Saturday, May 28, 2005

Long time coming: Dirk Pitt, Douglas Adams, and Episode III

So, in just over a month, I get to see a Dirk Pitt movie, a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie, and the final Star Wars movie. Wow. I've been waiting for these for what seems like my entire life, and then, bam-bam-bam, out they come. And they're all good. That doesn't happen often enough.

Granted, I haven't been waiting for them anxiously - I always thought the Pitt novels would make good movies, even if I wasn't too impressed with the novel Hollywood eventually adapted, but didn't think it was a crying shame that movies weren't made. I'd sort of resigned myself to there never being a Hitchhiker movie, and was OK with that; it's one of the books (and, lest we forget, radio programs) that fires the imagination to the point where a visual representation seems unnecessary. And Star Wars - as much as I like endings, who wants it to be over?

One thing that pleased me greatly about Sahara and Hitchhiker's is that they aren't completely faithful adaptations. I own the originals, and I'll still be able to read new Dirk Pitt books without seeing/hearing Matthew McConaughey, or return to Douglas Adams' works without being particularly beholden to what Garth Jennings & company did. Some filmmakers may look at that as a failure, but it pleases me; I like that these are just one interpretation. Books are singular things, and I'd rather they not become the big collaboration that a movie is.

Another thing about Hitchhiker - I'm kind of surprised and disappointed that Activision hasn't re-released the classic Infocom game as a $5 CD. It was great fun and how I first encountered the story. Although, from Douglas Adams's website, Activision no longer owns it. The good news is, it's shareware/online/apparently free now. (Though, sadly, Bureaucracy isn't) Enjoy.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 April 2005 at AMC Fenway #11 (first-run)

I have to admit, I had mixed feelings when I first read the stories about Clive Cussler being upset with how this movie's producers were treating his story. On the one hand, you never really want to hear about a creator's wishes being disrespected, especially in a situation like this, where Cussler was so burned by the last movie adaptation of one of his novels (that Raise the Titanic movie really was ghastly) that he swore Hollywood off for two decades. But the thing is... This is Sahara we're talking about. It's roughly where I stopped picking Cussler's new novels up in hardcover and started looking at paperbacks and remainders; it's not a great book. As it turns out, a little "disrespect" probably made for a better movie.

The plot certainly follows the Dirk Pitt adventure template. Open with an action scene set sometime in the past, in this case a Confederate ironclad setting sail just before the end of the Civil War; give us a reminder of Dirk Pitt's past adventures, such as the newspaper clippings that litter his office; and set up two plots. In one, Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) will be taking part in an undersea salvage or scientific expedition along with his colleagues at NUMA (National Underwater and Marine Association), Al Giordino (Steve Zahn), Rudi Gunn (Rainn Wilson), and the organization's head, Admiral James Sandecker (William H. Macy). In the other, a more immediate problem will be uncovered by a pretty girl (in this case, Penelope Cruz as UN doctor Eva Rojas), who is rescued from a violent end by Pitt. They agree to help each other out, and go their separate ways until their paths cross just before the big action finale.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 May 2005 at AMC Fenway #13 (first-run)

One can be forgiven for not actually believing that a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie has actually been made. After all, the first paperback copy of the book I read in elementary school, about two decades ago, had a "soon to be a major motion picture" sticker on the front cover. At the time, it seemed likely enough - it had already been a radio show, a book, a television program, a record album that differed from the radio show, and a computer game. And yet it languished in development purgatory, with Michael Nesmith never seeming to find the money, Jay Roach never seeming to find the time, and writer Douglas Adams dropping dead of a heart attack while working out at the gym, an end he probably would have been amused by, though he (like us all) would have preferred it happen much, much later.

But, wonder of wonders, a movie has actually been made. A good one, too, with an appealing cast, many of Adams words (indeed, often whole sentences and even paragraphs) intact, excellent design, and much of the same sense of whimsy that made this story delightful in all of its iterations. That's a big accomplishment, since Adams's voice was distinctive: Playfully intelligent, cynical without being bitter, unrepentantly atheistic but still seeing the universe as full of beauty and wonder. Film is a highly collaborative medium, more so than any of the others, and it's easier for a writer's voice to get drowned out. Here, Adams isn't so much drowned out as much as music video director Garth Jennings and a team of production/costume/set designers elaborate on the ideas he tended to give a sentence or two before moving on to the next one. Adams's fingerprints are still all over the movie - other than adaptations of stage plays, I can't remember the last film where so much of the dialog came directly from the source material - but the visuals are all Jennings & company.

Read the rest at HBS.

