Monday, November 14, 2005

Lightning Round 2, and Movie-Watch-a-thon update

So, I was going to go into total film festival movde for the MWaT, but this weekend's movies convinced me to just go with categories rather than chronological, because it would just highlight my thoroughly questionable taste. "You gave Jacques Doillion's La Vengence d'une Femme the same ranking as friggin' Zathura?!?! What the heck is wrong with you?" In my defense, though, Zathura did not knock me unconscious, the way most of the Cahiers du Cinema series at the Brattle has thus far - of the four I've seen, the only one I've made it through without resting my eyes was Rendez-Vous. The cynical will note that this film features a great deal of naked young Juliette Binoche in its 87-minute runtime. Truth be told, though, it's the creepiness as opposed to the sexiness that kept me from drifting off.

Also, this series has way too many 9:45pm starts for talky French movies. I'll discuss it more when I get around to full reviews, which these will get, right after the silents and samurai stuff.

And Zathura, because I have an idea for slamming it which amuses me.

So, to recap:

Movies seen this weekend at the Brattle: (11/11) La Vengence d'une Femme, (11/12) A Man Escaped, Day of Wrath, and (11/13)Rendez-Vous.
Movies seen this weekend at other theaters: (11/13) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Zathura
Money pledged so far: $50 entry fee + $50 flat donations + $5 x (4 Brattle Films + .5 * 2 other films) = $125
Why the Brattle Theater Matters
Details on the Movie Watch-a-Thon
Where to send you cash in support
Mail me if you'd like to pledge some dollar amount per movie

And, now, some more capsule reviews:

Red Eye

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 August 2005 at Loews Boston Common #16 (first-run)

Red Eye is what other thrillers look like when they go on diets and work out, a sleek, no-nonsense bit of filmmaking with nary a wasted second. The only fat on this movie is about two minutes of comic relief and maybe a slightly protracted last act, but that's fine. It's probably one of the best things Wes Craven has done in years.

This is in large part due to its star. There's something a little bit artificial-looking about Rachel McAdams - her eyes and mouth are a bit larger than normal, just short of where the brain stops processing it as "friendly" - but she's got the knack of making an audience like her quickly, and her easy charm is a nice counterpoint to Cillian Murphy's ingratiating cover. The two are able to work a lot of tension in an enclosed space, which keeps the movie humming along for the first hour and makes the larger-scale last act not only a fun string of set pieces, but a relief of the tension that had built up before.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 August 2005 at AMC Fenway #13 (first-run)

Anyone who's seen my apartment will probably tell you that I'm frighteningly close to being Steve Carrell's character, so I found myself rather relieved that the movie doesn't set out to make him the butt of jokes - or at least, not just make him the butt of jokes. Carrell plays a guy whose development is kind of stunted, not just because he hasn't had sex, but because he hasn't tried to move forward in other areas - he's been a contented drone at work, his primary mode of transportation is a bicycle, he collects toys, he doesn't drink, etc. The movie doesn't necessarily tell us that these are bad qualities, but it points up how staying in place from one's early teens doesn't gain anything; there are greater rewards (like, say, Catherine Keener) to moving forward.

Hollywood puts out a lot of raunchy movies every year, but this is the first one I can remember since American Pie that manages to be both bawdy and affectionate. Sex and dating, like every other part of human behavior, are often trying and incomprehensible, but just as often very funny. Carrell's Andy is surrounded by guys who, for all their more extensive experience, get involved in situations just as awkward and peculiar as his, and that really levels the playing field: There are many ways for life to be crazy, but we can laugh at them all, and laugh hard.

The World (Shijie)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 September 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first run)

"The World" of this film's title is an amusement park on the outskirts of Beijing, and it's fun to analyze what the purpose of such a place is in a communist state: Filled with EPCOT-like pavillions, it gives its visitors a look at the world outside their borders, but in a diminished sense; the Eiffel Tower here is just a fraction of its actual size, for instance. It lets people exercise their urge to explore, even if the real thing is discouraged.

That combination of restlessness and confinement is a recurrant them in the movie, which follows not the park's visitors, but its staff. These are, for the most part, kids in their early twenties for whom entertainment is a day's work, and the environment that's exciting for the visitors is just an everyday backdrop to work, lunch, and the occasional flirtation. It's pretty ordinary stuff, but writer/director Zhang Ke Jia stages it well, juxtaposing banal conversations and peculiar environments. The cast of characters isn't quite cynical yet.

It's quite an enjoyable movie up until the ending. There's darkness in the movie, but the finale is so bleak as to make the whole endeavor feel pointless; it leaves a sour taste.

The Tunnel (Der Tunnel)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 5 September 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run)

This sucker took four years to get its release in the U.S. before quietly spending a few weeks in boutique houses. This is a crying shame, because The Tunnel is a fantastic thriller, chronicling the plans of a group who had already escaped from East Germany to tunnel back in and retrieve their loved ones.

