Monday, May 31, 2004

Ella Enchanted

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 May 2004 at the Arlington Capitol #4 (second-run)

I don't get it. It's okay for someone to be a fan of Shrek regardless of age or gender, but a thirty-year-old male who buys a ticket for Ella Enchanted without the accompaniment of a small, female child is looked at like he's some sort of creep. Okay, granted, the star of this movie is a young cutie (and my describing Anne Hathaway as "likely to be Julia Roberts when she grows up" is, admittedly, a bit off-putting), and the movie is more squarely aimed at those under 18 than Shrek. It's still the same kind of humor, and not only is Miss Hathaway easier on the eyes than a big green ogre, but the other visuals stack up well, too.

The story has been, I gather, somewhat freely adapted from the source material, with director Tommy O'Haver and five (credited) screenwriters opting to set it in a rather modern fairy tale kingdom where people act like twenty-first century Americans despite the lack of such things as electricity. When a baby is born to a minor nobleman, several fairies come bringing gifts, the rather irresponsible fairy Lucinda (Vivica A. Fox) giving her the "gift of obedience". As she grows up, this is an inconvenience, until her father remarries. Her stepsister figures this out and uses this knowledge cruelly, finally spurring Ella to track Lucinda down. Along the way, she will meet a prince with his own fan club, an elf who dreams of being a lawyer, an enchanted book, ogres, and giants.

I liked the design of this movie; though the opening shot, in particular, is nifty. It appears to be obviously CGI - though the credits list a lot of miniature work - but it establishes the movie's aesthetic and Eric Idle's narration established the tone. It's clean, modern, somewhat satiric but not to the point of self-referentiality. Many of the effects aren't quite as polished as they could be, but in some ways that works in the movie's favor: When Ella and company are meet with the giants, for instance, the less-than perfect compositing actually keeps one's brain from trying to see the characters as the same size (which was an issue I had with the Lord Of The Rings movies). The music choices are somewhat goofy, but not to the extent that Shrek 2's were.

It's also a fun cast; you've got Eric Idle as the narrator, Cary Elwes at the villain, Joanna Lumley as the stepmother, Minnie Driver, Patrick Bergin, Steve Coogan, Jimi Mistry, Heidi Klum, and Parminder Nagra. The kids likely won't recognize these folks, but they're fun for the grown-ups. Likewise, the story and characterization are simple, but not dumbed-down. It's made for kids, but not just for kids.

One important note - this movie is winding down its theatrical release, and the only announced DVD is cropped. It's got a few fairly busy compositions, so I'm hoping Miramax announces a widescreen version. Otherwise, the only chance to see the movie as it was made is in theaters for another week or two (if that).

Sunday, May 30, 2004

The Iceman Cometh (Ji dong ji xia)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 May 2004 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Midnight Ass-Kickings)

Trying to make sense of this movie's plot will make an intelligent moviegoer's head hurt. Actually, the plot is fairly straightforward - a Ming Dynasty palace guard and the rapist/murderer he's pursuing both appear in present-day (1989) Hong Kong and continue their fight. The details, on the other hand, are all over the map - does the "Wheel of Buddha" artifact actually transport them in time, or just in space, while they are frozen in ice? What happens to the scientists who transport the frozen bodies to Hong Kong (as a pretext to get out of Communist China)? Why do they think the recently-unearthed Wheel can send them back in time? Just what the heck is the villain Fung San (Yuen Wah) doing while the movie follows Ching (Yuen Biao) during the first half-hour or so?

But it doesn't matter, nor does the apparent $1.78 production budget, because there are a few pretty spiffy fight scenes, and the last one is the best. It's a standout for the genre, filmed almost entirely in clear medium shots, and shows off just what Yuen Biao is capable of. The guy's athletic, and even when one slow motion shot clearly shows the wire that had been almost invisible when the same shot was shown at normal speed, it's still impressive. Yeun hasn't done much in Hollywood beyond a cameo in Shanghai Noon - so he's not as famous on this side of the Pacific as Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, or Jet Li, but he's as good when the action starts as any of them.

If Miramax were to pick it up for distribution, there would probably be a good half-hour cut out of it, and that wouldn't be a wholly bad thing. The sequence between Ching arriving in the twentieth century and the re-emergence of Fung San is mostly "comedy", with Maggie Cheung as the call girl who takes him in and tricks him into being her servant (women are in charge now, she says; there's even a woman on the money). It's mostly amusing but also stretched, and it's something of a relief when the punching and kicking and shooting begins again. It's one of the longer kung fu movies I've seen, clocking in at nearly two hours, and could use some trimming. And in an environment other than the Midnight Ass-Kicking, the low-rent production values, less-than-stellar acting (I wonder if they were just working Ed Wood "keep the first take" style on everything but the fight scenes), pretty much random screenplay and awful subtitles might have been annoying rather than amusing.

But Yuens Biao and Wah fight real good, and the rest kept me awake at 1am. That's what I paid my $6 for.

Coffee and Cigarettes

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 May 2004 at Coolidge Corner #1 (first-run)

Jim Jarmusch has been making these little films since 1987 - black and white, featuring a couple people in a café, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and talking. These folks are celebrities, most playing a somewhat caricatured version of themselves. Somewhere inside each of the eleven segments, someone will mention that coffee and cigarettes isn't much of a lunch. It has the potential to get repetitive, and some quite frankly aren't terribly entertaining. They are, however, more than balanced by the ones which are hilarious.

The funniest are, by and large, the ones with a sort of tension to them, where people are meeting for the first time and one is clearly more impressed with the other than vice versa. After a forced conversation between Steven Wright and Roberto Begigni (whose two styles don't match well at all) and a downright peculiar bit where Joie and Cinqué Lee have Steve Buscemi as a waiter, we get the first bit that is pure gold: Iggy Pop meeting up with Tom Waits, with Waits being subtly hostile to Iggy. A similar tactic is used later on, in the segment entitled "Cousins?", with Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan meeting, with Molina being a big fan of Coogan's work and Coogan being "aware" of Molina's. It's a refined bit of conversational combat.

A number of the segments are just odd, some working much better than others. "Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil", for instance, features Jack & Meg White of The White Stripes talking while Jack's Tesla coil sits off to the side in a little red wagon. It's probably the most outright peculiar segment, although most have a sort of unpredictability to them. The characters share names with the actors, and mostly seem like their public personae, but have just enough eccentricity that it's seldom clear where the individual quirks stop and the acting begins. Especially with the ones who may not be familiar - this is Renée French's only credit, so how much of the femme fatale type she plays is a character and how much is Jarmusch wanting to capture someone he knows. That's part of the appeal, too - in a segment where Cate Blanchett plays herself and a cousin with a striking resemblence (but a wholly different personality), we wonder which character more aptly represents the real Cate.

Writer/director Jim Jarmusch stumbles, on occasion, though he's got talented performers to smooth it over. The portion with Wu-Tang Clan's GZA and RZA awkwardly references the other segments, but has Bill Murray, who can do deadpan eccentric better than anyone. There is a fair amount of repetition here (it's hard not to be aware of him re-using the overhead shot, for instance), but the film manages to be original and unpredictable through most of its runtime, and delivers some very big laughs.

Friday, May 28, 2004

13 Going On 30

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 May 2004 at AMC Fenway #5 (first-run)

I am trying not to be hypocritical here, for I know that I have on a number of occasions called people unreasonable for running down a movie (or other form of entertainment) for not being what they thought it should be, as opposed to recognizing what it is. That said, I couldn't help but wonder, as I watched 13 Going On 30, what an interesting story it would be if, instead of being a story about a 13-year-old girl who magically became her older self, it was a story about a 30-year-old woman who suffers some sort of breakdown and regresses to her more innocent self. Up until the end, it almost could be that, although there's really no reason to assume that the movie is close to being that clever.

Still, that does bring up a weird an uncomfortable question - when Jenna Rink (Jennifer Garner) seeks out her childhood best friend Matt (Mark Ruffalo) and spills the beans about how she just seems to have skipped over seventeen years of her life, why is his immediate reaction not something along the lines of "this girl is mentally ill"? The same when she starts having slumber parties with her neighbors' kids. I get that she doesn't really have any close friends who would worry about her personality basically suddenly reversing itself, and that her boyfriend is too self-centered to really care beyond his not getting any. Still, it demonstrates the limits of suspension of disbelief: I will accept that something clearly impossible, like a 13-year-old girl waking up 30 because of some magic wishing powder, without question, but will have difficulty when characters don't react to the fantasy elements in a believable way. Sprinkle in a few plot holes, bland characters, and a good deal of uncomfortable but not really sharp humor, and the movie has to get by on charm alone.

