Friday, December 31, 2004

Metropolis (2002)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen (again) 26 December 2004 in Jay's Living Room (DVD)

There are a great many good movies made every year. There aren't quite so many great ones, but they've accumulated, so there are great movies to be seen on a regular basis. Enough that I don't always remember the initial impression a masterpiece. I remember exactly what went through my mind as I walked out of the Kendall Square theater on 2 February 2002: "I want to see this again. Right now!."

Putting the DVD in the player a few years later, I initially find that my excitement has waned a bit. The opening is still majestic, and Toshiyuki Honda's score is still jazzy and fun. That soundtrack has been in whichever CD player I'm near ever since the film's US release, because it's so incongruous: We've grown to expect science fiction to be scored with a symphony, or something electronic, but instead the Metropolis Committee hired a jazz sax player, and he creates a group of themes that are flexible enough to show the bustle of a vibrant city, a foreboding of danger, and hope after disaster. But, somehow, since the last time I saw it, I lost my affinity the Tezuka-styled character designs. I maybe giggled a little at the movie's attempts at profundity.

But after a while, that cynicism wears off. Screenwriter Katsuhiro Otomo (famous in his own right for Akira packs the movie full of story, suggesting that what's happening is the culmination of much more, and making our view of a detailed fantasy world comprehensible without sacrificing its complexity. Director Rintaro does one of the best-ever jobs of integrating cel and CGI animation, and that's no simple task; in adapting one of Osamu Tezuka's early works (in an interview on the DVD, Rintaro and Otomo admit that they'd wanted to make Metropolis for years but Tezuka nixed it while he was alive), the cel-animated characters retain their cartoonish style while many of the environments are highly-detailed, built to awe.

The story is what you make of it - Ban, a detective, and his nephew Kenichi arrive from Tokyo hunting for Laughton, a mad scientist. Little do they know that this scientist is in the employ of Duke Red, the city's foremost citizen and architect of its gleaming new Zigguraut, who has a contentious relation with Rock, a robot-hunter who thinks of Red as his foster father. The lab is destroyed, Ban and Kenichi are separated, and Kenichi finds himself in the company of Tima, an android built by Laughton for Red, with both initially unaware that Tima is anything other than a human girl. As Ban and Kenichi try to re-unite, they find themselves in the midst of a battle for control of the city. And then...

And then, Ray Charles. Ray Charles shows up on the soundtrack in a moment of musical audacity that must be seen and heard to be believed, but as much as the song ("I Can't Stop Loving You") seems to contradict what's happening on screen, it cuts right to the heart of the movie: A boy who loves a robot even as its human exterior and heart is stripped away, a son who loves the father who won't acknowledge him, and a man obsessed with his lost daughter to the point of recreating her. It's an action scene built to make the audience cry.

And it does. By the end of the movie, I want to see it again, because it's just that fantastic, no matter what foolish doubts I'd had an hour and a half earlier.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Get Shorty

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen (again) 25 December 2004 in Jay's Mom's Living Room (DVD)

Get Shorty isn't quite as good as I remember it being; it gets a lot of points for being a movie about people who love movies as much as its audience does. It was one of the first movies I bought on DVD, so got a lot of play because I couldn't watch VHS any more but only had something like five movies. And, let's face it, most of the cast and crew hit their apex here, and haven't been as cool since.

Go ahead, check the IMDB: John Travolta? Two movies with John Woo and a whole lot of nothing. Rene Russo? Tin Cup the next year, but that's not really cool, and then the parts dry up as she passes 40. Danny Devito? A few good parts, directs Matilda, but also directs a couple movies that are a bit too mean-spirited for the general audience. Dennis Farina? There's a lot of crap around stuff where he's probably cooler than he is here, like Out of Sight, Buddy Faro, and Snatch. Gene Hackman has a nice 2001, highlighted by The Royal Tennenbaums, but this is the end of a good run for him. Bette Midler? Ugh. How the heck is she so perfect in this uncredited role when you look at just about everything else she's done?

And, man, we shouldn't even talk about director Barry Sonnenfeld. He moves on to Men In Black, which hasn't aged quite so well, and then has Wild Wild West destroy his career. He produces some absolutely fantastic TV, but no-one watches. MGM didn't even bring him back for the upcoming Get Shorty sequel, Be Cool.

It certainly shines a light on Scott Frank's adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel as possibly the real star of the show (combined with his screenplay for Out of Sight, you have to wonder what MGM is thinking having someone else adapt Be Cool). Watching the movie, I was struck by how the first act felt a lot like the opening of a certain style of book: Quick little vignettes, obviously linked but also separate. In dead-tree form, these scenes run a page or a page and a half, then there's a blank line, then another one. Sonnenfeld's contribution (along with his editor's) is crucial here, too, negotiating a lot of tricky cuts between scenes, making jumps and putting in little bits of space to separate them, making the tricky set-up portion of the movie work. It could have been smoothed out, or done more in flashback, but instead, it feels like the filmmakers are doling out random little nuggets of story even though it's mostly presented in chronological order. On the other end, though, it's all movie, finishing with a cut to an epilogue that merrily skips over a bunch of detail. It's also a sneaky ending - Frank and Sonnenfeld don't really build to it; they take advantage of how there are is no way to tell how close you are to the end of a book by how many pages are on each side of the crease to just spring it on you. Not to mention that there are no clocks in a theater; watching it on video, you lose that a little, unless you've got all of the counters and clocks out of your line of sight.

At the center, of course, is how we like Travolta's Chili Palmer and Russo's Karen Flores. They're both dissatisfied, although not necessarily aware of how big the emptiness in their lives is. Palmer is a thug, though one who prefers persuasion to physical thuggery, and doesn't really think his love of movies could be anything but a hobby until chance brings him to Los Angeles. Leonard and Frank chose to make him democratic in his love for movies, able to compliment Russo's scream queen as sincerely as he does Orson Welles's Touch of Evil. He's confident with Devito's movie star, but equally as impressed with James Gandolfini's stuntman. And even if he's not really creative, he is well-suited to the role of a producer.

