Sunday, August 29, 2004

Eternally Yours

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 August 2004 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

(Note: This review contains spoilers for those who can't guess how a 1939 film named "Eternally Yours" ends)

Whenever someone mentions to me that half the world's marriages end in divorce and shakes their head in sadness, I tend to respond with how that sounds pretty bad until you consider that the other half end in death. Divorce isn't such a bad alternative, if the two people want such vastly different things as Anita (Loretta Young) and Tony Arturo (David Niven) do in Eternally Yours.

There's a certain irony to Ms. Young's character, who marries a traveling magician and appears in his shows but at heart really wants to be a housewife in rural Connecticut. Arturo, of course, has no interest in any of that, so she eventually leaves him, flies to Reno, and gets a divorce. He finds out about this after she has remarried, and is now determined to win her back.

This being the type of movie it is, with little indication that the title is meant to be ironic, the outcome isn't really in question, just the methods. A Hollywood movie from 1939 doesn't seem likely to end with the suggestion that divorce can be good for people. And there is some amusing farce along the way, especially since Arturo's profession lends itself to theatricality and comedy when he starts messing up; Hugh Herbert is enjoyable as his valet, himself a former magician until arthritis started to hinder his ability to do slight-of-hand.

And perhaps this is how it should be. Love conquering all is a fine fantasy, and selling fantasy is what Hollywood has always done, especially as one goes back further and further in time. That said, selling fantasy is different from just expecting the audience to buy it. We see Arturo jump through hoops to try and get Anita back, but is there ever any real indication that he's changed, that he wants to settle down in the country and raise children with her? Not really; I believe he loves her, but that doesn't mean subordinating oneself to another's desires. It means working together so that both will be happy.

I had opportunity to think about this this weekend, at my brother's wedding. Not that the new Mr. and Mrs. Seaver are anything like these fictional characters or their relationship; my brother and his new wife are, if not actually as perfect for each other as they give every indication of being, at least in sync with each other's ambitions and everyday desires. With Anita and Tony, you can see that they're pointed in different directions from the start. No, it was the monk's sermon during the ceremony that got me thinking. Understand, I'm not comfortable with the injection of too much religion into weddings and funerals; I think it diminishes the actual human beings involved in an insulting way. But the parable he related made no sense; it told of a landowner who wanted his gardener to remove a fig tree that was sickly and hadn't produced fruit in years, but the gardener refused to give up, and begged his employer to let him redouble his efforts and keep the tree for another year. And then the story just stopped, and I'm thinking, what's the moral of this, that what looks like a problem with one thing may just be the person in charge doing a half-assed job (maybe it's the gardener, and not the tree, that should be removed), or is it a cautionary tale that yes, belief is good, but sometimes you can pour all your effort into something and get nothing out of it, all because you had too much pride to admit that it wasn't working? Given the context (a monk at a wedding), I figured neither of those explanations was likely.

How does this relate to Eternally Yours? Well, at various points, both Anita and Arturo put a lot of effort into their marriage, despite the fact that it means going against their own natures and sacrificing their own happiness. And sure, the movie concludes with a triumphant scene of the couple moving into their house in Connecticut. But I don't think it's cynical to wonder how happy they'll be in a year's time; it's just practical for someone not born until thirty-four years after this movie's release to think that maybe, just maybe, they'd be better off in the long term finding someone who truly fits rather than just staying in a marriage that will be under strain from the start.

Kansas City Confidential

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 August 2004 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

Not much of Kansas City Confidential actually takes place in Kansas City. After the initial daylight bank robbery, the action shifts south of the border as Joe Rolfe (John Payne), an ex-con who wound up framed for the job, tracks down the actual crooks, and we're in noir territory.

Maybe not a full-on noir, though. The first half is cynical stuff, as the wrongfully accused Joe winds up losing his job and by the time he gets to Mexico, it's not about bringing the thieves to justice - it's about cutting himself in. After all, he was part of the plan, even if he hadn't known it. About halfway through, though, a possibility for redemption shows up, pretty law student Helen Foster, taking time out from her studies to visit her retired detective father Tim (Preston Foster) on his annual fishing trip, and finding herself attracted to Joe.

Hollywood still makes movies like this, but not quite in the assembly line fashion they used to; what used to be the life's work of a director like Kansas City Confidential's Phil Karlson, who would crank out two each year, is now something that a young director will do to show his chops before moving on to the big time. The end result is entertaining, though not touched by genius; a workman like crime story that offers its fair share of reversals, double-crosses, and mysteries. If it were published as a book, it would be solid pulp fiction.

Of course, you don't find pulps much any more. On bookshelves, the 200-page hard-boiled thriller has given way to slicker paperback versions of hardcover bestsellers. I don't say this as a complaint; whether you believe that the audience has grown more sophisticated or the people who gravitated toward pulps and B-movies now get their straightforward stories in other places - television, direct-to-video movies, videogames - they're still around albeit in a different form. And if we're honest, pretty much all something like Kansas City Confidential has over them is that these stories just look better in black and white.

It is fun, though. It unself-consciously gives the audience pulp basics - a hardened anti-hero, a good girl and a bad girl, even a mysterious masked villain masterminding a "perfect crime" that has a few more twists than the criminals initially realize. It's even got early roles for Jack Elam and Lee Van Cleef. When you break it down, Kansas City Confidential is an average B-movie. It's worth a watch if it just happens to show up on Turner classic Movies or PBS (as it did for me) and you enjoy the genre, but isn't a classic to seek out.

Open Water

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 August 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

Open Water had the most effective trailer I've seen in a long time, because the basic concept is enough to freak one out and readjust your fears. Tension and fear are one thing, but Open Water offers despair. I recommended The Blair Witch Project because of how, supernatural elements aside, they nailed how being lost in the woods was one of the scariest things a person can go through, with potential danger behind every tree and none of the things human beings use to control their environment at hand.

That's bad, but the flip side is that civilization or a landmark or something useful might be just beyond that tree a few meters away. In the middle of the ocean, though, you would know just how screwed you are. You can see for miles and not only is there nobody to help, but ever direction looks the same. You can be drifting with the current and not even be aware of how far you've gone or in what direction. Salvation is not just around the corner, there's nothing you can do, and there's not even much in the way of information.

That's the situation Daniel (Daniel Travis) and Susan (Blanchard Ryan) eventually find themselves in. They're a likable young couple, attractive, too busy and stressed from their jobs, and just off on a vacation somewhat thrown together at the last minute. They sign up for a scuba-diving expedition, but a miscount on the boat leads to the rest of the group leaving while these two are still underwater.

And that is, for the most part, the last hour of the movie. They're stranded in tropical waters which are home to sharks and, in what is potentially an even more creepy visual, jellyfish. They've got nothing to do but try and stay afloat, avoid hungry sea creatures, and try to remain supportive of each other. As one might expect, extreme situations tend to dredge up strong feelings and buried resentments. This is occasionally broken up by cuts to the boat, where the tour operators and fellow passengers will hopefully eventually recognize that someone is missing so that the rescue ship one hopes is coming in the last act won't be a gigantic deus ex machina.

For a low-budget, shot-on-digital-video independant film, Open Water looks great. No, it won't put the IMAX shows at the New England Aquarium to shame, but the colors are very nice and graininess is seldom a problem. Writer director Chris Kentis chooses relatively straightforward compositions as opposed to trying to deceive the audience with the camera - the natural environment will do that well enough on its own.

The performances are good, especially once the cast is in the water. On land, Ryan and Travis are perhaps given a little too long to establish that they're regular folks, and have an easier time of it when they get to let loose with the strong fear, anger, and desperation. The movie may have benefitted by stretching the short running time out a little longer and giving some of these strong feelings time to build before exploding, but it does work fairly well as-is, and there may only be so long the audience can look at the same thing before fatigue starts to set in.

Even at eighty minutes, that's still something of an issue. The movie is great at delivering initial shocks, but the awareness that's one is watching a movie with all the attendant time compression makes sustaining it a bit trickier. Despair takes time to build in real life, as one needs hope actually drained away, but doing that takes more time than a movie can afford.

Most horror movies work on dread, and dread can be established more easily than despair. It's harder to demonstrate a negative, after all. Open Water takes a different tack, and it works out pretty well.

