Saturday, October 30, 2004

Army of Darkness

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen (for like the hundredth time) 29 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Midnight Madness)

You know, my brother said as we left a midnight showing of Army of Darkness. This really isn't a good movie when you think about it. Why have we memorized the damn thing?

And, really, he's right. The special effects are hokier than the dialogue, and star Bruce Cambpell chews, swallows, digests, and excretes the scenery. Though the director's cut available on DVD is better put together than the theatrical release, it still comes off as a series of strangely connected skits there. That it somehow comes together as pure fun is really a minor miracle.

Heck, I figure that it being made at all is a miracle. Consider: Sam Raimi had just come off a reasonably successful mainstream movie in Darkman, his first big-studio production, and what did he opt to do next? A third movie in the Evil Dead series - but one which is more slapstick comedy and Ray Harryhausen homage than horror, starring a department store employee trapped seven hundred years in the past. Sure, Evil Dead 2 had a lot of weird slapstick in it, but deep down it was mostly an action/horror movie. Army of Darkness is almost wall-to-wall jokes.

And yet, somehow it works, and works brilliantly. Maybe it's because director Sam Raimi (who co-wrote the movie with his brother Ivan) has been friends with star Bruce Campbell since high school, and thus knows exactly what the guy is capable of - which cheesy lines will be pure gold coming out of his mouth, and which would be cringe-inducing. It would be easy to scoff at how precisely Raimi and company hit all the right comic notes if not for the later follow-ups based on Campbell's Ash character that appeared when this movie became a video/cult hit - while I can't claim to have gotten far enough in the first videogame spinoff to discover whether the story/dialogue remains as wretched as the gameplay, the first couple issues of the "Army of Darkness: Ashes 2 Ashes" comic book has writer Andy Hartnell demonstrate that it ain't nearly as easy as Raimi makes it look when he tries to put new words in Ash's mouth. If New Line ever does get Freddy vs. Jason vs. Ash off the ground, they need Raimi on the screenplay at some point.

Raimi's also very good with the visuals. Army of Darkness, like his other movies, features much more dynamic camerawork than was traditionally expected from a low-budget horror-comedy at the time this was made, and he knows how long to linger on something to make it seem cool. The final battle, when Bad Ash and his army of skeletons and reanimated corpses attacks the castle is a quality Great Big Battle Scene; it's good enough that Peter Jackson seems to have cribbed from it for the Battle of Helm's Deep in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

This isn't to discount the job Bruce Campbell turns in as Ash (and his Evil Twin) - the guy has a gift for physical comedy perhaps only matched by Jim Carrey (I've heard that Campbell was up for the lead role in The Mask at one point) and also always matches the tone of the movie. In a way, Ash is a sort of idiot savant, lacking in social skills or much in the way of brains unless it's a matter of fighting demons - then, he can create himself a robotic hand out of materials found in 1300 AD, build a steam engine for his car, demonstrate perfect aim with his shotgun and be a leader of men. It's up to him to sell Ash as both badass and dumbass within the same scene, and that Ash somehow stands as a character rather than a plot contrivance is no small feat.

The other collaborators deserve notice, too - while few of the actors would go on to really notable careers (Campbell would peak the next year on Fox's The Adventures of Brisco County Junior; leading lady Embeth Davidtz would have a featured part in Schindler's List and then fade away), D.P. Bill Pope would become one of Hollywood's most in-demand cinematographers, perhaps most notably working on the Matrix films. Strangely, composer Joseph LoDuca never really took off afterward - he spent the next decade working on TV shows for Raimi and producer Robert Tapert's production company, then went to France to score Brotherhood of the Wolf, and hasn't done much else of note. Considering how great some of the cues in this movie are (such as the opening), I can't figure out why Raimi didn't hire him for the Spider-Man movies as opposed to Danny Elfman (who contributes a "March of the Dead" to the score).

So, anyway, I love this movie, even though at first glance it seems to have very little going for it.

Team America: World Police

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 October 2004 at Loews Harvard Square #4 (first-run)

It is both oddly gratifying and embarrassing when you're the only person in a theater to laugh at a gag (at least, it is when you're not the only person in the theater). In Team America, that happened when I was getting all the nerd humor flying past the other audience members: Like when a group of evil actors led by Tim Robbins yells out a Klingon battle cry, or a bar in Cairo looks exactly like Mos Eisley cantina. There's something very fun about having jokes just for me.

Of course, Team America wouldn't be much of a movie if it didn't have jokes aimed at a somewhat wider segment of the audience, too. And it does, in part because Trey Parker and Matt Stone's sense of humor very often skews toward the juvenile. While that's not sophisticated, it is fairly universal. You may feel silly laughing at some of the jokes, but that they got you to laugh is enough.

The movie aspires to be half political commentary and half action-movie parody, doing a better job with the latter task. As silly as action movies often are, one would think lampooning them would be easy, but it's really not - a parody has to keep the basic structure of what it sends up, and the action-movie trappings have a tendency to prove effective even when you're trying to joke about them. That's where the decision to use marionettes is actually kind of brilliant - as soon as someone might start to get sucked into Team America as an action movie, there's an obvious string or "panthers" or a ridiculous sex scene that points up the ridiculousness of the whole endeavor. While early on in the movie I thought it might be better if they didn't make the use of marionettes so obvious, I've got to say it serves a purpose.

The political satire may come off as weak because Parker & Stone don't exactly take a hard line. On the one hand, it's hard to miss the swath of destruction and bad feelings Team America leaves in its wake, or the goofy way foreigners are caricatured in a story told from an American point of view. But the filmmakers seem to have much greater contempt for actors who use their celebrity to spout off like they are some sort of expert, and when a character justifies Team America's military adventurism by asking whether having the ability to fight the bad guys but not doing so is wrong, there's no mockery to it. It's somewhat trite to say good satire offends everyone, but there is certainly something in this movie for everyone to feel ticked off about.

As with South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, the songs in Team America are pretty hilarious. Sadly, the funniest ("The Montage Song") won't be eligible for an Oscar nomination, as it's evidently recycled from a South Park episode, but pretty much all of them, from the anthem "America, Fuck Yeah!" to the bizarre song by Kim Jong-Il that runs over the end credits, are hilarious and strangely hummable. The puppet work by the Chiodo Brothers (best known for Killer Klowns From Outer Space) is pretty decent, too; the characters are oddly expressive, even if the way they walk is deliberately awkward.

Team America: World Police is hardly a perfect movie; it crisscrosses the line between "campy, but amusingly so" and "campy, but annoyingly so" roughly four dozen times. It does deliver some fairly big laughs, though, and seeing as that's it's job, good for it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The Grudge

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 October 2004 at Loews Boston Common #2 (first-run)

How annoyingly provincial are we Americans? Last year, Ju-on: The Grudge was one of the standouts at the first Boston Fantastic Film Festival; one of the most genuinely creepy horror movies I'd seen in a while. A year later, it got a brief U.S. release, but it took remaking it in English with American actors to get people in the theaters. The American Grudge is a fine enough movie, though I didn't find it quite so scary as the original.

Of course, any ghost story is going to lose a little something the second time you hear it. It's also an incredibly transparent remake - not only are some of the actors playing the same characters they played in Ju-on: The Grudge, but I wouldn't be surprised if the same locations were used. In essence, screenwriter Stephen Susco basically replaced some Japanese characters with American analogs, keeping the story in Tokyo. It's kind of an odd experience to see the movie set in Japan but starring all these Caucasian folks.

I'm semi-ashamed to say it did make things easier for me. The movie, like it predecessor, does sort of jump around in time without establishing captions, and it's easier to tell the two nurses apart if one is Japanese and one is blonde. Understand, I'm an equal-opportunity idiot where characters of similar appearance are concerned, needing a scorecard to tell the white guys apart on Veronica Mars.

