Friday, March 25, 2005

Big names from Japan: Takeshi Kitano's Dolls, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Bright Future, and Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy

How far behind am I on my reviewing? Between the time I saw two of these movies in the theater and the time I reviewed them, they were out on video. OK, the Brattle only got them a couple weeks before the video release, but wow. All of them are worthwhile, though.

It's interesting to me that Dolls and Bright Future were both advertised by the Brattle as playing against type. I haven't seen enough of either Kitano's or Kurosawa's work to determine whether or not that's really true, but Dolls did remind me quite a bit of Fireworks (only better), and Bright Future did strike me as a horror movie of a sort. As for Otomo, well, he's spent so much time making this movie (eight years!), that there haven't really been a lot of chances for him to establish a type; you sort of have to give him credit for Metropolis in order to put his career in perspective.

I really wish Otomo would do some more, though. I just picked Dark Horse's translation of Metropolis up last week - Newbury Comics had it on their half-off shelf, which was good since I apparently lost my copy on a bus last year before reading it and not paying full-price again was nice. I picked it up along with the first volume of Doll, another spiffy sci-fi manga, and I must say it felt odd actually buying comics at Newbury Comics. But, anyway, Metropolis was an early work of Osamu Tezuka's, and what Otomo did in his screenplay was astonishing; he took a rough, kid-oriented story and made it smart, adding and recasting characters while still keeping the same basic outline. Steamboy is much the same, although it appears to have been created directly for the screen.

Anyway, Steamboy was originally scheduled to play Boston for one week, but has been held over. It's playing dubbed before nine PM, and subtitled after, with the subtitled version twenty minutes longer. I might decide to check out the dubbed version, just to see if it's a little tighter and if not having ones attention drawn to the bottom of the screen makes the gob-smackingly gorgeous visuals even better.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Recent Raves)

I admit - I've kind of avoided Takeshi Kitano until last year. Hana-bi had bored me to tears when I saw it at the only boutique theater in Portland, Maine; and I didn't even connect him to the villain in Johnny Mnemonic, whom I'd read was the biggest star in Japan but hadn't impressed me. Besides, he did pretentious-seeming things like using different names in front of and behind the camera. I really had no idea just how great and varied his talents were until I started to read up on him in anticipation of Zatoichi's release, which allowed me to approach Dolls with an open mind.

Kitano's latest movie to see US release (though it preceded Zatoichi in Japan), Dolls, is a bit on the artsy side. The movie is three vignettes of tragic love, adapted from a type of puppet theater called Bunraku, and uses it as a framing device. Also, the tone of the film is very quiet, although with moments of great passion, and the three stories almost never actually affect each other, just passing close by.

Read the rest at HBS.

Bright Future (Akarui mirai)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 3 March 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Recent Raves)

The American Heritage dictionary defines "sinister" as an adjective meaning "(1) Suggesting or threatening evil; (2) Presaging trouble; ominous; (3) Attending by or causing disaster or inauspicious circumstances." It's not a word that pops into my head during a lot of movies, certainly not as the prime descriptor, but it describes much of Japanese horror filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Bright Future very well.

Bright Future isn't exactly a horror movie; it's more about disaffection than malice. Yuji Nimura (Jo Odagiri) and Mamoru Arita (Tadanobu Asano) work in a towel factory. Nimura's in his early twenties, Arita a few years older. They don't seem to have many other friends, hanging out together after work, mainly playing video games and drinking in arcades or their small apartments. Their boss (Takashi Sasano), apparently going through a mid-life crisis, feels similarly adrift, and latches on to them. He offers full-time employment, asks them to help move a desk into his daughter's bedroom and stay for dinner, and would also like to know if he could maybe borrow a CD with their favorite music. One time, he stops by Arita's apartment, and an encounter with the poisonous jellyfish Arita keeps in his salt-water aquarium shows how, though each is dissatisifed, it manifests itself in different ways.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * * (out of four) (2:16 subtitled Japanese cut)
Seen 23 March 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

I've seen Katsuhiro Otomo's new movie, Steamboy, referred to as "steampunk" a few times already. It's a term people have heard to describe alternate history stories set in the latter half of the nineteenth century, only positing a more advanced technology - though one generally based upon available tech and theory. It's a twist on "cyberpunk", itself a term that is already somewhat quaint. But, anyway, there's nothing very punk-ish about Steamboy. It's an exciting adventure story, filled with fantastical machines and daring escapes for its young hero. Call it "steampop", and call it a ton of fun.

