Monday, June 28, 2004

Around The World In 80 Days

* * (out of four)
Seen 28 June 2004 at Loews Boston Common #11 (first-run)

Two stars is about right; I didn't hate Around The World In 80 Days, but as it ended, I not only couldn't say I was terribly impressed, but I for the life of me couldn't figure out who would be. This movie is a monster created by an indecisive Frankenstein, unable to decide who its audience is and disjointed in its attempts to entertain them.

Just look at the credits for the cameos. You will find folks mainly familiar to Hong Kong film fans, some more familiar to (I presume) the British, and some Americans. The way these cameos are used is annoying, too - Macy Gray, for instance, barely appears (Passepartout literally runs through her room), whereas I felt I should be able to identify the Irish cop on the New York docks. Even the ones who are actually amusing feel jammed in.

Then there's the question of what type of movie this is. It's got the bright colors and fantastical gagetry of a kids' movie - I especially liked the title cards for each location that looked like CGI pop-up books - and certainly some of the performances lean that way (Cécile De France as love interest Monique La Roche being the main example), while Steve Coogan hits a sort of middle ground as an arch Phileas Fogg and Jackie Chan... well, his Englist just isn't good enough for him to project much charisma between fight scenes.

Happily, Jackie does get to break out the kung fu every once in a while, in mostly kid-friendly action pieces. Nothing here will make afficianados forget Drunken Master 2, and the action scene in Turkey gets what looks like a big CGI assist (I'm pretty sure that one shot featured a digital Ewen Bremmer, who plays an inept policeman chasing Fogg), but the fights let Jackie relax and kick some butt. These bits are fun, and the best reason for going to the movie, but they also make the movie somewhat schizoid. Jackie Chan is almost an anchor outside the action segments, while Steve Coogan is pretty useless during them. I love both of these guys to pieces, but as a team, the whole is definitely less than the sum of the parts. At least Chan gets to show his skills, by grabbing the movie for himself when punching and kicking is called for; Coogan just never gets to show his potential. Coogan on a good day is a young John Cleese, but in this movie's 100 minutes, he never once manages what Cleese does with ten seconds.

Another minor complaint: No outtakes. Is Jackie Chan reaching an age where his flubs aren't funny any more, or do the producers just assume that the kids watching this movie won't be interested by watching how he does to work. Or are they just afraid that what the generally talented cast does when screwing up will be better than the actual movie?

What a frustrating movie. It parades a world's worth of talented people across the screen, but never figures out how to get them to work together, and only fitfully gets them to work on their own.

Sunday, June 27, 2004


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 June 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

I'm glad the makers of Saved! opted to treat their captial-C Christian characters with more respect than derision. Aside from sidestepping the hypocricy of using mocking stereotypes in a story about acceptance, it allows co-writer/director Brian Dannelly to make a movie about teenagers that seems neither unrealistically naïve nor smothered in irony.

It's easy to make fun of Christians, and tempting. Most Americans describe themselves as belonging to some sort of christian faith, be it Catholic, Baptist, Protestant, or other, but their faith isn't the central part of their life that the it logically should be, as the source of one's value system. So we defensively deride them as unsophisticated, or concentrate on the ones who don't practice what they preach. There are some of those to be found in Saved!, but that's more indicative of them being regular people, not Christians.

Jena Malone is ideally cast as Mary, the film's main character; she's got a face that conveys intelligence and uncertainty, so that you can believe her as both naïve enough to not realize her boyfriend is gay (and that she can "fix" this by sleeping with him) and practical enough to handle the consequences of her actions (pregnancy). Mary's stumbling to figure out what's right and wrong in a world that suddenly seems more complicated than it had before.

She's given able support by a fine cast. Mandy Moore plays the Christian school equivelent of on of Mean Girls's "plastics"; her Hilary Faye is rich, pretty, and self-centered, all too eager to make sure everyone sees how generous she is. Macauley Culkin is actually pretty great as Hilary's wheelchair-bound older brother, who has suffered his sister's attention since he was paralyzed at the age of nine and grown somewhat resentful. Culkin has emerged from nearly a decade out of the spotlight as an actual good, likable actor. Patrick Fugit gets to say the right things as the good-guy pastor's son, while Eva Amurri injects some needed anarchy into the picture as a Jewish girl attending the school because she's been expelled from everywhere else. The adults come off pretty well, too, with Martin Donovan as the school's principal (and Patrick's father), Pastor Skip; he manages to look just dorky and sincere enough to sell the character. Mary-Louise Parker plays Mary's mother as perhaps not quite so wrapped up in her faith as her daughter, or at least not so obsessed by it. She's the kind of parent who is so used to her daughter's good grades and good behavior that she doesn't notice Mary's eight months pregnant.

The movie juggles those characters pretty well, and is also quite funny. Culkin and Amurri get most of the best lines, notably a great exchange about what a good Christian girl is doing there when they see Mary leaving a Planned Parenthood center. It's really a pretty great script, balancing the specifically Christian and more universal in a way that lets you laugh at the characters but also understand and like them. I've read that Dannelly and co-writer Michael Urban went through dozens of re-writes, but it's for the best, as they managed to keep the wit while making a movie that will likely only offend the very easily offended.

That's no small achievement. Saved! could have easily been an exercise in feeling superior, but winds up being something better.

Dance Of Death (Chuan Lu)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 June 2004 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Midnight Ass-Kickings: Fu Fighting Females)

One of the main influence Jackie Chan had on martial arts moviemaking was an infusion of comedy. He doesn't appear here, but did choreograph the fights (credited on the print screened as Chen Yuan-Lung). Angela Mao (credited as Mao Ying) takes the lead in this 1980 movie, and it's something of a transitional work between the "battle of the martial arts schools" movies of the 1970s a Chan-style martial arts comedy. Indeed, it goes beyond being merely comedic all the way to silly.

By silly, I mean Three Stooges silly. Many of the villains speak in silly voices, and smack each other around over their disagreements in a Stooge-like style. Similarly, Mao's character Fei Fei studies under a pair of aging masters, one of whom favors the bottle and one of whom likes the pipe. They've got silly voices and trail after Fei Fei, counting how many moves she uses that each of them taught her, in an effort to see which of them has the best kung fu, since they have been fighting each other to a standstill every five years for the past twenty.

Oh, and apparently Fei Fei is supposed to be a guy. Or maybe a girl disguised as a boy; all the subtitles refer to Fei Fei using masculine pronouns, but it's not like Ms. Mao looks manly in any way. One would be tempted to just dismiss it as screwy subtitling, except for a weird scene in a brothel. I wondered if this script was originally written for someone else, with Angela Mao brought in at the last minute, too late to rewrite the script even if this genre's writers were inclined to go much beyond first draft.

The result is a thoroughly mixed bag. There's no denying the athletic ability of Mao and the other participants; they jump and dodge and roll with great skill. Often, though, the end result often seems to emphasize the "choreography" in "fight choreography". Blows with sound effects indicating that they connected occasionally appear to miss by a wide margin. With the way combatants yell out and seem to co-operate on moves, it often winds up looking more like a dance than a fight. It's impressive dance, but it's stuck into the movie in combat situations.

The performances have a great deal of ham in them. That's not unusual, but it's frequently more obnoxious than amusing. Angela Mao is pretty charming, though. She also has more chemistry with the characters she's paired with in the film's opening flashback (though it takes a minute to realize it's a flashback) than with the characters she appears with in the bulk of the movie.

An irritant not connected to the movie itself was the group behind me who acted as though they were at home watching the movie on their TV. Folks, I know I said the midnight-movie crowd getting into it was fun last week, but you've got to get the sense of the room. If you're the only ones talking, then shut up!