Of course, the trade-off is that by using Hollywood actors, the American audience is more aware of their relative star power or their position in the credits and thus their chance for survival. Sarah Michelle Gellar is the movie's biggest star and has her name before the title, so there's a good chance she'll last a while. Clea DuVall and Bill Pullman are billed with "With" and "And" respectively, which is often a good indication of a "brief but pivotal" role. Of course, for all I know, Ju-on: The Grudge had the exact same issue in Japan.

There's also a Hollywood slickness to the production that threw me a bit. There is, I think, something to be said for keeping horror movies under a certain budget. The high production values communicate a certain amount of control that's antithetical to the lack thereof the audience should feel. Still, I give director Takashi Shimizu props for getting the big effects scene out of the way early. It's an unorthodox approach to give the audience a glimpse of what's hiding in the shadows and then rely on fear of it re-emerging afterward, as opposed to building up to a money shot.

I can't help but wonder how come the story didn't make a little more sense. This is Shimizu's fifth movie in the series, sort of - the lineage is complicated. As close as I can tell, The Grudge (2004) is a remake of Ju-on: The Grudge (2003), which was a sequel to Ju-on (a 2000 direct-to-video movie with a direct-to-video sequel); there's also a theatrical Ju-on: The Grudge 2. The Grudge refers to events from Ju-on (and may actually incorporate footage from the Japanese movies as backstory), although there's no need to see that movie (which is good, as it's not available in the USA). So, with all that practice, you'd think there'd be some rationale as to why the ghosts mutilate one character and leave another catatonic and make another just disappear. Nope. The randomness is arguably part of the horror, though, whether those of us who like rules feel it makes sense or not.

The cast is good at showing shock and fear as necessary. There are hints that Sarah Michelle Gellar's and Clea DuVall's characters are feeling somewhat adrift in Japan, but it never becomes a specific issue; the rest are mostly serviceable, with Bill Pullman seeming underused. Cult movie afficianados will grin at seeing Ted Raimi pop up; his brother Sam produced the film via the Ghost House banner (the only reason Ted isn't film's most enjoyable ongoing example of nepotism is that Clint Howard is even more funny-looking).

I've said it before, but it's surprising how much you can get away with and still get a PG-13 rating if you don't swear. This isn't Saw, but there's still some pretty gruesome shots for a movie that an eight-year-old can see without a parent. That's more an indication of the broken-ness of the ratings system than anything else; I see no reason to turn a teenager away from this movie, but I also see no reason to let anyone under thirteen in.

I've given this movie three stars, but because of how much I enjoyed Ju-on: The Grudge, it's a thoroughly second-guessed three stars. Maybe after I've talked to my brother (who hasn't seen the Japanese version), I'll be able to really make a guess at how good this movie is on its own.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Goodbye Dragon Inn (Bu San)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

There have been a great number of films about the process of making movies, focusing on the studio politics and the fiery personalities of the filmmakers. Relatively few, though, have focused on the places where we see movies - the movie theaters which take on personalities of their own. Certainly, there are fewer of those now, as more people get their movies on video or in newly-built multiplexes.

This film may not resonate as well for people who don't get as attached to theaters as I do; I worked at a now-shut-down theater in college, and I always try to note the theater before the review, because I think that the environment does make a difference. The screening at the Brattle included the theater's directors and a few others who had worked in small theaters. We were able to note all the little things about this type of theater that Goodbye Dragon Inn gets right - the strange architecture that sometimes requires you to climb one set of stairs and then down another to get between two rooms on the same level, the sweltering heat of the projection room, or how painfully understaffed the theater can be when things are heading downhill.

Additionally, this is a Tsai Ming-liang film - actually featuring the same movie theater as his What Time Is It There? - which may make it tough sledding for some. Though short - just a bit over eighty minutes long - it can seem longer, as Tsai tneds to hold certain static shots for what seems like an eternity. Excepting the soundtrack from Dragon Inn on the screen, there are less than ten lines of dialogue in the film, in two exchanges, the first of which doesn't occur until halfway through the movie.

I still recommend the movie. Tsai's static compositions are chosen with purpose, and there's enough on the screen to study, and holding the camera on an ordinary or banal scene for an almost painful period serves to magnify the humor value of something unusual happening. And despite the lack of words, there are some characters you get to know very well.

Take, for instance, the woman played by Chen Shiang-chyi, working the ticket counter and as the usher. She's got a metal brace on her leg, which means those familiar with Tsai will sardonically note that those static scenes of someone walking across a room will take even longer. But it also makes her a human representation of the theater itself - she's damaged, but still beautiful, even if she is taken for granted by the projectionist she clearly pines for (frequent Tsai Ming-liang collaborator Lee Kang-sheng), just as the city of Taipei has ignored the Fa-So Grand Theater.

The theater is on its last night, showing Dragon Inn to a mere double handful of people, many of whom are more interested in cruising than actually watching the movie. It seemed a little odd to me, as this part was outside my experience as both a theatergoer and employee. Other bits will be more universal, like the guy who sits down in the seat right next to you despite there being eight hundred other empty seats in the theater. There's also an older gentleman watching the movie, and as we cut between the theater and Dragon Inn, we see that he is one of the actors from that 1966 movie, and he's mourning his lost youth along with how his movies, which once filled theaters, are now playing to an almost empty and indifferent house.

Goodbye Dragon Inn is sad and melancholy, but also beautiful. It's a love letter to the old movie houses in all their imperfect glory. Not everyone is attached to these old theaters with their accumulated history, or to Tsai Ming-liang's ultra-minimalist mood pieces, but for those of us who are, a movie like Goodbye Dragon Inn is extremely worthwhile.

Shark Tale

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 October 2004 at AMC Fenway #8 (out of four)

I'm trying to remember when voice talent started moving above the title in animated features. Shrek, obviously. Was Osmosis Jones billed as Chris Rock's movie? I don't think so, although I think the Farrellys and the live action cast were billed. Antz probably would have been, if Woody Allen had allowed it. Ice Age was, Titan A.E. wasn't. It's not like the studios kept the talent a secret, but DreamWorks has changed the game by building (and selling) animated features as star vehicles.

Shark Tale is very much a Will Smith vehicle. As a fish named Oscar, the Fresh Prince cracks wise, is initially immature but wises up by the end; he talks in that sort of in-between manner, recognizably rap-influenced, but with the sort of proper diction and lack of cursing that makes him non-threatening to the white folks. Similarly, Robert De Niro does the De Niro role, a shark who's the head of the local mob. Renée Zellweger is the funny girl-next door type, Angelina Jolie is the sexpot, and all the sharks except Jack Black's Lenny (who obviously isn't like the other sharks) are voiced by familiar mob types. It's using their movie star status as character shorthand, a longtime trick for live-action movies but seldom so explicitly used in animation as it is here.

The story is an odd combination of a kid-friendly version of "Jack the Giant Killer" and an adult-oriented mob spoof. After Oscar is sent out to be whacked by local underboss-type Sykes (Martin Scorcese as a pufferfish), a deus ex machina leaves mob heir Frankie dead and Oscar on the scene. So he's hailed as the Sharkslayer, becomes a local hero, but things get hairy when Lenny threatens to expose Oscar's lie.

By the time I'm writing this, the movie's already had three weekends at the top of the box office which, while not an indication of objective quality, does mean that some things I figured might be issues obviously aren't. Shark Tale has as awkward a marriage of kiddie plotting and reference-based jokes as any animated work since Animaniacs, but folks seem to go for it (see also: Shrek). Speaking of Shrek, the use of music is as uninspired as it is in Shrek 2 - Hans Zimmer's score is fine, but the pop songs always seem like the first one somebody thought of for a scene, rather than a particularly perfect/clever one.