After a prologue showing a father-and-son team of engineers working to create a mysterious new steam-powered device (requiring mineral water that will take fifty years to replenish) for a mysterious international consortium in 1866 Russian America (Alaska), we jump to Machester, England, where 12-year-old Ray Steam helps with the engines in a mechanized factory, crawling inside to fix the parts the burly chief engineer can't reach. When he arrives home, he finds a package from his grandfather, Dr. Lloyd Steam (a picture in the kitchen shows that he is the next generation of the engineers in America), along with a note not to allow it to fall into the O'Hara Foundation - who promptly arrive to take it. After an exhilarating chase scene, he fails, and is taken to London where he finds that the man his grandfather said must not get his hands on the "steam ball" is... Ray's father, Dr. Edward Steam?

Oh, yeah, this is going to be an uncomfortable Christmas dinner. The heart of the film is that Ray must choose between the values espoused by his grandfather, who insists science must be done slowly and carefully and only be used for the betterment of humanity, and his father, who is willing to work with arms merchants like the O'Hara Foundation if that's what it takes to bring his dreams to life. This is, of course, a highly simplistic way to frame the debate over how much scientific researchers should restrain their subjects as opposed tot their methods, but it's effective because it is, at its heart, a kid having to take sides between his father and grandfather, both of whom he adores. Give Otomo and his co-writer Sadayuki Murai credit, though, for also forcing Ray to realize that conflicts between idealists will inevitably become conflicts between groups seeking out their self-interest.

Read the rest at HBS.

Monday, March 21, 2005

SF/30 - Don't try this at home (10 movies)

So, anyway, the plan was to put all the movies I saw and reviewed at the thirtieth annual Boston Science Fiction Film Festival together into one post. Of course, this plan didn't take into account that my job had actually originally expected me to be doing some working-from-home that weekend, so I had almost no time to actually do any writing that week. Then I spent the next month actually seeing movies when I could have been writing about them. I think I've got something like a ten-movie backlog to review. My goal is to be caught up by the end of the month.

As you know, rather than full reviews, I'm just posting the first couple of paragraphs plus a link to where they are on HBS. I also just wrote a feature article about my thon experiences, a sort of diary. Here's the link. I actually did come up with most of this while in the theater. Whether that's bragging or confession is up to you, the reader. Otherwise, I would have put in some remarks about how it got tough in the middle, because I could only find my red pen, but the little light I was using to write by without disturbing my neighbors (much) was also red, so I couldn't see what I was writing. Thought I was going crazy for a minute there.

So, here's the reviews. Ten new ones, since I've previously written up four of them, and don't know what to say about The Adventures of Space Baby & Mental Man. I probably slept through a good chunk of it, and I'm not sure how to judge it - they spent several times what Primer, for instance, cost, so it's kind of professional, but it's also an enthusiast with no training directing his kids from a script he wrote with his eight-year-old son (who also stars). The conflict between "boy, that sucked" and "aw, isn't that cute" is nearly unresolvable. And, like I said, I don't know how much I actually saw.

My brother Matt, though, would probably kill to have the friend who funded this as a buddy of his.

The Creature of the Sunny Side Up Trailer Park (aka Bloodhead)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2005 at Somerville Theater #1 (SF/30) (Opening Night)

If there's one phrase I'd like to stomp out when when talking movies, it's "so bad it's good". It's right up there with "guilty pleasures" - you shouldn't feel guilty about liking any sort of movie, even if it's a cheaply-made monster movie. Also, the movies we describe as "so bad they're good" are good for reasons beyond the actual quality or lack thereof. Otherwise, logically, any idiot could ineptly make a movie and it would be a hoot.

