Saturday, October 29, 2005

Animation in its myriad forms

I love animation, and not just for the reasons that most geek-culture folks in their twenties and thirties do. Sure, the ability to create entire new worlds, to tell stories that can't be told in other media, and to use an unreal but beautiful and artistic aesthetic are part of it. But while I'll argue that animation isn't just kid stuff with the best of them, I must admit to liking that it is. Half of these movies are delightfully G-rated; and while that isn't a virtue in and of itself, I don't mind spending an hour and a half watching a funny movie without the use of swearwords, bathroom humor, and anything but the mildest of innuendos. I've taken issue with people describing something as lowest common denominator as a perjorative before, since it doesn't mean exactly what people think it means. But, then again, the people who use that phrase are focused on the "lowest" rather than the "common" (and the they probably couldn't tell you what a denominator is).

Wallace & Grommit is LCD; it's something that everyone should be able to enjoy because it doesn't exclude anybody. I'll probably recommend it to the Weatherbee girls next time I see them, for instance, even though they're 25 years my junior, they should enjoy it. I imagine my grandparents would too. That's common ground.

The lesson? English majors and other critical types shouldn't try to appropriate math terms, and us science/math nerds shouldn't try to write criticism. Especially not after midnight.

(Of course, if I adjust my clock now, before going to bed, it'll say 11:30, but it's still really after midnight, as the time doesn't change until 2am).

Porco Rosso

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 August 2005 in Jay's Living Room (Unwatched DVDs)

Hayao Miyazaki is a giant. If most people with some knowledge of the medium had to write up a short list of the most important animators in the history of the field, he'd likely be on many, many lists (my top five would run Windsor McKay, Walt Disney, Osamu Tezuka, Miyazaki, and John Lasseter, in chronological order). The trouble with such a reputation is that when one comes upon a movie that is merely very good, the temptation is to focus not on how fine a film it is when compared to its contemporaries, but how it falls short of the master's other works.

That's terribly unfair. I admit, I don't love this film the way I do Castle in the Sky or Howl's Moving Castle, but that's mainly due to the extended fistfight that serves as the climax. It's exhausting and punishing - I don't think I can remember another animated movie where the characters looked so painfully bruised by the end - and I wanted the final big set-piece to be something aerial. The tagline on the DVD was "Pigs Can Fly", after all. So, I wasn't terribly fond of one aspect of the film, but there were many others that I did rather like.

Start with the character designs. The title character's is striking, of course - a humanoid pig with fully articulated (though gloved) fingers and french mustaches peeking out from under his snout, dressed in a trenchcoat and snazzy aviator sunglasses. But the fully-human characters are nice as well - mechanic Fio is all soft curves that highlight her femininity and youth without over-sexualizing her, while old friend Gina is more angular, given a hint of femme fatale, but not too much, since her main characterization is that of someone who has taken wisdom from an adventurous youth but has mostly settled down. Meanwhile, the villains look suitably distorted; not quite monstrous, but wearing their badness on their sleeve.

Then there's the whole overall feel of the movie. Like many of Miyazaki's films, it takes place in a fantasy world, where not only are there air pirates, but a man can be cursed to look like a pig and not arouse too much notice, despite being the only anthropomorphic animal on the island, but is also grounded in a real time and place. It's clearly the 1930s Mediteranean, with the threat of the upcoming war hanging over everything, and flight about to move from being the domain of a few adventurers to being a major military and commercial concern. It's not completely melancholy, or even mostly so. There's plenty of exciting aerial action, including a wonderful sequence where a group of orphan girls prove not to be the sort of frightened hostages the pirates had expected. Porco Rosso is kind of slow-paced compared to many American adventure movies, in that it's not continuously trying to top the previous set-piece, but it makes its adventurous moments count.

I'd like more. But I'm greedy that way.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 3 September 2005 at AMC Chestnut Hill #5 (first-run)

As an audience member, there are certain things I have an almost Pavlovian reaction to. John Cleese's voice, for instance. It's got a humorous sneering tone, and has been associated with so many funny things, that I start to laugh as soon as I hear it. This, apparently, holds true even if the lines he delivers as an English pigeon captured by Nazi falcons are nowhere near as funny as what he did in Monty Python.

There is, in fact, a ridiculous amount of great English voice talent on this movie - Cleese, of course, along with Ewan MacGregor, Ricky Gervais, Tim Curry, Rik Mayall, Jim Broadbent, John Hurt, and Hugh Laurie - whose actual accent already sounds strange after just a year of regular exposure to him playing an American on House. And why not? It's a slick-looking British production with a clever concept thats appealing in perhaps being something their kids would like and taking place against the backdrop of World War Two, justifiably a source of pride for the British people.

