself stars in "Machine Love", a lighter piece that examines an interesting situation - as we make machines more sophisticated, we will likely give them more ability to learn and interact, both to make them more useful machines and to show that we can create an artificial intelligence. That's not always wanted, though (remember "Microsoft Bob"?), and it's likely that even as machines become more human, we will continue to treat them like machines. Here, Pak plays an android programmed to be social whose operators look at him as nothing more than a tool; the irony being that only another machine will understand his all-too-human needs.

"Clay" takes it a step further, positing a future where human beings' minds are "scanned" and uploaded into servers as they near death. Sab Shimono plays John, a sculptor whose wife Helen has already passed on but who regularly visits him. He now finds that he's dying, but refuses to be scanned, fearing he'll lose the ability to create as a mind stored in a machine. The movie is fair enough to present John's obstinacy as perhaps a little old-fashioned and hurtful to his loved ones, but Eisa Davis's portrayal of Helen subtly asks whether John may have a point - she's warm, friendly, and not mechanical at all, but also rather distant. Her appearance is young even though John is an old man. As much as she still cares about her husband and son, she's become something different.

It's worth noting that Robot Stories is not just four short films pasted together; a couple characters from other segments appear in "Machine Love", there's a progression from birth to death in the stories, and the animation and music to the opening credits are nifty, as well. It's a solid collection, worth checking out (its web site has a list of playdates).

* * ¾ when I first saw it; skipped it at the Marathon

Don't get me wrong; Demonlover is a good movie in many ways. Looked at as a commentary on how entertainment (and life in general) is becoming cruder while the people who deliver it are almost entirely devoid of passion. The corporate manouverings are somewhat interesting, the contrast between the sex these people both sell and engage in and their solitude is curious, and the escalating depravities people are shown as willing to pay for as entertainment is shocking.


I saw this and enjoyed the discussion of it last October (I think) in the Brattle's Eye-Opener series, but knowing what was coming, I really had no interest in seeing it again. So, I used this two hours to use the bathroom, have a hot dog, and socialize with some of the folks who also had either seen it and saw no need to do so again, weren't interested, or had brought kids who were bound and determined to stay awake all the way through the 'thon. I would come to resent how wide awake I was at this period later, when I was dozing off during films that looked more enjoyable.

* * ½ (out of four)

Incubus is mostly a curiosity due to its being one of few features shot completely in the synthetic language Esperanto (if not the only one), the supposed curse attached to it, and its casting of a young, pre-Star Trek William Shatner as the hero. That's unfortunate, because this arty horror movie deserves to be remembered as something more.

Not much more - it's still basically a horror movie about demons who use sex to tempt and then kill their victims, but it's lushly photographed in black and white by future Oscar-winner Conrad Hall, and the director places the story oddly outside of time, giving it a spooky storybook/ghost story feeling. And while Shatner is distinctly Shatner, that's part of why it's easy to see how he became a star. He's bigger than this small film, watchable for more than his actual acting. Co-star Allyson Ames, as the succubus who decides she is tired of corrupt men as victims and sets out to seduce Shatner's good soldier (but eventually falls for him) is pretty, and doesn't quite choke on the ridiculous things she has to say (it probably helps that she was performing in a foreign language).

Still, all the great photography and high-minded use of a "universal" language never quite hides that this is a B-movie in the Hammer vein. It's deadly serious about its absurd situations, and while that respect for its material is engaging, it barely gets a chance to kick back and enjoy the fun aspects of being a horror movie. The scene toward the end when the Incubus (originally raised from the ground to torment Shatner's sister, but later sent after Kia) transforms into a goat and attacks Kia comes out of nowhere, almost like it belongs in some other black-and-white Esperanto horror film.

"Krazy's Race Of Time"
* * * ½ (out of four)

Ah, the joys of a ca. 1937 cartoon predicting what life would be like in the far-off year of 1999. The predictions are wonderfully absurd, from dogs with helicopter blades strapped to their backs to hugely complex highway systems where traffic never stops or even slows down. Animation has a fantastic ability to to capture surrealism in ways that live action struggles with, even with today's modern effects.