Karen, on the other hand, is a little more cynical. It must have been tempting for the producers to make the character a little younger, but her world-weariness is appealing. She recognizes she's getting too old for the horror movies she's working on, but doesn't have the confidence to step behind the camera until she sees Chili go for it. She starts out thinking she's washed up, only to gradually realize that she's outgrown her old role - she's not too old to be a starlet, but she's capable of more. And unlike the rest of the cast, she doesn't try to imitate Chili Palmer when impressed by his confidence; she simply shows herself to be his equal.

It's not a perfect movie - the jokes are spread a little thin, and another decade of entertainment journalism and DVDs packed with Hollywood Insider stuff has perhaps blunted the premise a little. Travolta's performance doesn't quite hold up, either - he's too singular a character, too iconic when surrounded by people with foibles. But it may just be the character; the supporting cast in Be Cool-the-novel sticks in my mind much more than Palmer did.

But it's still a very good one. My DVD collection's large enough by now that I don't revisit it nearly as often as I used to, but it still satisfies.

Blade: Trinity

* * (out of four)
Seen 24 December 2004 at Regal Clark's Pond #1 (first-run)

Getting back to something's roots is generally thought of as a good thing, but that may not be the case for New Line's Blade franchise. Part of the problem is that the general public considers Blade's roots to be the first movie, while screenwriter/director David Goyer is all too aware that Blade was a comic book character first.

Not that there was a "Blade" comic before the success of the first movie; the character first appeared in a 1970s horror series named "Tomb of Dracula". It's a clever reference when the movie starts with vampire archeologists uncovering said resting place; less so when one character actually whips out a copy of the series' first issue. But comics are Goyer's thing (in addition to the Blade movies, he also did scripts for Hellboy and Batman Begins, with The Flash in development), and a couple of the sillier comic tropes get some use: Abraham Whistler (Kris Kristoferson) gets the Jean Grey "For Crying Out Loud, Is He Dead Again" Award, and his daughter Abigail (Jessica Biel) places in the Green Arrow "Seriously, The Compound Bow Is The Best Weapon For Urban Combat Ever" category. Wacky ideas about evolution abound.

The latter is kind of disappointing, since one of the good things Trinity mostly retains from its predecessors is the idea of taking a supernatural story concept such as vampires and placing it in a science-fictional context. Neither the humans nor vampires are terribly interested in musty books or prophecies; the vampire hunters are more likely to genetically engineer a virus to take the bloodsuckers out. That the science used is chuckle-inducing is somewhat forgivable, since the science-over-superstition theme is a good one that deserves to appear in better movies.

So what goes wrong? Well, there's the cast. Or, more specifically, the performances.

After the movie ended, it was not hard to imagine a day early on during shooting when Ryan Reynolds looked around, realized he could walk away with the movie and nobody else would offer any resistance. Wesley Snipes, for all anybody can tell behind his dark glasses, could very well be sleepwalking. Jessica Biel doesn't seem to have much to do other than stand around with her bow, looking good; maybe she'll be Jennifer Garner when she grows up. Parker Posey angrily chews scenery as the villainous mastermind, perhaps distressed over what a once promising career has come to. Dominic Purcell goes the "too full of himself to be truly malevolent" route as Drake. Natasha Lyonne has a lifeless extended cameo as a blind geneticist. They're in a movie about vampires, but aside from Posey and Reynolds, they might as well be zombies.

Ah, Ryan Reynolds. The character he plays, Hannibal King, was more noteworthy for his iron will than his smart mouth in Tomb of Dracula (King was a "vampire detective" who resisted the urge to drink blood or use his vampiric powers), but here is written to Reynolds's strengths. Sort of "what if Berg from Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place was a badass vampire hunter?" He gets just about every good line in the screenplay and delivers them in sarcastic, laid-back style. This could be the part that makes him a movie star in the way that Van Wilder didn't. It's an entertaining performance, but is it a Good Thing for a comic sidekick to so completely dominate an action movie?

Ultimately, these weaknesses have to be laid at Goyer's feet. He's not a bad screenwriter, but his work here suggests that he does his best work with a strong collaborator. Snipes, if you remember, was pretty darn good in the first two Blade movies, but offers nothing in this one. Same with the rest of the cast. He also seems to subscribe to the premise that anything is cool when you film it in slow-motion; there are actually two shots of Abigail putting her headphones on, because she likes to listen to MP3s as she dispatches the undead. It's comical. The action scenes also don't have the same zing as they did in the first movie (it doesn't help that Drake has the annoying habit of turning into a CGI monster just when things are getting good).

It's an open question how good a movie this would have been if Guillermo del Toro had directed it instead of doing Hellboy; maybe he would have been able to coax something out of Snipes, or curbed some of Goyer's fanboy tendencies. Or maybe not. At any rate, this will probably be the last Blade movie, although there's talk of spinning Reynolds and Biel off into a "Nightstalkers" movie. I must admit, I might go for that, although I'd maybe like someone else in charge of it.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

A Thief of Time

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 December 2004 in Jay's Living Room (American Mystery! Specials)

Sometime, over the last ten years, I stopped getting my murder mystery fix from books and started relying on procedural TV series like Law & Order. There were several reasons, but one that stands out is my developing skepticism with continuity. It was fun to see Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn get married, and reading "The Adventure of the Empty House" without "The Final Problem" is kind of pointless, but I was young and catching up on a hundred years of detective fiction - even if the order mattered (which it generally didn't), I could inhale the books one after the other at the library. Once I was caught up to the point where I had to wait for Sue Grafton's latest alphabet murder, the recurring characters and continuing threads started to become a nuisance; I just didn't remember them well enough from the last time I was immersed in this author's world, twelve months earlier. And if you've read them out of order, well, you probably won't have the guilty party spoiled, but you can cross some people off the list of suspects.