As such, Valiant has nothing to be ashamed of. For every awkward "Charles de Girl" groaner, the film offers up a bit of charm, or adventure, or understated bit of patriotism. A bit at the end where Hugh Laurie's pigeon treats his escape from certain death as no big deal seemed especially amusing. And it hits the right note for its young primary audience, with Ewan MacGregor's undersized, underestimated title pigeon succeeding against odds because of his small stature. The movie's alsoshort enough to not wear out its welcome.

One thing that did seem odd, though, was how empty the movie sometimes felt. It's not a film about anthropomorhic animals, but one set in our world with cartoonified creatuers who build their homes out of things discarded by humans. Valiant even makes a speech about how "they" built the great cities where the pigeons roost. But we almost never see any around, even when the camera pulls back for a shot of an eerily empty London. I don't know whether it was a creative choice or a decision not to spend processor power on things that ultimately don't effect the movie much, but it creates a strange effect - many of the environments well are out of proportion to the characters, but there's no frame of reference to what would fit. Strange-looking.

Corpse Bride

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 September 2005 at AMC Fenway #13 (first-run)

I like animated films to have a specific aesthetic, and use abstraction and worlds designed from scratch to make every frame an expression of some thought rather than just an attempt to replicate the real world. And there's no doubt Corpse Bride does that, with its big heads and tiny limbs, and different color schemes. If anything, it perhaps suffers from knowing this a little too well.

Corpse Bride is the story of Victor van Dort (voice of Johnny Depp), whose nouveau riche parents have arranged a marriage to the daughter of the local nobility. It's a sound transaction, one which will elevate the van Dorts' profile and the Everglots' liquidity, and that Victor and Victoria Everglot (voice of Emily Watson) are actually as well-matched as their names is an unexpected bonus. However, when Victor drops the ring during a break from the wedding rehearsal, a peculiar series of events leaves him bound to Emily (voice of Helena Bonham Carter), a young woman murdered on her wedding night who pulls Victor over to the "other side".

Read the rest at HBS.

Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 9 October 2005 at AMC Fenway #13 (first-run)

How good is the Wallace & Gromit movie? It's so good that Ralph Fiennes is funny for perhaps the first time in his life. It's so good that what is basically the same joke is still funny the third time it is used. It is, in short, just as good as you would expect a Wallace & Gromit movie to be.

For those not familiar with the pair, Wallace (voice of Peter Sallis) is a cheese-loving inventor and Gromit is his dog. Gromit is, as animated canines are wont to be, the brains of the operation, though he doesn't speak. Their current project is a humane pest control service, helping their neighbors rid themselves of rabbit infestations in the weeks leading up to the village's annual giant vegetable competition. Trouble is, the bunnies are eating them out of house and home, so Wallace tries a new invention to try and curb their veg-destroying urges. Of course, these things never work right on the first try...

Read the rest at HBS.

Next up: The Lightning Round!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Boston Fantastic Film Festival

One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn't belong...

Ned didn't quite apologize for how horror-centric this year's edition of the BFFF was, but it had a lot of horror. He may have been looking directly at me when he mentioned there wasn't much sci--fi to show this year. I think the only stuff that really classified as non-horror was The Muppet Movie and Mindgame, but you get what's available. I'll readily admit reading Ain't It Cool and seeing what sort of nifty stuff Austin's first Fantastic Fest was getting tended to tick me off.

Still, this is a fun festival. It didn't escape my notice that it's shrunk another day since last year, although it still had roughly the same number of movies, with only Marebito, Muppets and Mindgame doubled up. The screenings I went to, especially the Muppet one, at least seemed well-attended, unlike last year's Darklight disaster. Anyway, part of making sure there's a Fourth BFFF is supporting the Brattle, so go to their website, buy stuff, make a donation, or at least check up what's coming up soon.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 October 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

Stephen King once said, and I'm heavily paraphrasing, that terror is the finest, most exquisite of human emotions, and what he aims to create in his writing - but, when he can't attain that, he'll go for the gross-out. Christopher Smith, the writer/director of Creep, may not have had that exact plan in mind, but it's the path he winds up following.

After an opening with two public works inspectors finding a previously unknown tunnel (and something sinister within), we're introduced to Kate (Franka Potente), a German lass living in London, leaving one party for another by way of the Underground. She rests her eyes for a moment on the platform, and when she wakes up she finds herself locked in until morning. She's not alone, though, which is a rather mixed blessing - the homeless couple is alright, even if they're junkies and not particularly helpful, but the co-worker who seems to have followed her (Jeremy Sheffield) intends rape and the deformed thing on a killing spree (Sean Harris) is even worse.

Read the rest at HBS.

Trapped by the Mormons

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival) (projected video)

I suspect that the dialogue in this 2005 version of Trapped by the Mormons is taken nearly verbatim from the original 1922 film apparently aimed at keeping the Latter-Day Saints out of Britain. I don't know how effective it was as propaganda, but if what I suspect is true, then it was probably an unintentional camp classic. This new edition is trying for the camp effect, but is much more successful than most films that take that route.

