Friday, June 30, 2006


Two big superhero movies coming out within a week of each other, although their main audiences are on separate sides of the globe. Both are sequels of a sort, both are just a bit on the long side, and I wish I enjoyed both of them a little more than I did.

I liked Superman Returns more, but I really wish it wasn't so slavishly beholden to the Richard Donner version. It becomes a a tribute, rather than its own thing, even though I don't think I've ever met anybody who liked some of the things they kept - seriously, did anyone think Luthor needed another Miss Tessmacher? I'm also kind of disappointed that they kept the crystalline Fortress of Solitude. That design for the Fortress and Krypton was a nice budget-minded compromise in 1978, but today, the technology exists to make the Fortress what it has always been in the comics - a huge, fanciful mesuem of Superman's adventures, with something amazing tucked into every corner. Instead, we see every other version following the Donner film's lead - there's a new crystaline Fortress in the comics, and Smallville uses the same imagery.

And Luthor. Man, I loved the Luthor John Byrne created - having him be a corporate mogul made him modern, made him Superman's equal, just with a different kind of power. This Luthor annoys me, and the comics are following this lead. It's a bummer.

Krrish isn't quite as insane as its predecessor, Koi... Mil Gaya, but what is? I only knew that one existed because I was seeing the Weekly Wednesday Ass-Kicking at the new-demolished Allston Cinema, and I'm a sucker for anything with a spaceship on the poster. A superhero movie with action choreography out of Hong Kong is worth a look, too, and by the end I was kind of into it. It takes a while, though, and I don't know if I just had to get used to Bollywood or if the last half is just different from the first.

Superman Returns

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 June 2006 at AMC Fenway #10 (Preview Screening)

Superman returns; worthy adversary still missing.

Richard Donner's 1978 film of Superman is a great film, but not because it is perfect. It is great because it was the first time in a long time that superheroes were made majestic, something more than silly adolescent power fantasies. It is great because the parts that work are able to almost completely overpower the parts that don't. The trouble with Bryan Singer's 2006 follow-up is that it borrows indiscriminately from its predecessor, and what it adds is not compelling.

It's obvious from the start, where the opening credits are the same blue outlines whooshing toward the audience, although the background is jazzed up with modern CGI. We soon learn that Superman (Brandon Routh) left Earth five years ago to investigate the ruins of his home planet. During that time, archnemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been released from prison upon a successful appeal (Superman, you see, could not be called as a witness) and Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has settled down some, with a son (Tristan Lake Leabu) and a long-standing engagement to Richard White (James Marsden), the son of her editor, Perry White (Frank Langella). Just as Superman returns to Earth, though, Luthor has found his Fortress of Solitude and stolen a set of crystals located there, which he intends to use for a new nefarious scheme, which like his old nefarious scheme, involves stealing missiles in order to wreak devastation that leaves him in control of the world's most valuable real estate. This time, instead of sinking California, he'll create a new continent, even if it floods huge parts of the ones we've already got.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 June 2006 at Somerville Theater #5 (Bombay Cinema)

Krrish is one of a certain class of sequels that often annoys me - you know, the type that dispenses with the previous film's main characters early on, to focus on a previously unmentioned brother/friend/other substitute. "Happily ever after" may be short-lived in real life, but shouldn't musicals at least have the implication that it lasts? Here, there's not even the excuse that the producers couldn't retain the star; Hrithik Roshan, Koi... Mil Gaya's Rohit Mehra, headlines as that character's son, Krishna Mehra.

We don't learn the details of why Krishna is living with his grandmother Sonia (Rekha) until about halfway through this three-hour movie, but he is, and she packs up and moves to the country so that they can live in isolated anonymity when six-year-old Krishna shows signs of being a spectacularly gifted genius, complete with Thundering Music of Doom as he answers all his teacher's questions. There, she makes sure he hides his physical and mental gifts and never leaves the village, even though he 's entering creepy twenty-year-old (who looks thirty) hanging out with preteens territory, and doesn't even have the excuse of being retarded like his father was at the start of the previous movie. Soon, though, Priya (Priyanka Chopra) literally falls into his life, crashing her hang-glider into a tree while on an adventure vacation. When she and her friend Honey (Maaninee Mishra) return home to Singapore, they hatch a scheme to save their jobs at a local TV station by showing the "Indian Superboy". Still trying to hide his powers, Krishna dons a discarded mask while saving children at a circus fire, and Priya's new assignment is ferreting out the mysterious superhero "Krrish". They don't yet know about Dr. Arya (Naseeruddin Shah), the head of the electronics firm Krishna's father Rohat was working on at the time of his death, who is just now recreating Rohat's work for his own nefarious purposes.

Read the rest at HBS.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

All CGI, All The Time

The first two of the movies in this post were seen the conventional way, while the last two were at this weekend's second Brattle Anime Festival. There were other film from that festival that I considered reviewing, but I felt even less qualified to talk about the Cardcaptor Sakura movie or the third Inu-Yasha one. Those suckers clearly have pre-requisites; they're for experienced fans, which I'm clearly not. I actually thought they were fun enough stories, but just don't know enough to talk about them.

Sadly, the two features I was most looking forward to were run during the wee hours of the night - I'll have to rent/buy Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro when the new edition comes out in August, and pull My Neighbors the Yamadas off my shelf.

Learned about some nifty anime - Fullmetal Alchemist is a fun adventure series, and I really should give Cowboy Bebop another chance. I'm sort of flattened by FLCL - it's just a whole bunch of crazy packed into six episodes, with a surprising amount of interesting character work. I'm not sure whether it's too much or not quite enough yet.

Over The Hedge

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 May 2006 at Entertainment Cinemas Fresh Pond #10 (First-run)

There's something a tiny bit dishonest about advertising Over the Hedge as "from the producers of Shrek and Madagascar". PDI/DreamWorks certainly produced the film, but this thing's been a newspaper comic for years. Not that anyone reads those anymore, though.

Those who still read the papers know that it follows the lives of a group of forest critters whose natural habitat was leveled to make way for a suburban housing development, leaving only a small patch free. Though Verne (a turtle with the voice of Garry Shandling) had been the group's leader in the quest to forage enough food to last them through the winter, their usual hunting grounds are gone, and a recently arrived raccoon, RJ (voice of Bruce Willis) convinces them to start nicking the humans' junk food. What he fails to mention is that as soon as the crew has found enough to fill their hollow log, he intends to hand it off to a bear (voice of Nick Nolte) to whom he owes a previous debt.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 June 2006 at AMC Boston Common #7 (First-run)

If one was to imagine an Animation Hall of Fame to honor those who were involved with technical innovation and consistently excellent work, there'd be little argument over who the inner circle was: Windsor McCay, Walt Disney, Osamu Tezuka, Chuck Jones, Hayao Miyazaki, and I think it would be fair to include Pixar's John Lasseter. These names are held in such high regard that when the two who are still alive and active produce something new, the standard is not the other movies with the same genre or audience, but their own best work. This is why you can go to Cars, hear the audience laugh straight through, and then hear those same people on the way out talk about being disappointed.