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 May 2005 at Loews Boston Common #2 (first-run)

I was still waiting for it to hit me as I walked from from the Park Street T stop to the Loews Boston Common theater for a 9AM showing. Some would say that just being at a theater that early as a paying customer was a big deal itself, but if theaters had morning shows every weekend, I'd be there every weekend. As I bought my ticket and found a seat dead center toward the front, I awaited the goosebumps, the trembling in my legs, the acknowledgment that this trip to the movies was special. As the trailers for The Island, War of the Worlds and Fantastic Four ran, I actually wondered if it wasn't going to happen. Maybe the rest of Hollywood had caught up; maybe a new Star Wars movie was just another movie. It wasn't until the John Williams music started, and the camera followed two small spaceships as they traversed the hull of a much larger carrier ship, that I got excited. Then we followed them to open space, and George Lucas springs a look at the biggest space battle ever committed to film on us, and we gasp. And that's just what he's doing for openers!

As I watched this sequence, I'm as giddy as I have been while watching a movie in quite some time. Not just because, come on, spaceships and robots are cool, cooler than anything the other, lesser epics such as The Matrix and Lord of the Rings have thrown at us in the last few years. It's the early indication that Lucas is finally firing on all cylinders again. As much as I enjoyed The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, they didn't show the same skill. Right away, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, looking very Sir Alec Guinness-ish) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are trading words in a grimly humorous way. Then Lucas throws a swarm of droids at them, cleverly designed suckers that are almost cute, but whose job is to scrap any ship to which they attach themselves, and they start tearing into Obi-Wan's, actually ripping the head off his R2 unit in a way that seems gruesome, even if it's only a machine. It's an early but understated sign that Lucas is going to be playing hardball this time around.

Read the rest at HBS.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Silents & slapstick from Maddin, Chapin, and Chow

This is sort of a random grouping, but an interesting one to me. Feature comedies pretty much start at Tillie's Punctured Romance, and though fun, it's somewhat crude: Heavily reliant on slapstick and broad characterization. Also, you can sort of see just how much stars were commondities back during the early studio system: Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Norman are just "Charlie" and "Mabel" in the movie, not so much actors as movie stars, property of Keystone Films.

You still see that somewhat in the movie's descendents, Kung Fu Hustle and Cowards Bend The Knee. Their both descended from Tillie, but they're very distant cousins. Hustle comes from Hong Kong, and it leans heavily on the slapstick, with Stephen Chow basically playing Stephen Chow ("Stephen" is just his professional English name; his given name is "Sing", like the character he plays). The technology has evolved, though, with bright color, surround sound, and an abundance of impressive visual effects. It's very much the same type of movie as Tillie, once you look beneath a hundred years of technological progress.

Meanwhile, up in Canada, Guy Maddin is making movies that ape the technology and format of the early silents, but have darker subject matter, with more sophisticated narratives and a surreal artsiness that was still a decade away from really making it to America. Silent moviemaking is something of an endangered species now, and in a lot of ways Maddin's work isn't really an evolution of the early silents but a pastiche of it. It's still a descendent, but a genetically-engineered one using cloned tissue, to a abuse the metaphor something fierce.

Tillie's Punctured Romance

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 April 2005 at Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (Sounds for Silents)

Fame is fleeting. When this film was first released, it had what was considered an all-star cast, and the title cards were all labeled "Marie Dressler in Tillie's Punctured Romance". Now, even many avid movie lovers would be hard pressed to identify any of those cast members other than Charlie Chaplin. Of course, this film was released in 1914, so maybe fame isn't that fleeting. It's well worth a look, both for its place in history - it's both the last time Chaplin would be directed by someone other than himself and the first feature-length comedy - and as a solid slapstick comedy in its own right.

And let me underline, italicize, and boldface that: This movie is a slapstick comedy. Roughly eighty percent of the movie involves people getting knocked around, falling down, and running into things, or so it seems. All this slapstick is performed by some of the silent era's greatest physical comedians - Dressler, Chaplin, and Keystone star Mabel Normand - but if that brand of comedy isn't your thing, this movie probably won't change your opinion. Truth be told, even fans might be somewhat daunted by the prospect of eighty minutes' worth, but this isn't the torture of watching a Three Stooges feature; the gags are at least mixed up a little.

Read the rest at HBS.

Kung Fu Hustle (Gong Fu)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 12 Mary 2005 at Loews Kendall #6 (first-run)

On the one hand, to say that Kung Fu Hustle shows that Shaolin Soccer was no fluke is to be rather parochial; even though those are the first Stephen Chow movies to get anything like widespread distribution in America, he's been directing movies for a decade and has been one of Hong Kong's biggest box office draws for about that long. On the other hand, though, it is something of a validation of its predecessor's success, and not just because it is very, very funny. It shows that the effects-heavy, cartoonish style Chow is creating is not just a one-time gimmick, but a bona fide style that Chow can ride for a while and will likely spawn imitators.

The "CGI is a tool of soulless hacks trying to destroy film as a medium" crowd aren't going to get any more ammunition here. The movie includes many digital effects shots, many of them on the showy side, but they are used well. Chow's background in martial arts action and physical comedy serves him well. He's got experience with how actors interact with their environments physically, and that comes in handy even when what they're interacting with isn't actually present or is being digitally augmented. It also doesn't hurt that he's got some high-end help in the fight scenes where much of the effects work occurs: The action is choreographed and directed by Yuen Woo-ping and Sammo Hung.