The movie looks pretty enough, with lots of bright colors and as many jokes hidden in the corners of the screen as in the Shrek movies. As with those movies, the setting owes more to 20th/21st Century America than the actual undersea environment in which it takes place. By making the coral reef a big city, there's some obvious opportunities for product placement, which is kind of obnoxious. It's hard not to compare it to Finding Nemo, which was able to create a sort of sense of awe and wonder with its undersea world while Shark Tale just gives us variations on something familiar.

(Not that one should give in to the temptation to call Shark Tale a Nemo copycat; aside from the lead time necessary to make an animated movie, smooth-textured things like fish, insects, and toys are just logical subjects for CGI-based movies.)

Shark Tale has quite a few funny moments, and a few which aren't as funny as they perhaps should be. It's an average movie, which makes it good enough for a watch in my book. Don't ask me why this is a huge hit while Sky Captain has underperformed at the box office; sometimes audiences are just funny that way.

Friday, October 22, 2004

A Tale of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

Early on, the scariest thing about A Tale of Two Sisters is the "wicked stepmother". She's much younger than Ju-Mi's and Ju-Yeong's father, smiles a bit too wide and speaks in a voice that's a bit too cheery. She's a bit too forceful in asserting her position as the woman of the house, and there's a mean edge behind her sweet words.

Soon, though, weird things are happening: The girls are seeing ghostly shapes, the father seems oddly unconcerned with what both his wife and daughters are saying, and something seems to be moving objects around. And as things get stranger and stranger, the house gets more tense, until...

A Tale of Two Sisters was described in the festival information as being in the vein of Ringu or Ju-on but with more character drama (thus making it a better movie), but I don't know how accurate an assessment that is. In Ju-on, at least, the supernatural force involved is much more abstract, a raw anger disconnected from any actual person that manifests itself in different ways. Sisters is a much more conventional ghost story whose phantoms are the continuance of tragically dead people.

Its ghosts visually resemble the ones from its Japanese cousins - and can you blame it? The pale, pale face half-hidden behind the black, black hair is a fantastic visual - but to be perfectly honest, the movie that Sisters most reminded me of is American. Not that that movie is really terribly close, once all is said and done, but it's the general feel I got.

The movie is written and directed by Ji-woon Kim, whose first movie, The Quiet Family, was remade as The Happiness of the Katakuris. It's based on a traditional piece of Korean folklore, although the two other versions listed on the IMDB seem to tell very different stories both from what Sisters starts out and ends up as. This version seems to have characters more complex than one expects from a fairy tale. Mr. Kim's script spends more time on getting the nuances of the personalities and mood right than, perhaps, on internal consistency, though I'm willing to admit that I could have missed something. The final resolution is emotionally powerful, but led me to wonder what (besides very effective scares) was going on in the dinner scene.

The cast is very good. Both Su-jeong Lim as 16-year-old Su-Mi and Geun-yeong Mun as 12-year-old Su-Yeong (ages approximate) give the impression of being damaged in different ways, with Su-Mi being outwardly angry as Su-Yeong is in retreat; they're also very believable as sisters. I liked that they aren't just sweet angels set up to be victims. Jung-ah Yun initially seems a bit over-the-top as their stepmother, but toward the end and in flashbacks reveals a different side of the character which made me appreciate her earlier work a lot more. And I particularly liked the trick of the opening scene, set in a mental hospital, where not only is it not immediately clear which sister we're seeing, but the audience can't quite be sure whether the scene is set-up for the action that plays out over the rest of the movie or a flashback book-end.

I'm frustrated as a reviewer here, because I can't sum up my opinion on the movie as a whole without giving away the tack the movie takes. Although I think the script may not be as tight as possible, the atmosphere and emotion is strong enough to merit a recommendation.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Boksuneun naui geot)

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

Just think, I could have seen two more hours of Game Four of the American League Championship Series instead of this. Sure, at the time, as far as I knew, it would have been watching the Yankees sweep my team. But, then, I couldn't have known that seeing Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance might possibly be an even more excruciating experience.

Not all movies have to be uplifting or positive, but one has to wonder about the motivation for making a movie as relentlessly grim as Sympathy. Life sucks, it says, and this misery spreads to other people with no respite in sight, no ultimate point to it, and no way of overcoming it. Oh, and by the way, you've just paid actual money to have someone tell you that.

Sympathy starts by introducing us to Ryu, a deaf-mute struggling to find a way to get his sister the kidney transplant she needs. When an attempt to buy one on the black market leaves him robbed and short a kidney (and a job) himself, he and his activist girlfriend hit upon the idea of kidnapping a child for ransom. This goes about as well as one might expect, setting the movie on a course of ever-greater disasters.

I suppose that, given its goals, this movie is brutally effective. The initial tragedies are terrible and shocking and sad, while the later acts of revenge are gruesome and ultimately hollow. Director Chan-wook Park has a knack, especially in the first half of the movie, for allowing horror to happen quietly and matter-of-factly, and using intertitles rather than voice-over to give us Ryu's narration is a fine reminder of how different his deafness makes him.

The ninety-degree turn this movie makes midway through, though, just kills it. We get a second main character who arguably supplants Ryu for the rest of the film's run-time, and while I'm all for violence being ugly and off-putting, there's nothing more to the movie after that; it's just wallowing. The remainder becomes too turgid to be enjoyable exploitation, but too one-note to be good drama. It counts on the emotional attachments the audience forms with the characters in the first half, but doesn't do anything to further them. Indeed, Ryu's "narration" stops, putting the audience at a remove.

A film can still be compelling even if it is, ultimately, bleak and pessimistic. unfortunately, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance loses its hook into the audience soon after it loses all hope.

Freeze Frame

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

Who knew Lee Evans had this in him?

Evans has always been, to me, much more a comedian than an actor. Certainly, he has made enough movies where he's not playing Lee Evans as such, and I'm not sure just how much of his performance stuff has even made it to this side of the Atlantic, but still, he's kind of like Robin Williams, Jim Carrey or Denis Leary in that until he gets that good dramatic role, the audience just sees him as a comedian doing a bit. Thankfully, he gets that role in Freeze Frame.

In it, Evans plays Sean Veil, who ten years ago was accused of a grisly triple murder but whose case never when to trial due to lack of evidence. That didn't stop investigating detective Emeric (Sean McGinley) and profiler Saul Seger (Ian McNiece) from announcing that monsters like Veil generally don't stop at one crime and they'd be watching out for him. So, to prevent being arrested and railroaded for a crime he didn't commit, Veil has spent the past ten years obsessively videotaping himself so that he can provide an alibi for any time the police might request. This does not, however, stop the dying Emeric from knocking down his for a crime that took place a mere five years ago.

Evans (probably best known in the US as Nathan Lane's brother in Mouse Hunt) has always been a funny-looking guy, and here that's more funny-strange than funny-amusing: The shaved head doesn't work on short guys with big ears, but the idea is to stick out and be memorable. It does, however, make him look kind of creepy, enough to make one wonder if he doth protest too loudly, or whether a few years of paranoid monomania has at last made him capable of such a crime. The other actors are just as well-suited to their roles, with McNiece embodying a sort of bloated arrogance, McGinley carrying around his own angry obsession, and Rachael Stirling as a reporter for a true-crime TV show who may be Veil's only ally.

Writer/director John Simpson's script is tight, a meticulously constructed mystery that belongs in the same class as Memento. The movie was fittingly-enough shot on digital video, with varying amounts of grain signifying different vantage points. The color has been leeched out of the picture, for the most part, leading to a little bit of a noirish atmosphere and making the points where it is present eye-catching. It's occasionally a bit overdone - there doesn't seem to be a point to the Timecode-style split-screens Simpson occasionally uses - but the style is a net positive, or at least neutral.

There is a certain irony in Veil's character, that in his attempt to avoid jail, he has built himself a prison that despite not having walls is no less real. The design of his home reflects this, looking like an underground bunker with pervasive surveillance cameras, a large video control center in the middle, and a huge vault full of videotapes that can be sectioned off with drop-down bars. It's not exactly subtle - not much in this movie really is - but it gets the point across.