That's what seems to have happened with A Thief of Time; though it's the third Leaphorn & Chee movie produced for Mystery!, it appears to take place between Skinwalkers and Coyote Waits. Or maybe not, but the way Jim Chee (Adam Beach) flirts with local attorney Janet Pete (Alex Rice) and talks about a possible transfer to Washington that is a source of bitterness in Coyote certainly suggests it. So does how Emma Leaphorn (Sheila Tousey) mentions her chemo will leave her bald despite stating her hair had grown back in the previous movie. Thus, when Graham Greene shows up as hustling Christian preacher "Slick" Nakai, who also appears in Coyote Waits, it certainly seems unlikely that he'll be heading to jail this week. In addition, Lt. Joe Leaphorn (Wes Studi) finds a link to someone from an old case (Peter Fonda), and the reveal feels like it should be familiar to the audience as well. Perhaps it's from one of Tony Hillerman's early Leaphorn solo stories.

It's not just the continuing story that's familiar from Coyote Waits; the individual mystery seems similar, too. Once again, there's a missing archeologist/anthropologist on the trail of something extraordinary (this time, support for a theory on how the advanced Anasazi tribe disappeared) somehow connected to a crime Chee was unable to prevent in the opener. Everything here is initially much more muted, though - I don't think we have an actual corpse until halfway through. The low key nature of this investigation figures into the subplots: Leaphorn, a former big-city detective, is semi-retired and unfulfilled by a job which frequently has him merely serving summonses; he feels guilty when one of the academics flirts with him. Meanwhile, Chee's apparent lack of drive to go on to bigger and better things frustrates his girlfriend Alex.

Chris Eyre is in the director's chair again, and he maintains a tighter focus than he did with Skinwalkers. The movie mostly sticks with Chee and Leaphorn as they investigate, and doesn't make a whole lot of diversions into "Navajo life in general". The weakness comes from the writing, though it's unclear whether Alice Arlen's script or Tony Hillerman's novel is at fault. The link to Leaphorn's old case feels shoehorned in, and since that drives much of the novel's last act (telegraphing the final confrontation far too clearly), it kind of feels like a cheat. And if there's one thing a mystery story can't even seem to be doing, it's cheating.

And yet, if WGBH and Granada produce another Leaphorn/Chee movie next summer, I'll be all over it. Wes Studi is just too good in this role to pass it by. Maybe if some enterprising studio exec were to talk to Hillerman about a weekly Leaphorn series...

Monday, December 27, 2004

On The Waterfront

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 December 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #8 (Special Engagement)

Ten minutes' difference in getting out of work, and this is a completely different entry, because it means I catch the train instead of the bus, I reach Kendall Square an hour earlier, meeting up with Laurel plenty early enough to take in the preview of The Life Aquatic. Instead, I take three buses and a subway, even after it's clear things aren't going to break just right, because I at least owe her an explanation.

It's a little like that for Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront. He's made some bad decisions, and the easiest thing might be just to do nothing, but there's a girl, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), and she deserves something. Of course, she's got a dead brother, not just an hour in bitter-cold weather. She knows why her brother's dead, too - he talked to the police about the corruption in the longshoremans' union - so she doesn't need an explanation. She wants action.

In the fifty years since On the Waterfront was first released, perceptions have changed. Marlon Brando went from a working-class, ruggedly-handsome leading man to a bizarre, corpulent eccentric (but without the outsider-genius rep of Orson Welles). Organized crime's influence on labor unions has gone from being something known but unsaid to black comedy to the kind of stereotype that one awkwardly apologizes for being aware of. Malloy often speaks in a peculiar argot (at least, peculiar to a middle-class guy in 2004), and Edie is reamarked upon for studying to be a teacher. Lesser movies may age poorly because of such things that root them to a specific time or place, but the ones that endure don't show their age. On the Waterfront is still the product of a specific time, but it's still young and vital, despite the decades between its time and our own.

Part of the reason for this is that director Elia Kazan never sets out to shock his audience. The corruption of the union isn't surprising in the least; you get the impression that the Crime Commission has been looking for a way to prove something everyone knows is true for a while. When the mob moves to murderously protect its interests, there's no great amount of suspense; that these threats of exposure are eliminated is to be expected. Kazan and company are simply telling a story, and although it's a ripped-from-the-headlines social justice story (literally; Budd Schulberg's script is credited as being suggested by articles by Malcolm Johnson), it isn't an exposé of a corrupt system, but rather a story about the person who stood up.

Whistle-blowers like Terry Malloy are popular subjects, of course; especially for biopics. Even without knowing that Malloy is based on a specific individual, though, he comes off as more real than many of those pictures' subjects. He captures a lot of basic insecurities - potential he knows he hasn't lived up to, specific chances he's missed, a girl who's out of his league (something he's loath to admit exists in the first place). He's afraid to bring down a system that he knows is corrupt and wrong, which has hurt him specifically, both because he fears reprisal and because his brother is part of it. He's not that smart - it takes him a while to work all this out, despite how his book-smart maybe-girlfriend implores him. He is, however, able to grasp his importance as a symbol toward the end, even if Edie doesn't or doesn't want to.

Modern moviegoers used to location shooting and exact recreations may smirk at the production values, but may not. Boris Kaufman's black-and-white photography is active, always pointing at exactly what the audience needs to see. The sets describe the places they represent well: Cramped living quarters, or work areas overfilled with people. Characters look grimy, or too slick, or pure and virginal almost (but not quite) to the point of exaggeration.

