Sunday, November 28, 2004

A Shot in the Dark

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 27 November 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Being Peter Sellers)

In my review of The Pink Panther, I mention that the first film in the series is somewhat atypical; it is in A Shot In The Dark that Clouseau truly emerges as a lucky dimwit who thinks himself brilliant, surrounded by classic supporting characters. In a way, The Pink Panther and A Shot In The Dark are like parents to the franchise that would later emerge; the later films appear to have features from both.

Which makes sense; though they share a star, co-writer/director, and main character, the movies do not have the normal hit/sequel life-cycle. They were shot back-to-back, but A Shot in the Dark was actually filmed first. The character of Clouseau, however, was created for The Pink Panther, and inserted into Shot when director Blake Edwards decided to mostly scrap the original play that the movie was based on. Then, when Panther was a hit, this film was rushed into release by United Artists mere months later, after sitting in the studio's vaults.

In retrospect, it's amazing that a studio would have sat on a movie as flat-out funny as this; how many awful and now forgotten films did UA release in 1963 instead? Still, comedy coming from violent death is perennially something that make studio executives nervous, and I imagine that being able to tie it to a hit was able to ease their minds.

The plot, here, serves as little more than a delivery device for gags. In a wealthy Paris home, the driver has been stabbed, and all evidence points to the maid, Maria (Elke Sommer). Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Sellers) is dispatched to investigate the murder, however, and is immediately smitten with her, and continues to free her with hopes that she will lead him to the real killer, despite all logic and a mounting body count. Clouseau's investigation makes his superior, Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) a nervous wreck.

There is no build-up from relatively normal to absurd, as there was in Panther; Clouseau is pratfalling and being a fool from minute one, without the pathos of his being cuckolded. The slapstick character of Kato (Burt Kwouk) literally jumps out of nowhere early on, testing Clouseau's reflexes. Recurring jokes are set up early and hit almost every time, especially as Edwards re-uses almost the exact same location, camera angle, and composition for scenes in which an undercover Clouseau is taken away in a paddy wagon.

With Sellers's Clouseau solidly in the center of the movie, all of the other characters fit in their orbits around him. Lom's twitching is brought on by Clouseau, Graham Stark engages in repartée as his partner Hercule Lajoy, George Sanders is alternate delighted and frustrated by the detective's idiocy (when you need an investigator to be a bumbling fool), it is perhaps best to observe it from a distance. And Ms. Sommer's Maria is a perfect match for Clouseau; she's perhaps a little bit dim herself, but not so much so as to be unattractive despite her beauty. There is a sort of childlike innocence to both her and Clouseau that makes them quite likable despite how dangerous it seems to be to be around them.

Though it is a far more absurd film than The Pink Panther, A Shot in the Dark is also more focused; it sees its job as extracting comedy from a specific silly character, and performs that duty constantly and consistently for its entire run-time. I'm almost loath to see the other Clouseau films, now, for how can they improve on this?

The Pink Panther

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 November 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Being Peter Sellers)

Most of us have some large gaps in our movie-watching experience that stun our friends. At Thanksgiving this weekend, while playing the "Scene It" movie-trivia game, my brothers would routinely veto several questions before deciding on one, just to keep the field level; they'd likely be surprised to learn that prior to Saturday, the only Pink Panther movie I'd seen was the godawful Son of the Pink Panther.

These gaps are, in a way, nice to have. They mean that I can go into a screening of The Pink Panther at the age of 31 and enjoy a certain rush of discovery: Hey, this is the first time that Friz Freling character appeared; the first time that particular Henry Mancini theme played; etc. There is the risk of a film not living up to expectations, but (a) that is not the case here, and (b) one shouldn't judge a film (or any creative work) based on external pressures, but simply on what it is.

This is particularly useful during The Pink Panther, since I had absorbed a certain amount of knowledge of Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau and the series just by paying attention to pop culture over the course of my life. As with many popular characters, Clouseau's first appearance is somewhat different from how he's remembered; where the later movies would show Clouseau as basically a bumbling fool, here he is simply a fool in love. He has a beautiful wife whom he adores (Capucine), and is blind to her at-times obvious deceptions and infidelities. The familiar supporting cast is also absent; indeed, Sellers gets second billing in what is very much an ensemble cast.

The movie itself is structured as a classic farce; while the title refers to a beautiful jewel targeted by gentleman thief Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven), the diamond itself does not come into play until close to the end. Before then, the action mostly surrounds hiding one's lover from one's spouse, jealousies, and the like.

Co-writer/director Blake Edwards was in fine form here; though his reputation would diminish in later years (in part due to too many Panther sequels), this film is a reminder that he was, at his peak, easily one of Hollywood's greatest directors. Panther features one of cinema's greatest slow builds; the opening sequences could come out of straight caper films, and it's not until we see that the master thief's accomplice introduced as the wife of the inspector on the case that the playfulness of the film's credit sequence truly starts to assert itself. After that, the film does the opposite of what many less successful cop-and-robber comedies do, making each comic sequence more elaborate and funny. Far too often, the crime and plot push the jokes out of the way. This movie is happily back-loaded, though, with the last act featuring the sort of goofiness that the audience wasn't quite ready for at the start (gorilla suits, for crying out loud!).

Edwards has a nice cast to work with, although it is easy to see why Sellers's character became a franchise for United Artists. Claudia Cardinale as the owner of the jewel, for instance, isn't nearly as funny as she is beautiful. David Niven and a young Robert Wagner as father-and-son ne'er-do-wells initially unaware that the other ne'er does well, do their bits with aplomb and competence, respectively. It's only Capucine who is any match for Sellers, displaying a charisma to match her beauty that makes her charming despite how she misuses her poor husband.