Freeze Frame is primarily a mystery, and it's a good one, with the dynamics between the characters bringing it up to the next level. I sincerely hope that this gets a full US release.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

A convenient rule of thumb for grading action movies is that when an actor is willing to light his clothing on fire in order to create an exciting scene, it's a good sign. It shows a certain amount of dedication that you don't see in a lot of American movies, where action stars are seldom even willing to light their stuntmen on fire, which generally carries through to the other action scenes.

There's a plot to this movie, but it's kind of silly and unimportant: A Bangkok drug dealer has stolen the head of "Ong-bak", a small Thai village's Buddha statue that is involved in a ceremony that only takes place every 24 years and there's bad luck if it's missed. Fortunately, the world's stupidest drug dealer actually left his name and contact information with one of the villagers, so Ting, a local man studying to be a monk (and who is also skilled at Muay Thai boxing), volunteers to go to the city to find it. Aside from his cousin Hum Lae (calling himself "George") and Hum Lae's girlfriend, Bangkok also contains an assortment of tough guys standing between Ting and his statue. Ting must - reluctantly! - kick their butts.

And, oh, how he does. He kicks their butts in a club frequented by local crime lords that features no-rules boxing, on the street, in a cave, wherever local goons can be found. Tony Jaa, who plays Ting, is amazingly athletic and ridiculously skilled, and as with many of the other great martial arts stars, his action scenes are shot medium distance and without much cutting so that you can see, yeah, he did in fact just do that. A lot of blows are followed up with instant replay from another angle as if to assure you that, nope, there's no trick photography going on. Jaa doesn't get a lot of dialogue or character development to showcase any acting chops - that's left to the supporting/comic relief characters. He is handsome and doesn't seem to be reading off cue cards, though, so there's not much reason to bet against him becoming a movie star, at least in martial arts circles.

There are several good action scenes, although my favorite is when a gang of thugs Hum Lae has annoyed chases Ting and his cousing through the street. This being a martial-arts movie, the street is crowded to overflowing with street merchants, open-air eateries, cars, animals, deliveries being made (including a large loop of barbed wire, highly breakable glass, a basketful of sharp objects, and the like). Jaa leaps over cars, onto tables, through the loop of barbed wire. He runs on top of people's heads, and then when surrounded drops three or four goons before starting back up. Hum Lae can't come close to keeping up, but he appears to get the upper hand on his pursuers for a moment... Until the knife saleswoman shows up. The whole thing is a fast-paced, funny sequence that just works as pure entertainment.

Another thing writer/director Prachya Pinkaew pulls off well is escalating the stakes. Yes, a lot of the earlier fight scenes are funny, Jackie Chan-style romps (including a fun sequence involving an armada of extremely unstable three-wheeled taxis), but by the end, bones are being broken as the fights continue in deadly earnest. Nice job of doing it without there seeming to be much of a discontinuity.

Ong-Bak is action, pure and simple. Come and be amazed at what this guy can do.


* (out of four)
Seen 17 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival; projected video?)

One hopes the Sci-Fi channel doesn't give much consideration to how Darklight fared on Sunday when weighing their future sponsorship of the Boston Fantastic Film Festival, because (A) there were, by my count, three of us there and (B) we didn't much like it. Well, okay, I can't speak for the other two, but the lack of any sort of visible reaction other than getting up for a bathroom break certainly suggests a lack of affection.

Now, I suppose I could write this review by going to the IMDB's entry for this movie and simply running down the list of everyone involved, saying how each and every one of them did poor work. But what good end does that serve? Writer/director Bill Platt is unlikely to come upon this review and think "God, I suck. I honestly thought I was producing a quality movie but now I see that I'm a complete hack!" And that wouldn't even necessarily be true; it's his first feature-length movie - the title of "hack" requires a certain consistency of output.

I would, instead, like to remind my brother Matthew, currently studying theater at Northeastern University, that if he, in five or ten years, has the opportunity to take a role on a sci-fi series, he should turn it down. Even if it's a case where some studio has offered me a chance to produce my interplanetary freighter series and a little nepotism would put food on the table, remember - nobody remembers the acting from those shows, so you'll just wind up with what is effectively a hole in your resumé, and you'll wind up either on the convention circuit or taking roles in low-budget half-baked Sci-Fi Channel/direct-to-video crap, and that will just prolong the situation, won't it?

I mean, look at the cast for Darklight - Shiri Appleby (Roswell), Richard Burgi (The Sentinel), and John de Lancie (Star Trek, Legend) all are familiar faces to sci-fi fans, yet here they are, in Bulgaria, reciting dialog like "what do you know about biblical curses?", showing no indication of the charisma that at one point made someone at a major communications company say "yes, people will want to tune in to see this person every week." They just seem resigned to B-movies, and it's sad. I get it - I've had situations where I'm not particularly fond of my choices for my next job or roommate, but the rent needs paying. But to just put it on national television - "I had no better options than Darklight during the summer of 2003" - has to be humiliating.

At some point, someone should have said "hey, I kind of like the whole 'ancient evil is captured and turned into a force for good' plotline, but shouldn't there be a scene in here about just exactly how this 'The Faith' group was able to brainwash Lilith?" Or "you're sort of implying end-of-the-world stuff here, but I'm not getting any sense of scale". Or even "does this whole longevity research thing make any sense whatsoever?"

Some might say that my disgust at this movie is a waste of energy. It's just a TV-movie, after all. But then again, so was Duel, and that movie's director managed to get himself noticed based in part on his work there; Tommy Lee Jones opened eyes with The Executioner's Song. There's never any excuse for doing less than your best.

Appleseed (Appurushîdo)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival/Sunday Eye-Opener)

The story of Appleseed involves the difficulty of two breeds of humanity existing side-by-side: Homo sapiens, and its genetically-engineered potential successors, the Bioroids. In many ways, there's a parallel with the production of the movie itself, with traditional animation and its computer-rendered counterpart in the roles of the two strains of humanity. Naturally, I won't spoil the outcome of the story, other than to say that plenty of stuff blows up along the way, but I will say it's well worth watching the movie to find out.

In the movie, Deunan is known as the "Goddess of War" - skilled with street fighting and tactics, smart and gutsy (and hot to boot). In an opening scene whose fight choreography would put a lot of live-action movies to shame, her team is ambushed, but she's rescued by the utopian community of Olympus's ESWAT team, where she's informed that the war she'd been fighting is over and nobody bothered to tell the grunts. Half the population of Olympus are Bioroids, genetically engineered people with a difference - they're designed to protect humanity, unable to reproduce themselves, and have less volatile emotional responses. Of course, despite there being no reason not to like them, there are still terrorists who see the Bioroids as monsters (choose whichever metaphor you like). Deunan's barely arrived in Olympus before she's thrown into the middle of this mess.

As with most sci-fi movies worth the name, there's a fair amount of exposition to be delivered early on and just before plot-twisting. To Appleseed's credit, it delivers it with minimal pretentious philosophizing while throwing a fair amount of eye candy on-screen at the same time, jumping to a more active sequence soon after. Yeah, you've got to wonder whether Deunan's bioroid guide Hitomi would naturally go into lecture mode at that point, but there's pretty cartoon girls and an intricate CGI city to distract you.

The visual style falls into the same "CGI backgrounds and machines/hand-drawn characters" as Ghost In The Shell 2, but is more successfully integrated here. Early on, I wondered if this was simply an all-CGI movie with characters rendered to look like traditional animation (the motion of the characters recalls Kaena or Final Fantasy more than Akira), but it turns out that the animators were simply using extensive live-action reference, if not actually rotoscoping. Combine it with excellent coloring, and the result is one of the best examples of traditionally-animated characters looking at home in a 3-D world yet.