On the Waterfront has a boatload of awards, and it's earned them. The new print struck for the anniversery is sharp. My only real complaint is that the cartoon Landmark attached to it was just as awful as the feature was good.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 December 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run)

The art-house action movie is a strange phenomenon. They are foreign imports almost by definition; a domestic action movie would open in multiplexes, with few exceptions (Equilibrium is the only recent example that leaps to mind); on the other hand, the boutique audience isn't always willing to appreciate a good action scene as something worth striving for on its own, advancing the plot be damned.

Though, to give it its due, House of Flying Daggers holds its own in the plot department. The title refers to a group of rebels operating just outside the capitol; having received information that the rebels have a new agent placed inside the Peony Pavilion brothel, the police send one of their number, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), undercover. When they find out the beautiful new dancer Mei (Zhang Ziyi) is blind, well, the old leader had a blind daughter, didn't he? Hoping that she'll lead them to their leader, a disguised Jin breaks her out of prison. As his partner Leo (Andy Lau) informs him during a secret meeting, though, an overzealous general is troops to stop them, or at least make the escape appear convincing. It's enough to make Jin question whether he's on the right side.

Lau, of Infernal Affairs, is once again playing the infiltration game, only this time it doesn't take place in modern China. And, of course, there's a pretty girl involved, meaning that the matter will become personal at some point. It is a believable whirlwind romance, though, even when characters become aware of the multiple levels of deception involved. It may be unnecessarily tragic toward the end; though it makes for grand opera, but do people really think in such operatic terms? I'm not sure.

Visually, this film is a stunner. Director Zhang Yimou saturates the first half with color, with the scenes at the Peony Pavilion a sight to behold, especially during an "Echo Game", in which Leo throws stones at drums and blind Mei must repeat their sequence. He also uses this part of the movie to establish the style of the action scenes: They are unusually digital effects-intensive, with the camera following thrown objects or flying through the scene in slow motion.

As an aside, I find it an amusing irony that the action movies that become boutique-house successes in the United States feature a lot of FX trickery - digital weapons, extensive wire-work - while the Jackie Chan and Jet Li stuff which works based upon the incredible athleticism of its stars is relegated to the grindhouse. Aren't the boutique types usually the first ones to dismiss an American movie for being nothing but digital effects?

Flying Daggers is more, of course - its plot holds together pretty well, aside from being an excuse to string action scenes together. The characters are well-drawn and well-acted, and Yimou brings more artistry to this kind of movie than one might expect. During the final action sequence, for instance, the season seems to change from summer, to fall, to winter. The characters don't fight for four whole months, of course, but Yimou is able to make this metaphorical change in the world work, when in a less sure hand it might seem pretentious or nonsensical. One of the giants of world cinema, Yimou has only recently turned his hand to action/adventure (Flying Daggers is his follow-up to Hero), and he brings more attention to detail and storytelling sense than some of the genre's other practitioners.

House of Flying Daggers serves as a reminder that action movies don't have to be stupid, and that movies about human feelings can be illustrated with bold, physical confrontations. It's the epitome of the art-house action movie, and it would be a fine thing if we could see more like it.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Coyote Waits

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 December 2004 in Jay's Living Room (American Mystery! Speical)

Although the second Chee/Leaphorn movie has a more complicated story than the first (Skinwalkers), it feels like a more streamlined movie. It's certainly more focused; where its predecessor ran off in several different directions, Coyote Waits is first and foremost a murder mystery. Running a close second is how it follows up on Officer Jim Chee and Detective Joe Leaphorn; the travails of living on a Navajo reservation are a much more distant third than they were in Skinwalkers.

These elements are not totally absent; they're quite present. For instance, Leaphorn (Wes Studi) does a bit of speechifying about how if he had one wish, he'd eliminate booze, having seen how it changes people, especially Indians. And this isn't a story that could easily be dropped into any other environment; the peculiar jurisdictional issues that arise from the semi-autonomy of the reservations figures in. These issues are simply treated as part of the environment in which Leaphorn and Jim Chee (Adam Beech) live, and they are important in terms of how they affect the investigators going about their work, not as points for the audience to be made aware of.

The movie takes place some time after Skinwalkers, and things have happened to Chee and Leaphorn in the meantime. Mrs. Leaphorn's cancer seems to be in remission, for example, and public defender Janet Pete (Alex Rice) has declined a job in Washington, presumably because of Jim Chee. As the movie opens, Chee is heading into the station, but stops to pick up a college student hitch-hiking to work. Because she's in the car, he doesn't follow procedure and immediately render aid to a fellow officer; when he does arrive, the officer's car is on fire (Chee burns his hand badly enough to be taken off active duty), and an old man with a gun and a bottle of thirty dollar whiskey is stumbling away.

It's an open and shut case, except that the man is part of the same clan as Leaphorn's wife, and she asks that he investigate. When Alex draws the case, Chee begins to investigate, too, to make sure he made a good collar. What both end up realizing is that, no matter who did it, the crime is definitely more complicated than an old man doing something stupid after getting liquored up. A license plate leads to a Vietnamese professor at the local university, while a tape of oral histories leads to another member of the faculty. And then the FBI steps in...

Coyote Waits is, first and foremost, a solid franchise mystery. We've been introduced to our detectives, so let's put them on a case and let them run. The mystery story plays fair with the audience, not giving Leaphorn or Chee access to information that gives them an unfair advantage in solving the case over the audience at home. The case itself has the requisite number of red herrings, strange revelations, and intriguing motivations to keep the viewer guessing, and leads up to a nifty conclusion.