Code 46

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 August 2004 at Loews Copley Place #3 (first-run)

I wish Code 46 were a better movie. Granted, I wish that for most bad movies, but when a science fiction film does something right that is more often than not done poorly or not at all, it would be nice if something (anything) in the rest of the movie was to the same standard.

I liked the way Code 46 seemed to be set in a believably evolved future. All too often, the future in a sci-fi movie is basically the present, with one bit of new technology added. Writer Frank Cottrell Boyce does better here, even peppering banal everyday conversations with bits that seem alien or incomprehensible to the present-day audience. Despite the long written bit of exposition on what a "Code 46" is at the beginning, other features of the future world aren't so carefully explained. It seems to be a given that most children are conceived via artificial insemination, and may not be genetically related to the parents who raise them. The landscape outside every city shown is arid desert, from Shanghai to Seattle. And it's relatively common for skills and abilities to be implanted via virus.

So, the movie's got that going for it. Unfortunately, apparently the most interesting story Boyce could find to tell in that future world was a tepid romance between William (Tim Robbins), an "intuitive investigator", and Maria (Samantha Morton), one of the factory workers he is brought to Shanghai to question. That he lies to protect her (and apparently doom someone else to life outside the city walls) at first seems inexplicable, although a connection forms between the characters, if not necessarily the actors.

Obviously, all that stuff we saw during the opening about how a Code 46 violation infolves a relationship between people with at least a 25% genetic relationship (which is generally what one has with siblings) is going to be important. That's where the movie becomes, for lack of a more descriptive term, icky. I can see the idea that having genetic material being randomly distributed in the way this future world posits would lead to a lot more inadvertant relationship between people whose DNA comes from the same source, but when the characters opt to pursue it despite all that, who do you root for? By the end, the movie practically has one thinking that the secretive "Sphinx" organization - which appears to be run like a corporation while functioning as a de facto world government - is the most reasonable group of people in the movie. And as I've said before, I don't like being put in the position of having to feel that the guys who erase memories and implant thoughts and compulsions are the good guys.

Director Michael Winterbottom opts to go the Gattaca route visually, for the most part, although the streets of Shanghai aren't quite so slick and antiseptic as the world of Andrew Niccol's movie. The movie appears to be shot primarily in locations with odd enough architecture to suggest a sort of sleek future aesthetic. The constant identity verifications also might remind one of Gattaca. And while Code 46 is in some ways more ambitious in its ideas than Gattaca - Code 46 offers a more complicated set of moral quandries than the simple desire to for self-determination even if one is considered genetically inferior - none of the people have the passion displayed by Niccol's characters. Code 46 never cracks its world's austerity to get at the primal thoughts that would drive the story.

It's a nice try, I suppose, and it hurts me to speak ill of a science fiction movie that has ambition beyond being an action movie with laser guns, but the end result is pretty disappointing.

Last Life In The Universe (Ruang rak noi nid mahasan)

* * * ¼ (Out of four)
Seen 24 August 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements)

Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (with co-writer Prabda Yoon) tells a story in Last Life In The Universe, but he implies another. He hides it well, though, disguising this second, hidden story as character bits for the first story until we see a character from an angle that had been carefully avoided up until that point.

Up until that point, it's not unreasonable to watch Ratanaruang's movie and look at it as being reminiscent of the work of Tsai Ming-liang. There's a plot, but it's subordinate to mood, and dialogue is kept to a minimum. The in-story reason for this is that the main characters don't share much in the way of language, not that Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) is much of a talker anyway. Kenji is a librarian working at the Japanese Cultural Center in Bangkok, while Noi and Nid (Sinitta and Laila Boonyasak) are a pair of pretty young girls, sisters, who work as hostesses in a local club which caters to Japanese tourists. They wind up speaking English as an intermediary (though frequently with heavy enough accents to require subtitles).

Kenji's got problems, though. As the film opens, he is attempting suicide, in a sort of half-hearted manner. He's got what appears to be obsessive-compulsive disorder, arranging everything in his refrigerator just so and apparently ordering the books which fill his apartment by the Dewey Decimal System. He spots Nid looking at a children's book in the center and is infatuated. And to make things worse, Kenji's brother comes to town, having annoyed an Osaka yakuza boss by sleeping with his daughter.

Kenji and Takashi don't have much in common, and Nid irritates Noi. But they're family, and when both families experience a sudden tragedy, the survivors retreat to the sisters' home in the country. It's an appalling mess, which drives Kenji crazy.

The middle portion is vaguely romantic, as the two survivors feel each other out, and there's a really beautiful special-effects sequence as Kenji cleans the house. And just as it starts getting too arty... Well, remember those yakuza who were after Kenji's brother? They eventually send a trio of over-the-top assassins, led by Takashi Miike, of all people (he's normally a director; a poster for one of his gonzo yakuza movies is featured early on).

It struck me how little this movie worries about giving offense; the Thai characters would occasionally throw the word "Jap" out, and the head yakuza's comments to airport security about whether someone of their ethnicity would hijack a plane is too politically incorrect to even be considered in an American movie. I wasn't sure whether to be shocked in terms of it being a cultural difference between Asia and America or just take it as this specific character saying it being important.

I'm understating how funny the movie is at times; much of it is dark humor, based on how ineffective (or indecisive) Kenji's suicide attempts are or how the stink of rotting corpses is apparently powerful enough to gross out the trio of assassins. There's a little bit of the Three Stooges in the killers, for that matter, as Miike's character smacks his dim-witted assistants around like Moe frustrated by Curly's idiocy. It's far from a straight-out comedy, but the funny moments are among the most memorable.

Most of the time I dislike the term "art film" because it implies that more mainstream films aren't art, and that the person using the term thinks that this film may be more than most of the unwashed heathens who make up the American audience could understand. In this case, I think it's somewhat apt. I don't think it's out of most audience members' grasp, but it does reward that audience in direct proportion to the effort they put in to watching it.

Thursday, August 26, 2004


I'm tempted to put a review of My Man Godfrey here, but, sadly, the ReplayTV cut out with 5-10 minutes left. I'm sure that nothing happened in those final few minutes that would make me think this is anything but a very funny movie - indeed, I am more worried about underestimating its greatness. But, to review it without having seen the whole thing is just not fair.

The lesson here? Stations, should give Replay their schedules down to the minute if possible. Also, I should pad both ends when I suspect they don't.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Intimate Strangers (Confidences Trop Intimes)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

Part of what's enjoyable about watching foreign films is that the characters are often played by unfamiliar actors, and thus come without the baggage of other roles; the only familiar face in Intimate Strangers for me was Gilbert Melki, who appeared in the "Trilogy" movies but has a fairly small role here. Sandrine Bonnaire (Anna) and Fabrice Luchini (William) are just these characters for me right now.

Shame they're not in a more interesting movie. It's got an interesting set-up - attractive woman with marital problems goes into the wrong office and winds up confessing her marital problems to a tax attorney rather than a psychiatrist - and he is too stunned to immediately correct her. It's a situation that really can't be strung out too long before it becomes absurd, and director Patrice Leconte doesn't, having Anna figure out the situation before her third visit.

Unfortunately, Leconte and screenwriter Jérôme Tonnerre don't have much to replace that with. The two of them talk, we see some background on William's life - he and his ex Jeanne (Anne Brochet) are friendly, and he has inherited his father's clients, office, and secretary. Luchini has a sort of sad-sack face, and his slumped body language indicates a sort of uncertain dissatisfaction. Ms. Bonnaire is pleasant enough, but the filmmakers keep her character somewhat in reserve. There's a half-hearted effort to make the film's last half into a thriller of sorts as Anna's husband Marc (Melki) enters the picture, but it doesn't amount to much.

That's the problem with the movie. I got William's dissatisfaction pretty quick, and sort of liked the guy, but never felt the story was anything special. Luchini and Bonnaire are pleasant enough together, but don't generate a lot of heat. It's an open question as to whether we'd rather see William with Anna or with Jeanne, or whether he's interesting enough to make a good match with either.

Paramount Classics turned this movie around fairly quickly, getting it from France to American theaters in less than six months, presumably to capitalize on the relatively recent success of Leconte's Man on the Train. I haven't seen that movie, so I can't say how this compares. Based upon this movie, though, I'm not terribly tempted to seek the rest of Leconte's body of work out. Just too much talking and not enough happening.