So it's just an exceptionally good movie rather than a masterpiece. The film's biggest problem, I think, is that it's kind of self-indulgent. At nearly two hours, it's relatively long for an American animated movie, and though it doesn't quite feel bloated or flabby, Cars could probably do with having its aerodynamics studied a bit (as in, I don't know where that drag is coming from, but I can feel it). Sure, it may seem like that's a somewhat inappropriate complaint about a film whose message is to slow down a little and enjoy the journey, but this journey could use a few more roadside attractions to make up for its lengths. Also, some of the car-and-racing-related bits may be highly amusing to car people but less so to those who see the things as necessary transportation but no basis for a hobby. For instance, there's a racecar named "The King" that is voiced by Richard Petty. I was a bit amused to see his name in the credits, and figured that a certain uncle and cousins would have really liked that while watching his scenes. That bit's just going to be lost on many people; others might seem like active wastes of time.

Read the rest at HBS.

"Voices of a Distant Star" ("Hoshi no koe")

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 24 June 2006 at the Brattle Theater (The Brattle Anime Festival #2) (projected video)

I love that this short film exists. It's science fiction, the hard stuff, the kind that sees the laws of nature as the basis on which an emotional story can be built as opposed to things to be handwaved away because it's inconvenient. It's got action and adventure, joy and tragedy, and does it all without wasting any of its twenty-five minutes. And it looks pretty darn good for having been done, for the most part, by one guy on his home computer.

Mikako Nagamine and Noboru Terao are each other's first loves. Both gifted students, they are looking forward to going to the same high school, but that's before Mikako finds out she's been accepted by the United Nations space force's academy. There's a war on - a group of aliens called the Tarsians established a colony on Mars and our species don't get along - and Mikako will be piloting a combat mech. Basic training takes place on the moon, but while the mothership that takes Mikako from battle to battle can make hyperspace jumps, faster-than-light communication isn't possible. Mikako and Noboru communicate via cell phone text messages, and while ten minutes for a signal to get from the Earth to Mars isn't bad, the exponentially increasing distances as Mikako journeys to Jupiter, Pluto, the Oort Cloud and beyond will inevitably put a strain on their relationship.

I annoy people by criticizing the bad science in science fiction movies and television - why "it's called science fiction" is considered a valid argument but "it's called science fiction" isn't, I'll never know - so a story like this, which logically extrapolates a story from its premise, being found somewhere other than print is a special treat for me. I suspect that writer/director/editor Makoto Shinkai was able to tell this story at least in part because he didn't have to explain the relatively simple premise to a suit in Hollywood or Tokyo, but was able to just do it (originally, he also did the voice of Noboru and composed the music, but when distributor Mangazoo picked it up, those parts were given an upgrade).

Of course, if all the story had was good science, it would be clever and little more. Shinkai has strong storytelling skills, though - he sketches his characters out quickly and effectively, and knows how to build the world they live in without a whole lot of exposition. Having them communicate through text messages lets him give them their own articulate voices - they've able to believably say exactly what they mean, rather than engaging in awkward teenage conversation. He's good with the action sequences, too - not having a lot of runtime, he works their quick eruption and devastating speed into the story.

It's in the action scenes that he hits the limits of his tools; the three-dimensional mechs and spaceships don't have quite the same look as the two-dimensional characters piloting them. Those human characters are a little flatter and less mobile than some modern anime, but it fits the characters' introspection, but the mechanical things really do look like the best someone could do on his Mac. Still, even if the visuals aren't perfect, they are awe-inspiring - Olympus Mons on Mars, bolts of lightning that jump between Jupiter and one of its moons, a space battle near Pluto and Charon, virtual reality that lets the inside of Mikako's battle mech to fade away, leaving her letting her act as if she's floating in space.

That something like "Voices of a Distant Star" can be made more or less by one guy with some help from his friends is exciting, for film in general and science fiction in particular: It's a singular story told without compromise. Most people who make the attempt won't make something as good as "Voices" (they just won't have Shinkai's talent), but enough will, and they'll make the jump to bigger things like he did (his feature The Place Promised in Our Early Days came out a year later to much acclaim). Even if "Voices" isn't your thing, all film lovers benefit from having talented new voices able to tell their stories.

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 June 2006 at the Brattle Theater (The Brattle Anime Festival #2) (projected video)

There's something almost admirable about a movie as focused and single-minded as Advent Children. It is unabashedly constructed with a niche audience in mind. A lot of folks will look at it on the shelf and wonder what the heck happened to Final Fantasy II, III, IV, V, and VI, or why it doesn't seem to share anything with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. It's focused on looking good above all else, and if you catch it at the right time, that may be reason enough to forgive its confusing, barely-accessible plot.

That plot is... uh... there was some kind of disaster two years ago where a group of heroes barely saved the world from a corporation that nearly caused a genocide by trying to tap the life forces that circle the planet like a halo for energy. The heroes have gone their separate ways, but now "the planet has struck back" with a plague, a terrorist type is kidnapping orphans to brainwash them, and the new president of the evil corporation is trying something shady. Cloud Strife, the hero of the game, is trying to forgive himself for the people who didn't make it, operating a delivery service out of friend Tifa Lockhart's bar while they keep an eye on several orphaned kids.

Read the rest at HBS.

Friday, June 23, 2006


Matt picked up free passes to this last week. You get what you pay for.

Sometimes less. The Red Sox had a game where they took out the Hammer of Crushing and destroyed the Nationals, but did we see it? No, we were watching Adam Sandler fart in David Hasselhoff's face.


* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 June 2006 at AMC Boston Common #14 (Sneak Preview)

I imagine that there was alcohol or week or some other formulation that makes things seem funnier in use when the idea for Click was hatched, because that's the state where pointing a remote control at someone and thinking about the results of that working is hi-LAR-ious. And then you'll be reminded of something sad, and it will just be really sad, but you'll feel better for getting that out. Unfortunately, most of the audience is going to be watching this sober.

Which is unfortunate, because theaters could really benefit from selling alcohol to the over-21 portion of this film's audience. Put a bar in the back of the theater and suddenly obvious jokes involving the "Pause" and "Fast Forward" buttons might seem really clever. Maybe the last half hour or so of the movie feels poignant. And maybe the irony of spending the last two hours watching a drab, uninspiring movie with the theme of not living one's life on autopilot won't be quite so painful.

Read the rest at HBS.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Altered States: The Films of Ken Russell

Another fun series at the Brattle. I wish I could have gotten to the other double feature - The Music Lovers and Mahler - but I couldn't make the Monday show, and then the Tuesday one had something else subbed in for the 7pm part. Major bummer.