The biggest improvement between the first and second movie is in the character of Jim Chee. Where I think the first film suffered from a desire to cast Chee a sort of ideal, this movie lets us see his imperfections more. He doubts both his abilities and worthiness as a medicine man, isn't nearly so confident in his dealings with Alex, and spars with Leaphorn when they're approaching the case from different sides. Being a less-perfect protagonist agrees with Adam Beach; he actually shows some chops when he has to make Chee a bit of a self-pitying jerk rather than the noble Indian in touch with both the old ways and modern life who can do no wrong. Wes Studi still blows him off the screen when they share a scene, but what can you do? Studi's a better actor with an older, more experienced, more multi-faceted character.

The quality of the production is something of a surprise, not just because it is a co-production of a PBS station and Britain's Granada TV, but because of the people involved. Writer Lucky Gold's career is mostly soaps, which prizes generating large amounts of acceptable writing quickly more than a solid hour and a half. Director Jan Egleson is a veteran of TV-movie filler. They're dependable workhorses, but don't come with the repuation Chris Eyre brought to the first movie in the series. Still, they get the job done, and stay focused on the mystery elements.

Thus far, PBS's American Mystery! series isn't bad; I hope it's getting enough of a response to increase production from more than one movie per year (and perhaps take on some other detectives).

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Mothra (1961) (Mosura)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Midnight/Matinee Madness)

Would-be filmmakers should take Mothra as either encouragement or a warning. On the one hand, it shows that even if you have very little to work with, it can still find an audience and be remembered for years to come. The flip side of this, of course, is that a movie with quite frankly hilarious shortcomings in the production values department can dog you for generations. Director Ishiro Honda spent much of his career doing this type of movie, so maybe he isn't embarrassed by it, although he may just have been a good Toho employee.

If he was embarrassed, he shouldn't have been. Amused, perhaps, that forty-plus years after its initial release, this movie is still remembered and held in enough esteem to get new prints and a limited run in repatory theaters. Mothra belongs to that class of monster movies that are so simple in their conception and exuberant in their execution that they manage to work despite their obvious budgetary shortcomings. It also taps into something real - it's not as close to Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the original Godzilla (itself written by Honda), but the spectre of radioactive contamination and the fears of America running roughshod over its allies were still prevalent enough in the Japanese mindset (and, to a lesser extent, everywhere in the world) to make this story seem somewhat topical.

Here, "America" is disguised as Rolisica, an island nation that nonetheless conducted nuclear tests on Infant Island and takes total control of an "international" mission to investigate the island, when Japanese sailors stranded there say that they were saved by natives. When the Rolisican impressario who funded the expedition, Clark Nelson (played by American-born Jerry Ito, he has an Anglophone name but Japanese features) kidnaps two foot-high girls they find on the island, the natives call on their island's guardian, Mosura (transliterated as Mothra), to retrieve them - and the Rolisican Embassy gives him sanctuary, even as Mosura (in its larval form) is laying waste to Japan. Eventually, he flees to his own country, but Mosura follows, its moth form ready to do as much damage to "New Kirk City" as its larval form to to Tokyo.

What you're working with here is basic dime-novel fiction, giant-moster style; you've got the journalist main character (Frankie Sakai), his photographer assistant (Kyoko Kagawa), and an initially reclusive linguist who sort of winds up being a general-purpose scientist. The foreign villain likes to throw his head back and laugh. The editor is gruff and demanding. There are native populations who can surround a party without a sound. And there's a scale model of Tokyo to crush. Honda is familiar with all this stuff (he also wrote Godzilla and directed Rodan), and he knows exactly how far he can go without overplaying his hand.

The production values on movies like this walk a fine line between impressive and laughable. There's great attention paid to detail in terms of how well the miniatures are built, for instance, and they look good coming down. However, both the Mosura larva and later moth form look quite goofy, and a lot of the action looks to be done with toys. Seriously, when you see Nelson pick the "tiny beauties" up, they're clearly Barbies (or whatever the equivelent Japanes 11.5-inch fashion doll is named). And I wouldn't be surprised if the tanks were remote-controlled vehicles that anyone could get off the shelf; the soldiers' heads peeking out are immobile and don't exactly look like they were sculpted and painted by someone used to working at that scale. The cars flying through the air as Mosura approaches New Kirk City? Matchboxes.

But it's kind of charming, too. I don't know if "charming" would be the right work to describe it had I seen it in 1961, but in 2004, it's possible to admire how much Honda did with so little, making up for what his effects team couldn't do with what he could. Kitsch looks better with a little distance.

So Mothra ends up being a lot of fun, and embeds itself into Japanese pop culture to the point where the giant bug has appeared in the four most recent Godzilla movies, 40 years later. it endures, more than can be said about many movies of its age.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener; projected video)

It's almost impossible to count the number of ways in which animation grand master Hayao Miyazaki excels, and probably even more foolish to try and discriminate as to which is most important. Still, one has to start somewhere, and for me it's his kids.

Even though their forms are exaggerated, they still seem more believable than the children in many live-action films. They're in nearly constant motion, they yell in delight, they break into tears when they don't get their way. Four-year-old Mei is still soft with baby fat and is prone to wander off, while her more responsible older sister Satsuki is drawn with skinny, angular limbs that poke out from under her clothes. Along with their University-professor father, they've moved out to the country to be near their mother while she recuperates from some illness, to a house that seems to be haunted.

It's not actually haunted, though; it's just filled with tiny spirits of dust and disuse that can be found in any house which has stood empty for so long. As soon as the family has let light into all the house's disused corners, the float out, retreating to the camphor tree that seems to be the source of the area's magic. It is under that tree that Mei finds a gigantic, furry beast with pointy ears and a deep voice that calls itself Totoro.

Only the children can see Totoro, the two smaller creatures of the same type, and the cat-bus that populate this film's world with magic. But to Miyazaki's credit, he doesn't harp on this, or have the adults act with disbelief or be patronizing when Mei first describes Totoro. That children are more open to the fantastic is assumed, and even if the girls' father or the old lady who watches them while he works in the city assume that Totoro is a product of the children's active imaginations, they don't rain on the girls' parade.