For those where "pretty" isn't enough to get you into an animated feature, it's not all the movie brings. The science fiction is good, while the characters are somewhat thin but enjoyable - likable protagonists, hissable villains. Still, the relationship between Deunan and Briareos (a former lover who is now little more than a brain in a very mechanical-looking body) adds some interest, and the film's ultimate villains have a more interesting motivation than simple bigotry. And there's plenty of action.

As much as this is a relatively smart bit of science-fiction, especially when compared to many of its live-action American counterparts, it is also very much a fun, blockbuster action movie. So a lot of the protagonists are impossibly good-looking women who, as the movie progresses, blow bigger and more destructive things up. Deunan's fighting soldiers hand-to-hand as the movie starts, and is looking to stop gigantic, city-stomping Mobile Fortresses by the end, with cyborgs, car chases, and people in power armor in between. It's quality stuff, too, as the filmmakers follow all the rules for good action that live-action filmmakers routinely ignore, keeping a shot long enough that we can see what's going on, showing scale, showing geography... just basically getting the heck out of the way.

Apparently, Appleseed's American distributor is looking for a "big" theatrical release in early 2005, which would be great - it's a great big action movie and deserves to be treated as one, even if that means a dubbed release so that it will get into multiplexes as opposed to boutique places.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

The Bottled Fool (Gusha no bindume)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival; projected video)

There's a line of thought that says expensive special effects and production values are bad for movies, because they make directors lazy or distract from what's really important. I don't think that's true, although it's on the right track. A better explanation might be that a good filmmaker, like Hiroki Yamaguchi, can make a good movie with scant resources, while the Stephen Sommerses of the world probably can't.

The Bottled Fool is just such a movie. It looks like it cost about $1.95 to produce. Okay, maybe a little more, but it's a clear throwback to making movies with available materials. From what we were told in the BFFF program, Yamaguchi made this movie on digital video with a crew of volunteers, a cast of unknowns, and sets constructed out of scrap metal. The guy's got skills, though, and he manages to squeeze a good movie out of that.

Luchino (Luchino Fujisaki) is returning to school after some time away. She lives on Level 138 of some futuristic megalopolis, and her school is way up on level 4, with each level being considered a town. Before reaching the elevator, though, a quick cigarette causes a major disaster, and though that's an accident, what happens on the elevator is something else. Luchino is telepathic, in a way, and what she sees in the minds of some of her fellow passengers (especially the transported prisoners who board at level 99) is disturbing.

It's not until the elevator malfunctions, and the prisoners are able to get loose, that things get really out of hand.

The design of the movie is nifty - it's a post-apocalyptic type of design, with anachronistic technology being held together with bailing wire and tape, but it does make for some striking imagery. The movie suggests its science-fictional world, doing a lot of telling-versus-showing, but manages to work telepathy, pervasive surveillance, a stratified world, and bio-engineering in. It certainly feels a lot more fleshed-out than sometihng like Fortress or Screamers (or, dare I say it, The Matrix) that seems to stop at the end of the main characters' perceptions.

It's also a pretty darn good horror/action deal - you're gonna get some blood with this. And since it's primarily set in an elevator, there's no walking away from the bloodstains and dead bodies; the evidence of violence is pervasive, so that even after the ranks of the villains have been thinned, the cast of characters is still on edge, still perfectly capable of freaking out and lashing out against each other. The suspense is there, built on what Luchino has been through before, and the action is well choreographed and shot. Say what you want about the pervasiveness of bullet-time homage/parodies/rip-offs in the past five years, but the one Yamaguchi pulls off is impressive not just because it looks good despite the film's low budget, but because it does a great job in elongating a suspenseful moment.

Hiroki Yamaguchi is apparently considered some kind of wunderkind, having directed featurettes at the age of 19. He's 26 now, and if The Bottled Fool is any indication, he's got a bright future ahead of him.


* * (out of four)
Seen 15 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival; projected video)

I want to love Ryuhei Kitamura. The guy makes movies with great enthusiasm, and when it comes time to bring the violence, he seldom disappoints, delivering fast-paced, energetic action scenes. It's worth remembering, though, that he's only been doing features for about five years, and he's still learning his craft. Alive is his second feature after Versus, and doesn't yet show the skill of Azumi.

Specifically, he hasn't yet mastered pacing. The action in this movie is heavily back-loaded, with the first forty-five minutes or so of this 120-minute movie given over to establishing the setting and situation. We've got two strong-willed death row types locked in a room for some sort of experiment. One (Tak Sakaguchi) is a career criminal who murdered then raped at least nine women, while the other (Hideo Sakai) had hunted down the six men who assaulted his girlfriend and brutally murdered them - and apparently killed her, too. When they aren't at each other's throats quite fast enough for the people running the experiment (or the audience), a new element is introduced - Yurika Saegusa, a beautiful woman behind glass (Ryo). But she's got a secret, one which could prove even more explosive and deadly than anything the killers expect.

But it all takes so darn long. Sure, the action scenes are exciting and kinetic, but between them, there's a lot of exposition, which uses a lot of words to explain some fairly simple backstory but is also structured with a lot of "aha! but you guys didn't know this when you were making your plans..." The movie also retains a lot of structure from its manga roots: Though in the US, Japanese comics are generally published in 200-page digests (and American comics are 22-pagers that the audience collects), in Japan they are generally 16-page segments in big weekly anthologies that are discarded within a week or two, so events in one chapter often don't refer back much further than the previous chapter. When adapted to a movie, the result is a story that can turn on a dime but is also very linear. Nothing in this movie really felt cumulative, like it was building up from the very first frame.

Visually, Alive has issues, too, but I'm not sure how much is presentation. When screened at the BFFF, the source was very clearly a DVD, and projected video just looks different from film. It didn't help that the room where most of the action takes place is all the same shade of gray, so that even though there seems to be some elaborate production design going on, it's tough to make out. The whole thing seems vaguely under-lit, as well.

But, dang, there's some good action. When a whole bunch of guards come in to take down a now-superpowered character, it's a site to behold. And Kitamura does some neat things with composition, drawing attention to foreground objects in a way that is sort of unnerving. His eye would serve him well in later films, and I see from the IMDB that he's working more from others' screenplays now.

Maybe that's just what he needs; some writer/directors just have trouble cutting anything they wrote or just aren't as strong in the scripting area. Most of Alive's problems are story-related, as opposed to visual.

Infernal Affairs (Wu jian dao)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 15 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

I'll admit it - the first time I heard the name "Infernal Affairs", I thought it was going to be a movie about demons possessing cops or something like that. I did know better by the time it played at the Boston Fantastic Film Festival - it's a crime movie, and one of the best you'll have a chance to see.

The concept is deliciously simple - in 1992, an up-and-coming crime boss has several of the younger members of his gang with clean records enroll in the police academy. At the same time, one of the more promising students at the academy is apparently tossed out, but is in fact being sent undercover with the triads; only two people know about this mission. Flash-forward ten years, and now Lau (Andy Lau) is a rising star in the Hong Kong vice squad, and Yan (Tony Leung) is burning out as a triad soldier, still undercover even though the original mission was to be for three years. As luck would have it, Lau is working under SP Wong (Anthony Wong), the man who sent Yan undercover, while Yan is the right-hand man of Sam (Eric Tsang), the gangster who sent Lau to the police academy.

Things come to a head when, during a meeting with Sam's Thai suppliers that Wong has targeted for a bust, both sides are able to anticipate the others' moves too quickly. Both Sam and Wong realize they've got a mole in their teams, and they know that the other guy knows. So it's a race, and both moles will be pressed into service to help find the identity of their opposite number.

Infernal Affairs isn't John Woo flashy, it's not filled with a whole lot of crazy gun or martial arts battles, and though it gets you inside the characters' heads, it never loses sight of its purpose: To create a desperate need to know what's going to happen next. The screenplay is a suspense machine as four very capable opponents square off, with every new discovery bringing a plot twist that sends it off in a new direction. It's like watching a game of chess where both sides can move at the same time.