Read the rest at HBS.

Cowards Bend the Knee, or The Blue Hands

* * (out of four)
Seen 14 May 2005 at Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (Original Cinema) (projected video)

There aren't many like Guy Maddin, making silent movies at the turn of the twenty-first century. In Winnipeg, of all places. And it's frequently brilliant. Even when it's brilliant, though, it's kind of an acquired taste; when it's as off-putting as Cowards Bend the Knee, it can be a real drag to sit through.

Cowards is the story of Guy Maddin (Darcy Fehr), popular star of the Winnipeg Maroons hockey club. He's gotten his girlfriend Veronica (Amy Stewart) "in trouble", as they euphemistically say, but not to worry, his best friend Shaky's girlfriend Liliom (Tara Birtwhistle) has an establishment that is hair salon by day, bordello by night, and abortion clinic with the right knock. Sadly, Veronica dies during the operation, but Guy has already become entranced with the owner's daughter, Meta (Melissa Dionisio). But, it soon turns out that she won't even let him get to second base, slapping his hands away from her bare and tantalizingly perfect breasts, until he does her a favor: Have her late father's hands, tinted blue from the preservative, transplanted onto his arms and use them to kill her mother and Shaky (David Stuart Evans), whom she blames for her father's death.

Read the rest at HBS.

Next up: Movies I've waited a long, long time for. Also, the backlog starts to approach the "less than one month" level (my goal is to get current before FantAsia).

Friday, May 20, 2005

The films of Wong Kar-Wai

So, Wong Kar-Wai is good. Really good. Good enough that writing these reviews about a month later, I don't have much trouble having something to say about all of them.

Seeing them all in a week made his personal style pretty clear - the use of mirrors is a director trademark, and it becomes a little comical when exposed to them all in short order. By the time I saw In the Mood for Love, I got the impression that if a mirror could be in a room, it would, and then Wong and Doyle would shoot as much as possible as a reflection in that mirror.

I must admit that I can't wait to see 2046 when it finally gets a real US release this August. It's a beautiful film, and though the Brattle does okay when they have to work from a DVD, scope movies on DVD just don't look good blown up to that size. And, I suspect it will make a little more sense now that I've seen In the Mood for Love. I kind of regret that I didn't see ItMfL at one of the dozen or so opportunities I've had to see it at the Brattle or Harvard Film Archive over the past few years; then, it would have informed my viewing of 2046, rather than vice versa.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 3 April 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener) (projected video)

Though 2046 is a sequel to In the Mood for Love, one needn't see the prior film in order to enjoy this one. Indeed, I wish I had written my review of this film immediately after seeing it, since I would not see In the Mood for Love for another week and a half, and could thus discuss why I feel it works on its own without the bits of that other masterpiece coloring it. But it's too late for that, and in a way that's fitting - my feelings for one must inevitably color what I feel for the other.

Chow Mo Wan (Tony Leung) is returning to Hong Kong after spending a few years in Singapore. He mores into a hotel, asking for room 2046. It's unavailable, so he takes 2047. 2046 is occupied by a showgirl he'd met in Singapore, Lulu (Carina Lau), who doesn't recognize him. She leaves after one of her boyfriends attacks her, and the next occupant of the room is Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), a beautiful call girl. They talk, hit it off, and soon she's keeping the money he insists on paying her separate. Between tenants, 2046 is occupied by the landlord's daughter, Jing Wen (Faye Wong), where she can secretly read her pulp novels, along with the letters from the Japanese boyfriend (Takuya Kimura) that her father forbids her to see.

Read the rest at HBS.

Days of Being Wild (A Fei Jing Juen)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 April 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Wong Kar-Wai Retrospective)

Yuddy's got a good line; he tells girls he'll remember the very moment they met. He's also got Leslie Cheung's good looks, along with a nice apartment and apparently enough money that he doesn't have to work. He's a charmer, to be sure, but like a lot of charmers, both in the movies and in life, there's something distinctly less appealing behind that charisma. Ladies beware.

You can see him working in the opening, as he buys a soda from Su Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung), a pretty girl working in a stall tucked away in a quiet corner of Hong Kong. She's kind of shy, and seems to know better. But Yuddy's persistent, and makes her feel special, especially since she doesn't seem to get too many customers on any given day. Of course, she doesn't initially know about Yuddy's other girlfriend Mimi (Carina Lau). He's oddly indifferent when the two discover each other, perhaps because he's more concerned about his contentious relationship with his adopted mother (Rebecca Pan), who talks about going to America with her current lover but still refuses to tell him anything about his biological parents. The ladies are still drawn to him, though Li Zhen generally doesn't get further than the policeman patrolling the neighborhood (Andy Lau), while Yuddy's friend Zeb (Jacky Cheung) winds up smitten with Mimi.