Overall, this was far from the best show I've seen at the Midnight Ass-Kicking. Too often, it sits on the wrong side of the campy/dumb line.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Facing Windows (La Finestra di Fronte)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 June 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #6 (first-run)

The preview Sony Pictures Classics cut for Facing Windows isn't quite deceptive - after all, unlike the advertising for many foreign films released in the United States, it's up front about the non-English dialogue - but it does tend to emphasize different things than the film. This is not really a "food movie", though there are a few cooking scenes. Also, it neglects to show that the woman apparently being prodded to talk to the cute guy in the next building is a married mother of two.

Giovanna (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) is not a pastry chef; she works in a chicken-processing plant while her husband Filippo currently works the night shift in a garage (he gets fired a lot). She does sell pies to a local pub for a little extra money, and all of it leaves her feeling overburdened. The last thing she needs is for her husband to bring in some confused octogenarian (Massimo Girotti) who doesn't even remember his own name. And though the audience will immediately recognize that he must have something to do with the film's opening segment, which takes place in 1943 Rome, what happened in the intervening 60 years is a mystery. Giovanna doesn't exactly turn amateur sleuth to solve the mystery, but along with Lorenzo, that attractive neighbor she's been nursing a crush on, she begins to find out pieces.

Where Facing Windows excels is in showing how the pieces are locked inside the mind of the old man (who tells Giovanna's daughter his name is "Simone"), but can't be accessed in any reliable fashion. The scenes meant to show his point of view are fragmentary, with a wandering camera and an intermingling of elements of the past and present. There's some digital trickery, but it is very low-key. Co-writer/director Ferzan Ozpetek and cinematographer Gianfilippo Corticelli really do some impressive work here, not just in those scenes, but in a slow and beautiful fade from black at the end of the opening credits, or the way they use reflections in mirrors and windows to connect Giovanna and Lorenzo when they're in their kitchens, either talking to each other on the phone or (earlier) when Giovanna is yearning for something outside her stressful life. There's an obvious (but nifty) digital effect used to show the transition between 1943 and 2003. And, yes, some of the cooking scenes do have a sensual zing to them.

But the cooking is not, somewhat unusually, evocative of raw passion. Girotti has a great line about how wonderful it must be to take love born of passion and transform it to keep it alive. Indeed, when we see that kind of passion, it comes off as a little bit creepy. Simone's lessons in the kitchen are also more about getting things exactly right than about boldness.

One thing I greatly enjoyed about Facing Windows is that it did not force parallels between Giovanna's and Simone's stories. They share a skill, and there are similar points to be made about potential and regret, but that's about it. There's also no obvious, tortured triangle thing going on. The film does not rest on interpreting the smallest gestures, but it avoids histrionics. It also make good use of the mystery of Simone both to drive Giovanna's story and as a puzzle which engages the audience (although we do seem to solve it much more quicklly than the characters).

I liked Facing Windows quite a bit - truth be told, I enjoyed it quite a bit more than I probably would have the movie about a young woman urged to be daring in both cooking and love that I was expecting.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 June 2004 at Loews Boston Common #2 (first-run)

Both the math geek and the word dork in me get irritated by the use of "Lowest Common Denominator" as a perjorative. After all, as we all remember from elementary school, the LCD is what you find in order to add fractions. It makes it possible to bring these things together! A comedy that appeals to the "lowest common demominator" should, then, be one that appeals to a wide audience; that is inclusive. It should contain things that make everybody laugh, like pirate jokes, terrible sports announcers, and men getting clobbered by balls hitting their testicles or heads at high speed.

Now, obviously, those things are not, in an of themselves, funny. Okay, maybe pirate jokes are. But the others are, in fact, extraordinarily tough to do well. The slapstick that makes up much of this movie's humor is perhaps the most difficult thing to do well in entertainment; it's the sort of thing where being off by a quarter of a second can be the difference between near-uncontrollable laughter and revulsion at the movie's cruelty. Chuck Jones was said to have calculated how long Wile E. Coyote should fall off a cliff down to the frame for maximum humor value. That writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber gets it right roughly once every two minutes in this ninety minute movie shows some pretty amazing comedy skills.

He has a strong cast to work with. While Ben Stiller is probably the only true big name involved, and chews scenery with abandon as idiot villain White Goodman, star Vince Vaughn is at his sardonic best as Pete LaFleur, the laid-back, responsibility-avoiding owner of "Average Joe's" gym. I honestly don't think I've ever enjoyed Vaughn this much in a leading role before. Christine Taylor is the closest thing to a weak link; though she's got little funny to do other than react to being hit on. Not that any of the characters are more than a centimeter or so deep; they've just been paired with actors who are ideally suited for the roles: Rip Torn is a nasty old bastard, Justin Long is a dorky high-schooler, Stephen Root is a timid weirdo, Missi Pyle (who, someday, will have a good part with actual dialogue) is the intimidating but goofy amazon. And, in a closer-coming-out-of-the-bullpen bit of hilarity, Gary Cole and Jason Bateman elevate the film's last half hour to comedy genuis as perhaps the funniest sports play-by-play team ever.

Yes, ever. The movie is a standard team-overcomes-odds-and-inner-demons-to-save-their-whatever plot, which must culminate in a Big Game. Here, many sports comedies can get too serious, and while that's not terribly likely to happen in a movie about grown men playing dodgeball, Cole and Bateman offer just dead-on parody, straight-faced enough to sound real but absurd enough for the punchlines to score. This portion of the movie is filled with some perfect cameos, too, which I won't spoil here (avoid the IMDB entry until you've seen the movie, for that matter); they're likely much funnier if you don't know they're coming.

This movie is ruthlessly edited. That's to be expected, because timing is so critical in a slapstick comedy, but it's difficult not to notice that a couple of characters practically disappear toward the end, hinting at subplots that were cut out for one reason or another (which drops the pirate-joke percentage sadly down). This does, however, keep the running time down in the ninety-minute range, which means there's not enough time for the wafer-thin characters to really get annoying, for the three or four bits that it's milking to get too repetitive, or for the basically absurd idea to wear out its welcome.

Dodgeball is a lowest-common denominator movie, but in the good sense (adding fractions, rather than subtracting them). Its jokes are broad, but well-executed. It aims for the very biggest, most primal laughs it can, and for the most part hits its target.

Monday, June 21, 2004

The Terminal

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 June 2004 at Loews Boston Common #18 (first-run)

When the careers of every front-line person involved with The Terminal are assessed, this movie probably won't even be a blip. It will quitely slip into the filmographies of Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Catherine Zeta-Jones relatively unremarked-upon, just something they did between other movies. And, because it sits in close proximity to things that were more ambitious or bigger box-office successes, it may look smaller by comparison.

And it is. The Terminal is just a movie, nothing more... but certainly nothing less. Though a certain part of me considers Steven Spielberg's lifespan too valuable to spend on trifles like this when he could be making the next Minority Report or A.I., I must admit that I enjoyed just about every minute I spent watching this trifle. Lesser talent could have made this movie, and perhaps done a pretty good job, but maybe not quite so well. They might not have been able to create the elaborate set packed with extras, and even if they did, could they have used the camera to pick Hanks' character up or lose him in a crowd as well as Spielberg does? Actors other than Hanks might have had to work much harder to portray Viktor Navorski, to make him seem not quite childlike but an adult in a situation that makes one feel like a child.