Admittedly, it has charm in spades; it's very tough to come up short in that category with Garner and Ruffalo front and center. The latter brings his usual scruffy sensitivity, while Garner is this close to winning the Eddie Murphy-in-The Nutty Professor Award for a great performance in a bad movie. One scene showing the adult Jenna for contrast to the childlike one probably would have cinched it. I'm not altogether certain I completely believe the way she plays her mentally-thirteen-year-old character, since thirteen year-olds seem awfully sophisticated today (compare 13 Going On 30 with last year's Thirteen), at least on the surface, but, hey, I was thirteen in 1987 and figure most of the people I knew were more kid than adult, so maybe it really is "those kids today". Still, Garner's performance seems much more childish than that of Christa B. Allen, the actual kid who plays Jenna at 13 (and an amazingly good likeness for Ms. Garner). Sadly, most of the rest of the cast is pretty awful.

I will give director Gary Winick some credit; he manages a couple good scenes toward the end, including one of the best 15-year-cuts in recent memory. He also seems to really be enjoying shooting in 35mm with bold colors - watching many of the films from his InDigEnt production company (including his awful Sam The Man) can be a painful experience; I've grumbled about his murky, digital-video productions before. But the script gives him and the actors very little to make a good movie with, and in the end what's worth watching is basically what the two stars bring to the movie, and not the movie itself.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Still, We Believe: The Boston Red Sox Movie

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 May 2004 at AMC Fenway #1 (first-run)

7:05pm, going to see the Red Sox at Fenway. Sadly, it was not the beat-down the 2004 team laid on the Oakland A's, but this painful documentary on my favorite team's 2003 season.

Still, We Believe isn't painful because of how it ends; that ending is one of the few parts of the movie where I felt something other than disgust. Yeah, it hurt, but it was honest emotion, and it was one of the parts of the movie that matched my memories of the season. This is because the movie, like most outsider views of Red Sox fandom, misses something crucial: Even if the Sox lose in the playoffs, and do so in tremendously painful fashion, getting to the playoffs is one whole hell of a lot of fun.

Sadly, this movie makes it look depressing and lifeless. Despite nearly limitless access to players as charismatic as Pedro Martinez, Kevin Millar, David Ortiz, and others, the movie is primarily told from the perspective of the fans. Which is okay, but "Angry Bill" Constine is all too typical of the fans they choose, all ready to spout pessimism and gloom at the drop of a hat. The fans chosen make Red Sox fandom look like a joyless pursuit, generally falling short of spouting the curse crap that has likely bought Dan Shaughnessey a new house or two, but still not getting across why we love this team.

The selection of games isn't much better. If you go by the games included in the movie, you'd have to wonder how this team made the playoffs, since extrapolating a full 162-game schedule from what was shown in the movie would yield a record of something like 20-142. They show Roger Clemens getting his 299th victory against the Red Sox, but don't show the Sox denying him his 300th in decisive fashion (or, for that matter, reference the Sox/Yanks/Roger history). That this was one of most explosive offenses in baseball history is mentioned in passing, but never shown. Where was the game where the Red Sox destroyed the Florida Marlins, scoring 11 runs before the first out? Or Bill Mueller's game where he hit grand slam home runs from both sides of the plate? Or, speaking of Mueller, how about one of the most hotly debated moves of the season, the trade which sent Shea Hillenbrand to Arizona for Byung-Hyun Kim, which polarized the fans and brought Mueller and fan favorite David Ortiz to the forefront? Chapter titles will occasionally reference the Sox' position in the standings, but the film only seems to show them losing, so the audience wonders how the team gained ground.

Obviously, I can't be objective about this movie. I was there - literally, in some cases; I was at the park the day tickets went on sale (although I spent much of the day in a room where a TV was showing coverage of the Columbia disaster - fortunately, using that as an omen would have been too crass even for this film), and I met Jessamy Finet and Erin Nanstad, two of the fans profiled (and the most upbeat), a year earlier. This was a movie about Red Sox fans, a group I'm a part of, and it doesn't represent me at all. This doesn't make it a bad movie; it's the disconnect between what's shown and what's said to happen, the lack of excitement, and the leaden telegraphing of the movie's ending makes it a bad movie.

We're not all like this. Check out the Red Sox blogs on my kinja list for the perspectives of fans who love the team, and are enjoy the heck out of this season without much doom and gloom, either as an antidote to or (better) a substitute for this movie.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 May 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Von Sternberg: Dietrich and Beyond)

Dietrich's first American film and her second with Von Sternberg features what would soon become a familiar role - her as a nightclub entertainer who bewitches all those who see her. Here, the "victims" of her Amy Jolly are Gary Cooper as a member of the French Foreign Legion Adolphe Menjou as a recently arrived playboy. Amy falls for Cooper's Tom Brown, but he's a girl-in-every-oasis type, and soon must be deployed again. They'd had no strings, of course, but soon...

What makes Morocco remarkable for its time is its comfort with sexuality. Dietrich was one of the talkies' first sex symbols, and she smoulders whether she's performing in a skimpy dress or an all-covering tuxedo. If Britney Spears and Madonna raised eyebrows with a painfully staged buss just last year, Amy's kiss of a woman in the audience during her first night at the club comes off as spontaneous and spirited. She is the one who intiates things with Brown, although he's far from prudish himself.

Morocco is a destination in this movie for people who are leaving something behind. We don't know quite what either Amy or Tom has in their past, although Amy refers to her work at the club as being like a "Legion for women". It doesn't much matter, though - we don't need to know why they've left their lives behind, just that they have. It's the same kind of economy that Von Sternberg later showed in Shanghai Express, although here he had a better cast to work with. There's also fewer opportunities to trip over the dialogue, since it was apparently minimized in order to handle Dietrich's limited English. She does sing, alas, but she's sexy enough to distract from that.

One thing that seemed odd, though, was that Amy's growth seems to go somewhat in reverse - we first see her as this strong, independant woman in full command of her own sexuality, and by the end, she hasn't exactly been subjugated, but she's totally committed to a man. She's no longer the self-contained creature she was at the start of the film. That's not to say falling in love is a regression of any kind, but there's not much indication that something was missing prior to her meeting Tom. Maybe that one thing could have taken an entertaining, atmospheric romance to the next level.

Shanghai Express

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 May 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Von Sternberg: Dietrich and Beyond)

Was Von Sternberg going for camp here, or is this just how they made movies back then? It's almost impossible to tell. The supporting characters in this movie are not quite charicatures, but they are definitely types. They serve as decoration for a thin story about a woman with a scandalous reputation and a stuffy soldier meeting again after five years, while the revolution in China provides a background.

The story is thin, but serviceable. Former lovers meat on a train, bicker a bit, and then are held hostage by one of their fellow passengers. One makes a sacrifice for the other, but is too proud to admit it, and it falls to an obnoxious other character to make them realize how much they still love each other. It is, compared to today's films, remarkably uncluttered; there's no third person to create a love triangle, and the supporting characters are pretty much all comic relief, rather than having distracting subplots.

Unfortunately, Marlene Dietrich is the only star this movie has. She's beautiful, playful, and as naughty as a film made with the Hayes Code in effect will let her be. As "coaster" Shanghai Lily, she runs rings around her costar, Clive Brook, who is stilted and, though reasonably good looking, without charisma. The rest of the cast is serviceable, notably Walter Olund as a half-Chinese businessman and Anna May Wong as another "coaster", the term for women who travel the Chinese coast living "by their wits".

The dialogue is stilted, and some of the "action" is laughable. A massacre involving machine guns involves a lot of clutching of chests and falling bloodlessly over, not even in sync with the sound effects. The effect is of a movie star in a movie that doesn't deserve her, although Von Sternberg spent Paramount's money well, on nice sets and believable-looking exteriors. The movie looks pretty good, but I'm not sure how much of the laughter from the audience is what the filmmakers were going for.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Shrek 2

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

At a certain point, a comedy wins. You overlook characters who don't reach their full potential, the jokes that weren't quite funny, and weak plotting because you have laughed enough to justify the $6.50 you spent. Often, when a comedy works, there's one bit that pushes you over the edge to the point where the rest of the movie could be Adam Sandler and Gilbert Gottfried arguing over traffic and parking without the movie possibly moving into the loss column. For me, for this movie, it was during one of the big set-pieces, where, having already primed the comedy pump by breaking into a song so definitively 80s that it was on the Footloose soundtrack, the sound guys insert Godzilla noises. I lost it then, though I had greatly enjoyed the movie up until then - that was the point when Shrek 2 went from being funny to being a favorite.

The story itself is simplicity itself - upon returning from their honeymoon, Shrek and Fiona are invited to visit Fiona's parents in the Kingdom Far Far Away. Shrek and King Harold (John Cleese) do not get along, and Harold tries to remove Shrek from the picture to clear the way for Fiona's arranged marriage to Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), the daughter of the Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders). Hilarity ensues.

One thing I couldn't help but notice is that this movie looks really amazing. The first Shrek was funny, but I found it visually a step down for Pacific Data Images from Antz; there were several sequences that yelled out video game. Here, though, everything looks smooth. It's worth noting that human models still aren't quite up to the more fantastical ones - in the first movie, the model of Princess Fiona looked good in part because we saw it before we saw the ogre Fiona. Here, we see the fantasy creatures first, and the humans don't seem nearly as expressive.