Life With Father

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 August 2004 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

There's a lot to like about Life With Father, especially when William Powell is on-screen. The movie was made toward the tail end of Powell's career, although it's difficult to tell - the man looked the same in his mid-fifties here as when he was making silent movies in the twenties. Here, he hits the right balance between playing for the balconies and naturalism, aided by source material that gives him an bombastic character to play.

It's amusing to see a previous period's nostalgia. Made in 1947, the film is set sometime during the 1880s, in a New York City where William Powell's character, Clarence Day Sr., works as a "businessman" and even the maids look prosperous. Father complains about how his family spends money, but it's a matter of principle, and he is on record as being in favor of "living well". He's opinionated, prone to talking to himself (yelling, actually), and must have everything just so. He goes through maids on a practically daily basis, and insists that his household be run on business principles.

His wife Vinnie (Irene Dunn), of course, smiles agreeably and then undermines... er, balances him. They have four boys, the youngest about four and the oldest, Clarence Jr. (Jimmy Lydon) scheduled to start at Yale in the fall. However, his happy home is about to be invaded by Vinnie's cousin Cora, who has a young neighbor, Mary (a amusingly gloopy Elizabeth Taylor) in tow. Clarence Jr. and Mary soon start making eyes at each other, leading to such innuendo-laced lines as this conversation in the music room:

MARY: Do you ever play... duets?

CLARENCE: I haven't up til now.

MARY: Neither have I... up til now!
You need to actually see it to get the full effect of Taylor's breathy delivery and how both teenagers appear to have never heard of sex.

The plot is thin. Six years later, the same source material (a memoir and a play) would be the basis for one of the first color sitcoms, and that feels like a natural fit. It wouldn't be hard to split the events of the movie into a few half-hour episodes - two sons sell patent medicine, Clarence Jr. finds himself acting like Clarence Sr. when he starts wearing a handed-down suit, and Vinnie is appalled to learn that Clarence Sr. has never been baptized.

A modern viewer will no doubt find it quaint, how close to the forefront religious issues are for these people. One of the children is not allowed to play baseball until he practices his catechism, that Father has never been baptized is a source of worry for the rest of the family, and it's a slightly lesser concern that the family is Episcopalian while Mary is a Methodist. Father's pragmatic religious beliefs, which would probably be considered pretty much mainstream now, are treated as being scandalous.

That quaintness becomes something of a liability, though, as the last act of the movie is swallowed by it. Seeing Father humbled by the sort of thing where he'd be unquestionably in the right today eventually becomes annoying. The movie works best when Powell's character is being a little bit unreasonable and Dunne's tempers that, as opposed to her being unreasonable and him eventually folding.

Overall, Life With Father is pleasant fluff. If the movie eventually disconnects from those of in the 21st Century, it's still got William Powell doing his thing, and he's a consummate pro.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Parlor, Bedroom and Bath

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 August 2004 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

Buster Keaton was a funny guy, perfectly suited to the silent movie as a medium. His athletic, physical comedy was without peer, and his blank stare made for a priceless reaction shot as the world descended into chaos around him. Sadly, there are only a few points in Parlor, Bedroom and Bath that require slapstick, and this adaptation of a stage play turns out to be far too confining for Keaton's particular gifts.

Ironically, the movie starts out well. It starts off in Taming of the Shrew territory, as pretty younger sister Virginia (Sally Eilers) is anxious to marry, but propriety dictates her older sister Angelica (Dorothy Christy) marry first. She, of course, is picky and blunt, which is a cause for aggravation for Virginia's fiancé Jeffrey (Reginald Denny). When he accidentally hits sign-poster Reginald Irving (Keaton), who had been scoping out Angelica, he is brought into the mansion and Angelica starts going Florence Nightengale for him. The men hatch a scheme whereby Reggie will woo Angelica, clearing the way for Jeffrey and Virginia to marry. Of course, to do that, Jeffrey decides to make the timid Reggie appear to be a ladies' man.

The plot has whiskers on it, and I imagine might have been considered sort of stodgy when it was released in 1931 (the same play was adapted as a silent in 1920). Silly social rules are a potent fuel for farce, though, along with half-heard conversations and random disasters. The biggest laugh comes halfway through the movie, as as Irving and a married friend of the sisters drive to a hotel, Irving thinking it's part of a plan to make Angelica jealous and Nita (Joan Peers) unaware of this plan but wanting to put her husband in his place for continually being away on business. It's pure Keaton, probably created specifically for the film, and involves a tire coming off the car near a set of railway tracks.

Once they get to the hotel, though, the movie runs into problems. Although it's been painfully obvious that the farce has been a bit mean-spirtited and based on nobody saying or doing the obvious thing, what goes on in the hotel room requires Reggie to not only be inexperienced with women, but also to be mentally deficient in some way. A misunderstanding can funny, but the hotel room sequence requires stupidity beyond what we've got any reason to expect from Keaton's character, and becomes off-putting. There's probably an argument to be made that it's demeaning to women, too, but it's not as though the men in the movie come out looking great, either.

The play this is based on is potentially a decent farce, and even if it didn't play to his strength, Keaton might have worked well in it. The final segment, though, just doesn't work in 2004, and I question whether it would have worked in 1931, either.

Before Sunset

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 August 2004 at the Arlington Capitol #1 (second-run)

As beautiful and joyous and smart as Before Sunset is, it's not quite as perfect as Before Sunrise. Part of that is simply the length; after waiting nine years (OK, it was a week in my case) to find out whether or not Jesse and Celine met in Vienna, and hour and twenty minutes doesn't seem like enough time to catch up with them. When the movie comes to an ending as sweet and open-ended as that of the first, someone in the seat behind me actually cried out, apparently not ready for it to be finished - which in some ways is a compliment.

Maybe what I'm about to say isn't so much a shortcoming as much as it's simply a way that Before Sunset is different from Before Sunrise. But where the first film tapped into a sort of universal experience, this new one is more specific, more movie-like. It requires these two particular characters with their particular histories. Their meeting this time is also more clearly part of a story. Second chances are extraordinary things; fewer people in the audience can identify with that than with being bowled over by someone you may never see again. The closest I've come is spotting a familiar email address in a roommates wanted ad, and as she'll attest if she's reading this, that's probably not very close (she's much too smart to get involved with me beyond splitting the occasional free-pass-for-two to a movie).

That this movie is more pointedly about Celine and Jesse is no bad thing, though. As the disappointment with the short running time demonstrates, they are good cinematic company. They spend the first half of the film seeming to pick up right where they left off, chatting like old friends, talking about why they didn't meet up in Vienna like they'd planned as well as politics and what they've been doing. The wedding ring on Jesse's finger hangs over their conversation until Celine finally brings it up, and soon after, we learn just what kind of an effect that one night almost a decade earlier has had on their lives, and how that one perfect moment frozen in memory has made it difficult for anything else to measure up.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the movie's stars, have aged gracefully in the nine years between movies. Though Hawke still looks somewhat youthful, and the way he talks still displays a boyish enthusiasm and American optimism, it fits his character, who in the first movie stated he always feels like a kid imagining he's a grown-up. Delpy loks more grown-up when compared to what we see in flashbacks, but is still just as playful. As an aside, despite a few obligatory "freedom fries" comments, director Richard Linklater and his co-writer/stars mostly sidestep any transatlantic tension. As much as relations between the America and France are frosty right now, Jesse and Celine represent their respective countries' best qualities, and though they're aware of the world outside their own lives, they don't let it come between them.

The first few minute of the movie are a bit worrisome, as Jesse talks with the patrons of a bookstore where he's signing his new novel (whose plot is similar to Before Sunrise), and comes off looking like a guy who's not as smart as he thinks he is. On reflection, it winds up serving as a contrast with how he and Celine fit together. After all, as with Sunrise, it's not just what the two say to each other, but how they say it, and what their body language suggests. The little sideways glances are more fraught with peril, as both are smart enough to realize that in addition to the logistical problems falling for each other would have presented in 1994, 2003 offers a whole bunch of personal entanglements.