The story mirrors that of the original - young Manchester lady Nora Prescott (Emily Riehl-Bedford) is engaged to be married, but sinister Mormon recruiter Isoldi Keane (Johnny Kat) uses his incredible powers of Mesmerism on her, luring her away from her paralytic father with the intent of adding her to his hare - after all, not only is polygamy allowed by Mormonism, it's mandatory, even if Isoldi's wife Sadie (Monique LaForce) is traveling as his sister. But Nora's fiancé Jim (Brent Lowder) hasn't given up, and along with a detective "late of Scotland Yard", plots to rescue her.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 October 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

The activity of the horror fan is peculiar. They seek out things that frighten them, things that make little sense. It's fun to be scared, they say, but generally what is meant is that it's fun to be scared when you can rest relatively assured that you're safe soon afterward. The protagonist of Marebito is looking for things that scare him, too, but I don't know if he's really having fun.

Masuoka (Shinya Tsukamoto) is a freelance cameraman who on his way home sees a man commit suicide, plunging a knife into his eye as though he's seen something terrible. Wanting to know what it is, he retraces the man's path through the tunnels underneath Tokyo, going deeper until he finds an underground world with its own mythology and rules. He finds a young girl (Tomomi Miyashita) chained to a wall, naked, and brings her to the surface. He calls her "F", and finds her to be lethargic and unwilling to eat or drink anything - although it turns out he hasn't been trying the right things.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 October 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival) (projected video)

Reeker is a genre movie that totally rests on great execution. Fans familiar with the genre will recognize its pieces, its concept, its final twist. Movies like that can feel perfunctory and lackluster, or they can be easygoing, fun, cinematic comfort food. After all, if you know the structure and outline, you can ride along, appreciating the cleverness of the surprises and enjoying the fun details. Reeker is one of the fun ones.

Five college students get together for a ride share to a rave. They are Trip (Scott Whyte), a fun-loving, irresponsible type who just made off with far more ecstasy than he paid for; Nelson (Derek Richardson), his slightly more grounded friend; Cookie (Arielle Kebbel), a giggly little blonde thing; Gretchen (Tina Illman), the responsible South African girl supplying the car; and Jack (Devon Gummersall), her boyfriend's blind (but sweet) roommate. When Gretchen finds out about the drugs, she turns around to ditch Trip at the diner/hotel they last passed (dropping him by the road in the desert would probably kill him), but it's mysteriously abandoned, they're out of gas, and there's no phone reception. They'll just have to wait out the night, but unfortunately for them, this isn't the kind of movie where such a situation leads to truth-telling and changing relationships; it's the kind where gruesome killings are announced by a foul odor.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Muppet Movie

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 16 October 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

There's a moment at the end of The Muppet Movie, as the credits roll, that illustrates the reason for the lasting appeal of these characters (and this film) perfectly. Kermit the Frog, amid all the chaos and popcorn being thrown in the theater during the movie's first screening, walks up to Fozzie Bear and assures him that he was, in fact, funny (Fozzie had been worrying about that before the film started rolling). It's not just that this sort of interaction creates the impression that these obviously artificial characters have an exterior life. What Kermit does is an act of simple kindness and friendship that could easily go unnoticed amidst the gleeful anarchy, but that's always been Jim Henson's way - he had a knack for being decent and gentle without being stodgy or patronizing.

For those who have not seen The Muppet Movie before, it's about a singing, dancing frog (Kermit, performed by Henson) who is told of a studio holding auditions for frogs and decides to make his way to Hollywood to become rich and famous and make people happy. Along the way, he meets up with others who share the same dream - comedian Fozzie Bear (performed by Frank Oz), plumber The Great Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and his chicken girlfriend Camilla, actress/model Miss Piggy (Oz), piano-playing dog Rowlf (Henson), and the Electric Mayhem Band - and is menaced by french-fried frog-leg restaurant entrepreneur Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), who aims to have Kermit as his spokesperson or his lunch.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Collingswood Story

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 October 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival) (projected video)

The high concept for The Collingswood Story is obvious - a horror story told completely through the characters' conversations with each other via webcam. This is not, in and of itself, a bad idea - stories told in the form of letters or diary entries have been around for centuries, Orson Welles saw the potential of combining this technique with mass media in his War of the Worlds broadcast, and The Blair Witch Project was a huge hit. Unfortunately, The Collingswood Story doesn't work nearly so well as those other examples.