Read the rest at HBS.

Ashes of Time (Dung Che Sai Duk)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 April 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Wong Kar-Wai Retrospective)

Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee made their martial arts movies after they'd made a name for themselves as "serious" filmmakers. For them it was, in part, somewhat nostalgic, making the sort of films that they'd enjoyed as kids and teenagers. Wong Kar-Wai's martial arts picture, on the other hand, was made near the beginning of his career, and was the sort of thing he was trying to move away from.

A look at Wong's filmography will show that this isn't the first time he's worked in the genre; he got his start in the industry writing B-movies like the Haunted Cop Shop flicks, and even though he already had two features under his belt as a writer-director when he made Ashes of Time, he was still working on scripts like Savior of the Soul. And then this movie took forever to finish, especially dragging in the editing room, to the point where Wong set it aside and made Chunking Express, which would become his international breakout hit. It's worth remembering, the next time you feel like mocking the makers of a mediocre action movie, those movies can chew even a great director up and spit him out, without a whole lot to show for it.

Read the rest at HBS.

As Tears Go By (Wong Gok Ka Moon)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 April 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Wong Kar-Wai Retrospective)

Wong Kar-Wai's first feature as a writer-director is an unassuming thing, a solid little movie about a gangster with a decent heart being pulled in opposite directions by the two people he spends the most time with. It's a safe first movie, predictable in its way and commercial, but showing enough skill and craft that one isn't completely surprised by the leap forward that Days of Being Wild would represent.

Wah (Andy Lau) is in the Triads, and he does all right with it - he can scare someone or deliver a beating when necessary, and he's progressed far enough that some folks call him "big brother" - but he doesn't necessarily think of it as a career. Not that he has something else he'd rather be doing; he's just young and rather aimless. He's like a lot of twentysomethings that haven't mapped their life out that way; the state of his apartment would instill a desire to clean into the average male American college student. Most of his goodwill in the gang is spent on cleaning after Fly (Jacky Cheung), who does rather like being a gangster, but isn't much good at it.

Read the rest at HBS.

Fallen Angels (Duo Luo Tian Shi)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 April 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Wong Kar-Wai Retrospective)

Infatuation is a funny thing. It looks and feels a whole lot like love, and who's to say where the border between them is? And infatuation isn't wholly a bad thing, especially if you can see it for what it is and have reason to believe that genuine love isn't going to be reciprocated. Fallen Angels is about infatuations displayed by four people who might, let's face it, have trouble finding soulmates. It's a zippy movie populated by eccentrics who provide the material for dark comedy, staying well away from sentimentality and only occasionally stooping to cruelty.

Why don't these folks seem likely to meet someone nice and settle down? Well, Wong Chi-Ming (Leon Lai) is a hitman, but more than that, he doesn't have a lot of initiative. He figures life is easier when there's someone telling him what to do. His murders are detailed plans worked out beforehand by his nameless agent (Michelle Reis). She's sexy, but filled with the kind of amoral confidence her job requires, and, besides, she's infatuated with her partner, despite never having met him face to face. On the other side of town, there's He Zhiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who has been mute since his father fed him a can of spoiled pineapple when he was five. He's a nocturnal sort, with a habit of breaking into street vendors' booths and then forcing people to do business with him. Charlie (Charlie Yeung) is about the only person who willingly spends time with him, but that mostly seems to be because he doesn't interrupt her own rantings about how the world has it in for her.

Read the rest at HBS.

Chungking Express (Chong Qing Sen Lin)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 April 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Wong Kar-Wai Retrospective) (projected video)

Chungking Express is a cop movie in that its two protagonists are police officers, but it doesn't deal with crime very much at all. Instead, writer/director Wong Kar-Wai's film is an eccentric, beautifully shot pair of stories about two men whose girlfriends have recently left them.

The first half is certainly set up to look like a procedural. We're introduced to a police officer, badge #223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), one of the youngest detectives on the force. His girlfriend broke up with him on April Fool's Day, and since then he's been buying tins of pineapple with a May first expiration date, marking time until, he believes, she either comes back or his love for her expires. We also meet a smuggler (Brigitte Lin) using Indian families to smuggle heroin into Hong Kong. The expected play, perhaps, is for the officer to be assigned to capture her, but for an attraction to build, until each are ultimately forced to choose between their duty and their heart...

Read the rest at HBS.

Happy Together (Cheun Gwong Tsa Sit)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 April 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Wong Kar-Wai Retrospective)

I've known people who shied away from a relationship because they worried about what would happen if they broke up. I've always argued that that's a foolish thing to worry about, but, then, what do I know; "what if they so no" has usually been enough to scare me away. You don't have to share this attitude, though, to agree that Happy Together presents a pretty effective nightmare scenario about getting oneself into a situation from which one cannot readily extract oneself.

