Friday, April 30, 2004

IFF Boston: Plan B

One thing I like about the September Boston Film Festival is that, with a little use of vacation time, it is humanly possible to see all the movies. Three at the Copley during the afternoon, take the green line two stops, two at Boston Common in the evening, and repeat. Not so at IFF Boston - it's spread over six screens in three locations (none of which are actually in Boston), the times are staggered to make theater-hopping difficult. Add to that that all of the movies aside from the midnights playing at Coolidge Corner are in the tiny screening room... well, I've already had to shuffle my plans; I was going to see Word Wars tonight and then catch the 11:30 Azumi at the Brattle (walking distance from my apartment) tomorrow. Instead, so that I can catch those two movies and Blind Horizon, I'll be catching Azumi at the Coolidge's midnight show. Since they're tacking a 20-minute short onto the front of a 2-hour-plus movie, it's almost a given I'll miss the Night Owl bus.

Anyway, here's my (new) plan:

Friday Midnight: Azumi w/ "Tomo" @ Coolidge Corner - Every film festival should have at least one movie that involves punching, kicking, blowing crap up, and, in the case of this movie, swordfighting. These movies should be sought out just so that you can get the full gamut of fun. Plus, it's directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, who did the absolutely insane Versus and is directing the highly anticipated Godzilla: Final Wars.

Saturday 12:30pm: Nightingale In A Music Box w/ "Jo Jo In The Stars" @ Somerville - A nifty-sounding movie with a science-fictional premise, plus an animated short.
Saturday 4:30pm: Double Dare @ The Brattle - Documentary on the stunt doubles for Wonder Woman and Xena. I'm hoping for something much better than The Red Trousers
Saturday 10pm: Blind Horizon w/ "Mrs. Meitlemeihr" @ Somerville - Spiffy cast in this amnesia thriller: Val Kilmer (who was great in Spartan) and Neve Campbell (who doesn't seem to be in nearly enough lately, even though the IMDB claims she's been working)

Sunday 12pm: Word Wars @ The Brattle - Documentary on competitive Scrabble. I love the very idea of competitive Scrabble.
Sunday 3:30pm: Flower & Garnet w/ "The Three of Us" @ Somerville - The most film festival-y entry I'll be getting to; a coming of age drama. Unless I go for something else - there's a thriller called Moonlight and a documentary called The Corporation at 2:30, although the latter looks like a 2.5-hour "Business = EVIL!" screed from the description.
Sunday 7pm: Luck w/ "The Frank International Film Festival" @ Somerville - Basically, I want to see the 8-minute short attached to the movie. :) Actually, the feature looks pretty good, too - Sarah Polley in an Atom Egoyan-produced comedy intrigues me.

Thankfully, The Saddest Music In The World opens at Kendall Square in a week, so I don't have to build my festival schedule around the one showing of that. If I was really smart, I would have bolted from Brookline the minute I couldn't get a ticket for Word Wars to see The Baroness And The Pig tonight, but it looks like I'll have to hope it gets picked up somewhere else, along with a couple of others.

So, anyway, I figure between this, the spiffy shows at the MFA next week, and the Boston Underground Film Festival, I should be able to stave off any pervy impulses to see Mean Girls until the big summer movies start coming out.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

Country of My Skull

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (preview)

Country of My Skull means well. Oh, boy, does it mean well. Director John Boorman clearly admires and is fascinated by the South African Truth And Reconciliation Commission, a traveling tribunal set up after the end of apartheid with the purpose of eliciting the whole truth by offering amnesty to those who will admit it and whose crimes were politically motivated; it operated during 1995 and 1996. It's a fascinating concept which itself contains many heartbreaking stories; a documentary that covers the same subject, Long Night's Journey Into Day, was nominated for an Oscar three years ago, and is excellent.

This feature, however, is less impressive. Based upon a semi-autobiographical novel by Antjie Krog, it follows two writers assigned to cover the hearings. Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson) is an American working for The Washington Post who initially feels that if he wanted to write about white cops killing black people, he could do that from home; Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche) is an Afrikaaner poet doing commentary for South African and American radio. Anna's assistant Dumi (Menzi Ngubane), being a gregarious sort, soon makes friends with Whitfield, but the two journalists initially dislike each other.

Here's the thing - without Langston and Anna, you may as well just be making a documentary. The idea behind the two characters is sound and rather clever - Langston calls himself "African-American" but learns about actual African culture from a white woman, and Anna needs the foreigner's perspective to see how she and her family are complicit in apartheid, even though she personally has always found it abhorrent. Focusing on them, however, deflects attention from the truly unique and fascinating work of the commission. Additionally, their scenes often seem prepackaged and overly familiar, perfect examples of what people mean when they use "Hollywood" as a pejorative. Their growing closeness and the stress of bearing witness to so much horror leads in an inevitable direction, and it's no surprise when it means the characters have to deal with the Commission's ideals of truth and forgiveness on a personal level. None of this is close to as unique or fascinating as the film's background.

Also not helping are the mostly flat performances; few of the supporting characters and family members are more than placeholders. Jackson and Binoche are a bit better than adequate, and while Menzi Ngubane shows real charisma, the best performance comes from Boorman regular Brendan Gleeson. As De Jager, a fictionalized version of one of the old regime's most infamous war criminals being interviewed by Jackson's character, Gleeson has the most force of personality, and becomes the most interesting character in the movie: Is he a sociopath who found a place he could thrive, or a patriot who became too willing to do wrong to defend his way of life? And does it matter? That, as my friend Laurel pointed out, is a question we should all be concerned about, given the current political climate. Another thing that's somewhat glossed over is that after the hearings, the black and white members of the press go to a bar and hang out together, and the one who (initially) seems the most uncomfortable is the American; Dumi also seems to harbor no ill will toward the various white Afrikaaners. Is this meant to imply that the reconciliation process is working, or that these characters are just more cosmopolitan than the rest of the country? There is remarkably little tension visible outside Anna's family for a country whose way of life has just been turned upside down

It's too bad these questions aren't given more prominence; they might have made Country of My Skull a much better movie than it was. During the Q&A after the preview screening, Boorman described the movie as still being "amenable to change", and the preview audience did hammer him on the relationship between Anna and Langston (well, they hammered him in a mostly polite, respectful manner). I don't know how much change is possible, though; though it isn't scheduled to open in the US until this September, IMDB has it opening in Ireland next month.