I do love these movies, and hope that Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy get together for at least one more, even as I delight in the uncertain future hinted at by the last scene. From their comments while promoting Sunset, it's a labor of love for them, and I wouldn't be surprised if they kept checking in on Jesse and Celine every five or ten years for the rest of their lives.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Silver Blaze

* * (out of four)
Seen 18 August 2004 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

Some months ago, WGBH ran The Triumph Of Sherlock Holmes and I mentioned that I'd be interested in seeing the other movies in which Arthur Wontner played Holmes. Like Triumph, Silver Blaze has at its core a relatively faithful adaptation of one of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories and a decent Holmes/Watson pairing in Wortner and Ian Fleming; unfortunately, the adaptation is a little more problematic.

The main issue, I figure, is that when "Silver Blaze" was first published in 1892, it was a fifteen-page short story, including nine Sidney Paget illustrations. There's a rule of thumb that one page is equal to a minute of screen time, and even if you double that to take into account how dialogue-driven "Silver Blaze" is, that still means this story has to be padded to twice its length just to reach its short (especially for a modern audience) sixty-five minute run time. So we get Professor Moriarty and Colonel Moran added to the story, a side-plot featuring Henry Baskerville (from the Hound of the Baskervilles), his daughter, and her fiancé. It's also modernized to the mid-thirties, with liberal use of automobiles and telephones.

Why the producers chose this particular story about a stolen racehorse to adapt is something of a puzzlement, given how ill-suited it is to being stretched to feature length. I suppose that this team had alreay adapted two of the four longer stories (The Valley of Fear and The Sign of Four), while another studio in England had done The Hound of the Baskervilles just five years earlier. Perhaps horse racing was undergoing a surge of popularity in the UK when this was made/released in 1937. It reached the US four years later, under the title Murder at the Baskervilles, presumably to cash in on the popularity of the Rathbone/Bruce version of Hound.

It doesn't help that the cast seems lethargic; Fleming's Watson isn't a buffoon, but his presence barely registers much of the time. There's no real enthusiasm to Wontner's portrayal of Holmes, with the actor just going through the motions most of the time. Lyn Harding chews the scenery in his second go-round as Moriarty, but like everyone else, he draws out his lines a bit, as if the cast and crew is desperate to get the run-time up over an hour.

The end result is a movie that scores two stars on a four star scale - not really actively bad or off-putting, but below average. There are better uses for one's time.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004


* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 August 2004 at Loews Harvard Square #3 (first-run)

I found myself half-wondering during Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi whether this was supposed to be a semi-parodic remake. Not full-out, but some elements seemed just a little exaggerated (and others greatly so). Having only seen one entry in the original series, I'm really not equipped to judge this movie's relation to its forebears; on its own, I found it an enjoyable movie that could have been great except for one large flaw.

That flaw is the blood. Not that there's too much - when the various yakuza, ronin, and other swordsmen pull out their blades and start going after each other, the red stuff is bound to fly. However, instead of going to the experts and KNB (or whatever the Japanese equivelent is), Kitano opts for digital effects which are quite unsatisfying. Digital blood doesn't stick to people and surfaces, and it doesn't ever seem to jet from the bodies at the right angle or speed. There are some scenes when it doesn't even look as good as the Pepto-Bismol that Klingons had coursing through their veins in Star Trek VI.

I've read that this was a deliberate decision by writer/director/editor/star Takeshi Kitano, and for all I know, it was a great artistic success in Japan. The crowd in Cambridge last night, however, laughed every time it happened. It's partly that reaction that made me wonder whether Takeshi was going for comedy; it so thoroughly undercut almost every action beat. It had me reacting like "whoa, that was bada... (giggle)" a lot, and not like I had with Gozu two nights earlier. Gozu served up black comedy that shocked and amused with its audacity and perversity, while Zatoichi's fake blood just had me laughing at a shortcoming.

It's a shame, because the rest of the movie is, well, great. Kitano displays a warmth as Zatoichi that I don't recall seeing from him in other movies, though my exposure has been somewhat limited. The rest of the cast is good, too, expressive but pulling back from the overacting that can plague Asian films, especially when it comes time for comic relief.

The story template for a Zatoichi movie is straightforward, and Kitano doesn't deviate far from it: Blind masseur and gambler Ichi (Kitano, credited as "Beat" Takeshi) arrives in a town after dispatching some highwaymen who thought to give the blind guy trouble (only to wind up learning that Ichi's cane contains a wickedly sharp sword which he wields with gruesome skill, his four other senses heightened). The town, of course, has yakuza issues, and other recent arrivals threaten to make things worse. When the yakuza threaten the woman who gives Ichi a place to sleep, Ichi makes them deeply regret it in the seconds before they die.

Among the arrivals are the ronin Hattori and his sickly wife. Hattori is a man of honor who dislikes the yakuza-bodyguard work he takes, but does it professionally so that he can afford medicines for his wife. In broad daylight, he may be a match for Ichi. Also recently arrived are a pair of geisha who early on establish that they're on a quest for bloody vengeance for something that happened when they were children. Kitano establishes these characters quickly, using extended flashbacks to show us their backstory.

The sights and sounds of this village are enjoyable, as well. Where previous Zatoichi flicks were sort of B-movies, cranking out three or four a year at times, Kitano has a decent budget and invests it in solid-looking sets. There's a tone of whimsy to much of the music, with the farmers in the background occasionally working in sync with it. And the rousing tap-dancing festival number that closes the movie is so delightful that one can forgive its complete incongruity.

The action, up until the point of someone actually being cut and spewing fakey CGI blood, is well choreographed. Some of the blades must be CGI as well, or else a few scenes of yakuza and ninjas getting run through involved some very real trips to the trauma ward.

Supposedly, Takashi Miike was considered as the director at one point in production, which may have produced the coolest movie ever: Miike directing Kitano in a bloody samurai/yakuza epic starring a beloved character. Maybe Miike wouldn't have gone for the "real fake blood", either, and maybe he would have just veered into bizarre territory

Kitano does a bang-up job, though, except for the blood. I must sound like a sicko for harping on this, but this one flaw is what keeps Zatoichi from being one of the year's best, as opposed to one of the year's very good.

Monday, August 16, 2004


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 August 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (first-run)

Wow. A Takashi Miike movie in a multiplex, albeit a boutique multiplex. For those who have not yet experienced his work, Takashi Miike brings to mind some bizarre experiment in genetic engineering where the DNA of Takeshi Kitano, Quentin Tarantino and David Cronenberg was mixed, too-quickly grown to adulthood, and let loose on an entertainment industry with no MPAA to hold him back and a mandate to crank out an average of five movies a year, for theaters, television, and video.

So, even though I'm recommending Gozu, remember the director. He makes crazy, violent, disgusting (and often sickly funny) movies, and he starts early here. If what happens to the dog in the first five minutes makes you want to leave, then by all means, leave. Pull out your cell phone and act like there's a family emergency; maybe you'll get your money back. Because by the time the movie is over, you'll see some even weirder shit. You won't even be able to eat corn flakes the next morning, because it would involve spoons and milk.

At first, young yakuza Minami thinks that it's just his mentor Ozaki who is crazy - he was, after all, responsible for that terrible bit of animal cruelty (really, I don't approve) that opened the film, claiming that a little Peke was in fact a vicious "yakuza attack dog". But, someone being that nuts is a danger to the gang, so Minami is tasked with bringing his "Brother" north to a body dump and eliminating him. As Minami and Ozaki approach the dump, though, it soon becomes clear that it's not just Ozaki who's crazy - it's the whole world.

Not just people, although almost everyone around Minami (Hideki Sone, the sane center of the movie) acts in a peculiar fashion. Roads just run straight into rivers, minotaurs appear during the night, and - in what provides most of the plot that pushes Minami to investigate the surreal world around him - a corpse apparently walks off while he's using the toilet, forcing him to find it. And when he does, things get really strange.

The middle portion of the movie moves somewhat slowly, as Miike and screenwriter Sakichi Sato throw one bizarre situation after another at Minami (and the audience). I can't say I really understand what the point of a lot of this section was about. The rest of the movie follows a sort of strange logic - well, not logic, but there's a sort of story through-line which works if you grant the filmmakers a gigantic unexplained impossible element - but the middle is a sort of surreal padding, a detour to put some space between the start and end of the story.

But, then, making sense isn't what this movie is about. After all, just as the movie finishes perhaps its most grotesque scene, and I really think I get how it works, it shifts gears for a completely incongruous epilogue that, though it features the same actors, is so different in tone and look as to appear to be taken from another movie.