As the film starts, things are good for Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung). They've started a new life together in Argentina, where they would presumably not be as ostracized for their homosexuality as they were in Hong Kong. Every day is exciting and new, the country is beautiful, and they love being with each other. But fairly soon, when their car breaks down on the way to see what they've been told is a beautiful waterfall, everything they don't like about each other comes into sharp relief. Ho is reckless and irresponsible, Lai is cranky and bitter, and damn it, they've had enough. They break up, and Lai takes a menial job as a tango-club doorman to try and save enough money to go back home. He'd be happy if he never saw Ho again. Not going to be the case, though, as Ho is beaten and the only contact number he has is Lai's, and what's Lai going to do, throw this broken-limbed guy who speaks very little Spanish out into the street? No, that wouldn't be right.

Readthe rest on HBS

In the Mood for Love (Fa Yeung Nin wa)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 April at the Brattle Theater (Wong Kar-Wai Retrospective)

We've all heard it said that love hurts. I think it's fair to say, though, that it has seldom hurt quite so exquisitely as it does in Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love.

Hong Kong, the early 1960s. Two young couples rent spare bedrooms in neighboring apartments, creating confusion when they move in on the same day. Well, when half of them move in. Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) is on his own, as his wife is staying with family; Su Li-zhen Chan (Maggie Cheung) must do without her husband, who is on a business trip. These circumstances will repeat often, and the two become friendly acquaintances as they pass in the halls. Eventually, they will individually come to suspect their spouses of being unfaithful. By the time they work out that Mrs. Chow and Mr. Chan are having an affair with each other, they have formed their own connection.

Read the rest at HBS.

Awright. Next on the reviewing list, silents & slapstick from Chaplin, Chow, and Maddin; but now, to catch some sleep before seeing Revenge of the Sith.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

I'm kind of putting off seeing Star Wars

I have to admit, I'm not quite ready for there to be no more. It's like while I was reading the collection of Douglas Adams's last writings, The Salmon of Doubt, and was enjoying it immensely but got sadder as I got closer to the end, realizing that there wouldn't be any new Adams stuff to read after this. I also want to watching the first two prequels and the Clone Wars DVD beforehand.

Also, I have to sleep. I was considering going with my brother Matt last night, but I do have a day job and there would be no T service when it ended at midnight.

Besides, I checked Fandango and saw that there are 9am shows at Loews Boston Common. I love the very idea of 9am shows. The theaters are very clean, you're basically sharing it with kids and other people who really love movies (or at least, expect to love this specific movie), it's not hugely crowded, so you can generally get a good seat. The only downside is the lack of much breakfast-y food, although you can get coffee and coffee-derived drinks. I also seem to recall either Boston Common or Fenway having cinammon rolls at the concession stand, which would be good too.

Here, I'd like to insert my regular question of why theaters don't have donuts. They seem like the perfect theater food - quiet, minimal packaging, good warm or cold, and you could probably charge $2.50 for something that the Dunkin Donuts next door charges 60 cents for. When they're finished, there would basically be a napkin left, so the cleanup is way better than with popcorn. The biggest issue I can think of is that they take up space and go stale quickly, but there are ways around that. I do know that I thought Krispy Kreme having a booth at the ballpark when I went to San Fran a couple years ago was brilliant.

So, what else would make good movie theater food, especially for movies shown at odd times?

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Brattle's L.A. Noir series: Criss Cross, This Gun for Hire, Point Blank, To Live and Die in L.A.

Coincidence, or something more? : When I was building the Amazon links, Criss Cross and This Gun for Hire came up as a buy 2 and save - and they were also a double feature at the Brattle. Wacky.

Have I mentioned before what a killer the Brattle's newly "horizontal" schedule is? I loved the "vertical" one, where I could look at the calendar and say, okay, Thursday is Hong Kong Action night, or Monday is Noir night. If I had a killer week at work, I wouldn't miss an entire series.Truth be told, by the time this one got to To Live and Die in L.A., I was just wiped out. I expect mid-June to cripple me, with the Coolidge's 3-D series followed immediately by the Brattle's Harold Lloyd series (and Western Week at the Brattle starts tomorrow, looking pretty daunting).

Anyway, these are some pretty good movies. I gave a pass to the ones I'd already seen - The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Chinatown and Collateral. Most of them show up in Los Angeles Plays Itself, which was sort of part of the series (it got the weekend, while the noirs the weekdays). It was interesting, seeing locations and scenes first as part of Anderson's descriptions of movies and the city, and then in context.

Also - seeing Point Blank knocked my opinion of Payback down a notch or two.

Criss Cross

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Dark Side of the Sun: L.A. Noir)

When you leave a place, it's probably best to stay gone. You left for a reason and that reason is probably still there, even if you've been elsewhere for a year or two. Ah, but if Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) had recognized that, then we wouldn't have a movie, so hurrah for fictional characters making bad decisions.