I'm a latecomer to the films of Peter Sellers in general and the Panther films in particular. I don't regret it, though - if I had seen this while in my teens (or younger; plenty of folks brought their kids to the Brattle double-feature), I might not have recognized Edwards's craftmanship as I do now.

Screaming Men (Huutajat)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 November 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

Screaming Men is a documentary about a group - the Finnish Screaming Male Choir - that, like their leader Petri Sirviö, takes pride in its absurdity. The opening, in which Petri is joined by his choir on a glacier (they arrive by icebreaker), has a portentious appearance which is gleefully mixed with the silliness of one of the members constructing his rubber tie by attacking a tire liner with a pair of scissors.

Here's the thing, though - absurdity and silliness aren't enough to sustain even this film's 76-minute running time unless there's something behind them. Sometimes it can be a point to be made, and sometimes pure artistic inspiration is enough. And while one can, if one tries hard enough, find a certain meaning in Sirviö's creations - a large part of their repetoire is national anthems, and having them shouted at you does tend to emphasize their generally martial nature - what is most striking is Sirviö's ability as a composer/arranger. He has managed to take perhaps the crudest tools available to a musician - a group of men with little musical training (one applicant mentions that he is just looking to find a way to fill time) and loud voices - and created interesting performance pieces. At one point, the choir is literally yelling a section of the tax code unaccompanied, and it's good music.

Writer/director Mika Ronkainen is a former(?) member of the group, and his affection for it and its leader comes through loud and clear. He shares the same quirky sense of humor, too, using bits of wordless stock footage to finish sentences and using irony to set the scene of the Choir's hometown of Oulu (a line about the city being at the forefront of high technology shows an Atari 800 or Commodore 64 running Music Construction Set). This film is another that can be misconstrued as being fun because it doesn't take itself seriously, but both Rokainen and Sirviö do, in fact, take their work seriously - they just recognize that humor is intrinsic to that work. The bookend sequences with the icebreaker alone was dissected at length at the eye-opener discussion afterward, and as the choir travels the world, their program is adapted for not just the city in which they play, but often (only days before the performance) for the facility as well.

The "Male" in the choir's name is no extraneous adjective; though the women in the audience clearly enjoyed both the subject matter and the documentary, participation is clearly A Guy Thing. The members are scruffy, working-class guys who sweat like pigs (Sirviö brings up the smell in several interviews) and unwind with fart jokes. There's a very Monty Python-ish feel to some of their interactions with their audience - a "lecture on screaming" Sirviö gives in Tokyo is especially amusing.

Though the title refers to the Choir as a whole, the focus mainly stays upon its leader. Petri Sirviö is, in fact, a trained musician, but a hand injury ended his career as a bass player early. He spends a lot of time talking about his family and how they wish he would do fewer international tours; he's a contrast to the other members. It's not an overwhelming focus, but the bond Ronkainen does create with the audience is in large part to Petri.

After seeing this feature, much of the audience wanted to know what it would take to book the group for a Boston show or two. Watching Screaming Men likely won't change the audience in any meaningful way, but it will entertain them with both interesting subject matter and presentation.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Machinist

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

Man, Brad Anderson has gotten dark. He's good at it, but I'm starting to wonder if he's got another Next Stop Wonderland or Happy Accidents in him.

This is Anderson's first feature based upon another person's screenplay, and it's fairly clear. His previous films had a much more evident spark of creativity to them, whether it be the background Sam claims in Accidents or the literally dangerous atmosphere to the mental hospital in Session 9. Writer Scott Kosar's other credits are for horror movie remakes, and certain elements of The Machinist will seem very familiar.

The story unfolds at a leisurely pace. Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) is a machinist at a tool and die company who hasn't been able to sleep for a year. He tries, but it just doesn't happen, and he fills his time off the floor by seeing a hooker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and by coffee and conversation with a waitress (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) at an airport diner. His apartment is sparse, devoid of any ornament, and he's wasting away - both women remark that if he were any thinner, he wouldn't exist. Soon, though, a man named Ivan (John Sharian) appears at his workplace, and when he distracts Trevor at one point, it sets of an accident that causes a co-worker to lose an arm. During the insurance investigation, though, Trevor is told that Ivan doesn't exist.

It's not terribly difficult to predict the trajectory of the movie after this - Reznik will get paranoid, he'll be shunned at work, and the audience will figure out well ahead of Reznik that someone who has gone seven thousand hours without sleep may not have the most reliable perspective on any given situation. That hampers the movie a bit, because when the audience knows something terribly obvious that the main character obviously doesn't, that character is always going to be a step or three behind. The only way for the audience not to feel frustrated with how dim the protagonist is then becomes "withheld information", which merely delays aggravation.

Anderson makes the movie visually striking, though - the desaturated colors are a good indicator of how numb Reznik seems to be growing to the world, with the occasional object rendered in full color (such as Ivan's red convertible) thus seeming to have significance. A sequence in an amusement park house-of-horrors ride is certainly disturbing. And the way in which Reznik opts to make his claim of a hit and run believable enough for the police to give him information on Ivan is not for the squeamish.

Still, the most talked-about visual in the movie is Christian Bale's insane weight loss. Dropping a third of the mass from his six-foot-two frame to a final weight of 130 pounds, Bale is so skinny as to make the audience uncomfortable. Heck, he tripped my reality filter - I looked at him and thought "that's a CGI effect; he doesn't look human". It certainly makes Reznik look like a ghost, fading away from his life. It occasionally overshadows the story and character, though, making me feel more like I was watching a freakshow than a movie.

