Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Dawn Of The Dead (2004)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2004, AMC Fenway #7 (first-run)

I haven't seen the original 1978 Dawn of the Dead, so I can't comment on whether or not it loses some sort of satirical edge that the first movie is said to possess. It would almost have to, though - the new Dawn of the Dead is a video game. It's a video game that inexplicably has Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames in the cast, so the cut scenes aren't bad at all, but it doesn't have the depth of last year's 28 Days Later.

Director Zack Snyder is pretty polished for someone working on his first feature. He's got a knack for shooting a decent action scene, and for a guy I presume must have gotten his start in music videos, he isn't cut-happy. He's not quite in the John McTiernan/Sam Raimi league of action directors, but his direction is generally clear. I also like his tendency to pull a bit further back in his exteriors than many directors, especially when doing vehicular action. This does reinforce the video game look of the movie a little, but it also makes the scope feel a little bigger.

He and screenwriter James Gunn do make the movie a little jokey at times; there are a couple montage scenes that lighten the mood when it starts to get grim, but a movie about the end of the world should be grim. There's moments where the movie becomes more than a shoot-em-up, but there doesn't seem to be enough.

A good chunk of that comes from the actors; Sarah Polley is not doing much more than collecting a paycheck as a nurse, but Ving Rhames is excellent as a no-nonsense cop. Jake Weber and Mekhi Phifer are fairly strong, as well, as other survivors. Matt Frewer pops up for a surprisingly decent small role, and the rest are adequate.

The action is bloody enough to elicit some "yuck"s, but the movie is seldom intense enough to make people who bought tickets for a movie called Dawn of the Dead queasey. Indeed, just about every death elicited a laugh from somewhere in the theater where I saw it. Does it make me old to find that creepier than a lot of what went on in the movie?

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2004, at AMC Fenway #12 (first-run)

There were a few columns in Asmiov's over the past year about "slipstream", a kind of space in between science fiction and mainstream literature. Like most attempts to define what science fiction is, it's an elusive term. It basically implies that a story isn't "fantasy" or "magic realism"; that despite the unusual events and devices, everything is possible, and takes place in our world. But, it also implies that the mechanisms aren't terribly important, that what's important is the characters.

The folks at Analog, a sister publication of Asimov's, might point out that this is a load of rubbish; in an editorial, that magazine's editor basically said that mainstream writers and critics set those priorities because that's all their medium has. Good characterization is not anathema to good science fiction, but what makes science fiction unique and exciting is its ideas, and that unless you've got a firm handle on your ideas, you can't really get characterization right, because the characters won't live in a cohesive world.

Enternal Sunlight of the Spotless Mind falls squarely into the slipstream category. It uses science-fictional constructs to get into the head of Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), but once given a little thought, those constructs seem kind of shaky. If Lacuna, Inc., is so effective in erasing memories of a lost love, to the point where its clients don't remember visiting, how do they get paid? How do they develop any kind of reputation - their referrals must come from people who opted not to use the service. How do they exist as anything but a plot device?

Well, they can't. For the purposes of this movie, that's good enough. It gets the audience inside Joel's head, where he serves as a guide (for both the audience and the technicians) through the relationship with his girlfriend of about two years, Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet). At first he is happy to see them erased; the most recent memories are harsh and angry, and he feels justified, since she has already had him cut out of her brain. Soon, though, the associated memories will reach happier times, and Joel is in his semi-conscious state able to hear the technicians (Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, and Kirsten Dunst) talking, which gives him reason to reconsider.

This is a tricky script by Charlie Kaufman, not so much because it requires director Michel Gondry to visualize a mental landscape and how it might be torn down, but because several characters must play dual roles of a sort. As Joel observes his memories being erased, he talks to the scientist who invented the process (Tom Wilkinson) and Clementine. But he doesn't, really - he's talking to himself, of course. Perhaps the film's biggest weakness is that we don't get a terribly clear handle on Clementine oustide of Joel's mind. There's not that great a difference between how Joel sees her and how she really is.

That's not really the movie's point, though - Kaufman offers up a grim determinism; it becomes clear early on that giving the same starting conditions, people will make the same mistakes (or, to be less judgmental, take the same actions). I'm not so certain that makes sense; it seems to me that even if one's memories of a relationship are erased, the effects that it (and everything else that happened at the time) had on your personality should linger.

That's a science-fictional read, though, and while Kaufman does use the science to force the issue, the point is that you can't run from your past, that even if you could excise the memory, you're never going to get it right until you face your issues. What makes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind an above-average movie is that it delivers that potentially trite sermon in an imaginitive, intriguing way.

Sunday, March 28, 2004


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 March 2004 at Loews Harvard Square #5 (first-run)

So, if we're going to blame George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for every bad or mediocre special-effects fueled blockbuster since Jaws and Star Wars, who do you blame for the likes of Intermission? Quentin Tarantino? Danny Boyle? Or we can just lay it at the feet of this movie's writer and director, Mark O'Rowe and John Crowley (respectively). After all, they're the ones who opted to make yet another chatty crime/comedy movie set in Dublin.

It's pleasant enough. Somewhat scattershot, with a dozen or so characters interacting in ways that are both likely and perhaps overly coincidental. John (Cillian Murphy) and Oscar (David Wilmot) are twenty-something slackers working in a supermarket, Dierdre (Kelly MacDonald) is John's ex-girlfriend, Sam (Michael McElhatton) is her new lover, Noeleen (Dierdre O'Kane) is the wife he left, and Karen and Sally (Barbara Bergin and Shirley Henderson) are Dierdre's mother and sister. There's also Lehiff (Colin Farrell), a local punk, and Detective Jerry Lynch (Colm Meaney), a perhaps overzealous police officer with a particular distaste for Lehiff. There's also a bus driver, a TV news reporter tired of doing human-interest puff pieces, and a rather nasty little kid.