The story is simple and economical - Viktor arrives at JFK airport, barely speaking a word of English, but winds up trapped in the international terminal when his country undergoes a revolution, making his visa invalid and while it's impossible to return. So he survives, makes friends, and gets involved in little vignettes involving the other airport staff. Little sparks fly between him and a pretty flight attendant (Zeta-Jones). All the while, the terminal's deputy director finds Viktor an irritant and a blemish on his record which could prevent him from receiving a promotion. Most of the charactes and situations can be described in one sentence, but the talented cast makes them seem genuine. I particularly liked the shy food services worker (Diego Luna) who needs Viktor to act as a go-between with a pretty INS worker (Zoë Saldana).

The Terminal is small stories, told with affection by talented storytellers. In addition to those listed above, the story came from Andrew Niccol, who needs to make more movies, and Sacha Gervasi. Gervasi wrote the script with Jeff Nathanson, who had contributed the screenplay to Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can. Speaking of Catch Me If You Can, this is John Williams's second fun, bouncy soundtrack to a Spielberg movie in a row; it's neither bland wallpaper nor something that sounds like every other Williams score.

It would be a shame if movies with the stature of The Terminal were all that the people involved did, and Spielberg does lean on his pet themes a little too hard toward the end, but outside of that context, this movie's a charmer.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Duel Of The Masters Unknown Kung Fu Movie

* * ¼ (out of four) - though arguably a three-plus-star experience
Seen 19 June 2004 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Midnight Ass-Kickings)

I didn't immediately suspect that Garo had brought the wrong movie to the Midnight Ass-Kicking (despite his talk of functioning on three hours of sleep after doing some drinking on his vacation), but something seemed amiss. After all, the flier for this month's features read:
This recently unearthed unofficial sequel to Taoism Drunkard features a Spunky little alcoholic kung fu master who rides a wooden horse, exceptionally large keys used as martial arts weapons, ghosts and vampires that look like mimes, and random acts of violence against a guy with genital warts on his face! Directed by Wilson (Snake Deadly Act) Tong with the action once again handled by the Yuen Clan.

I didn't remember Tong's name exactly, but the opening credits (in English, which itself was unusual) had someone named "Artis Chou" as the director. Of course, the front end of the credits was cut off, so we didn't get to see the actual title. But, when the movie starts off dubbed rather than (poorly) subtitled as Taoism Drunkard was, and seemed to be merely campy rather than flat-out insane, I was a little puzzled. By the end, when I was pretty sure we hand't seen any gigantic keys or mimes, or guys with genital warts on their faces (though there was one guy with a tiny Hitler mustache), I was pretty sure we'd seen a different movie. But, hey, it was still a kung fu movie I hadn't seen, so I figure I got my money's worth. And there was no announcement afterward about something being amiss, so I figure I'll have to wait until next week to find out what the heck was going on. Garo mentioned he hadn't seen Duel himself, so maybe he didn't realize this was the wrong movie until afterwards either.

So, what movie was it? Well, the closest thing IMDB has to "Artis Chou" is "Artis Chow", listed as having directed two movies in the 1970s (which looks about right). Of the two, Chinese Kung Fu looks more likely, but that ain't exactly a page chock-full of detail. So, if anyone recognizes the movie from my description, leave a comment.

Anyway, the film starts out with Wu-Wang leaving the monastary where he was raised since the age of five, to rejoin his late mother's family; his master tells him that he must not use his kung fu except when defending his home or country. When he arrives at the town where his family resides, though, his pocket is picked and he stumbles onto the ones who picked his pocket attempting to shake down a drunken merchant (who, of course, has a pretty daughter). He clenches his fist in a "must...not...give...into...violent rage..." manner, but another man about his age, just returned from school, steps in and kicks the little miscreants' butts. It transpires that he is Wu-Wang's cousin; it also turns out that his family heads up a sort of shipping union, and these hustlers work for a crime boss who is trying to help a Japanese rival secure shipping for iron ore to Japan. The union won't do this, since it's the 1930s and they feel war is inevitable, and why help transport ore that will be used to make weapons to shoot them?

This insult, the crime lords feel, must be avenged, and so begins a series of fights that culminate in Wu-Wang, his cousin, and their "Uncle" having to work they way through the gang members, the Japanese crime lord's assistant (he of the Hitler mustache and the perpetual sneer), the Japanese crime lord himself (he's got a much larger mustache and big, big sideburns), and finally the head of the gang, who apparently has some past connection with Wu-Wang's family.

The first few fights aren't that great. If the 1977 date is correct, then it's from that period between the death of Bruce Lee and the rise of Jackie Chan and his contemporaries when martial arts movies seem (from what little I've seen) to be fairly formulaic, and though reasonably bloody, it often seems that the fighters only come as close to hitting each other as they do in, well, American movies. There's also a fair amount of "let's attack him one by one", but the bad guys learn better at around the middle, in a fight on a beach, and from there the action picks up. The final fight is long and exciting, and looked pretty painful by the end. The movie may have started slow, but it delivers the goods in the last act.

This was a great crowd for a screwed-up movie like this. Aside from how this has to be the second-largest crowd I can remember at an Ass-Kicking (after only Revenge Of The Shogun Women In 3-D), there's a time for being quiet, and there's a time for a more, shall we say, participatory crowd, this being the latter. The bad dubbing just begged to be mocked - especially that drunken merchant, who was absolutely incomprehensible even in English - as did the Japanese guys with the facial hair which were bizarre in extraordinarily different ways. A line about how Uncle always hesitates is ironically dubbed with a huge pause in the middle, and there's plenty of maniacal laughter to join in with.

And the coup de grace - one of the reels was duplicated. That's right, at one point the movie just jumps ten or twelve minutes back in time, plays that whole ten minutes out again, and then continues. The guy in front of me wondered if this was a result of him being stoned, but it happened for all of us. This segment did, however, include both one of the unintentionally funniest bits of bad staging (the girl being held hostage threatens to kill herself, and then awkwardly drops her knife and runs downstairs and her clothes being torn to expose an obvious body double's breast. There was some cheering when that happened for the second time, knowing it was coming. It was that kind of crowd.

I can't say this was a good movie. I can't even say what movie it was. But I can say that it was one of the more enjoyable experiences I've had at a theater in the past few months; you just don't get this kind of visceral, crazy reaction to many movies.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Control Room

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 19 June 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

There's no shortage of interesting topics to explore in Control Room. The issue of relations between the media and the military during wartime is always worth examining, and the idea of Al Jazeera is worth a look itself. The Middle East has a reputation for restrictive governments, and a television news station that covers the region without being accountable to any nation is a new idea. And, unlike director Jehane Noujaim's previous film (the annoying, Control Room is filled with interesting people doing interesting things.

A scene toward the end encapsulates what makes Control Room so interesting. It's a conversation between United States Marine Corps media liaison Josh Rushing and Al-Jazeera journalist Hassan Ibrahim. Both have shown themselves to be intelligent, articulate men with apparent internal contradictions. Rushing's job is to handle the media, to basically keep information from getting out. He is, however, candid in his segments about how his differing reactions to Al-Jazeera pictures of dead Iraqis and dead Americans. Ibrahim, once with the BBC, often can't keep the disgust out of his voice when describing what America is doing, but also professes to believe in the American people and constitution to put a stop to it. Their discussion on the perception of how Americans see events in Iraq as seperate from the Israel-Palestine situation while the Arab world sees it as the same, and why, is good commentary and in some small way hopeful in how it shows people in a war zone talking and thinking about problems.