And it can't be healthy. If I ever hear of my theater-major brother doing something like this for a role, I will call our mother and make sure that he is inundated with cookies and pies and cakes until he relents.

The story is of the variety that comes together well enough by the end, but starts to look a little less plausible about ten minutes later. As with many unreliable-narrator stories, that's when you can start to piece together what literally happened and what may not have, and that's fine, but when you try to figure out where the stuff that may not have comes from, why it interjects itself into Reznik's mind at that point and in that way, that's a little trickier.

Whether you ultimately like or dislike the movie, Bale's emaciated body will stick in your mind, probably well after the somewhat derivative story and decent performances fade.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 November 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

The title of Tony Montana's and Mark Brian Smith's Overnight implies some sort of change, but the truth is that Boondock Saints writer/director Troy Duffy was probably a jerk before he got a movie deal. That said, his unpleasantness is right out there for the world to see - one must infer it for Montana and Smith.

The movie starts with news coverage of the deal that Troy Duffy signed with Miramax - where he would not only get to direct his screenplay, but his band would do the soundtrack, he would have casting approval, and Harvey Weinstein was buying him the pub where he'd been tending bar for good measure. His band, The Brood, includes his brother Taylor and a couple others; this documentary's directors are the band's co-managers. They probably intend for this documentary, started in 1997, to cover Duffy's rise.

Duffy is full of himself, though, and soon alienates people at Miramax. The band's record deal evaporates, and he lashes out at Tony and Mark, saying that they don't deserve to get paid for what little they'd done for the band, that all the group's success came from him. This is likely the moment where Overnight stopped being a documentary and started being a hatchet job.

One might wonder, though, why Montana and Smith kept up with it, or why Duffy let them keep following him around. If I'd basically been called worthless and told I wasn't getting paid for my services, I'd be looking for actual gainful employment. But, then, I'm not a hanger-on, which seems to be the best way to describe Montana and Smith based upon what we see in their movie. And apparently hell hath no fury like that of a pair of hangers-on scorned. They take great delight in showing Duffy getting his come-uppance, and because Duffy is a pompous ass, the audience enjoys it too. As to why Duffy let them keep following him around, well, I've never had hangers-on, either. Losing them must be like losing some sort of ongoing validation that you're important and matter.

But, underneath it all, I couldn't help but find something I liked about Duffy. I never want to meet him, or work with him, mind you, but I can't help but admire that when all is said and done, he made a movie, one which has something of a cult following, and wound up doing it for half the budget he'd originally planned on having. He doesn't seem too bright (he didn't get a piece of the TV and video action where the movie has made most of its money), and he made a classic mistake: He didn't realize that the industry was filled with people smarter than he was - or if he did, he thought being hard-headed would be enough. His perception that he could make it by being as big a bully as the Harvey Weinsteins he met up with didn't bear out, but it's born out of the same drive that made him a worthy documentary subject in the first place.

So... now that I've gotten through my emotional reaction to the subject matter, I suppose it's time to say what I thought of Overnight as a film. It's not bad at all, once you've made the adjustments for who is making it and their readily apparent antipathy for their subject. The film compresses five years of time into an hour and a half, and they must have had a lot of footage to sift through. The editors do a great job constructing a coherent, attention-keeping narrative from that raw material. There is, of course, the question of selective endpoints - the film sort of treats the Boondock Saints screenplay as something which came into existence on its own, giving no indication that writing it must have been hard work, or really any depiction of who Duffy was before the fame/infamy. The IMDB shows Duffy at work on a sequel to Boondock Saints, but you'd never know he was anything but finished by the end of Overnight.

Overnight is an entertaining movie and a useful parable about a man living the dream and then pissing it away because he couldn't grasp how lucky he was. You'll laugh at Troy Duffy and probably come away with some small feeling of moral superiority. Just keep in mind the likely motivations of the filmmakers.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Paper Marriage (Guo bu xin lang)

* * (out of four)
Seen 13 November 2004 at Coolidge Corner #1 (Midnight Ass-Kickings)

Here's what I don't get. Say you were a sociopathic monster, and you had built a nuclear/chemical/biological weapon, one which can cause the sort of complete eradication that most evil geniuses can only dream about. For a delivery system, would you mount it in the finest ballistic missile you could purchase, or would you instead get yourself a bunch of homing pigeons, tie strings to each of their legs, and hope that they can carry your WMD to its prospective target?

That's what Paper Marriage does. Put the ugly metaphor aside, and you have a series of pretty darn impressive action scenes at the end, but a truly horrendous delivery system. I'm not exaggerating here - there is no punching and kicking for the first hour of this ninety minute movie; instead, the audience is treated to some rather not-funny comedy. I don't think it's much exaggeration to say that when there is no fighting going on, this movie will remind you of something produced, written, directed, and acted by elementary school students.

Sammo Hung is former lightweight boxing champion Bo Chin (those who have seen Sammo recognize that this may be the funniest thing in the movie), but he's out of the sport and running short on money to pay his gambling debts. To earn enough to pay them off, he accepts money to marry Jade Lee (Maggie Cheung) so that she can secure her immigration papers and then, in two years' time, marry her boyfriend (there is an obviously shorter path here, I know). But when he skips out with the money, they have to try and get along, and come up with enough money to pay off the gangsters he owes.