Steve's been wandering around the country since his divorce, but he gets homesick and comes back, getting a job with an armored truck company. This pleases his mother (Edna Holland) and old friend Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally), an LAPD detective who meets up with him at The Roundup, their old bar. Steve says he's not going there to see if she's still around, but who's he kidding? Soon, though, his ex-wife Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) is walking in... Along with her new husband, gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). Soon, Steven and Anna are falling into old habits, and when Slim catches them, Steve recovers by saying he was looking for Slim, to help plan an armored car robbery. It should end there, since everyone knows armored car jobs are fool's errands, but Anna convinces both to go through with it. The question, of course, being which of her husbands she's trying to get to screw over the other.

Read the rest at HBS.

This Gun for Hire

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Dark Side of the Sun: L.A. Noir)

I can get kind of touchy about genre classifications, which is odd since I like to tell people I don't really believe in them. Still, if you're going to use them, use them right. This Gun for Hire showed up in a noir series, but it feels more like pulp to me. It's not the bone-crunching Mickey Spillane sort of pulp, but it's a little more fanciful than most noir.

Early on, we meet Philip Raven (Alan Ladd), a hitman who, being a movie hitman, has a lovable eccentricity. Raven likes cats, and feeds the strays who wander into his hotel room window. He executes the job he's hired for, but the man who hired him, Willard Gates (Laird Cregar) pays him with money he has reported stolen, going straight to Michael Crane (Robert Preston), a Los Angeles Detective visiting San Francisco. Crane is there to see his girlfriend, Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), a nightclub entertainer whose act contains some singing, some dancing, and some stage magic. Ah, but it's about to get more complicated - Gates has just hired Ellen for his club in L.A., and the Feds would like her to snoop around. And who should she sit next to on her way down, but a certain killer looking to settle accounts with the man who paid him worthless money.

Read the rest at HBS

Point Blank

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Dark Side of the Sun: L.A. Noir)

Lee Marvin's footsteps echo like gunshots on this movie's soundtrack. Bang, bang, bang, as he walks down the hall. It's a fitting image, because it demonstrates how the most fearsome weapon Walker (Marvin) has in his arsenal is his dogged persistence. Bang, bang, bang, Walker's not trying to sneak up on anybody. He's a simple man with a simple request - to be paid what's owed him. And don't be the guy who gets in his way.

That's the story behind Point Blank. A year or so ago, Walker, Reese (John Vernon) and Walker's wife (Sharon Acker) pulled a big score. Reese shot his friend in the back, though, taking all the money along with the girl, leaving Walker for dead. But he's not, and now that he's healed, he's allied himself with a representative of some unknown agency who'll act as his guide through "The Organization" which Reese has joined. It's an arrangement of convenience, though, the partnership he strikes with Reese's old girl, Chris (Angie Dickinson), isn't that much warmer.

Read the rest at HBS.

To Live and Die in L.A.

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 March 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Dark Side of the Sun: L.A. Noir) (projected video)

... And I'm going to skip actually reviewing this one. I saw it at the Brattle at 9:45pm, on a night when I was already pretty tired and probably drifted in and out even more than I remembered. Plus, they couldn't get a print, so they had to show the DVD, which didn't look so hot blown up. So even if it hadn't been a month, I'd still be having trouble stringing an actual meaningful opinion together.

(I really should just cut my losses on some of these, but a log's a log)

Next up - 10 Wong Kar-Wai movies. Or some more recent stuff, though after punting To Live and Die in L.A., I worry about the WKW stuff falling off the back of my brain.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Short stuff: The Animation Show 2005, "Mary", Eros, Wild Safari 3-D, and "Major Disaster"

I was going to tie the short stuff entry to my brother Matt's entry in the 48 Hour Film Project, but the day job interfered, then the Independent Film Festival of Boston, both in terms of going and deciding to give EFC/HBS relatively timely reviews (and I took zero notes during the show, so I could hardly say anything about most of the short films).

So, anyway, to check the item off my list and pay homage to the (intended) nature of this journal to list everything I see, here's a listing:

48-Hour Film Project Boston 2005 Group B

Ratings all over the place
Seen 13 April 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (48 Hour Film Project) (projected video)

There, my anal nature is satisfied. Sorry I didn't write more, Matt, but hey, you got a burger last week. And you've still got to see The Animation Show.

Anyway, I wish I had a chance to see more shorts; they're generally my favorite parts of film festivals and animation collections are a ton of fun. Landmark is currently doing what I consider to be a Good Thing by running a short film before their movies, even if "Mary" is accompanied by an upscale beer commercial nearly as long as the the short itself. Supposedly they're going to switch them out every month, so we'll see if there's something new before 3-Iron.