As a "fly on the wall" documentary, Control Room is pretty good. As they are covering the media coverage of a major event, the filmmakers are able to use a fair amount of outside footage, be it Al-Jazeera or CNN, without feeling like it's being padded or trying to cover holes - the footage itself is relevent. The talking-head sequences seem relatively unrehearsed. It is also, I would think, fairly accessible to people across the political spectrum. It does make some digs at the current administration - it is difficult not to have a strong opinion about that polarizing group, or to express it given the film's subject matter - and the unstated but strongly implied irony is that the principles of these Arabic journalists appear to be more American than those of the people sworn to uphold to Constitution (including the First Ammendment). You probably won't learn much about the nuts and bolts of journalism by watching Control Room, but it does a very good job of delivering the big picture.

Which is good. The ideas and ideals of this movie are worth checking out, as are the people espousing them

Thursday, June 17, 2004

The Stepford Wives

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 June 2004 at Loews Boston Common #5 (first-run)

Even more than with most remakes, a present-day edition of The Stepford Wives is a bad idea. The term "Stepford Wife" has entered the general lexicon, and even those of us who haven't read Ira Levin's book or seen the first adaptation know what it means. To try to create a new version is, in a way, like reamking Godzilla or Superman in the present day; it winds up existing in a weird parallel universe where the very concept of giant monsters or superheroes hasn't already become a familiar pop-cultural touchstone.

This is a huge roadblock; how should a filmmaker handle it when the logical first reaction to the situation for characters in a movie called The Stepford Wives would, logically, be to say "this looks like something out of The Stepford Wives"? The first option that leaps to mind is for the movie to be so well-made that the audience forgets that it's the regurgitation that was new thirty years ago but is now shorthand, another movie's throwaway line to quickly and universally describe a situation. The second would be to find something new and modern to say with it.

The Frank Oz-directed Stepford Wives manages neither. Having one of the "wives" be a gay man, for instance, is cosmetic rather than truly clever. There's a tiny glimmer of hope at the start, as Nicole Kidman's Joanna Eberhard is a rather cold-blooded and cynical television executive, peddling emasculation via unscripted TV. There's a dark area for black comedy, horror, or a clever combination of the two there, with the idea that there's this thread of mysandry in modern American culture. If The Stepford Wives could pull off the trick of making a small part of even the most liberal of us want to see Joanna replaced with a docile robot, or feel that she deserves an attitude adjustment, that would be something.

But director Frank Oz and screenwriter Paul Rudnick wuss out. Fifteen minutes into the movie, anything resembling ambiguity disappears, as does anything resembling originality. The bulk of the movie passes without a single moment that doesn't seem utterly familiar, and not just because the trailer spills almost everything. The film backs away from anything edgy, and sucks any dramatic tension out of it, while the jokes are mostly bland. Bette Midler - Bette Midler! - winds up being the most entertaining member of a cast that includes Kidman, Christopher Walken, Matthew Broderick, and Glenn Close.

The worst part, though, is the movie's train wreck of an ending. The filmmakers make a complete mess out of the movie's science-fictional aspects, they stoop to "resolution via random button-pushing", they utilize the idiot plot, and they undercut anything resembling a theme the movie may have been developing. The movie contradicts itself within spaces of 15 seconds. Then comes the overused celebrity cameo, and a final scene that delivers one very weak laugh when anger is called for.

The Stepford Wives reminds me of another of this year's remakes, Dawn Of The Dead. It transplants and polishes the surface elements, but has no idea of what to fill this surface with.

Monday, June 14, 2004

The Chronicles of Riddick

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 June 2004 at Loews Boston Common #16 (first-run)

I was jazzed for this in the same way I was jazzed for Spider-Man. Not just because it's a character I like, but because I absolutely love the idea of a studio giving one of my favorite genre directors a thoroughly ridiculous amount of money and telling them to go for it. David Twohy has earned himself some major cool points with The Arrival, Pitch Black, and Below, and now he was getting called up to the big leagues.

He does OK. Riddick is a slick, exciting ride packed with action, and a potent reminder of why Vin Diesel was pegged as the next big thing a few years ago. Twohy mostly handles his big budget pretty well, mostly avoiding the "more" trap and focusing on "cool". He also serves up a good script - it's a sequel to Pitch Black, but also very much its own thing. Indeed, I've heard that Universal has hopes for it to be the first movie of a trilogy/franchise, and supplies all the information someone who has never seen Pitch Black might need. And dang if Twohy doesn't serve up a great final scene, which caps the movie and makes me desperate to know what will happen next in just the way the ends of the Lord Of The Rings movies don't.

I get all this, and yet I expect more from Twohy. The Arrival and Pitch Black were smart bits of science fiction, with Twohy able to evoke a sense of wonder and mix it with terror, and everything had an explanation that was grounded in the real. Riddick is softer sci-fi, Star Wars-soft, with "air elementals" and souls being ripped from bodies and seers and holy crusades. Where Pitch Black would come up with something clever like using bioluminescent lichens for torches, Riddick all too often just uses the sci-fi trappings. The bad guys can render a planet lifeless, but their superweapon is built on nothing stronger than the writer needing a big threat. Twohy's better than this (and is certainly better than an army that ravages entire planets fighitng with knives).

But if Riddick isn't quite as inventive as some of the filmmaker's earlier work (with the exception of a nifty scene where Riddick and company try to stay within the terminator between light and dark on a planet of extremes), it's got a solid script. Diesel's role is a little more meaty than just plain badass, and it fits him like a glove. Just as Arnold Schwarzeneggar was born to play a killing machine, Twohy knows how to shoot Vin in such a way to make the audience believe that, yes, this "Furyan" is something more than an ordinary human. He and Alexa Davalos - as one of the other survivors of Pitch Black and now working her way up to being nearly the badass Riddick is - have a great sort of chemistry together. And while Colm Feore and Karl Urban don't quite have the charisma to be worthy adverseries, Thandie Newton vamps her way through her scenes in an entertaining manner while Dame Judi Dench makes the most of a somewhat silly role. Linus Roache has a role that would be thankless except for one great, pivitol scene.

I'd like it if the action were a little clearer, although when one fight scene moves faster than the eye can really follow, it does at least make the impression that Riddick is really, really good at this as opposed to the director just not being able to hold his camera still. I suppose that's why sci-fi action movies always come down to a knife fight of some sort; the close-in brawl is a better visual than the long-range gunfights future combat would likely actually come down to.

One should always try to judge a work objectively, as opposed to for what one thinks the director should have done. I fail that here, I know, although I get the impression Twohy is just getting started. (In more ways than one; Universal appears to be giving Chronicles the same sort of full-franchise push with an animated tie-in DVD and a proposed TV series that Van Helsing got.) Which is exciting, since I know he hasn't yet tapped his full potential.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 June 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #6 (first-run)

There is, of course, a double meaning to this film's English title. First, that it's a story about the samurai as their way of life comes to the end (or as a specific one grows older), like last year's The Last Samurai. Within Yoji Yamada's excellent movie, however, it is used as a derisive nickname for Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada), who unlike the other samurai of the castle, hurries home before dark to be with his daughters and elderly mother.

During the early going, it's easy to think that Twilight Samurai might become a comedy or satire of some sort. It maps almost too well to twenty-first century life - though Iguchi has the title of samurai, he's a rather low-level one. He spends his days not as a warrior, but as a clerk, doing counts on the castle's stores and making sure that the books are even. He struggles to keep up with his family responsibilities, working a sort of second job building insect cages to make ends meet, and he could even be said to have a mortgage. He encourages his daughter to study Confucius (even though his uncle, the head of the family, disdains the idea of women being too educated) because book learning will teach her how to think, which will always be useful, even if sewing seems more practical now. His life falls into a familiar pattern, but he doesn't much mind - he's not ambitious, and nothing makes him happier than spending time with his daughters, ten-year-old Kayana and five-year-old Ito. Then, in an almost sitcom-like plot turn, Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), the newly-divorced younger sister of his good friend Iinuma, returns to town.