But that's okay. This is, after all, a horror movie, at least in part, and the horror comes from Minami's interaction with an unknown and possibly unknowable world outside his experience. For things to suddenly make sense at the end would be something of a cop-out, even if making peace with that strangeness isn't.

The Stranger

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 August 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Orson Welles: Rogue Genius)

Unlike many of the movies Orson Welles directed, The Stranger was a popular hit when it was released. Now, sixty years later, it's not quite dismissed, but it hasn't gained in stature like Citizen Kane or infamy via a Welles-vs-studio battle like The Magnificent Ambersons or Touch of Evil. It's a thriller, a movie Welles did for a job, and not really his the way other movies are.

Still, if Welles is slumming, he's slumming in a "Steven Soderberg directing Ocean's Eleven" way, as opposed to a "Wong Kar-Wai writing Haunted Cop Shop 2" way, turning out a quality movie even as he picks up a paycheck.

World War II has just ended, and Edward G. Robinson plays Wilson, an American war-crimes investigator who cooks up a plan to let one Konrad Meinike escape in the hopes that he will lead them to a bigger prize, one Franz Kindler, described as one of the chief architects of the Final Solution whose passion for anonymity has left the Allies without a photograph. The plan works, leading Wilson to Harper, CT, but before he can learn that Kindler has reivented himself as private-school teacher Charles Rankin (Welles), Kindler has killed Meinike and hidden the body.

As they say, though, murder will out. Wilson is a dogged investigator and the new Mrs. Rankin (Loretta Young), daughter of a Supreme Court justice, has enough information to put two and two together, but is held back by her need to believe her husband isn't a monster.

Welles doesn't work with particular subtlety here. The question of whether Rankin really is Kindler is resolved decisively and early, and Ms. Young gets to do a fair amount of ranting toward the end of the movie as her character realizes who and what she has married. And there's a prominent clock tower, which often indicates a long fall coming... And that's not the only scene that's telegraphed.

But Welles is good at this. He may not be trying to subvert the audience's expectations, but he uses the tools of a mainstream thriller effectively. He shows us just enough of "Rankin" to make us believe that Kindler could effectively hide out in New England but not enough to make one wonder whether or not he's gone native, and perhaps give the character some sympathy. He sprinkles just enough quirkiness among the natives to make Harper alive but not peculiar. He uses concentration camp footage to make a point, but not in a cheap or exploitive way. If the last act is a bit over the top, well, this is a forties thriller and the paying audience had expectations. Welles meets them, and it is satisfying.

The Stranger is very much a mainstream product of its time, much more than of its auteur. If the intervening 58 years haven't seen it become more than it was previously estimated to be, neither have they exposed it as a disposable, forgettable work.

The Third Man

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 14 August 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Orson Welles: Rogue Genius)

This was going to be a "clever" review, going all meta to discuss just how much of the plot of a film classic one should casually let slip when writing about a fifty-five year-old movie. I was going to instant message back and forth with my brother Matt, a college sophomore who probably hasn't seen this film, and present that as the review. After editing out sidetracks about having to rent pants for our brother's upcoming wedding and expanding on movie-related bits, of course. But he wasn't online this weekend, so I'm going to have to go a more conventional route.

The Third Man is a classic. It has infiltrated pop culture to a point where I've seen three or four seperate people using "Harry Lime" as an online indentity/persona over the past few years. The trailer that Rialto cut for its fiftieth-anniversery re-release in 1999 operates under the assumption that its audience knows all about it, and is built around the Big Reveal that happens with about half an hour of the movie's hundred-odd minute running time lef; it's a preview designed for people who already know the movie.

Maybe I'm being unnecessarily circumspect here - after all, Orson Welles does grab third billing in the movie, even though he doesn't have a great deal of screen time, so his part must be crucial. Even back in 1949, there probably wasn't a big Miramax-style "don't tell people the movie's secret" buzz around the movie. still, it would have been nice if when I'd seen it the first time, I'd seen it relatively cold.

Besides, focusing on one splashy, and admittedly fantastic, supporting performance gives short shrift to the rest of the movie. We follow Joseph Cotton as Holly Martins, a down-on-his-luck writer of cheap westerns who comes to postwar Vienna when his friend Harry offers him a job, but when he arrives, Harry is dead, struck by a car the previous day. The local authorities are anxious to send Holly back home, but he's read a few too many of his own novels, and starts sniffing around the parts of Harry's death that don't add up.

It's important to keep in mind that The Third Man is a British film, and as such probably represents European sentiment toward America at the end of World War II - Holly is big-hearted and well-meaning, but not terribly bright. He comes to a country where he doesn't speak the language and acts like he knows better than the professionals; the British inspector in charge of the case, Calloway (Trevor Howard) puts up with him because Martins does want to do the right thing, which is perhaps more than can be said for Calloway's Soviet counterpart (occupied cities like Vienna are divided into sectors, each watched over by one of the Allies). After all, it's the smart Americans you have to look out for - the ones like Holly's late friend Harry, who was making a killing on the black market.

And then there's Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli). She's as European as they come, and she represents the peculiar loyalties of that time. This beautiful actress (and Harry's lover) doesn't appear to have much trouble transferring her affection from Harry to Holly, but after all, there's just been a war, and men die in wartime. She endeavors to stay away from her home country with Soviet control looming. But she won't betray Harry, even when it becomes clear that Harry had felt no such qualms.

These characters move through a story that is a classic mystery setup. There are visits to crime scenes, gathering of evidence, witnesses eliminated, and plenty of suspects. The uneasy backdrop of how the Soviets seem to be becoming less and less trustworthy allies as times go by makes the question of who can be trusted problematic. War-torn Vienna makes for an intriguing backdrop, as Old World elegance gives way to bombed-out devestation, with lights and traffic being sparse. A Ferris wheel (the same one later used in Before Sunrise) is incongruously innocent - and mostly empty.

To me, the scene which best encapsulates the movie is the final, wordless shot. It's Holly and Anna, and fits them as individuals, but it also represents the collision of American optimism (or arrogance) and European propriety.

That's The Third Man's brilliance. It's mystery, character drama, and metaphor all at once.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Before Sunrise

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 10 August 2004 in Jay's Living Room (see it before the sequel)

I must admit, I approached Before Sunrise with trepidation. I've liked Ethan Hawke in a few things (okay, mostly Gattaca) Same goes for Julie Delpy, who is also what one with a flair for understatement might call "really, really pretty". I've heard great things about the sequel, often followed by "but you've got to see Before Sunrise first". Director Richard Linklater frightened me, though - he's made a movie I loved (School of Rock), one I've liked (The Newton Boys), and two I've outright hated (Tape and Waking Life), and Before Sunrise had the reputation for being as talky and self-absorbed as the ones I despised.

Happily, Before Sunrise is more down-to-earth than those movies. The first scene was instantly familiar - someone riding a bus or a train, reading her book, but next to people who just Will. Not. Shut. UP! She moves to another seat, makes eye contact with the person across the way, and in that instant they're thinking the same thing, and wind up talking. On a whim, she gets off the train with him in Vienna, where he has a morning flight to catch, and they spend the night wandering around the city.

Linklater captures two simple, universal things here. First, it's fun to play tourist. Recent Hollywood seems to have lost sight of that, but there's a simple pleasure in vicariously experiencing a place you've never been and likely won't ever go. So as Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) wander around Vienna, we get to tag along, and while their attention will eventually turn more fully to each other, they don't fail to look at the city around them and enjoy it. They go to specific places that might not be first on the list of places considered essential destinations, but which bring forth stories and insights.

And, of course, Jesse and Celine fall in love. It's a peculiar romance, one which demands a powerful attraction to form after just a few minutes, and which they both know will become difficult to maintain within hours. This has probably happened to everyone, though not quite so powerfully as it does to Jesse and Celine. For me, it was freshman year of college and involved the friend of the girlfriend of someone else on the floor. I recall her probably being a senior in high school and very interested in the idea of learning the Native American ancestry of people who didn't realize they had any. Didn't hit me as hard or I just wound up being gutless at the end of the night (most likely a lot of both). This was at Worcester Polytechnic Instute, Daniels Hall, Floor 3 in the fall of 1992, if this sounds vaguely familiar.