Two of the new voices, though, are keepers - John Cleese as King Harold is, well, John Cleese, and hilarious. Antonio Banderas plays Puss In Boots, a relatively unknown (in America) fairy tale character, and does it with such charm that the flimsiness of his presence in the movie is able to be completely overlooked. That said, the funniest use of Puss is almost entirely visual, as he makes gigantic cute-kitten eyes.

Is Shrek 2 quite as brilliant as the original? Maybe not. It's a little clumsier with the use of music (I may still buy this soundtrack, though), squanders Julie Andrews and Rupert Everett, and doesn't make quite as much use of the "Fairy Godmother" idea as it could. It does, however, have Eddie Murphy at his best, and frequently achieves the guffaws it aims for.

Once Upon A Time In China IV (Huang Fei-hung zhi sei: Wang zhe zhi feng )

* * * (out of four) (incomplete)
Seen 22 May 2004 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Midnight Ass-Kickings)

... and this is the point where the series basically goes direct-to-video, or at least it would have in the US. The original director has stepped back to a producer role, one of the main supporting characters is not present (but has been replaced with her previously unmentioned sister), the main character has been recast, and the story has gotten somewhat silly. In some ways, it seems like this was cranked out by the second unit while the sets were still up and costumes still around.

Ignore that pedigree, though, and this is a pretty enjoyable movie. While it more or less ignores that Wong Fei-Hung (here played by Man Cheuk Chiu, who was a mere 19 at the time) was a healer first and a martial artist second, it does bring the conflict between China and the foreign nations that were starting to exert more influence on China closer to the fore. It does so in a reasonably even-handed way; though there are nasty generals plotting to ... well, let's leave the plot aside for a moment ... the movie doesn't indict foreigners as necessarily evil, and does point up that outside influences generally improve a nation. Nobody is reading the newspaper published by Aunt Yee's previously unmentioned sister May (Jean Wang), also educated in America, because of widespread illiteracy.

But the story... Oh, my, the story. The story involves the evil representatives of a variety of nations (I spotted British, American, Japanese, and Italian flags) setting up a Lion Dancing tournament, only their lion costumes are huge, elaborate monsters armed with deadly weapons, with machine guns guarding the "bait" at the middle of the arena. I can't say it makes a lot of sense; not only do Wong Fei-hung and his friends immediately recognize it as an obvious trap but still decide to walk right into it, but who really thinks these competing nations would really work together to, what, kill a few Lion Dancers? Sure, they're good martial artists, but are they really a huge threat when you've got artillery? Meanwhile, a clan of female assassins is attacking foreigners in Beijing, so Wong and his friends must subdue them...

It's silly, and maybe fighting girls isn't really what you want to see from this folk hero, but it's still mostly fun. The comic relief is typically over-the-top, but the wire-assisted action scenes are colorful and fast-paced, and goofy in a fun way. I may have squawked that "dominoes don't do that" during one scene, but it was entertaining.

Unfortunately, the projector bulb crapped out near the end (on the plus side: free Coolidge ticket), so I remain in suspense as to whether or not Wong Fei-Hung and company survived that final Lion King tournament, although I assume things went well, with there being two more sequels.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Martin & Orloff

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 May 2004 at Loews Copley Place #7 (first-run)

Well, sort of first-run. Martin & Orloff is the first movie from the comedy troupe "Upright Citizens Brigade" (whose DVDs I will apparently have to purchase now), and though cast member Amy Poehler has started to get noticed, no studio ever picked this 2002 film up for distribution. So, it's getting occasional bookings every once in a while, playing Boston six months after it played New York.

It deserves a little more exposure. Certainly, it's a peculiar movie; like a lot of films that grow out of sketch comedy troupes, the film is populated by weird characters doing weird things without worrying about realism. I imagine this is because the core group is on the same wavelengths, so when one suggests something bizarre, everyone else goes for it. In the case of Martin & Orloff, this leads to a movie that feels like sketch comedy - it establishes some odd characters, puts them in a situation, milks it for laughs, then moves on to the next situation, and repeats, with a few jokes recurring.

The main odd characters are Martin Flam (Ian Roberts), a mascot designer who recently attempted suicide, and Dr. Eric Orloff (Matt Walsh), the psychiatrist he's sent to see after being released from the mental hospital. Martin is, for the most part, the straight man, a sad sack obviously pained by everyone's sympathy (and comfort mentioning his attempted suicide in conversation). Orloff works out of a cockroach-infested office and seems to have no sense of boundaries between doctor and patient, or appropriate behavior. As Martin's supposed to begin his first therapy session, Orloff remembers he has a softball game, but it's okay, Martin can come along and they can have the sessions between innings. This, naturally, leads to a brawl, a trip to jail, and the first encounter with Eric's friend Keith (H. Jon Benjamin), a Desert Storm vet with odd bathroom habits. Soon, we'll meet Eric's stripper girlfriend (Kim Raver) and her friend Patty (Amy Poehler). Most amusing is Mr. Chan (Les Mau), the client of Martin's company looking for an eight-foot sparerib costume without eyeholes, which is causing Martin a great deal of anxiety. He's flat-out cacklingly evil-nuts, and he chews scenery with abandon. Arrested Development's David Cross also appears, and there are cameos by Andy Richter, Tina Fey, Janeane Garafolo, and others.

This movie is well-orchestrated bad taste. Much humor is improbably mined from Martin's suicide attempt, potential harm to small children, and references to the gigantic member of Patty's ex-boyfriend (pro wrestler Sal Graziano). The audience will know if they're up for this sort of thing early, and the movie doesn't just rely on shock value; it's got a fine sense of comic timing, and the characters, despite being peculiar, are generally likable. It also ends in a very enjoyable spoof of action flicks, including guards who act much more intelligent than the average action-movie guard.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Blonde Venus

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 17 May 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Von Sternberg: Dietrich and Beyond)

I'm not sure quite how often Dietrich played a nightclub entertainer; looking over the entries in the Brattle calendar for this series, it seems like rather a lot. It's easy to see why - she has the long legs, the flawless features, and the ability to project both how completely she owns the room and how small, in reality, that room she owns is. Unfortunately, I can't say she had much of a voice; it's astounding that someone can get cast as a singer so often when she apparently doesn't have much knack for it.

Luckily, her singing is only a side bit in this movie; she plays a young mother who returns to the stage in order to finance her husband's medical treatment abroad. Naturally, of course, a local millionaire (Cary Grant) takes a shine to her, and while she is initially able to use that to her advantage, her husband's return home forces an ugly confrontation. It's 1932, and the word "divorce" apparently cannot even be spoken in a movie yet, so the movie only touches on it obliquely. The issue of a parent snatching a child and fleeing when she fears losing custody is actually treated in a fairly even-handed manner. Generally, the fleeing parent is portrayed unsympathetically unless the other is abusive, but here Sternberg allows both Helen (Dietrich) and Ned (Herbert Marshall) to be more complex, people who made mistakes and are too unforgiving. Cary Grant's character, Nick Townsend, is not much more than a plot device, but does have Grant's charm.

If not for an awkward ending (forced resolutions are nothing new to Hollywood) and Dietrich singing, this might be one of the greatest movies of its genre; it still features quite a bit to like - the scene with the gorilla costume is, deservedly, considered classic. Heartily recommended as cinema history and entertainment.

The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel) - German version

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 May 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Von Sternberg: Dietrich & Beyond)

The Blue Angel was one of Josef von Sternberg's first talkies, but in many way it still has the feel of a silent. Emil Jannings plays Professor Immanuel Rath with a dignity that is almost painful to see, and when that dignity is crushed, we it not through words, but through silences, slightly exaggerated movements, and a terrible stillness.

At first, the ones affronting him are his students, who mock him ceaselessly as Professor "Unrath" (apparently, German for "garbage") and blow off their studies to watch singer Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) at the Blue Angel nightclub. He chases them down, and while he is initially extremely embarassed to be in this establishment, he and Lola do hit it off, and he is caught somewhat by surprise at his ability to find joy in his life.

It's a good movie; a classic story filled with iconic characters. Maybe too iconic; Professor Rath is a brilliantly essayed type, but isn't as individual as the similar characters who would come later. Similarly, Lola is a primal movie force, the blonde woman who seduces and destroys not out of malice, but simply because it is her nature. Neither lights up the screen like their supporting characters, but that hasn't changed in almost seventy-five years since. Jannings and Dietrich didn't create these character types, but they have been greatly refined since. The film also makes some odd choices on which scenes to include and exclude; there are a few times when something feels missing, like the story lurches from one point to another more out of necessity than because it feels right. A lot of time is spent establishing Rath as a sort of pompous, stiff academic, more than strictly necessary.