One thing I did enjoy about Intermission is that, although its characters and setting are Irish and middle-class at best, it's rather un-whiny. Though a good chunk of the movie takes place in bars, the movie does not portray Eire as a war-torn island mired in poverty and populated mainly by wife-beating alcoholics and saintly women. The characters are flawed, but seldom despairing, and often on the funny side.

Be nice if it were a little funnier, though. The comedy doesn't ever elicit any really big laughs, and most of the stories are small enough to not offer a whole lot of dramatic heft. Perhaps the best scene in the movie, though, is where one character describes how much she cherishes her simple, small life story. It's a brief moment without flippancy that demonstrates the worth of these middle-class stories without trying to show how clever the filmmakers are.

The performances are generally good. The cast is split about evenly between folks Americans might recognize and folks pretty much local to Ireland. Oddly (or not so oddly), the guy whose had the most Hollywood success - Colin Farrell - gives perhaps the flattest performance, while one of the least well-known - Wilmot - is probablly the most likable. For the most part, these characters are folks with a quirk or two, though thankfully half the women get to be just as off-kilter as the guys, which isn't always the case.

If you see a lot of indies, you've probably seen a lot like Intermission. It's decent, has an enviable cast, and even if it doesn't break a whole lot of new ground, it does find a couple new things to do in familiar territory.

Snake Deadly Act (She xing zui bu)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 March 2004 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Midnight Ass-Kickings)

Punching and kicking. That's what you go to these movies for, and Snake Deadly Act recognizes this. It opens on two unnamed (but color-coded) men fighting, and this segment lasts long enough for the audience to feel hurt. And even for a genre that doesn't waste much time tying up loose ends after the last set piece, Snake Deadly Act actually freeze-frames and pops up "The End" during the final (presumably killing) blow during the final fight.

Between them, though, there are points when people aren't punching and kicking each other, or when the martial arts isn't quite as crisp. And this Shaw Brothers film hits a lot of standard notes. After the initial fight, we flash forward about twenty years. You've got your rich kid (the son of Kuo, the victor in that first fight) who knows some kung fu but not as much as some of the men and women he opts to take on out of a sense of justice. Then you've got the master who takes him under his wing, but has motives of his own. And then, there are training sessions. Roughly half an hour's worth. Some of which, I'm certain, was repeated footage from ten minutes earlier.

Fortunately, the fighting is very, very good. In his only film role as the younger Kuo, Kun Lung Ng isn't bad as Kuo The Younger, while director Wilson Tong is enjoyable as Kuo The Elder, who, via the Law Of Conservation Of Characters, winds up playing a more important role than one might initially suspect. The final three-way battle is a satisfying ending. The production values are also pretty decent - while there were some goofy looking costumes, the music was quite frankly better than what you get in martial arts movies make fifteen years later.

Green For Danger

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 March 2004 in Jay's Living Room (ReplayTV'ed off WGBH)

I wonder how WGBH chooses which old movies they use to pad out their late-night schedule during pledge drives. Length seems to be a primary consideration alongside availability; Terror By Night has shown up quite a bit lately, apparently because of its ability to snugly fill a sixty-minutes hole. Similarly, Green For Danger is just a hair over ninety minutes long, which makes it a good companion to Dinner At The Ritz, which is a bit under. Together, the two British-made mysteries fill three hours in relatively unobtrosive and mildly amusing fashion.

The "amusing" part comes from Alistair Sim, who as Inspector Cockrill doesn't quite bumble through his investigation of a murder (or is that a pair of murders?) at a country hospital during the Blitz, but is rather casual going about it. A patient died while under anesthesia, and when a nurse publicly claims she has proof it was murder, she herself is bumped off. Hence the investigation.

It's immediately obvious that this is adapted from a mystery novel in the Agatha Christie vein. There's a certain structure that must be adhered to - the carefully limited field of suspects, the inquisitive investigator who basically announces who the suspects are and learns more from observing behavior than forensics, and the improbable gathering the suspects to recreate the crime and thus prove the guilt of one. It's a venerable structure, although it has come to seem quaint now; even when it is used on Monk, it frequently gets mocked. There's also narration, both as bookends and within, to describe Cockrill's thought process. This narration is, of course, despite being presented as an official communication being written after the fact, utterly vague until such time as the mystery has been solved.

It's an able mystery, if not an exceptional one. Christianna Brand's characters have just enough differentiation to give them motive, and the direction is middle-of-the-road. It's a cozy mystery, no more and no less, though notable for being set during an un-cozy time.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Dinner at the Ritz

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 March 2004 in Jay's Living Room (ReplayTV'ed off WGBH)

It's a good thing my cable package doesn't include Turner Classic Movies, because I would never leave the TV. There'd always be something that at least catches my attention enough for me to set the ReplayTV. Like this 1937 movie, for instance, which ran a few nights ago on WGBH, at sometime like two in the morning. The description looks mildly interesting, and seeing the lead actress billed as simply "Annabella" made me curious in a sort of anthropological way - she must have been some kind of superstar, right, or someone who crossed over from something else to merit just the single name... But now she's all but unheard of.

Perhaps the reason for that is that she jumped from making movies in her native France to doing English-language films; this was one of her first, according to the IMDB (which also shows that it was apparently well-enough liked to get theatrical re-releases later). It's a convoluted little trifle, not tense enough to be a thriller nor carefree enough to be a romantic comedy. In it, Ranie Racine goes on a quest to find who murdered her father (and made it look like suicide), in the process defrauding the depositors at his bank. Trying to do right by those depositors has left her penniless, though, so she conspires with a diamond merchant who was impressed enough with her charisma at the estate auction to concoct a schme where she poses as a displaced Spanish aristocrat, to add sentimental value to the jewelry they would sell.