Part of what makes this such an enjoyable movie, though, is that we can identify with Iguchi, even though he comes from a very different time and culture (I imagine that's somewhat the case for audiences in modern Japan, as well). That way, we're more aware of his frame of mind when the unfamiliar parts of his life - whether they be the complications of arranged marriages or the parts of his job that involve him using his sword - take center stage.

Yamada has a likable cast; Iguchi and Tomoe are a couple worth rooting for, and the young actresses playing Kayana and Ito are adorable. Aside from the bloody swordplay and the discussions of the politics that make it necessary, this could almost be a PG or PG-13 family movie. That said, what action this movie features is rather intense, including a couple shots of gushing blood; there's also recurring images of starved bodies washing up on the shore of the local river. It's labeled "Action/Drama/Family" on the IMDB, but it's definitely a case of knowing your family.

Twilight Samurai isn't a particularly challenging movie, but it is intelligent and well-constructed. It's a mature movie that nevertheless generates warm fuzzies, and now that I have had a chance to see it, I'd say it was a fitting nomination for Foreign Language Film at this year's Academy Awards, and that its near-sweep of Japan's Academy Awards doesn't surprise me.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Godzilla (Gojira)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 June 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements)

For the first few weeks, seeing the trailer for Rialto's uncut 50th anniversery release of Godzilla in front of every film at the Brattle was a lot of fun. After all, Rialto is mostly known for releases of French New Wave feautres, and the trailer has no footage, simply promising an uncut, uncensored version of a 50-year-old classic before revealing (to those who don't recognize the music) that the classic is Godzilla. There followed a reaction that was equal parts "the original Godzilla on the big screen? Yes!" and "you had me going" laughter. By last week, most of the people in the audience had already seen the trailer, though, so we were ready for it to finally show up.

One thing that's important to remember about Godzilla is that, as a monster movie, it in many ways has more in common with the Hollywood sci-fi/horror of the fifties than the roughly thirty sequels and remakes and remakes of sequels it has spawned over the past half-century. It is, at its heart, a cautionary tale about atomic weapons, with warnings about the weapons themselves and the arms race that surrounds them. It only weakens when, in the middle, it detours away from a giant monster crushing the Japanese countryside to spend time on a very conventional romantic subplot. This drags not just because it's not nearly as interesting as the science-fictional stuff, but because Momoko Kochi, the daughter of a scientist (Takashi Shimura) and girlfriend of a Coast Guard captain (Akira Takarada), just wasn't a very good actress; her response to any emotional situation seemed to be to smile a little wider.

What Godzilla has that its American contemporaries didn't, of course, is a very real first-hand understanding of what the atomic bomb meant; what was an abstract fear for Americans was a recent memory for Japan. Director Ishiro Honda works with those memories of destruction and wartime evacuations to make for some tense scenes. The action and effects generally hold up - yes, a scene where the Japanese Air Force fires approximately eight thousand missiles at a 50-meter-high monster without apparently scoring a hit is a little embarassing, and Godzilla often moves slowly and ponderously, but that also allows him to come across as an animal out of its time confused by all this human-build crap. But the miniature work is very nice, and one scene of his fire-hot radioactive breath melting a pair of electric towers was still pretty cool.

Godzilla stands out as likely the best of the 50s monster movies and apart from the kaiju movies it begat. It's good to see it presented that way, because even as Godzilla-the-monster has become a sort of timeless franchise, Godzilla-the-movie is very much a product of its time, and gains in stature when viewed as such.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 June 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

With a title about that, I may as well not worry about my mother reading this review and scolding me about my language, and just say that I'm not sure how you make this film without it disappearing up its own ass. That Mario Van Peebles somehow manages to do so is a testament to his skill.

That's not just a cute lead, either - both on-screen and behind the scenes, a central theme here is parents, children, and how they regard each other. Mario Van Peebles plays his father Melvin Van Peebles, in a movie about the making of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song - in which he played his father's character as a child. So, when the Melvin character states, in voiceover, that this was the first time young Mario had called him "dad", it's natural to wonder whose memory this is (to further muddy matters, Mario co-wrote the screenplay based upon Melvin's book). When the focus is on Melvin as a man and as a parent, the fact that this is a story about a father and son told by the son from the father's point of view can jolt one out of the film's world.

When the movie focuses on Melvin Van Peebles, Filmmaker, it's a good, self-contained story. Van Peebles has just been offered a three-picture deal with Columbia, but knows that he'll be their token negro, asked to make the kind of comedies that offend him, portraying blacks and other minorities as clowns. Instead, he decides to go it along, making the kind of uncompromised movie he wants to see. He's smart enough to know that he can't just make some small, arty flick; he has to aim for entertainment. In order to make budget (no way he can afford a union crew), he recruits family, friends, and people from the porn industry. When his financing falls through, he winds up using his own money, making every decision more and more dangerous.

Baadasssss! shows how, in the early 1970s, before Cassevetes, way before Tarantino, how truly independent (and thus frightening) "independent film" really was. Melvin thought of himself a sort of revolutionary, a quaint-sounding idea when viewed from the thirtieth century, but fitting with the culture of the time and, in the end, somewhat true. Sweet Sweetback didn't change the world as a whole, but its success made the movie industry aware that there was a huge potential audience for movies targeted to the black audience.

One thing that makes Baadasssss! interesting is that while often a story about an artist driven to create focuses on an obsession with the end result. And while Mario does recreate scenes and how the movie was made, the actual movie Melvin makes is clearly less important than how he creates it, with a racially diverse crew and his full control. Melvin becomes something of a monster at times, taking perhaps too much upon himself and neither trusting nor forgiving the people he hired to help him make the movie. The audience is left to wonder whether Melvin was a jerk, was in the right, was pushed too hard by the strain, or whether perhaps some combination of these was true but his uglier qualities were needed to get the job done. We can't know, since we've only got one way it happened and one way it turned out.

The cast is, to a member, great. Mario gives a performance that would be fascinating even without his connection to the role, and for the most part manages to avoid both hero worship and resentment. Joy Bryant is entertaining but sincere as Priscilla, Melvin's girl Friday; Ossie Davis is still on top of his game as Melvin's father. David Allen Grier gives the best performance I can remember from him as Clyde Houston, the assistant director and production manager for Sweet Sweetback who was ecstatic to get out of doing porn. Saul Rubinek is good as the Agent who really isn't sure how to handle Melvin's decision to walk away from the studios. Khleo Thomas and Penny Bae Bridges have the job of portraying Melvin's children Mario and Megan, and serve as the movie's anchor.

Baadasssss! is a good movie about the madness that went into creating an independent film before independent film became cool. I'm pretty sure my feelings on it would be less complicated if it had been made by someone other than Mario Van Peebles, but just as with how Melvin made his movie, there's no way to tell how necessary that is.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

The Day After Tomorrow

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 June 2004 at AMC Fenway #4 (first-run)

Summer movie spectacles have become ordinary. Making a movie with massive amounts of special effects is not yet easy or cheap, but there is a sort of system in place, and massive computer-rendered mayhem is routine enough that we, as audience members and critics take it for granted. We look at a spectacle movie and say, so what? Where's the character development? Which is rather silly - it implies that all spectacle is created equal, and that creating something beautiful and terrifying isn't worthwhile for its own sake.