Otherwise, this is an interesting film - it features von Sternberg's first collaboration with Dietrich, and was also filmed in both English and German-language version (the Brattle screened the German version), and is an early example of the "respectable man laid low by a beautiful woman" genre.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Once Upon A Time In China III (Wong Fei-hung tsi sam: Siwong tsangba)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 May 2004 at Cooldige Corner #2 (Midnight Ass-Kickings)

It happens. A movie does well, and then has a sequel that's also very good. The studio then smells "franchise", and starts spitting more follow-ups out. They're not as good, and they start to stray from the original films (almost always incorporating more comedy), but they've got enough of what attracted the audience to the originals to keep their interest.

The Once Upon A Time In China movies (simply called Wong Fei-Hung in Hong Kong) are centered on China coming under the influence of Europe and America as seen through the eyes of Wong Fei-Hung, a Cantonese healer and master of the martial arts. Wong is an actual historical figure, though the movies have treated him more as a folk hero. Here, Wong (played by Jet Li) travels to Beijing to tour his father's new medicine factory, just as the Empress Dowager announces a Lion Dancing competition, which a local crime lord intends to dominate. She also intends to pit the foreign powers against each other, though little comes of this plot thread. Along for the ride are Wong's assistant Fu and his "aunt" (apparently adopted by his grandfather) and romantic interest Peony Yee (Rosamund Kwan).

Here, the East-versus-West conflict is mostly reduced to a rivalry between Wong and a Russian diplomat named Tumanovsky; he and Yee had met while she was educated abroad. Yee is an avid phtographer, and the Russian gives her an early motion-picture camera, which irritates Wong and serves to capture a betrayal later. Wong's skill as a doctor is also given somewhat short shrift.

But, what about the fights? They're pretty good, if not quite up to the high standards set by director Tsui Hark with the series's first two installments. There's a little too much wire work, and the lion dancing serves to obscure the fighting somewhat. Still, Jet Li and Xin Xin Xiong (as rival-cum-partner Club Foot) are exceptionally skilled, and scenes such as Wong subduing an entire street fight armed with, basically, his jacket or fighting on a greasy floor against opponents wearing cleats are fun to watch. The results of some of these fights are a little bloodier than I remember the first two movies being, but it's mostly pretty well-done.

The Once Upon A Time In China series was starting to show a little wear with this installment; next week's Weekly Midnight Ass-Kicking is #4, and doesn't feature either Tsui Hark or Jet Li. It still has enough of what made the series great to be worth a look.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Games People Play: New York

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 May 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

Sometime, in the not-too-distant future, Games People Play will be mentioned in Congressional hearings about obscenity in movies, the reality TV phenomenon, and the basic decadence of the entertainment industry. It is one of the most gleefully exploitive movies I can recall seeing, and one of the most shamelessly manipulative. It is also, in some ways, fiendishly clever about making the audience members confront their individual attitudes toward this exploitation and manipulation. It can be viewed as either a sharp satire of unscripted television shows or the most cynical, vulgar example of them that one can imagine (until the sequel, Games People Play: Hollywood, is rolled out later this year).

One of its best qualities is that you're never quite sure how serious writer/director James Ronald Whitney is about this. He starts off addressing the audience to say that this is a pilot for a new primem time game show, in which actors compete in a variety of tasks over a seventy-two hour period in competition for a $10,000 prize. I'm not sure which networks he would be sending this pilot too - the options seem pretty much limited to Showtime and the Playboy Channel. Maybe pay per view. Because, as we quickly learn as he and two "judges" audition actors to participate in this game, we quickly learn what his ad in the trade about looking for "mentally and physically uninhibited" actors meant - the audition scene calls for nudity and simulated sex right off the bat. I want to show this audition sequence to my theater major brother as a look into the future - competition in the acting profession is fierce. However, I'm pretty sure our parents would be very, very upset at me for this.

Once three actors (Joshua Coleman, David Maynard, Scott Ryan) and three actresses (Dani Marco, Sarah Smith, Elisha Imani Wilson) are chosen, they're given a series of tasks to perform which will involve them interacting with the citizens of New York. Some are wickedly funny, some are mostly benign, and some are disturbing. The director takes care to note that everyone who participates signs a release form (indeed, a urine sample collected in the mens' first challenge doesn't count unless accompanied by a release), showing that it's not just the actors who are willing to embarrass themselves, but several "man on the street" types.

Meanwhile, the judges meet with the contestants. These judges, Dr. Gilda Carle and Jim Caruso, both have websites that don't appear to be clever movie publicity. As they talk, the contestants let out shocking secrets, but our cynicism has been primed - these are actors, after all, who have already shown themselves willing to do a heck of a lot more than most in the audience would for a chance at $10K. How much of what they're saying is genuine and how much is BS?

The games themselves are strongly on the exploitive side. That urine gag? Probably the most benign. Most of the others involve not only the contestants getting naked, but convincing strangers off the street to get naked, often in an unquestionably sexual context. The movie isn't sexist about it; you're going to see just as much penis as you will breast.

The inevitable "reality show twist" at the end is clever, I'll give it that - it allows the audience to feel relief, then wonder if they should, then question the whole thing. It's wonderfully ambiguous. Maybe a little too ambiguous, perhaps - I wasn't clear what role the judges played in this twist, which frustrated me. It could have ramped the viciousness of the satire up a notch, or it might have just made everything more staged.

Also, some of the inner "game" elements were underdeveloped. While the graphics and presentation had an authentic cheesy-cable-show quality to them, the "Naked Trio" event wasn't nearly as amusing as the time spent on it. Which is too bad, because it's one of the few times we got to see the contestants work with each other. Also, if this is supposed to be a pilot for a real show, a little more attention should have been paid to the aspect of keeping score and judging performances. The lack of focus on the competition sort of gave the lie to the "this just may be real" conceit. Oh, and the music was truly, utterly awful - going well beyond a parody of what a show on a low budget would use into just being intrusively bad.

This movie will cause some to react strongly, especially those who don't see the satire as amusing. I'm in the category that thinks this could have been brilliant with a little more refinement; hopefully Games People Play: Hollywood will be a slightly more polished work (its poster indicates a somewhat different focus).

Mean Girls

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 May 2004 at Loews Boston Common #12 (first-run)

I must have missed high school. Either that, or (and this is my pet theory) everyone in Hollywood went to private school, and so their idea of what a public school is like comes from watching other high school movies, and now twenty years of this has resulted in an almost universally stylized depiction of high school, right down to the scene where someone shows the new kid who the various cliques in the lunchroom are, all of which can be tagged with a simple two-word description.

Or maybe I'm wrong; Mean Girls is credited as being based on a sociological study, so there may be something to it. Things like a smart girl tanking a class to get closer to a guy have the ring of truth, at least. At any rate, Tina Fey takes the anthropological approach of this book and builds a script where 16-year-old Cady (Lindsay Lohan) is coming into high school cold, without ever having been in a classroom before; her zoologist parents home-schooled her while they worked in Africa. At first, her observations (in voice-over) are an intriguing outsider's view, like how she mentions that she's never been in an envrionment where people don't trust her when she's denied permission to use the ladies' room. Soon, she meets up with Janis and Damian, an art-gal and her gay best friend, and is also asked to sit at the popular girls' table, which is ruled by Regina (Rachel McAdams). This leads to a scheme to destroy "The Plastics" from within... Unless, of course, Cady winds up becoming one of them.

There aren't really any new character types in this movie; and on occasion it becomes obvious that Fey and director Mark S. Waters are working with types. It's not really a bad thing; some of the funnier moments come as Cady slips into seeing high school in terms of jungle animals, and it's clear we're working with archtypes. And those archtypes are painted broadly enough to be funny while still maintaining some individuality. Particularly good is McAdams, who maintains her charisma despite clearly being the villain of the piece. On the other hand, there are moments and characters (such as Lacey Chabert's Gretchen) that feel like little more than Hollywood archtypes, rather than high school ones.

The filmmakers occasionally seem to come close to an R rating by their refusal to blink in the face of teens' sexuality and a few thoroughly mean-spirited bits. The use of a school bus, like the knives in Starsky & Hutch, has no business drawing a laugh, but gets a big one anyway - that's comic timing. The sex is a little more bothersome for me. On the one hand, I like that the movie doesn't preach about sex being immoral and bad (and hilariously mocks that kind of simplistic attitude); on the other, it's flipness with some of these kids' activity occasionally seemed to be a little far in the other direction. Or maybe I'm just 30 and creeped out by finding some of the girls in the cast attractive, even if I know Ms. McAdams is actually 27 and Ms. Lohan (the only actress playing her actual age) still looks like a kid.

The film is produced by Lorne Michaels and has a few current and previous Saturday Night Live contributors. Amy Poehler is usually much funnier than she is here, while Tina Fey manages both to be funny and the mature sane center of the movie as the kids' math teacher. Tim Meadows is funny for perhaps the first time ever as the principal of the school, delivering his lines with a killer deadpan style that beautifully illustrates just how powerless he feels despite allegedly being in charge of the school.