There is a certain vibe to those movies we enjoy, but it's not easy to capture deliberately. If I had to guess, I'd say that you have to take your subject matter seriously, or at least convince the audience that you do, no matter how absurd it may be. That's why a jokey parody like, say, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavera falls flat on its face, while something like Christopher Coppola's Creature of the Sunny Side Up Trailer Park works rather well.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2005 at Somerville Theater #1 (SF/30) (Marathon)

"Superman" has received a lot of attention as a franchise over the past few years, with a popular TV show, a new movie finally being shot after spending about a decade in development hell, and a best-selling novelist writing one of the comic books (with superstar artist Jim Lee on another). With the star of this adaptation suffering and dying nobly, there has been a strong sentiment, both implied and outright stated, that this movie and its first sequel are not only the best adaptation of Superman ever made, but the best that ever can be made, and that all other versions are either pointless or must make some effort to pay homage to it.

Now, Superman is a fantastic movie. Only a few other comic book adaptations are in the same class as it. But to hear that Bryan Singer is considering the incorporation of unused footage from this movie in his forthcoming Super-movie, or tying the new film's continuity to Richard Donner's version is, I think, going overboard. The 1978 Superman is a classic, but it's not perfect. Singer, and anyone else considering adapting the character, should take note of everything this movie gets right - along with the few things it gets wrong.

Read the rest at HBS.

THX 1138 (2004 cut)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2005 at Somerville Theater #1 (SF/30) (Marathon)

Somewhere, in an alternate universe, THX 1138 had the same influence on science-fiction filmmaking that director George Lucas's later Star Wars did. I'm not sure what that universe looks like - perhaps the Matrix movies really were smart movies where the special effects existed to serve the story there, or perhaps Solaris (either version) was a smash hit - but I'm not sure that it's a better place. It's a very nice thing to have the occasional THX 1138, but I wouldn't want a multiplex full of them.

THX 1138 borrows heavily from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, positing a society where manufacturing and consumption isn't just the economic engine, but is the acknowledge central activity in people's lives. They take drugs to dull their senses and emotions, and watch their entertainment without appearing to get any real enjoyment out of it (is there an earlier depiction of a bored man absently channel surfing?). Everybody looks and dresses the same, down to their shaved heads. Life is a purely mechanical process, until someone breaks out of their ordained rut.

Read the rest at HBS.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2005 at Somerville Theater #1 (SF/30) (Marathon)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a good little film that, by being among the first to tap into a certain basic idea, became regarded as a classic. Some will say that it's an allegory for the fear of communism in the fifties, and maybe there's a little something to that. When watched in a crowded theater at midnight, however, it is still an inexpensive B-movie.

That basic idea, of course, is ones friends and neighbors being replaced by alien doppelgangers, alike in every way except for a lack of emotion. I find myself wondering what these duplicates would do if they succeeded in converting the entire world, as they apparently plan to. Are they programmed for a greater purpose? Would they cycle through endless identical days in an imitation of human life? Would they take their true forms, once they had the planet to themselves? We'll never know; the movie ends well before that can happen.

Read the rest at HBS.

Planet of the Apes (1968)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2005 at Somerville Theater #1 (SF/30) (Marathon)

Has a grimmer, more cynical story than Planet of the Apes ever become both a major pop culture touchstone and commercial franchise? Sure, there are horror series, but even they generally end with the bad guys vanquished, even if no-one really thinks it will stick. Planet of the Apes, though, offers us a hero who thinks the worst of people and isn't often far wrong.