The instant appeal of the situations, though, is less importnat than how much we like the two characters. Jesse and Celine talk a lot, and much of it is intellectual or philosophical, but it doesn't get tiresome because the words are not really the point. They're nice words, strung together into nice lines and exchanges, but the important thing is for the couple to just be talking with each other, that as long as they're talking or kissing or holding hands, they're connecting and getting the most out of the time they have together. The great joy is watching them talk, checking out their body language and tone and what their eyes are doing, as opposed to just listening to the words. Linklater balances the mood as carefully as his actors do; that the night must end is part of the background, but doesn't hang over the movie like a cloud, smothering the joy and sweetness of the pair.

I mentioned earlier that School of Rock was the other Linklater film I love; though they may at first seem almost completely dissimilar, they both have, at their core, people with strong passions and ideas coming together; they both feature innocent joy where some could find only cynicism. On the other hand, Waking Life, which actually makes use of these two characters, never rises above the level of an intellectual exercise.

Now that I've finally gotten around to watching this - I bought the DVD about a month ago and just kept putting it off until I saw that Before Sunset would be moving to the second-run theaters this weekend - I wish I'd done it sooner, and I can't wait to see the followup tonight.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 August 2004 at Loews Harvard Square #1 (first-run)

That Michael Mann has directed only eight features in his career isn't exactly surprising; a new Mann film is something to get excited about in part because it's not an annual event, and he's spent some time producing TV in the meantime. Sitting down to watch Collateral, though, I thought that a greater chunk of that oeurve had been in the "L.A. crime story" subgenre, since he seems to fit this movie like a glove. Makes me realize just how definitive Heat was.

Collateral is straight-ahead with its set-up: Vincent (Tom Cruise) and Max (Jamie Foxx) are both consummate professionals. It's somewhat amusing in Max; he's a cab driver with probably the neatest taxi in Los Angeles and the best knowledge of the city's geography, but it impresses Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), an U.S. Attorney who gives him her cards and says to call her sometime. Vincent, on the other hand, is a hired killer who climbs into Max's cab right after he drops Annie at her stop. Max finds out about Vincent's line of work when a body flies out a window and lands on his roof. From that point forward, Max is basically held hostage as Vincent goes after his four remaining targets, trying to figure out a way to escape the situation alive without getting anyone else killed.

It's a measure of how well Mann sucks the audience into this movie's world that a number of questionable points about the script didn't strike me as unlikely until afterward. Take that first victim, for instance. I just now started wondering about the physics where a bullet packed enough force to drag him through a closed window and far enough out into the alley to land square on top of Max's cab. The guy'd have to be in midair to avoid being stopped when his legs hit the wall below the window, at the very least. Mann probably did well to avoid actually showing us the scene.

It would also seem that as soon as Max knew what Vincent was up to, he'd become a liability for Vincent to eliminate, moving on to the next cab. But then, not only would there be no movie, but the characters would be less interesting. Cruise plays Vincent as a charming sociopath, fully capable of genuine appreciation and respect for his victims, but with no qualms about removing the from the world. He seems to like Max, but that doesn't mean Max will live to see tomorrow.

Jamie Foxx's performance as Max certainly makes me less terrified of him playing Ray Charles later this year (not that Foxx has ever struck me as a bad actor, just that he'd often seemed unexceptional). He's got the more convential character - nice guy, gets in over his head and gets scared, eventually finds a hidden reservoir of strength (thanks, in part, to the villain pointing out his shortcomings). He makes a nice everyman, and in a movie like this, it's something of an accomplishment to make Max not particularly special. We can see ourself in Max because he reacts to peril the way most of us would, and the movie would lose us if at any point we said, hey, I don't think the average guy would react that way. He's not Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, with a mind as sharp as his adversery's, but a guy with the deck almost hopelessly stacked against him.

The rest of the cast is high-quality, considering this movie is the Tom-and-Jamie show and everyone else is pushed to the side. Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo, Irma P. Hall, Javier Bardem and Bruce McGill (one of my all-time favorite "That Guys") fill smaller roles, and Barry Shabaka Henley (late of Mann's Robbery Homicide Division TV series) has a nice featured part.

The film looks like RHD, too - Mann and his cinematographers do like their grain. It's sometimes a little excessive, like something I have to look through rather than a natural part of a picture, but that's the only complaint. They've got a knack for finding a way to make L.A. fit both Vincent's and Max's perceptions - Vincent finds that city to be a sterile concrete wasteland, but to Max it's home and has its own beauty - in the same shot. They also choose their locations well; I get a sense that the script was written (or re-written) with certain spots in mind.

Michael Mann's made a good movie here, one that makes the most of its stars and generates some good tension; a quality thriller.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004


* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 August 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Orson Welles: Rogue Genius)

The Brattle's summer Orson Welles series has skipped around his career, which in some ways makes patterns easier to pick up. Seeing Welles's Macbeth after his version of Othello was instructive - though only a few years seperates the two movies based on Shakespeare's plays, they are decidedly different experiences, as Othello feels much more like a movie, as opposed to a filmed play, than Macbeth.

Maybe that's not quite accurate; Macbeth looks like a certain type of movie, although not a popular, mainstream one. When modern movies need to parody pretentious, artsy-fartsy films, they'll often use what I assume to be a pastiche of The Seventh Seal, showing black-and-white footage of a stark landscape, with actors standing quite still as they say their lines, often with one huge head in the foreground while another character stands off in the distance. That is, in a nutshell, what Macbeth looks like much of the time. The sets are surreal, and though much of the movie takes place outdoors, there's seldom any sense of there being a horizon in the distance. It's not claustrophobic, but it definitely gives the whole environment a vibe of unreality.

Another thing that's striking is how vital Welles was in his younger years. He always had some bulk, but here he seems powerful and virile, possessed of a rawer charisma than his later works would indicate. He can move quickly, and not look completely overmatched in his final swordfight with Macduff. He hits the right notes for Macbeth at every stage, whether it be the brave and popular hero, the guilty, frightened king, or the tyrant driven mad by his belief in his own indestructability. Dan O'Herlihy is nearly as forceful as Macduff. Edgar Barrier is a decent Banquo (though he's saddled with an extremely goofy hairdo), and Roddy McDowall is passable as the doomed King Duncan.

Welles seemed unsure what to do with Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth. Though given a costume that highlights her body, there's no apparent sexual component to her interactions with Welles as MacBeth; she doesn't seem to have enough of a hold on him to push him into doing evil. This may have more to do with how Welles chose to trim the play to get it into the 1:45 range. As a result, Lady MacBeth's breakdown seems abrupt and out of character. But, if Lady Macbeth is to be a bitch, Nolan manages that quite well, emasculating her husband while hiding her monstrous side from others.

Welles makes some curious decisions. Oddly enough, one of the more negative comes from trying to do something on film that you can't do on stage - many of the characters' asides to the audience are changed to internal monologues spoken in voiceover. The thing about this is that when an actor makes an aside to the audience, it's a dynamic thing - he steps away from the other characters and speaks conversationally to us, with gestures and perhaps a conspirational tone - but making those passages into the characters internal thoughts freezes the movie: You just see a medium shot of see Macbeth standing still while hearing his thoughts on the soundtrack.

It also doesn't help that Welles, especially, is easier to understand in his spoken dialogue than in his thoughts. Apparently, he used a thicker accent when recording the internal monologues than he did when actually on set.

Many others are good, though - I like how the Weird Sisters always seem above the fray, and the imagery Welles uses for Birnam Wood advancing on Dunsinane makes good use of the surreal design of the movie. And, he's shooting MacBeth, easily among the greatest of Shakespeare's plays.

The print shown at the Brattle was very good, from the UCLA restoration of the full, undubbed version of the movie (apparently Republic originally had Welles cut twenty minutes from the movie and re-record it without Scottish brogues). I'm not sure who currently owns the DVD rights to this movie - I want to say Artisan, but I'm not certain. In any event, it is currently unavailable on video, so I feel lucky to have had an opportunity to catch it.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Shaolin Soccer (Siu lam juk kau) - Miramax cut

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 August 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements)

It has become expected, almost a cliché, really, that when someone discusses Shaolin Soccer on the internet,, they must express anger and frustration at Miramax for how that company has screwed up the American release of this movie in every conceivable way. I suppose I could buck this tradition, but I won't. Ahem:

What the hell is wrong with Miramax? I remember seeing trailers for this movie before Spy Kids 2 a couple years ago, and yet they've sat on it so long that the good folks who run the Weekly Ass-Kickings have schedules Stephen Chow movies several times in order to take advantage of its announced release only to see it not come out. They gave it such a ridiculously limited release in April that it doesn't even make it to Boston. BOSTON, fer crying out loud, where we have tons of college students (many of them Asian) who one would think would eat this thing up. It didn't even make it to the Brattle until two and a half weeks before the video release. And the version released? Cut, by about fifteen minutes! Why? I seriously wonder who should be more insulted by that, the American audience or the Chinese filmmakers/audience; this was a huge hit in Hong Kong, but for some reason that's not enough for Miramax to just give us the damn movie that Stephen Chow made.