As with all of Miyazaki's films, Totoro is a joy to behold. Backgrounds are active and detailed; faces are simply drawn but highly expressive. The design work is striking, as usual - kids can probably sketch Totoro with a few quick strokes, but that doesn't make him limited at all. The cat-bus is acreations that would probably make the Disney company nervous - it's got a dozen legs, a smile so large as to be almost sinister, glowing eyes... And yet it's so full of wonder that it will more often be the stuff of dreams than nightmares.

A person obsessed with plot might find this movie unsaitsfying - though the last act of the movie deals with Satsuki looking for Mei, who has gone missing, this is not a movie where a conflict is introduced in the first act, with tension increased in the second and finally a resolution in the third; nor is there any particular meaning given to the fantasy elements. A family moves to a house, some odd things happen, and then life goes on. Along the way, the audience will see beauty and experience feelings and events vicariously. But, then again, isnt't that how we remember childhood, as something both scary and magical, almost divorced from our adult lives, as opposed to the rites of passage emphasized by the movies which need a story structure?

There aren't many Hayao Miyazakis in the world. In animation, he stands alongside Walt Disney and maybe Osamu Tezuka, although John Lasseter and Brad Bird may join them when their filmographies are as long and varied as they are distinguished. This film is from the middle of Miyazaki's career in features, which is part of what makes it truly astounding - that he was still able to improve afterward.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002) (Gojira tai Mekagojira)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 December 2004 in Jay's Living Room (DVD)

I must say that I find the attitude that the more recent Godzilla movies take toward series continuity refreshing. Where other long-running series which have had multiple creators - think James Bond, Star Trek or Marvel/DC comics - force the later writers to work around convoluted, anachronistic, or flat-out contradictory history, the rules from Godzilla 2000 on seem to be simple - the original 1954 Godzilla is always in continuity, but aside from that, start as fresh as you want.

It's pretty much the ideal amount of flexibility - the characters in the new movie don't have to spend time learning everything the audience already knows about the big green guy, but the filmmakers can go in whatever direction they want. I didn't find it quite so well-made as the movie which preceding it (Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monster All-Out Attack!), but it's not bad. The inevitable part without men in suits are enjoyable enough, and there's some decent action too.

A the film opens, it's 1999. Godzilla isn't the only giant monster to rampage through Tokyo in the last forty-five years, but he was the worst, and when a new Godzilla appears, he easily rebuffs the weapons used by the AMF (Anti-Megalosaurus Force) to combat the likes of Mothra and Gaira. Japan decides on an audacious plan - to build a Godzilla-sized robot on top of the skeleton of the original Godzilla to combat this new one when he inevitably returns. Four years later - though scientist Yuhara Tokmitsu's (Takuma Shin) daughter Sara hasn't seemed to age a day - the robot is ready and armed to the teeth, with a controller (Shaku Yumiko) whose actions during the last Godzilla attack cost several soldiers their lives looking for redemption. Good thing, too, because a certain radiation-spewing giant lizard has been spotted off the coast. There's just one catch - the DNA-based computer used to run "Kiryu" uses Godzilla-DNA...

There's potential here - while to a certain extent, all you need here is Godzilla, a scale model of Japan, and competent direction, there are some interesting plot threads, and I'm not talking about the obligatory single dad with a daughter who has been withdrawn since the death of her mother being attracted to the guilty soldier. There's some interesting stuff off to the sidelines, such as concern from the world at large that Japan building a giant robot with all sorts of guns and missiles and an "absolute zero ray" just might be considered re-arming, which I imagine would make Korea, Russia, and other neighboring countries nervous. The DNA computer is a fun sci-fi concept, especially when it leads to a great "ghost in the machine" moment. The brief hope of a Godzilla movie worth watching for its story, though, is quickly extinguished.

And, to make matters worse, Godzilla doesn't even stomp Tokyo; he does in some military hardware and a gigantic water park. The action scenes are pretty keen, though - as much as CGI in a Godzilla flick seems wrong on a fundamental level, seeing the big guy blast plane out of the air with his radioactive breath is, in fact, cool. Same with a bunch of heat-seeking missiles homing in on him. It's too bad Mechagodzilla is such a relatively featureless design; even next to Godzilla, it looks fake.

It's an average Godzilla movie. You like Godzilla, you'll likely enjoy it. It probably won't become a favorite, but it won't be the opposite extreme, either.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

National Treasure

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 December 2004 at AMC Fenway #8 (first-run)

The reason I will likely never actually get paid to give my opinion of movies is that I can't give something like National Treasure the sort of extreme reaction it seems designed to draw from critics. I can't be the shill that sticks superlatives on it, but it doesn't create the desire for my review to have the nastiest, most smart-ass intro on all of Hollywood Bitch-Slap.

National Treasure is competent. It doesn't break any new ground in its storytelling, acting, or staging. Director John Turteltaub is not as flashy as some of producer Jerry Bruckheimer's usual collaborators, letting the story unfold with a minimum of distractions. The screenplay (credited to Cormac & Marianne Wibberly from a story by Jim Kouf, though the one-sheet listed Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio as well) hits the expected spots at the expected times, and doesn't give the cast much to do that's particularly memorable.

It is a fun story, though - Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) is the latest in a family that has been entrusted with a vague clue that supposedly leads to an incredible treasure, brought to America by the Knights Templar, a group which the movie tells us became the Freemasons. Many of America's Founding Fathers, of course, belonged to this group, and Masonic symbols still appear on American currency. Gates's search for this treasure is being financed by one Ian Howe (Sean Bean), but it doesn't take long for Howe to reveal himself as the film's villain. Having determined that the next clue is written on the back of the Declaration of Independence, Gates, assisted by tech whiz Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), races to steal it first. Along the way he picks up Abigain Chase, a cute archivist (Diane Kruger) and clashes with his father (Jon Voight), who has given up on finding the treasure. Along the way, there will be chases, standoffs, and the ever-popular "hidden chamber with a bottomless pit in the center".