That "hero" is George Taylor (Charlton Heston), an astronaut on a deep-space mission of exploration. Even in a state of suspended animation, the trip will take subjective years, and that's before relativistic effects multiply the objective time a hundredfold. This makes it in all likelihood a one way trip - even if they do return, civilization on Earth would likely be unrecognizable - and that suits Taylor just fine. Things go spectacularly wrong, though, and when they arrive at their destination, the sole female member of their crew is dead, and the ship is forced to crash-land. (As an aside, given the long-term, likely one-way nature of the journey even before the crash, a crew compliment of three men and one woman seems less than optimal.) Fortunately, the planet is relatively hospitable - oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, carbon-based life, human-friendly climate - except for its inhabitants: Somehow, on this world, humans are the only primates unable to speak or reason. A hunting party of intelligent apes captures Taylor and another survivor, dealing him a nasty throat injury that initially prevents him from communicating with his captors.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Apple

* * (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2005 at Somerville Theater #1 (SF/30) (Marathon)

Context is so very important when reviewing a movie. There are classic films I don't properly appreciate because I've only seen them on DVD in the solitary privacy of my living room. Similarly, when I tell you that I greatly enjoyed The Apple, it's important to realize that I saw it as the eighth film of a twenty-four hour, thirteen-film marathon, starting at around quarter of two in the morning. An actual good movie would have knocked me out cold, whereas The Apple sent my optic and otic nerves into overdrive and delivered enough sheer nonsense that my brain had to jump back up to full power in a futile attempt to make some sense of it.

Actually, making sense of it isn't terribly difficult. You just have to accept that American Idol (er, Eurovision - this 1980 movie only predicts the far-off world of 1994) is not only corrupt and rigged, but is in fact run by Satan - who not only controls the record industry, but can give its desires the force of law. Go ahead, use your own jokes. I'll wait.


Read the rest at HBS.

Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation

* (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2005 at Somerville Theater #1 (SF/30) (Marathon)

Most of the time, I have a hard time coming up with a snarky one-liner to be used at the top of the review. It's just not in me. While watching Starship Troopers 2, though, I not only came up with the one above, but "How cheap is a movie that can't even afford to bring back Casper van Dien?" also popped into my head, and I wrote them down.

Granted, the "writing down" was for a later diary feature and because the act of writing helped keep me awake when this movie was running at 3:30 AM, but it serves to illustrate a point: Pretty much all of the actual entertainment value of this movie was self-generated. As dismal as Paul Verhoven's Starship Troopers was, it featured some eye candy and some satire. The sequel just recycles some of those elements and grafts them onto Stock Sci-Fi/Horror Plot #4.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2005 at Somerville Theater #1 (SF/30) (Marathon)

There was initially some griping about the inclusion of Charly on the SF/30 message board about the selections were announced. For October Sky and Field of Dreams, I can understand, but Charly is a pretty decent science fiction movie.

It is, however, the kind of science fiction that doesn't exactly advertise its genre. The original short story "Flowers for Algernon" (later expanded into a novel) appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, which as a magazine tends to focus more on the literary aspects of the genre, such as characterization and writing style, as opposed to the big ideas and larger-than-life adventure of, say, Analog. Because of this, some will say that movies like this aren't really science fiction, but dramas, as if a story can't be both. And despite a story is more directly about scientific research than many SF movies, it is undeniable that Charly is an actor's showcase, less concerned with the ramifications of a new discovery than how it affects Charly Gordon (Cliff Robertson).

Read the rest at HBS.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2005 at Somerville Theater #1 (SF/30) (Marathon)

Part of the reason many people come to Boston's sci-fi marathon is for bad movies. Talking back to the screen is tolerated, to a certain extent, so there's the desire to see who can mock the hardest. Many of the old-timers first got into sci-fi by seeing midnight movies that seemed awesome to kids who didn't know any better. So, every year, the schedule makers make sure to toss in one piece of stinky cheese; this year, it was Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

I admit, it is kind of reassuring to see that movies like this were made fifty years ago. Today, when a movie that doesn't make a lick of sense but has some spiffy visual effects comes out, and people are falling all over themselves to proclaim that CGI is destroying the movies, it's good to be able to point at crap like this and say, hey, it's just the tools that have changed. It doesn't make the newer movies any better, but deflating nostalgia is generally good in and of itself.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Time Machine (1960)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2005 at Somerville Theater #1 (SF/30) (Marathon)

All good things must come to an end, and this year the marathon ended with George Pal's spiffy adaptation of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. And to think, just a couple years ago, we narrowly escaped a preview of the new version because a print wasn't ready in time.