Monday, April 26, 2004

The Whole Ten Yards

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 April 2004 at Loews Boston Common #15 (first-run)

I'd been dreading this movie. The Whole Nine Yards had been a fun, entertaining comedy against virtually any reasonable set of expectations - who expects anything out of Matthew Perry, Natasha Henstridge, or Patricia Arquette? Bruce Willis had mostly been just picking up a paycheck for years, and Amanda Peet hadn't done anything other than one of the more underrated TV series in recent years, Jack & Jill, worthy of attention. That it came together to form an energetic, surprisingly funny comedy was quite frankly shocking, and didn't seem to be something that could be repeated.

And The Whole Ten Yards isn't as good as the first. It has amped the volume up a little to loud and in the name of character development gives the characters too much reason to shout at each other and argue when a great deal of the fun in The Whole Ten Yards was how much Matthew Perry's skittish dentist Oz, his assistant-who-wants-to-be-a-hitman Jill (Peet), ex-mobster Jimmy The Tulip (Willis), and his ex-wife Cynthia (Henstridge) wound up finding themselves unlikely friends. Creating tension among this group for the second movie is perhaps necessary, but is not necessarily fun.

Fortunately, there is fun to be had. The main source is from Amanda Peet, who plays Jill as girlishly enthusiastic about being a killer-for-hire, fun and perky and apparently completely oblivious to how her chosen field is just wrong. Meanwhile, the villains are ludicrously incompetant. Kevin Pollack plays Lazlo Gogalak (the father of his character from the first film), a Hungarian gangster just released from prison who mangles the English language and can't stand being corrected for even the slightest miscues. Frank Collison plays Lazlo's other son Strabo as far from the smartest gangster you'll ever meet, but serves as a very effective straight man for the action happening around him.

As to what's going on - it doesn't make any sense. We don't get any reasoning behind the scam until the very last scene, and it makes no sense (try finding a way to casually rip a dollar in half so that neither half has the complete serial number). Indeed, even for a wacky comedy, the plot to this movie is thin. If you stand back and look at it as a whole, it's pretty much a failure; you basically have to come in close enough that you can't see very much beyond the current gag for it to work. Happily, it does work at that level more often than not.

Story-wise, there's no need for The Whole Ten Yards, and I hope like heck that the people involved don't try to push their luck with The Whole Eleven Yards. I realize that it's damning with faint praise to say that The Whole Ten Yards isn't the disaster I'd feared, but you could say the same thing about Nine, and that was good enough to get me into this movie.

Good Bye Lenin!

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 April 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

Change happens fast. Fortunately, the average human being can handle rapid change, especially when it offers more choices and opportunities. We resist, but we rise above it.

Good Bye Lenin! confronts its characters with both the biggest changes to happen in recent memory - the collapse of the communist dictatorships - and a character uniquely unable to cope with change. Christiane Kerne (Kathrin Sass) has devoted the last ten years of her life to socialism, ever since her husband escaped to the West without her and their children. When she has a heart attack, she lapses into a coma that lasts eight months - during which time communism falls, her children find new jobs as salespeople for such quintessentially capitalist institutions as Burger King and satellite TV, and the country she's been so devoted to is rushing headlong to erase itself from existence. Fearing that the shock to her system may be fatal, her son Alex (Daniel Brühl) opts to make her room a safe haven - the last place the DDR still exists.

There are many things to like about Good Bye Lenin!, particularly its characters. They're distinct, mean well, and are believable as family. There's a history to Alex's interactions with his mother and his sister Ariane (Marla Simon); shared histories, long-standing arguments, and love inform the scenes they have together. Ms. Sass and writer/director Wolfgang Becker strike a very good balance in creating Christiane; it would be very easy to make her appear a complete fool, but she's not stupid - she recognizes that her country isn't perfect and strives to make it better. The people Alex drags in to maintain the charade are fun, too - everyone in this movie means well, and the side stories like Alex falling in love with a pretty nurse, or the (newly-unified) German soccer team competing in the World Cup driving satellite dish sales. And the story is fun, in a goofily improbable manner. It's the kind of thing that could happen, perhaps, but it's only in the movies that people are resourceful or creative enough to put forth the effort.

The really nifty thing that Good Bye Lenin! does, though, is to capture a moment in history not from the perspective of the people who made it happen, but those who lived through it. They suffer on the one hand and blossom on the other, come face to face with things they thought they would never have to think about, and they go about their own lives both oblivious to and profoundly affected by these major events. Those of us who haven't had our world change practically overnight may have a hard time grasping the enormity of such an event, but this movie does a good job of illustrating it, while being sweet and funny at the same time.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Red Trousers: The Life of the Hong Kong Stuntmen

* * (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run; calendar schedule)

Even those who are not fans of martial arts movies would probably acknowledge that there's an interesting movie to be made from the stories of the Hong Kong stuntmen, or the Chinese opera training that produced many of them and gives this film its name (and may already have been, since Painted Faces seems to have generally good reviews). Many of these stuntmen (and actors, and directors) have been trained since they were very small children, did highly dangerous work for very little pay, and do it in part because the brutal authenticity is part of what set Hong Kong's action movies apart from their more expensive, slicker American counterparts. Unfortunately, Robin Shou is not the man to make this movie.

Shou is indentified as an "Actor/Director" when he appears, but that is something of a cheat, since this is his directorial debut, if you don't count the movie's film-within-the-film, "Lost Time" (we'll get to that later). He's really got no sense of how to put a movie together to form a cohesive narrative, is not a very good interviewer, and as part of the industry he's documenting, he can't look at it objectively or clearly. It's almost as if he decided, halfway through making Lost Time, that his action movie wasn't nearly as interesting as the people working on it and turned the cameras in the other direction. But, in doing so, he didn't want to alienate any of the people he was working with and had to try and produce a feature documentary on the budget for a DVD extra.

Consider, for instance, Ridley Tsui, the movie's stunt director. The impression is occasionally given that Mr. Tsui is a harsh taskmaster, abrasive, and possessed of other traits that do not endear one's boss to a person. He is apparently good at what he does, but there's the sense that the respectful way in which the stuntpeople talk about him are not, shall we say, representative of their entire opinion. To be fair, this may not be Shou's falt; the American-educated director does try to elicit a stronger opinion, but he seems to be up against a strong cultural imperative to not cause one's superiors to lose face.

There is also the matter of the Hong Kong film industry as a whole. In interview footage, director/actor/stuntman Sammo Hung (a personal favorite of mine) off-handedly mentions that the HK film industry is in a bad place, and that it was once the best in Asia and one of the best in the world. Similarly, students at a performaing arts school in the end speak worriedly about their futures. It seems like an obvious angle for a documentary on Hong Kong stuntmen to take - that between runaway production, the return to Chinese rule, and many of HK's top action filmmakers going to America, there is less work for these people. But this is avoided.