Though running only about an hour and twenty minutes, it seems longer; the pace is glacial at times. It seems to take a third of the movie's runtime just for papa to die and get the story started, and even the comedic bits have very little spark. As much as critics may decry what MTV has done to the way we watch film and television, this movie is on the opposite end of the scale, where you almost need to be doing something else (say, a crossword puzzle) to keep your whole brain occupied for most of the film's runtime.

This does have its appeal, though. Though Annabella's English is awkward, she is a beautiful, engaging presence. I was reminded of Jennifer Garner in Alias several times during this movie, as Ranie dons various disguises to infiltrate the worlds of her enemies. She doesn't engage in gunplay, but she's no damsel in distress, either, swimming to the other side of a boat so that she can listen at a window and retrieving crucial information. Her co-stars, including Paul Lukas as her fiancé and David Niven as the agent investigating her father's financial woes, are all right, but she's clearly the star.

It's an interesting movie, though no classic. It's one of the dozens of average movies that get released every year, but which we forget about, thus making years gone by look either chock-full of brillaince or schlock, when the majority of the films produced then are probably with Dinner At The Ritz, sitting right in the center of the bell curve.

Thursday, March 25, 2004


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2004 at Loews Boston Common #8 (first-run)

Here's a pretty spiffy thriller that slipped into theaters under the radar (and, after its two-week run completes tonight, will probably slip out the same way), with nothing more than a striking one-sheet for promotion (you just know that'll be replaced with a big shot of Val Kilmer's head for the DVD). I hadn't realized that it was set (and shot) here in Boston, and was as such my brother Matthew's introduction to going to the theater and seeing places you walked past on the way to the movie on-screen. It's a bit of an eerie sensation; you simultaneously feel some local pride, start paying close attention for any errors in geography, and wonder how you could have missed someone shooting a movie practically on your doorstep.

But, anyway, the movie. It's good, very good. It has a nice matter-of-fact procedural tone to it, with writer/director David Mamet and composer Mark Isham never feeling the need to goose the soundtrack to get the audience's interest. It's a story about the Secret Service chasing down the President's missing (kidnapped?) daughter, and that, they figure, should be interesting enough in itself, especially considering how the story is able to turn on a dime. Similarly, Mamet's approach to the action and gunplay is rooted in how special forces types actually work - it's brutal, and fast, and comes out of nowhere. The skilled soldiers and killers are finished before you're quite ready to begin. This does not mean the action feels chaotic or random, though - indeed, Mamet does a great job of letting the audience understand where everything is in relation to everything else; his ability to establish the physicality of an action scene without verbal exposition is comparable to John McTiernan or Sam Raimi on a good day.

This being a Mamet film, that "verbal exposition" is pretty noticeable. The dialog in Spartan does not sound real but does sound good. Speech is more eliptical, and seems more pre-written, than real speech, but it sounds interesting, and everyone does have their own voice, from the clipped, military words of Sgt. Jackie Black (Tia Texada) to the eager-to-please Curtis (Derek Luke). Val Kilmer's Mr. Scott, a loyal and efficient soldier, uses his odd speech almost as a tool to keep people at arms' distance. Also present are higher-ups played by Mamet stalwarts Ed O'Neil and William H. Macy. Thankfully, Mamet does not supply us with a rookie who needs things explained to him, so we learn about how these Secret Service types work by watching them act with an occasionally frightening competence.

It's nerve-wracking and off-kilter in a pleasant way. Though it's based on an unlikely plot and features stylized dialog, the execution, by both the filmmakers and characters, is so professional and no-nonsense as to banish any complaints about unreality from one's head.

Tokyo Godfathers

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Recent Raves)

Satoshi Kon is an intriguing director. I've enjoyed all three of his films, but must admit that during all of them, I've have at some point wondered why he was working in animation rather than live action. It is, really, a tremendously unfair question to ask; I don't question David Lapham's decision to make "Murder Me Dead" a comic book rather than a prose novel. It's the man's chosen medium, and that's enough.

Besides, it becomes obvious soon enough - in jaw-dropping fashion for Perfect Blue, and upon reflection when you consider the number of period sets and actors who would have to be matched for Millennium Actress. A live-action Tokyo Godfathers wouldn't be quite the logistical nightmare as a live-action Millennium Actress, but it would still require extensive location shooting around Tokyo during Christmas with a heavy snowfall, including many hard-to-find locations.

In this Christmas story, a newborn baby is found by three homeless people who have formed something of a makeshift family - Gin is a middle-aged alcoholic, Hana a transvestite, Miyuki a teenaged runaway. Though Hana sees this as his/her only opportunity to be a mother, they soon decide that the baby must be returned to her mother, and set out to find her with no clues other than a key left in the girl's bassinet.

Tokyo Godfathers resists being pigeonholed into a genre. Many animated movies, especially in the United States, are children's stories or fantasies, since those are things animation does particularly well relative to live-action. This story is grounded in reality an pitched to adults. It's frequently funny, but also quite dark in tone. And though the plot has a somewhat linear quest structure, it's not primarily an adventure movie. Calling it an animated adult drama shortchanges the teenagers it may appeal to, as well, should they get a chance to see it.

Kon's designs for the characters are somewhat more cartoon-like than in his other movies, especially for Gin and Hana, but that makes them more expressive. It's also worth noting that, despite the somewhat deformed faces, the characters have a variety of realistic body types; rather than being cookie-cutter hotties, they carry extra weight or wear leg braces or the like.