I try to be stingy with the four-star ratings, because it can be misconstrued as "perfect", everything a filmmaker can aspire to create. The Time Machine isn't perfect, but if you look at rating a movie as starting from having four or five clay stars in your hands and hacking a chip off (or chucking a star aside) every time the movie falls short, by the time this movie ends you should still have your original complement of stars. That last one may be a little scuffed up, and maybe a notch or two where you certainly considered cutting but held off after a couple seconds' thought about it being released in 1960, but it still rounds to a perfect score.

Read the rest at HBS.

OK... I'm going to go for fewer than ten reviews plus a feature next time. How about two from Japan - Dolls and Bright Future? Some good connections between those two.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Children without parents in Japan: A Tree of Palme, Grave of the Fireflies, and Nobody Knows

There's not REALLY a pattern here - after all, between Grave of the Fireflies and Nobody Knows I went to the Boston Sci-Fi Film festival (that'll be a huge update), which didn't have an orphaned Japanese kid to be found. But this makes for a nice grouping.

Still, it is three films seen in a fairly short period of time which touch upon similar themes. And I don't know if it's giving away much to say that none have the sort of happy ending one might expect from a mainstream American film, not even the animated adventure movie. Nothing wrong with that, and it's probably more realistic than having kids thrive without some adult authority figure.

I wonder if it's a Japanese-versus-American thing. Are children idealized more in the United States, such that we have a much harder time bringing ourselves to depict them in danger or the victims of tragedy, or a greater respect for authority in Japan? Or am I just unfairly comparing Japanese movies made for adults to mainstream American movies made for kids?

Heck if I know. Probalby more spotting trends where there's nothing but a small sample size.

A Tree of Palme (Parumu no Ki)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 February 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Animation Celebration)

It's hard to look at Takashi Nakamura's A Tree of Palme and not think "Pinocchio". The central character, after all, is a wooden boy, on a quest which he hopes will culminate in becoming human. Certain sights seen along the way seem obviously lifted from that story (or at least Walt Disney's version of it), as well. But A Tree of Palme is its own animal, an intriguing science-fictional take on the concept.

The movie opens on a desert, with a warrior by the name of Koram fighting her way through a pack of pursuers. We also get our first view of Palme, dangling inert from a tree. Carved from a rare variety of wood that is said to store the memories of a civilization, he was crafted to be a companion to a terminally ill woman, Xian, and he just shut down after she passed on, only intermittently springing back to life over the ensuing decades. Koram bears a resemblance to Xian, which is enough to motivate Palme to complete her journey after she entrusts an incredible artifact/energy source to him.

Read the rest at HBS.

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Animation Celebration) (projected video)

Movies about soldiers, generals, and national leaders don't really get at why war is so awful. In even the most militarized societies, there's still a massive civilian population of people that try to go on living their lives in much the same way, only with a million times the stress placed on them. Most confused are children, who aren't yet equipped to understand just why the world has changed so much.

Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies (from a novel by Akiyuki Nosaka) tells the story of a brother and sister trying to survive during the American firebombing of Japan during World War II. The boy, Seita, is about twelve; his sister, Setsuko, is about five. Their father is in the Navy; they lose their mother early on. An aunt takes them in, but soon grows to resent them, and they strike out on their own.

Read the rest at HBS.

Nobody Knows (Dare mo Shiranai)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 27 February 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run)

Stories like the one which inspired Nobody Knows give one a better appreciation for the busybody - ones where each individual act is strange, but not strange enough to get noticed by someone minding their won business. Add them up, though, and the totality becomes almost unbelievable and shameful. It's the kind of story that could give rise to a sermonizing, strident film, but director Kore-eda Hirokazu makes something a little more interesting than that.