Here's the biggest problem - Chin is a jerk, and we never really buy that he can be something else. When he starts to come around and have feelings for Jade, as the plot dictates he must, we hear him saying that, okay, now he likes her and understands that his hang-ups are really with his first wife, but it's not something that has been built up. As much as I like Sammo, I'll admit that once you get beyond his gimmick - the moves of Jackie Chan despite having the body of Jackie Gleason - he isn't exactly much of an actor, especially in this older movie. He doesn't have his co-star's expressive face or comic timing.

I don't know how bad the material they have to work with really is; bad subtitles can make anyone look like a poor actor dealing with an awful script, but the science experiments Chin subjects himself to for money are the funniest parts of the movie, and there's a hefty exchange premium as they try to convert "silly" into "funny". Speaking of the exchange rate, an early letter home from Jade specifies that she's in L.A., but a later scene takes place in the West Edmonton (Alberta) Mall - specified by name. Also, everybody in North America apparently speaks Cantonese, which would be less odd if an early scene didn't raise the issue of how well Jade speaks English. And just to point out how sloppy the script is, it can be divided fairly neatly in two - you'd think the money Chin owes the gangsters would be a ready-made set-up for the hostage situation and beatdown that must end the movie, but, no, that is actually resolved and a new problem added in order to get there.

But that does get us to the Edmonton Mall, where Chin and his friends (some of whom had been enemies before, but there are worse guys) confront the guys holding Jade hostage, and suddenly Sammo, Cheung, Billy Chow, and everyone else is in their element. A switch is flipped and the last twenty minutes is a nifty blend of "damn, that's cool" and "ooh, that's gotta hurt". If there's a pane of glass, someone is going to go through it, even if there's a ten foot drop on the other side. And even if it's made in Canada, it's still a Hong Kong movie - there's no doubt that someone has gone through the window, fallen, and landed on an unpadded floor. Everyone is good and bruised by the time this fight has gone up and down escalators, waterslides, and even a pirate ship set for a floor show set up in the middle of the food court?

So, there's the question - is twenty minutes of very cool martial arts worth an hour of pretty painful "comedy"? I don't know. On a recent message board thread, I told someone that they were missing out on some good stuff after they said they had a three-star cutoff, because a two-star movie can certainly have four-star portions.

That's certainly how Paper Marriage is - if I had this one on DVD, I'd probably seldom watch the first hour. Maybe that's the best way to experience it.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 November 2004 in Jay's Living Room (American Mystery! Specials)

As I've mentioned before, where mystery franchises was once dependable workhorses for studios, they've mostly been banished to TV in recent decades. Even there, PBS has scaled Mystery! back from a weekly Thursday-night series to a late summer fill-in for Masterpiece Theater. The upside is that WGBH has also started adapting American mysteries along with their English counterparts, so far producing one new adaptation of Tony Hillerman's novels per year. Skinwalkers, is a solid first entry, although it still has room for improvement.

The story is solid enough - when a local medicine man is murdered within the confines of a Navajo reservation, the Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn (Wes Studi) is assigned to investigate, with uniformed officer Jim Chee (Adam Beach) assisting. The murder weapon is an arrowhead made out of human bone, something associated with Skinwalkers. Leaphorn immediately dismisses evil shapeshifters as fairy tales, but it's interesting pathology. When the attempt to consult with another medicine man on the subject turns up another dead body, the mystery deepens.

Though the murder mystery is often looked upon as a somewhat limited genre - there are thousands of individual tales to be told, but a perception that they are basically variations on a theme - there are at least three distinct areas of focus. There is the Agatha Christie-style puzzle mystery, perhaps best experienced as short stories, where the reader is encouraged to test their wits against those of the detective. There is the procedural, which currently rules network television (and cable - my last roommate would happily watch four hours of true crime every night) in the form of Law & Order, CSI, and the like. And then there's a third, more mainstream type, where the crime mainly provides structure for an exploration of characters and issues.

Skinwalkers is clearly the third type, as concerned with what it means to be an Indian in the twenty-first century as it is with detailing the hunt for a murderer. You can see that in the contrast between the leads: In a switch from convention, the younger Chee embraces Navajo culture, training as a medicine man when not on duty with the Navajo Nation Police Department, while Leaphorn is a veteran Phoenix detective who left the city for his wife and doesn't feel much connection to the land and way of life. This conflict between traditional and western ways of life is a recurring theme, as when Chee and a doctor at a local hospital (Michael Grayeyes) discuss how to treat an injury.

Though this sort of thing makes for strong characters and gives the viewer more to chew on than just who done it, there is also a risk that the movie will lose its focus. There are digressions that don't really contribute much to the mystery plot, even as red herrings. While the discussion of Navajo versus American jurisdiction is interesting, and the look at how common unemployment and alcohol abuse is affecting the next generation of children growing up on the reservation is something worth bringing to the rest of America's attention, someone mainly interested in who killed the medicine men may find such things extraneous. Indeed, one lengthy set-piece seems like a drawn-out way to introduce a potential love interest (in future installments) for Chee, public defender Janet Pete (Alex Rice).

There is some decent talent attached to this picture, perhaps more than expected of a movie made for American broadcast television (even PBS). Robert Redford serves as an executive producer (his son writes the screenplay). Director Chris Eyre's debut feature, Smoke Signals, got a fair amount of buzz when Miramax released it, and his follow-up, Skins, did well enough on the festival circuit to get a limited release. He's not yet a Native American Spike Lee in terms of having the pure talent to command immediate attention even when not making films tied to his ethnic background, but he does well by his material. This is a pretty good-looking film produced on what must have been a pretty tight budget.