Similarly, the name "Red Trousers" comes from the traditional dress of students at the Peking Opera School, which produced such action stars as Jackie Chan, Yeun Biao, Sammo Hung, and Tony Leung. But that tradition, which goes back to the eighteenth century, is given short shrift, with only Sammo appearing in interview footage and some archive footage (including one shot of an astoundingly slim young Sammo). It reappears toward the end in one of the movie's best sequences, where we see young kids training in martial arts at a newer academy - featuring, I imagine, much less corporal punishment - and some of their teenaged students talk about their hopes. A really good movie might have closed on that, showing it as a continuing tradition, though one that's in danger.

Unfortunately, Red Trousers still has more "Lost Time" to subject us to. This movie-in-a-movie, intended as a way to show us these stuntmen in action, is awful. The acting is terrible, and as a director, Shou tends toward the Hollywood method, showing us a lot of close-ups of fists colliding that we'd know were doubled even if we hadn't seen, for example, that his leading lady looks nothing like her stuntwoman. These segments go on far too long, showing us a lot of Robin Shou but also taking up valuable time that could be spent on learning about the Hong Kong stuntmen - which is what we paid for.

It's so disappointing; it's not like the intercut movie is a bad idea (Standing In The Shadows Of Motown used it to brilliant effect); but the execution is so bad that I can't bring myself to recommend Red Trousers.

Man On Fire

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 April 2004 at Loews Boston Common #6 (first-run)

Young actors flat-out amaze me, and films that rely on them flat-out boggle my mind. Consider Man On Fire; this is a movie that costs tens of millions of dollars and which basically rests upon the performance of a ten-year-old girl. Sure, Dakota Fanning has a track record, earned in movies like I Am Sam and Trapped and the mini-series Taken where she's not quite as pivotal (though I hesitate to imagine the latter if she wasn't quite so good), but the fact of the matter is, she must have been all of nine when this was filmed, and most of us weren't quite ready for that level of responsibility at that age. She's important enough to the movie that I imagine Radha Mitchell was cast as her character's mother in part due to her resemblence to the kid rather than the other way around.

She is, arguably, more important to the movie than its actual star, Denzel Washington. Washington is good, very good, but it's up to Miss Fanning to make us believe that Pita, this little girl, can make the cynical alcoholic soldier-of-fortune Creasy take some joy in life again. She also must have enough presence in the first half of the movie that her absence in the second half not only makes us growl "son of a bitch must pay", but can send the audience into the same sort of despair as Creasy. For the most part, she's up to the task.

Sadly, the same can't be said for the director, Tony Scott. Scott's frustrating at times; his movies have always been slick and polished and generally well-crafted, but I can't remember his movies ever really connecting with the audience emotionally. The man is good at building suspense, but that's not really what this movie is about; though it has the plot of a thriller, it's more about getting into what makes Creasy tick. There is a feeling of just playing out the string Creasy follows a trail of kidnappers up the ladder to their leader, and while in a way that's right - as creative and nasty as Creasy gets, there being no real pleasure in it for the audience reflects Creasy's state of mind. It just goes on for so long, well past when we've gotten the point. The nature and severity of Creasy's injuries also comes off as inconsistent - there are points when it looks pretty bad, but others right next to them where he seems relatively unaffected. It feels like there's supposed to be a point to it, that this is something Creasy needs to do more than he needs to live, but at other times he just comes off as too badass to get hurt. The former are interesting, but are continually undercut by the latter.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Touching The Void

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 April 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

This is a movie about crazy people. The type of people who see a cliff face no-one has ever climbed, so high that the air thins and the temperature drops well below zero - let's make this very clear, these are not the environments in which human beings have evolved to thrive - and say, golly, this looks like fun. To compound this, the two young English mountain climbers in this movie then decide to climb this mountain in the Andes as they would an Alp, in one push, rather than in stages that allow for resupply. This, it strikes me, is an incredibly stupid thing to do, and if something goes wrong, well, you've kind of got it coming.

Now, there wouldn't be a movie if something didn't go wrong. Indeed, what happens as they descend the mountain is the very reason the phrase "things went horribly wrong" exists. And then, things got worse.

The outcome of this adventure is never seriously in doubt. Climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates are both interviewed in the talking-head segments, so they obviously survive their ordeals - although without full body shots, it's still quite possible that they were maimed, somehow; I half expected the movie to end with a pull-back revealing amputated limbs (this doesn't happen). The purpose of this movie is not to keep the audience in suspense; it is to make it very clear to each and every member of the audience that we aren't nearly as tough as these guys. That, in similar situations, we would give up, fail, act indecisively, or otherwise behave in a manner that would conclude with our frozen corpses not being found for decades. Happily, Joe and Simon don't rub our faces in it. They are very matter of fact in their recollections. It's not just that they're telling the story nearly twenty years after it happened in a very English, self-effacing manner. Throughout the movie, terms like "bravery" and "courage" are never used. Words like "stubborn" are used instead, and not as euphamisms. They're very pragmatic: If you find yourself grievously injured halfway up a mountain with no rope, food, or water, getting to the bottom isn't brave; it's just something very difficult that you have to do.

Between the talking-heads sequences are re-enactments, which are well-done and nicely photographed. Unlike an IMAX film, these scenes aren't primarily meant to inspire awe in the terrible beauty of the mountains. There is that, especially when we're looking at the inside of a crevasse, but most of it is straightforward illustration of what Joe and Simon are telling us. It's the little "how we do it" details that would be tedious to explain but simple to show.

Indeed, this is a very humanistic movie. Director Kevin Macdonald doesn't personify nature as others might, portraying it as a force actively seeking to kill people stupid enough to defy it. It's just nature and doesn't feel a thing. Similarly, it's a nice change of pace to have Joe talk about how it did didn't occur to him to pray during his ordeal, and that he didn't believe in an afterlife. He got through it not because he had faith God would provide the means, but because he was a tough, resourceful human being who wanted to keep living.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

The Girl Next Door

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 April 2004 at Loews Boston Common #9 (first-run)

I like the stars of this movie. Emile Hirsch has been good in a couple recent movies; Elisha Cuthbert is young and sexy and likable on 24 even though the writers haven't known what to do with her character for roughly a year and a half. Chris Marquette is great on Joan Of Arcadia and a ton of fun here. The rest of the cast is a solid group of relative unknowns.