The Day After Tomorrow has solidly above-average destruction. Writer/director Roland Emmerich has had a great deal of practice in ripping large cities apart on-screen, and he hits all the right notes here. He uses relatively long shots, both in distance and time, to make the scope of what he's doing clear. He places everything in the right place on the screen (in terms of looking at it, if not necessarily in terms of real geography), and he manages the difficult task of making a frozen, snow-covered environment appear dynamic. The methods by which he unleashes his destruction are nicely tied together; when a helicopter's fuel lines freeze and it crashes, it gives the feeling that he and his co-writer Jeffrey Nachmanoff were actually thinking this through, that he was considering all the possibilities and just worked them all in.

Indeed, it's refreshing how seriously Emmerich takes his subject matter. The scientists in this movie are smart and have human foibles without being socially stunted, inappropriate wisecracks are kept to a minimum, and there's not much in the way of camp. Emmerich doesn't feel the need to soften the blow when bad things are happening; instead of going for a chuckle by having the special effects kill people in an ironic/darkly comic way, he just lets dangerous situations be dangerous without comment or deconstruction. It's a surprisingly effective technique, and deserves imitation.

That's not to say this is a perfect movie; much of the film's second hour between cataclysmic events seems too much smaller than the rest. There's also very little sense of human scale; when characters refer to something happening a couple days ago, it doesn't feel like a two days have past inside the film when only ten or fifteen minutes have passed outside of it. When Dennis Quaid's character hikes through the storm from somewhere just north of Philadelphia to Manhattan, we never get a real sense of exactly how dangerous that is.

And, of course, as is expected from a PG-13 movie, it's a rather bloodless affair. I'm not saying I want blood and guts, or even that it would be appropriate (the nature of the superstorm would mean that what bodies weren't buried would be flash-frozen and preserved), but too often it seems that the destruction affects mainly buildings and structures and things, as opposed to people.

The acting is decent for the main characters - pros like Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sela Ward, Adrian Lester, and Ian Holm are more than capable of selling what they're given (they are aided enormously by the science sounding vaguely reasonable and consistent); relative newcomer Emmy Rossum is a nice find. There's something of a drop-off when you get to the second-tier characters, like the folks who are holed up in the New York Public Library with Gyllenhaal's Sam; they don't rise much above serviceable that often.

There's alikeablee earnestness about the movie, though - Emmerich and company believe in its cautionary message, and as a result they seem to put more effort into it than is generally expected for the genre. The Day After Tomorrow doesn't transcend its genre, but is a good example of the disaster movie done well.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

An American Tragedy

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 June 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Von Sternberg: Dietrich and Beyond)

Part of the fun for me, as a modern viewer watching An American Tragedy, is watching director Josef von Sternberg dance around the word "pregnant", or any mention of how a young woman becomes pregnant, or how she might become not pregnant. Then I recognize that Sylvia Sidney, the old woman from Beetlejuice and Barry Sonnenfeld's Fantasy Island series, is playing said young woman, and it seems surreal. This was a movie from the start of a career that lasted until the age of 88.

Phillips Holmes is the actual lead, and it's somewhat problematic. The title of the movie refers to a tragedy, but as Clyde Griffiths, Holmes never really engenders much sympathy. He's seldom actually seeking another's downfall, but he's always looking to work an angle, or avoid responsibility. The tragedy happens to Ms. Sindey's Roberta Alden, but she's never as central as Clyde. So, after she exits, we're left without anybody to really care about. His guilt-wracked mother (Lucille La Verne) is more pathetic than sympathetic.

Fortunately, the movie shifts gears at this point. It plays as light melodrama for that first two-thirds, but the last half-hour is an outrageously over-the-top courtroom drama. Von Sternberg has the lawyers - and the movie - play to the balconies of a packed courtroom with the sort of grandstanding techniques that are courtroom dramas' bread and butter, though in recent years they've been toned town as cameras in the courtroom have shown just how restrained trials really are. For a twenty-first audience, it plays as broader comedy than perhaps von Sternberg intended; what may have been intended as satire now looks like farce. It goes on a little too long, but it the final act does have a jolt of energy that the first two-thirds may have lacked.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Crime and Punishment

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 June 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Von Sternberg: Dietrich and Beyond)

After three weeks of all-Dietrich, all the time, the Brattle's von Sternberg series ends on a couple of the director's other films (though I saw The Scarlet Empress and The Devil Is A Woman last week, I didn't have much left to say about the collaboration). It also serves as an entry in the Peter Lorre centennial series.

Lorre is fun to watch; he isn't subtle, but he picks exactly the right kind of emoting for each moment. That's a valuable skill for this movie, where a large Russian novel is being crammed into a ninety-minute movie. Also a joy to watch is Edward Arnold as Inspector Porfiry, who is charged with investigating the murder committed by Lorre's Roderick Raskolnikov, a student of criminology. He doesn't initially suspect, but as guilt and paranoia start to work on Roderick...

Well, even if other audience members like myself haven't read the novel, it's not hard to trace the path of the narrative. But there's 30s-style banter, melodrama, and even some romance involving Mr. Lorre. Von Sternberg tells the story with great efficiency, not wasting a single shot, and sharp wit. I've got no doubt that huge chunks of the book were jettisoned, but what remains is a focused, entertaining movie. It's one of Lorre's first English-language roles, and a strong starring performance from one of the greatest character actors of all time.


* (out of four)
Seen 5 June 2004 in the Coolidge Corner Video Screening Room (New England Animation Bash)

Generally, when the guy who runs the theater comes into the room and says "you realize this sucks, right?" before starting the movie, you're not in for a good time. It would probably be wise to head out and give one of the other midnight movies a shot. But, hey, it's only an hour and fifteen minutes; how bad could it be. The answer: Pretty darn awful. Were this and Kaena the only features Ned & Clinton could book for the Bash?

The movie features demons from the Sonic Area of Hell named "Desecrator", "Dominator", and "Decimator". "Dominator" is the one whom Dr. Payne's three daughters summon from Hell by playing The Lost Chord (which they found in one of dad's books of the arcane). The demon he was fighting, Desecrator, sends three demons, including Decimator and Lady Violator after him. I may have Desecrator and Decimator reversed, but it doesn't matter that much. Anyway, Dominator soon agrees to help rid Earth of the other demons in return for Dr. Payne (outwardly an undertaker, but secretly working for Her Majesty's Government to help avoid England being overrun by zombies) finding a way to send him back. See, the thing he'd stolen, the "Key to Hell", doesn't work perfectly for him because he's apparently "not evil enough". It does allow him to conjure up guitars, bikes, and a sort of skull-themed train thing, because this is a "heavy metal" horror movie.

The animation could, generously, be called "poor". It is not up to the level generally seen in video games. I am not referring to cut scenes, but actual game play. Five years ago. I was surprised to see the Sci-Fi Channel credited, since aside from being too R-rated to actually run on the station, I expect slightly better from the station that gave the world The Dream Team (for the sarcasm-impaired, this is bad). This is the UK Sci-Fi Channel, though, which is apparently a lower-rent operation. The models are silly-looking, and they barely have any sort of articulation. You can tell that most of the effort went into making the women curvy.

But, hey, they always say, you don't need actual production values if you've got a good script. Not happening. Alan Grant adapts his own manga - an English writer making Japanese comics struck me as odd, too - and I wondered how many pages of comic this 75-minute movie represents. It introduces new characters late in the game, and seems to connect several smaller stories. It is unintentionally funny (I think it's unintentional) in how nobody quite seems to react to events like a believable person. There is a subplot about the girls' band that comes out of nowhere and is, in the big picture of the end of the world, fairly unimportant. It's also the kind of movie where saying "I'm sorry" doesn't make the demon hordes go away, but it appears to earn instant forgiveness. Or where women are attracted to Dominator despite him being completely hidden underneath his armor. And, you know, a demon.

