Saturday, July 31, 2004

Maria Full of Grace

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

I like movies like Maria Full of Grace, which function almost like documentaries in how they give me a glance into a world outside my own experience. In some ways, they're better than a lot of documentaries, since the directors can get all the images that they envisioned when starting the project - or which they couldn't get, due to the extra-legal nature of the subject matter.

Of course, Maria is not just an examination of how drug mules get recruited and go about their business. It's about Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno, in her first role), and she's fairly interesting herself. She's intelligent and strong-willed, and that's both a blessing and a curse. She can see how, at seventeen, her life is already dead-ending, but the choices she makes to escape that dead end are rather self-serving and often dangerous, whether it be quitting her job, rejecting the help of her boyfriend after revealing that she has missed two periods, or, of course, swallowing sixty-two tiny ampuoles of heroin to smuggle past US Customs.

The mechanics of this are intriguing to watch; many movies pay this little attention, prefering to focus on the later revelation that - gasp! - the 17-year-old girl is smuggling drugs in her stomach. The systematic, practiced manner in which it plays out is more disturbing. Ms. Moreno and writer/director Joshua Marston are careful with how they portray Maria; she's a strong enough character to gain the audience's sympathy, but not quite to the point where we're hoping she delivers a bunch of drugs successfully.

The film is well-cast, with many of the actors appearing in their first feature. Moreno is the standout; she's attractive but keeps it dialed down, and doesn't shy away from the more unpleasant aspects of her character. Also good is Orlando Tobon as Don Fernando, the harried leader in New York's Colombian community whom Maria encounters in the film's second half.

Maria Full of Grace could have been a lecture, but deftly avoids that. It's easy to take away a better understanding of the pressures that will lead someone to do something as risky as working as a mule, but also succeeds in making that incidental. The poster says "based on 1,000 true stories", but there are other mules being followed, and it's Maria as an individual that elevates this film above the pack.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Spider-Man 2 (again)

* * * * (out of four)(still)
Seen 28 July 2004 at the New England Aquarium's Simons IMAX Theater (The IMAX Experience)

It has, of late, become somewhat unusual for me to see the movie more than once in theaters. Heck, even after the reflex-reaction DVD purchase during the first week of availabilty when it's on sale, I'll generally leave that movie on my shelf because, gee, I've seen it in the past year and there are all these other movies clamoring for my attention. A second evening spent watching even a certified four-star movie seems like time that could be spent on something I haven't seen. Watching the movie you know you love is likely a better investment, in terms of probable return on your time and money, but watching a greater variety is better for you long-term, even if you wind up seeing something awful; you might spot an actor that it's worth keeping an eye on or be forewarned for the director's next movie.

So, why was I at Spider-Man 2 again last night? Two reasons; as the title mentions, Spidey 2 is the latest film to undergo IMAX's DMR process to get blown up to look good on a six-story screen. Also, my youngest brother came into town for it. Going to movies and talking about it afterward with someone is more fun that going by one's self. So even if the ticket for the IMAX showing is $13 (or, in my case, getting Matt dinner while he pays for the tickets), it's at least a different kind of experience.

It is, however, gratifying to see that the movie I'd enjoyed so much nearly a month ago holds up. Indeed, in some ways it improves on a second viewing; Alfred Molina's line about how keeping love bottled up inside will mess you up makes more sense when you know that Peter's powers will be going haywire later, for instance. The much-maligned scene of Peter ripping his mask off on the runaway train makes more sense, as the larger screen makes much more clear that the eyepieces on the mask were singed, and probably difficult to see through. And while I'd noticed the snake-like design of Doc Ock's limbs and how Sam Raimi and company seem to be going for a serpent-tempting-Adam vibe with them at the end of my first viewing, it's neat to notice that this is a motif he was working with throughout the entire movie.

I wonder whose idea that was. The original comic design of Ock's tentacles had the ends looking like deformed hands, with widely-spaced, stubby fingers; later revisions have given them a more octopus-like look, with sucker-looking things along their length. Was it one of the four writers, production designer Neil Spisak, or Raimi himself? Similarly, which of the writers giggled at the idea of sticking a chainsaw in a hospital OR, just so that Raimi could show that even with all the mainstream stuff he's done since 1993, he still could call on his horror-movie roots.

Come awards season, Raimi and company will be overlooked for their work here - after all, not only is this a popcorn movie, but it's a sequel. And fans of Raimi's previous movies will notice that there's a lot of references to to his other movies, from "the classic" sitting in Aunt May's driveway to shots lifted from Darkman, but these aren't used as crutches. It's a tight film, with only one screen that doesn't seem to contribute (and I wouldn't be shocked if the writers were using that cake scene to build Ursula Ditkovich's crush on Peter up for her to appear as Black Cat in Spider-Man 3). And I know I've said this before, but it's especially evident after watching The Bourne Supremacy two days earlier - Raimi/Pope is about as good a team as you can get with the camera in the action movie. As fast and three-dimensional as the action is in this movie, the audience always knows where the characters are in relation to each other and the environment, what they can do, etc. Spider-Man 2 holds up because the filmmakers worked hard but don't shove their hard work in the audience's face.

The IMAX presentation was good. There were a couple scenes toward the end where I wondered if perhaps IMAX's DMR processing was a little rushed, but otherwise it looked and sounded great.

There is one caveat, though. What I'm about to say will probably irk the people on the home theater websites I frequent, where the quest to have movies presented in their original aspect ratio rather than a cropped, pan-and-scan version is like a holy crusade, but I must admit it passed through my head. The IMAX presentation of Spider-Man 2 (like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and The Matrix Revolutions before it) is a matted widescreen presentation, in the movie's original 2.35:1 width:height ratio. That's a good thing, right? However, I did some math, based upon the stated proportions of the Simons IMAX Screen (65 feet high by 85 feet wide); the actual picture for these "scope" movies is about 36 feet tall. That's certainly bigger than most multiplexes, but not that much bigger than the largest screen at the AMC Fenway.

The first of the "IMAX Experience" series was Apollo 13, and there Ron Howard and his cinematographer, in addition to editing the film down to two hours so that it could fit on an IMAX platter (since then, most IMAX theaters have upgraded to larger platters), he and his cinematographer also recomposed the movie to use the entire 1.44:1 IMAX frame; George Lucas did something similar for Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Some purists raised a stink over this, and apparently the studios have listened and responded. It's worth noting that these films no longer seem to be promoted as "The IMAX Experience", which is probably accurate - they don't really have the grand, immersive effect native IMAX films have, which Howard tried to duplicate by tweaking his film for the different demands and challenges of a giant-screen environment.

Consider the final scene of Spider-Man 2, where Spidey swings through Manhattan, escorted by a pair of police helicopters. Looks great, as good as or better than it looked on the best 35mm screens. Now, think how amazing it would have been if they had zoomed in, used the whole IMAX canvas, let the city and the speed just completely fill one's field of vision. It would have been utterly jaw-dropping. Considering Raimi reportedly wanted to film at 1.85:1 rather than 2.35:1 anyway, I think he could have been convinced. Of course, the question is if he and Pope could have made an "IMAX Experience" version; they would have had to either been composing for both versions during filming, or been given time to figure out how to fit their footage to a differently-proportioned screen. Given that the Spidey 2 IMAX release seems like sort of an afterthought, neither is likely the case.

It will be interesting to see how the 35mm and IMAX 3-D versions of Robert Zemeckis's Polar Express compare, as IMAX was apparently a consideration from early on. After watching the last three IMAX DMR blowups, though, I'm starting to wonder what advantage they hold over a top-line 35mm presentation if the filmmakers aren't given some license to make some changes. I've got no issue with Apollo 13 and Apollo 13: The IMAX Experience being slightly different, though closely related, works if it means the tools are used to their fullest.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

The Bourne Supremacy

* * (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2004 at Loews Harvard Square #1 (first-run)

The Bourne Supremacy may not be the most unnecessary sequel of all time, but for most of its length, it's among the most lackluster. There are only a few points when it is actively bad (but oh, how frustrating those moments are), but its characters are so professional that they never get much chance to become individuals, and the movie only rarely rises above being completely mechanical.