There's nothing groundbreaking about Mean Girls; it fills in a space on the high school comedy list somewhere between Ten Things I Hate About You and Heathers. It does execute very well, though, skillfully enough to be worth a watch even if you don't fit in its demographic.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The Last Command

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 May 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Von Sternberg: Dietrich & Beyond)

So the first film in the Josef von Sternberg series presented by the Brattle and Goethe-Institut doesn't feature Marlene Dietrich; it's an interesting silent and, as a bonus, casts William Powell (who would later go on to much success in the talkies, especially with the Thin Man movies) in a supporting role. It is the story of a proud man reduced to poverty for being on the losing side of a war. A just war, perhaps - Emil Jannings's Grand Duke Sergius Alexander had been a general in the Czar's army during the Russian Revolution - but that doesn't make the general an evil man, nor does it make those who fought against him good.

I unfortunately arrived a bit late; when I got there Sergius was arriving at a Hollywood studio, a quivering old man playing the part of a general in a silent movie. As he dons his uniform, his mind reaches back ten years, to when he was the cousin of the Czar and leader of his armies. He was an arrogant and selfish man, one who took his place in life for granted. When Lev Andreyev (Powell), a theater director, and Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent), a beautiful revolutionary, attempt to pass through his lines, he has them locked up, though the beauty gets a far more gilded cage than the director.

The relationship between Sergius and Natalie is an interesting one. At first, he comes off as a monster, holding her as if she's some sort of private plaything. And yet, when she gets a glimpse of him defying the Czar to avoid needless bloodshed, the way she looks at him changes; there's a possibility for redemption and a kind of nobility there, though there's not much opportunity to tease it out before the Revolution catches up with them.

That's a great silent-movie scene; the acting had been fairly restrained for a silent, but at this point they start playing to the balconies, with the revolutionaries cackling maniacally, looking positively demonic as they give the Czarists their comeuppance. Natalie seems to transform into a different person until a moment when she can cast a gaze at the general with no-one looking. It's odd to describe something in a slient movie as being a quiet moment, but that's what you have - the rest of the screen is doing the visual equivelent of making a lot of noise, and up to that moment Ms. Brent's face had been a part of that, but suddenly her stillness makes for a sharp contrast.

The final twenty minutes or so of the movie are back in Hollywood, and are another interesting set of subjects - the idea of Hollywood and the movies recreating history, even recent history (an assistant director instructs Sergius on how to wear his uniform, saying they'd made twenty Russian pictures and knew what they were talking about), and the idea that by the time it's possible to take revenge on someone, they've often been ground down far enough that there's no personal satisfaction in it. Jannings's performance is a little over the top here; his shaking seems exaggerated. And maybe the director's turnaround seems a little sudden; where Natalie had ample time to re-evaluate her opinion of Sergius, Powell's character only encounters him that day. It seems like a rushed finale to anotherwise extremely well-paced film.

Sadly, this movie is not yet available (or announced) on DVD; the studios have yet to figure out a way to effectively market their silent films (Fox's Sunrise is a mail-away exclusive; Universal used Death Takes A Holiday as an extra on the Meet Joe Black DVD).

I'm Not Scared (Io non ho paura)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 May 2004 at Loews Harvard Square #2 (first-run)

To a child, life in the south of Italy in 1978 appears idyllic. As the movie opens, Michele is running through a field with his friends and little sister, not a care in the world. Yeah, she breaks her glasses, but little sisters do things like that, which is why you have to watch out for them. But even in that first scene, we get a hint of what to come, as we get a glimpse at the nastiness in one of the kids, and the willingness the others have to work with him to humiliate another (this one an overweight girl). Michele stands up to deflect their cruelty from her, but almost too late. As they leave the abandoned house where they were playing, Michele's sister Maria realizes she's lost her glasses. When going back to find them, he finds a hole; looking into that hole, he sees a foot sticking out from under a towel, not moving.

So begins a great little story of how a boy realizes that even the people close to him whom he loves and respects - and who genuinely love him in return - can be capable of doing terrible things. But when you're ten years old, and the people in question are your family and their friends, how can you be sure that it's evil? There are lots of things that parents don't talk about, after all, and this just may be one of them.

The movie does an excellent job of giving a kids'-eye view of the whole situation. Newcomer Giuseppe Cristiano does a fine job making Michele seem intelligent and troubled by what he has seen, aware that something is strange but unable to question what he knows right away. The film is, from what I gather, a faithful adaptation of a first-person novel, so Cristiano must appear in every scene, and the adult interactions are what he sees and overhears, so we need to see them as a ten-year-old would, rather than as an adult member of the audience. Director Gabriele Salvatores manages this nicely, especially in one scene where the town's adults are all in conference, leaving the kids confused and mainly concerned about when they will have their supper.

The most prominent adult roles are given to Dino Abbrescia and Aitana Sánchez-Gijón as Pino and Anna, Michele's parents. In many ways, it is as confusing to the audience as it is to the characters how they can be involved; even though they may seem to worry a little much, they are good parents. We do get an occasional glimpse that this life may not be as charmed as it seems to the children, but it seems nearly as incongruous to us as it does to Michele.

Part of the reason for that is that this movie is gorgeous. Even though Michele's town is a little poor and run-down, the exteriors are filled with warm colors and pleasant imagery. It makes the ugly elements stand out, though even those scenes are well-composed and eye-catching.

There's been some controversy over Miramax marketing this as a thriller rather than a coming-of-age drama. I can see where this aggravation is coming from; even without Miramax's history being peppered with abuses visited upon foreign films, this is clearly not a nail-biter for most of its run-time, but is more introspective. Still, it does fit into both genres, and an intelligent thriller with a ten-year-old as its protagonist is a rarer specimen than a "growing up twenty years ago in a poor region" story. So while the advertising may be deceptive, it's not a lie, and if it gets people to see this movie, good for it.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Royal Tramp (Lu dung ji)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 May 2004 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Midnight Ass-Kickings)

Well, I take back what I said to Laurel about my having outgrown finding decapitation and dismemberment funny. Royal Tramp opens with one of those over-the-top martial arts fights where a kung fu master rips apart opposing bodies as if they were the stuffed effigies that they clearly must be. It establishes a tone of chaotic mayhem that will persist throughout the entire movie. Indeed, at the end of the show, more than one of the attendees was cackling maniacally, as if the sheer utter insanity and incomprehensibility of this movie had made him lose his senses.

This movie will do that. I think the plot involves three or four different factions, all trying to usurp the throne (or at least subvert it to their whim). The thrust of the plot is that when Stephen Chow's character - subtitled "Wilson Bond", but that can't possibly be right - is sent to infiltrate the palace as a servant, but winds up taking the wrong door, where they're taking applications for eunuchs. It's a much shorter line. However, the chief eunuch is plotting against the king, too, and the king turns out to be a pretty decent guy, although he's being pushed around by the head of the army. This is the guy who tore through assassins like a buzzsaw in the opening sequence; he's named O'Brian, played by an actor the IMDB lists as "Elvis Tsui", and has truly astounding facial hair. I'm not certain of this, of course, because this is one of those prints that opens with scrolling Cantonese text without subtitles to explain the story.

But the movie's fun. It's got a raunchy sense of humor (unlike Hollywood, Hong Kong filmmakers apparently find the male sexual organ funny and don't dance around this belief), and while the fighting is obviously complete wire-fu, it's got a good dose of physical comedy. Stephen Chow is apparently a huge star in Hong Kong (his latest big hit is Shaolin Soccer, which we've been seeing trailers for over the course of the last two years but won't actually see because Miramax is a bunch of jackasses), and he's apparently cut from the Ace Ventura-style Jim Carrey mold. It's broad comedy, but it's fast-paced, never letting up. When the movie runs out of jokes, it just stops with one of the most abrupt endings I've seen at the Ass Kicking series (which is saying something). The first credit as the movie freeze-frames is for Pepsi/Seven-UP, which is really strange for a movie set in Imperial China.

Which is probably blew the mind of the guy behind me. It's that kind of movie.

Friday, May 07, 2004

Van Helsing

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 May 2004 at Loews Boston Common #1 (first-run)

I'm an idiot.

Normally, when someone who writes about his moviegoing experiences sees a bad movie, it's traditional for the review to disparage the intelligence of the people who made it, or if the writer is feeling really nasty, the audience. And I suppose I'm doing the latter, because, let's face it, I paid $6.50 to see this movie. I paid it despite knowing the time could be better spent at home, doing some spring cleaning or just watching the ballgame in its entirety. I paid it despite not being terribly impressed with any of the trailers, the recent work of the director and stars, and being completely aware of the utterly poisonous buzz around this movie. Why? Obviously, I'm an idiot.

Of course, I'd made it worse for myself. This is not a good movie to see the night after The General, a 77-year-old action movie that worked with efficiency and wit. The General is a story where everything is in constant motion but also very clear, while Van Helsing is simply chaotic. Or consider that it comes a scant month after Hellboy, another film about monster-hunters, but one which has a certain elegance to it as opposed to feeling crudely welded together as Van Helsing does. In Hellboy, information was parceled out at logical times, as opposed to the awkward exposition dumps that inform the audience of Van Helsing's mythology.