There is a sort of optimization to this movie's casting that fascinates me. At the top, you have Nic Cage, a legitimate movie star. Star power, however, isn't additive, so the sidekick and love interest can be almost complete unknowns. The villain is a B-list guy, once pegged as a leading man, but never actually attaining that goal; thus he's a credible threat to the hero but won't actually steal the picture. Guys with good reputations forged a generation or so ago but not much to show for it recently play the hero's father and grandfather. A workhorse with indie cred (Harvey Keitel) reminds the audience that the FBI agent in charge of investigating this mess is important. I find myself wondering whether replacing Nicolas Cage with, say, Mark Wahlberg would have meant upgrading Justin Bartha to Seth Green and replacing Sean Bean with someone like Arnold Vosloo to compensate for the difference in star power.

So, let's run down what we've got - a fun basis for the movie, a producter known for delivering the good production values, an able enough director, and a decent cast. The bad news is that nobody overachieves and delivers more than you would reasonably expect; the good news is that nobody screws up. So the movie winds up being a couple of enjoyable hours, though nothing that will merit buying a DVD so that you can own it for ever and ever.

On the plus side, it's fairly kid-friendly. I don't think anyone bleeds - heck, even the [i]bad guys[/i] use non-lethal weapons on a guard while breaking into the National Archives. There's only the mildest sexual innuendo (or, unfortunatley, tension), and the rest of the language is kept clean, as well. At one point, Gates and Riley tut-tut about Abigail swearing, even though it sounded to my ears like she said "dumb" instead of "damn". Some in the audience won't see the PG rating as an asset, but it works for this picture. Its secret societies and conspiracies aren't sinister, so it wisely concentrates on the fun aspects rather than the gritty ones.

I suppose it comes down to where a person wants to draw their line and establish their standards. National Treasure is a pleasant adventure/quest movie, whereas Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a great one (at this point, feel free to imagine me looking at their relative success at the box office and grumbling about the world not being fair). "Pleasant" was enough for me on that particular night, but may not be enough for everyone.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 November 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

Reconstruction is "clever", "self-referential", "meticulously constructed", and, dare I say it, "post-modern". These are all fine things for a film to be, although they are all descriptors of an intellectual nature. Which would be fine if, in its earliest fit of self-awareness, the narrator didn't assure the audience that even though the whole thing is artificial, a construction, the audience will come to care as if it were real anyway, a goal that it only sporadically meets.

That is, of course, the sort of promise that is implicit in any work of fiction. There are many interpretations for why co-writer/director Christoffer Boe included the explicit statement, from pretension to desperation and back to wanting to underscore one of the film's themes. Or perhaps it is merely forewarning, because otherwise one's initial impression of the film would be that of a well-written romantic fantasy, and may be disappointed when it becomes something else.

The story initially seems straightforward - Alex (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) meets Aimee (Maria Bonnevie) in a bar, and hits on her, dispite having a girlfriend Simone (also played by Bonneville) while she is married to August (Krister Henriksson), a writer who also serves as the narrator. They have a tryst while August is out of town, but when Alex leaves Aimee's hotel room, he finds that his entire life has been erased - his apartment no longer exists, while his landlord, friends, father, and girlfriend no longer recognize him. And when he meets up with Aimee again, it's unclear whether she knows him or simply finds him attractive for the same reasons she did before.

The idea of a rewritten reality that only one person can remember is one that has been in play a lot over the past decade. The most recent high-profile example is probably The Forgotten with Julianne Moore; perhaps the most jaw-droppingly cool is Alex Proyas's Dark City. A cult TV series named Nowhere Man still has its fans. Perhaps one of the most obscure, but closest to what Boe is attempting here, is comic-book philosopher Alan Moore's "Book of Mercury", a book containg the complete history of the universe (one that can be emended) which appeared in an otherwise undistinguished line.

Those works, though, have stories in which the characters acknowledge the oddness of their situations, where this remarkable, impossible thing pre-empts everything else, but here, it just seems like a distraction from Alex's interest in the two women. Of course, he may just be written that way; it soon becomes clear that AUgust's writing is affecting Alex's life. Is he trying to steer Alex away form his wife, or is there actually no Alex at all? After all, the uncanny similarity between Simone and Aimee suggests that one or both of them is something other than she seems. It's an interesting setup, which raises interesting ideas, but there's no story to it.

It's a well-made movie - the acting is good, especially from Ms. Bonnevie, who essays her two seperate parts well enough that it's not initially obvious the same actress is playing both roles. Boe's direction is excellent, especially for someone directing their first feature. He uses a grainy film stock in order to highlight the story's artificiality, and establishes scenes with extreme overhead shots that serve as maps for character locations. It's a visually striking film, certain enough.

It is also a film that often seems primarily designed to make smart people feel smart. It throws ideas around, little dollops of them, and when these ideas don't add up to a real story, the audience is meant to be impressed at how ambiguous and open to interpretation the final result is. And that's a perfectly fine response, and I don't begrudge anyone any enjoyment they get that way. Boe was one of the founders of the Dogme 95 movement (though he must have been an intern or something), and although I liked it more than Dogville, it rubbed me the same way - so impressed with its own cleverness that it forgets to be anything but clever.