Having a clockwork plot isn't necessarily a bad thing; I greatly enjoyed David Mamet's Spartan earlier this year. The Bourne Supremacy, however, loses its outsider fairly early on, which means that for much of the rest of this film, Matt Damon's Jason Bourne and Joan Allen's Pamela Landy (the CIA operations manager searching for him) are playing an elaborate game of spy vs. spy, and they are so professional about it that there's no emotional or character hook for the audience. Where The Bourne Identity had Franka Pontete's civilian character Marie and Bourne's own search for his identity, Supremacy only fleetingly offers human drama.

I would have liked to see more of Julia Stiles as Nicki, Chris Cooper's assistant from the previous adventure. She probably has less screen time than she did in Identity, but does more with it, as a meet with Bourne adds a jolt of fear to her professionalism. I felt like I had a better handle on her than I ever did on Ms. Allen's Pam, who comes off almost as robotic as Bourne here. There are comments from other CIA characters that Pam's getting in over her head, but those words are never backed up with evidence pro and con. Brian Cox also returns from the first movie as the CIA veteran who had had oversight on the Treadstone assassins.

A big positive for this movie is the location shooting. Bourne and company travel from Goa, India to Naples, Berlin, and Moscow, and for the most part the movies shot there, rather than trying to make Vancouver or a Los Angeles soundstage look like somewhere else. Each of the locations has its own personality, and that makes the scope of the film feel a little better. Also, as anyone who has seen Ronin will tell you, old and narrow European streets make for a much more exhilirating car chase, like the big one through Moscow that serves as this movie's climax should be.

::sigh:: That car chase. It suffers from the same malady as the rest of the movie's action scenes, which is Michael Bay disease - director Paul Greengrass is either unable or unwilling to just give the audience a clear shot at what is happening. This technique works, briefly, in the first chase scene, as it helps the audience share Marie's inability to process all that is happening so fast, but after that, the chaos serves no good purpose. You don't necessarily have to use slow-motion, but pull back a little, stick with a shot for more than half a second, and just basically try to communicate what's going on to us. The final car chase is so frustrating, because there are just enough quick glimpses to show that it could have been one of the greats - you can see how much traffic there is, how fast the cars are moving, and how Bourne and the other assassin are banging against each other, using their vehicles as weapons. But there's no feel for the geography, no flow from one shot to the next.

To make it more painful, John Powell contributes a better-than-decent score; you could argue that Powell does more to generate tension in this movie than anybody else. Damon does his job, finding a very good balance between showing that Bourne is absorbing punishment and pushing through it. And then, after the car chase, Damon finally gets a chance to talk to another character for more than two or three lines, and for more reason than just to move the plot to its next stop, and it's almost enough to redeem the movie.

Instead, it's just enough to keep me from writing off a third Bourne movie as an inherently bad idea. There was potential here, and that potential remains, but The Bourne Supremacy doesn't realize it.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements)

There are huge gaps in my movie knowledge. It comes from not renting movies very often, even when there were good video stores near me And after moving to a place just a few blocks from the Brattle... Well, now there's a chance to see something for the first time on the big screen with an audience, which is always preferable to video. Looking at those holes I'm slowly filling in, Kurbrick is the among the largest, and what I have seen, 2001 aside, has left me cold.

That coldness, however, works in his favor when doing a black comedy. The detachment that has seemed a hallmark of Kubrick's work is what you need to make the audience laugh at the possibility of nuclear war. It also doesn't hurt to have Peter Sellers on hand, playing multiple roles. I think he actually gets fewer laughs in the title role than in his other two, though the ones he gets are enormous. It's the deadpan, only-sane-man-in-the-room reactions as President Merkin Muffley and Captain Lionel Mandrake that got me, including a couple of Bob Newhart-style phone calls to the Russian Primier.

The success of the movie comes in large part from Kubrick's screenplay, written with Terry Southern and Peter George, author of the original novel Red Alert. The writers manage the neat trick of using the comedy and thriller elements to reinforce each other: The stakes being played for add edge to the jokes, while the idea that the entire world's fate may rest in the hands of people so humanly - and hilariously - imperfect increases the suspense.

The performances are often broad, but don't necessarily start out that way. In particular, George C. Scott's General "Buck" Turgidson starts out as a bureaucratic caricature and devolves into a raving pinhead, while Strangelove himself is legitimately sinister while providing useful information when he first appears. The closest thing to a weak link is Slim Pickens as Kong, the B-52 pilot, and even there, it's not that Pickens delivers a poor performance, but that he has no straight man.

The visuals for this movie is meticulous, as is to be expected from Kubrick. The sets are designed to create striking images, but unlike with lesser directors, they also seem very functional - consider the cramped B-52, or the war room with its ominously hovering circular light fixtures as examples - they're atmospheric but also look like they could be practically used for their stated purpose. The black-and-white film stock gives the film a documentary feel, even as the lighting and very static cameras remind us of a stage play.

Fifty years after its initial release, Dr. Strangelove may not quite seem relevant, but it has also avoided appearing dated, naïve or agenda-driven. It has an internal logic that it never subverts, and the kind of attention to detail that keeps it looking good long after its contemporaries look cheap and tacky.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Inspector Wears Skirts (Ba wong fa)

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2004 at Coolidge Corner #1 (Midnight Ass-Kickings: Fu Fighting Females)

I don't ask for much from a movie called "Inspectors Wear Skirts" at a series titled "Midnight Ass-Kickigs: Fu Fighting Females". Well, that's not true. I expect certain base types of id-stimulating entertainment: People getting beat up, maybe some T&A, some zany comedy. Inspector Wears Skirts, unfortunately, falls short of even those modest goals.

It starts promisingly enough, jumping straight into an action scene of Cynthia Rothrock and Sibelle Hu chasing down some murderous black-clad theives on a movie set with a Sheik somehow involved. It's a good sequence, choreographed and directed by Jackie Chan and his stunt team. Then, however, Rothrock departs for half of the remaining film while Sibelle Hu's character ("Madame Wu") is put in charge of training a "female commando" team to be used in diplomatic and hostage situations where a male team would be too threatening.

Unfortunately, at this point the movie turns into a bad Police Academy imitation. The biggest problem is that it doesn't make nearly as much sense as a Police Academy movie - if these ladies are supposed to be molded into a "top squad", then shouldn't they already be police officers? We're really given no idea what the background of these characters are, or why they were chosen for this training. Only one or two of them are given much in the way of personalities. The training scenes (which are something like a third of the movie) are played fairly straight and thus wind up pretty boring.

I had hope when the movie took a bizarro detour about midway through, as the girls and the other group training at the same facility, the all-male "Tiger Squad", meet up at a roller rink - yes, everyone goes roller skating, wearing their funky eighties fashions (the movie was released in 1988). The little romantic subplot is as awkward as it usually is in these Hong Kong action/comedies, and the comedy as ham-fisted, but the pièce de resistance comes when one of the Tiger Squad members joins the bad in the middle of the rink and breaks into song (with the rest of the Squad backing him up). He's got "late-eighties Hong Kong one-hit wonder" written all over him, and the sequence is at least attention-grabbing. It winds up looking silly, though, and later devolves into a fight between the Female Commando and the Tiger Squad. That idea has potential - Jackie Chan directing a funny fight on roller skates! - but it doesn't get within five miles of what it could be, winding up just a mess.

Of course, any Police Academy knock-off worth its salt must wind up with the cadets' first assignment, and this one's no exception. That's notable for exactly one thing, a fight between Cynthia Rothrock and Jeffrey Falcon as a jewel thief. It's an astonishingly poorly-written finale, mostly managing to make the films' characters look stupid. It really makes you appreciate the by-the-numbers screenplays of Hollywood filler; if those are predictable, at least the formula makes some vague sort of sense. It also has the trademarked Hong Kong abrupt ending, freeze-framing at an apparently random point, followed by outtakes in the credits (many of which appear to come from deleted scenes), with the best involving fire.