As the movie opens, Keiko and her twelve-year-old son, Akira, are moving into a new apartment The landlords think she's nice, and recognize Akira as the responsible boy he is, but say they're glad she doesn't have any more children. What they don't realize is that she does - the two youngest, Shigeru and Yuki, were smuggled in inside suitcases, with twelve-year-old Kyoko waiting at the train station until nightfall to sneak in unnoticed. At dinner, Keiko reminds the children that they must do what Akira says, and never get discovered, which means no going outside or making too much noise. The next day, she goes off to work, leaving Akira in charge. Soon, she's gone for days. Then weeks. Then...

Read the rest at HBS.

Next up: SF/30. 15 movies in three days, 13 of them in a 24-hour time period. It's a phenomenally stupid thing to attempt if you value your ability to function for the next week or so..

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Life in its myriad forms: Aliens of the Deep, Galapagos, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

More catching up, while also throwing I saw yesterday in because it sort of fits the theme.

Anyway, let it be known: I love IMAX. I really should go to the Aquarium and, especially, Museum of Science more often. I find it really distressing that more filmmakers are moving toward digital video and none have had the nerve to say "let's shoot a feature in IMAX". Digital video is getting better all the time, but there are still limitations to it. It'll be a while before it can capture a picture as clear and beautiful as large-format film. I get that filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez just want an easy-to-use tool that allows them to capture and manipulate what they see, and not have to be chemists, and I do approve of that mindset. But, still, it's not there yet.

I also thoroughly approve of James Cameron continuing to shoot underwater documentaries. One of my fellow critics at HBS led off with snarky comments about how Cameron is ducking the challenge of another feature, and my first (uncharitable) thought was "well, you can just go die". I'd much rather see Cameron create works like this that excite him than a feature that he doesn't feel as invested in.

(And, yeah, Cameron used digital video to shoot Aliens of the Deep. Now, while I bet that if there's any director who COULD figure out how to practically bring a ton of camera equipment and film to the bottom of the ocean, it's James Cameron, but this is a fair trade-off).

So, without further ado, the reviews (Galapagos isn't in HBS's database, and I tied it to the Aliens of the Deep review, so I'll just post the whole thing here):

Aliens of the Deep

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 12 February 2005 at the New England Aquarium Simons IMAX Theater (first-run)

It's funny; as much as I enjoy James Cameron as a feature filmmaker, I like him even more as a deep-water documentarian. Working in the documentary form frees him from the need to create character conflict and threats and villains. In Cameron's documentaries, the world - and the unknown - isn't something to be afraid of, but to be amazed by.

That kind of amazement is a hugely necessary thing. Think about it - when was the last time you saw a science fiction (or plain science) movie or television show that hit you wit, to use a phrase that is still accurate despite its frequent use, a sense of wonder? That said the universe beyond what we can see is full of strangeness, but made that strangeness something to be cherished? That is what James Cameron does in Aliens of the Deep.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 February 2005 at the New England Aquarium Simons IMAX Theater (double feature)

The Galapagos Islands are famous for being where Charles Darwin made the observations that led to the theory of evolution via natural selection. They are a stunning landscape, for the most part untouched by the hands of man, and there are still much to be learned by observing the local flora and fauna.

That is the goal of Carole Baldwin, a marine biologist with the Smithsonian, whom we follow as she explores the island, observing a variety of animals in their habitats and taking samples. She also climbs in a submersible to take samples from the waters around the islands.

As is to be expected, the three-dimensional photography is beautiful. Unlike Aliens of the Deep, Galapagos uses full-sized IMAX film, resulting in a clarity no other medium can yet match. The directors, David Clark and Al Giddings, are nature and underwater specialists, with an eye for good subjects. They're cognizant of the medium, allowing landscapes to take fill the screen and never zooming in too much - a close-up is a fine thing when the medium is a twenty-five inch television, but somewhat overpowering on an eight-story screen. How the local animals have adapted to blend into the surroundings presents them with a few challenges, but they're up to it.