Part of the problem is that it tries to cross media. Every shot in the movie is of a computer screen, although director Michael Costanze will often remove the faux Windows desktop after a minute or two, "zooming in" on the actual webcast. This makes for very static images, with half (or more) or the visual real estate relegated to a non-changing border, and the actual picture being one person sitting relatively still within the webcam's field of vision. Occasionally, we get an insert of a visual e-mail sent from one character to the other, but those aren't much better, being just shots through the front windshield of her car. This might work if we were actually watching these files on a computer screen, perhaps after hunting them down as in [i]A.I.[/i]'s famous promotional game, but in a theatrical environment (or even in the living room), we expect more dynamic composition and camerawork, rendering the movie inert. The occasional cut to strange, demonic flashes in the last act shakes things up a little, but also breaks form.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 16 October 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

Two of the three directors of horror anthology Three...Extremes are relatively well known in the American art-house/cult scene: Takashi Miike has become almost synonymous with Japanese "extreme" cinema with his prodigious output and willingness to put just about anything on screen to shock and disturb the audience; Park Chan-wook has gained critical acclaim for his fantastic JSA and his so-called "vengeance trilogy". As good as their segments are, though, it is the lesser-known Fruit Chan whose film will likely leave the strongest impression.

That film, "Dumplings", leads off the package, and if you can make it through this one, you probably won't have a whole lot of trouble with the other two. During the screening's introduction, we were told that someone passed out during this film's screening at Fantasia. My experience wasn't that extreme, but right around when it first became obvious what was going on, I noticed I was reacting differently than I do to most "horror" movies; rather than twisting my face and looking away, I was hunkering forward, because I may need to purge my stomach contents soon and wouldn't want to get that on the people sitting next to me. I didn't actually throw up, but the last time I movie hit me like that was with Irreversible. That feeling is real horror, not mere fear or disdain.

Read the rest at HBS.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Alex de la Iglesia: Crimen Ferpecto, Accion Mutante, La Communidad, 800 Balas

The Brattle did an Alex de la Iglesia series last weekend, and it's the kind of series that makes me a fan. I only saw four of the six films screened - I saw Day of the Beast at the Coolidge's horror marathon a couple Halloweens ago, and didn't feel like seeing it again as part of a double feature with Perdita Durango, or seeing Durango on its own. Besides, it was my birthday (the big $20 in nerd terms), so I was of course pre-occupied with trying to get a single cupcake at the supermarket, which proved to be impossible, and watching the Red Sox crush the Yankees without staying up until 2am. Still, three of the four movies I saw, I liked quite a bit, and the fourth is worth seeing.

Anyway, this provides a nice segue for Brattle stuff.

First: They need money; there's talk of ending repatory programming there if they don't get some donations, and that would be a terrible thing. Here's a link to their page of ways to extract money from people. If you've ever been there, you know it's a cool place; get yourself a T-shirt, poster, or discount card. If you've got friends or family in Boston, give them a gift membership (I mean, if you live in the Boston area yourself and love movies, you're already a member, right?). Or just make a donation; it's tax-deductable.

Second: The Boston Fantastic Film Festival starts tonight, and runs through the weekend. Perdita Durango ran as part of the festival last year, though there's no de la Iglesia stuff this year. I saw about a third to half of what's playing in Montreal this summer, and can strongly recommend Ju-On: The Grudge 2 and Mindgame, liked R-Point, and will subject myself to Izo again if someone makes a $500 donation to the Brattle in my name. I shouldn't have to recommend The Muppet Movie, it is a bona-fide five-star classic and the chance to see it on the big screen should be treasured. Everything I haven't seen, I'm looking forward to - Marebito, Three...Extremes, Creep, Trapped by the Mormons. I'm hoping like heck that Ned managed to get Mindgame on film, since it's eyeball-bustingly gorgeous and I only got to see it on projected video at Fantasia.

Anyway, onto the reviews.

Crimen Ferpecto (aka Ferpect Crime or La Crimen Perfecto)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 30 September 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Mutant Action!)

Some American theaters are running this under the name "La Crimen Perfecto", which strikes me as a perfect example of underestimating both the film and the audience. The wordplay in the film's title translates easily enough, and gives the audience a clear idea of both the film's content and its offbeat tone. If someone standing at the ticket booth can't grasp the title, maybe they're just not the audience for this gem.

The crime will eventually be committed by Rafael Gonzalez (Guillermo Toledo), the handsome fellow who runs the women's wear department in Madrid's Yeyo megastore. He's a consummate salesman, and greatly enjoys the company of the beautiful young women who work in his section, but across the hall is his archnemesis, "Don" Antonio (Luis Varela), a dour, joyless man who runs menswear. They're locked in a competition to be manager of the entire floor, which, as Rafael tells us, is the path to company junkets, stock options, a seat on the board, wealth, and power. A scuffle after the position is awarded, however, leaves Don Antonio dead, and Rafael the obvious prime suspect if he doesn't find a way to dispose of the body. Enter Lourdes (Monica Cervera), the one woman in his department he hasn't bedded (she's rather homely). She's a witness, but will help dispose of the body and keep quiet if he gives her some of the attention he gives the other girls. And makes her the new women's wear manager. And fires the girl he was just flirting with. And... well, soon Rafi is in a sort of prison without walls, subject to her every whim. Something will have to be done, and he's already got blood on his hands.

Read the rest at HBS.