"Race Of Time" has the clean, rounded style that was popular in its time (compare it to Bosko, Betty Boop, or even Felix The Cat) but which has mostly disappeared from American animation today, though you still see echoes of it from Japan (Osamu Tezuka's Metropolis) and France (The Triplets of Belleville). It strings a few good gags together as part of a quick tour of its world of the future, though nothing too outrageous. It's an enjoyable few minutes, especially if you enjoy that style.

The Amazing Transparent Man
* ¾ (out of four)

It's here that I started to have serious trouble staying awake (hey, it was around 3:30am when this movie started). I wasn't alone; there was remarkably little comment when the film (frequently) stopped. I'm surprised it ran at all, as I believe the print came from a private collector and I overheard a few comments from the projectionists and 'thon organizers that it was in pretty bad shape, to the point where they were almost afraid to thread it. An old print like that, I'd be afraid of whether feeding it through two interlinked projectors would be enough to melt it.

The movie itself... well, it didn't keep my attention, as I mentioned. It's somewhat interesting to see how director Edgar G. Ulmer basically treats the movie as a sci-fi noir, from the opening chase scene to the grim finale. The main character is a hood; his love interest reminded me of Ava Gardner in High Sierra. The plot is some nonsense about how a rogue army officer needs this thief to steal materials so he can create an invisible army, and he'll accomplish that by turning the thief invisible! Um... Okay.

It's just not a good movie; overacted with bad special effects and a ridiculous story. Fortunately, it's short.

Mutiny In Outer Space
* * ½ (out of four)

Compared to a lot of the 50s/60s movies which play the marathon, this one actually had some charm to me. Sure, much of the movie is built of clichés, from the commanding officer who goes "space crazy" to stopping the advance of the marauding life form by freezing it using fire extinguishers, but there's a professionalism to it that I liked. The military characters are human, neither strident nor infallible. They work closely with the civilian characters, and both groups include prominent, competent women (not yet in positions of authority, but still able, and good for something other than screaming and being rescued). When the fungus-infested space station is threatening to fall to Earth, there's some actual tension. Even the cheap-looking effects are well-used; the director seems to have looked at his limited resources and thought not about how he could hide his limitations, but how he could do the best with what was available. So even if things don't ever look real, they still look good.

Perhaps it's not the best compliment that one can pay to a movie like this, but if you dusted off the script, you could probably make a decent version of it today without changing too much. It holds up, for the most part.

Godzilla vs. Megaguirus
* * ¾ (out of four)

I'll have to pick up the DVD for this one. Overall, I found it enjoyable, when I was awake. There's an unfortunate long segment in the middle where Godzilla doesn't stomp any cities to rubble which causes the movie to drag somewhat, although when the movie gets down to business and gets with the giant monster smackdown, it's a bunch of fun. This movie knows what the joy of Godzilla movies are - throwing up a monster that's even more dangerous than he is, so that you can root for the big green guy even as he's trying to destroy half of Japan, which makes him a formidable foe for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to take down, even though they've got a weapon which creates and artificial black hole.

Again, what I saw, I enjoyed, though not quite as much as the next year's Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monster All-Out Attack! (where Godzilla was just badass, kicking monster butt while the filmmaker took sadistic glee in showing how the buildings being destroyed were inhabited). Requires further review.

Alien: The Director's Cut
* * * ½ (out of four)

Another one where I was getting too much sleep. But, hey, it's Alien, the original and still best of the series.

Space Patrol: Back To The Future
* * * (out of four), with reservations

As in, I think this was probably a three-star TV series. Filmed in black-and-white, it appeared on German television at about the same time Star Trek started on NBC. It only lasted about seven episodes, which were edited into this ninety-minute movie with some new sequences added in the form of newscasts which help glue the movie together.

In some ways, it was apparently ahead of Star Trek, with women in command positions and what looks like the type of strong continuity today's SF fans expect. In other ways, though, it's hilariously dated; the marathon audience got a huge kick out of the absolutely goofy dancing that went on in the show's "Space Casino" scenes. The shot of the spaceship landing is also obviously the shot of the spaceship taking off in reverse.