The concept, and fairly low ambitions of this movie make it seem like it should be easy to create something at least passable. Instead, Inspector Wears Skirts winds up a reminder that this moviemaking thing ain't as easy as it looks.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Zatoichi The Fugitive (Zatoichi Kyojo Tabi)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 July at the Brattle Theater (The Art of Samurai Cinema)

Shintarô Katsu starred as Zatoichi (Ichi), the blind samurai/masseur, 25 times between 1962 and 1973. I imagine that the stories for most of those movies are similar to this one, the fourth in the series - the blind samurai comes to town, is thought to be little more than a begger, but soon finds himself embroiled in a local dispute. The villains, of course, grow angry when they are humbled by a blind man early on, and eventually set a whole bunch of ronin or yakuza on him, whom he dispatches because though blind, his senses of hearing and touch are refined well enough for him to compensate.

Such is the case here. Granted, things were contentious at the start - Ichi has a price on his head for humiliating someone in a wrestling match, and a local innkeeper who used to be a yakuza boss has hired a ronin to eliminate the boss who has taken over his gaming hall. Ichi naturally winds up staying at this man's inn. Complicating matters is that in innkeeper's daughter and the heir to this yakuza are in love, and the ronin's wife is a woman from Ichi's past.

There's a formula to this type of film, and from the look of things it was working pretty well here. Katsu is comfortable in his role of a warrior who is blind but not bowed, and the story unspools at a somewhat leisurely pace. I imagine that, if you're familiar with the culture and genre, this is a very comfortable movie, with the appeal of a favorite television series - not terribly creative, but with nice production values and a familiar, likable protagonist.

Unfortunatley for me, I don't have the background. Everything I know about the samurai I learned from Akira Kurosawa and the recent Twilight Samurai, and much of my yakuza knowledge comes from Takashi Miike (disclaimer: do not try to learn anything from Takashi Miike's movies). So when Ichi says "we fought according to the rules" or some finer point of the samurai code, or honor, or shame is mentioned, I'm somewhat lost. Not that a film made in 1963 for a Japanese audience should worry about explaining things for an American who would be born until ten years later watching it in 2004, but it seems worth mentioning that I never remember feeling quite so lost during a Kurosawa film.

The movie looks nice; the Brattle was advertising it as a new 35mm print, and the original elements were apparently well-preserved. Director Tokuzo Tanaka used a lot of greens and gets good angles for the swordfights, which are well-choreographed.

I enjoyed the movie. Not enough to seek out the rest of the series, but enough to solidify my plans to see Takeshi Kitano's new Zatoichi movie in a couple weeks.

Touch of Pink

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #5 (preview)

The "coming-out comedy" is a curious little subgenre. It requires a certain minimum acceptance of homosexuality in society to be believable, but also a certain maximum acceptance to create comic tension. Eventually, the form will burn out as the idea of "coming out of the closet" becomes an anachronism. With any luck, that will happen quickly enough that audiences won't have enough time to notice that even movies as clever as Touch Of Pink look vaguely like In & Out.

That's not bad company to have, and Touch of Pink has enough creativity to distinguish itself from the pack. It borrows the lavish wedding background from other recent movies featuring Indian protagonists (Bend It Like Beckham, Monsoon Wedding, Bollywood/Hollywood), but its most entertaining feature is that Amil (Jimi Mistry) has, in addition to his boyfriend of a year Giles (Kristen Holden-Reid), an imaginary friend, and this imaginary friend is Cary Grant, played with gusto by Kyle MacLachlan.

As Grant, MacLachlan exists to pump up Amil's confidence when he's feeling intimidated, to pepper the film with one-liners when it threatens to slow down, and serve as a father figure when one is called for. Clearly, Grant's movies have loomed large in Amil's life: He quotes Charade while in bed with Giles and works as a still photographer on a London movie set. Meanwhile, in Toronto, his mother Nuru (Suleka Mathew) is feeling jealous as her sister plans an elaborate wedding for her son Khalil, which leads to Nuru giving Amil a visit.

I gather writer/director Ian Iqbal Rashid has a fondness for old movies, too, as Touch of Pink features a fair amount of the sort of rapid-fire dialogue that distinguished thirties comedies, my favorite being an exchange between Nuru and Amil )"They say laughter is the best medicine." / "Then I must be in the placebo group."). And while early on it seems as though Rashid has simply traded gay stereotypes in for Indian ones, he and his cast do a good job of making his characters individuals. Nuru, especially, is more than she initially appears.

It's a nice cast; while MacLachlan is probably the only immediately recognizable member of the cast for Americans - relatively few saw Mistry in The Guru, though many including Suleka Mathew and Brian George (as Amil's uncle) will seem familiar from appearing on TV shows which shoot north of the border - everyone gives their characters what they need. It's a somewhat stylized farce at many points, a deliberate throwback to a different period, so a few somewhat exaggerated performances are forgivable. I personally saw perhaps a little Tony Randall slipping into MacLachlan's Cary Grant, but that doesn't make it a less entertaining performance.

It's a shame that this movie is the type that tends to fall between the cracks. A mainstream audience may overlook it because "it's a gay movie" or "it's an Indian movie", when it is basically a comedy that centers on gay/Indian characters, while the boutique audience can easily dismiss it for having few ambitions beyond making people laugh - it's not about being gay or a minority in straight white Toronto.

What it is, is funny. It may not quite have Grant's effortless charm, but it certainly does all right with what it has.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

That Will Smith Robot Movie

* * (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2004 at Loews Boston Common #2 (first-run)

I almost actually asked for "That Will Smith Robot Movie" when buying my ticket, but figured I didn't have time to be cute or explain my near-inability to actually call That Will Smith Robot Movie by its title. After talking with my brother, who has read little (if any) Isaac Asimov, I suppose it might be passable as a Will Smith action movie that involves robots, though not exceptional. Why they didn't just leave the name as Hardwired and acknowledge Asimov as the creator of the Three Laws of Robotics escapes me.

(For reference, the Three Laws are a control mechanism Asimov posited all robots in his fictional universe as being programmed with. The first law states that a robot may not harm a human being or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm; the second states that a robot must obey human orders unless doing so would conflict with the first law; the third law states that a robot must preserve its own existence unless doings so would conflict with the first or second laws.)

Even if Fox had done that, though, the movie would still have had problems. It features a number of Dumb Thriller Contrivances, such as the character who creates an elaborate trail of bread crumbs that the star must follow, when a simpler, more direct approach would have likely been far more effective and prevented a great deal of loss of life. It features characters who, despite having met just a day or so earlier and not particularly liking each other, drop in on each other to trade exposition. However, they never ask questions about why a man's house - with his cat and possessions still inside - would be scheduled for demolition approximately twenty-four hours after his death. I know this struck me as odd.

Will Smith catches some flak for doing movies like this, but I'm willing to cut him a little slack. There is very little doubt that he's better than this - check out Ali, or even his cameo in Jersey Girl to see what he's capable of - but coming at it from the other side, if movies like this must be made, there are few people who can carry them as well as the Fresh Prince. He's got a knack for interacting with environments and characters that won't show up until the effects are done that actors with better reputations lack, and he's got the charmisma to sell an otherwise goofy script. This robot movie isn't Smith's best work within the genre, but it would have been much worse without him.

There's a pattern to the rest of the cast - character actors who don't have to stretch one bit. Chi McBride plays the Chi McBride role of the short-tempered police lieutenant who is fond of his detective despite how he berates the guy. James Cromwell plays the James Cromwell role of the smart old guy who was liked and respected even when he was difficult. Bruce Greenwood plays the Bruce Greenwood role of the smarmy, polished, obstructionist executive. Bridget Moynahan plays the Bridget Moynahan role of the pretty, competent woman who is helpful but never overshadows the movie's star. Alan Tudyk gives voice to "Sonny", the experimental robot not bound by the Three Laws who apparently killed his creator.

I'm mildly disappointed with director Alex Proyas here. I've read that he's not terribly pleased with the result, either, but I still expect more from the director of The Crow, Garage Days, and especially Dark City. It appears he needs a little practice with the tools needed to make a massive effects-intensive movie. He goes overboard zipping the camera around at times, which has the effect of overselling the action scenes and making them look seperate from the rest of the movie. He's got a good eye much of the rest of the time, and mostly paces the movie well. And, to be fair, he seems to have gotten a pretty cruddy script to work with.