Acción Mutante (aka Mutant Action)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 September 2005 at the Brattle (Mutant Action!)

Alex de la Iglesia's recent movies, things like Ferpect Crime and 800 Bullets are peculiar, off-center entertainments. The closest American analog I can think of is Sam Raimi. And like Raimi, his early works are as delightfully strange as they are obviously low-budget.

"Acción Mutante", in the film, is the name of a group of unattractive and disabled terrorists who strike back against the attractive people who control society. With their leader Ramon Yarritu (Antonio Resines) in jail, though, they tend to screw up on a regular basis. Once Ramon is released, they set about on a new mission - to kidnap beautiful heiress Patricia Orujo (Frederique Feder) and hold her for ransom. The kidnapping becomes a bloodbath, the kidnappers turn on each other, and the hostage develops Stockholm Syndrome.

Don't let Pedro and Agustin Almodovar's names in the credits as producers fool you; this is no classy art film. You've got your basic cheap special effects, black comedy galore (a dare you not to laugh at news footage of MA taking out an aerobics class), and gore, gore, gore. Blood and body parts all over the place, really, and that's after considering that the kidnappers are already on the grotesque side. This is the kind of film that is all about grabbing attention. It doesn't really need to make a whole lot of sense, so long as it keeps the audience cringing or laughing at the latest outrageous thing thrown at it, and if people with the money to mount larger productions say, hey, this de la Iglesia fellow has style, so much the better.

In fact, once you get past the concept, the spiffy opening credits, and the catchy theme music, the whole thing is actually rather silly. None of the characters are really motivated to do anything that they do; they just act on authorial fiat to get the audience to the next scene of outrageous violence. Along the way, there's great amusement to be had at the empty-headed pretty people at Patricia's party - Enrique San Francisco as "Luis Maria de Ostalaza, the outraged groom" made me laugh very hard just by looking stupid - to Ramon's eye-rolling annoyance at Patricia's declarations of adoration, as if this sort of thing has happened to him before. And the bloodletting is staged in an entertaining way, much of it transpiring on a spaceship set that is sort of beautiful in its cheapness - Caro/Jeunet grimy but also sort of retro-cool.

In the end, Mutant Action amused me much more than it probably had any right to. It's right on the border between "deliberately campy" and "overcoming its budget", and the messiness of its script annoyed me. It's got the exuberance of a young and talented filmmaker breaking into the scene, which is not only exciting, but also interesting once you've seen the man's later, more polished, films.

La Comunidad

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 October 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Mutant Action!)

The first thing one notices about La Comunidad is the eye-catching title sequence. I, personally, think that the Oscars should have an category to recognize a great set of opening credits (call it the Saul Bass Award), and further feel that if they did, Alex de la Iglesia's films would regularly be contenders. The stark, red-tinted stills of Carmen Maura and the accompanying shrieks set an ominous mood, but the way they move back and forth across the screen implies that de la Iglesia's trademark wit will be in supply.

Ms. Maura plays Julia, a middle-aged realtor showing an apartment in Madrid. The building appears kind of run-down and there's no parking, but inside it's fantastic. She invites her husband over to make use of it while she has the keys, the ceiling cracks open, and an investigation of the apartment above uncovers a rotting corpse in a disgusting environment. Further investigation uncovers a fortune in cash. But while finding the money may not have taken much effort, getting it out of a building filled with suspicious neighbors is something altogether more difficult.

Julia is no heroine; she's as selfish and conniving as anyone else in the movie, but we can root for her because she (at least initially) is a mere opportunist, with nothing particularly premeditated about her misdemeanors. She's probably too old to be described as "plucky" but not so old as to have stopped dreaming, even if her husband's sense of adventure is as frustratingly dormant as his libido. She's no kind of master criminal, but Ms. Maura gives us a sense of both the character's panic and her resolve, and it helps us get into her corner.

There's a nifty Ira Levin feel to the apartment's other inhabitants - some are peculiar individually, especially a guy who hangs around his apartment in a full Darth Vader costume, but most seem normal enough, if not terribly gregarious. When aggregated, though, the community as a whole is downright unnerving. It's a classic set-up, with an outsider shoved into a society she doesn't understand, with no help immediately available because of the insular nature of the place and her own less-than-legitimate standing. de la Iglesia and regular co-writer Jorge Guerricaechevarria use it to crank the tension up while putting in plenty of humor.

Another set of filmmakers might have been tempted to make a political allegory out of this; it'd be, perhaps, the European thing to do. You can find such themes if you want to look. A theme of oppression, perhaps, or people from outside the community plundering the poor natives. You can play with the idea that democracy becomes tyranny when "majority rules" is the only moral principle. These filmmakers, though, appear to understand that films can collapse under too much metaphor, and when it comes down to brass tacks, La Comunidad isn't about making a statement, but about delivering thrills and just enough laughs to surprise. The rooftop chase that makes up much of the final act, for instance, has no ideology, but is tautly constructed, with some fantastic helicopter shots and a genuine sense that these people, who are not used to chasing or being chased, could in fact fall a great distnace to their deaths at any moment.