Unfortunately, the producers did a less-than-stellar job editing it into a feature. The story moves too fast, with some big events taking place offscreen and sort of presented to the audience as part of the newscasts, while precious screen time is spent on running jokes that probably aren't even funny if you speak German. It's too bad, because the source material does appear to have style; I'd like to see it released on a region 1 DVD sometime.

And that's my report on SF/29. Hopefully, SF/30 will be held somewhere in Boston proper (and I'll be able to rope my brother Matt into going, if only so that we can keep each other awake).

Sunday, February 22, 2004

The Lion King 1½

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 February 2004 in Jay's Living Room (video premiere)

Don't tell anybody, but I'm not a particularly big fan of The Lion King. It's a good movie, but compared to the Disney animated features which came before it - Aladdin, Beauty And The Beast, The Little Mermaid - it's a little too conservative. Where previous Disney features were about people making and finding places for themselves, even if it wasn't conventional, The Lion King was about a king reclaiming his birthright. Meanwhile, the movie seemed more self-consciously formulaic, with the love song here and the funny sidekick with the anachronistic comments here and the big fight scene here...

So I was kind of surprised by how much I enjoyed The Lion King 1½. Certainly, the production values are somewhat lesser, but by making Timon (and, to a lesser extent, Pumbaa) the protagonist, the story is squarely back in "rooting for the underdog" territory. It's also an unabashed comedy; as the DVD's liner notes put it, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to The Lion King's Hamlet.

The notion that supporting characters have a life outside where you see them in a story is a fun one, and when it's characters like Timon and Pumbaa who don't show up until halfway through the original, already fully-formed, looking at how they got there is a treat. Their occasional encounters with the main film are generally pretty funny, and the notion that there are these multiple stories going on at once, with Timon and Simba both being the main character of their respective tales, is a rather sophisticated one for a kids' movie.

Which, make no mistake, is what The Lion King 1½ is. It's a good kids' movie, never willfully stupid, with a few jokes pitched at an older audience, but for the most part enjoyable for all ages. It is, however, designed for those with a short attention span - aside from the ~75 minute runtime, it frequently cuts to Timon and Pumbaa watching the movie to recap or just give a change of pace. Good for the five-year-olds this movie is probably aimed at; somewhat annoying for us grown-ups. All things considered, though, it's an entertaining animated comedy.

Monday, February 09, 2004

Dark Passage

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 January 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Bogie & Bacall weekend)

Of the four Bogie and Bacall pairings, this one is the weakest. The plot is utterly nonsensical, and the two are hardly ever on screen at the same time; indeed, Bogart doesn't even show up on screen until halfway through the movie. Compared to the likes of The Big Sleep or Key Largo, it's not in the same ballpark.

And yet, there are things about it that are worth watching. Location shooting wasn't nearly as common 50+ years ago as it is today, and seeing a film noir played out in real locations, as opposed to obvious sets, is enjoyable. Indeed, though Delmer Daves's adaptation of the David Goodis novel is, quite frankly, crap, his direction makes up for a lot. The opening hour uses a lot of odd angles and first-person perspective to avoid showing Bogart's face before his character has plastic surgery, and while this technique wears out its welcome, it does force Daves to concentrate on where he puts and moves his camera, with the end result being an escape sequence that is fairly tense - the camera swings around to show the character's panic, you only know what he sees, and there always seems to be something dangerous just out of sight.

A real shame about the script, though. As much as the cast gives their all in every performance, nothing anybody does in this movie makes sense, and that's even accepting the number of coincidences. And that's a killer; if the two leads were on screen together more, that might be overcome, but it's not the case.

An Amazing Couple (Un couple épatant)

* * ¼ (out of four)

Seen 8 February 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

Though was is the first part of Lucas Belvaux's "Trilogy" to be released in France, it is being released second in the US. Not that that matters much; apparently all three take place (and were filmed) simultaneously, with the lead characters in one being supporting characters in the other two (On The Run and After The Life), and all three belonging to different genres. It's an interesting experiment, though if An Amazing Couple is representative, not necessarily a successful one.