The script's resemblence to Isaac Asimov's robot stories stops at the Three Laws and a character named "Susan Calvin". One thing many people forget about Asimov is that in addition to being an award-winning science and science-fiction writer, he also wrote tight little mystery stories. Indeed, most of the stories collected into I, Robot were mysteries, with robopsychologist Susan Calvin (who I pictured as middle-aged and somewhat cranky) attempting to puzzle out how robots bound by the Three Laws managed to engage in apparently malevolent behavior. He would probably have seen injecting a robot not bound by the laws as cheating, as bad or worse as the rest of the sloppy mystery writing.

Instead, the screenplay comes from Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman, whose respective resumés are individually uninspiring and who make for a poor combination. That Vintar is apparently adapting Asimov's Foundation stories is frightening to me. I think Vintar at least has some love for this kind of material, but has trouble writing an exciting screenplay. Goldsman, on the other hand, doesn't have a creative bone in his body, and though he probably made the movie more exciting, I wouldn't be surprised if he was the source of the dumb. Why this was used when there's a well-liked screenplay by Harlan Ellison out there boggles the mind.

I love Asimov's robot mysteries, so I may be a little harder on The Will Smith Robot Movie than I should be. It's an average Big Summer Action Movie, certainly better than the likes of Van Helsing, but well below the likes of Spider-Man 2 or even Chronicles of Riddick.

The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Orson Welles: Rogue Genius)

Shakespeare's Othello has been adapted for film and television roughly 30 times, and has proven remarkably, well, adaptable. It's a fairly simple melodrama in terms of plot, but offers a wealth of different routes for directors to attack it. Orson Welles chose to go for a grand spectacle, and it makes for a strikingly beautiful picture, though the characters don't often live up to their settings.

Othello potentially has two tragic flaws (part of why the play itself is so malleable): He can be played as arrogant, paranoid, or somewhere in between. Welles chooses to tilt his Othello toward paranoid, likely to see threats against him because he feels his lieutenants resent serving under a black man. The trouble with this approach is that in order for it to work, you need a really good Iago. Micheál MacLiammóir, unfortunately, screams "don't trust me!" with his every look and action as the ensign who covets Othello's position. He just doesn't strike me as subtle enough to bring about Othello's downfall on the basis of one misplaced handkerchief and the right words in the right ears at the right time. Similarly, Robert Coote plays Roderigo as little more that stupid, which makes him easily duped by Iago but not as complicit.

On the positive side, Suzanne Cloutier makes a fine Desdemona. The actress playing Desdemona doesn't have a whole lot to do beyond being desirable enough to inflame Othello's jealousy, and Ms. Cloutier filled the bill there, but she makes Desdemona a sympathetic character, she makes her affection for Othello real enough that the audience finds themselves hoping that this version of the play will end differently. Welles also makes a fine Othello, dominating every scene he's in. His Moor is possessed of the charisma and skill necessary to rise to the top of the Venetian army and woo a young noblewoman despite the prejudice against his skin color, along with the hidden insecurity that ultimately destroys him.

Welles keeps the text intact while translating the play to film, but frees it of the bounds of the stage. Scenes are rearranged, and the action is filmed almost entirely on location in Italy and Morocco. The result is frequently beautiful - the Venetian backdrop adds to the early romance between Othello and Desdemona, and the locations standing in for Cyprus are large enough to make it believable that Othello could see but not hear a conversation between Desdemona and Michael Cassius. The war Othello and his men are fighting can also be shown, generating an external tension to add to the internal ones.

Shooting at those locations was expensive, though, and Welles had to stop production on the movie twice and act in other movies in order to fund it. The end result is worth it, but it does introduce some visual oddities - some actors' builds seem to shift at times, and the amount of makeup used to darken Welles's skin seems inconsistent. In his first appearance, I thought Welles had chosen to make his Othello look Arabic/North African (which would actually be a more representative Moorish appearance), but his skin appears much darker in other segments.

The credits for the movie indicated a 2002 restoration, and while that frequently does nice things for the black-and-white photography, the soundtrack was often sub-par. I guess there's only so much that can be done with a fifty-year-old print, but it does make following the dialogue a struggle at times. Someone who doesn't know the story may have trouble keeping up.

This Othello is probably not the greatest version of the play to be filmed, though I'd take it over Oliver Parker's version with Laurence Fishburne or Tim Blake Nelson's O. It remains a fine rendition of a remakrably persistent story, as well as an example of Orson Welles's great skill on both sides of the camera.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Blonde Fury (Shi jie da shai)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2004 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Midnight Ass-Kickings: Fu Fighting Females)

There are times when talking back at the screen is okay and times when it's to be disouraged. The entire audience basically has to be of the same mind for it to fly. One thing that makes it immediately okay is when the first scene is obviously dubbed, even though it's a pair of American men speaking English.

At least, I assume that was the first scene. I sort of came in during it, since I did the traditional "Coolidge Corner Wait Outside Until We're Ready" thing, only I don't recall hearing an announcement. (The folks there for Cool As Ice had to wait for Fahrenheit 9/11 to get out, but the Ass-Kicking started on time, without even the usual introduction from Garo).

The movie itself is pretty average. The weakness of the script really can't be overstated; it exists for no reasons other than to physically place Cindy (Cynthia Rothrock) and a few other fighters at certain locations to duke it out four or five times and pad the run-time to ninety minutes; it would be tough to piece together an actual plot. Neither Rothrock nor many of her co-stars display much in the way of acting chops to elevate their silly material. Sure, they probably only got one or two takes, but only Roy Chiao (as the prosecutor and father of Cindy's friend Judy) even appears to possibly be good enough to consider Blonde Fury slumming. Indeed, the best part of the between-fights material is when the clumsy subtitles form a likely-unintended double entendre.

But, there are fights. Fast, full-contact fighting which jolts the movie out of its stupor, good enough to make up for the stuff which has come before. Ms. Rothrock is damn impressive; she moves quick and hits hard, with an athletic style that calls to mind Yeun Biao. It's a shame that by the time Hollywood was ready for someone like her (a pretty girl who can kick ass without doubling), she was already saddled with ten years of low-budget Hong Kong and direct-to-video "baggage". When butt-kicking time comes, she's in her element.

Blonde Fury is a great midnight movie - it's got a goofy title, mockable subtitling, high-quality martial arts, and finishes up in time to catch the night owl bus home. Watch it without a crowd, or during any of the other approximately 160 hours of the week, and it's awful, but at midnight one the weekend, it's a blast.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2004 at the New England Aquarium's Simons IMAX Theater (The IMAX Experience)

The appeal of the Harry Potter franchise eludes me. Oh, I see why kids like it - what ten-year-old doesn't love the idea of there being a whole hidden world where he or she is a chosen savior, and that their capricious parents are keeping secret until the child escapes from them? As an adult, though, I find the whole premise creepy. Consider the opening sequence where Harry, in a fit of anger, inflates a nasty in-law like a helium baloon, says she got what she deserved as she floats off into the distance, and then is whisked off to safety... where he's told that everyone has had their memories adjusted. In most movies, that's what the bad guys do.

That's not to say that these movies are compeltely without appeal - they feature great casts and pretty good production values. It's just a shame that they center on Harry Potter. Because, you see, young Mister Potter is boring. This is probably intentional; it's easier for the average child to identify with an average-seeming boy with a vague "great potential" than with the series's actual gifted character.

The first two-thirds of the movie are something of a pretty drag, made prettier by the IMAX presentation. We're given a bunch of exposition - some of which turns out to be misdirection, of course - which alternates with "cool" magic stuff. There's also the usual "goodness, you are so much like your parents, Harry, and that makes us all misty" (or, in the case of Alan Rickman's Snape, "annoyed"). Really, I'm starting to wish that Rowling had written her books about them, if they're so wonderful. More frustration comes from the now-traditional "oh, 'he-who-shall-not-be-named' is very scary, honestly he is!" (the best way to establish a villain is to show him doing bad things, rather than talk about how scary he is). Just as bothersome for me is the underuse of favorite UK actors - Maggie Smith and Julie Christie are barely in the movie, Alan Rickman is almost on autopilot, and Emma Thompson deserves a larger part. I also certainly hope Timothy Spall has more to do in #4.