And it starts out pretty well. The opening bit is a little overdone (when a montage is two pop songs long, it could probably use cutting), but it outlines the basics of Matthew Kidman (Hirsch) - he's a high achiever who has never, oddly enough, done anything memorable. That's about to change, though, when Danielle (Cuthbert) moves in next door.

The trailers and ads have already publicized her secret, so it's not giving anything away to say she's been working in adult movies the past two years. And that's where the movie has its big problem. It never manages to settle into its relationship with the porn. On the one hand, it's something Danielle is trying to get away from, and a number of the people involved are portrayed as thoroughly reprehensible. On the other hand, Danielle doesn't seem particularly damaged by her time in the business, Kidman's best friend Eli (Marquette) watches a whole lot of it and wears a Vivid Video cap throughout the movie. Now, even though there's a good chance my mother is reading this, I'll say it's probably fair not to portray the industry as inherently evil; the folks involved are human and many are probably professional in conduct. But if a good chunk of the motivation for what goes on in the movie is that Danielle is better than her adult-movie past, it's peculiar to embrace it at the same time.

The movie does work as a teen-twenties romantic comedy, though. Matthew and Danielle are likable sorts, and they're well-played by the actors. The story takes place in a pretty brief time-frame, which requires them to fall for each other quickly. It's an easy sell, though, and interesting in how they reverse the typical gender roles - here, it's the more experienced young woman who is won over by the younger guy's innocence. Their relationship is, if not low-key, far from overwraught. There's a sense that they like each other beyond the movie's need for them to be in love at first sight.

I suppose part of my disappointment is that the movie seems like it could be better. There's a nifty scene toward the beginning where Danielle is drawing on a placemat with crayons, and it feels like that should mean something, that she's been taken advantage of or that she's trying too hard to recapture what she was like when she was Matthew's age. It winds up being just a nifty scene not connected to anything, like a lot of the movie. There are more than a few funny scenes, but there are also a lot that are only funny if you don't judge what the characters do, even though that judgment is implicit in the movie.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

The Ladykillers

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 April 2004 at Loews Boston Common #7 (first-run)

Not counting the Toy Story movies, it's been about ten years since Tom Hanks really let 'er rip. He's done a couple of comedies in that time, but even in those, he's mostly played it straight. And despite all the awards he's gotten in that time, all the money he's made, all the respect he's earned, he hasn't looked like he's been having fun since yelling that there's no crying in baseball.

He's having fun here. He plays Professor G.H. Dorr as someone who aspires to be the devil incarnate, all honeyed words and a grin that indicates the sheer joy he takes in deception and crime. The Coen Brothers allow - nay, encourage - him to chew on the scenery all he wants, and the result is Hanks's most energetic non-animated performance in years. It goes a little far at times (his outbursts of laughter are more peculiar and disturbing than funny), but it's a joyful enough performance to earn some slack. He's given a good foil in Irma P. Hall, the chruch-going, god-fearing widow who owns the house from which Dorr and his gang intend to tunnel their way to a casino's holding vault.

Ah, the movie this could have been if not for the gang. Each member of the gang seems to belong on a different planet, let alone movie: Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans) is a loud gangsta-wannabe, Garth Pancake is played by J.K. Simmons as an even-toned oddball, "The General" (Tzi Ma) is a ruthless former Viet Cong leader (now running a Mississippi donut shop) sporting a Hitler mustache, and Lump (Ryan Hurst) the incredibly dim muscle of the operation. The group just doesn't jell, though; aside from Hanks, only Simmons is really amusing, and even he becomes obnoxious, spending much of his time arguing with Wayans. As a result, the parts of the movies spent on the gang is mostly tedious and abrasive. MacSam's lines, in particular, are trite and vulgar, especially in contrast to Dorr's absurd but entertaining elocution.

It's too bad that this takes up so much of the film's run-time, since there's wit elsewhere. Like many Coen comedies, the movie is peppered with small, off-kilter characters and bits which are often funnier than the main story. Pancake on a commercial shoot, the security guard who laughs like a fool, Dorr ordering waffles, and the widow's cat, who spends much of the movie looking on as the gang goes about their crime, as disinterested as only a cat can be.

I've got a month of free Netflix use lying around here somewhere; maybe I'll use it to see the original Ladykillers. That movie is regarded as a classic (it had a head start, having Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers in the cast); after seeing this remake, I find myself curious about a movie good enough to remake, but which the Coens couldn't get a handle on.

Saturday, April 17, 2004

Kill Bill Vol. 2

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 16 April 2004 at Loews Harvard Square #1 (first-run)

And now the question is, how could Quentin Tarantino have originally conceived this as one film?

Ignore for the moment that the two volumes together add up to four hours - the original cut was reportedly "only" three hours, which for a movie like this would still be pushing the limits of endurance. It would still have made for an oddly structured movie - the first half filled with over-the-top bloodshed and little of the witty dialogue that Tarantino is famous for, the second half more internal, with brief outbursts of violence around a strange sort of tragic love story. The audience would be either exhausted or impatient by the end. Besides, there's not much carry-over of characters between the two movies; even those that The Bride (Uma Thurman) left alive are nowhere to be found, and others are introduced in this segment. That, plus the great cliffhanger (beautifully followed up), makes this feel much more like two movies rather than one split in half. Maybe Harvey Weinstein came up with the idea for business reasons, but Tarantino makes it work creatively.

Tarantino plays with different genres this time around. Volume 1 featured anime, yakuza, 90s-style kung fu, and was in general pretty modern. Volume 2 opens in clear black and white, with even the typeface of the credits referencing tough-guy (or, in this case, gal) movies of the forties and fifties. Along the way, there will be homages and spoofs of the Shaw Brothers kung fu movies of the 70s, spaghetti westerns, and horror. A training session featuring Gordon Liu is straight from the Shaw Brothers, and the action sequences take the form of a Leone western: An alarmingly quick resolution for the amount of tension built up as the sides size each other up.

What really makes this movie is David Carradine as Bill. We've already gotten a glimpse at Uma Thurman as The Bride, but Bill has up until now been just a shadowy, evil figure. Here, we get to see him be more charismatic, and even outright friendly. We get to see enough of him that his being the father of the Bride's child makes sense for reasons other than low self-esteem. The scenes with Thurman, Carradine, and young Perla Haney-Jardine are strange but also redefine the characters, both for the audience and the characters themselves. After all the blood and guts of the first movie, this one becomes mental in the end.