The cast is a bit of a mixed bag. Studi is rock-solid, as might be expected from an old pro. Beach doesn't quite measure up to Studi, seeming a little over-eager, too determined to come across as friendly and/or nice. Most of the rest of the cast is adequate, although I found myself wondering just how deep the casting pool of Native American actors is afterward. Though there aren't many bad performances, just about every cast member comes from a different nation. I'm all for casting the person who will give you the best performance even if it means fudging ethnicity, but others may differ. It would be a bigger deal if these people being a tight-knit ethnic community was a bigger plot point.

It's a good start. I look forward to more adaptations of the Chee/Leaphorn books, hoping that Beach's performance improves or grows on me.

Friday, November 12, 2004

The Incredibles

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 November 2004 at Loews Boston Common #17 (first-run)

Anticipation. This movie has more anticipation and expectations attached to it among a certain audience than any movie without the words "Star Wars" in its title (and, heck, a kick-ass trailer for the Revenge of the Sith is playing with a lot of prints) - it had a keen teaser in front of Pixar's last film, Finding Nemo, a year and a half ago, and Pixar hasn't made a bad film yet. Animation fans, though, may remember writer/director Brad Bird talking about The Fantastics five years ago, when his brilliant The Iron Giant was just released; it was to be his next cel-animated movie for Warner Brothers Feature Animation.

Well, for whatever reason audiences didn't go for The Iron Giant, Warner wound up shuttering its feature animation department, and it looked like we wouldn't get to see Bird's story about a family of superheroes. Fortunately, Pixar knew talent when they saw it, and after a name change to avoid confusion with The Fantasticks, it was back on track. And that's good for everyone.

Does The Incredibles live up to the reputations of its predecessors? Pretty much. The only possible reason for complaint is that The Incredibles is excellent as opposed to the sheer genius of The Iron Giant and Toy Story. It's a big, exciting adventure that at times is structured more like a live-action tentpole picture than Pixar's previous animated family movies.

It's a blast, too - while most of Pixar's other movies are set in some corner of our world that isn't normally accessible to us, The Incredibles is set in a fantasy world of superheroes and supervillains, in an environment that combines the sensibilities of the 1950s and the present day. The character designs are cartoony and exaggerated, placing Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) in the same scene with a fashion designer about a third his height. The combination of the simplified character designs and the detailed environments sometimes tilts the look a little in the direction of a video game, especially when the big action scenes start up.

Parents of very young children may be a little concerned about some of those action scenes - the difference between the PG rating that The Incredibles was given and the G rating Pixar's previous films received is frequently meaningless, but compared to most American animated films, there is a lot of stuff blowing up here, with pilots inside. Superheroes are shown as mortal, both in a darkly comic explanation of Why Costumes Shouldn't Have Capes and in a more sinister look at the villain's plans. There's also some very mild innuendo, tame enough for anyone who's old enough to recognize it.

This is part and parcel of the superhero genre, though, and it's clear that writer/director Brad Bird loves those stories. Where The Iron Giant referenced Superman explicitly, The Incredibles clearly owes a lot to the Fantastic Four, from the specific superpowers (though the Four don't have a speedster, they've got a stretchy person, someone who can take a beating, and a girl who can turn invisible and create force fields), the family theme, and the character Pixar lucky charm John Ratzenberger gives voice to at the end. One can only hope that Tim Storry finds the right blend of family ties and grand adventure that Bird manages here.

That the film will be wonderfully rendered is a given with Pixar; while I'm not sure they really nailed the character designs (save the Wallace Shawn-voiced Gilbert Huph, Mr. Incredible's boss in his secret identity; making him an apparent caricature of MLB commissioner Bud Selig conveys weasally greed well), everything looks great in motion and the big action sequences are a kick and a half. Check out speedster son Dash running on water and try and say it doesn't look perfect.

The voice acting is equally impressive; while other studios have gone with big names, Pixar mostly relies on unknowns and quality actors who may not necessarily be able to open a movie themselves - Nelson, for instance, and the perfectly-cast Holly Hunter as Mr. Incredible's wife, Elastigirl. The one big celebrity voice is Samuel L. Jackson as Frozone, a superhero whose ice powers fit right in with being as cool as Samuel L. Jackson. The movie also has a fantastic, score by Michael Giacchino - an upbeat, playful, James Bond-sounding thing that keeps the action going and never feels the need to stop for a pop song.

I admit, there had been a certain amount of trepidation along with my anticipation - just because Bird and Pixar had both been responsible for fantastic animated films didn't mean they'd necessarily work well together. They do, though, and I eagerly anticipate whatever they come up with next.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 November 2004 at Loews Boston Common #3 (first-run)

There's something very appealing about a movie that is specific with its metaphor and details. Sideways could have been just another movie about a couple guys on the road. The main character's oenophilia, however, means that the dialogue can't just be lifted out of this movie and put into another (or vice versa). It also means that even if two guys learning about themselves is sort of familiar territory, the discussion of wine may give the audience members some chances to discover something new.

Of course, if you take out the wine, Sideways wouldn't be a bad or rote movie by any means. Though the two men on the road trip are somewhat familiar types - Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a divorced, despairing writer unable to sell his first novel; Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is a brash, not exactly book-smart actor afraid of his looming marriage - they're well-played and don't come off as mere stereotypes. Church's performance, especially, is a notch above expectations, as there's not much on his resumé that led me to believe that he had a solid dramatic performance in him. He does, though, making Jack a man of good intentions who honestly believes in what he's saying even if he can't follow through. The trip north from San Diego is his last blast before getting married, even if the destination, California's wine country, is a closer match to Miles's interests.