The story may be aggravating to those who disdain coincidence and its twin brother, fate, in their movies. Characters the trio encounter along their way relate to their pasts, and multiple parallels and intersections between storylines appear in ways that might be too convenient. Credit the writer/director with not making things too neat, though - rather than ending with his characters' problems solved, they instead have things to think about and decisions to make. It's quite possible that they'll go back to screwing their lives up as opposed to living happily ever after.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

The Wrong Man

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 March 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Hitchcock in Black & White)

Is there any phrase that messes with how one views a film more than "based on a true story?" Once it's been connected with a movie, it becomes difficult to judge a film as just a movie; every emotion connected with the story and characters becomes heightened. That's not a terribly bad thing, especially for a movie like The Wrong Man, which is meant to demonstrate a point rather than involve the audience in a specific story. Hitchcock directly addresses the audience at the start of this movie, cannily playing up his tendency to make thrillers so that, even though he mentions that the story is true and shocking, we don't feel like we're watching a message movie.

It's exactly what it is, though - the story of Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) isn't so much the story of a man trying to prove his innocence, but a view over his shoulder as society fails him, causing a case of mistaken identity to tear his life, and the lives of his family, apart. Indeed, Manny is a relatively passive character, perhaps too passive, as he is shuffled around the police department without even raising his voice. That's okay, though, because the point is that this could happen to anyone, and if Manny were to rebel, the movie suddenly becomes about how he overcame being wrongfully accused, as opposed to how dangerous a system without proper protections for the accused can be.

The movie does a good job of getting that message across. Fifty years later, it's easy to shake our heads at the lack of Miranda warnings, or cases built entirely on eyewitnesses despite strong evidence to the contrary.

Which, however, leads to the movie's biggest fault - an ending that is both too bleak and too good to be true. Based upon what we learn, Manny's attorney (Anthony Quayle) should be able to demolish the prosecution's case, but instead it gets further tangled up. Soon, though, a useful deus ex machina appears, and a piece of closing text all but uses the phrase "happily ever after".

Still, the movie does have its strengths. One of the most taut scenes in Hitchcock's work comes early on, as the tellers at an insurance company glance at Manny and are convinced he's the man who robbed them twice. Their fears are groundless, but no less real. There's also a frightening professionalism to the police, who never seem malevolent, but also never seem to step back and see that they're doing Manny a great wrong.

Is this Hitchcock's best movie? No, probably not even in the top fifty percent (insert caveat about below-average Hitchcock compared to just about anybody else at the top of their game here). It's not much of a suspense picture, but it does a fine job of getting its point across.

Monday, March 22, 2004

The Court Jester

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 March 2004 in Jay's Living Room (ReplayTV'ed off WGBX) (Aspect ratio cropped to 1.33:1)

The Court Jester is something of a minor amazement to me. It almost goes without saying that such a film would not be made today, although I must admit that Mike Myers might try (and the idea fills me with fear). It is a rather incredible balancing act, though - a light comedy featuring an intricate plot; a film with dialog for the stage and physicality of the circus. At no point does it ever look realistic, but neither does it feel artificial.

What makes it work, aside from the entertaining Danny Kaye in the title role, is the writing/directing team of Melvin Frank and Norman Panama. They display a keen talent for never being slaves to genre. When it needs to be, at various points, the film is a musical, a screwball comedy, a live-action cartoon, or a swashbuckling adventure, and it makes the transition from one style to the other smoothly every time. Though it features two characters in love with one another, it never gets into romantic comedy territory. Like a less-arch Princess Bride, it has only as much mushy stuff as is necessary.

The closest thing to a fault this movie has is that many of the characters seem to be played by actors a bit too old for the roles. Danny Kaye was in his forties when this was made, and Angela Lansbury (while shockingly young to those of us who basically remember her from Murder, She Wrote and The Manchurian Candidate) is a bit past her ingenue stage. Basil Rathbone had to be extensively doubled in his swordfight scenes. But, with age and experience comes skill, and their work here features comic timing that younger actors may not have managed.

There's something in The Court Jester for everyone except those who need off-color material to feel sophisticated. It's perfectly suited for children, but adults will perhaps appreciate its perfectly executed wit and craft even more. It's a movie that doesn't seem to get its just due much of the time; the type that is thought of a classic when it is brought up, but not necessarily when one attempts to list classic films.

Past Perfect

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

One thing about movies that intrigues me, especially when seen in the theater, is that you're allowed to have an off-putting first act. If a TV show, or a CD, or a book, or even a stage play, opened like Past Perfect, well, the odds are that I'd change the channel, put it aside, or walk out at intermission. But a movie's different; you're in a dark room, and can't quit without disturbing your neighbors. You're there until the bitter end.

Past Perfect is a small, intimate film. Writer/director/star Daniel MacIvor is primarily known as a playwright, and it shows at many points. He and co-star Rebecca Jenkins spend much of their time in specific spaces, talking. Stories of their youth are recounted verbally as opposed to flashed-back-to. And like two actors on a bare stage, there aren't many distractions; the film zeroes in on them dealing with each other. Unlike a play, though, the film is made up of two seperate threads, about two years apart, each told chronologically but with plenty of cutting back and forth between them. And MacIvor is able to use silence just as much as speech to get us inside the couple's heads.

At first, they are not terribly pleasant people. Cecil, MacIvor's character, is rude and snappish; Charlotte (Jenkins) is bitter and distant. When they first meet, they managed to get on my nerves as much as each other's. It isn't until deep into the film that the audience starts to get a sense of some chemistry, some actual possible affection between them. By that point it's almost, but not quite, too late.

And the end works. It's over an hour of clock-watching pain to get to that last act, but the last twenty minutes or so do manage to build on the tedium of the rest of the movie, managing to make their relationship's start believable and its potential end tragic. The time invested in getting there does pay off.