I wonder what's happened to Stephen Sommers. He was never a great filmmaker, but he had a nice run with The Jungle Book, Deep Rising, and The Mummy; those were enjoyable pulp adventure movies which, though lightweight, were professional, with a sense of logic behind them. Van Helsing, like The Mummy Returns before it, seems to be made with imprecise tools. There's several instances of idiotic writing, like when Van Helsing climbs to the top of a tower to try and unchain the monster so he can't power Dracula's machine, despite the phenomenal number of exposed wires just begging to be cut by any of the multiple sharp objects Van Helsing keeps on his person. Sommers doesn't seem to be able to walk the line between homage and camp that he once handled so well. Here, he falls into the trap of too much deliberate anachronism, both in terms of technology and the manner in which characters speak. There's no pride to Richard Roxborough's Dracula, as an example, no sense of him having some wisdom and refinement commesurate with his advanced age. It's one of the least compelling screen versions of the Count ever.

Hugh Jackman manages to escape with most of his dignity intact, but he's about it. Pretty much all the other characters are grotesqueries, with wacky voices and means of behavior. Particularly frustrating is Kate Beckinsale, woefully miscast as Transylvanian monster-hunter Anna Valerious. Her sleek, Audrey Hepburn-esque charm his hidden beneath big hair, a ridiculous costume, and a painful accent. No sparks between her and Jackman. And the action thing just isn't her bag. Stick her in a comedy of manners or a contemporary drama, and she's great, but beating people up just isn't something she can do. She's not outright awful like longtime Sommers mascot Kevin J. O'Connor is as Igor, but that's damning with faint praise. Really, about the only other actor who escapes looking good is Shuler Hensley as Frankenstein's Monster.

And here we get to the frustrating part - the little nuggets of gold hidden among the sea of crap. I loved Sommers' conception of Frankenstein's Monster, from visual to characterization. It's perfect in almost every way. The black-and-white opening prologue is also just a gas, and Alan Silvestri's score is a lot of fun. Not close to subtle, but bombastic in a good way. The image of werewolves shedding their human skin is also a great one. It's stuff like that which keeps me from dismissing Sommers as a hack who got lucky, but also makes the rest of the movie such a disappointment.

The General (with the Alloy Orchestra)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 6 May 2004 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Remis Auditorium (Music for Silent Films)

I'd seen The General before, but not with live accompaniment, and I'd been quite unhappy to miss the Alloy Orchestra's performance of their score at the Somerville Theater back in January. I considered this presentation at the MFA a stroke of luck, especially considering I'm currently working just down the street at Northeastern University.

The General is, after all, one of a very few perfect movies. The only argument one can make against its perfection is that it takes place during the civil war with the Confederate Army being the heroes, but given that the IMDB has it as being based on a memoir, that can't be helped (and I imagine there are parts of the country where this is a point in its favor). Everything else, though, is gold. The General may hold a claim on being the first action comedy, or at least the first great one. After establishing its characters with speed and efficiency in the start (Keaton's Johnny Gray is utterly besotted with both his train and his girl; Marion Mack's Annabelle Lee is strong but playful), the rest of the movie is taken up by a series of of set pieces, the most elaborate ever filmed at the time. The mix of action and physical comedy is still impressive, even before you consider that Keaton and co-director Clyde Bruckman did not have blue screens, computer-generated imagery, or many other effects techniques available to them. If they needed a shot of a cannonball nearly missing Keaton, then Keaton nearly got shot by a cannon. It was that simple.

The action in this movie is a work of incredible precision. Keaton performs various acrobatic stunts in service of the adventure and physical comedy without seeming to show off, always accomplishing exactly what he set out to do, whether it be to give his audience a thrill, a laugh, or both at once. Rather than mug for the camera, he reacts to the strange things around him with understated surprise, confused but willing to overcome new obstacles. OK, he seems to be saying, that rail car that was behind my engine is now in front of it - that's clearly impossible, but the question is how to deal with it. (It's not impossible, of course - it's a perfect demonstration of how an object in motion tends to stay in motion)

The Alloy Orchestra contributes a score that matches the film's energy, as well as filling in the odd sound effect with the proper bit of percussion (the score is included on the Image DVD, for those that cannot make a live performance). The movie features solid acting, great action, physical and deadpan comedy, large set-pieces, and absolutely no wasted runtime. The kids in the audience had as much fun as the long-time silent film buffs; there's nothing not to love.

Dans la Nuit (with the Alloy Orchestra)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 May 2004 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Remis Auditorium (Music for Silent Films)

Maybe my expectations were too high after the director of the MFA's film program stood up in front of the audience to say that Dans la Nuit was one of the greatest silent films ever made. Throw in that the Alloy Orchestra had chosen this film to score and was presenting it alongside an undisputed classic like The General, and I was expecting rather a lot. Dans al Nuit wasn't able to capture my full attention, though, and in a silent film, that's fatal.

Many people who have never watched a silent feature (a person in the audience behind me didn't even know who Charlie Chaplin was) don't quite understand what an act of concentration it can be. It's not just the silence; just by dint of when most were made, silents are also generaly black-and-white and not widescreen. There's no place for your eyes to go when your interest starts to wane, and the film consists mostly of long, static shots. None of the modern crutches are available, so following along requires more of an effort on the audience member's part. The flip side of this is that one must pay close attention to the visuals, and will likely appreciate them more. I don't deny that writer/director/star Charles Vanel (who would continue to act until the age of 96, but never directed another feature) created some striking imagery, but his storytelling could have used work.

The story is an interesting one - a newly-wed man who works in a mine is horribly disfigured in an accident, to the point where he must wear a mask in public, and even his wife cannot bear to look upon his face. She takes another lover, and they eventually plot against the husband. I'll admit my failing here - a combination of seeing the movie right after work, the demands of watching a silent movie (with the Orchestra's shouted translation for the french subtitles sometimes barely audible over the music), and a warm theater may have resulted in a five-minute nap. It was not immediately clear to me why the wife's lover was wearing a similar mask when he came to murder the husband, though that did make for a neat visual. Also, while it's possible that the film's final scene wasn't a hoary cliché back in 1929, I tend to think it was.

Still, the movie does do several things well. While I think the opening scene with the wedding was perhaps too drawn-out, the scenes at the mine are very nice, with interesting visuals and careful set-up for what happens. Vanel uses some relatively sophisticated techniques for the silent era, such as flashbacks, montage, and rewinding the story to show what had happened previously from a new perspective. He also uses subtitles rather than intertitles to prevent having to cut away from a scene when the dialogue is important enough.

I'm not enough of an expert on silent film to know what place Dans la Nuit has in filmmaking history, although it is a good film, well worth seeing if the opportunity arises. The Alloy Orchestra's score is also very good; I can scarcely imagine the film without it.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

The Saddest Music In The World

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 May 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (preview)

Guy Maddin is one peculiar fellow, and bless him for it. At first glance, his latest film may seem almost mainstream - it's got actors whose names you might recognize (Isabella Rossellini, Mark McKinney), it's being distributed to non-repatory theaters by IFC films, runs 99 minutes and has something resembling a linear plot - but once it starts, the audience is quickly disabused of that notion. It's immediately subjected to grainy black-and-white film stock, opening credits that could have come from the 1930s, and striking design work and twisted comedy that is pure Maddin.

It's better than much of his previous feature work, at least as much of it as I've seen, in part because Maddin has help. He and frequent collaborator George Toles worked with a script from novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, and the end result is a Guy Maddin film that has memorable dialogue to go with its memorable visuals, and doesn't become a self-indulgent mess. There's a story holding this lunacy together, and characters that arouse some genuine interest.

Lady Port-Huntley (Rossellini) is a Winnipeg beer-baronness who lost her legs years ago in a tragic accident, and has decided to promote her beer with a contest to find out which country produces the world's saddest music. A local man who has pined for her for a long time will represent Canada, while his son Chester (McKinney), for whom Lady Port-Huntley spurned him, represents America, along with his girlfriend Narcissa, an amnesiac nymphomaniac who claims to be given messages by her tapeworm. Chester's brother Roderick (Ross McMillan) returns home from Europe to represent Serbia, heartsick over the years-ago death of his son and disappearance of his wife. Various other nations send representatives, eager to win the top prize of "twenty-five thousand Depression-era dollars".

There's a wickedness to Maddin's comedy, whether it's transforming Roderick's sorrowful lament into a peppy, upbeat musical number, the deadpan radio commentary on the various musicians, the shots at America (both in terms of how an American number should be large and vulgar and how Chester merrily co-opts the entrants from other countries into becoming part of his show), and the gruesome circumstances under which Lady PH lost her legs (and I'd just told a friend how I think I may have outgrown finding dismemberment funny). Just because this film is made to look 70 years old doesn't mean the filmmakers are trying to make a movie for their grandparents. It's an irreverent comedy which packs its jokes in tight, and is not terribly worried about good taste.