An Amazing Couple is meant to be a romantic comedy, but it is seldom romantic and only fitfully funny. Much of that comedy is very French, as likely to make American's scratch their heads as laugh ("okay, there'd normally be a joke there, and that guy was doing something odd, but I just don't get it"). The more serious subplots from the other movies pop up unresolved here, making the movie feel both incomplete and overstuffed without the rest of the context. And then there are other subplots which are likely unique to this movie, like the main characters' daughter breaking up with her boyfriend, that don't seem to go anywhere.

The big problem, though, is the pacing. A good screwball comedy often starts out with a simple misunderstanding that gets compounded, escalating to things getting thoroughly out of hand. Here, though, things seem to get thoroughly out of hand in the first half hour, but keep escalating, which means that by the time the movie reaches its third act, everything is so outlandish that the main characters come off as stupid (the husband) and shrill/bitchy (the wife), and I just didn't care any more. Also, the character used to push things forward (a police detective played by Gilbert Melki who seems to be the closest thing the Trilogy has to a central character) is practically malevolent, adding a little too much darkness to the proceedings.

Which is too bad, because the title couple, though not actually amazing, has potential. It's nice and a little unconventional to see a romantic comedy about a married couple in middle age. François Morel and Ornella Muti are a likeable scruffy guy/glamorous woman pair, and the scene after they finally tell each other what is going on felt good, like they're a pair that's worth keeping together. There is some good comedy to be found, and maybe this movie could have been made to work better if it were on its own, just a romantic comedy and not part of some grand experiment.

The Haunted Cop Shop II (Meng gui xue tang)

* * * (out of four)

Seen 7 February 2004 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Midnight Kung Fu Madness)

It's good to know that respected filmmakers like Wong Kar-Wai have things as outright silly as the Haunted Cop Shop movies in their past. What can filmmakers who have never had a jet of blood erupt from somebody's chest or made a fart joke really know about connecting with an audience at a visceral level?

Looking at this movie, could you necessarily tell that its screenwriter would become an indie darling? Doubtful. To play the "x meets y" game, this movie is "Police Academy meets Evil Dead 2 in Hong Kong!" In the aftermath of the first Haunted Cop Shop, a group of government officials meets to discuss how to handle the vampire situation - only to be caught in the police station with three of them, requiring them to call in the characters from the first movie (Jacky Cheung as Kam Mark-K and Ricky Hui as Man-Chill). After these vampires are dispatched (including one who gets the giggles and stops attacking when her breasts are touched), the decision is made to start a special "Ghostbuster" squad to deal with vampires. So, we're introduced to a bunch of misfit cops who will wind up transferred to this group - the girl with bad luck, the squeamish guy, the vain guy, the one who's really a Buddhist priestess at heart... What they don't know is that the military base where they're to train has a vampire infestation of its own.

In contrast to Wong Kar-Wai's reputation, this movie is frenetic. It starts out zany, quickly procedes to absurd, and blows well past "what-the-hell?" by the end. At times, it feels like a collection of barely connected skits (a goofy, but oddly entertaining, segment involving getting a chicken to lay eggs basically comes out of nowhere). Despite opening and closing with action segments, there's not a lot of vampire/werewolf/zombie action, and basically no time is spent getting to know the characters. Heck, the movie is so zippy and silly that when characters are getting offed in the final sequence, that natural expectation for an American moviegoer is for them to walk out of the rubble like Danny Aiello in Hudson Hawk. Instead, the movie just stops with a wacky group freeze-frame two seconds after the last vampire has been dispatched. Kind of disconcerting.

Still, it's a fun movie. There is so much energy poured into it (really, about twenty times as much energy as budget, as the non-existent monster effects will tell you) that it's almost like watching a movie on fast-forward, with the slow parts compressed to the absolute minimum time required and any exposition of what happened in the previous movie omitted. (I have a theory that Hong Kong sequels are designed to be watched immediately after the original movie)

The Company

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2004 at Coolidge Corner #2 (first-run)

The Company is something of an odd film. It has a star in Neve Campbell, and an outline for a plot, but abjectly refuses to be a conventional narrative. In a more conventional movie, the scene early on where the Joffrey Ballet's lead dancer confesses she may not be able to handle her workload any more would lead to a competition among dancer to fill the slot, and Loretta Ryan (Campbell) might find herself having to choose between the company and her romance with a local sous-chef (James Franco). The melodrama might be heightened by another lover in the person of one of the company's male dancers, or family pressure, or trying to balance her commitment to the company with a job to pay the rent. There would be rivalries and mentors and a triumphant final scene in which "Ry" proves herself worthy of the position.