This is a sure-handed movie, with good performances turned in by all the principal actors, along with likable supporting turns by Kelly Chen as a psychiatrist Yan becomes smitten with and Sammi Cheng as Lau's girlfriend, a novelist writing a story about a man with multiple personalities. The script by Felix Chong and Siu Fai Mak is pretty tight (though you might wonder why a man in a compromised unit would be promoted to Internal Affairs), and the direction by Siu and Wai Keung Lau is up to the same standard. The movie zips forward relentlessly, barely even slowing down for that Hong Kong movie tradition, the flashback-laden music video.

Infernal Affairs is, quite simply, a fantastic crime drama, one of the best in years. Miramax is allegedly giving it a theatrical release, as they try to figure out how to get revenue from the original without inviting too many comparisons when they release a Martin Scorcese/Matt Damon/Leonardo DiCaprio remake in a couple years. If you get the chance to see it, pounce.

Friday, October 15, 2004


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

Saw is what you might call a quality thriller. It backs up its creepy visuals and free-flowing blood with a story straight from the darker parts of the human heart, features a solid cast that mixes its unknowns and second-tier movie stars with skill, and a first-time director who appears to know a thing or two about the building and release of tension.

I'm not a big fan of the cat-and-mouse serial killer, as a rule. I don't think most people are predictable enough, especially in terms of how they'll react to a life-or-death situation, for a puppet-master's elaborate plans to work. Saw mostly avoids that by setting up the Jigsaw Killer's constructs as tests; you get the opportunity to live by killing another.

This time, it's Laurence (Cary Elwes) and Adam (co-writer Leigh Whannell) facing a concundrum. Chained to fixtures at the opposite ends of a filthy restroom, they will have to somehow work together to escape, but if Laurence doesn't kill Adam, his wife and daughter will be killed. Laurence knows it's for real, because he was a suspect in a previous murder, where he met Detectives Tagg (Danny Glover) and Sing (Ken Leung), the men investigating the case.

Whannell and co-writer/director James Wan mostly play fair with the audience, even if they don't give us a whole lot of suspects for Jigsaw's identity. Even information seems to be deliberately held back to keep people in the dark, it tends to be believable. The explanation of the killer's motives seems plausible while still being thoroughly insane and disturbing. They also manage the trick of showing the carfeully planned murders in a way that "that's really sick" overwhelms "that's really clever".

The pacing is also very strong. Not just in terms of "I didn't look at the clock once", but when the time comes for an action scene, the audience is primed, ready to see something erupt. Then, when the action scenes come, they'll have a bit of violence that is shocking and gruesome enough to keep the scene from being a total tension relief. The closest thing I'd have to a complaint is that there is a rapid-cut "here's how it all fits together" montage at one point. It's not as patronizing as some (I'm pretty sure M. Night Shyamalan's next movie will have charts and use of a telestrator during this sequence), but I'm not sure how much of it the audience needs.

The blood-and-guts factor is reasonably high in this movie, though it gives the impression of being nastier than it actually is via disturbing design work. The R rating is well-earned, and I'm not sure how much the gore removed from the original NC-17 cut would have added. It's a near-certainty that this cut will eventually arrive on DVD, so I suppose those who like gore qua gore may want to wait for that. This cut certainly doesn't feel like it's got anything important left out, although I think I can identify some of the points where cuts were made.

The cast is strong; I was especially impressed by Danny Glover, who gives good "obsessed detective" here. Whannell is a little raw, but serviceable. Monica Potter does fine as Laurence's wife. Cary Elwes is a little more of a mixed bag; his character is supposed to be somewhat overly calm and unexcitable, and he does that well, but when the time comes for him to show some emotion, he occasionally can see campiness from where he's standing. He never actually crosses the line, but his is the least steady performance of a very professional film.

Despite me not being into the genre and the gore and having a "hey, wait a minute" moment near the end, I found Saw to be a pretty damn superior thriller. I can only imagine how it is to people who generally DO find this to be their cup of tea.

Five Children and It

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

Five Children and It is a small movie, about eighty-five kid-friendly minutes enlivened by an eccentric Kenneth Branagh and some nifty work from the Henson workshop. It's not as grandiose as the Harry Potter movies, for instance, but has its charms.

The five children of the title are Cyril, Robert, Anthea, Jane, and Lamb, who are packed off during the summer of 1917 to stay with their uncle in the country as London is evacuated and their parents go to France to serve as a pilot and a nurse. The uncle, of course, has a perfectly horrid son of his own (Horace) and a sprawling house governed by arbitrary rules, inclding never going into the greenhouse. Middle child Robert, of course, breaks this rule immediately, discovering a secret passageway to a beach where it's not raining and a sand fairy can be found. This sprite can grant wishes, but they only last the day and, of course, have a tendency to go wrong.

It's a mark of how good effects techniques have gotten that the only way to guess when "It" is a puppet and when it is CGI is by what It is doing. Running down the beach - probably CGI. Sitting in its shell talking to the kids - probably the work of Henson's Creature Shop (the movie is produced by Jim Henson Productions). The purple creature resembles vaguely Rygel from Farscape and is voiced by comedian Eddie Izzard, not normally a guy associated with family entertainment but who seems to be having a great time here.

The other adults of note are Zoe Wannamaker as Uncle Albert's assistant, who clearly knows about It (though she never says so) and helps the siblings cover when things go awry, and Kenneth Branagh as Albert himself. Branagh is actually a great fit for children's movies (he was the best part of Harry Potter 2); they let him indulge his tendency to play to the balconies a bit but also places boundaries on it. Here, he's cast in the role of "caring but distracted adult caretaker", the one who is present but busy enough to allow the kids a great deal of autonomy. He's a math professor, at work on a textbook called "Difficult Sums for Small Children", and his scatterbrained comments are almost always good for a laugh.

The child actors are, generally, pretty good. With six kids and less than ninety minutes, most are sketched in broad strokes - Lamb is a toddler, Jane plays the violin badly, Althea devours pulp novels, Cyril is the responsible eldest child (at 13), and Horace is a weird kid with his own basement laboratory. Robert, the film's narrator, is the lead, a rather selfish troublemaker who idolizes his pilot father and chafes at the idea of Cyril being in charge.

I gather that a great deal of E. Nesbit's novel was cut; comments behind me indicated that the children had many more adventures in the book, with the only one making it to the screen relatively intact was the "flying" story. This would explain why the passage of time feels off; counting the wishes would indicate the story taking place over just a few days, but the events would seem to dictate a longer period. The effects work is fine enough, with It looking good when he has to be mobile and a decent-looking monster in the last act. My only complaint would be the sequence where the children have wings; though rendered well, they don't really look like they would support the childrens' weight.

Not that such things will cause much concern to the movie's pre-teen audience; they'll see a movie with at least one character they can identify with, a funny animatronic character, and adult characters who are either funny or sources of unconditional love. And, really, what more should a kid want from a movie? The adults in the audience will likely be amused enough to enjoy watching it with their kids, even if it's not as truly all-ages a movie as something like Babe or Toy Story.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

I ♥ Huckabees

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 October 2004 at Loews Boston Common #1 (first-run)

You won't find Douglas Adams's name anywhere in the credits for I ♥ Huckabees, and I can't even make a convincing argument that Adams was any sort of influence on writer/director David O. Russell. Still, it doesn't seem to be a particularly difficult jump to get from Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency to the Existential Detectives played by Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman.

It's more than just one turn of phrase, though - indeed, where Dirk Gently is basically a private detective who takes an eliptical route in his investigations, Vivian and Bernard Jaffe are more like extraordinarily proactive psychiatrists. What strikes me as similar is how both I ♥ Huckabees and Adams's works encourage the audience to think about the metaphysics of Life, the Universe, and Everything by presenting those ideas under a layer of absurd whimsey. Of course, where Adams tended to bury his profundity like raisins inside a big pudding of silliness, Russell's comedy is like a bright, but thin, layer of paint over a philosophical core.