Fortunately, the last act is pretty darn nifty. I imagine Rowling and Kloves have/had a tricky time explaining why Harry and Harmione don't use the plot device featured in that last act to get out of every scrape they're in during the remaining four stories, but just looking at this movie, it makes for one of the smoothest and most enjoyable predestination paradoxes put on film. Granted, you basically have to compeltely give up on the idea of Harry Potter as the main character (his main function in the movie is to be knocked unconscious) and accept that the movie should rightly be named Harmione Granger and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but I'd rather see Emma Watson in the lead anyway.

Indeed, that last act is almost good enough for me to bump the movie up to three full stars - I came out feeling pretty good. If I were writing this in the hour after I'd left the Aquarium, it probably would get a higher grade. But now I've had a little time to think, and the reality of how much of the movie just makes no sense settles in. Why are these adults so casually dismissive of a kid being in grave danger? Why is one character talked up as being a big ally of Voldemort (and depicted as a raving lunatic) until the end? I mean, there's misdirection and there's creating a false backstory so extreme and resting on shaky foundations that even the pre-teen target audience of these stories should be able to shred it. The last third is so tight that the first two thirds being so sloppy is difficult to figure. I wonder if Steve Kloves is starting to feel the pressure of getting these done one after another

(Note: I did see the IMAX version, which seemed to run a bit shorter than the 2:21 listed on the IMDB. I haven't heard anything about cuts for IMAX, so I don't know if some of these weaknesses are addressed in the 35mm edition.)

But it is a really good last act, and the IMAX print certainly looks beautiful. It's not a bad way to spend $12.95 and a couple hours.

Friday, July 16, 2004

The Clearing

* * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2004 at Loews Harvard Square #4 (first-run)

When The Clearing was shot in late 2002, the television program Without A Trace was just coming on the air.  Whether or not its depiction of how the FBI tracks missing persons is accurate, it became a hit and put the image of a ticking clock and a meticulously tracked timeline into the general consciousness.  That The Clearing lacks such things would have seemed odd then, but today's crime fans will pick up on it right away.

There's an argument that this isn't really a crime movie, but a story about the relationship between Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford) and his wife Eileen (Helen Mirren), which is intended to be brought into sharp focus by how they react to Wayne's kidnapping and the subsequent investigation.  Unfortunately, we get very few scenes with Wayne and Eileen together, and Eileen's feelings are unclear.  She seems rather unperturbed, at one point going shopping for a birthday present for their grandson, at others taking a break to go swimming in her pool.  She is quite good when her reserve cracks the slightest bit, but there is little tension in most scenes; it's enough to make us wonder if she and Wayne's abductor Arnold (Willem Defoe) are in cahoots.

The performances are pretty good.  Almost all are understated; in addition to the people mentioned, there's Alessandro Nivola and Melissa Sagemiller as the Hayes' grown children.  I like Sagemiller's warmth and the little-girl fear that shows on her face, along with how Nivola occasional seems to wonder if anyone else is worked up about this.  Matt Craven exudes professional calm as the FBI agent in charge of the investigation.

They're not given much to work with, though.  Both writer Justin Haythe and director Pieter Jan Brugge appear to be first-timers, and the personality they describe for Wayne in the dialogue doesn't quite seem to match the one Redford gives the character.  The biggest issue is the structure of the script.  The two plot threads (Eileen/FBI and Wayne/Arnold) are shown in parallel fashion, but the attentive audience member will soon recognize the limits to just how parallel they can be.  At that point, the play-out becomes fairly obvious.

It's a curious case of the two perspectives weakening each other.  There's a good story to be told about a man and his kidnapper, or about a wife waiting for news about her kidnapped husband, but together they're less than the sum of their parts.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2004 at Loews Boston Common #17 (first-run)

Let's get something straight right at the start: Nothing in Anchorman arises organically from anything else. This is a movie that wears its complete artificiality on its sleeve, all about this joke right now. When you take that tack, every joke had better be funny, because any space between them is absolutely dead. Anchorman hits the mark about 75% of the time, which is a pretty decent success rate.

Anchorman falls squarely into the genre of "idiot movie"; one or more (generally male) morons feel like they've got the world on a string until an actual competent person (who is usually female) starts horning in on their turf. By the time the dumb men and smart girl have put aside their differences, there's been plenty of time to laugh at the men getting in trouble for basically being idiots, but also to find that they're decent-hearted and maybe not quite so stupid after all. In this case, the idiots are a local news team in 1978 San Diego, with the non-idiot being Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), the station's first woman reporter.

In a more sophisticated movie (and by "more sophisticated", I'm talking about an American Pie sequel or something by the Farrelly Brothers), the fact that Ron Burgandy (Will Ferrell) and his evening-news cohorts do not in fact seem to have good hearts (they never actually stop being sexist jerks), or that there's really no reason for Veronica to have any actual interest in him would be a bigger issue. The same for Ron's strangely fluctuating levels of common sense.

This movie, however, hides those issues behind quirkiness. You can make a character much more sympathetic by having him love his dog and treat said pooch like an equal. Similarly, the decision to eschew four-letter words works well in three ways: It makes the characters a little less coarse, it makes the use of the single f-bomb a PG-13 movie is allowed seem like an actual transgression, and it forces the writers (Ferrell and director Adam McKay) to fill the dialogue with peculiar turns of phrase that demand attention and earn chuckles out of just where they came up with that (the outtakes over the credits suggest many were likely improvised).

Talking about the characters as anything other than joke vectors is probably beside the point, but it's worth mentioning that the actors mostly manage to deliver those jokes very well. Ferrell gives himself many of the best lines, although the absolute cream go to Steven Carell as Brick, the weatherman whose name roughly describes his intellectual capacity. There's a real art to saying things that make almost no sense without simply confusing the audience. Another standout in limited time is Fred Willard as the station's news director; he somehow manages good-natured irritation.

Christina Applegate falls into the category of "does what she can"; between this, Starsky & Hutch and Dodgeball (and that's just for this year), it seems like writing genuinely funny female characters is something that the (mostly male) makers of this type of movie have a very difficult time with. Applegate fares better than Christine Taylor did in Dodgeball, but is basically reacting to people not treating her with respect. There's not much reason for Paul Rudd or David Koechner to be in this movie (they play the other members of the news team). There are several very funny cameos - in particular, the anchormen for the other local news teams are well-cast.

It's worth mentionig that a number of scenes from the preview simply do not appear in the movie; apparently enough bits and whole subplots were cut out to make a second movie (which will allegedly appear on the Anchorman DVD). Comedies must be edited in an almost ruthless manner, but it's kind of curious that jokes deemed funny enough to put in the trailer didn't make the cut for the final film.

Anchorman isn't quite as consistently funny as Dodgeball, but it does manage the guffaw quite a bit. And full-sized belly-laughs go a long way to making the movie's shortcomings forgivable.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Three To Tango

* * (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2004 in Jay's Living Room (background while putting a bookshelf together)

Truth be told, when I picked Three To Tango from among my unwatched DVDs tonight, it was because I was looking for something that would not necessarily command my full attention; after all, a really engrossing movie would prevent me from putting that bookcase my mom gave me for my birthday in October together while I watched it. Heck, this movie probably wouldn't be on my shelf at all if it weren't on the $5.99 shelf at Best Buy on a day when the thought of how cute Neve Campbell is went randomly through my mind.

It did its job; it's an almost completely disposable comedy, below average but not really actively bad. It stars a number of people who have done much better work and coasts on their charm. Of course, some have more charm than others (Oliver Platt > Dylan McDermott), and Matthew Perry was (and, really, still is) trying to figure out how to make his TV persona work on the big screen.