How much credit should a movie get for being "so bad, it's good"? There is something peculiarly watchable about this movie - well, for the people who didn't walk out. It is so low-budget and cheesy that the mind rejects it as possibly being the work of professionals, but it does feel like the work of enthusiastic amateurs. By so convincingly appearing to be something that high school or college students pieced together, one's instinct is to cut it some slack... Until one remembers paying actual U.S. currency to see it.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Kaena: The Prophecy (Kaena: La Prophétie)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 June 2004 at the Brattle Theater (New England Animation Bash; print shown was dubbed)

I'd like to see Pixar or PDI commit to doing a full-out sci-fi action movie, just to see what someone with real movie storytelling skills can do with the genre. It seems like a medium where someone with imagination could create something incredible, and France's Kaena has four-star promise with its absolutely gorgeous opening shot of a spaceship ripping itself apart. After that, though, the movie gradually crumbles, as the visuals are forced to carry a weak plot.

Now, I'm not one to sniff and say that great special effects aren't worth anything without a good story (or, even more myopically, without good characterization). There are distinct pleasures to be found in just looking at this movie, from that opening sequence to the monsters that chase the main character to the dizzying image of a tree grown so tall that you're weightless above a certain point. But co-writer/director Chris Delaporte doesn't know how to pace them over ninety minutes; much of the cool stuff is bunched up on the ends, with the middle left to drag with a bunch of exposition and the overuse of a too-chatty character voiced (in the English dub) by Greg Proops.

A lot of Kaena's problems are shared by Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. The animators often don't seem to trust themselves to show strong emotion without it looking hammy, so everyone seems restrained, even when they should be screaming or passionate. It also inserts a bunch of annoying mysticism into a science-fictional setting. Why does Kaena (voiced by Kirsten Dunst) have some sort of connection to the sphere (or "Vecanoï") at the base of Axis which the native Selenites wish to destroy and the sole survivor of the spaceship wishes to retrieve? No reason, she just does. Sure, those of us who like our science fiction and mystical fantasy kept distinct are probably a minority, but it weakens the title character here - in essence, Kaena is special because she's special.

Kaena is a fun character, though. She's the independent and adventurous teenager in her village, who explores Axis (the tree which is these characters' entire world) and draws the creatures she finds while most of the villagers harvest sap to be offered by the tyrannical High Priest to the gods. The adults are annoyed by her but the kids love her, as does a childhood friend. She's sexy, but in an innocent way; the tiny outfit she wears in the film's first half indicates a tropical environment more than any sort of naughtiness (and, hey, it's not like any of the guys are wearing shirts, either). It's enough to make one wish she was more of an active hero than a "chosen one", because it's a lot more fun to watch her figure things out than be told things.

(Of course, the costume whe's put in for the movie's last act is kind of fetish-like, and when a 700-year-old alien says he wishes he could merge with her rather than a member of his own species... Well, that's nasty.)

But golly, can this movie be pretty. Though it overdoes making one group of creatures shiny and liquid to the point where the eye can't quite hold on to them, it also offers up a steady stream of great pictures. Giant marauding creatures, worms in prosthetic suits, a tree so tangled it often looks like neurons, that beautiful, doomed spaceship, flight... Kaena has neat concepts and striking depictions of same. When this finally gets combined with people who can string them together to form an adventure movie the way John Lasseter can with a comedy, well, boy, that'll be something incredible.

New England Animation Bash: Competition Show

The first thing I saw at this mini-festival hosted by the Brattle and Coolidge theaters was the thirteen cartoons in competition. Competition at festivals is kind of a strange thing; if the idea is to see lots of great movies, why single one out as the best? Apparently that gets filmmakers to come, so that they can put little laurel leafs on their posters and advertising. Crazy.

Anyway, the shorts:

"It Is What It Is"
* * ¾ (out of four)

A nifty little short that doesn't have any story to it; it's a collaboration with a bunch of kids at a Maine summer camp. From what I can gather, they each drew a picture, with the previous few for reference, and then director Tim Finn did the in-betweening; you can hear the kids in the background.

The result is kind of neat, though it winds up being mostly a novelty

"Remy the Two-Legged Cat"
* * * (out of four)

The title says it all - a cat without its forelegs is pestered by a fly. Lacking paws with which to swat it, the cat winds up rearing up on its hind legs and falling on its face a lot. Fortunately, the bit has good comic timing and the title character is a good likeness of what a cat would look like with only two legs, which works to highlight the absurdity of the idea.

"Boxed In"
* * * (out of four)

An obviously CGI short which works a goofy premise pretty well - an old man receives a box with both a mouse and a mousetrap in the mail. The mouse, however, doesn't go for the trap, so the man tries to catch it, generally not doing well because, hey, he's an old man. It gets a little repetitive, and there are some fade-in/nothing/fade-out stretches, but the pay-off is good.

"Bride Of Frankenstein"
* * ½ (out of four)

Carlyn Whick uses cut-out animation to show a Frankenstein type disassembling a plain-looking girl and reassembling her such that each of the pieces seems slightly "improved" but the end result is grotesque. Kind of nift, and doesn't stretch its one joke out too long.

"The House"
* * ¾ (out of four)

There's something both sweet and creepy about this short, where a camera enters a house where a variety of elderly and/or mentally retarded women are drawing as some sort of therapy, and we see their drawings get animated. It's somewhat uncomfortable to watch them try to articulate verbally, but most can draw fairly well; even if they're not the greatest draftswomen, most have clean, unique styles that show some talent. It's interesting how they see themselves: One woman starts to erase the glasses she'd drawn on a character because she hadn't even realized she'd drawn them and hates her glasses; another, describing a date she went on, draws a strikingly elegant blonde that stands in marked contrast to her actual appearance.

"My First Job"
* * * (out of four)

A warm, soft-looking animation of a teenage girl trying to babysit two kids who fight over a ball. Cute, and features more of the cat abuse that began in "Remy".

"Circuit Marine"
* * * ½ (out of four)

A cute (but somewhat morbid) short from France with a darkly humorous look at the circle of life, as a fish caught in a net appears to be spared, getting placed in a bowl as the head fisherman's pet (though the fishermen bear a striking resemblence to pirates). The captain's cat has other ideas, though, as does his parrot, once he sees other birds diving for and catching fish out the window. Eventually, of course, everything in nature is food for something else. This got one of my votes for the audience award (we each get to cast three).

"The Great Escape"

I can't remember a single thing about this one. I don't remember whether it involved animals, people, or things; whether it was CGI, hand-drawn, or cut-outs. Nothing. That can't be a good sign.

"Lines & Shapes"
* * ½ (out of four)

One of those abstract cartoons which takes advantage of how, in a two-dimensional cartoon, it is easy for one thing to become another. Mostly, it involved shapes growing out of a horizon line. Unfortunately, at least for this show, it was something of demonstration of the trouble MPEG-2 has compressing black-and-white, as much of the DVD-based presentation was even more muddy and indistinct than the short (which seemed to involve a lot of smudged pencil effects) was meant to be.

* * * ¼ (out of four)

A cute short, as a married couple tucks themselves into bed and dreams. They needle each other a bit, calm and secure in their relationship while overhearing their neighbors fight. Their dreams (in color as compared to the black-and-white outlines of their real life) feature peril and adventure, but they are always saved by the actions of their sleeping partner, with a snore perhaps being integrated into the dream as a gush of water that puts out a fire. Cute and sweet with nice linework.