The end result is maybe not as incisive or insightful as it could be, but it is pretty darn exciting, which for my money is far more important. That's not to imply it's a stupid movie, just that it's more interested in straight-on thrills and twisted comedy than satire.

800 Balas (800 Bullets)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 October 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Mutant Action!)

The Western remained popular in Europe longer than it did in America, and stayed more potent as well. I'm not sure they lasted long enough that they were still being cranked out in the early 1990s, which this film's timeline would seem to imply, but maybe. And if not, that's not really a point worth any demerits, even if this is a film about the collision between fantasy and reality.

Carlos Torralba (Luis Castro) is a handful, the sort of pre-teen that makes his mother Laura (Carmen Maura) wish for a guiding hand in his life. She's less than pleased, though, when he seeks one out in the form of his never-before-mentioned grandfather Julian (Sancho Gracia), a former western stuntman who now plays the sherriff in "Hollywood, Texas", a tourist attraction built out of an old Western movie set, where paying customers can see an old west shootout enacted for them live. Carlos skips out on a school trip to find him. Julian tries to send him home, then grows fond of him. Laura tracks him down, then sees the beautiful land on which the financially failing attraction resides as the perfect place for her firm to build a resort. An outraged Julian rallies his confederates to fight back - with live ammunition!

It's kind of ridiculous, and at a few minutes over two hours, a little too sprawling. The relationships between Julian, his wife, Carlos, Laura, and her late husband, are merely strained, not terribly complicated. The other players at Hollywood, Texas are colorful, but thin. And in some ways, the stunt show almost looks too good - for something that's supposed to be a failing concern, it looks awfully slick and well-staged. In some ways, this helps to make the fantasy of living in a Wild West town in Almeria more seductive, for both Carlos and Julian, but seems incongruous when the reality of the situation must be confronted. It also seems to speak ill of the area's police force that a few crazy guys with six-shooters and no actual hostages are able to hold a SWAT team at bay for so long.

For all the thinness and implausibility of the story, though, the cast grows on you. Sancho Garcia's Julian may be a self-deluding old fool, but he's one with passion and flair. He's a man living a dream, so wrapped up in a fantasy that he can't quite handle it when reality intrudes, but there are moments where he is able to clearly remind us that his happy life is also an exile. Camen Maura, so excellent in the director's La Comunidad, plays the fun-ruining mother. She's the type who comes off as a villain when your age has just reached double digits, but is in fact mostly overwhelmed by the challenges of both a small child and a successful career. Luis Castro is quite charming as a somewhat obnoxious city kid who is swept away and awe-struck by the imaginary world of Hollywood, Texas. Angel de Andres Lopez, whose role as either a local prostitute or a woman playing a prostitute in the show (or quite possibly both) isn't particularly important to the story, still grabs the audience's attention ; she's got some charisma (and by "charisma", I don't just mean "a great body highlighted by exceptional breasts and no apparent resistance to doing nudity", although, yeah, that's a big part of it).

For all the film's well-staged set pieces and pleasant characters, though, it never achieves the same levels of delight as director Alex de la Iglesia's other features. This may be deliberate; he and co-writer Jorge Guerricaechevarria are in a very character-based mode, asking the audience to identify with the people on screen rather than just enjoying the anarchy, as is their usual m.o. It's not quite conventional, but it's more sentimental than their usual work.

Nothing inherently wrong with "sentimental", but de la Iglesia isn't nearly as good at it as he is at "crazy". 800 Balas is at its best when it's crazy, but that doesn't happen often enough.

Next up: BFFF stuff and animation.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Previews I'm just getting around to: Hustle & Flow, Junebug, Asylum, The Thing About My Folks, Pretty Persuasion

Free previews are easy to find. There's usually two or three in every issue of the weekly alterna-rag, and one every other day or so in the daily papers. You may have to go someplace and pick them up - and try to get ahead of all the other moochers - but sometimes you just stumble onto them - I think I found passes for Asylum when I was looking for ice cream, and I've found others in a pile with the CSNs and such outside the comic shop.

In fact, for a while I had enough passes and things lying around my cubicle that my co-workers seemed to think the studios treated me like a real critic and sent me passes. Not yet, guys.

Although I wouldn't complain.

Hustle & Flow

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2005 at Loews Bosotn Common #7 (Preview)

I'll give Craig Brewer some credit - he made me like Hustle & Flow, despite nearly all of my personal preferences advising against it. My thoughts about its individual elements run the gamut from "disinterest" to "disdain". But go figure; even if he and his cast don't quite make me care about a pimp who would be a rapper, that the characters were able to grab my interest is a victory in itself.