I wound up drawing parallels between Russell and Takashi Miike. Both, at least in their early careers, bounced between film and television (if Russell had had video to work with, he probably would). Both are known for outrageous and over-the-top visuals and plot twists, and both have done unexpected pictures - a couple family movies for Miike, a G-rated musical for Russell.

Will Miike have the career that Russell has - both in terms of it being long and kind of fizzling toward the end? Who knows? But from what I saw at the end of May/beginning of June, both almost invariably make interesting movies, even when they don't necessarily make good ones.

The Devils

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 May 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Altered States: The Films of Ken Russell)

There's a simple lesson to Ken Russell's The Devils: Don't place too much power into the hands of any one person. It not only makes them dangerous, but it gives your community an obvious point of vulnerability. Russell shows this truth being spectacularly exploited - so spectacularly, in fact, that the audience may become overwhelmed by the grotesqueries used to illustrate the situation.

In Paris, Cardinal Richlieu (Christopher Logue) is cementing his power, but cannot convince the king to allow him to seize Loudon, a walled city in the south which acts with disturbing autonomy, sheltering Protestants among other things. The local head priest is also not to the Cardinal's liking - aside from being liberal, Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) has very little use for his vows of chastity. The handsome Grandier is adored by the entire city, however, from the nuns in the convent to the man on the street. His behavior toward the fair sex is about to get him into trouble, though - he's just kicked a wealthy merchant's daughter out of his bed upon her becoming pregnant, secretly married the fair Madeline (Gemma Jones), and angered the convent's hunchbacked Sister Superior Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) by refusing to act as their spiritual advisor. Seeing an opportunity, the Cardinal dispatches a witchfinder, and while Grandier rides to Paris to confront the king about rumors the city will lose its autonomy, the visitors and everyone who bears any sort of a grudge against Grandier whip the city into a frenzy.

Read the rest at HBS.

Altered States

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 May 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Altered States: The Films of Ken Russell)

Lots of horror or sci-fi stories take as their premise that there are things that humanity is "not supposed to know" or not ready for; it's usually just a way for the movie to not be very specific. Altered States seems different; it seems like director Ken Russell and author Paddy Chayefsky actually have some conception of what we're not supposed to understand.

You can tell by the conversations the characters have, filled with scholarly terms and academic hair-splitting. The film's science and philosophy haven't been simplified to the point of absurdity, but they're presented in language that anyone who is willing to let their brain keep working while sitting in the cinema can comprehend. This is not a film that will offer up a simple metaphor for the lazy audience member and then proceed to act as if that metaphor is a literal truth. Or at least, it doesn't appear to; at it's heart, it's still a scientist finding things at the edges of science that wind up literally being dangerous ideas.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 May 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Altered States: The Films of Ken Russell)

Some people will tell you that the 1970s were a golden age in film because of the gritty, character-based, challenging films that directors were able to produce during that period, and they wouldn't be completely wrong. However, when you talk about artistic freedom, you have to remember that it cuts both ways, and the same environment that got Taxi Driver made also meant that someone at Warner Brothers signed a check that gave Ken Russell the money to make something as gloriously insane as Lisztomania.

Russell's biographical picture of Franz Liszt starts off from a reasonable enough premise - that in the nineteenth century, composers and virtuoso pianists like Liszt were their day's equivalent of rock stars, So Russell gets an actual rock star (Roger Daltry) to play Liszt, and one of the first sequences is Liszt backstage at his recital, which is as full of topless groupies, drugs, alcohol, wannabes looking for Liszt to play their compositions, and other hangers-on as any modern-day rock concert. Now, Russell isn't actually saying that things happened just like what he's showing, but metaphorically, they're today's equivalent. If you can't get down with the idea that everything on-screen is an exaggerated metaphor for Liszt's real life, stop reading this review and don't bother seeing this if it ever shows up on video or some crazy rep house shows it. You won't like it.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 May 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Altered States: The Films of Ken Russell)

Opera is generally thought of as grandiose, bigger-than-life art. Rock & roll has always been looking to top itself in terms of bringing passion to its performances, to the point of Pete Townshend smashing his guitar onstage in a sort of rock-induced frenzy. So "Tommy" a rock opera written by Townshend and recorded by his band, The Who, is starting out ahead of the game in terms of being a handful. With the film in the hands of Ken Russell, it's an open question as to whether Russell is the kind of showman that the form needs or the guy who will push it too far over the top.

The story, which folks who unlike me have actually heard the album probably already know, is that little Tommy Walker's father was thought killed in the war before he was born. Mother Nora (Ann-Margaret) later remarries a nice-enough seeming man, but when Tommy spots Nora and Frank (Oliver Reed) murdering his newly-returned father (Robert Powell), he takes their admonition that he saw and heard nothing too much to heart, becoming psychosomatically deaf, dumb, and blind. This condition persists until he's an adult (and played by Who frontman Roger Daltry), although he does show an affinity for playing pinball, and becomes famous for it. Eventually, his senses are restored, a miraculous-seeming event that, rather than making him appear a fraud, sees him treated as a sort of prophet or guru.

Read the rest at HBS.

Women in Love

* * * (out of four)
Seen 31 May 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Altered States: The Films of Ken Russell)

The title of Russell's Academy Award-nominated 1969 adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel refers to sisters Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, but they don't receive first billing and it likely won't be either of their courtships that makes the biggest impression on the audience For that, you've got to look to Alan Bates and Oliver Reed.

But first, the ladies. Ursula (Jennie Linden) is a sweet if insecure schoolteacher who finds herself smitten by the school inspector, Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates). Glenda Jackson's Gudrun is the younger sister (though I didn't realize that until watching The Rainbow), a more cosmopolitan artist who attracts the attention of Rupert's friend Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed). The Crich family owns the mine that serves as the early twentieth-century English town's major industry, and it is mainly at functions thrown by his family that the quartet meet. But even as opposites are busily attracting, the two male friends can't help but discuss how good it is for a man to have other important people in their lives, aside from their young ladies.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Rainbow

* * * (out of four)
Seen 31 May 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Altered States: The Films of Ken Russell)

Although Ken Russell is best known for his less restrained works in the 1970s and 1980s - things like Tommy, The Devils, and Altered States - he received his only Academy Award nomination for 1969's Women In Love. It would be twenty years before he revisited that territory with his 1989 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's The Rainbow - long enough for Glenda Jackson to play the mother of the character she'd played in the earlier film!