As gorgeous as the photography is, though, the movie is somewhat dry. It's not quite a lecture-with-pictures, but Ms. Baldwin isn't quite as captivating a presence as the scientists who accompanied Cameron on his expedition (or isn't edited as well). The narration by Kenneth Branagh certainly doesn't generate much enthusiasm. The movie's "ooh, that's nifty" high point probably comes as Baldwin takes samples in her submersible; the vacuum cleaner-like mechanism is a neat and functional add-on to the bubble-like yellow machines.

The nature documentary is a tough genre to rate; they have a fairly simple mission statement, and there's sometimes the feeling that if you've seen one, a lot of others will be similar. Galapagos is a good example of the genre, well worth seeking out for people who love science, nature, or great photography.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 March 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run)

The title of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is not so much deceptive as it is incomplete - although they are unquestionably one of the film's main subjects, equal attention is given to the eccentric man who is their self-appointed caretaker. In many ways, this movie is even more about Mark Bittner than it is about his avian friends.

There are various theories presented as to how San Francisco acquired a flock of South American parrots; some clearly urban legends, with a story a bird-shop owner tells of one of his suppliers losing a shipment has the most credence. Despite being tropical birds, they have managed to eke out a life in this not-always-hospitable city. Bittner points out that they could have survived without him as a justification to his claim that they're wild animals (an amusing early scene has one passerby claiming that they can't truly be wild if they have names). A long-haired one-time musician, Bittner isn't completely domesticated either. His "landlords" say that they don't want to use the term "squatter", but saying that does kind of get it out there. This will be important during the movie's second half.

Read the rest at HBS.

Next on the agenda - three Japanese movies about kids without parents: Tree of Palme, Grave of the Fireflies, and Nobody Knows

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Bollywood/Hollywood: Bride & Prejudice

So far, I think I've seen about four attempts to merge Bollywood and Hollywood sensibilities. They line up thusly:

Bollywood/Hollywood: Pretty bleak; I found it a movie made by someone who had a chip on her shoulder, like she really detested the Bollywood style.

Bride & Prejudice: Decent enough. The script could have used a little more work, but overall an enjoyable two hours.

Monsoon Wedding: Unlike the previous two, it doesn't seem to try to bridge a gap. Indeed, it often feels like an American independent film set in India, not stopping for musical numbers per se, but having the music be a natural part of the movie.

Moulin Rouge: Of course, here Baz Luhrman just threw everything into the blender. A work of demented genius.

So, anyway, the teaser, opportunity to spend money, and link:

Bride & Prejudice

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 February 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run)

Part of what Hollywood does is pillage other film industries. We've been raiding England for most of a century, Australians happily hide their accents to get access to those big Hollywood budgets, and it seemed like half the people making action movies in Hong Kong tried to stick in the US for a while in the nineties. People have completely forgotten that Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek used to do mainly Spanish-language work, and Paz Vega's first American movie was released last year. Now Hollywood has taken notice of India's booming film industry, and has lured one of "Bollywood"'s most popular actresses over. It's a pity that what appears to be the first in a string of English-language movies for Aishwarya Rai isn't much to write home about.

Bride & Prejudice is built for what seems to be the express purpose of introducing Bollywood to American (and, presumably, British) audiences. On that count, it does a decent job, although it's a somewhat watered-down version of Bollywood. It runs 111 minutes, long for a western romantic comedy, but Hindi movies are frequently an hour longer. There's a small amount of self-parody and pop-culture references thrown in, but they're all from a Western perspective (sure, I understand a joke about American Idol much better than one about its Indian equivalent, but I'd think both would be going on). And the story is adapted from a piece of Western literature, Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice - hence the cute name which I subconsciously keep trying to alliterate to "Bride and Brejudice".

Read the rest at HBS.

Three from Korea: Jungle Story, Ma Vie en Rose, Memories of Murder

I don't particularly like football; during the Patriots' recent run, I've been mostly indifferent and didn't become a hypocrite on the day of the actual big game. I believe the first year, I hit the Brattle for the Raiders of the Lost Ark/Superman double feature; the year after that it was Irreversible at the Harvard Film Archive - I found myself admiring the people who had the strength of character to walk out, quite honestly. I didn't go out last year, but this year I opted for a double feature at the HFA: Two from Kim Hong-jun, a figure who evidently looms large in contemporary Korean cinema despite having only directed two films in the mid-nineties.