DJay (Terrence Howard) is a Memphis pimp, but not a particularly prosperous one. He's got three girls in his stable, but with Shug (Taraji P. Henson) pregnant with his child, Nola (Taryn Manning) a less-than-high-end country girl, and Lexus (Paula Jai Parker) belligerent (and having recently given birth herself), he's all too aware that things aren't exactly getting better. A couple brief discussions give him an idea, though: Arnel (Isaac Hayes), a local bar owner, mentions that local success story Skinny Black (Ludacris) will be having a party at his bar. And a guy he knew in high school as "Key" (Anthony Anderson) is doing some work as an audio engineer. Well, DJay used to rap in the same places as Skinny, and not many thought Skinny was that much better. If DJay could make a demo, and slip it to him...

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 August 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (Preview)

There are any number of good things to say about Junebug. It's got interesting things to say about art and the art business. It's a great demonstration of how both the tensions and affection within a family, and the reasons for them, often go unsaid and misunderstood by outsiders. It features an unusually even-handed look at the uneasy co-existence of urban and rural America. But when all is said and done, even all of its other fine qualities blend together as a footnote to one thought: That Amy Adams, she deserves some sort of award.

We don't meet Adams right away; we first encounter Madeline and George (Embeth Davidtz and Alessandro Nivola). She's a gallery owner in Chicago; he's her new husband. They've traveled to South Carolina so that she can meet with an "outsider artist" who happens to live near George's family, whom she's never met. Ms. Adams plays Ashley, the literally barefoot and pregnant wife of Geroge's brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie), both of him still live with his parents (Celia Weston and Scott Wilson).

Read the rest at HBS.


* * (out of four)
Seen 17 August 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (Preview)

Asylum is a "bad decision" movie, where the lead character makes a near-constant string a poor choices, but the audience is expected to sympathize because her poor choices are made as the result of passion, while the people she's turning away form are gray martinets seemingly incapable of giving affection. And, of course, Natasha Richardson has the sex appeal going for her, too, and I think we're supposed to look at this movie set in the late 1950s/early 1960s and say, ah, it's tragic that women in that time were expected to repress their sexuality and the only way this vibrant creature could find any sort of release was with one of the inmates at the mental hospital where her husband was employed.

The film fails because it never manages to sell this to us as a tragedy. This is partly because it doesn't establish a strong sense of time and place - tweedy 20th century English melodramas do tend to run together, and Laurel and I wound up figuring the exact timeframe by reading a gravestone toward the end of the picture - so a present-day audience may wind up looking at Ms. Richardson's Stella Raphael and saying "if you're so unhappy, divorce his ass and move on, and if you can't bear the thought of work, examine your priorities or at least seduce someone who be able to do more to keep you in the lifestyle to which you are accustomed than an escaped mental patient who killed his wife!" Maybe not those exact words, but at some point, you'd like to see the protagonist do something that's not utterly stupid.

Working around the idiot plot, it's a competent enough little movie. There's a nicely stuffy atmosphere, and director David Mackenzie does a fine job illustrating the tedium that must be slowly killing Stella. The supporting cast is as good as one expects for a British period piece, with Marton Csokas somehow managing to be smolderingly repentant, Hugh Bonneville perfectly believable as the sort who looks at a wife as a sort of servant, and Ian McKellen as reptillian as one could desire. Gus Lewis is okay enough as Stella's son, although not really enough of a character that we wish him well for any reason other than "he's a kid".

"Competent" isn't really saying much, though, is it? There's not much that could be done to make a movie based on this story better, but what's the appeal of this sort of story of self-destruction, where there's not even anything instructive about the suffering?

The Thing About My Folks

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 August at Loews Boston Common #2 (preview)

I don't hate Paul Reiser, no matter how much my brother Matt and I mocked him the day of the preview. He's a guy who's useful in a small part, but he's limited. As an actor, his range runs from "whiny" to "smarmy". He's also the writer on this movie, and it's the same sort of observational humor as his stand-up - "it's funny because it's true" - which I tend to find rather weak. All it's got going for it is familiarity, and it never really is able to surprise the audience enough to deliver many laughs.

Not that it's purely a comedy; it's a road movie where Ben Kleinman (Reiser) and his father Sam (Peter Falk) tool around upstate New York after Sam's wife up and leaves without notice. And while they're driving around randomly, there's the inevitable talking about Sam's failings as a father and husband, Ben's insecurities, and their family history. Paul Reiser is whiny. Peter Falk is crochety. And he farts. As we all you know, only a few things are guaranteed comedy gold, and old guys farting? What more could you want?

The Thing About My Folks is sweet and harmless and boring. I don't think that wanting to give the audience warm fuzzies must inevitably lead to a dull movie; it's the trading over well-worn territory that does that. This is just another movie about an adult son trying to connect with his elderly father, and in trying to make something everyone could relate to, Reiser never put much in that was unique. We wind up just marknig time until the inevitable teary scene in the hospital where everyone realizes how much they really, really love each other.