Gudrun Brangwen, the character Jackson played in Women in Love, is barely a factor in The Rainbow anyway; she's just a baby in the opening scene. Of course, her older sister Ursula is only three at the time, trying to chase down rainbows and nearly falling into the river doing so until her beloved father (Christopher Gable) retrieves her. Fourteen years later, Will Brangwen is still trying to protect Ursula (Sammi Davis), urging her to remain at home and find a husband, while she wants to go to the city and earn her teaching certification. Her physical education teacher, Winifred Inger (Amanda Donohoe), invites her to spend time with her in private, but when Ursula invites Winifred to come with her to the estate of her Uncle Henry (David Hemmings), she feels tremendously jealous when the two of them hit it off - and Henry's guest, a handsome young soldier by the name of Anton Skrebensky (Paul McGann), is only partial consolation.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Boy Friend

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 June 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Altered States: The Films of Ken Russell)

As long as there's been stories, there's been stories about storytellers. It's a natural thing, and when done well, a joy to watch; after all, these people know of what they speak. Unfortunately, The Boy Friend is not quite one of those joys; while it features several small pleasures, it has trouble focusing on the right things. It's fun to watch, but by the end, I was pretty glad it was over.

Apparently, this wasn't originally a backstage comedy; the original Sandy Wilson stage musical is actually being performed by the characters in Ken Russell's film. In the film, the theater where The Boy Friend is running is struggling - the audiences are tiny, easily outnumbered by the performers; the whole thing seems like it could go bust, with the cast going through the motions because it beats being out on the street. But today, two things are going to be different: Mr. Cecil De Thrill (Vladek Sheybal), a big-name Hollywood producer, is in the audience, looking for talent and his next feature; backstage, word has come that their star has broken her foot and assistant stage manager Polly Browne (Twiggy) will have to step in. This sets her all atwitter, not just because she hasn't really understudied quite so well as she perhaps should have, but because she has such a crush on her leading man, Tony Brockhurst (Christopher Gale).

Read the rest at HBS.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


This movie made me miss the start of a quite frankly incredible baseball game, so I can't forgive it.

Aside from that, though, it does sort of get me thinking about the idea of film as art. The Brattle had "Celebrating Film as Art" as its slogan for a while - it still may - but it's not quite into the hardcore obscurity that places like the Harvard Film Archive and MFA's film program can be. Something like Interkosmos is pretty darn non-commercial; it costs, per IMDB, roughly $10,000 to make and requires people to come upon it kind of randomly. It might show up in an "underground film festival" or it might grab the attention of someone like me who will see absolutely any sci-fi film no matter what the budget, nation of origin, or obscurity (I own a copy of The Sticky Fingers of Time, for crying out loud). But that means that a ridiculously large portion of the population will pass it by. It's not just that it will only get one ten-thousandth of the audience of something like X-Men 3; it will probably only have one one hundred-thousandth of the actual awareness of its existence.

I'm not sure whether that's actually unfair or just me comparing apples and oranges. The idea of making money might just be a thoroughly secondary or tertiary concern for this movie. It might just be this thing that Jim Finn wanted to make, and eventually put together.

In which case, bully for him. He'll probably never get rich at this game, but he'll probably make some nteresting films.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 June 2006 at the Harvard Film Archive (New American Independent FIlm)

I have mixed feelings about films like Interkosmos. A new filmmaker like Jim Finn has to start somewhere, and this no-budget parody documentary constructed out of stock footage and what are basically home movies shows a knack for stylization and (very) offbeat humor. That humor is dry to the point of being arid, though, and if Finn wants more mainstream success, he's going to have to work on that.

Of course, maybe Jim Finn isn't interested in mainstream success. For all I know, this sort of of retro-weird movie is the sort of thing he wants to spend his life on, or he wants to do different but similarly artsy low-budget films. Which is cool; film needs its outsider artists just as much as any other medium. We're often just so used to looking at it as corporate-produced and made by committee that we forget that anybody can make a feature-length film.

Read the rest at HBS.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand

Got to see this one in the afternoon, after having jury duty in the morning. It was the best kind of jury duty - show up at eight in the morning, watch an instructional video, work on a book of cross sums until you're told at eleven that you won't be needed. And it's Friday! And you've got Monday off because it's a holiday! Awe. Sum!

I spent a good chunk of the afternoon filling out forms and trying to print out a picture so that I could go to the post office and drop money for a passport. The plan's to head back to Montreal for Fantasia this year, since last year was a ton of fun. Having a passport would have streamlined things.

Also: That was one of those days where the weather plays mean tricks on you. I was a sweaty mess by eight o'clock when I got to the courthouse (walking to the other end of Cambridge will do that), changed into shorts when I got back home, really needed the large soda by the time I'd crossed the river and made my way to Fenway... And walked out of the theater into the pouring rain. Real cute, weather gods. Real cute.

X-Men: The Last Stand

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 May 2006 at AMC Fenway #13 (first-run)

Considering the continued popularity of the series, I doubt that X-Men: The Last Stand really represents the last of anything, especially considering the rich library of characters filmmakers can choose from should they choose to jettison more expensive pieces. And give them credit for recognizing this - the third X-Men movie certainly plays like they could either walk away or at least play a very different team in #4.

Characters don't necessarily have to die, though. A San Francisco pharmaceutical company has just announced the development of a drug that permanently suppresses expression of the mutant "X-gene" - a cure, so to speak. Mutant terrorist Magneto (Ian McKellen) and his Brotherhood of Mutants consider this an abomination; telepathic Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) doesn't like the idea, but recalls having to place mental blocks in a student to prevent her own powers from going out of control. That former student, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) was presumed dead at the end of the last movie, but she's back, and her hold on sanity is slipping just as Xavier feared.

Read the rest at HBS.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The SIX-MONTH Lighning Round (Part Two)

And with this, I'm caught up to the 26th of May. I'd write more, but I'm ready to drop.

Anyway, this is the stuff I've seen in the past six months that hasn't been reviewed wasn't first-run, with one or two exceptions. They're falling out the back of my brain, so full reviews that skew the numbers at HBS/EFC wouldn't be fair, but here's my movie viewing up to date:


The Passenger

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 December 2005 at the Landmark Kendall #3 (re-issue)

So, here's what I don't get about this movie: Jack Nicholson is staying in the African desert and finds the guy in the next hotel room, who sort of looks likes him, dead, and decides to assume his life. Why does he then go back to London, where he appears on TV and people know him, even for a brief stopover? It just doesn't seem like good planning.

After that, he finds out that the person he's impersonating is an arms merchant and just sort of goes with it, even as the occasional stumbles get him in trouble. As nicely shot and well-acted as this film is, I think it's a little too laid-back and, for lack of a better word, European for my tastes. The casual way that Antonioni and Nicholson's character go about things, the unwillingness to show much if any tension or disapproval kept me at arms' length and not feeling much at all when the film reached its conclusion.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 January 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Antonioni x 4)

Blow-Up, on the other hand, is a different matter. In many ways, it's just as uninterested in bringing its conventional thriller plot front and center, but it's at least willing to acknowledge that there's something out of the ordinary going on. The fact that he may have captured a murder on film grabs hold of David Hemmings's fashion photographer, fascinating him (and us) and challenging his idea of being aloof and disconnected.