To say, honestly, that this is likely the funniest Canadian black-and-white musical black period romantic comedy likely to grace screens this year is both a recommendation and a warning; it's got a place of honor on my list of films that I love but which I might regret recommending to friends who tend to appreciate the familiar more than the outré in their entertainment. I'll do it anyway, though, becaue you can lose a lot of the adjectives between "funniest" and "comedy" before that sentence comes close to being inaccurate.

Independant Film Festival of Boston: Short films

"Tomo" - * * * (out of four)
Seen 30 April 2004 at Coolidge Corner #1

"Tomo" is one of those short films that are perhaps more impressive as a demonstration of what kind of technology is available to all filmmakers, even guys making shorts on a tight budget. Director Paul Catling, who has done art and special effects work on features, gives us a very well-realized robot character. Tomo is sleek, humanoid and expressive, but also very real-looking. It looks like an evolution of modern robotics; far more believable than the andoirds in that Alex Proyas/Will Smith trailer. The story is pretty straight forward and simple - after a spaceship crashes on an cold planet (which looks suspiciously like the English quarry yards where Doctor Who filmed), the sole human survivor has only a robot (Tomo) for company... and they irritate each other perhaps as much as they need each other.

"Tomo" is amusing - the robot porn is always good for a laugh - and I liked the robot designs a lot. It's not always perfectly integrated, but Tomo is one of the nicer-looking robots in recent film history.

"Jo Jo in the Stars" - * * * ¾
Seen 1 May 2004 at Somerville Theater #4

Marc Craste goes for less realism in "Jo Jo" than Catling did in "Tomo"; his characters are rounded, stylized creatures with no necks and noses, but pointy rabbit ears. They live in an environment straight out of Lang's Metropolis, with a dark side beneath a tall and beautiful exterior. In it, a young boy realizes that the winged, beautiful star of the circus he has fallen in love with is a prisoner, and sets to set her free so that they can be together.

Craste's simple style is capable of great beauty, and the small distortions he uses to create Madame Pica's freak show ("There will be no comfort - close the doors.") are genuinely creepy. The characters and story are simple and iconic, as they must be in a 13-minute film, while the visuals are striking.

"Mrs. Meitlemeihr" - * *
Seen 1 May 2004 at Somverville Theater #5

Udo Kier is larger than we normally think of Hitler as being, though that doesn't really work against him in this film. Indeed, it adds a layer of absurdity, though not quite enough to make this a really amusing short. The basic concept just doesn't seem funny enough - that as World War II ended, Adolph Hitler faked his own death with the intention of escaping to Argentina, but somehow ended up in England instead, waiting for word from his comrades. To escape detection when he must venture to the market or post office, he disguises himself as an old woman. On one of these trips, and elderly Jewish gentleman takes a fancy to "Mrs. Meitlemeihr", and irony ensues.

Parts of the movie work - the denoument is the blackest of black comedy, and the opening scenes in a Berlin bunker are quite well-done, as are the visuals of a post-Blitz London. In between, though, Kier is simply not a convincing Hitler. He comes off as merely world-weary, seldom showing any trace of the insanity or charisma that made the man such a seminal figure in world history. I found myself more interested in trying to anagram the movie's title ("Meitlemeihr" yields "Hitler" + "mieme", and I got no farther) than much of the movie.

"The Frank International Film Festival" - * * * ¾
Seen 2 May 2004 at Somerville Theater #2

Created as an extra for the DVD release of Bob Odenkirk's Melvin Goes To Dinner, this is a great "hit-and-run" comedy short: Take a goofy concept, squeeze as many jokes about that concept as possible into ten minutes, and end. Here, the concept is that one of the festivals that booked Melvin Goes To Dinner is actually just one guy - Frank (Fred Armisen) - getting people to bring their movies to his place for him to watch. In the process, Odenkirk, Arminsen, and Michael Blieden lampoon film festivals and fans, from the parties to the Q&A panels, filled as they are with long, self-indulgent questions designed more for the questioner to hear himself talk than to elicit interesting information.

(I confess, though, that perhaps the most enjoyable part was Fred Armisen's Q&A session between the short and the feature. As one might expect, there isn't a whole lot of dissection and discussion possible for an eight-minute parody, and the session quickly entered the realm of the absurd.)

Monday, May 03, 2004


* * ¾ (out of four), * * * Canadian
Seen 2 May 2004 at Somerville Theater #2 (Independant Film Festival of Boston 2004)

Two thoughts occurred to me about this movie as I watched it:

1. I'll bet it's much more popular in Canada than here in the US. Native Canadians will probably latch on to the movie's environment as soon as the Canada-versus-the-Soviet-Union hockey series that serves as the movie's backdrop is mentioned; as an American I had no idea what they were talking about. The movie is proudly Canadian, "ehs" and all, and makes no concessions toward being accessible to its neighbor to the south. That's not a bad thing; it knows and serves its audience. The rest of us are probably missing some amount of historical context, though - if these hockey games in 1972 basically shut down the country with interest, then every Canadian in the audience knows how this backdrop is going to play out, which must add irony and tragedy to every statement where the characters assume that the Russians are going to win. If you don't know that background, as I didn't, you're likely missing half the movie.

2. Gambling as a metaphor for not being timid in one's life really needs to die. I think writer/director Peter Wellington gets this, because he shows gambling as ultimately self-destructive, but he also keys the film's finale on a wildly unlikely bit of chance. I suppose there's meaning, that even when we don't actively gamble, much of our life is still random events. But it's a little pathetic when, toward the end, Luke Kirby's Shane gives us a big of gambling-inspired philosophy well past the point when he really should know better.

There are a number of funny scenes - a lot of Shane's narration is fun to listen to (calling out a Gamblers Anonymous group, saying they don't have a problem with gambling, but with losing), and there's a frenzied, caper-comedy air toward the middle when Shane and his friends attempt to start their own bookmaking operation. But the film is also uncomfortably split in two ways - the first half is Shane retelling it to the GA meeting, while the second half is him narrating it for someone else. There's also a best-friend-he's-actually-in-love-with-who-just-broke-up-with-her-boyfriend, Margaret (Sarah Polley), but her presence and absence is arbitrary. Some of the best material relates to her, but she's got little to do with the middle of the movie. Was Ms. Polley only available for part of the movie's shooting schedule, requiring a write-around? Or was a girl necessary to make Shane's life seem less empty, even though actually having her around might be too stabilizing? Her complete disappearance at the end made it feel like a scene was left out.

Or is the whole thing just too Canadian for me? I'm not sure, although on balance more made me laugh than left me cold.


* ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 May 2004 at Somerville Theater #3 (Independant Film Fetival of Boston 2004)

Every once in a while, I see a movie - often involving kids - and I have to wonder, who in the heck is the audience for this? The uncomfortable realization then comes that, since I'm sitting in the audience with a ticket for which I had handed over money a couple hours previously, it must be me. And think, just a couple days before I was wondering if I was some sort of perv for wanting to see Mean Girls or Ella Enchanted.

It starts out well enough. A boy from some unnamed foreign country (he may be Middle Eastern, or South American, or something else) gets off a bus stop. He is being used as a mule by drug dealers, who hand him a roll of toilet paper and wait for their shipment. A noise in the woods spooks them, though, and the boy is shot as he's trying to run. Meanwhile, a very serious-looking young girl named Claire experiences her first period while practicing the piano in her big, beautiful, sterile house. Ashamed, she runs off to the garden shed, where she finds the boy.

The sensible thing, of course, would be to scream, run back to the house, tell her foster father that there's a boy in the shed and he's bleeding. Then, the boy would get medical attention, they (rather than Claire) would find the tiny bags of cocaine in his stool (among the first on a long list of scenes we really didn't need to see), the police would be called, and things would perhaps not end happily, but there would be a sort of logic to the procedings. Instead, of course, Claire opts to bandage the boy up herself, admittedly showing great resourcefulness, but apparently never realizing that she's in over her head, even though they don't have any languages in common.

On the subject of language - this film is mainly in English, even though it was filmed in Luxembourg and the Netherlands, with a young Danish lead in Laurien Van den Broeck. Why? I guess English-language films sell better internationally than those in French, German, or Danish. I can't think of any other reason. It's not important, though I did spend an inordinate amount of time trying to place Claire's accent.

Not that I think it will sell much anyway - I don't think there's much of an audience for a movie that is so mean-spirited toward kids. Not that Claire's an especially nice girl - she is, in her way, as distant and aloof as her parents - but she's smart and relatively capable if not necessarily possessed of good sense. She was abandoned as a baby and her adopted parents' lack of attention has made her self-sufficient but unable to trust, we initially get why she wants to handle everything on her own. Miss Van den Broeck gives an exceptional performance, really, considering how little dialog she has and that it's not in her native language.

But how much are we as an audience supposed to take without there being some sort of point to it? Movies like Thirteen and Lilja 4-Ever at least seem to have something they want to say; Moonlight just piles violence and suffering one on top of the other without serving some larger goal. Why do we see the boy bite a chunk out of a man's ear without any reaction or reason? Is there any point to the drug use? And I normally don't like to mention what happens in a film's last act, but what is gained by showing Claire (who must be all of twelve if she's just had her first period) nearly raped, then having sex with the boy? Topless? And then the nihilistic scene after that? What am I supposed to feel except for dirty?