On a note that has nothing really to do with the movie, I will give Reiser some credit for sometimes seeming as irritated as me at the people who come to a preview/festival with Q&A, raise their hands, get recognized, and then just ramble on and on. Granted, his method of dealing with this was almost-impercepitable sarcasm while mine was banging my head back onto my seat saying "ask a frickin' question" through gritted teeth. As gratifying as it is to know that you liked Columbo or Mad About You or, hey, even The Thing About My Folks, the guests have limited time, and your long-winded sucking up is potentially displacing an actual interesting question and answer.

Pretty Persuasion

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 August 2005 at Loews Harvard Square #3 (preivew)

When I first saw the trailer, I admit, I thought this was a Jena Malone movie. She and Evan Rachel Wood look really, astonishingly, similar. The difference, apparently, is that Ms. Malone's movies tend to be less cynical than Ms. Wood's.

Here, Wood plays the sort of teenaged girl that primarily exists in the nightmares of older men: Genius IQ, highly attractive, and absolutely no concern over right and wrong. I imagine that this is a common nightmare among high school teachers, but also something that doesn't happen nearly as often as the media would have us believe. But, hey, movies about monsters are more compelling than movies about people who do something foolish on a whim and are no match for the authorities who are trained to handle their likes. And Wood's Kimberly is a compelling monster. She's got a knack for saying terrible things in a way that can be taken as not being actually malicious. She's got a rotten, scummy father (James Woods) to whom one would assign more blame if her actions weren't so thoroughly calculated. And at times, the audience can relate to her problems: We get her antagonizing a trophy-wife stepmother and receiving mixed messages from a boyfriend, and what at first seems to be a casual lie turns out to be surprisingly true. The spoiled brat who becomes a total sociopath over basic teenager stuff is almost a cliché, but in Wood's hands it's more.

Kimberly is easily the most complex and interesting character, but by no means the only watchable one. Her "friends" and partners in crime - Elisabeth Harnois as the blonde, perky, not so bright Emily and Adi Schnall as demure new student Randa - are types but well-realized ones: It's funny but also sad to see Randa's innocence be chipped away, and Emily would probably be a normal kid removed from this situation - the goofy one in the gang, probably self-centered in the way teenagers are, but likable enough once you got to know her. James Woods is hilariously reprehensible as Kimberly's crass, bigoted drunk of a father, and Jane Krakowski is amusing as a TV reporter who only thinks she's opportunistic and ambitious. The weak link linds up being Ron Livingston as the teacher who is the target of the girls' wrath. He is in some ways a deserving target, but he's Ron Livingston, one of the most charisma-free actors working today.

Black comedy is a tricky thing to do. I don't think there's any subject that should be categorically off-limits, but there are certain things, like sexual misconduct between a teacher and student, where you've got to have a darn good joke. A lot of the jokes are pretty good, but the film falters when it tries to make the leap from twisted humor to moralizing - where do you draw the line one which twisted things are funny and which aren't? Also, while Kimberly is believably brilliant, it's in part because pretty much everyone else is rather dim, or too easily manipulated. It's one thing to be cynical about how easily everyone can be played, but another to rig it that way.

It's a nice little black comedy, if that's not a contradiction in terms. It's only really sunk by the unfortunate need to demonstrate that its heart is, in fact, in the right place If you're going to go for the throat, don't stop until it's well and truly ripped out.

Sunday, October 02, 2005


The idea of the blog is to review everything I see, but various festival-type things and work and just slowing down is keeping it from happening. And, there's other stuff I want to write while this falls out the back of my brain, so it's time to recognize that I won't catch up any time soon. So, over the next week or so, I'll be doing capsules to catch up. Any regular readers who want to see one of these subjects expanded, drop a comment and I'll look at expanding to full reviews.

The (planned) line-up:

Previews I didn't get to writing up until after the film had come and gone:
- Hustle & Flow, Junebug, Asylum, The Thing About My Folks, Pretty Persuasion

Oldies but (mostly) goodies:
- Sabotage, The Duelists, Elevator to the Gallows, The Shining

Henson & heirs:
- Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, MirrorMask

Boutique-ish stuff:
- Broken Flowers, November, The World, Lord of War

I ♥ Rachel McAdams:
- Wedding Crashers, Red-Eye

- Porco Rosso, Valiant, Corpse Bride

Daring Escapes:
- The Great Raid, The Tunnel

Wasn't Paul Rudd going to be a romantic lead, not a wacky supporting character?
- The 40-Year-Old Virgin, The Baxter

Big-time Imax:
- Magnificent Desolation, Sharks

Alex de la Igleseas:
- El Crimen Ferpecto, Accione Mutante, La Communidad, 800 Bullets

See, 31 behind? Never getting caught up, especially with the baseball playoffs and all the good stuff at the Brattle. And the midnight kung fu stuff starting back up at the Coolidge. So capsules for now, but I'll take a couple requests.