Actress Apocalypse

* * (out of four)
Seen 4 December 2004 at Coolidge Corner Theater #1 (Midnight Ass-Kickings)

My strongest obligation Saturday night was to my brother, a theater/cinema major at Northeastern University who had a play to perform. After that was done, there were only a couple of hours to kill until the start of Actress Apocalypse, a film co-written, produced, and starring Garo Nigoghossian, the fellow who programs the "Midnight Ass-Kicking" series as the Coolidge. Now, I don't actually know Garo - I could pick him out of a lineup, but he probably couldn't reciprocate. But anyone who has attended one of his screenings at either the Coolidge or the demolished-and-replaced-by-a-Staples Allston Cinema over the past couple years will recognize his enthusiasm for grindhouse movies of all stripes. And when you're looking at a microscopically-budgeted movie, enthusiasm counts for a lot.

I don't doubt that Garo and company had fun making this movie. I mean, hey, naked girls, and they're working a kind of self-referential vibe that probably makes it easy to deflate anyone on the set who starts getting too full of himself. And with so little discernable acting talent on display, fun had better be part of the equation.

The plot, such as it is, involves a man trying to make a movie with his brother; what we see was supposed to be the making-of documentary. That the director (Nigoghossian) thinks his movie about a woman being terrorized by a big, mulletted Indian will merit supplemental features on its eventual DVD release is indicative about his mindset; he makes grand pronouncements about this being the greatest movie ever made, despite the fact that it is being made in a shed behind his house. The trouble starts on the first day when only one actress shows up for work; disgusted, she doesn't return for a second day, leading the group (which includes a cameraman and a thoroughly incompetent key grip) to argue, regroup, and reconsider the movie. Things get worse during the next round of auditions, when the brother strangles the auditioning actress.

Actress Apocalypse is a more professionally made movie than what it chronicles, though not by a huge order of magnitude. The actresses in the movie were cast, as one might have already suspected, by director Rich Aransky's wife taking a job at a Florida Hooters and recruiting there. The cast, for the most part, does a bit better than just reciting/reading their lines, but not enough so you'd offer them a job doing this. The production values are sub-Troma, and the editing...

Oh, Lord, the editing. The more movies I see that were edited on someone's Mac, the more I appreciate that this may be the hardest part of making a movie. Good editing doesn't stick out the way a nice score, an amazing performance, or a beautifully composed shot does, but bad editing absolutely kills a movie in a way few other elements can. Here, there's just too much editing, with shots of the actresses doing stripteases in what were apparently secret earlier auditions are intercut with scenes of another movie entirely, and bits of text appear for a few frames at random. The line between filling the screen with stuff that will be fun to find when you can pause the DVD and taunting the people who buy a ticket with stuff they can't possibly take in isn't exactly fine, and this movie is on the wrong side of it.

(Admittedly, I'm not sure how many beyond the 53 of us at the Coolidge will ever pay for a ticket.)

So how does it get two whole stars? It's got one trick that it does very, very well - the funny scene transition. Nearly every intertitle basically contradicts the director character's stated hopes at the end of the previous scene, in a positively withering way. This movie is not quite so skilled at it as, say, Arrested Development, but it is nevertheless able to punctuate its chaos with frequent zings. Garo's pretentious and deluded director is also a funny character, if not always a well-acted one.

Movies like Actress Apocalypse are true independent films, even if their ambitions aren't nearly as high-minded as the productions we associate with that label (which are made for mere six- or seven-figure budgets). Thousands probably get made every year, dying when festival programmers and video distributors aren't interested. This one got to play a midnight show at an independant theater and will get a release on DVD via Crash Cinema in 2005, which means it's already more successful than most of its brethren.

And of course, when people look at my 2004 film list, they'll say "you put that above Dogville?"

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Murder By Death

Okay, I'm thinking as this movie starts, we've got opening titles by Charles Addams, some pretty dead-on riffs on classic detectives by a spiffy cast, and a screenplay by Neil Simon. This is going to be fun. I settle in, and although I can't pin down the exact moment when the movie loses me, but I think I can guess why.

For the first half or so, this movie is all about the gag. Yes, the characters are very specific parodies of specific fictional detectives, but the jokes themselves are easily accessible to someone who didn't swallow Agatha Christie books whole as I did in junior high, which incidentally was followed by champoning Mystery! over Twin Peaks and Cheers in high school and becoming a fan of Humphrey Bogart and William Powell as an adult. Of course, for those of us that do fit that description, it's even funnier.

And the cast is pretty top-notch, and well-matched to their characters. David Niven could easily have stepped into William Powell's shoes for a few new Thin Man movies as "Dick Charleston". Peter Falk actually did another movie with the same writer/director as "Sam Diamond". Peter Sellers may not quite steal every scene he's in as Inspector Sidney Wang, but it's not for lack of trying (I swear that there was a "Sidney Wong" series, but can't find anything online; he's probably spoofing Charlie Chan). Elsa Lanchester is okay as "Miss Jessica Marbles" (though the Marple stories were never favorites of mine). James Coco certainly looks the part as "Milo Perrier", although the surprise here is James Cromwell as his assistant Marcel, a dead ringer for how Hugh Fraser would appear as Captain Hastings fifteen years later in LWT's Poirot series. Alec Guinness is fantastically funny as the blind butler, "Jamesir Bensonmum".

But look at those character names - they're straight out of "Mad" Magazine. And while "Mad" is great when you're ten, it can seem pretty trite to an adult. The movie winds up collapsing the same way a typical parody comic in that magazine does - under a crushing lump of self-referentiality, topped off by a snotty disdain for the subject matter that winds up pushing the fan away. I can laugh about the silliness of these characters' quirks, but parodists have got to respect that I love them, too. If all the filmmakers can bring is mockery, if they're not putting something fun back into my treasure chest of beloved film and literary bits to replace what they're casting aside, then the result is a mean-spirited, petty work.

And, by the end, that's what Murder By Death has become. The friendly jests of the opening half which brought genuine wit are replaced with arbitrary, cranky jabs at the mystery genre. This, one can't help but think, isn't nearly as much fun as it should be, or even nearly as much fun as it was an hour ago.