This, of course, makes Jason Schwartzman the perfect lead for this movie. Since Rushmore, he has made a career out of playing young intellectuals without the life experience to make any real use of the theory that they have internalized and passionately believe in. For Schwartzman's Albert Markovski, that would be environmentalism, poetry, and a belief that there are no coincidences. When he encounters the same African boy three times in rapid succession, and then finds the Jaffes' business card in the pocket of a borrowed jacket, he's sure that there's some sort of meaning.

The quest for that meaning will bring him into contact with some strange characters. He already knows Brad (Jude Law), a slick executive at the Huckabees corporation who is usurping Albert's environemtnal coalition, and Dawn (Naomi Watts), Brad's beautiful model girlfriend. The Jaffes themselves are rather odd, and they introduce him to his "other", petroleum-obsessed fireman Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg). Meanwhile, a former student of the Jaffes who rejected their belief in the interconnectedness of all things in favor of a belief in a meaningless, cruel universe (Isabelle Huppert) is trying to seduce Albert and Tommy to her way of thinking.

If the very idea of two groups of philosophers trying to prove the veracity of their theories by applying them to speciic individuals - or just philosophers "in the field" - doesn't strike you as humorously absurd, this movie probably isn't for you. I ♥ Huckabees makes great sport of being too extreme or literal as regards one's intellectual beliefs, but it never crosses the line to being anti-intellectual, or flatly saying that these people just need to use some common sense. Of course, that may be implied when Tommy chooses to go to a fire on his bicycle instead of the truck because the fire truck runs on gasoline and his anti-petroleum stance means riding it would be hypocrisy.

It's not afraid to be smart and throw its intellectual weight around, and I don't know how off-putting that may be to the audience. There's a scene where Hoffman is arguing that the Universe is half full rather than half empty because even though aotms and subatomic particles have cracks between them, there are smaller particles transmitting force and information across those gaps, and I found it clever. Some around me seemed to find it pretentious. There's a fine line between the two and everyone sees that line in a different place.

And if you find the movie's almost-lecturing pretentious, the multitude of funny jokes probably won't make up for it, nor will the semi-buried treasures of Naomi Watts's and Mark Wahlberg's performances (soon, I'm going to have to stop being surprised when Wahlberg is good in a movie). If you don't, though, you'll probably enjoy a movie that is frequently silly but almost never stupid.

Sunday, October 10, 2004


* * (out of four)
Seen 10 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

I used to joke about how you could predict the documentary Oscars fairly easily because the movie about the Holocaust was a shoo-in. That's not so much the case now, but there is still a tendency to grade documentaries as much on the subject matter as on the actual quality of the film, which is why a film like Tarnation gets much more attention than something like, say, Word Wars. The latter is a much more well-constructed movie, but a look at a family's mental disorders brought upon in part by attempts to treat them is more important than wacky people playing Scrabble.

One of the biggest issues Tarnation has is that its subject (and writer/director/producer/editor), Jonathan Caouette, is an actor by trade and the very first images we see of him, from home movies when he was about nine years old, is of him performing. I don't doubt the veracity of what he's saying, but I can't help but be aware of how much artifice he puts into the telling of his and his mother's story.

Caouette's movie is culled from various sources - family pictures, home movies, recorded messages, video diaries, "underground" films he made as a teenager. He then edited it with iMovie, and he went nuts with that. The effect is strikingly egocentric, in many ways more like an edited blog than an actual movie.

Not that I can completely mock that without hypocrisy - before this blog became "Jay's Movie Blog", it was about my daily life, although that soon fell by the wayside because my life is relatively boring and I never got the knack of thinking of myself as a character - or refering to myself in the third person, which Caouette does in peculiar fashion. We've sat through the opening credits and seen his name four times, and yet all the captions (save, I think, one, which may have been subtitling) refer to "Jonathan".

The quick cutting, captioning, and certain repeated effects tricks serve to help tell the story when there's not necessarily a lot of footage to do so, but the aggressive style of the editing occasionally makes it feel like a ninety-minute short film. The film also seems very staged in the begining and end, which take place in 2002 or 2003. I imagine Caouette had been accumulating this footage for twenty years, but the idea of making it into a movie is of more recent vintage... but early enough that he was more self-conscious about where he put the camera and what he captured. There's a creepy scene toward the end, for instance, where Jonathan's mother Renee Leblanc is dancing around her apartment, acting manic and kind of nuts (she'd been brain-damaged by a lithium overdose), that goes on long enough for me to start wondering what kind of son sees his mother acting like this and makes sure he gets it on tape, rather than putting the camera down and dealing with her.

It looks like Caouette mostly turned out all right, despite what looks like a severe lack of quality parenting he got from his parents and (especially) grandparents. It makes Tarnation an odd little relic, though - it remains almost silent on the morality of what his mother was put through (two years of electroshock as a child and 100 stays in mental hospitals over the years) and winds up being a chronicle of Cauoette's life. There's nothing wrong with that, but the audience may have some expectation of more than just self-examination. Any relevence to the world at large, though, is up to the audience to find.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements)

Rick O'Lette (Bill PUllman) is a bastard, and not a lovable one, when the movie that bears his name starts. And that's fine. This movie's gleeful amorality is perhaps its best feature, and when the more savory elements of Rick's personality come to the fore, the movie loses a bit of its zing.

But not all. This is, after all, an adaptation of an opera (Rigoletto, if the name isn't a complete giveaway) written by Daniel Handler, also known as Lemony Snicket, and as such features broad storytelling and dark, absurdist humor. There are moments of delightful surrealism, such as when Buck (Dylan Baker), who says he's an old acquaintance of Rick's, introduces himself in a surveillance-themed bar and says he has his own business - and then produces a card that says "DUKE - My Own Business". I'd also love to know exactly what the parallel in the opera is for a couple of Rick's daughter Eve (Agnes Brucker) giggling while engaging in "adult chat" with Duke (Aaron Stanford).

Alas, all too soon, we see Rick's human side, as he's shaken by the tongue-lashing (and curse) he receives from Michelle (Sandra Oh), a woman he had berated in an interview in the morning and encountered by chance at night (costing her her job); he also gets sentimental with his daughter about the loss of her mother. It's not that Pullman is bad here - although he does seem out of place in a white-collar role, as usual. The movie just seems to contract a little, not going as completely over-the-top as it had before.

The cast is rather good. This sort of role isn't Pullman's forte, but he handles the back-and-forth well, and when he has to appeared cowed by his much younger boss, he gives off a great sense of embarassment by it. As that boss, Stanford is appropriately weasel-like and pathetic. Dylan Baker, of course, gets the most entertaining bits. It must fun to play the morality-free character.

The story is generally good, and the back-and-forth dialogue is fun, although it occasionally shows its origins. Not having seen Rigoletto, I can't say this for sure, but I'm willing to bet that the company Christmas party at the end was originally some sort of masquerade ball, since the denoument apparently involves someone confusing two characters who can't possibly be mistaken for each other. Considering the research Buck claims to have done on Rick beforehand... well, how hard would a photograph been to procure? A simple picture! Even in this often-surreal movie, Handler and director Curtiss Clayton should have stood back and said, no, people won't buy that. I'm not quite sure what I think

That is, though, a somewhat minor complaint - the movie brings the funny for its first half and the basic story is strong enough to carry the second, even if the details aren't quite as juicy.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 October 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

Mamoru Oshii has ideas. They're not his ideas alone, and he's probably a bit behind the Vernor Vinges and Charles Strosses of the world, but Oshii's ideas are grander and more interesting than most of what passes for science fiction in film today. He also has a real talent for bringing the pretty; there are several segments of Innocence that are gorgeous enough to make one wonder why he would ever have been interested in the limitations of live action. What Oshii doesn't have in abundance is the ability to put these ideas and visuals together so that they are not only interesting, but entertaining.