I don't know if I'd have made it to that payoff if I'd seen the film on DVD, though. The place I spend most of my online talking-movie time is the Home Theater Forum, and two common topics of discussion there are how (1) people only see the big, blockbuster type movies in the theater because smaller dramas are just as good at home, and (2) how it is good to be in control of one's home presentation. But with a film like Past Perfect, which seems calculated to make the audience earn the payoff just as much as the characters, it would be so easy to hit "eject" about fifteen minutes in and move on to something more immediately rewarding.

Prodigal Son (Bai ga jai)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2004 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Midnight Ass-Kickings)

Geez, didn't I just see Yeun Biao and Sammo Hung at the ass-kicking two weeks ago? Not that there's anything wrong with that; as part of the same group at the Chinese Opera that produced Jackie Chan, they can put some pretty groovy martial arts on-screen. Biao is, for that matter, perhaps the one of the trio with the most raw physical talent; where Jackie and Sammo make a lot of use of props and environments, Biao is the guy you want just standing in an open space trading blows with an opponent. He may not have the appearance or star quality of some other martial-arts stars, but the guy can move.

Fortunately, he gets ample opportunity to demonstrate that ability, although for most of the movie he's meant to look like a goof. He plays Leung Chang, a martial arts enthusiast who fancies himself a mighty street brawler, but whose father has paid his opponents to lose, when he tangles with a member of a traveling opera on behalf of some friends, upset that the leading lady turned out to be a man (Ching-Ying Lam), he gets his first taste of having his butt royally kicked. Despondant, he joins the opera in hopes of learning kung fu from this master. He will have no part of it, until they meet up with another dilletante who is far more skilled - and sinister.

The fighting is great. Sammo Hung directs, and he is a proud member of the "let people see what's going on" school of martial-arts choreography. If there's wire work in this 1981 movie, it's minimal. There's one big "that's got to be genuinely dangerous" scene in the middle, involving four people fighting amid a whole lot of fire.

The problem is that after that sequence, when the stakes become deadly, the movie falls back into a comedic path, introducing Sammo as another kung fu master who aids Chang's education. This last half is tedious, with too many drawn-out gags and lecturing on the different varieties of kung fu, and not enough punching and kicking. It leads up to a great final battle, but we in the audience had expected the movie to get serious to stay half an hour earlier.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Trilogy: On The Run (Cavale)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 March 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

On The Run was, if it matters, either the last or the second part of Lucas Belvaux's trilogy of interconnected movies to be released in France (the IMDB is inconclusive, though the poster appears to support "second"), but the first here in the US. As with An Amazing Couple, though, the order is relatively unimportant; the two main characters of On The Run were downright peripheral in An Amazing Couple. The movies are also different genres.

I found On The Run to be a fairly enjoyable thriller/drama, certainly stronger as an example of its genre than An Amazing Couple. It opens with a fairly well-done escape sequence, not done in grand blockbuster style, but thrilling and tense.

The man escaping from prison is Bruno (writer/director Belvaux), who has spent 15 years behind bars for terroristic crimes that aren't spelled out until later in the movie. Upon returning to Grenoble, he looks up members of his old cell, most of whom have in the interim become middle-class citizens with families, businesses, and lives. Jeanne (Catherine Frot), feeling guilty about Bruno having been in jail while she became a schoolteacher, offers the most assistance, though reluctantly.

Having already seen one other portion of the trilogy and having a vague idea of the plot of the third, it's difficult to watch this and enjoy it as a movie without a lot else going on. When Jeanne hides Bruno in a vacation cabin owned by the characters of An Amazing Couple, is this an awkward tie-in or something I wouldn't think twice about if I didn't even know An Amazing Couple existed? I can't be sure. It seems awkward to me, but I've probably found similar scenes suspenseful in the past.

The movie can, I think, be enjoyed on its own, though some bits seem missing - why was Jean-Jean breaking Bruno out of prison now, where did the well-equipped hiding places come from, and exactly who were the sides in the last shoot-out? The ending seemed kind of random, but I liked its understatedness; it emphasized how far Bruno had drifted from everyone else he knew.

Thus far, having seen two out of three of the "Trilogy" movies, I find myself admiring the idea, but not being quite so fond of the individual films, or the execution of the concept.

Friday, March 12, 2004

The Station Agent

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Viewed 10 March 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Recent Raves)

I've heard that when The Station Agent was first being cast, writer/director Thomas McCarthy hadn't planned on Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage) being a dwarf; that apparently came later. If so, I'm curious to know what set Fin apart in the early drafts, since this is a story about a man whose interactions with others are clearly defined by an immediately noticeable physical difference.

Still, Fin's defining characteristic early on is that he likes trains. A lot. He works in a model railway shop owned by Henry, apparently his only friend (though in the back, to avoid comments he's heard a thousand time before); his small apartment contains train memorabelia, and his social circle seems to mainly include other train nuts. His entire world seems to be centered around one building in Hoboken, NJ, which contains the store and his apartment, with occasional, unpleasant trips to the outside world where he endures the taunts of "normal" people who see him as an oddity rather than a man.

Henry owned the building, though, and when he dies suddenly, Fin is told that the store will close and the building will be sold. But, Henry has left him a piece of land in the town of Newfoundland, NJ, on which is situated an unused train station. He heads out (apparently traveling the 30 miles on foot), following the rails, and though there's no electricity or water when he arrives, it is isolated and there are trains and tracks, making it all Fin wants. Until people start showing up, whether they be the gregarious Joe (Bobby Cannavale) who sets up his father's hot dog truck outside the station; or the sad Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), who nearly runs him over...twice; or Cleo (Raven Goodwin), a young girl who also has an interest in trains.