Okay. Even after all Miramax's screwing around with the movie, the end result is pretty darn entertaining. The action sequences blow past wire-fu straight to Matrix-style flat-out contempt for realism. Indeed, this is easily the most CGI-intensive movie I've seen come out of Hong Kong. Even before Miramax did some work to replace written Chinese with written English in a few scenes, there's extensive digital effects work in most of the martial arts/soccer bits, including a capacity crowd at the soccer stadium that looks just slightly more convincing than a similar scene in The Phantom Menace.

But although we've all seen plenty of Matrix spoofs by now (though, to be fair, when Shaolin Soccer hit Hong Kong in 2001, those would be a lot more current), Chow's are actually funny. He recognizes that it's not enough to just depict something ordinary with gravity-defying bullet time, but that there's got to be a joke there, and that timing is just as important as it is in any sort of slapstick.

The plot is pretty darn close to what you'd see in any sports movie - group of misfits team with an outcast leader to enter a tournament, become a team, and eventually defeat the villainous team that previously screwed the leader over - here, simply called "Team Evil". This is not a sophisticated comedy at all - we not only get "Team Evil", but one of the first bits of slapstick actually involves a banana peel. It is, in fact, even broader than Dodgeball, but involves basically the same trick - spoofing sports movie conventions, but stopping just short of winking to the audience about them. Such mainstays as the overweight guy and the token girl abound, and Patrick Tse's Hung, the leader of Team Evil, is as caricatured as villains get.

It's tough for me to ride the movie too hard about its simplicity, though because, as I mentioned, 15% of it is missing in America (unless you pick up an import DVD; I hear New England Comics sells them here in the Boston area, or there's the link over in the upper left corner). I can say, though, with certainty, that what is left, I liked quite a bit. Now give me the rest.

Shooting Fish

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 August 2004 in Jay's Living Room (Hey, I've got a movie with Kate Beckinsale in it that I haven't watched yet on the shelf)

I wonder if people making movies like Shooting Fish recognize at the time that they're making something completely inconsequential, whose best chance of success is to come out in close proximity to some other movie starring a member of its cast, hoping that that other movie will make said cast member a star, creating in the audience an immediate demand to see them in something else immediately. Do they actually look at release schedules and say "ooh, Kate Beckinsale will be in Last Days of Disco in late May, so let's give this a US release in mid-June"?

Shooting Fish isn't a bad movie. It had a good chance of riding another film's coattails because it does have a cast capable of becoming stars. It's got some funny scenes, moments of cleverness, and a few good lines. It also has an incredibly contrived plot, and skimps on establishing its characters and their relationships; it also never quite justifies its desire for the audience to cheer on when the characters lie, cheat and steal because it's the right thing to do.

Kate Beckinsale we all know by now; she's playing Georgie, the sort of sweet, smart, and a bit fussy character she played in Cold Comfort Farm and hasn't played enough since. We first meet her as a typist hired by Dylan (Dan Futterman) and Jez (Stuart Townsend) to help with a scam involving a supposedly voice-activated computer. Dan is the front man, skilled at projecting enough charm and self-confidence to get otherwise intelligent people to open their wallets; Jez is the awkward technical guy who provides tech support and builds the devices that Dan sells to the "fish" (Dylan is also American for no apparent reason beyond selling the movie in the US).

Is it unlikely that two scam artists would build a scheme that relies on a temp who won't share in their ill-gotten gains? Of course it is. And that said temp would go along with it, and fall in with them, especially considering that she's apparently got enough on her plate, being a med student about to be married to a very wealthy man for, apparently, the soul purpose of saving her ancestral home? Also somewhat sketchy. Director Stefan Schwartz and his co-writer Richard Holmes never really apply much of a plausibility filter to their script, which bounces between neat-but-overly-quirky (Dylan & Jez's home inside an unused, but still filled with water, natural gas tank) and outright contrived (Georgie's fiancé - seriously, did she get engaged for any other reason but to have a villain later in the movie?). There's a lot that's quickly explained (in a less-than-persuasive manner) that makes in harder to really like and root on the characters; not just the silly engagement - I know I keep harping on this, but it's really, really dumb - but also how Dylan and Jez met, became friends, and opted to become grifters when they clearly have enough talent for more legitimate professions.

That said, most of the cons are pretty entertaining, and Kate is decidedly cute in her tomboyish haircut and freckles, which makes things go smoothly. The characters thankfully also remain true to their imperfect natures; it would have been easy to make Dylan grow a conscience or become the piece's villain. There are some clever lines, such as Georgie saying that she wouldn't want to deprive an American of what tradition he has.

You can probably find the DVD in the $5.99 bins now, which is about right. It's five years old, from back when Fox was putting out pretty disappointing discs, with no special features other than the trailer, a widescreen (2.35:1) image that unfortunately isn't 16x9 encoded, and some audio drop-outs near the beginning of the movie. It's watchable, which is a good thing, because there can't be much market for a special edition. There are apparently a few scenes cut from the original UK release, which is somewhat annoying, although most of the cuts listed on the IMDB look like the sort of thing that would go anyway for "tightening".

Shooting Fish passes the time in a relatively pleasant manner. It's pleasantly British, with whimsy where other movies might try for "edge". And it's got Kate Beckinsale in her cute, before-everyone-else-caught-on form. You can easily do worse for an hour and a half's entertainment.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

The Village

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2004 at Loews Boston Common #14 (first-run)

The Village is about fear. Generating it for the audience, certainly, is the primary objective, but a closer look reveals a story about living with it in everyday life. How it's possible to be happy with danger just out of sight, how we weigh one fear against another, how it can control our actions, and how it must be conquered on occasion.

The people in an isolated Pennsylvania village (a gravestone at the beginning places the time at 1897) have come to an accord with the monsters who live in the woods outside their borders. They know what antagonizes the monsters (humans entering the forest and the color red) and avoid that. The people of the village are formal without being joyless. The younger generation is starting to pair off.

The most restless of the young men is Lucius Hunt (Joaquim Phoenix), a quiet lad who thinks a recent death might have been avoided if the village had more contact with "the towns", to buy medicine and supplies. The elders - including his mother (Signourney Weaver) and town leader Edward Walker (William Hurt) - disagree, saying that the towns are as dangerous as the woods, and that he would never make it through the woods alive anyway. He has good reason to stay, though, as he and Walker's blind daughter Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) are starting to connect in a more boy-girl way, and they are developmentally-challenged Noah's (Adrian Brody) closest friends.

We spend the first half-hour or so of the movie getting to know these characters before the plot starts to kick in. Something unexpected happens which causes the villagers to re-evaluate what they should fear, and an expedition must be sent into the woods. It will probably be no surprise that the blind girl will, at some point, be in great peril.

M. Night Shyamalan is a writer/director who, though not necessarily subtle, has a firm grasp of his skill set. As expected, he makes great use of color, especially reds and yellows, and knows how to keep monsters just out of sight until they would be most effective. He does back off the kids this time, and has James Newton Howard tone the music down a little from Signs. He cannily realizes that people are expecting a big twist at the end of his movies, so he shakes things up several times. He does a jump scene as good as anybody, and supplies a few here.

There's a little misidrection with the casting; a lot of people will go into The Village and make assumptions on who is most important based upon the order in which cast members are listed in the opening titles and which names are familiar. This may not be wise. I don't think it's spoiling too much to say that Sigourney Weaver and Brendan Gleeson are probably underused, and that Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of Ron Howard) is quite good in her first lead role.

