Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Lightning Round, Part I

I've signed up for the Brattle's Movie-Watch-a-Thon, so look at this first section of the big catch-up post of an indication of just how much money you can help raise for a good cause if you sponsor me. Say, $1 for every movie I see between 11 November and 4 December. It's watching movies for a good cause.

The Dark Hours

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 July 2005 at Salle J.A. de Seve (Fantasia Press Screening)

I hate it when something set up as a mystery lies to me. And The Dark Hours is a "big lie" movie, where the last scene is meant to show what really happened during all those scenes where the movie had lied to you earlier.

Which is a bummer, because the cast is a nice group of unknowns, and the situation writer Wil Zmak creates is tense enough not to need a big revelation to basically tell you the previous hour-plus wasn't what you thought. Director Paul Fox coaxes good performances from the cast, and makes the action sudden and bloody enough to provide genuine shocks. It just seems like a shame to fritter them away like that.

Sabotage

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2005 at the Harvard Film Archive (Summer Double Features)

Hitchcock is just always good. This specimin from 1936 gives us Sylvia Sidney as the wife of a movie theater owner who, unbeknownst to her, moonlights as a Nazi saboteur. Obviously, she's not going to believe it when a handsome young detective takes her into his confidence, but evidence mounts, and when he involves her young brother in his plans...

The screening at the HFA took place soon after this summer's London subway/bus bombings, so there was a little extra tension to this movies about attacks on the city. Hitchcock's skill is incredible, as he cranks up the tension several notches during the pivotal bus bombing scene. The story comes from a novel by Joseph Conrad (The Secret Agent), and though the material was decades old, it is easily updated to reflect the then-present time (and could probably be shot today with few changes). But, why do so when there's a perfectly good Hitchcock version?

The Duellists

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2005 at the Harvard Film Archive (Summer Double Features)

The second half of the HFA's Joseph Conrad double bill is Ridley Scott's first feature, The Duellists. Like many of Scott's films, it is beautifully designed and shot but feels somewhat cold. It's not actually the case; there are strong passions running underneath the characters' formal exteriors. Keith Carradine actually becomes fascinating to watch after a while, as he becomes weary of the duels his character and Harvey Keitel's fight over a period of decades, despite feeling trapped by honor.

Keitel never quite rises to the same level; I didn't see why his character was doing this. It might have made for a better movie if there were a little more balance between the two characters. Instead, the film must be - and is - carried by the strong period look, the well-staged swordfights, and the epic scope of how this becomes a lifelong obsession.

Labyrinth

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Tribute to Jim Henson)

Labyrinth is a good film in spite of the many ways in which it is really, really awful. Jim Henson and company create some amazing environments and the puppetry used to bring characters to life is fantastic, but the script is obviously just the barest skeleton on which to hang whatever visual Henson and company can devise and create next, and I imagine anybody watching this would be hard-pressed to predict that Jennifer Connelly had an Oscar in her future. She's rather terrible, giving no indication that she's much more than a pretty face.

To a certain extent, I think Jim Henson was trying to make a movie out of a story that fundamentally wants to be a videogame, but not even the awesome graphic capabilities of the Amiga could keep up with Hensons' imagination back in 1986, and that wasn't his chosen medium, anyway. Fortunately, the film has David Bowie, who doesn't disappear into his character but instead embraces the very unbelievability of the whole production.

And it looks amazing. There are few greater pleasures than immersing oneself in a Jim Henson world for a little while.

The Dark Crystal

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Tribute to Jim Henson)

Of all Jim Henson's projects, this may be the most astounding in terms of sheer creativity and scope. It's a pure fantasy, with even the most human-appearing characters (the Gelflings) appearing rather alien. We're also on our own in terms of scale; these characters could be human-sized or the size of the puppets or something else entirely; we have to place ourselves entirely within their world rather than relying on comparisons with our own.

And that's what makes The Dark Crystal so extraordinary; not just that it creates this other world, but pulls us into it so easily into it. With just a little narration, we understand what is necessary for us to understand, and we see that the world is populated by wonders and monsters and other magical things. I worry about the Hensons' planned sequel, because I think a great deal of the appeal is discovering this new world, and I don't know if that can be replicated in a second film.

Elevator to the Gallows (Acenseur pour l'├ęchafaud)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (re-release)

A murder plot goes awry, trapping the killer in a building elevator, while his car is stolen by a kid looking for a joyride. This could make for a taut, nail-biting thriller, but director Louis Malle is French. Thus, the killer smokes a great many cigarettes, his lover and accomplice mopes around bars wondering why he didn't show up, and the car thieves bicker until they meet a nice older couple.