Not all mental, of course. Much of the action is quick, but it's also brutal, with one perfect gross-out moment that got a big, satisfied "eeeew!" from the audience I saw the film with. And several bits are quite funny; while not quite as wall-to-wall with the action as the first movie, it's just as entertaining. And even with all that goes on, there's still bits that are left out. There are several threads that are never quite picked up on that aren't necessary to the central story of The Bride and Bill, but left me curious regardless. That it's left out is fitting, though - it allows the audience to feel all the rest is out there, but that this, the story of Bill, The Bride, and B.B., is what really matters.

NOTE: A number of reviews, among them Roger Ebert's, stick the name of Uma Thurman's character right into the review. This is something of a jackass thing to do, if you ask me. Why I think that might be considered a spoiler, so stop now until you've seen the movie.

Still here? Okay, what The Bride's name is is not important (although knowing it does change the meaning implicit in how Bill addresses her in the first movie's flashback), but that she has one is. Through the first movie and the start of this one, she's an anonymous force of nature. Then she takes an alias, and we see who she wants to be. We don't start to learn much about her as a person until we've learned her real name; that's when she becomes something other than an assassin and more of an individual. And then, when B.B. calls her something else, that's who she's going to be, or at least wants to. Names have power in this movie, and spilling The Bride's is to remove some of it.

Thursday, April 15, 2004


* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 April 2004 at Coolidge Corner #1 (first-run; Boston Cult Movie Film Club)

It's frustrating to try to write about movies like Dogville. Even though I strongly dislike it, it is insulated from criticism. It's thoroughly unpleasant, but it is meant to deal with the unpleasant parts of the human heart. The dialogue and situations seem awkward and stilted, but the story is clearly meant as a fable. The way the film is shot reeks of pretension, but also allows for some interesting visuals. And on and on. At a certain point, I see all these justifications for the way the movie is made, and my natural reaction is to think that maybe the problem isn't the movie, but me. What kind of unsophisticated twit must I be to be able to recognize all that's good about the movie and yet still despise it? I mean, for crying out loud, Seaver, you just admitted to laughing yourself silly at Scooby Doo 2; how can you expect anyone to take your opinion seriously when it comes to a serious movie like this?

But I do hate it. Maybe not so much as I hated the only other Lars von Trier film I've seen (Epidemic), but I still find this to be an excruciating three hours. That von Trier had reasons and artistic intent for the things I feel failed does not make them automatically justifiable. The decision to shoot on a mostly empty soundstage, with writing on the floor indicating where walls would be and various bits of set dressing added where necessary, is an interesting one... but does it add enough too offset how completely stupid the cast frequently looks having pantomime so much? By itself, I think it's a nifty idea, but when combined with the twee chapter titles and near-constant narration, it starts to smack of an intrusive director who is, perhaps, less concerned with telling an interesting story and more concerned with making sure people know what a freaking genius he is than he should be.

Then there's the dialogue. It outright stinks. I don't care that it's not realistic - mere realism is often no more interesting than what a person hears standing in line for the movie - but I do care that it's boring. There's not a single memorable line or exchange in this movie. Even given that the characters are meant to be archtypes of sorts and that their interactions are meant to be symbolic or universal, what they say still doesn't ring true. Given how bland most of the conversation is, I'm not sure whether the frequent substitution of narration for action or dialogue is a blessing or a curse. As much as it pushes the characters further away, when von Trier does allow two characters to talk without interruption in the last chapter, it's almost painful - a bidirectional lecture on what should be considered arrogant that had me nearly screaming for the damn movie to just end already.

The real killer, though, is that the central two characters are just ridiculous constructs. Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany) is a lazy would-be writer who sees himself as an intellectual, and seems to be held in disdain by the town, but also seems to control the rest of the population. Under normal circumstances, it seems someone as useless as Tom would be laughed at by the rest, but, no, everyone just goes along. Grace (Nicole Kidman), on the other hand, a pretty fugitive of sorts, is used just as badly by the filmmaker as she is by the town that expects a price for hiding her. She is, apparently, strong enough to run from the gangsters introduced in the first act, but for the better part of two hours on screen she never once stands up for herself. You'd think, at least after the first time she's raped, that she might act somewhat upset. Sure, we're given a philosophical reason for that later, but it sounds like so much crap, the sort of ideologically pure but practically impossible way of living one's life that can only exist in parables.

And maybe this film is meant to be a parable. It almost has to be. But just because it takes the form of a parable doesn't mean it imparts wisdom, or should be totally exempt from the need to tell an interesting story.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 April 2004 at AMC Fenway #5 (first-run)

I don't believe in "guilty pleasures". I enjoyed the first live-action Scooby Doo movie because the filmmakers managed to walk a pretty thin line between recreating what I had liked about the cartoon as a kid and spoofing it, which could be enjoyed by both nostalgic (and more-sophisticated) adults and the kids seeing the characters for the first time on the Cartoon Network. And as much as the franchise is given some much-deserved ribbing for its primitive animation and formulaic plots, it has survived 35 years while a great many of its contemporaries and later cartoons have vanished with nary a trace. There's no shame in that.

I enjoyed Monsters Unleashed for pretty much the same reasons as the first one, and noticed pretty much the same weaknesses. Matthew Lillard and Linda Cardellini dive right in and become their cartoon characters, getting much more screen time than Freddie Prinze Jr. and Sarah Michelle Gellar because, quite frankly, Fred and Daphne never had a whole lot of personality. There just isn't as much to do with them, especially in a movie where a little character development is necessary. Not much, but enough to make it clear there's not much character to develop. Gellar is at least able to do early Buffy, a girl who can kick butt even though she'd rather be doing more ladylike things; Prinze is lost. Neither is able to just disappear into the roles in quite the way their cohorts do (their off-model costumes don't help).

The story, such as it is, is similar to that of the first movie - a group of young amateur detectives whose adventures generally end with them ripping a mask off someone disguised as a monster find themselves sucked into a situation with real supernatural elements, while at the same time having doubts about the team. This time it's their self-confidence that's been undermined as opposed to their trust in each other. This leads to Shaggy and Scooby striking out on their own to solve the mystery rather than running scared (well, they try), which of course leads them more directly into trouble. Able assistance is provided by "guest stars" Alicia Silverstone, as a reporter who makes them look like fools, Peter Boyle as a perfectly caricatured former foe recently released from prison, and Seth Green as a crime museum curator with eyes for Velma.

This is, for the most part, a kids' movie. It's about 85 minutes of bright colors, simple plot, and humor that is occasionally obvious and juvenile. People who dismiss a movie with fart jokes out of hand should stay away, although at least one is fairly clever. There were also at least two bits that my brother and I found quote-worthy on the way out of the theater, which isn't bad for a movie aimed at kids less than half my age. I think this movie benefits by writer James Gunn and director Raja Gosnell, who both return from the first, knowing what they're trying to do. The first sometimes didn't quite seem to know how far to take the more adult bits, and probably had to sort its tone out in editing, which is less than ideal. This, though, isa fun movie; I'm open to a third one (supposedly Prinze and Gellar aren't signed, but would anyone be terribly upset if they were replaced with, say, Casper van Dien and Alicia Witt?).