The Animation Show 2005

Single rating not applicable
Seen 27 March 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

The Animation Show first appeared two years ago, packed with Academy Award-nominated shorts and featuring an all-star lineup, from excerpts of Ward Kimball's "Mars and Beyond" through Tim Burton's "Vincent" to Bill Plympton's "Parking". This second iteration doesn't have quite so many familiar names, but does feature some truly fantastic short subjects, most famously Plympton's Oscar-nominated "Guard Dog" and Don Hertzfeldt's "The Meaning of Life" (though neither is quite the package's best segment).

In many ways, this is a much more streamlined show than the first. Gone are the open/intermission/close segments, along with the "classic" pieces - the oldest short included is from 1999, making The Animation Show 2005 more of a survey of animation now than its predecessor. Producers Hertzfeldt and Mike Judge are also able to present a full slate without using their own work to fill it out (the 2003 edition had Hertzfeldt contributing two shorts and the linking segments, plus an "early works" reel from Judge). When you see this edition, you're seeing a dozen of the most impressive recent animated shorts.

Note that the near-perfect rating at the top of the review indicates that this is a damn fine show, and also reflects that the best shorts are very, very good. I think that's most the important consideration - even if the entire program only averages three/four stars, the four-star entries are worth the price of admission. So without further ado, on to the individual shorts, in order:

"Bunnies" - ***
"Guard Dog" - ****
"FEDS" - **¼
"Pan With Us" - **½
"Ward 13" - ****
"Hello" - ***½
"Rockfish" - **½
"L'homme Sans Ombre" ("The Man With No Shadow") - ***
"Fallen Art" - **¾
"When the Day Breaks" - ***¼
"Fireworks" - **¾
"The Meaning of Life" - ****

Read the rest (including more detailed reviews of the individual shorts) at HBS.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 April 2005 at Landmark Embassy #5 (attached to Melinda and Melinda)

"Mary" squeezes as much as it can into its five minute running time by being clever. Writer/director Aaron Ruell has a strong handle on what the audience can fill in on their own, and so provides just enough framework, but minimal detail. He's also managed to find a couple of good young actors.

Rachel Bell's Frances is the good daughter, concerned for others and the type that always does what's she's told. So, when she sees an apparition of the Virgin Mary in her bedroom, she immediately tells her parents, who react about how you'd expect them to react when their daughter says a holy vision has charged her with a task that will involve personal suffering. Her sister Stella (Victoria Justice), on the other hand, is more observant and has a strong streak of self-preservation in her.

"Mary" is a comedy, but really has only one or two laugh-out-loud moments (the implied lack of particularity displayed by a holy messenger). Indeed, the last line is delivered sadly, by a kid who knows she's probably in over her head but also knows asking for help is a bad idea. It's a jokey premise which ends before it can get too detailed and thus serious.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 April 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run)

Wong Kar-Wai's "The Hand" - * * * ¾
Steven Soderbergh's "Equilibrium" - * * ½
Michelangelo Antonioni's "The Dangerous Thread of Things" - * ¾

This sort of anthology movie is a good idea, in theory, one which doesn't get tried often enough. Get a few talented filmmakers together, see if they've got a short story in them on a given subject. Slap three or four of them together, and not only do you have around a hundred minutes of good movie, you can slap a whole bunch of big names on the poster. The question must, then, be asked: Why are these things so often uneven when they are done, with the bad segments outnumbering the good?

Caveat: That only appears to be true when it comes to live action. The Fantasias and other animation "jams" are pretty good, but perhaps animators are more used to the short form. Still, half of Four Rooms was pretty bad, and that's assuming I'm feeling generous toward the Tarantino segment. I don't figure Light Years/Alien Love Triangle has been delayed something like five years because the Weinsteins loved it so much that they didn't want to share. And so it is with Eros: One really good segment, one really bad one, and whether the movie is a net positive or negative depends on your impression of Steven Soderberg's middle part.

Read the rest at HBS.

Wild Safari 3-D

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2005 at the New England Aquarium Simons IMAX Theater (Preview)

Many, if not most, IMAX screens are located in museums or similar locations, so it's kind of expected that what they play will not only be friendly to children, but "good for them", too. And that's okay; there's nothing wrong with a little education, and adults can often stand to absorb a little knowledge. There's a difference, though, between a movie where the audience might learn something and one that feels like it would be shown in school.

Come to think of it, there's something sort of funny about the idea of this playing in an elementary school classroom. I'm imagining a bunch of six-year-olds, sitting cross-legged on the floor, fidgeting through the first few minutes because they want to see big animals, not hear about South Africa's foresight in setting up on of the continent's first National Park systems.

Read the rest at HBS.

"Major Damage"

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 5 May 2005 in Jay's Living Room (DVD release)

Considering how much attention Pixar's The Incredibles got last year, especially in terms of how great its superhero world was, Chris Bailey's "Major Damage" deserves a little love, too. This three-minute animated short isn't terribly long on plot - a superhero fights a trio of giant, living tiki statues, only to be revealed as it happening in the imagination of Melvin, the kid who's his number one fan. But it's cute, and there's a case to be made that the short some of the best animated superhero action ever.