It's not all bad, of course: There's a score by Miles Davis, which is rare and exciting. The plot twists Come at a leisurely pace, but they do all come together, and there's charm to the characters, even the disreputable ones. The only disappointment comes from the end, where a noirish plot and atmosphere are tied up in too tidy a knot.

Broken Flowers

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 August 2005 at Loews Harvard Square #1 (first-run)

With this movie, Bill Murray demonstrates the essential difference between "mailing it in" and "not challenging oneself". The performance is nothing to be ashamed of at all, but it's the same sort of character he's been playing in his more dramatic recent movies - an older guy feeling out of step with the rest of the world, commenting drily when he says anything at all. We've seen this, whether in Rushmore, Lost in Translation, or The Life Aquatic, and director Jim Jarmusch doesn't give us material that's as interesting as Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola's movies. The storyline is just a set-up for a group of odd encounters.

About the only person in a spiffy cast who doesn't seem wasted is Jeffrey Wright as Winston, a mystery-loving friend of Murray's character, who urges him to hit the road in order to find his potential son both out of concern for his friend and his own love of puzzles. His enthusiasm is infectious - and, frankly, more interesting - than Murray's road trip.

Wedding Crashers

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 6 August 2005 at AMC Fenway #13 (first-run)

You could probably remove ten minutes from Wedding Crashers without hurting it, but I can't tell you which minutes those would be. Maybe the ones with Will Ferrell. And the movie doesn't really get full use out of Christopher Walken. Still, it's hard to complain too much, because there is a lot of funny stuff going on; grab any random five minute segment and see if you don't laugh hard once or twice. Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn are very funny guys, given funny things to do, and it's fun because although their actions are kind of crass and mean-spirited, it's stuff we wish we had the guts to do. Weddings are a pain, and it's good to see at least someone getting something out of one.

And, hey, the ladies. Rachel McAdams is utterly perfect as the one who catches Wilson's eye; if she's got any flaws, they're tough to find, but she's not this untouchable ideal, either. Her character is beautiful and smart and kind, but not snotty at all. As her sister, Isla Fisher is just dotty, combining a childlike innocence and enthusiasm with aggressive sexuality. It's an unfortunate truth that women often get the short end of the stick in this sort of zany comedy, like the writers don't know how to make them funny without hitting some stereotype or making them unfeminine. Having both McAdams and Fisher is a big help; Adams's character is smart and grounded enough to deflect any complaints about the filmmakers treating women as nothing more than sex objects, while Fisher keeps the audience away from any impression that girls are no fun.

The movie also features fun bits turned in by Bradley Cooper and Jane Seymour, which is what I think marks it as one of the year's best comedies - it's not just the two guys with their names above the title making the audience laugh; this cast is five or six people deep even before you get to folks just there for one joke. Wedding Crashers has what sports fans call "depth".

November

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 August 2005 at Landmark Embassy #3 (first-run)

This is a bad movie, with uninvolving performances by James LeGros and Courtney Cox, and a plot that plays with time and destiny and potential divergent realities without having anything interesting to say about it.

But what sticks in my mind two years later is not just how bad it is, but how short. The running time is something like seventy-eight minutes, including some painfully elongated credits, as if the filmmaker figured that nothing under an hour and a half would be considered a real movie and was desperately trying to stretch to reach that. If you stay for the credits, this makes the November experience even more agonizing; they were so slow, that not only did I have a chance to read each name and title individually, but I was able to form anagrams for some.

The Great Raid

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 August 2005 at AMC Fenway #7 (first-run)

I gather this was sitting in Miramax's vault for a couple years, finally released because apparently anything in those vaults that wasn't released by a certain would revert to the Weinsteins or would not profit them or something. Sadly, this has not made it any easier for me to see the Asterix movies or "Alien Love Triangle".

It deserves better than being hidden away; it's a solidly procedural war movie, respectful and (probably) accurate to the point of being somewhat dry. The folks who like history will probably be pleased, but folks who are not afficianados of military history in general and WWII specifically probably won't be as excited about approaches, meticulous planning, and impossible-to-meet schedules. It does have a rousing finale, though, which should have people leaving the theater on an upbeat note.

One thing that struck me as distracting: The men in the Japanese POW camp looked relatively healthy, and although I don't expect half the cast to pull what Christian Bale did for [i]The Machinist[/i] (and wouldn't want them too; that's unhealthy), opening the picture with actual footage of the Bataan death march just makes the characters look all the more vital.

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