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Unlucky Monkey (Anrakkî monkî)

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 April 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

I didn't come into Unlucky Monkey expecting to dislike it. I'd never seen anything from writer/director Hiroyuki Tanaka (credited as Sabu), but the email assured me that he was one of Japan's most prominent comic directors. It also starts well enough, with a hilarious heist-gone-wrong sequence that make a jarring transition from slapstick death to tragedy. It's followed by another sequence, where some down-on-their-luck yakuzas accidentally kill a far more important and connected gangster, which sets up a promising, darkly comic movie.

And then everything goes straight to hell. The movie stops being funny for roughly an hour, as the survivor of the bank heist runs around moping, getting paranoid, and eventually suicidal. Meanwhile, the other three guys try to cover what they did up, only making things worse. The two storylines occasionally bump up against each other, and eventually come together again. When they do, the movie is briefly funny again (in a sick, violent way), though it makes no sense.

With foreign movies, especially offbeat comedies, it's often difficult to gauge whether something is a bad movie or whether I, as a viewer, just don't/can't get it (this also keeps me from being able to write a particularly long, detailed review). Mainstream Japanese stuff is confusing enough, and then when I get an off-kilter look at a genre, it quickly becomes incomprehensible. Certainly, part of the problem is that I came in expecting a comedy, which this really isn't. But it's not a very good crime movie, either, and didn't move me much as a drama.

Jersey Girl

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 April 2004 at Loews Boston Common #4 (first-run)

Ben Affleck gets a bad rap. Certainly, he has become more known as a "celebrity" than an "actor" for the past six years or so, and a good chunk of the press for this movie has focused on his reputation (and that of a co-star). Combine that with his penchant for appearing in less-than-challenging movies, and a lot of people assume he's talentless and cast just for his looks. That's not the case; he is, in fact, a pretty decent actor when he gets good material. Fortunately, Kevin Smith frequently supplies him with good material.

Jersey Girl isn't Smith's best material, or Affleck's best performance. It's good, if not fantastic enough to justify the year I've been waiting for the end of his Spider-Man & Black Cat mini-series. That it's kept him from doing comics is somewhat fitting, since it's a more grounded, realistic movie than his recent Jay & Silent Bob-centered fare. There's nothing really outrageous in it, although it demonstrates that Smith can be funny without being shocking or bizarre. That's no small thing; that Smith manages to make a fairly entertaining movie out of such small, everyday things demonstrates real skill.

What Jersey Girl lacks is the energy of his earlier films. Where in his prior movies, Smith's characters sounded smart by what they said and how they said it, Ollie Trinke (Affleck) is supposed to be smarter than those around him for mocking "Cats". Other bits don't work as well as they should, either. In an early scene, as Ollie brings his wife into the hospital, it's perfectly clear what Smith is going for, but the scene falls flat. There are some attempts to recreate the witty, real sex talk of Chasing Amy, but it comes off as forced. It also seems more than a little inappropriate in a movie that, with its title and poster, has been sold as being about the relationship between Affleck's single father and his daughter. It's not; it's about Ollie letting go of his life as a single guy in the city and accepting that of a suburban family man. Gertie (Raquel Castro) is a major part of that, but not a dynamic part. Really, none of the characters but Ollie seem to grow or change throughout the movie. The effect is to make it appear that Ollie's a jerk for wanting more than living in his father's house, working on the road crew, and renting movies. I'm not sure that becoming a parent means your life should just stop.

This is coming off as more negative than it should. There's a really great scene toward the end of the movie, for example, but it's impossible to describe without spoiling it. Too bad, because it's got the best dialog in the film, and Smith shows great restraint in not following it up with another scene, which a lesser movie might have, that would make the ending less definitive. The movie really has a strong final act; and a movie that ends well can be forgiven that it has a little trouble getting there.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Bon Voyage

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 7 April 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (preview)

Bon Voyage is a farce and a caper set against the backdrop of the imminent occupation of Paris in 1940. That's a hard one to pull off - you've got to be pretty much perfect - but co-writer/director Jean-Paul Rappeneau manages it, and as a result produces one of the best pure popcorn movies I've seen since Brotherhood of the Wolf. It feels against the grain to suggest people go to a French movie for escapism, but they've gotten very good at it.

The film opens in a movie theater. The audience laughs, as a comedy of apparent genius unspools on the screen. One woman (Isabelle Adjani) is not; she is Viviane Denvers, the movie's star. She attracts the attention of Minister Jean-Étienne Beaufort (Gérard Depardieu), but also of another, who follows her home. Next, we meet Frédéric (Grégori Derangère), a young writer and old friend, whom she calls for help, though she hasn't talked with him for years. Helping her will land him in trouble, though. Two months later, as Paris is being evacuated, he and Raoul (Yvan Attal), a friend with dubious respect for the law, meet a pretty young physicist (Virginie Ledoyen) on a train south to Bordeaux, where the government has moved. Her mentor is not only a "Jew without country", but his work is something the Nazis would very much like to get their hands on. She seizes on Frédéric's friendship with Beaufort to try and arrange passage to England for her carload of people and cargo. This must be kept secret, which will be difficult, as Viviane's previous beau (Peter Coyote) is a reporter, and is still hanging close.

I've left out details, because a great deal of the fun of this movie is watching it unfold. The movie is split down the middle between comedy and adventure, and plot twists often double as jokes. The film moves quickly, but often in circles. That's okay, though, since it's a pleasant back-and-forth, and even if not every scene advances the plot, it's never boring and always enjoyable. The director makes a conscious decision to maintain a playful tone despite the setting. It's not that the villains aren't threatening, it's that the heroes are too lovable and concerned with their own issues for the pressure to really get to them. I've read a review or two that found this disrespectful, or can't even conceive of the story as a comedy, but there must have been isolated bits of absurdity amid everything during WWII; even Schindler's List has occasional comic relief.

And there are hidden depths. Viviane is comically self-centered, though it becomes less comic toward the end. Rauol displays surprising heroism despite his early apparent amorality. Beaumont's desire for peace is almost disastrous. The movie moves at the speed of farce, but it's far from an empty one.