Though writer Johannes Betz and director Roland Richter are working from a true story, but they structure their film as a caper, or a heist picture - after an extended opening where Olympic swimmer Harry Melchoir (Heino Ferch) escapes to the West without his beloved sister, he and a group of others with loved ones on the other side rent a warehouse close to the new Berlin Wall, planning to tunnel 200 meters to a café on the other side while a cohort with a student visa spreads the word on when to be there. Of course, the east German police are trying just as hard to avoid that from happening, including recruiting friends as informants.

The events of The Tunnel are forty years in the past, but still resonate with the audience because they're not about the politics of the Cold War. Although Melchoir's politics are what cause him to flee, the movie is not about capitalism and communism; it's about uniting families that have been seperated by borders drawn in a thoroughly arbitrary fashion. Anybody can get behind that, no matter what their politics.

Of course, without the crisp execution, this would be a bloated but well-meaning mess. Richter introduces us to new characters naturally, and takes his time getty Melchoir out of the DDR. His initial escape is exciting, but it's just set-up; with more than two and a half hours to work with (like Das Boot, this was originally a two-part TV miniseries), he can afford to take his time, letting us get to know the cast, explaining the plan in detail, spending time with the people left behind, periodically reinforcing why you want to be on the west side of the wall, as opposed to the east. It's a slow, but constant, build-up of tension, the kind that gets the audience slowly inching forward in their seats until it's time to start getting people out, and the excitement of a good plan well-executed slowly turns to a potential disaster. The story never jerks the audience from one situation to another, but instead lets us savor the details, watching how exciting it is when things go right, and when they go wrong.

And this just came and went in a couple weeks. What a terrible pity.

The Shining

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 September 2005 at the Brattle Theater (The Complete Kubrick)

I would have loved to see what Stanley Kurbrick could have done with the works of H.P. Lovecraft, based on his version of The Shining. There's a palpable sense of menace from the first frames, with the notes of the soundtrack held far too long and the helicopter shots making Jack Nicholson's automobile look small and fragile amid the snowy, mountainous terrain. This is a guy who could take the concept of monsters so alien and grotesque that their sight drives men insane. It's a creepy, creepy movie.

Is it the ur-creepy movie it's often described as? Maybe, if I'd seen it earlier and hadn't seen it referenced and spoofed in a dozen other movies and TV shows. It also must be just about where Jack Nicholson went from being "Jack Nicholson, extremely talented actor" to "Jack Nicholson, guy who plays the same character over and over again". In 1980, it may not have been self-parody yet, but now? That's hardly fair, but horror movies are visceral things. Once you start detatching enough to overlook outside associations, it's tough to still be scared by them.

Lord of War

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 September 2005 at National Amusements Circle Cinema #1 (First-run)

Andrew Niccol has five movies on his IMDB page, three as director. Given that the first two are Gattaca and The Truman Show, any new project of his gets my immediate attention. As great as some of movies have been, he's got... strong opinions. Both those movies had epilogues meant to hammer those opinions home cut at one point or another during production. Since Lord of War was made independently, it stayed in, and incongruously, too - the story is the rise and fall of private arms dealer Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) is followed by noting that the world's largest arms dealer is the United States. Which is true and worth getting out there, but kind of serves to undercut the importance of what we'd just seen.

Which is unfortunate, becuase the stuff that comes before that is pretty darn good. Not as brilliant as his more imaginative stories, but a solid study of a relatable character with an unusual life. Orlov is seldom sympathetic, but his life sucks you in anyway, and it's filled with characters both colorful and sadly familiar. The narration is darkly funny, and Cage turns in a good performance in the lead.

The Baxter

* * (out of four)
Seen 22 September 2005 at Landmark Embassy #3 (first-run)

The conceit of The Baxter is, if not brilliant, at least clever: A romantic comedy told from the point of view of the Other Guy, to whom the (usually) female lead is engaged and who must be disposed of for the happy ending where the two we know are destined to be together. Sure, these characters are often villainous (Bradley Cooper in Wedding Crashers being the best recent example), but often they're just "not right for her". Sometimes they can be shuffled off relatively painlessly (think Parker Posey in You've Got Mail), but often they sadly exist for no other reason than to be an obstacle, which has got to be a pretty sad state to be in.

What's frustrating is that this is a concept that could have been Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, but winds up more or less becoming a standard romantic comedy. There's no bite to how writer/director/star Michael Showalter's character is pushed aside, and there's a thoroughly adorable Michelle Williams just waiting for him to lose his conventionally pretty blonde fiancée. And, of course, Williams's Cecil Mills has a boyfriend of her own (Paul Rudd). You can probably see the ironic ending coming a mile away. But, hey, there's some funny stuff in the margins, especially a scene-stealing Peter Dinklage as a wedding planner. I think this is also the first time I've really liked Michelle Williams in something; being a quirky brunette rather than a popular blonde seems to suit her.

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