And while most of that happens, director Robert Altman refuses to make The Company a melodrama. What goes on behind the scenes in this environment is interesting enough, he apparently feels, without changing it to fit the story arc an audience expects to see. Performance footage is also intercut, and only about half the time is it really part of the story. The rest of the time, it is either used to demonstrate what these characters are working toward, or just to break up a group of similar scenes. It's also worth seeing in its own right; as beautiful as ballet is, it's not something that is really part of mainstream culture in the United States. While some of the early interludes may come off as sort of artsy-fartsy and weird, others are more traditional, and seeing the dancers during practice and their off-hours as relatively normal young people gives new appreciation to just how physically demanding this art form is.

Indeed, one of the most memorable scenes is one where a dancer lands just wrong, and a sickening snapping sound comes from her ankle. The only thing I can compare it to is watching someone being seriously injured during a baseball game, where there's just enough background noise (in this case, music) for the sound to be clearly audible, and for the rest of the environment to go silent afterward.

The performances are, in general, good, though that's sort of beside the point. Of the three billed performers, Malcolm McDowell is the only one really called upon to emote as the company's artistic director, and though he creates a larger-than-life character, he never goes overboard. James Franco is pleasant and likable as The Boyfriend, and Neve Campbell is eminently believable as Ry, even doing all her own dancing. Much of the rest of the cast is the actual members of Chicago's Joffrey Ballet Company, and none of them are stiff on camera. Indeed, Campbell seems to fit right in, adding to the film's authenticity.

Though The Company is a fictional, narrative film, it bears a closer resemblence to a performance piece or a documentary. If you feel character and story must be paramount in a narrative movie, this will be disappointing. However, the sheer beauty of the performance segments is worthwhile, and I found the fly-on-the-wall aspect of the rest quite fascinating. It's a chance to learn something new, just by watching people go about their work, without the feeling that someone is trying to teach you something specific that often goes with a documentary.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

Cold Mountain

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 February 2004 at AMC Fenway #5 (first-run)

Unlike with his previous two films (The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley), Anthony Minghella doesn't quite display his penchant for making two and a half hours feel like seven here. It feels like four, tops. As with another drawn-out movie this awards season (Return Of The King), Cold Mountain features some very impressive sequences and looks impeccable. It intersperses them with immense aggravation, though.

What I did like was the idea of how war, especially one as as filled with anger as the American Civil War, brings out the worst in people. I had never heard of the Confederate Home Guard, although they make sense, and I'm sure would-be dictators were givin similar free reign in the North. They are vicious in how they hunt down deserters, or runaway slaves, or escaped prisoners, and use those duties as an excuse to keep control of their communities. Ray Winstone, best known in the US for his doughy, washed-up ex-thief in Sexy Beast, is a commanding presense here as Teague, the feared head of the Home Guard for the town of Cold Mountain, who seems to be acting less through patriotism and more to regain what was his before his family fell on somewhat hard times before the war.

Jude Law's Inman goes on a sort of odyssey; though it's even less direct a transposition of Homer's Odyssey to the south than O Brother, Where Art Thou?, he's a great warrior journeying back to his lady, unaware that in the time he's been away, his town has been taken over and his love terrorized. He engages in various adventures on the way, meating a hypocritical minister played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a young widow played by Natalie Portman, and others. Almost all are either perpetrators or victims of barbarities that demonstrate that what is happening on the homefront is as horrific as the violence he's fleeing at the front lines.

And then there's his lady love, the beautiful and well-schooled preacher's daughter, Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) with little practical knowledge. I can spend a great deal of time looking at Nicole Kidman, and her accent's not bad when she's not using overly flowery language... But that's part of the problem. She's too beautiful. Despite the hard times she falls upon, there's never a line on her face, a bag under her eyes, the slightest bit of yellow to her teeth, etc. She wakes up in the morning looking radiant. When her hair is "wild" or "disheveled", it's disheveled in pretty ringlets that fall just so across her face. (Natalie Portman gets similar treatment in her segment; in both cases, we're treated to several shots of their hands to show their dirty fingernails) When she and her friend Ruby go on the run from Teague toward the end of the movie, her long black coat and blue pants are eminently practical and obviously the work of a talented costume designer.