Just as good are the women they meet - Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress at a restaurant Miles has been coming to every time he swings through wine country, and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a server at one of the vineyards where they stop. Jack picks up Stephanie and sets Miles up with Maya. Like Miles, Maya has been through a divorce in the last couple of years, and they sort of feel each other out, finding as much common ground in their interest in wine as in their recent history.

Co-writer/director Alexander Payne has a knack, seemingly uncommon in Hollywood, for an honest depiction of life outside the big city. All too often, when TV or the movies venture too far from a city center, the results tend to be full of yokels, or extra-quirky villagers, or, my personal least favorite, suburbanites who seem outwardly shiny but are hiding some sort of dark secret. This is Payne's first film set entirely outside his native Nebraska, and Jack is even a Los Angeles-based actor (though by no means a star), but the characters are Middle American in spirit, if not geographically. They're not freaks or archetypes, just individuals living from one day to the next.

The movie's comedy is understated, seldom coming from a set-up much more contrived than two friends with wildly different strengths: Miles isn't nearly as at ease in a social situation as Jack, and Jack is a bit out of place when tasting wine with Miles. We do believe that they're friends, though, because of other scenes, like when they're playing golf and another party tries to play through. Payne also avoids wallowing in the movie's dark parts; he lets us experience just enough to be disappointed in the characters, but never enough to turn us against them.

The movie's pacing is somewhat deliberate. It clocks in at a few minutes longer than two hours, a bit long for a small, boutique picture, but not oppressively so. The length is noticeable in part because each day of Miles's and Jack's trip starts with a caption ("Saturday", "Sunday"), and enough of each is covered to give the audience an idea of how the characters spent the entire day. While it slows the movie down and pads it out, it also lets us see that the characters have time to think, and that while a week isn't a terribly long time, it is long enough to make a difference in one's life.

Sideways isn't Payne's best movie, and is probably more a piece with About Schmidt than his earlier, more satiric pieces. I won't do the "if you liked Schmidt..." thing, because the movies aren't that similar, but it is recommended for those who've liked Payne's work.


* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 8 November 2004 at Loews Boston Common #11 (first-run)

I've listened to very few DVD commentary tracks; it is, after all, time that could be spent actually watching another movie. One that sticks out is Scott Frank and Lindsay Doran on Dead Again, where Frank mentions that in the movie's early drafts, Emma Thompson's present-day character was a ten-year-old girl, so the romance between her and Branagh's character would have been kind of sick. Frank and Doran have some good laughs over this, because, really, what was he thinking?

Johnathan Glazer's reincarnation-themed movie, Birth, raises the same question in the audience, but it's no laughing matter. This ponderous movie offers up Cameron Bright as Sean, a ten-year-old boy born at about the time when the husband of Anna (Nicole Kidman), also named Sean, died. Just as she's announcing her engagement to someone else, young Sean shows up, claims to be the reincarnation of her dead husband, and throws her life into chaos.

Or he would, if this movie were capable of chaos. It opens with an extended shot as seemingly long and boring as the highway sequence in Tartakovsky's Solaris. It then spends most of its runtime in the cold, genteel upper classes of New York City, where the characters seldom raise a fuss or even a voice, all formal, stylish black clothing against white snow, with much of the action taking place in the beautiful, tony townhouse owned by Anna's mother Eleanor (Lauren Bacall).

The idea of Anna and Bright connecting romantically should have made me feel queasy, but it didn't, and not because I'm particularly open-minded. It's just almost impossible to feel anything for these characters. Sean, in particular, is a charmless little bastard, displaying neither the innocence of childhood nor the wisdom of adulthood, just a uniform grumpiness that, if it actually reminds Anna of her dead husband, leads the audience to believe that she may be lucky to be widowed. Not that Anna's any particular prize; she's pretty but insubstantial. What does she like, dislike, think, dream, or even just do at her job? Dunno. What about her first marriage was so magical that a ten-year-old boy claiming to be her dead husband can threaten to derail her engagement? Couldn't say. Her relationship with her mother and sister, or even her fiancé? A mystery. The closest thing I could find to individuality was a sibilance in her speech, maybe meant to make her seem a little immature. That's a reach, though.

Even if you're willing to grant the movie's central premise, there never seems to be any logic to the characters' behavior. There's no chemistry between Kidman and Bright, and the way Anna's family and friends investigate Sean's claims just seems inept, while their reaction is muted: No surprise, awe, or metaphysical curiosity when he does something that suggests he is Anna's husband reincarnated, and no suspicion or relief when he misses a step. These characters are never more than actors with a script to follow. Roughly a dozen times in the movie, I found myself thinking that I wasn't sure what an actual human being would do in a certain situation, but certain it wouldn't be that.

This makes it hard to judge the movie's performances: Are they examples of bad acting, because they didn't sell me on what the characters were doing, or decent turns because they did create individual characters, even if their actions made no sense? All I'm sure of is that Nicole Kidman is making some really strange career choices, though having three movies that are different kinds of spectacular failure in one year at least shows that she's not in a rut.

Birth is easily the worst of the three, though - where Dogville was ugly and artificial, and The Stepford Wives merely stupid, Birth manages artificial and stupid while also being dull. And there's no worse sin for a movie than to be boring.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

The Spy In Black

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 November 2004 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

I'm trying to imagine watching this movie when it debuted in 1939. England is mere months from going to war with Nazi Germany, and director Michael Powell presents a movie featuring submarines and espionage during World War I - told from the perspective of a German infiltrator! Even now, sixty-five years later, it seems like a nervy choice - what would it have been like then and there, especially considering how sympathetic the spy is portrayed as being.

And Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) isn't a monster - when we first meet him, the U-Boat captain is just returning home for a little shore leave after a couple months at sea, only to be greeted with tight rationing and an immediate assignment to set sail through an English minefield to the isle of Foy, up in the Orkney Islands, to meet with a British traitor and use his information to sink the fleet. His contact is Frau Tiel (Valerie Hobson), who has taken the place of the island's new schoolteacher, a Miss Anne Burnett (June Duprez). Hardt comes off as a world-weary but principled patriot, showing disdain for the traitor whom he must deal with (Sebastian Shaw) and keeping his German Navy uniform - if he's to die, it will be as a sailor, not a spy.

Taking the German point of view adds an extra thrill to many of the proceedings - though Hardt seems all right, if stuck by happenstance of birth on the wrong side, others are less admirable. The introduction of Anne feels like the introduction of any thirties ingenue - and is quickly followed by her being kidnapped and thrown off a cliff. It's delightfully sinister, and keeps the audience's attention until the plot starts twisting.

I'll try and avoid how the plot twists - although most descriptions I've seen tend to include stuff that you really aren't told until the second half of the movie - but lets just say the Germans' operation develops a few hitches, but they also prove fairly resourceful, leading to an aquatic sequence that has both naval and espionage components. The effects for that are pretty well-done, too - I never got the feeling that I was looking at miniatures, or that I was seeing stock footage (as in The Caine Mutiny). It's not quite up to modern standards, but it's not bad, either.

It's a clever little movie, filled with genuine tension that builds up to a reasonably satisfying denouement. And if it plays that way on late-night American public television in 2004, it must have been a real corker in 1939 Britain.

Steamboat Bill, Jr.

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 November 2004 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

It's possible to not love Buster Keaton, I suppose. Maybe it's even easy; all you have to do is have a limited, modern conception of what movies should be - driven by dialog, plot, and characterization, with visual effects used only to forward those things. I feel sorry for those people, because they can't understand the sheer delight of a movie like Steamboat Bill, Jr.

If they do, of course, they'll say, well, it's a silent. Silent movies are practically a different medium. That's true, to an extent, although if that were really the case silents probably would have survived the invention of sound as a separate if less-popular art form - instead, they were basically replaced by the talkies, only occasionally being revived by folks like Jacques Tati, Guy Maddin, and Rowan Atikinson (in his Mr. Bean series). So I think you have to judge a silent film on its merits as a film, not as a silent.

This still makes Steamboat Bill, Jr. a pretty great movie. Its seventy-two minute running time demands a fairly compressed story, but it's still there, along with some clever character work. As William Canfield Sr (Ernest Torrence) awaits his son's arrival from college (he hasn't seen his son since he was a toddler), he also has to deal with local mogul J.J. King attempting to squeeze Canfield's independently-owned ferry out of business. Imagine burly Bill's disappointment when his son turns out to be scrawny, effete Buster Keaton - then compound it when he finds out that Junior and King's daughter (Marion Byron) were friendly back in Boston, and quite happy to meet again back home.

Credited director Charles Reisner is good at building character and setting with an economy of shots - he establishes King's dominance over the town with a series of quick-cut images of businesses bearing the King name, and a caption along the lines of "practical work clothes (with her help)" between two scenes is a fine transition that also underscores just how citified Bill Jr. and Marion King are (Marion is the name given the character on the IMDB, though I think she's referred to as Kitty within the movie). The themes of writer Carl Harbaugh's story, big business against the little guy and romance outside one's station, are not nearly as important as Keaton's slapstick, but do give the movie some anchoring; the situations of the characters in this movie are something one can relate to seventy-five years later.

But, let's be honest, this movie is a Buster Keaton showcase, and a good one. Though his brand of athletic slapstick doesn't get much play until the end (and he doesn't appear until ten minutes in), he does show off a great range of comic ability - deadpan reaction shots, selling ridiculous situations without many words, precise little bits of physical comedy. The man was a master, and he's ably supported. Ms. Byron's Marion/Kitty is a pretty flapper (though if she looked a bit skinny to me in 2004, I wonder what 1928's audiences thought), though she's not as strong a screen personality as Keaton. Torrence make "Steamboat Bill" a likable enough lug, disappointed in and not quite able to understand his colege-educated son, but also protective enough not to tolerate anyone else treating Jr. with disdain.

The big deal, of course, is the set piece that occupies the last third or so of the movie, as a gigantic tornado strikes (and basically destroys) River Junction, requiring Junior to make his way across town to reach his father's boat, collect his girl, and then rescue his father from the city jail, which is basically floating downriver. That the storm is realized with full-scale practical effects doesn't change the basic truth that this is, basically, a gigantic special-effects set piece, with rivers flooding, Buster leaping from one part of his boat to another, and buildings flying through the air. This is the source of that familiar shot of the front wall of a building falling down on Keaton, but him escaping unharmed because he was precisely aligned with where a second-story window would land. There's a great deal of physical comedy, but also a great deal of stuntwork and raw spectacle. It winds up being just a notch or two below what Keaton achieved with the third act of The General.

Of course, being a couple notches below perfection is no bad thing. Just don't pretend that because Steamboat Bill Jr. is silent, the rules for what makes a good movie are different; they aren't. The movie sacrifices a certain amount of plot for comedy and spectacle, but demonstrates that it can be a more than acceptable trade-off.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Parade photos

No movies Saturday... The Red Sox were having a parade, to which I brought my digital camera and very little in the way of skill at using it. I was camped out near the Charles/MGH station.