Mr. Kim was also present, and proved to be an amiable speaker. He had about a 50% success rate at making jokes in a foreign language, which is about 49% better than I would be. He mentioned with some pride that Korea was one of about five countries in the world where more than half the movies in theaters were local productions (if I had to guess, I'd say the U.S., India, China, and maybe Japan were the others).

I imagine that it was but a coincidence that the next week brought us a recent Korean hit at the Brattle's Eye-Opener. It was a nice bit of syncronicity, though, with Memories of Murder sharing the same period and outlook as La Vie en Rose.

Anyway... the reviews:

Jungle Story

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2005 at the Harvard Film Archive (Global Visions: Korean Cinema)

When someone says "Korea" and "rock and roll" in the same sentence, one thing immediately leaps to mind - bootlegs. That may not be fair, but the picture painted of the local music industry in Jungle Story suggests that the bootlegs don't have much competition. The story of would-be rock star Yun Do-hyun is familiar no matter what country you're from, though.

After all, what's not to understand? Do-hyun has just finished his compulsory military service, but doesn't really know what he wants to do next. College doesn't really interest him, and his parents are losing patience. It's not that he's really passionate about music, but it interests him more than most anything else. Soon, he's moved to Seoul, gotten a job in a guitar store (a tiny space in a sprawling market), and become part of a band. They play a club, he gets spotted. An album is recorded, but not released because it's not what the focus groups say they want. He goes back to his home village, but soon is drawn back to Seoul, even if all he and the rest of the band can afford is a place in a slum known as "the jungle"...

Read the rest at HBS.

La Vie en Rose (Jangmibit Insaeng)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2005 at the Harvard Film Archive (Global Visions: Korean Cinema)

The Cold War created a lot of perceptions that, even if they weren't strictly inaccurate, were woefully incomplete. Ask the average American about South Korea as a nation, and he'll probably think of M*A*S*H, and say that it is a Western-allied democracy as opposed to Communist North Korea. True as far as it goes, but for a good chunk of its history, the Republic of Korea could be considered a free democracy mainly in relation to its northern neighbor - if you want to look thin, stand near fat people; if you want to look democratic, stand near Kim Il-Sung.

The description of the movie didn't really hint at any politics, making it looks like nothing more than a story about a petty thug hiding out in a comic book shop. On its face, this 1994 film sounds similar to the pop-culture-soaked gangster movies that Pulp Fiction brought into vogue on this side of the Pacific, but during the time when this movie was set, political dissidents often hid out in these all-night comic rental shops, paying a "midnight charge" (hotels were required to check IDs and alert the police). Native Koreans would know this; being a not-particularly-well-informed American, I needed some catching up. I didn't even suspect that the place wasn't even primarily a comic store until the owner (Choi Myung-kil) purchased comics from a supplier who mentioned not having seen her often.

Read the rest at HBS.

Memories of Murder (Salinui Chueok)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 13 February 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener) (projected video)

In 1986, the Republic of Korea was confronted with its first known serial killer. We find out during the opening narration of Memories of Murder that South Korea was at the time a military dictatorship, and for the next two hours we are given an object lesson in how a strong, authoritarian government cannot always stop a single, determined criminal.

The nature of the ROK's government at the time is an odd choice as the first piece of information the audience is given, as I imagine most Koreans wouldn't need to be told. I suppose that the younger generation who didn't remember it first hand could use the reminder, but it also serves to focus the viewer's attention on how that impacts the procedural elements of this movie. The principle weapon of law-enforcement in an authoritarian nation is intimidation, and while a climate of fear can deter potential criminals, one who has already gotten away with something is not so easily cowed. And then the cops are left with real police work, which they may not be used to.

Read the rest at HBS.