As to Ruby... Well, at least Renée Zellweger's squinty, just-got-punched-in-the-stomach appearance actually fits this character. How she got nominated for an Oscar is beyond me, though, since she's a shrill, obnoxious scenery-chewer. It's not all bad - she's meant to be brusque and annoying in contrast to Ada - but it just doesn't fit in with the rest of the performances.

Cold Mountain isn't a bad movie; it just goes on too long and for a story about war's ugliness, it is often far to pretty to be taken seriously.

High Sierra

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 3 February 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Humphrey Bogart: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of)

Cynicism goes with the territory in film noir, and there's plenty of it from Bogart's anti-hero, Roy "Mad Dog" Earle. What's somewhat surprising - and what makes High Sierra so interesting, and probably was a big part of what catapulted Bogart to stardom after this movie - is that there's a certain wistfulness to it. Earle is not a malicious man, though he will use violence against those that get in his way, and though it's never spelled out, an early scene where he visits his family's old far suggests that he sort of backed into a life of crime. His family likely lost the farm in the Depression, driving him into the city. When he meets a family of similarly dispossessed people on the road, he's compelled to help them, and takes a shine to the daughter, perhaps seeing it as a way to reconnect with the life he really wants.

Alas, it's not to be, but he does meet Marie Garson (Ida Lupino, who gets top billing), a more pragmatic girl who is clearly more intelligent than Earle's partners, who picked her up in a dance hall. He also picks up a scruffy dog, "Pard", though the dog's previous master (Willie Best in an annoying Steppin Fetchit role) warns Earle that he's bad luck. This, of course, is before the heist and everything related to it goes wrong, leading to the chase and final sequence that gives the film its name.

Many films noir and their descendants are relentlessly dark, or cynical, but what makes High Sierra so much better than most of them is that there is the potential for redemption and decency underneath. It's the dashing of that hope that makes this movie a tragedy as opposed to just another crime story.

The Desperate Hours

* * * ¼ (our of four)
Seen 3 February 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Humphrey Bogart: The Stuff THat Dreams Are Made Of)

This is a quality siege movie. It offers an enclosed location, a trio of murderous escaped cons, and an average suburban family for them to terrorize. Humphrey Bogart is at his intense, grimy best as the alpha villain and Fredric March is nearly his equal as the frightened but resourceful father, and they are ably supported by the rest of the cast, especially Martha Scott as the mother and Dewey Martin as Bogart's younger, less vicious brother.

You can spot that this film is the direct descendant of a stage play (it was also a novel; Joseph Hayes is credited with writing all three versions); most of the action takes place in one space, containing the living room, kitchen, a staircase and a hallway overlooking the rest. Indeed, where the film starts to run into trouble is when it leaves that area; as soon as Glenn Griffin (Bogart) allows Dan Hilliard (March) or his daughter out of his sight, having them not call the police or tell someone about the hostage situation starts to seem like an idiot plot, padding the movie's running time out. It's a small negative, though, as director William Wyler keeps the tension cranked high enough to make this acceptable, because the hostages are all believably afraid for their lives and the lives of their family. The action scenes are well-mounted; indeed, they're some of the best and most suspenseful I've seen from this period.

One thing the movie adds that a stage play can't is the exterior shots. It's unnerving to think that this can be going on in a familiar, safe-looking neighborhood, with kids playing in the street and everyone completely unaware of what sort of drama is unfolding inside this house. There's a real potency to the scenes where the characters in the middle of a tense standoff must interact with those just going about their lives in the outside world, which is something instantly relatable; even if we've never been held at gunpoint, we've all been in trivial situations and wanted to scream about something much more important instead. And that's what elevates The Desperate Hours above most siege movies; we may not be able to relate to the heroics, but we can relate to the fear that something will get out and ruin everything.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Tom Dowd & The Language Of Music

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener, projected video)