Plus, the world he inhabits is the "swinging London" later parodied in the Austin Powers movies, and it's a beautifully garish place, shattered by the violence he witnesses. The over-the-top color, nudity, and guest appearance by the Yardbirds is a fantasy world which is slowly stripped away, and he doesn't really know how to respond to the danger he's in, or understand its source. It's a neat trick to build that tension without really giving a whole lot of detail.


King Kong '33

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 14 December 2006 in Jay's (old) Living Room (KONG!!!!) and 19 February 2006 at West Newton Cinema #2 (SF/30)

I'd seen King Kong once before, about a year and a half earlier at the Brattle. It was a blast, but it wasn't the fully restored version that showed up on DVD just in time for Peter Jackson's remake. So after I bought the big deluxe set from Best But, I settled down to kind of make sure that the original wasn't dislodged by the new one. One thing I noticed was that this original theatrical cut was more obviously "pre-code" than I remembered; not only dig Kong peel the clothes off Fay Wray, but he enjoyed the mayhem he caused. The natives of Skull Island aren't just stepped on; Kong twists his ankle to grind them into paste. Despite the reputation it gained afterward, this isn't the story of a misunderstood giant; it's a monster movie, a cautionary tale that man can't control nature.

And it's a great one, executed pitch-perfectly. I remember meeting Matt that Saturday to go see the Peter Jackson version and how surprised he was that this is a pretty effective horror movie, and not really quaint at all. Sure, the effects are primitive by today's standards, but they also remind us that effects can be an art, as opposed to just a science: The filmmakers know how to hit the part of the brain that processes representation as well as just literal vision, so we're sucked in. Also, I think that in this post-CGI world, we as an audience have lost the knowledge of how old-school effects work was done, so there's still a strong "how'd they do that?" factor.

But mainly, it's fun swashbuckling adventure with a great soundtrack (one of the first orchestral scores recorded for a movie, if not the first). King Kong is a classic not just for how iconic it's become or how it has influenced later filmmakers, but for well it holds up.

King Kong '05

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 December 2006 at AMC Fenway #13 (KONG!!!!)

Peter Jackson comes darn close to improving on a nearly-perfect movie with his remake of King Kong. It's a little flabby in spots, but it manages just the right balance between revisionist and reverant, which is fairly impressive, considering how he allegedly didn't want the job.

After all, the legend says that when Universal offered Jackson the Kong remake, he turned it down. King Kong, after all, was the movie that made him love movies and want to become a filmmaker. To try and remake it, think he could improve on it, was just a sort of wanton hubris. But after sleeping on it, he realized that if he didn't take the job, then it would probably go to someone who didn't love the original so much - Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, maybe. So he reconsidered, and got deep into pre-production before the Emmerich/Devlin Godzilla tanked and Universal put the project on the shelf. He then made an obscene amount of money on the Tolkein movies, leading to Universal wanting back in on the Peter Jackson business...

What he does is to take th eoriginal movie and re-envision it through a modern lens. The movie is still set in 1933, but it's a 1933 looked at from seventy years later, knowing that the audience is going to be a little more up on the details. So he doesn't expect us to believe that Carl Denham is going to shoot a movie with just a camera and a girl, and gives us a male lead to the film within a film, a writer, a cinematographer, etc. He knows we'll ask where the big ape comes from, and shows us the big guy beat up enough to let us know he's survived a long time, and shows us giant skeletons to imply that he's the last of his kind. It adds a layer of dignity and sadness to the beast that the original didn't quite have.

I love the way he pays tribute to the 1933 version in ways that made me laugh but other folks in the theater missed. The scene on the boat where he has the actor characters recreate a scene from the original sort of points out how primitive movies then could be, but it's done with affection. I like how Jackson gives us time to see Kong and Naomi Watts's Ann Darrow getting to know each other; Kong almost looks at Ann as a pet, rather than the kind of nasty idea of the ape thinking of her some other way.

The cast is well-chosen, especially the two big names. Naomi Watts is not just beautiful but luminous; she makes Ann a woman of charm and principle. She spends some time screaming, but grows some steel in her backbone fairly quick. I go back and forth on Jack Black; at times it seems like he doesn't quite blend into the role like he probably should, but in a way, because he's Jack Black, it's all the more disappointing as we slowly realize that there's not a heart of gold beneath his fast-talking exterior.

The movie is a visual feast. Giant apes! Dinosaurs! Insect monsters! It's all beautifully rendered and shot - a late scene with a frozen pond in Central Park is dreamlike until the military shows up and shatters the reverie. The action scenes are just absolutely fantastic.

Random Stuff


* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 December 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Staff Pick)

That's right, folks - I'd never seen Airplane!. One of the perils of being an oldest child is that it takes the parents a little experience to know when to let up on certain things, and I vaguely recall not being allowed to watch Dune until I turned 13 even though I'd devoured the books - it was, after all, rated PG-13. An R-rated movie would be out of the question. (Or my recall could be off. Truth was, even though my friends referenced it a lot, it may just be that it was never the movie I hadn't seen I wanted to rent most on any given weekend)

It is, of course, very funny and I wish I'd seen it sooner, but that's how it works out sometimes. One thing I noticed is how well it plays relatively cold. When it was made, Airplane! was a spoof of seventies disaster movies in general, and likely the Airpot movies in particular, but it's still pretty darn funny even without familiarity with its source material. Now, for all I know, there are dozens of little references in there that folks who've seen Airport laugh at, but it's not essential; it's not the MAD Magazine or Spaceballs style of parody that's become so popular, where the joke is basically replaying a scene and then nonsensically veering right when the original goes left. Genre conventions are hit, but the jokes are the movie's own, which makes the movie quotable and enjoyable in its own right.

North Country

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 January 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Recent Raves)

Charlize Theron being an awards-quality actress sort of snuck up on me; my memories of her back in Two Days in the Valley were that she or her character could barely speak English and she was the one winding up topless because her more well-known co-star wouldn't (and in an example of how times change, I can't remember the names of any of the half-dozen people billed over Ms. Theron in that movie). As time's gone on, her accent has vanished and her skill has slowly but surely increased to the point where this movie holds together because she is in it and she is good.

Because once you get past Charlize Theron's performance, it's more than a bit overbaked. Sure, it's inspired by a true story, and I have no doubt that some of the stories which women who worked the coal mines are just as horrific, but the melodrama seems to be a little overcranked on this one. She's not just harassed and assaulted, her best friend and mentor becomes terminally ill. And she's got a no-account ex whom her family wants her to reunite with. And her mother winds up leaving her father because of this. And, way back when she was in high school...

It's piling on, although (sadly) probably more true to life than it seems. Ms. Theron's awful good, though, and even when the rest of the movie seems over the top, she's heroic and grounded.