This is a remarkably good-natured movie; Fin's initial well-earned crankiness is balanced by Joe's likability, and the ultimate message is less a heavy-handed one of tolerance and more how it's good to have friends, even if making them is an unfamiliar process. It's frequently very funny, avoiding the short jokes and getting its laughs from the characters' personalities. The characters are all well-played, and the direction is solid.

I did have a couple questions during the movie, like how Fin pays the bills after the shop is sold, but the movie is short enough to not wear out its welcome, bloat with an excess of supporting characters, or overcomplicate a fairly simple story.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Exiled: A Law & Order Movie

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 March 2004 in Jay's Living Room (ReplayTV'ed off USA)

Unlike a lot of movie enthusiasts, I like television, and try not to look down on it. And over the past few years, Law & Order has become one (actually, three) of my favorite shows, and the whole police procedural genre has crowded science fiction out as my favorite, at least for that medium. They fit each other well; you can tell a good story in 45 or 90 minutes (for the occasional two-parter or TV-movie, like Exiled), which is just about the perfect amount of time so that a logical reveal of the guilty party isn't a letdown from the build-up.

Exiled is less of a straight procedural that the weekly Law & Order series; where the focus on those shows is on the crime itself, the focus here is on the central cop, Mike Logan (Chris Noth), who had been transfered to Staten Island after punching a city councilman at the end of L&O's fifth year (which, at the rate Universal is releasing DVDs, I should see sometime in 2010), and misses the challenges and high stakes of working Homicide in Manhattan. He sees a chance to get back when the body of a dead prostitute is found in the water between the two boroughs, and he claims the case for himself. Even if it doesn't get him transfered back, it will at least allow him to work something like his old job.

The case itself is interesting, spinning off into investigations of organized crime and police corruption. The procedural elements aren't quite as effortless as they are on the series, but still interesting. It was kind of odd to see Logan as a full, three-dimensional character; the cops on L&O for the most part have personalities and character traits, but that tends to affect what they say more than what they do. Here, the plot is driven by Logan's actions, and his characterization as something of a selfish hothead was at odds with what I'd seen on the first-season DVDs, although it's a believable extrapolation from his circumstances.

Exiled is kind of an interesting experiment, though - using L&O characters for what is not really a L&O story. In the end, though, it suffers a bit by being neither fish nor foul - not the lean, efficient procedural that its parent series is, but not exactly a great character study, either.

Funny Ha Ha

* * (out of four)
Seen 7 March 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

Usually, when I see a movie at a screening where the director is present, or if he's a local guy, I feel generous, half-obliged to see the good parts and overlook the bad. I mean, the guy's in the room, possibly traveling to town just to see what you thought about the movie, or he's a neighbor, right? It's just human nature.

And I tried. I tried really hard to like Funny Ha Ha. And not just becaue, for all I know, the cute non-professional actress playing the main character, Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer), might live in this very building and I'd hate to bump into her into the laundry room and blurt out "hey, I saw that movie you were sucked" (which, as anyone who knows me will attest, is not an unlikely thing to happen). Sure, I could honestly cover by saying how much I liked her, that I liked how she never came off as phony and how her character's aimlessness seemed real and not some Hollywood stereotype.

But in the end, I have to admit, I was unimpressed with the movie as a whole. It's one of that movies where I have to admire its realism but which also makes me question the worth of realism as a goal. There aren't many inauthentic moments in the movie, right down to the dialogue being filled with "like"s, "um"s, pauses, banalities and the like, but it's hard to shake the feeling that I'm paying for something that is no more interesting, no more imaginitive, and no more meaningful, than what I could get eavesdropping on the guys sitting at the next table in the pizza shop. There's almost no story, or plot; these characters haven't been created for any greater purpose, and don't seem unique or unusual enough for a character study.

The movie presents us with Marnie, a basically nice but somewhat directionless woman of 23. Soon after the movie opens, we find out that Alex (Christian Rudder), a friend she's liked since college, and his long-time girlfriend have broken up, leading to an hour plus of awkward moments. While temping, she also meets another guy, played by writer-director-editor Andrew Bujalski, who is immediately smitten. It's not really a courtship picture, though; none of the relationships exactly blossom into something really rewarding.

The structure of the movie isn't completely arbitrary; even though you can't really dissect the final scene (or most scenes) and say "this means this", there is a sense that it ends when Marnie has finally got her relationship with Alex figured out. It's kind of a nice, understated ending. Well, understated compared to other movies; it's almost momentous compared to the rest of this one.

Shanghai, Shanghai (Luan shi er nu)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 March 2004 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Midnight Ass-Kickings)

It's unfortunate when the film someone wants to make is outside his grasp. The makers of Shanghai, Shanghai had an epic in mind, with striking period sets and costuming, a charismatic, star-powered cast, and a story involving long-lost loves, the criminal underworld, revolutions, brothers, spurned lovers, and all that. At some point, though, either the filmmakers' limitations kicked in or the studio insisted on making sure it was palatable to an audience looking for a straightforward action movie. By the time the movie gets made, it's got the skeleton of an epic and the body of a B-movie.

Granted, the movie isn't helped by typically slipshod subtitling, which means that what the characters are saying could be extraordinarily eloquent in Cantonese but come across as idiotic in written English. Still, there are a number of comic scenes that are too broad and silly for the movie's main story, certain plot elements that don't make much sense, and simplistic characterization in places where there's a real sense that more could be done.

But, what it does well, it does very well indeed. The look of 1930s Shanghai is great, and the club where much of the action takes place is home to two fantastic set pieces - a daring robbery with guns blazing that opens the movie, and a sexy bit in the middle that combines the tango with martial arts as Anita Mui and Yeun Biao try to learn each others' agendas.