I wonder if my brother Dan, or his musician friends, would get more out of this documentary than I did. Clearly, Dowd's resumé is impressive - he was the primary recording engineer/producer at Atlantic Records for something like thirty years, and his career spans the great leaps forward in recording technology, from the early days when a band would be huddled around one microphone to record directly to vinyl all the way to today's digital techniques. There is clear admiration and respect in the way interview subjects like Eric Clapton and members of the Allman Brothers Band talk about him, and unvarnished affection when he surprises Ray Charles with a visit. Maybe Dan and his friends would see more nuances in what the film has to say about music production than I would, and perhaps they would find a sequence toward the end where Dowd plays with the original multitrack recordings of "Layla" fascinating rather than tedious. There may be hidden nuances that I can't recognize.

One of the main issues, I think, is that Dowd (who died in 2002) is so involved. He's a pleasant, likable guy, and his tours of the parts of New York City where he grew up and learned his craft are interesting, but the way the film is constructed is so deliberatelly a flattering portrait that it was impossible to miss things being left out - there's nothing about his personal life, or what went on at Atlantic Records outside his recording studio, or anything negative about him at all. Time is spent on how, as a teenager and young man, he was recruited and was part of the Manhattan Project, but it is presented jarringly out of chronological order, and the film not only seems to dance around why he chose to work in music production rather than finishing his degree at Colombia, but never quite seems to make the connection about how he was uniquely qualified to innovate, with his combined musical and technical backgrounds.

Indeed, the film all too often seems content to leave the Dowd's thought process mysterious, just showing him as a likable old raconteur, despite the evidence that he's a very smart guy. There's a lot of focus on how great what Dowd did was, but little on how he did it, or what his thought processes were. He discusses how Atlantic was ahead of the game because they'd been recording in stereo well in advance of stereo sound being a consumer product, or how Atlantic bought the second eight-track recording machine produced, but not how those decisions to use expensive new technology without immediate application were made.

The movie's not entirely frustrating - the Tom Dowd in this movie is charismatic, and there are interesting facts learned and stories told about the music business from the forties to the seventies (albeit with gaps). It's a talking-head documentary, but director Mark Moorman shoots it well enough for it to feel dynamic, and it will be right at home on PBS or Discovery or wherever it eventually lands. I just can't help but notice how superficial it seemed at times.

A Life Of Ninja (Miu meng yan che)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 January 2004 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Midnight Kung Fu Madness)

Ninjas are fun. They're like the Freemasons, so wrapped in secrecy - and, indeed, defined by that secrecy - that someone making a movie can define them as being anything they want. Here, ninjas (or, as the subtitles would have it, "Nin Zaz") used to be several secret tribes of assassins, but through attrition and infighting, only one group remains. Now, these deadly Japanese killers are appearing in 1983 Hong Kong, targeting an unpleasant businessman.

The history lesson and glimpse at a ninja's training in the opening is hilarious. About two minutes in, a pair of female ninjas-in-training are placed in a pool of mud to spar, prompting a cry from the audience that this movie was the best thing ever. After that "promising" beginning, which also includes the female lead being introduced swordfighting in leather pants and a call girl being stabbed in the shower (by an icicle, so that the murder weapon would just melt), the exploitation quotient drops, but the martial arts content increases to compensate.

As is usual with these kung fu films, the story is just a loose structure on which to hang the martial arts sequences. Those are, fortunately, worth watching. The fighters are for the most part athletic (though one who is a solid mass of muscle moves pretty slowly). The final battle between a kendo teacher consulted by the police on several ninja-related deaths whose parents and mentor were killed by ninjas and the ninja master who killed his mentor and has been the unseen hand behind the killings (though, of course, on someone else's payroll) is suitably drawn-out to the point where it's almost exhausting to watch, but also has points where the absurdity of the ninjas hyper-ability is brought to bear - of course there are secret passages and hollow statues in this combination throne room/training area!

The characters are pretty far from complex, and aren't terribly well-acted - not that the hilariously bad subtitling does the cast any favors - but they are at least played broadly enough to be distinct from each other. Combine that with some amateurish-looking editing to make the ninjas look superhumanly fast, and the movie gains a certain amount of camp appeal.