* * (out of four)

A four-year-old short from the director of "It Is What It Is", this reminds me in style of "Teen Girl Squad" on Homestar Runner without much of the funny. It features rough, minimally animated figures with silly voices and little in the way of storytelling skills.

"Showa Shinzon"
* * * ½ (out of four)

A rather striking story about a girl who went to Hokkaido to live with her grandparents after her father was killed in Tokyo during WWII. While there, the ground shakes, but that has less to do with the war and more to do with a mountain being born in a volcanic eruption that ironically stops just as the war ends. Though a lot of the CGI seems primitive, the director mixes media well - those oddly-modeled CGI characters have a child's innocence, and the sketches of the rising ground by the grandfather are a neat sort of meta-comment on the nature of animation, that it's a sequence of drawings creating motion when their seen in sequence. This was the second of my three votes.

"Penguins Behind Bars"
* * * ½ (out of four)

Produced for Cartoon Network, this is simplicity itself - a women-in-prison movie... with penguins. Lili Taylor is the voice of Doris Fairfeather, a young, not-so-bright penguin who doesn't realize the man she's dating is bad news until she winds up in jail as an accessory to a pearl heist. Once there, she confronts various prison-movie tropes: The vicious warden, the experiened old bird, the girl who cracks under pressure. The latter, here a nervous-looking penguin with the name of Flotsam (Catherine Fitch) who carries a giant shrimp doll around, and is responsible for many of the 22-minute short's funniest moments. A very funny send-up of the genre, which got the last of my votes for the Audience Award.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Sort-of-shameless self-promotion and explanation of the scale

The little "HBS Now!" button off to the right is for eFilmCritic/Hollywood Bitch-slap, a movie review site that has recently made the alarming decision to add me to the roster. What's going up over there is a somewhat modified version of what I'm doing here, although a lot will be exclusive to this site until I am cleared to add movies to their DB (shockingly, a lot of the Hong Kong stuff isn't in it).

It is a new experience trying to work with their irksome requirement to boil your review down to one sentence or so. I've been just ignoring that and using that space to try and interest people in reading the review, where I can expand and equivocate to my heart's content.

Somewhat amusing, though, is finding their five-star rating system more restrictive than the four-star one I use. Part of that is that I use quarter-star granularity, while that system requires me to enter only whole ratings. The definitions of what the star ratings mean is problemating, too:

***** - Awesome
**** - Worth A Look
*** - Average
** - Pretty Crappy
* - Sucks

Now, I consider "Worth A Look" and "Average" to be more or less the same thing, so there seems to be a large unfilled space between "Worth A Look" and "Awesome" for above-average but not extraordinary films. Jumping straight from "Average" to "Pretty Crappy" seems to leave out a place for underwhelming but not really dismal films. In contrast, here's what my ratings mean:

**** - Superlative
***½ - Outstanding
*** - Rather Good
**½ - Decent/Average
** - Below Average
*½ - Not Good
* - Repugnant
½ - Disastrous
0 - Actively harmful

... with quarter-star granularity. As a practical matter, few films will ever merit a 0, and self-selection keeps me from giving below *½ very much. I also feel like I give three-star ratings out like candy, but I gather that's the natural way of things for someone who basically sees the movie he wants to see, rather than what an editor assigns.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Love Me If You Dare (Jeux d'enfants)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 June 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run)

Kids can be cruel, especially when the world has been cruel to them. Julien Janvier is watching his mother die and his father grow angry at the world as a result; Sophia Kowalsky is taunted cruelly for being poor and a child of Polish parents who don't even speak French. They soon make their life an endless string of dares, mostly harmless though infuriating to their families. They draw strength from this, but by the time Sophie (played as an adult by Marion Cotillard) realizes she wants more from Julien (Guillaume Canet) than friendship, they don't know how to do anything but challenge each other.

Love Me If You Dare is often unpleasant to watch. At first, it looks like it's going to be a story about two kids obviously in love who can't get out of their own way. That would be a less daring movie, but perhaps a more entertaining one. When the characters, who last talked when they were eighteen, meet again at age 25, the movie becomes problematic. What had before been a playful, if a bit edgy, relationship takes a sharp turn into cruelty. One could even, perhaps, describe it as sadistic. It doesn't seem like there's any reason for this escalation, and I found myself quickly losing sympathy for the characters.

This movie has a great deal of visual flair, making good use of digital effects and dream sequences. There's also one outright heartbreaking scene early on, as 8-year-old Julien, visiting his mother in the hospital, is angry that Sophie has come to see him; in a moment that foreshadows their teen years, she sadly realizes she is "only good for playing". But after that, it seems to have sections missing - the relationship between Julien and his father seems to become uglier than what we see in the movie would merit, and we only get glimpses of Sophie's life. There isn't enough information about either direction the movie could go - Julien's life isn't fleshed out enough for it to be about him, but Sophie is given rather short shrift for a movie about their relationship. And then it seems like quite a leap to get from the climax to the ending.

Or endings, plural. There are two, that run parallel, as if the director shot one light and one dark but couldn't decide which he preferred. One is pretty clearly the "primary" ending, but even that one is somewhat different in tone than the way it's established in the beginning, before the rest of the movie is told in flashback. That inconsistency is maddening; it doesn't work in terms of making the relationship seem complicated, but just arbitrary.

The Battle Of Algiers (La Battaglia di Algeri)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 30 May 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements)

A taut, tense, look at the battle between an occupied country and the occupying power, The Battle of Algiers does an excellent job of giving the audience a clear view of events and allowing them to draw their own conclusions. This film could be mistaken for a documentary if not for the trailer's proclamation that "not a single frame of documentary footage" was used and the equally uncompromised view of both sides' actions.

Telling a story like this with detachment means selecting one's endpoints carefully. We never see how the Algerian rebels justify terrorism, any political discussion back in Paris about whether France should be in North Africa, or whether any of the participants later faced a court for the brutal means used to fight this war. To a certain extent, this distances us from the characters, with scant information given on Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), head of the French forces, or Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggjag) and Daffar (Saadi Yacef), the operational and ideological leaders of the revolutionaries. We're told of Mathieu's war record, and that Ali was in trouble with the law for a long time, but little more than that.

It does not, however, make us so detached that the violence is any less disturbing. Indeed, it's even more unnerving to watch three women style their hair and dress in Western clothing so that they can casually infiltrate a soda shop and place a bomb that will kill dozens. There's some sense of the contempt these militants must feel, watching a bunch of Europeans laugh it up while treating the country's people as just servants, but that's not enough for most to feel it's actually justified. Similarly, the movie doesn't flinch from showing the French forces torturing captives, and while the colonel's explanation seems weak, it makes a certain amount of unemotional sense.

The print shown at the Brattle was freshly-struck, with a new translation and new subtitles. It looked crisp, accurately presenting the grainy black-and-white footage shot on handheld cameras to create a documenatry feel. It is, of course, relevant today, as one need only turn on the news to be exposed to a more contemporary version of the basic story, but I wager that there would be few times in human history when these conditions weren't reproduced somewhere. They just have seldom been reproduced and retold as clearly as they are in this film.

Bargain Movies

I notice some folks have found this blog by searching on "Loews Weekday Escape Tickets", so for all of you - good news, Loews is selling them in 5-packs rather than books of 25 for a limited time (actually, six for the cost of five). You've gotta love paying $4.17 for a $9 movie and a $3 popcorn.

(And, actually, I still had a coupon code on my HD, so we're talking $3.33 per movie and snack. I am tempted to buy something like 50.)