The storyline is at that tricky intersection of screwball and earnest. The screwball part involves Oscar (Perry) being pressured into keeping an eye on the girlfriend (Campbell) his potential employer (McDermott). The tycoon trusts Perry with this task because he has been led to believe Oscar is gay (and truth be told, it's not a completely reasonable assumption based on their first meeting). The girl, Amy, is, of course, pretty, perceptive enough to realize Oscar was sent to spy on her, and willful enough to call him on it. However, he for some unknown reason doesn't tell her the truth at the first opportunity, and as a result spends the next hour or so jumping through hoops to maintain the cover, even as it gets him outed to the entire city.

Which is where the earnestness comes in - the isn't quite content to simply use the presumption that Oscar is gay as an engine to drive the plot, but feels the need to have a message, which it of course allows Oscar to deliver in a speech to an assembled crowd. Unfortunately, the very act of going out of the way to say someone being gay should be no big deal underscores it as a big deal, and as a result takes up valuable time that could be spent on making the audience laugh.

The performances are a mixed bag - Oliver Platt is pleasant as Oscar's business partner, but isn't given enough to do; one wonders why Oscar is given three other guys who hang out in his apartment when their lines could be given to Mr. Platt. McDermott is little more than a combination of hypochondriac tics as Charles Newman. Neve Campbell does a pretty good job as the screwball female lead, eccentric and presumptive enough to be annoying if she weren't so pretty and smart. She's not Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, but she's got that type of charm. Perry does his harried neurotic thing, and he's good at it, but he'd probably be even better if he started taking scripts that let him do less slapstick and more Bob Newhart. Or if he'd been given more screwball dialogue to work with.

One notable element of the film is the soundtrack. It uses a fair amount of the sort of swing-rock that was already fading away by this film's 1999 release, and it's perhaps the most energetic part of the film (note to self: see if the CD is still readily available in local record stores). I'm guessing that the producers did this to try and fit in with the 90s-hip/30s-cool vibe they were trying to do - the modern screwball thing - and the ironic end result is that the film doesn't live up to its soundtrack.

But, hey, it did the job. Time passed while I got my bookcase finished (though my retired builder grandfather would probably shake his head at the actual results), I laughed a few times, and I got to enjoy the whole Neve Campbell being pretty thing. Three To Tango is not a movie that merits ones complete attention, but isn't completely worthless, either.

Yes Madam (Huang gu shi jie)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 July 2004 at Coolidge Corner #1 (Midnight Ass-Kickings: Fu Fighting Females)

Before discussing the relative merits and disappointments of Yes Madam itself, let us take a moment to mourn the loss of the Allston Cinema 2, which, as I passed its former location on the bus ride home, was finally no more than a pile of rubble. It was not technically impressive when compared to the newer theaters that have sprung up in Boston (though I'd take it over the Copley), but over the last year of its life it was among the most interesting, showing two screens of Bollywood movies when it was not a sort of out-there auxilliary to the Coolidge Corner theater as the "Allston Cinema Underground" (a program which sadly only lasted a couple months) or the regular home of Garo Nagoshi's kung fu ass-kicking shows. Thankfully, some of these programs have found new homes, and, hey, the world needs another Staples.

(moment of silence)

Sadly, all my best lines about Yes Madam would likely simply be stolen from Garo's introduction. Suffice it to say that the people who make movies like this have fundamentally different priorities than most movie critics. If you were to start lecturing director Corey Yuen and company on narrative structure, pacing, or how everything in a movie must serve character development, they would probably shrug it off and say that would involve paying a writer, which is a luxury they can't afford. On a bad day, they might execute a spin-kick that catches you on the side of the head and then shove you face-first through a plate-glass window.

Fortunately, during Yes Madam, we only have to watch such actions, as opposed to being on the receiving end of them. From that perspective, it's tough not to be entertained, as stars Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock dish out a rather impressive amount of pain during the fight sequences. There aren't quite enough of them, with Rothrock not even appearing until a half-hour into the film - at which point I immediately started to wonder whether the blonde, American actress was being poorly dubbed into Cantonese - and then spending much of her time doing a weird good-cop/bad-cop routine with Yeoh. The story involves a convoluted attempt for Inspectors Ng and Carrie Morris to find who killed their mentor by tracking down a piece of microfilm that he hid inside his passport, which a pair of theives who just happened to be in the hotel room at the same time lifted and gave to their forger friend. The forger, "Panadol" (the thieves are called "Aspirin" and "Strepsil"), is played by Tsui Hark and has one of the more amusing early scenes, as he flees pursuers by acrobatically moving around his cluttered living space.

Like many HK action movies, the stuff between the action scenes really serves no higher purpose than to get from one beatdown to another. I really doubt that the banter between Ng and Morris or the medicinally named trio is actually funny in Cantonese and just ruined by poor subtitling. Likewise, much of the rest of the movie is transparent buddy-cop clichés and over-the-top villainy. Indeed, the villain Tin (James Tien) does more maniacal laughter than John Travolta in Battlefield Earth, to the point of being self-referential about it. This winds up figuring into the film's stopping (it's too abrupt to call an "ending"), one of those classic "we have two minutes worth of film left to tie up our loose ends and no budget for more" deals.

All of this is, of course, relatively unimportant - how are the fights? Well, let's just say they make you understand why Hong Kong stuntmen must be very difficult to insure. Even when the director chooses to use slow-motion, they look fast, and there's no doubt that Ms. Yeoh and Ms. Rothrock can dish out some abuse. While the opening shootout is somewhat on the amusing side in terms of being over-the-top (sometime I'm going to do the math on how fast a ten-gram bullet would have to be moving to pick a charging, full-sized man up off his feet and shove him backwards), and only one or two of the middle ones are really notable (specifically, the one which introduces Rothrock), the finale is a thing of beauty. It's Michelle and Cynthia versus a veritable army of thugs, with one "boss" thug each for them to take out, in a lovely house that offers a truly astounding amount of glass to break. There are windows, glass sculptures, glass tables, and glass paneling around balconies. Pretty much every one of them has someone crashing through it at some point, often face-first. I hope action choreographer Hoi Mang (who also played "Aspirin") had plenty of bandages, cold packs, and Bactine on hand during shooting.

So what's the verdict? Two and a half stars, basically at the center of the scale. The tedious parts are balanced by the crazy action parts; the result being a movie that doesn't shine as a whole but whose best bits are certainly worth the $6 ticket price for a midnight movie.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 July 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run)

Croupier was a movie that gained more notoriety for its release pattern than its actual merit; more ink was spilled over Clive Owen not being eligible for an Oscar than whether he really deserved one. Now, five years later, Owen reteams with his Croupier director (Mike Hodges) for another grimy, modestly entertaining flick.

This time, Owen plays Will Graham, who has been living out of the back of his van for three years, working odd jobs and keeping a low profile. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays his brother Davey, an affable young man who sells a few drugs at parties but is far from the hard man Will used to be. That's before a brutal attack, though, and in the aftermath, the Grahams' friend Mickser (Jamie Foreman) is unable to find Will, so thoroughly has he cut himself off from his old life. That's okay, though, because Will has been trying to call Davey, and comes to London to investigate. And once he's there, he's going to be looking for some explanations.

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead has a great hard-boiled title which has very little to do with the movie. It's got a nifty noirish title sequence (there should be an Academy Award for those; call it the Saul Bass Award or something), and early on establishes a kind of modern noir atmosphere. There's some lip service given to whether Will can come back and not fall into his old ways, along with some decent scenes which reminded me why I like British gangster movies much more than American ones; the criminals in UK movies seem much nastier and less romanticized than the ones Hollywood (or even US indies) give us. The pieces for a fine tough-guy movie are all there.

It never comes together as a thriller, though. There are some machinations by local tough Frank Turner (Ken Stott) that, by the end, seem rather disconnected from the rest of the movie. And what kind of hardcase takes a moment in the middle of his movie to talk with a kindly grief counselor, whose purprose is basically to tell the audience what was going through the minds of Davey and his attacker. It's not something we can't figure out, and in the end gives Malcolm MacDowell much less to do as Boad, the villain in question. That's probably deliberate, as getting to really see what makes Boad tick would probably divert attention from Owen's Will, but it might have also given the audience someone to compare Will to.