The Aristocrats

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 January 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Recent Raves)

How many ways are there to tell a dirty joke? Hundreds, maybe thousands. Truth be told, the title joke isn't that funny, even when you take into account that the set-up and punchline are just meant to be the most basic structure for improvisation of the most vulgar idea that a comedian can put together. Heck, the laughter comes in part from knowing the lame punchline that's coming and seeing how far away from it they can get.

Distastefulness aside, it's worth watching to see how some of hte mechanisms of comedy work - how something unpleasant becomes funny through sheer technique. George Carlin handles the philosophy of that. Some of the more creative retellings of hte joke are a stitch, too - there's a mimewho left me on the ground in convulsions, while Sarah Silverman uses it as a jumping-off point for a stream-of-consciousness thing. And the matter-of-fact way Bob Saget and friends describe his rendition is probably much funnier than hearing the joke itself.

Battleship Potemkin

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 February 2006 at the Harvard Film Archive (Special Presentation)

There's something fascinating about watching propoganda from a failed nation. Potemkin is not as flagrant a work of propoganda as, say, Aelita, but it's obviously a film made by the Soviet Union with the intention of reminding its people of the cruelty of the czars and how communism was the way things should be. Eighty years later, some of its ideology looks a little quaint, but Eisenstein's filmmaking remains attention-worthy.

The basic story is simple - the crew of the titular ship plans to refuse orders because of their lousy work conditions, the officers clamp down, and by the time they arrive in Odessa, it's a cause celebre that causes a riot. The riot is one of the most impressive crowds scenes filmed during the silent era, and the hysteria is still sharp today.

Kairo (Pulse)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 February 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagement)

In the trailer for the American remake of Pulse, there's a shot of people examining rolls of red duct tape with a note attached: "It keeps them out; I don't know why." I may have been pretty wiped out by moving the previous day, but I don't think there's even that much explanation in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's original. Looked at rationally, that should be a bigger flaw than it feels like. It's a little silly to ask for explanations of everything in a horror movie, since part of the fear comes from the unknown, but regular human beings acting on information they probably couldn't know is something different.

I overlook this because the movie is, in fact, pretty darn unnerving. I don't know if scary is the right word for it, but the movie got under my skin. I've only seen one other movie by Kurosawa, and Bright Future created the same feeling of looming dread, even if it's not explicitly a genre film. He creates a real apocalyptic feel, with the world suddenly refusing to obey the rules we're used to and becoming increasingly hostile. There's the occasional thing that makes you jump, but by the end, those are pretty small problems compared to the collapse that brings them about.

Werner Herzog

Wild Blue Yonder

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 January 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Salute to Werner Herzog)

It's funny; when I saw Wild Blue Yonder and then visited the Brattle's messageboard to discuss it (one of sadly few conversations on that site, I had close to the exact opposite reaction everyone else had. They saw it as a movie about the environment and its fragility, and how we are ruining our planet much like the alien species a stranded-on-Earth Brad Dourif represents. That's a factor, sure, but there's also a call for boldness, and a recognition of how humanity can perhaps do great things if it makes the effort.

As a science fiction fan, it also makes me realize how uninspiring science fiction in mass media is. Herzog stitches a story together entirely out of altered context - Dourif narrates with a tale of NASA sending an expedition to another world, and footage taken from space shuttle flights and a submersible poking around below an Antarctic ice shelf is a far more convincing interstellar mission than anything dreamed up with models or computers. That's sobering - that creative people apparently can't even conceive of something as awe-inspiring as what can be gleaned from freely-available video.

Nosferatu the Vampyre

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 January 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Salute to Werner Herzog)

F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu is the best vampire movie ever made, and nothing in the past eighty years has changed that. Which is why I'm glad that Herzog's version doesn't try to recreate the feel of the original, which was gothic and perfect with a cadaverous Orlock; instead, he casts Klaus Kinski as Dracula (with no lawsuit looming, they dispense with the thin disguise), and his vampire is an active fellow, racing across Wismar as he and the corruption he brings with him devastate the town.

Where the original was gothic, this one tends toward the garish. The version screened was in English, which I initially thought was dubbing, but apparently they shot two versions - a tribute to the English and Spanish Dracula, perhaps? At any rate, Herzog's Nosferatu doesn't come close to displacing Murnau's as my favorite vampire movie, but it's certainly a lot closer than most.

Cobra Verde

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 January 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Salute to Werner Herzog)

So, I saw four of the five (?) Herzog-Kinski collaborations in a little more than a week, and this is the one that didn't do much for me. Maybe it just caught me on the wrong night or something, because it's not really qualitatively different from Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre; there's just something about it that doesn't quite sit right with me. This one seemed significantly slower, and Kinski's character is merely ruthless, as opposed to crazy.

It's a nice-looking movie, shot on location in Africa and not feeling like modern people in the colonial era; it's thoroughly unenlightened and bleak amid the beauty. Maybe that's what I didn't love about the movie, or maybe I was just tired that night.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 29 January 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Salute to Werner Herzog)

Fitzcarraldo is my first indication that Herzog is insane, and not in a "creative and thinks of unconventional things" way. Shot in the middle of a South American rain forest, it tells the story of a music lover looking to bring opera to his small town - but to achieve it, he must mount an expedition deep into the interior, where the local tribes are known to be extra-special vicious. His crew will abandon him, he'll befriend some locals, and, in order to return home, have them pull his fairly large boat over a mountain.

The theme of the movie is grand dreams, and the outrageous efforts needed to realize them. Herzog rewards us for dreaming along with Fitzcarraldo with an astonishingly beautiful film. I particularly like how he shows us the engineering required to accomplish this wonder. The details are fascinating, and while many directors might have allowed the film to rest entirely on Klaus Kinski's captivating performance, the sense of just how impossible his dream has become elevates the film to something really special.

Burden of Dreams

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 January 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Salute to Werner Herzog)

A making-of documentary well before such things were commonplace, Burden of Dreams takes us inside the making of Fitzcarraldo to show what an impossible undertaking it really was - why Herzog was insane to try it. We get clips from ihs initial stab at the project, with Jason Robards in the title role and Mick Jagger as a sidekick who would eventually be excised from the movie. We hear nightmares about a months of shooting in the jungle, recruiting extras from local tribes who had probably never even heard of movies, let alone seen one made. We hear about battles of wills between Herzog and Kinski, and see Herzog at the end of his rope, calling the jungle an evil place, launching into a tirade that those who venerate the rain forest would likely rather not hear.

And they show how getting the boat over the mountain actually happened, but took equipment not available in the movie's timeframe - and took even longer. Crazy.

My Best Fiend

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Salute to Werner Herzog)

We start My Best Fiend by watching a young Klaus Kinski in a one-man show where he screams at the audience, and it's like watching film of Hitler - just violent oratory that is almost as intimidating as it is enrapturing (even if you don't speak a word of German). That initial impression of Kinski will stick with us through the rest of the movie - a volatile genius, whom its perhaps best to admire from afar - and with whom director Werner Herzog did perhaps his best work.