And there's nothing disappointing about the set piece at the end of the movie, which splits between a Yuen Biao/Sammo Hung battle and Mui taking all comers, getting great use out of her long legs. It's as though the action scenes are the cast and crew's comfort zone, and once they start, all the ways in which this movie falls short of its ambitions can be pushed aside.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

Starsky & Hutch

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 March 2004 at Loews Boston Common #17 (first-run)

It's kind of fun to go in blind. Somehow, before last night, I'd never seen a trailer or television ad for Starsky & Hutch, not had I ever seen an episode of the original TV series. I didn't even know Will Ferrell or Jason Bateman was in the movie. I just knew that Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson were two pretty funny guys whose usually screen personae should complement each other.

In the end, that's what I got - a couple funny guys doing the mismatched-cop thing and playing off each other well. Stiller is twitchy and dorky in an over-the-top way as David Starsky, while Owen Wilson is the relaxed, easygoing Ken "Hutch" Hutchinson. There's a plot about a new kind of cocaine that police drug-sniffing dogs can't detect, which gives the guys something to investigate while riffing on each other. Fortunately, the movie only briefly flirts with becoming a serious crime drama; the one time the stuff done to push the plot forward can't be done with a joke is one time too many, but the movie gets back on track.

One thing I appreciated was that the movie seldom resorted to The Wedding Singer-style non-jokes; there was very little in the way of "hey, look, it's something from the seventies! Isn't that tacky?" There are some bits like that, but generally it's from the perspective that Starsky is considered a dork, even within what is now considered an unsightly decade, or a fairly amusing bit where Huggy Bear (Snoop Dogg) has to wear a wire, and the joke is the unwieldiness of this 30-year-ago surveilance gear.

The film's biggest fault, if you can call it a fault, is that while it manages a fairly steady stream of chuckles, the really big laugh never comes. It's a good comedy, but it doesn't have a moment like, say, Wheezy Joe confusing his gun and his inhaler in Intolerable Cruelty which is so perfectly conceived and executed as to seem worth the price of admission by itself, with the rest of the movie a bonus. I'm not sure that's a fair thing to ask, though, with the rest of the movie being funny and enjoyable.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Oscar reactions from a guy suffering LOTR burnout

Well, I didn't think of doing a diary until about 2/3 the way through, so just let me admit right off the bat that the various times come from this article on Zap2It.

8:00pm (All times Eastern) - I get home from some emergency (no soda, no breakfast food for tomorrow morning, no snacks) grocery shopping, and see that ABC is still doing the "Countdown To Oscar" thing. I put the pizza in the oven and pull out the latest issue of GAMES Magazine for some Paint By Numbers action.

8:27pm - My pizza finished, I turn the TV back on to see Keisha Castle-Hughes meeting Johnny Depp, like she said she'd like to do in the countdown. She looks nervous here, but whenever they cut to her in the broadcast, I think she's pretty cool; she knows she was lucky to be nominated and get flown to LA for a front-row seat at this event and an expensive dress.

8:30pm - Sean Connery makes a leaden introduction that still manages to sound pretty cool because Connery is saying it.

8:45pm - Billy Crystal is not funny. His schtick was funny once, but now it's tired and obnoxious. Why the general population seems to prefer him over the dry wit of Steve Martin when it comes to hosting this show is beyond me. The one funny-ish part of that montage was Michael Moore, and that was more a funny idea than funny in execution.

A few years ago, I was in an online discussion about who would make a good Oscar host, and my suggests were Steve Martin, Emma Thompson, and Kermit The Frog. I was told that having a puppet host would be undignified, but, really, does Kermit seem so bad compared to Crystal's mugging?

8:52pm - Tim Robbins gets a thumbs up; his accent was one I've never heard in 30 years of living in New England, but he got the character right. I was also impressed with his restraint on stage; there are a number of guys where you think letting them behind a microphone is like rolling a hand grenade onto stage, but a call for victims of abuse to talk is a fine use of the podium.

8:57pm - The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (henceforth referred to as ROTK, or, as the evening starts to wear on, "That Damn Midget Movie") wins its first award, for art direction. Checking the IMDB awards pages, it was nominated the previous two years but did not win. I wonder if every other art director in the industry would like three chances to win an award. Though, to be fair, each of the LOTR movies had distinct locations and sets to design. I still feel the award should have gone to Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World.

9:00pm - You know, animated features are never going to get the respect they deserve if the Academy keeps being so cutesy with how the award is presented. Robin Williams is someone I generally like, but I wish there were some indication that people took the category seriously. Still, I think Finding Nemo is a worthy victor; I haven't seen Brother Bear and really liked The Triplets Of Belleville, but Nemo's a great movie.

9:10pm - Renée Zellweger just isn't attractive, and no nice dress is going to change my mind. The second award for ROTK, but these guys have only been nominated once before, although for pretty much the exact same work. I didn't have strong feelings in this category, but still...

9:20pm - Supporting Actress was one of the categories I just couldn't get excited about; of the nominees, I only really liked Patricia Clarkson and Holly Hunter, and even them I wasn't passionate about. Zellweger was one of the more annoying parts of Cold Mountain, though.

9:25pm - Showing a bunch of clips of Bob Hope hosting the Oscars while we're subjected to Billy Crystal is just mean.

9:30pm - Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson are a fantastic comedy team. I think they introduced the "Best Costume Design" category a couple years ago, and that was a hoot and a half. They get to have their cake and eat it too about how tacky using the Oscars as a promotional tool is.