The second half isn't bad, either, with Melvin having an expressive face even though much of it is hidden behind his mask. Bailey displays good comic timing, too, and gets nice voice performances out of his cast. The character designs, rendering, and motion are all top-notch. Pretty keen soundtrack, too. In short, this is a pretty darn great cartoon.

Of course, that pretty CGI can't have come cheap, and I think it's a fair question to ask how someone who makes a short film makes their money back. There are, of course, options for animated shorts - getting into Spike & Mike and The Animation Show; I don't know if film festivals pay participants or not. I imagine this is why most of the shorts I've seen at recent festivals are either government-funded (especially from Canada) or someone's student films. Doing them otherwise must basically be like making very expensive business cards, something you can show to a studio when you pitch an idea or list on your résumé.

Baily's gone a different route with "Major Damage"; he's made it into a comic book. $15 gets you the "standard" edition, with stills from the movie (a la TokyoPop's "Cinemanga"), some "Major Damage" stories that ran as back-ups in Eric Larsen's Savage Dragon comic, and a whole thwack of sketches and other "making of" material. $30 gets you the "deluxe", which includes a DVD that includes the short, with options to watch it in fully-rendered, storyboard, and rough animation versions; a reel showing characters evolving from pre-visualization to finished product; and a few hand-drawn frames used to test character designs and coloring schemes. Interestingly, they seem to come from the comic's story, which takes place after the shorts and is, if you give it much thought, kind of dark.

There'll be more shorts later, as I write up the IFFB ones for an EFC/HBS article, along with the three Guy Maddin shorts that the Museum of Fine Arts is playing with Cowards Bend the Knee. But it's back to features for a bit.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

IFFB Day 3: The Future of Food, The Hole Story

I'm gonna get letters.

My reviews from IFFB have already generated one letter, from a guy who didn't come off so well in Stolen, and, hey, it's a bit freaky when you get an angry letter from a guy who's close with felons. Not angry at me, so much, but still angry.

But, today's reviews could generate some more - I've gotten mail about not loving documentaries with worthwhile subjects because I didn't think that automatically makes for great movies, and that's The Future of Food in a nutshell. And, as I may have mentioned in the Day 2 entry, there were lots of friends and family members in attendence for The Hole Story, with a couple of folks in attendence already putting raves up on HBS/EFC.

And, speaking of eFilmCritic, apparently my review cross-posted there for Freeze Frame was blurbed on the back of the movie's DVD box. Didn't use my name, of course, because either people would think the movie was being recommended by a fictional character (curse you, Alan Thicke!) or internet writers just don't rate the recognition of a guy working for a UPN station in Nebraska.

(Nothing against Nebraska, just not a whole lot of national recognition. Not that I merit any, either)

The Future of Food

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2005 at Somerville Theater #4 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

To say that The Future of Food is a bad documentary would be untrue. It contains interesting information about a subject which merits attention. That subject is not, however, "the future of food", or genetically engineered crops in general. The material is here for a solid movie on the abuse of the patent system and the need for it to evolve and/or reform. Frustratingly, writer/director/producer Deborah Koons doesn't talk much about this subject, except in terms of how the Monsanto corporation uses it as a tool to screw people over.

I should have known what I was getting myself into. The program for the festival referenced a film which played at the last IFFB, The Corporation, and all weekend, whenever the folks at the Somverville would hawk festival T-shirts, it was prefaced with how all us Massachusetts liberals would appreciate that they were made outside sweatshops. Still, I figured that perhaps there'd be something for us Massachusetts tech-geeks, too. Not really the case - this is a movie by and for activists, or anyone else who enjoy watching corporations and Republicans be painted as evil.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Hole Story

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2005 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

Just about anything can be funny when it happens to someone else. And if the timing of a comic disaster catches the audience off guard, well, that just bumps it from "funny" up to "hilarious", especially if, as in The Hole Story, it happens much earlier than expected. However, once you've defied audience expectations less than fifteen minutes into the movie, you'd better be ready to keep doing it, and if you can't come up with something as surprising as that first big moment, at least come up with something as funny. Given that the movie's a comedy, you might want to do that anyway.

The movie opens with a little introductory text, pretty much telling the audience that things aren't going to go right, and the opening credits for a TV series, "Provincial Puzzlers". Well, the pilot for a TV series, which would involve writer/director/host Alex Karpovsky traveling throughout America, talking about unexplained phenomena peculiar to some small town. For the pilot, Alex has come to Brainerd, Minnesota, to investigate a hole that has appeared in the middle of an otherwise frozen over lake. He's lined up scientists to talk about what a climatological anomaly this is, and he's got some ideas about mentioning how the Paul Bunyan legend got its start in and around Brainerd.

Read the rest at HBS.