Take the dialogue. I will forgive a movie like Innocence, which takes place in a future world where technology has transformed many aspects of everyday life, if it is rife with exposition. When that happens, the story is at least supplying you with ideas. Here, though, the audience gets most of the background of the world explained to them with a few screenfuls of text in the opening (which should suffice even if this is one's first exposure to the franchise). What's frustrating about the dialogue is how much of it seems to be quotations, and how many of those quotations are oblique and metaphorical. Aside from how constantly putting someone else's words into the characters' mouths deprives them of having their own voices, I have to wonder whether the passages are common in Japan. After all, I'm reading subtitles so I can see the quotation marks; would a native Japanese speaker just think they were talking nonsense? Not that the "original" dialogue is much better; it varies between the utilitarian and the cliché.

The story isn't quite as ambitious as the world it's set in - there's been a recent spate of "dolls" (robots with the appearance of humans) killing their owners, in direct contravention of safeguards modeled on Asimov's Three Laws; investigators Batou and Togusa are assigned to the case. The "ghost" or soul of Batou's old partner had disappeared into the net after her body parts were all replaced with synthetics and her mind was augmented with an "E-brain" (which is common); Batou is more cyborg than man now, and the elite force has assigned family man Togusa as a partner in part to monitor him. The investigation involves shooting at some yakuza and the heading to the gigantic (but run-down) city where the dolls' manufacturer is headquartered.

After a long time holding out, Japan seems to be embracing CGI - almost all of Innocence's backgrounds and vehicles seem to be digitally rendered, while human/cyborg/doll (and canine) characters are primarily hand-drawn. The mix is often distracting, as the characters frequently seem to be lit differently than their environments; sometimes a character's gait doesn't match how quickly they move through a hallway. There are scattered shots that just seem to be shownig off, such as an eagle flying close to the camera so that we can see just how much detail was used in rendering its eyes and feathers. The thing is, it doesn't match the rest of the living things we see.

There are some moments of great character animation, however. Batou's dog is an adorable bassett hound who steals every scene he appears in and buries them in the back yard; if there were an Oscar for "best animated character", the dog would win it hands down. There's a great, tense scene in a convenience store, and a couple of wonderful bits at the end which make up for a lot of the frantic (but relatively unexciting) combat that surrounds them. Oshii also does perhaps the best job in memory of visualizing cyberspace and making a scene that involves hacking suspenseful and active.

Science fiction has been called the literature of ideas, and Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence is richer in ideas and images than any two or three recent science fiction movies combined. If it had perhaps spent a little less time ruminating on and philosophizing about these ideas and more time actually exploring them, it could have been one of the year's best movies.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

The Forgotten

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 October 2004 at Loews Boston Common #3 (first-run)

So, what's the proper way to grade a movie? After careful consideration, I figure The Forgotten is probably a 2¼-star movie, but before careful consideration, while I was watching it, I enjoyed it quite a bit, maybe a full three stars' worth. For all the annoying parts and the story that really doesn't hold together that well, it's got some pretty fine craft and manages to engage the audience's curiosity.

There's a nice feeling of uncertainty during the first act; not only the plot twists revealed in the trailer show up early, but the very way the movie is shot is a little eerie. Both the opening credit sequence and a lot of establishing shots are long helicopter shots, with the camera taking odd turns. I was initially a little disappointed, since the possibility that Telly (Julianne Moore) had only imagined having a son was an intriguing one, but had been dashed by the advertising. Another plot twist soon appears, though, and I though, hmm, that's interesting. One point for writer Gerald Di Pego there.

And, I suppose, credit him and journeyman director Joseph Ruben for the progression of the story. The movie is a trim 91-odd minutes, and moves quickly enough to prevent a lot of question during the actual running time. Ruben stages some pretty darn good jump scenes when the movie threatens to slow down, or starts a chase scene. Good chases, but they do sort of come out of nowhere, like they're obviously trying to distract the audience.

And the audience needs distracting at times. I'm not sure whether the film is canny or cynical in how it plays with genre. Telly recognizes early on that the events of the story - everybody but her forgetting the very existence of her son who died fourteen months earlier - would require an extraordinary agency, and suggests it might be (blank). However, by not actually saying (blank), the movie avoids outright committing to either the sci-fi or horror genre, specifically. This is useful, because science fiction demands explanations on how this entity/group does what it does, whereas horror would demand knowing just what sort of checks exist on the bad guys who appear basically omiscient and omnipotent. Sure, you can explain that (blanks) do (blank) things for (blank) reasons, but that would require admitting they're (blanks). It makes a deus ex machina ending believable, if not quite palatable.

Julianne Moore is good; I don't think she's got it in her to simply mail a performance in. I can't say the same thing about Gary Sinise; even before signing up for the ultimate mail-in gig with a CSI spin-off, it's been a while since his last memorable role. Alfre Woodard is in about the same boat; the rest of the cast (including Dominic West as a father who also lost a child) are pretty nondescipt.

It's taken me an hour or so to write this; over that time, it's gotten harder and harder to concentrate on the thrills that the movie did, in fact deliver. I suppose that makes this a good example of a director making a good movie out of a faulty script.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Incident at Loch Ness

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 3 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

Let's get something out of the way: This isn't a documentary. Normally, I try to avoid giving too much away, and I'll play cute to try to avoid blabbing plot developments that, truthfully, would only annoy me if I saw them in someone else's. But go that route with Incident of Loch Ness, and you've got a review that's nothing but playing cute, and I don't know how useful that would be.

So, this is a comedy, a satire of the Hollywood machine. It happily blurs fact and fiction by purporting to be culled from the footage of "Herzog in Wonderland", a film about director Werner Herzog (playing himself, like most of the cast). As this documentary's director John Bailey starts shooting, Herzog is about to start shooting a movie of his own, a documentary called "The Enigma of Loch Ness", where he proposes to examine "the difference between Truth and Fact". Producer Zak Penn, however, doesn't want to leave anything to chance.

The movie does a great build, starting by just tweaking documentary conventions and goofing on Hollywood parties, working its way into cryptozoology and filmmaking itself. The cryptozoologist, Michael Karnow, is particularly funny in his apparent fervor to believe anything, the more ridiculous the better, wanting to be shown the "non-evidence". The rest of the cast of characters have a delightful willingness to be laughed at, whether it's Herzog for being considered crazy, or difficult, or pretentious, or cinematographer Gabriel Beristain and soundman Russell Williams making the shoot difficult with their demands even as the crew shooting the Herzog documentary on digital video apparently is able to do just fine with their digital video cameras. Truth be told, it's the obviously augmented centerfold, Kitana Baker, who comes off as the most down-to-earth and reasonable. And while Herzog is billed as the "star", he is most often the straight man who makes Penn seem even more craven and insane.

And maybe that's part of the point. The audience can come into this movie, not knowing who Herzog is (I personally feel ignorant, considering how many Harvard Film Archive screenings of his work I've passed on) and get a funny mockumentary about the making of a movie gone horribly and hilariously wrong. But the more they look at it, and the more they examine the details, the more facets it reveals. You notice how inflexible even a great filmmaker like Herzog has become over the years, how tied down he is, and how even his choice of subject - the Loch Ness Monster - is a tired cliché that everybody knows by heart, while the new breed is able to adapt, put together a totally different movie than they started out with.

There are a lot of movies that reward close viewing - often, with comedies, it's hidden jokes in the background that emerge. Incident at Loch Ness, though, is a bit more ambitious - it's a very funny comedy that has themes emerge as one examines it more strenuously, that becomes a commentary on its medium and itself. The Zak Penn behind the camera has put together a movie which the Zak Penn in front of the camera couldn't conceive.