The movie does, unfortunately, falter somewhat at the end, for a couple of reasons. First, Shyamalan layers the explanations on a little thick (though, after the number of people who mistakenly thought there were aliens in A.I., I suppose this is a necessity). Less obviously - but perhaps more problematically - he loses track of the "examination of fear" theme because the plot is locked in. As the movie ends, there are two levels of darkness - one corresponding to ideals, and one to actions - and not only do they not match, but there's no sense from the movie that this should be an issue. I get the feeling that I'm going to find this a darker movie than many of my friends do.

Still, it does supply about an hour-forty of good, creepy Twilight Zone stuff before going off the tracks for the last five or ten minutes, and is well worth a ticket.

Confidential Report (aka Mr. Arkadin)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Orson Welles: Rogue Genius)

Orson Welles had a pretty neat idea for a thriller here - a wealthy, powerful man about to secure a politically sensitive contract hires someone to investigate his own background, ostensibly because he has amnesia. The investigator, unfortunately, finds something, and peril ensues. I think Confidential Report would be a good candidate for a remake, as Welles's film doesn't quite fulfil its potential.

The main issue is the film's lead, Akim Tamiroff, who has the gruff noir exterior down, but never really develops his character as being more than a thug. That's not just a problem in terms of the audience caring whether he lives or dies, but we've got to believe that Greogri Arkadin's beautiful and sophisticated (if rebellious) daughter Raina (Paola Mori) would fall for him. The movie's other girl, Mily (Patricia Medina), seems more his speed; she's a down-to-earth dancer skilled at using her curvy body to her advantage and his partner in trying to get Arkadin (Welles) to pay him to keep what he half-knows quiet.

Welles does do a few interesting things. Although his exposition is at times a little ham-fisted - both as writer/director and actor - he spins an interesting mystery tale which draws on the character of early-Cold War Europe, and, again, the story is good. His cast all looks their parts, although only the ladies really disappear into their characters. And his cynical ideas about image control are ahead of his time.

Unfortunatley, things tend to fall short when the characters open their mouths. All of Ms. Mori's dialogue is said to be dubbed, and I wouldn't be surprised if Tamiroff's was, too; neither seemed to quite match their lip movements. Tamiroff's American accent could use work, and Welles's European accent doesn't seem to come from anywhere. There's also a fair amount of lines and deliveries that sound odd, not quite like how a real person would actually talk.

Don't misunderstand; this is a good movie. It just happens to be one with room for improvement, and one that I'd like to see someone take another shot at.

F For Fake

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Orson Welles: Rogue Genius)

It takes more than a filmmaker as gifted as Orson Welles to make such a bad film so enjoyable. It is a documentary without much in the way of information-gathering behind it, it feels like a massive digression (though it would be a digression from something already utterly inconsequential), and has some truly awkward structuring and staging. And yet it is compelling because at the center, holding the film together with an effortlessness almost bordering on contempt, is not Orson Welles the director, or Orson Welles the actor, but Orson Welles the iconoclast.

Welles comes off as a weird guy here; he dresses as a magician, refers to other, apparently non-existent works, and fills his movie with peculiar transitions and side-paths, and often gives the impression that he's got a lot of thoughts on fakery and artifice that he just can't organize into a movie.

But when he's allowed to be - or talk about - Orson Welles... Ahhh, that's the stuff. Then, he comes off as a fantastic party guest, calmly tossing off outrageous anecdotes and dropping the sort of names that his audience doesn't recognize, though they pretend otherwise less they look unsophisticated. He's self-deprecating, both obviously ("I started at the top and I've been working my way down ever since") and subtly. There's a scene where he is in a restaurant, surrounded by young admirers, telling tales, which is not obviously a set-up but seems unlikely to be real. When he orders an enormous portion, his eyes briefly meet the camera and we see he's having a little joke at his own expense. He spends twenty minutes of his 85-minute "documentary" on a funny but unlikely story that he then admits is false, showing those of us in the audience how easy it is to be taken in without making us feel stupid.

I suppose that when F For Fake came out in the late 1970s, the scandals Welles focuses on would have been fresh, so the lack of much explanation would have been less confusing than it is 25+ years later. Even then, though, it must seem he had very little to say - the segments on Elmyr de Hory, history's greatest art forger, are stitched together from another documentary and often seem more about immersing us in Elmyr's bon vivant lifestyle than actually exploring things - Welles spends a lot of time saying that "the lawyers" won't let him say which masterpieces are actually de Hory fakes. Intertwined is a story about de Hory's biographer, Clifford Irving, who himself pulled a con in claiming to be Howard Hughes's biographer and confidante. Welles doesn't quite find the angle in de Hory's and Iring's stories being intertwined, and the Irving story becomes something of a side note, leading to Welle reminiscing about Howard Hughes and how he was too strange to satirize in Citizen Kane.

The movie's a mess, in many ways; it jumps from one subject to another to a third with only the slightest connections, it's got little original material, and there's precious little for those who watch documentaries to learn something new. And yet, in other ways, it's a reflection of ideas inside the movie, that a thing can be not "real", in terms of not being what it's presented as, like with de Hory's paintings or Welles' news bulletin of a Martian invasion, and still be a compelling or beautiful fake. I get the feeling Welles would have loved The Blair Witch Project, or at least the marketing thereof, because of how it played with people's expectations and used their trust as an artist's tool.

F For Fake is a clever piece of work, a combination of a fake documentary and a documentary about fakes, and it's up to the audience to decide which it is at any given moment. Which is, of course, part of the fun.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Scorching Sun, Fierce Wind, Wild Fire

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2004 at Cooldige Corner #1 (Midnight Ass-Kickings: Fu Fighting Females)

To be honest, seeing this movie last night was a bad idea. Not so much because it's an awful movie, but I was drained and in no mood to be made happy by the time I'd gotten out to Coolidge Corner for a midnight movie.

See, by the time many people read this, reaching it via the IMDB external review page or seeing it on eFilmCritic, it'll be well past 1 August 2004, and the connection with the Red Sox trading Nomar Garciaparra away for Orlando Bloody Cabrera and Doug "we've already got a good defensive first baseman" Mientkiewicz will not be immediately obvious. But that's the way it is with these one-night-only bookings; sometimes it's a choice between seeing something when your attitude is just all wrong or not seeing it at all. And something that works perfectly fine as an entry in my movie-going journal may not make much sense as a stand-alone review.

My own petty pain aside, Scorching Sun, Fierce Wind, Wild Fire doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The promo materials stated that it takes place during the Republic period of the 1920s, but it certainly plays like something set at least 40 years earlier. There is a passing reference made to the local warload considering a plan to fight the kung fu-using rebels with, well, guns, but little ever comes of it. "Warlord" is someting of a strong term to use, anyway, since it's not as though he appears to do anything terribly oppressive. Still, his daughter (Angela Mao) has taken to leading a group of rebels under the nom de guerre of "Violet", though they seem to act like bandits. There's another rebel group out there, led by a man who has just returned from the southern part of China, although his mother seems more intent on setting him up with her nurse (at least, I hope like heck it's her nurse and not her daughter, as the subtitles sometimes seem to indicate; that would just be weird). There's also a pair of escaped prisoners, and the warlord's much more clearly evil right-hand man, referred to as "Second Master", who is seeking the two halves of a treasure map.

There is an awful lot going on for a ninety minute film, which breaks roughly every twelve minutes or so for a fight scene (in my drained state, I would have preferred an even shorter window for entering dreamland). As a result, the movie winds up being all over the place, never really meshing its intrigue with its action or Saturday-serial elements. The treasure-map plotline, in fact, fails to pay off in an astoundingly flagrant way, with the chinese symbols for "The End" leaping onto the screen just as that storyline seems to reach its midway point, eliciting a rousing cry of "WHAT?" from the audience. This was reassuring for me, as it meant that I had not dozed off duirng something which connected everything.

The fights are good, though. I sometimes think, while watching these older kung-fun movies, that the directors build them up over the course of the movie not just in terms of size, but basic competence. Early on, there's a fair amount of blows that look like they may not be connecting, but by the end the martial arts is fast, painful-looking, and involves multiple people in a way that one really must admire the choreography. There's also a certain amount of absurd fun to be had at various points, like the awkward camera angles and costuming necessary for a character's entire head to be hidden behind a conical hat, or the over-the-top effectiveness of the Second Master's poisoned knives, which leave a smoking, bloody skeleton behind.

And on another night, I'd have appreciated those things more, perhaps even been moderately cheerful that there are movies like this out there. Last night just wasn't the right time for it.