The film traces Herzog's collaboration with Kinski, from living in his apartment at the age of thirteen to their five films, showing how these two iconoclastic people clashed even while bringing out the best in each other. Herzog dismisses stories that he had to direct Kinski with a loaded gun on the set of Fitzcarraldo, although he's sure that Kinski loved the idea of people thinking this.

The film is affectionate, even as it's pretty clear that Herzog doesn't necessarily regret not being able to work with the late Kinski again - you can become fond of a wild animal, but that doesn't mean you should become any less afraid of it.

Aguirre The Wrath of God

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Salute to Werner Herzog) (projected video)

Herzog and Kinski in the jungle again, this time as an officer in the Spanish army in the early days of the New World's exploration and exploitation. As his party makes their way on a river, the danger and distance from home and accountability make the title character crazy. He takes control of the party, navigating through dangerous waters to where he believes a treasure city is located, abandoning or murdering all who would oppose him.

As usual with Herzog's colonials, he's uncompromising in representing things historically - it's hot, buggy, the uniforms are dirty and worn, and civilization is something that only exists, temporarily, because the characters have agreed it does. Thus, the descent to madness and violence becomes inevitable and unstoppable. The final sequence, where a group of monkeys overtake the raft, is a great way to show how far Kinski's Aguirre has fallen - where at the start he might have been fit for the company of men and women, now he's moved closer to the lower simians.

Fear on Film


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Fear on Film)

Roman Polanski makes an absolutely fantastic psychological horror movie here, working from a fairly simple premise - pretty Carole Ledoux cracks up when her sister leaves her home alone for the weekend. Carole (the astonishingly beautiful young Catherine Deneuve) is scatterrained and irresponsible under the best circumstances, left on her own, every noise in the apartment becomes magified and terrifying, every English-speaking neighbor becomes foreign and threatening, and it's not long before she jumps from insecurity to full-fledged hallucination and mania.

The genius of what Polanski and Deneuve do is to allow us to see the situation both from Carole's perspective and as a horrified observer simultaneously. As real as her fear is to us - fantastic set design and special effects drive it home during her hallucinatory episodes - it's also almost completely irrational. So while we're able to identify with Carole, we also want her to stop or be stopped, because what we're seeing is horror, in the truest sense of the word. After all, what's more creepy, a monster, or someone with whom you identify doing monstrous things?

Something Wild

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Fear on Film)

It's an obvious and perhaps insensitive thing to say, but being raped messes a girl up. So when innocent teenager Mary Ann Robinson (30-year-old Caroll Baker) is attacked in the bushes just steps away from her home, it's not unexpected that she'll act strange, especially since her devoutly religious family has no idea how to handle the situation. Running away from home to start a new life quite frankly almost seems reasonable. Eventually, though she winds up a virtual prisoner of the man she thinks is helping her back to her apartment, and that's where the movie started to break down for me.

That she survived one encounter with a sexual predator in the first act almost seems to be thrown in for cheap shock value, because it doesn't really seem to inform the way she acts toward her captor, and her eventual domesticity is, well, kind of sickening. There's a big enough jump in time between the second and third acts that I really couldn't connect Mary Ann-at-the-end with Mary Ann-at-the-beginning. Also, the middle is staged like a play, staying mostly in the basement apartment where she's being held, but none of its scenes really crackle with any sort of confrontation between the two parties.

Let's Scare Jessica to Death

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Fear on Film)

My first question after seeing this film at the Brattle: "Is everything in the movie supposed to be this red, or did Paramount supply the theater with a really crappy old print?" Because this print? Extremely red. I think some of it's deliberate - anything that reasonably can be red seems to be - but an old print with yellow breakdown is part of the problem. Pity, because there's a not-bad thriller in there somewhere, but I'm not quite sure how silly it is. The extremely red scenes might mean we're seeing it from Jessica's perspective and she, fresh out of a mental institution, isn't seeing things clearly. Or it might be random.

See, this is why film preservation is so important.

This winds up being a somewhat better-than-average movie, though - it plays the "vampire or all in Jessica's head?" game pretty well, and its early-seventies design isn't completely snicker-worthy. it's certainly good enough to merit a DVD release - hopefully after some restoration work.

Gaslight (1944)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Fear on Film)

You think remakes are out of control today? Throw "Gaslight" into IMDB - this play was filmed five times within a ten-year period back in the WWII era, with this the middle one. And, yes, a new remake is being planned for 2007.

But, put that aside. It's a nifty little mystery, even if what's actually going on isn't really under much doubt - Ingrid Bergman's Paula Anton returns home to where she found her aunt's murdered body as a child with her new husband, and it slowly becomes clear that he is re-inforcing her agoraphobia. But to what end? Director George Cukor reveals everything in good time, building to a satisfying cilmax. And if there just happens to be a handsome young policeman to caputre Paula's heart when her husband is revealed to be a cad, so much the better.

I'm kind of interested to see how the '07 version turns out, since I have a hard time seeing it set in modern times. And, of course, some poor actress is going to have to be compared to Ingrid Bergman, who is as stunningly beautiful as ever and manages to make Paula looks something other than pathetic as she defers too much to her husband than is good for her.

Classic Romances

The Awful Truth

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 February 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Classic Romances)

The trouble with most romantic comedies is that in order to create tension, you either have to have to keep the characters separated or have them bicker. The first keeps you from seeing the chemistry you're coming for; the second runs the risk of making the characters unlikable. "They deserve each other" isn't quite the vibe most directors are going for. The Awful Truth goes for the second solution, but Cary Grant and Irene Dunne make it work. They are, after all, likely equally guilty of infidelity when we meet them, so their anger is both petty and understandable.

And, besides, their sniping isn't really directed at each other, it's jealousy. It is, after all, clear from the start that they really love each other and are frequently too stupid to realize it, so Grant's Jerry Warriner makes a target of the new man (Ralph Bellamy) romancing Dunne's Lucy, while she sabotages his engagement to a high-society girl (Molly Lamont). Bellamy, in particular, is all kinds of funny as a nouveau riche mother's boy from Oklahoma. My only minor complaint is that Grant gets a somewhat more positive character than Dunne - outwardly, Jerry needles her about what her life in Oklahoma would be like because he knows her, while she apparently seems to try to sabotage his new relationship out of little more than spite. But that's a very minor complaint, especially after the rest has been so funny.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 February 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Classic Romances)

If I've learned one thing from the movies, it's that if I'm in a relationship that doesn't feel quite right, I should check out her sister. Biologically, I suppose there's a certain logic to that - after all, they've got a lot of the same genes, and their upbringings will be similar. The sister will be similar enough to that what I was attracted to will likely be there, but just different enough that the chemistry might be a little better. And, hey, in Holiday, it lets Cary Grant jump from Doris Nolan to Katharine Hepburn.