Clive Owen inhabits Will nicely. For most of the movie, Will is shaggy and unshaven, and it's only Owen's strong, harsh voice that really clues the audience into his past history as a thug. when he emerges as a sleek-looking killer later, it's a nifty transformation, almost like a different character emerging from the first. It's necessary, since his confrontation with Boad would have had a completely different vibe if he still looked like a pikey.

Advertising I'll Sleep When I'm Dead as "the new thriller from the director and star of Croupier" is somewhat disingenous. Don't get me wrong; the low-key stuff works, for the most part. I wonder if perhaps Trevor Preston's script was a fairly standard, Get Carter-style revenge flick, with Hodges deciding at some point while shooting or in the editing room that watching Will deal with how Boad attacked Davey was more interesting. The end result is a fine little crime movie, if not an exceptional one.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Spider-Man 2

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 5 July 2004 at Loews Boston Common #18 (first-run)

I am a fan. There's no arguing the point; there's generally at least one Spider-Man comic among the ten or so I pick up each Wednesday, and when Anchor Bay releases a new edition of one of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead movies, it's my money they're expecting. So, just like two years ago, the imminent release of a Raimi-directed Spider-Man movie with this cast filled me with anticipation only rivaled by that of a new Star Wars movie. And as much as the first Spider-Man delivered, Spider-Man 2 is even better.

How is it better? In almost every way. As much as the Green Goblin is considered the definitive Spider-Man villain, his Joker/Lex Luthor/Red Skull, the first movie put Willem Dafoe behind a rigid mask, so while the unconventional father/son triangle between Norman Osborne, his son Harry, and Harry’s friend Peter was compelling, the audience couldn’t see it play out on their faces. This time, Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) has no costume but a pair of safety goggles and the four manipulator arms grafted onto his back.

That's just the most obvious example, though. The first movie had long periods of down-time, when it just became about Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). This one does, too, but they're better distributed, with more opportunities to cut away to Otto, or Harry Osborne (James Franco), now in over his head as the director of special projects at his late father's company.

There's more action, and that action is, for lack of a better word, Raimier. Sam Raimi is in the top tier of action directors working today, in part because he knows how to zip the camera around to give the audience the full effect of how exhilarating it must be to be Spider-Man, or how fast and how brutal the action is, while still being able to give that audience the lay of the land. He's aided by two years of advances in computer graphics technology, which gives a little more weight and better physics to things flying through the air. I suspect he's also a little more comfortable with the tools this time around, because the shot composition seems more distinctively his.

That's a great thing, because he knows just when to return to his horror movie roots to make "Doc Ock" seem especially monstrous. There’s a great scene in a hospital OR where a surgical team attempts to remove his robotic tentacles (which have enough AI to not want to be removed), and I grinned like an idiot when the camera briefly came to rest on a chainsaw, having good Evil Dead 2 memories. Raimi regulars like his brother Ted, Bruce Campbell, and J.K. Simmons are there to please fans, as well as the long, fast zooms ("Sam-Ram-a-Cam") that are another part of his signature. He's also got a real knack for sticking jokes in without hurting the movie’s ability to be taken seriously. Of course, having writers like Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (the Smallville and Shanghai Noon team) and Michael Chabon (whose novel The Adventures of Kaliver and Clay, which used comic books as a background, won a Pullitzer) doesn't hurt, either.

And then there's the cast. Tobey Maguire improves on his performance from the first, as does James Franco. J.K. Simmons plays J. Jonah Jameson broadly, but hilariously (it's interesting that Raimi goes for an almost cartoon-like feel in the Daily Bugle scenes, but can make a fight between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus feel intensely realistic). Alfred Molina is note-perfect as Octavius, with a quick but believable descent into madness and super-villainy after establishing Otto as a sympathetic character. I admit that Kirsten Dunst didn't seem quite right as Mary Jane to me (she's much more upbeat in the comics, but a series of movies doesn't have much time to show supporting characters between crises), until her last scene.

I'm tempted to bury Spider-Man 2 under superlatives – best movie of the summer, best superhero movie ever, the movie that Sam Raimi's entire career has been leading up to – but I’m aware that this is a movie that pushes my particular buttons. However, there are lots of movies that do that, and this one does it better than the rest. The skill and craft shown by the makers of Spider-Man 2 should make this a blast even for those who aren't hard-wired to like it.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 July 2004 on the laptop (bus ride)

Black comedy may be the most pure form of escapism that the movies offer. Yes, the flights of fancy of a musical are nice, as are the imaginary worlds offered by science fiction. But in a black comedy, you can give up the very concept of right and wrong for an hour and a half, and allow the murder of an old woman to be a perfectly acceptable way to ensure domestic tranquility.

It’s tricky, though – basic morality is rather ingrained in most of us, so we resist this sort of cutthroat comedy. Duplex does a good job of ameliorating the audience’s guilt – by the time young married couple Alex and Nancy (Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore) embrace homicide, their rent-controlled tenant from hell (Eileen Essell) has, in fact, done something that doesn't make snapping justified, but does make it understandable.

It is, however, simply a lot of nuisances leading up to it. Director Danny Devito and writer Larry Doyle come up with a lot of good little jokes, but never anything that caused me to disturb the other people on the bus with laughter I couldn't hold in. (Speaking of which, "on a crowded bus/plane/train" has got to be among the worst environments for movie-watching; it just feels wrong to have a crowd but not get feedback from it) The incident with the laptop which causes the escalation came closest, but didn’t quite make it.

This movie should have worked better. Devito has a fine track record of finding the humor in his characters' misfortune, and both Stiller and Barrymore are fine comic actors, though the latter isn't quite as good at projecting the kind of crazed energy that her co-star excels at. They’re surrounded by funny people like Harvey Fierstein, Justin Theroux and Wallace Shawn, although neither of them get a moment as amusing as James Remar giving Alex and Nancy porn as a housewarming gift. Ms. Essell is the best of the lot, projecting a sort of malevolence under a veneer of sweetness that is just thick enough to call into question whether she’s trying to be evil or not.

Ironically, this script seems to suffer both by not offering clear good guys and bad guys in the beginning and being too clear on that in the end. Devito's mocking narration suggests that Alex and Nancy are living beyond their means and receiving their comeuppance, which makes it a little harder for the audience to make the leap they do and laugh at their attempts to kill their neighbor without guilt. On the other hand, this already-short (89 minutes) movie goes on a couple scenes too long. Rather than ending on an ironic note, it adds a pair of epilogues that suggest that things turn out okay, but also make the plot a little problematic. Why, you might ask, would someone do X if the situation was really Y? Isn’t it needlessly risky?

And it's not necessary for Doyle and Devito to do this. By the end of a black comedy, you don't need to justify anything. The audience is either with you or has dismissed your movie as another symptom of the fall of western civilization; and softening your stance will just dilute what the first group liked without changing the minds of anyone in the second group.

If you’re going to do the black comedy thing, just go for it, and let me worry about karma afterwards.

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra

* * (out of four)
Seen 3 July 2004 in Jay's Living Room (widescreen DVD)

There's a fine line between parody and pastiche... actually, the line isn't fine. One the one side, you've got a faithful recreation of a certain style, while on the other, you've got the mere mockery of it, though without the creativity, wit, or meaning necessary for it to be called satire. Parody isn't completely worthless, but it's a small, somewhat petty pleasure, especially when the target is as easy as the 1950s sci-fi B movies that The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra targets.

I imagine Cadavra's filmmakers will say that their movie is more a tribute than a mean-spirited taunting, but it seems to me that a more fitting tribute would be to do the whole B-movie thing with the same materials and budgetary limitations, but do it well. Make the best low-budget sci-fi/horror movie you can. After all, what makes certain movies from the 1950s genuinely entertaining as camp isn't that they're bad, but that there’s a certain sincerity that radiates from them. Even if the people involved knew they were just making "product" to fill drive-in screens, they were trying hard in the hopes of elevating the work above that or just to get noticed and hopefully graduate to A-level pictures. Something like Cadavra just does not, and cannot, have that, and the audience picks up on it instinctively.