The cast is top-notch. The make-up folks probably deserve Oscars; both Adjani and Attal are playing characters roughly half their age (48-year-old Adjani must be hiding a picture in her closet as the young starlet). Derangère spends much of the movie looks confused or surprised, but he's got good comic timing and charm. Virginie Ledoyen is luminous.

This movie was apparently submitted as France's Oscar entry for 2003; the nominating committee may have found it too light and fluffy. It's a pure bit of entertainment, with few harsh edges (its American PG-13 rating could easily be PG). Indeed, it shares a certain sensibility with movies of the thirties and forties; it's fast-paced and witty, beautiful and exciting. It's fun, pure and simple.

The quest for cheap tickets takes another hit...

Some time ago I signed up for a mailing list from Loews, which sends me listings for weekend start times at Loews Boston Common every Thursday or Friday, depending how reliable their robot is. Anyway, I noticed a slight change - the Friday bargain matinee times are now in line with the Saturday and Sunday ones; that is, from tomorrow forward, full price starts at 2pm as opposed to 6pm. No word (yet) on whether this will be the case Monday-Thursday as well. This is new for this week; I paid $6.50 to see Hellboy at 5:20pm last Friday after work.

I am generally the last person to whinge about movie ticket prices being too high. Evening ticket prices are generally in the $9.00-$10.25 range, which is pricey, but generally gets you a couple hours of entertainment in a nice seat and very good viewing conditions. My brother points out that the theaters in Falmouth, ME are cheaper when he goes home, but also readily admits that they suck relative to the presentation in Boston. I do not mind paying a little extra.

However, I also go to a lot of movies, especially during the summer. Three or four a week isn't uncommon. If I paid full price, I would go to fewer. The good people at Loews know that this would mean me purchasing fewer sodas, popcorns, and french fries. (I can't do the candy. It's too large a serving. Heck, a small popcorn is too much, really). As we all know, the concession stand is where theaters make the bulk of their money, especially during the week, as the studios take up to 90% of the box office take and we have, as a nation, been programmed to eat when we go to the theaters. Doing away with half the Friday matinees makes me less likely to go to a movie on Friday, and by the time Monday comes, maybe I'm not as interested - I'm now trying to cram more movies into the same number of "slots".

So, what to do? Well, I filled out a survey from Loews a couple weeks ago which netted me a coupon at their Discount Ticket/Gift Card site, so I'll bag a $100 gift card for $80, and hope like heck that the summer promotion where you can purchase Weekday Escape tickets in groups of 5 rather than 50 returns in May. The promotions since November, where you can purchase an overpriced tin with T-shirt and candy, have been, in general, lame. But the Weekday Escape which gets you admission and a small popcorn for $5 from Monday to Thursday is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Indeed, if anybody reading this would like to split a book of 50 of those suckers, drop me a line.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Trilogy: After The Life (Aprés la vie)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 April 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

Well, here it is, the end of Lucas Belvaux's Trilogy, an interesting experiment with genre and perception. I think this finale (in that it's the last one released in both the US and France) is the strongest part, but there's a real possibility that I would have found whichever came last strongest. Certainly, seeing this movie clears up a good deal of what annoyed me about An Amazing Couple, but does that strengthen or weaken An Amazing Couple? When a certain connection was made, I must admit that I felt like I should have learned that in that movie, not this one.

After The Life, by itself, is a melodrama of sorts. It focuses on Pascal and Agnès, a policeman and his schoolteacher wife (Agnès teaches at the same school as Céclile from An Amazing Couple and Jeanne from On The Run); their secret is that Pascal has been acquiring morphine for his wife's addiction. Now, though, his supplier has withheld the drug unless Pascal helps him find an escaped convict with a grudge. Meanwhile, Agnès's friend Cécile has asked for his help in finding out why her husband is acting peculiar. Agnès, meanwhile, is not coping with withdrawal well at all, and the strain coming from all three directions is starting to wear on Pascal.

Pascal (Gilbert Melki) is a far more sympathetic character here than he was in After The Life (he barely appeared in On The Run); it's easy to see the strain that is piled onto him from all directions. Agnès doesn't come off quite so well; she's an addict and acts as selfishly as one might expect. Their story is, at times, secondary to Pascal's investigation into the whereabouts of escaped terrorist Bruno le Roux (writer/director Belvaux), and the perhaps over-the-top final scene doesn't quite come out of left field, but certainly implies more despair than Pascal seemed capable of. In addition, if someone sees this movie before On The Run, it will seem like the last act is keyed by a huge deux ex machina.

After The Life is the fulcrum of the series. More so than either of the others, this movie is the other half of the previous films. Pascal is the man Cécile asked to look into her husband's activities in An Amazing Couple, and though he appeared to be an obsessed lunatic in that one, he has his reasons. Those reasons have to do with his investigation, which is the other half of On The Run. If you can hypothetically only see two of the movies, this is the one not to miss, as it fills in the blanks in the other two movies.

Indeed, that may be my problem with the trilogy - each is very focused on one pair of characters, to the extent that it excludes other viewpoints. I don't think there is a scene in this movie that doesn't feature either Pascal or Agnès, much as there weren't any in An Amazing Couple without Cécile or Alain, or any in On The Run without Jeanne or Bruno. This makes for a good experiment, but it means that scenes which would normally be in a movie of a specific genre don't necessarily appear in that movie. As a result, the trilogy is more than the sum of its parts, but those parts are less than they could be by themselves.

If you go for this, try to see it relatively quickly. I saw it spaced over two months, and had to work to recall some details. The Brattle will be showing all three this Thursday (8 April 2004), and then one a week for the next three weeks.

Saturday, April 03, 2004


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 April 2004 at Loews Boston Common #2 (first-run)

Hellboy is the sort of movie that often elicits comments like "it's full of ridiculous things, but it works because it doesn't take itself seriously." This couldn't be further from the truth; Hellboy has all sort of funny things going on in the corners of the movie, and its monstrous-looking but down-to-earth title character does make with the jokes, but this is not the result of the film and the filmmakers not taking themselves seriously. It's the opposite; that sort of attention to detail points to everyone involved taking the project very seriously, and getting it exactly right. Sloppy movies like Independence Day and Armageddon don't take themselves seriously; Hellboy is better than that.