Motorcycle cops - There were zillions of them. For two hours before the parade actually arrived, they would ride past one way, and then the other, and so on. We breathed a lot of fumes.

The "veterans" duck boat, where I realized just how much of a crapshoot seeing the parade was - if I had taken up station on the other side of the road, I would have seen Oil Can Boyd or someone.

...instead, Johnny Pesky stopped right in front of me, which was pretty cool. David Halberstam's The Teammates (hey, buy it on the right) was my main baseball reading this summer, and it made me wish that Dom DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, and especially Ted Williams could have been here for this parade, too - they were born around the time of the last victory, and their World Series was against the Cardinals, too. Just goes to show how much history persists in baseball - how often do you see black and white footage of football/basketball/hockey greats during their series?

A not-great angle of Johnny Damon. You should see the stuff I'm throwing out.

Just for fun, the first boat in the parade was "Red Sox Nathan".

Yeah, that's better.

The back of that boat. The "sharpen" tool in Microsoft Image Composer doesn't help much, does it?

Larry Lucchino with the trophy. Still don't really like Lucchino, to be honest. Guy just rubs me the wrong way.

I think this is David Ortiz. In my defense it was raining and the sun was right behind him.

Tito and others. I don't think that's Theo with the camera, but, regardless, how cool is it to be Theo Epstien right now? You've got to figure he's Boston's most eligible bachelor until he marries, he'll never have to pay for another drink in New England as long as he lives, and, because he got the Sox to the World Series after trading Nomar, he can do completely insane-looking things this off-season without fear of second-guessing.

Plus, his grandfather and great-uncle wrote Casablanca (to get vaguely back to movies).

Where I realized that apparently the picture is taken when you release the button. I think that's Jason Varitek there; he was one of the guys standing on top of his boat. I wonder if the driver/pilot let him stay up there when they hit the water. Probably not.

There's no denying Curt Schilling is much tougher than me. I got queasy just reading about what the medical staff did with his foot, and then he was able to actually pitch effectively against Major League hitters. I probably would have been on the crutches a couple weeks earlier.

It's Wally! And random Sox staffers!

It's Wally! And confetti!

Monday, November 01, 2004

Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens Leende)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener/Cries and Whispers: The Cinema of Ingmar Bergman)

As the opening credits specify, this is "a romantic comedy by Ingmar Bergman" (well, actually they say it in Swedish, so that's not an exact quotation). Bergman is not exactly a filmmaker known for light, cheerful movies, which perhaps makes that initial identification necessary.

Calling Smiles a romantic comedy rather than, say, a sex farce, may be miscategorizing it. It is frequently quite funny, but though the couples formed at the end tend to be well-matched, I'm not sure how romantic the movie is. It is, I think, kind of odd to have a romantic comedy where the only characters who actually fall for each other during the film's running time are decidedly secondary characters, rather apart from the main action.

Of course, there are a number of pre-existing relationships as the movie starts. Frederik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand) is a successful lawyer in 1900 Sweden, with a young wife Anne (Ulla Jacobsson) and a not-quite-so-young son Henrik (Björn Bjelvenstam). An actress who has recently returned to town, Desiree Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck) was once his mistress, but is currently the mistress of Baron Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), whose wife Charlotte (Margit Carlquist) is a friend of Anne's. Also moving in and out of the picture is the Egermans' maid Petra (Harriet Andersson), an pretty young girl whose uninhibited sexuality is rather vexing to the religious-minded Henrik.

Naturally, by the end of the picture, these circumstances will be rearranged somewhat. In the meantime, it's enjoyable to watch the characters play off each other: Desiree, one gets the impression, probably learned how to manipulate men at her mother's knee, while Frederik is a bit unsure how to relate to his son's prudishness. Anne is barely more than a girl, still a virgin despite being married for two and a half of her nineteen years. Malcolm, a soldier by trade, is arrogant and often belligerent, while his wife has a personality that is just as forceful, though she generally keeps her aggression in reserve.

This 1955 movie was considered somewhat racy when it first arrived in the Unites States - not only did men and women share the same beds, but they clearly did more than sleep there! For that matter, one could certainly easily infer after some of the scenes with Anne and Petra that Anne's virginity only extended to men. Though such matters may seem quaint now, older prints (and the home video releases drawn from them) omitted subtitles in certain scenes, a matter remedied on this sharp new Academy-ratio black-and-white print. Smiles of a Summer Night is one of a dozen Bergman films playing the Brattle during this series, most of them receiving new prints.

This film would later be adapted into the Stephen Sondheim musical "A Little Night Music", which is fitting since even though Smiles is very much a movie visually, and uses exaggerated stings on the score to underscore certain jokes, it's got the feel of a play, especially in how it makes a jump to a new location for its second half and how the relationships have the feel of a set-up. And Bergman does like the talking; I felt morning subtitle fatigue a couple of times. The reliance on having characters talk to each other meant we didn't really get to see them do things together quite so often, and thus didn't get much of an idea of their chemistry. An early scene of Malcolm and Charlotte target-shooting while they talk gets how they relate across much more clearly and enjoyably than a lot of the other potential pairings.

Smiles is a fairly enjoyable comedy from a man whose contribution to world film often tended to be much more serious. The next film Bergman directed would be what is likely the work he's most known for, The Seventh Seal, the likes of which would come to overshadow this light, mainstream comedy. It's still an interesting part of Bergman's body of work, and a fairly enjoyable movie even without his name attached.