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra combines several B-movie plots – a scientist and his wife looking for an asteroid made of "atmospherium", another scientist (this one eeeeeevil) looking for a ghostly skeleton he believes will help him Rule The World, and a pair of human-looking aliens whose ship has crash-landed on earth and must repair it as well as recapture their pet mutant. All three groups will, of course, need the atmospherium for their purposes. All three, of course, will spout fifty-year-old bad science and stilted dialog. It’s amusing the first time, but an hour and a half of it...

In the areas where it doesn't try to score points on how goofy its source material is, though, this movie can be quite enjoyable. The opening credit sequences were some of the most slick, if not actually stylish, parts of these B-movies and Cadavra's mostly accentuates the positive. The same is true for the score.

And there are two very funny performances. Andrew Parks and Susan McConnell play Kro-bar and Latis, two aliens from the planet Marva, and these are genuinely funny characters. Yes, they are just as over-the-top as the guys saying that something "will be a great scientific breakthrough for science", but these bits are all about making this movie entertaining, rather than pointing up those movies' shortcomings. It's well-executed "we don't understand your strange Earth ways" stuff.

As a result, the aliens' scenes are the most consistently funny. The others score some occasional points, such as having good comic timing on how the phrase "horribly mutilated" is repeated, but too often rely on simply pointing out deficiencies without seeming to realize that that, in and of itself, is not actually humorous.

When I worked at a movie theater in college, I would often be asked whether such and such a movie was "supposed to be good". Being the picky-with-words person I am, I would often reply that every movie was supposed to be good, and state whether or not this one succeeded. With The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, I'd have to admit that, no, this one wasn't even supposed to be good, and guess what? It often isn't.

Saturday, July 03, 2004


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 July 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run)

Cole Porter is a difficult subject for a biography. He has no humble beginning, he is so touched by genius that one cannot watch him struggle to create his art, and he was often a first-class jerk to the person who loved him most. He is, however, a fabulous subject for a musical, as he comes complete with wit, charm, a true love, wonderful settings, and dozens of fantastic songs.

Mostly, the film realizes this, and even comments on it. De-Lovely opens with a sort of angel played by Johnathan Pryce calling on Porter (Kevin Kline) to show him a musical based on his life. There's a great deal of wit in these scenes between Kline (in better-than-usual old-age makeup) and Pryce, as they make little comments about the form - how times have changed and the composer is no longer in charge, or how, when Porter says it's too early for another song, "Gabe" says that if he could say what he means as well as he could sing it, they wouldn't use one. This framing device also works to give a modern audience used to a more literal style of filmmaking a bit of a buffer zone: No, these people didn't really burst into song in the middle of their lives; we're watching people watch a sort of play, and they're singing in the play.

As an aside, it's somewhat unfortunate that the straight-ahead musical seems to be something of a lost art. Chicago presented its musical numbers as dream sequences; De-Lovely goes it one better and makes the whole movie a dream sequence of sorts. Of recent movies, Moulin Rouge comes the closest to the classic style, where the audience understood that this wasn't strictly literal (well, that and The Happiness of the Katakuris). I don't know whether this is a failure of filmmakers, the audience, or just that between us we're out of practice and need to re-establish this meme.

During the "up" periods, De-Lovely is great fun. There are beautiful sets, toe-tapping performances of Porter's songs, and a nice chemistry between Kline and Ashley Judd as his wife and muse, Linda Lee. She is realistic about what their marriage is; she makes a comment that Cole probably likes men more than she does (her abusive first marriage probably contributing to that). There's clear affection between the two, but also a sadness on her part - she doesn't expect him to share her bed, but she wants to come first.

That's a source of frustration for the movie - Cole never seems to learn that, until a horse-riding accident leaves him crippled. That's a symptom of a greater problem - the film never shows Porter as having much of a heart until his old age, as he learns Linda's health may be worse than his, or as he watches his life played out on the stage. He and Linda are obviously idle rich through the film's first half, and there's never much impetus for Porter to become more than a talented amateur. The elderly Porter smiles about all the fun he had, but there's never much but fun as a motivation. And when the accident makes playing the piano and writing music become hard work, it's difficult to see why Kline's Cole Porter would push on; there's nothing but "have fun now" to his character.

The performances are decent. Aside from the musical "guests", Kline, Judd, and Pryce are the only stars, which is fine - this is about the Porters, and we don't need anyone distracting from Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd. Judd is quite good as Linda, looking fabulous in her period dress and occasionally showing what might have finally pushed Porter to success. She walks a very careful line, making Linda a strong personality but not a "power behind the throne" type. Pryce gives just what is needed as the "host", and manages well in his musical number.

Kevin Kline... Oh, man, Kevin Kline would have perfect for this ten or fifteen years ago. I'm not a big fan of musicals as a genre, but it is a crying shame that their almost complete absence from film during Kline's career has deprived us of possibly many great performances. Kline's voice is still passable, and he's still fairly spry, but he is possibly too old to play Porter as a young man. It's not quite intrusive, but it's not quite right, either. He and Ashley Judd don't quite look believable together until they've both had their hair dyed gray and started putting on the prosthetic cosmetics.

There's plenty to like about De-Lovely. The music is great, as are Kline and Judd. Kline and director Irwin Winkler somehow manage to make Porter a sympathetic character toward the end, despite giving him a lot of "spoiled, selfish rich guy" baggage. It's a near thing, though, and I have my suspicions that a good deal of the audience will look at the latter half of the movie as Porter getting what he deserves.

"The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2004 in Jay's Living Room (direct-to-video)

Universal wants the next big sci-fi/fantasy franchise badly. They know that even as its latest entries are ridiculed, Star Trek still brings Paramount something like $200M/year, that Star Wars makes George Lucas a similarly mind-boggling amount, and that Fox is still pulling in some dough from The X-Files and Buffy. Both their big summer movies this year (Riddick and Van Helsing) were deliberately left way open for a sequel, and word is that Joss Whedon's Firefly feature Serenity was rewritten to be more open-ended. In addition, all three have had TV spinoffs proposed (NBC passed on Transylvania while Sci-Fi is considering a Chronicles of Kyra set between Pitch Black and Riddick along with, alledgedly, a new Firefly series), and so far, Van Helsing and Riddick have had these direct-to-DVD shorts released.

The reason why is obvious - us nerds buy stuff. I mean, I paid ten dollars for this thirty-minute DVD. I would probably buy Riddick comics if Universal licensed them out, and maybe toys. We are, as a group, sheep. The question is, are we getting value for our money?

In this case, almost. "Dark Fury" isn't bad. Universal threw a fair amount of talent at it, including the appropriate cast members from Riddick and Pitch Black, pretty-decent TV/comics writer Brett Matthews (who worked on Angel and Firefly) working from a story by David Twohy, and Aeon Flux creator Peter Chung to direct. The story strikes a nice balance, filling in some of the time between Pitch Black and Riddick without creating the feeling that something is missing from one of the other movies (remember how "The Final Flight of the Osiris" should have been part of The Matrix Reloaded?). The sound design is pretty nice for something created entirely for home consumption.

It is, however, a little rough around the edges. The 3-D spaceships don't quite mesh with the 2-D elements. The animated Riddick doesn't quite capture Vin Diesel's charisma, and Chung's character designs are all angular enough that Riddick isn't quite the singular, slightly-inhuman presense he is in Chronicles of Riddick - or rather, he's not unique in that regard. One action scene is difficult to see, and the look of the short seems to shift to a slightly more grotesque style about two-thirds of the way through (the first two-thirds looks stylized, but nice). Still, it's not nearly as ugly as Chung's contribution to The Animatrix, "Matriculated".

It does some things pretty well, though. The zero-gravity scenes in the hangar are a blast, showing zero-gravity manouveurs with the ease only animation currently allows, and also making everyone look like pros at it. Most of the action scenes are well-staged, and the villainess is suitably creepy. My biggest complaint is wishing there was a little more time available to let this breathe. Maybe if the franchise thing stick, Universal will allow the next video tie-in a full hour.

P.S.: Man, I wish David Twohy would give us a subtitle for Chronicles of Riddick, a là A New Hope for Star Wars, especially since the other parts of the saga already have one (even Pitch Black is now relabeled "The Chronicles of Riddick: Pitch Black"); it would certainly make writing and talking about them easier.