This would be a frighteningly easy movie to screw up, but director Guillermo del Toro embraces the weird world of Mike Mignola's "Hellboy"/"BPRD" (Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense) comics and makes it hold together. Most superhero movies, because of budget constraints or a desire to keep grounded for the non-geek audience, give us a world with one superhero and one supervillain; Hellboy not only gives us the title character, a demon brought into our world as a baby and raised by his discoverer as a son, but it also gives us fish-man Abe Sapien (body by Doug Jones, voice by an uncredited David Hyde Pierce), firestarter Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), Grigori "yes that" Rasputin (Karel Roden), an immortal Nazi, a hundred-year-old assassin who has replaced much of his body with mechanical parts whose "blood has dried up so that only dust flows in his veins", space-born Lovecraftian monsters, demonic frog-creatures, and more. Nice-but-normal FBI agent John Myers (Rupert Evans), likely meant to be the audience's viewpoint character, practically vanishes into the woodwork.

The story, based upon Mignola's "Seed Of Destruction" miniseries, is as straightforward as these things can be - sixty years ago, the Nazis attempted to summon a demon army, but the US Army got the drop on them, and all that got through was a baby. Now, sixty years later, that baby is a man (demons don't age quite as quickly as you and me) working for the BPRD division of the FBI, handling supernatural threats to the United States. But Rasputin's lover, whom he blessed with long life and youth, and the clockwork assassin have brought the mad monk back, and he intends to pick up where he left off. But to do that, he apparently needs to draw Hellboy out, releasing a frog demon into a New York museum and causing a setback in his friend Liz's attempt to control her powers.

Hellboy's world is well-realized. This should be no surprise; both del Toro and Mignola (who serves as an associate producer and design consultant) are perhaps best known for their visual styles. The effects are very good, maybe a little less polished than you'd get from Star Wars, but mostly believable and solid looking (though nobody has yet gotten the "digital stuntman" quite right). It's got its moments of comic-book absurdity (where are the giant pendulums that smash a catwalk coming from?), but it all fits together, too.

It fits together, mostly, because of Ron Perlman's performance in the title role. An old hand at working under a lot of prosthetic makeup, Perlman knows how to exaggerate his body language just enough to make up for having so much of his face covered up without entering ham territory. Despite being an actor in his fifties playing a sixty-year-old demon, he portrays Hellboy as emotionally in his late teens; he has a temper, clashes with his adopted father (John Hurt), and has a crush on Liz, amusingly following her and Myers when they go out for coffee. Indeed, that scene where he's watching her while talking to a nine-year-old boy he meets up on the roof is the fulcrum on which the movie rests; he looks like the devil himself but is in many ways a confused kid struggling to become a man his father can be proud of.

I hope Hellboy makes a ridiculous amount of money, enough to get everyone back to do "Wake The Devil", sell a bunch of comic book collections, get me action figures to put on my shelf, and allow more fantasies with this amount of imagination to be made. It's a hugely entertaining movie.

Savior of the Soul (Gauyat sandiu haplui) and Moon Warriors (Zhan shen chuan shuo)

Savior: * * (out of four)
Warriors: * * * (out of four)
Seen 1 April 2004 at the Brattle Theater (a tribute to Anita Mui)

In a twenty-year career, Anita Mui made, according to the IMDB, 46 movies, while also being one of Hong Kong's most popular pop singers. That's not quite so astounding as it would be in the United States; much of what she made was action/adventure pictures, which seem to be produced like factory goods. When she died of cervical cancer at the end of 2003, it was gigantic news in Hong Kong, Princess Di big.

I hear that and I think, she must have been one heck of a singer. As a movie star, at least in what I've seen, she's a mass of contradictions. She's not strikingly pretty, though she does have a certain authority that makes her seem formidable. Though she can handle herself in fight scenes when given the chance, she often seemed to get cast as a crying victim in movies with Jackie Chan. I'm not sure I see her as a movie star; more a familiar presence.

Both movies in the Brattle's tribute to her Thursday night are really Andy Lau vehicles; he and Mui are paired up, but sparks don't quite fly. Though there's fun to be had, I wish the Brattle had chosen movies where she played a more central role, as with last week's Heroic Trio.

Savior of the Soul, for instance, is a mess. It's got a futuristic look to it, with "city soldiers" using futuristic weapons to... Well, mainly to fight the "Silver Fox" (Aaron Kwok), who seems like he'd be more in place in a movie set a couple centuries earlier, a bandit of sorts who is said to be part of some assassin's guild; in the movie's opening, he rescues his mentor only to execute him for his allowing himself to be captured... and then he goes after the "city soldiers", May Yiu (Mui) specifically, to avenge his mentor. I suppose there's some kind of criminal code that allows this to make sense. May, in the meantime, is the object of two of her colleagues' affections, but the Fox kills one just as his sister arrives in town; said sister is taken in by the other (Lau) while May leaves town to draw the Silver Fox away...

It doesn't make any sense. This is before the movie takes a U-turn from its more futuristic trappings to get all mystical with a kung fu competition to find a husband for the "Pet Lady", whom Lau's character thinks is May, and the slain soldier's little sister having a weird baseball motif like a character out of one of your goofier mangas. That's not mentioning Anita Mui's other role, as May's sister, who builds the soldier's tech and has bad luck whenever Lau's character is around. Then there's the thing about Silver Fox turning May into some sort of "Terrible Angel"... It makes no sense, and isn't quite slick enough to cover that up. The fighting is wire-fu, and shot almost Hollywood style with its quick cuts and attempts to camoflage effects work.

Interestingly, like Haunted Cop Shop 2, this movie was also written by Wong Kar Wai, who later became one of the big names in Hong Kong art cinema. I guess you could liken this early work to John Sayles paying the bills with scripting Roger Corman fare like Prianha until he could produce and direct his own movies.

Moon Warriors is much better. Sammo Hung directs here, though he does not appear. Andy Lau plays Fei, a simple fisherman with exceptional kung fu who comes to the aid of Yen (Kenny Bee, who also appeared in Savior of the Soul), a prince on the run from his warlord brother. Yen is protected by Hsien (Maggie Cheung), who loves him despite his betrothal to Yeuh (Mui), a princess who will fall in love with Fei as they return to his village, where Yen is hiding out. Stated in one sentance, it seems like a complicated plot, but it's rather straightforward, and rather sweet for a kung fu action movie, even working in Fei's friendship with a killer whale (this came out soon after Free Willy; Sammo will swipe from anything that's not nailed down). Indeed, those scenes with the killer whale are quite nicely filmed, and they set up a bit in the end that provides great amusement in the middle of a particularly brutal fight scene.

The action is just as over-the-top here, but choreographed well. There are scenes with big armies fighting it out, one-on-one duels, and bigger fights. The fishing village is a neat environment; unlike a lot of movies (especially Hong Kong's quickly-made action movies) set in rural China, it looks like some work actually went into this. The comic relief doesn't get completely out-of-hand either. It's quite an enjoyable action movie, despite the grimness of its final act.