They do the awards for the live-action and animated shorts, and the only one I've seen is Blue Sky's Ice Age spinoff. I was hoping for a "Destino" win, just for Roy Disney's speech. No such luck.

9:40pm - At first, I thought Liv Tyler looked incredibly hot with the glasses, but I sort of got turned off by how she was clearly working it. Still, I suppose it's something that glasses can be considered to bestow sex appeal, rather than take it away. She introduces the low-key "Best Original Song" nominees, gushing a little overmuch at the ROTK entry. I must say I was fascinated by that thing Sting was playing. I somehow resist pausing the ReplayTV and calling my brother Dan to ask what the heck it is.

9:55pm - Hmmm... ROTK wins for visual effects, with the same basic team that's won it the past two years. I wonder, internally, did WETA treat this as three seperate jobs or one big one? That said, these movies had a lot of them, so even if they were reusing models (both physical and digital), it's still a heck of a lot of work, and it's not like they had really great competition this year.

10:00pm - I know, the technical awards bore people. But I remember they used to describe what they were won for a little; give us tech geeks some love.

10:05pm - I love Jim Carrey; he always seems to have real affection for his idols, and even if this bit starts out weird, it gets better. And Blake Edwards grabbing his Oscar on the way by and crashing through a wall is hilarious (as was Carrey's aside that they don't let him touch the awards when Edwards asked him to hold the statue).

10:10pm - I love Bill Murray, too. Part of what makes him funny is that you can never tell when he's joking, as he repeats his bit about wanting to replace Sophia Coppola as the director of Lost In Translation enough to make you wonder if there's something to it.

10:15pm - Honest to god, I didn't recognize Scarlett Johansson. She's just got this amazing chameleonic ability. ROTK picks up another award, this one for make-up. Same people who won two years ago. I'm beginning to get annoyed; there were many great movies last year, and ROTK wasn't so heads-and-shoulders above everything else that it deserves to get all the awards, especially when some people are being recognized multiple times for the same work.

10:20pm - Someday someone is going to give the audience a clear explanation, in layman's terms, what the difference between sound editing and sound mixing is. ROTK wins the latter (first time in three nominations, but the movies did have seperate post-productions), Master And Commander wins editing.

10:30pm - Kate Hepburn, RIP. I like her more in these clips than I ever remember liking her in any full-length movie.

10:40pm - Haven't seen any of the documentary shorts, and only one of the features (though three others did play here in Boston). Errol Morris demonstrates why awards shouldn't be used as a soapbox - even though his movie offers a good chance for criticizing the war in Iraq, it feels awkward.

10:50pm - ROTK for best score. OK, I guess, though Big Fish and Cold Mountain were arguably better.

10:55pm - ROTK for best editing. This is the first unadulterated crock-of-shit award for ROTK all evening; reaching the end of this movie was torture, and it's in the same category as City Of God, which was never less than electrifying through its entire runtime. I now begin to dread hearing that damn midget movie's name.

11:05pm - The fun songs are performed, with Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara performing "The Kiss At The End Of The Rainbow" in character, and "Belleville Rendez-Vous" all colorful and splashy. I wonder if the sound mix is right on "Belleville", though, since all the percussion seems to be missing.

11:15pm - "Into The West" from ROTK wins, and I'm a wee bit angry. It's not a bad song, but it's the weakest of the five, and, damn it, don't parents teach their kids to share in New Zealand?

11:20pm - Gee, it's a good thing Peter Jackson didn't film ROTK in Elvish, isn't it? The Barbarian Invasions has actually been playing here recently, but none of the others have. I think the Academy should get the Oscar qualification rules for these movies in line with the others; the system excluded City of God last year and few can feel one way or another about the category aside from the executives who get to slap "Academy Award Winner" on the movie when they eventually do release it.

11:25pm - Master And Commander for best cinematography. Even if a lot of it was actually special effects, compositing the boat into the scene, they did actually shoot all the backgrounds; it's not CG water.

11:30pm - Seeing Francis Ford Coppola so obviously proud of his daughter just gives me a warm fuzzy feeling that not even another ROTK award can take away (besides, I haven't seen half its competiton for best adapted screenplay).

11:35pm - And Sophia gets the best original screenplay. I might have gone with In America, but I love them both.

11:40pm - Peter Jackson gets best director. It's defensible, but I would have liked to see City Of God come away with something.

11:50pm - Adrian Brody is a good sport awarding the trophy for best actress, making a couple jokes at his own expense about his enthusiasm receiving the award last year. Charlize Thereon is a good sport for playing along.

I like her teary acceptance speech. I read a lot into these things, probably too much, but I really don't think she expected it, especially being up against Diane Keaton, Samantha Morton, and Naomi Watts. She's heard all the good things people said about her in Monster, but after doing so much mainstream, "pop" stuff, she probably only expected to open eyes to her being capable of more, not actually get the big award.

12:00am - Sean Penn for Mystic River. He was good, but Bill Murray was sublime. And as cool as it is seeing Penn get all weepy and touched, the shot of Murray was kind of sad. My brother Matt thought he looked angry, but I think it was more that he knows he won't get another part as perfect for him and as meaty as he had in Lost In Translation for some time, if ever. This was his big chance to be recognized as more than a goofball and it passed him by.

12:10am - It's somewhat fitting that Steven Spielberg, perhaps America's greatest sci-fi/fantasy filmmaker, gives ROTK its final award for Best Picture. I've already read a lot of how this legitimizes the fantasy genre, and I guess that's true. Still, as a fan of fantastic film, I can't help but think that it should have been Star Wars that did that.

Ah, well. It's a good movie, not the year's best, but the Kiwis deserve some shelf decoration for the massive endeavor. Now, Mr. Jackson, get to work on King Kong and maybe even something that's wholly your own.