I wonder how these movies are made, especially in Europe, where it seems there are dozens of production companies and creditors in the opening credits of every film. I'm stunned by that many people and groups wanting to be a part of something as exploitive and nasty as this.

Word Wars: Tiles and Tribulations on the Scrabble Circuit

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 May 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Independant Film Festival of Boston 2004) (projected video)

It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking of the documentary as a genre, rather than a form. Most documentaries we see are serious examinations of an issue or a person; even Michael Moore's satires are issue-oriented, about something important. Word Wars will have none of that; though it's told by filming actual events, it is a comedy, and an unabashed one.

Directors Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo follow four top Scrabble players for nine months leading up to the 2002 National Scrabble Championship. Chaikin has participated in this "sport", so he knows the kind of idiosyncratic folks he'll find there. They are characters who, if they showed up in a conventional screenplay, might be considered too broad. Joe Edley, the defending champion, spouts various zen-like mantras and warms up for his matches with tai chi; "GI Joel" Sherman (the GI stands for gastro-intenstinal) is such a mass of nerves that he sucks down Maalox to quiet his stomach as if it were a milkshake. Matt Graham and Marlon Hill are also both crazy in their own ways - Matt's shelf of "smart drugs" is frightening, and he doesn't seem to have any clue how bizarre he acts; Marlon is, however, ready and willing to tell him in between rants of his own on how the fact that he speaks English is an affront to his identity as a black man. These folks apparently all show up in Stefan Fatsis's book Word Freak, and are fiercely entertaining here. As the director said in the Q&A afterward, only Edley is really functional enough to hold down a job and support a family, but even that is with the National Scrabble Association.

You can laugh at these guys, though, without feeling too bad about it. They're relatively self-aware, acknowledging that there are likely many people who contribute a lot more to society than they do. And their obsessiveness and peculiarity appears to help them in their chosen field of endeavor. There are also cuts to other people on the periphery, including a gang of Scrabble hustlers in New York City's Washington Park, along with discussion of the game's history and rules.

This movie was made for one of the Discovery Channel stations, and it looks and feels like cable TV - except, of course, for the swearing. It's something of a cliché that the black guy drops the f-bombs, but I think it'll be even funnier when bleeped, just to further contrast Marlon with the professorial type many would expect to be a top Scrabble player. (As an aside, Anthony Anderson's people should be trying to get him to play this character in a Scrabble-related comedy; it would be brilliant) Indeed, as Marlon points out, knowing what words mean in Scrabble is pretty useless; another player mentions that top Scrabble players tend to be math whizzes more than people who are good with the English language.

Documentary comedies are rare birds. You get the occasional Michael Moore-type movie, but those are often so much Moore organizing something that they may as well be scripted. It's a risky business to just turn the cameras on and know you'll have a funny movie by the end, so few people try it. Word Wars is a rare treat, worth catching if it plays a theater near you (here in the Boston area, it's scheduled for a June run at the Coolidge) or when the (sanitized) version appears on Discovery Times in late June.

Blind Horizon

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 May 2004 at Somerville Theater #5 (Independant Film Festival of Boston 2004)

There was a point, about ten years ago, when it seemed like Val Kilmer was going to be a huge movie star. He was coming off The Doors and Tombstone, and had Batman Forever and Heat coming up. He's made about the same combination of good, bad, and interesting movies since then as most other actors, but it's a mystery to me why his career slowly sank until his movies are going direct to video or otherwise unnoticed. The same could be said about his co-star, Neve Campbell, although she never quite seemed to be quite the A-list draw Kilmer was. On the other side, Amy Smart has appeared in a few movies people have seen, and folks have liked her enough, but no-one yet trusts her with a lead role in, as they used to say, a major motion picture.

Blind Horizon is the kind of movie actors at those stages of their careers make hoping for the best. It's a paycheck; the movie itself is dark and mysterious enough to play film festivals but mainstream enough that it might be able to pop up in theaters during an otherwise slow week. When push comes to shove, it's neither clever nor grandiose enough to be much bigger than direct to video. In a few months people will see it next to where Lord Of The Rings: Return of the King would be and say, huh, I've liked Val Kilmer and since what I really want to see is out, this doesn't look too bad. It will rent but not sell, but maybe it will lead to something better.

It's an okay movie, not cheap-looking but maybe a little ham-fisted in the directing department with an unfocused screenplay. A pair of kids find a man with a bullet wound in the desert outside a small town in New Mexico; the smell of a nurse's cigarette apparently causes this man (Kilmer) to awake from his coma with amnesia but occasional flashes of memory. He becomes certain that he knew something about a plot to kill the President in this small town, which is absurd because as the Sheriff (Sam Shepard) says, it's little more than a wide spot in the road. Soon, a woman claiming to be his finacée (Campbell) appears and says his name is Frank Kavanaugh and he works for the IRS in Chicago. The sheriff smells something fishy, but can't quite figure out what.

Part of the problem is that there's no background on any of the characters. Some, like the sheriff and the nurse (Smart) are probably what they appear to be, but many of the rest are overly mysterious. Neve Campbell's character, for instance, isn't an interesting enough personality for us to wonder about her motivations, and a mysterious figure played by Faye Dunaway's intentions never become clear. There's also a subplot regarding the upcoming sheriff's election that never goes anywhere. The assassination plot is a silly Rube Goldberg thing that is relentlessly foreshadowed but which never really seems to work from either a practical or motivational stance. Performances are good, based on how little there is to work with. There is a good "middle-of-nowhere" feeling to the setting, although it seems that nobody ever knows as much as they should, given the circumstances.

Blind Horizon is basically competent, and doesn't feel like a waste of time. Send it back in time five years, when Kilmer and Campbell were bigger names, and it gets a theatrical release and probably does respectable mid-level business. Now, though, with their star power dimmed, there's not much reason to notice it.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Double Dare

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 May 2004 at the Brattle (Independant Film Festival of Boston 2004) (projected video)

Jeannie Epper and Zoe Bell are cool chicks. Sure, I figure anyone willing to throw themselves off a building for my entertainment is probably pretty cool, but for Jeannie and Zoe, we've got it on tape.

Jeannie and Zoe were the primary stunt doubles for Lynda Carter on Wonder Woman and Lucy Lawless on Xena respectively. While the actresses were the pop culture representatives of female empowerment for their respective generations, it's Jeannie and Zoe who took the punches, flew through the air, and otherwise shouldered the risk of injury to make the action sequences work. While the roles they're best known for (if that's the right term) have a similar place in the public consciousness, the women themselves are an interesting contrast.

Jeannie's an old pro. Her family has been in the stunt business for about as long as there's been one - her father, brother, and daughter are only a partial list - and she's very well respected within the community. As the movie opens, though, she seems a little frustrated. She's cold-calling around town, reminding producers and stunt co-ordinators that she's out there. One of the themes that develops as the movie goes on is that not only is it hard for a sixty-year-old grandmother to find work doing high-falls and other risky tasks, but she feels that producers are reluctant to hire a woman as a stunt co-ordinator. She contemplates having some cosmetic surgery done, as stuntwomen often have to double for actresses younger than themselves, and whose costumes don't have the room for padding that then mens' do. And to top it off, her daughter is in the hospital after a stunt went wrong with a neck injury, so she's also watching the grandkids.

On the other side of the world, Zoe is facing unemployment for the first time, with Xena due to wrap production. The thought of going back to being a waitress doesn't appeal to the physical, energetic girl, but there isn't a whole lot of stunt work to be had in New Zealand's small film industry. Zoe realizes she'll probably need to go overseas to continue her career, despite not being anxious to leave her tight-knit family.

Director Amanda Micheli doesn't focus much on the how of stuntwork - we see scenes being shot, but mostly to show that even though Zoe may come off as somewhat impulsive and wild, she is methodical and disciplined when the cameras roll. There's also the obligatory "these people are nuts" shots, such as giving us Zoe's perspective when she first tries jumping onto an air bag from thirty-five feet in the air.

Micheli isn't looking to stir up controversy with this film; she likes her subjects too much. But, gee, how do you not like these ladies? They themselves bond pretty quickly; in the latter half of the movie, when Zoe comes to America to find work, she winds up in Jeannie's spare bedroom. That very week, Jeannie's getting her an audition for Quentin Tarantino, who is looking for a stunt double for some movie with Uma Thurman he's shooting in Beijing. Jeannie's donated a kidney to an actor friend, and if she's bitter about her lack of work, she still perseveres.

It's a truism that in Hollywood, getting work is more difficult than the work itself. You wouldn't think this would be true when the work is getting kicked in the stomach or falling off a building, but there's a group of people who line up to do it. Most of them seem to be pretty good folks, deserving of more recognition, which at least a couple get from this documentary.