I suspect, however, that in real life, even if it does allow me to find my real soulmate, the girl I was with wouldn't wind up being willing to shrug it off nad move on to the next guy, the sister would find me a creep rather than romantic, and their brother would kick my ass rather than being a drunk who wishes he had the guts to plot his escape, too.

But, my life is improvised rather than directed by George Cukor Which is a crying shame, I'd love to have a young, free-spirited, and filthy rich Kate Hepburn in my life.

SF/30 - The Boston Science Fiction Film Festival


* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2006 at the West Newton Cinema #2 (SF/30)

This is not a good movie. Kind of fun to laugh at, but while I can't say I don't enjoy that kind of experience, there are many more fun ways to spend an hour or two. This King Kong ripoff feels stupid on top of cheap, and the hilariously phallic exotic plant life is really the only "fun stupid" part of it. Plus, what the heck happens to the comely co-ed at the end? The movie just forgets her.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2006 at the West Newton Cinema #2 (SF/30)

I always feel like I should like this piece of pulp fiction more than I do. Where it's on, it's really on - the spaceship FX look damn good, as do the Lectroids. But, contrary to my previous beliefs, something can actually be too dry. A lot of the movie plays like kids making a movie with a camcorder, which is cute when they're kids, but as the work of adult professionals...?

The Tingler

* * (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2006 at the West Newton Cinema #2 (SF/30)

Eh. I can see this as one of Joe Dante's favorite movies, but I don't necessarily feel the love myself. It's got the audience participation thing, and Vincent Price tripping out on LSD. Tough to get a read on the Vincent Price character's medical ethics in this one - he goes from being the dangerous mad scientist to the sensible citizen and back five times or so.

The Crazies

* * * ¼ (out of four) (incomplete?)
Seen 19 February 2006 at the West Newton Cinema #2 (SF/30)

This was around the midnight mark, so I'm pretty sure I wound up napping a bit - the party went from 5 to 3 when I wasn't looking. Romero really seemed like a director ahead of his time here. The paranoia, and the feeling of the Federal bureaucracy failing feels very modern. It's probably too long if you see the whole thing, but what I saw was excellent.

The Naked Monster

* * (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2006 at the West Newton Cinema #2 (SF/30) (projected video)

About as good as this kind of movie can be. This sort of deliberate camp only works if you can feel the love the filmmaker has for his subject, and you definitely could feel that here. It's a total fanboy project, and the director spent ten years shooting scenes with the stars of fifties sci-fi and other B movies. Still, a little bit of that goes a long way, and this had a lot.

Eight Legged Freaks

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2006 at the West Newton Cinema #2 (SF/30)

This was probably the biggest surprise hit of the marathon, for me. This movie is easily the most I've liked Kari Wuhrer or David Arquette in anything, and it's got Scarlett Johansson and Matt Czuchry from Gilmore Girls in early roles. It's the sort of fast, fun monster movie where a lot of people get killed but no-one really gets hurt. This means it's not quite Tremors or Slither-class - those movies could bring genuine thrills with their comedy and action - but it is exactly the kind of entertaining, high-production value movie that keeps a 24-hour marathon moving in the wee hours.

Last Man on Earth

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2006 at the West Newton Cinema #2 (SF/30)

This was one of two or three movies in the marathon that were just too long; in particular, there's a flashback seemed to take forever. Anyway, this is the I Am Legend adaptation with Vincent Price (as opposed to Charlton Heston). Price's hamming is this dystopia's biggest attraction.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2006 at the West Newton Cinema #2 (SF/30)

I found this movie surprisingly charming; it's a tense and enjoyable story of a teenage-equivalent android's first encounter with human beings other than his creator on a space station - only they happen to be escaped convicts (the pretty young woman, of course, is the least evil). Klaus Kinski is the robot's creator, and he's always great to watch, even if he doesn't reach the bombastic heights here that he does in his roles with Werner Herzog. The android's naivete is an involving counterpoint to the prisonors' viciousness.

The last plot twist, though - what the hell? That's one of those things the writers probably thought would be ironic, but doesn't have enough set-up to really register as such with the audience.

12 Monkeys

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2006 at the West Newton Cinema #2 (SF/30)

I always liked this one, and still really do. If you don't get a bit of a headache the first time you watch it, you're not paying attention, but it's fantastic each time thereafter. I love time-travel stories that are set up like a jigsaw puzzle, with all the pieces inexorably fitting together. It's also another great reminder of how excellent Bruce Willis can be when given good material and a good director.

Fire Maidens From Outer Space

* (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2006 at the West Newton Cinema #2 (SF/30)

This was just bad. It makes each and every one of its 70-odd minutes feel like an eternity, and it is severely padded to get to that length. Scenes in the rocketship are excruciating; a character will say "countdown biegins fire in one minute", nothing will happen for sixty seconds aside from the camera panning back and forth, and then we get "ten.. nine.. eight..." And no matter how many scantily-clad women are standing around, it's like the intrepid space explorers don't quite know how to react to them.

I'm reasonably confident that an "extended special edition" of this movie would drive people insane.

Shelly Winters

Cleopatra Jones

* * (out of four)
Seen 8 March 2006 at the Brattle Theater (A Tribute to Shelly Winters)

A blaxploitation "classic", meaning lots of garish colors and painfully clunky fight choreography, but absolutely no question of what it meant to its audience back in the day. Tamara Dobson's Cleo is a sort of hilarious fantasy creation, universally beloved in her Detroit neighborhood even though she fights crime and works for the CIA. Shelly Winters is over-the-top villainous as her nemesis "Mommy". The whole thing winds up being a lot more interesting for what it represents than the actual entertainment content.

Wild in the Streets

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 March 2006 at the Brattle Theater (A Tribute to Shelly Winters)

Another B movie with Ms. Winters in a supporting role, this one's fun because it's like watching someone get terribly worked up about a subject, just frothing at the mouth with anger and outrage, jumping to absolutely irrational conclusions, only with the part that makes such a display really scary - the sincere belief in and willingness to act on something clearly wrong-headed - drained away. The result is this absurdity about teenagers taking over and running amok; it's a pretty funny fever dream even as it's absurd. Nice ironic finish, though.

Hiroshi Teshigahara

Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 April 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Man in the Dunes: Hiroshi Teshigahara)

It's a story as old as time itself: An amateur entomologist takes a fall in the middle of a desert area, locals bring him to a lonely woman, and he is trapped in a pit that cannot be escaped without the help of those outside - and they aren't helping. The only company Niki Jumpei (Eiji Okada) has is a nameless woman (Kyoko Kishida) who lost her husband in a sandstorm. They dig in the pit which holds her house, looking for her husband and selling the sand to those at the top.

Over time, they learn more about each other; even though he's her prisoner, there is a sort of familiarity that develops. The photography is sublime; wherever they shot it had, in addition to unusual topography, a stark beauty. Okada and Kishida are excellent in their roles, throwing off a chemistry that is hostile yet still erotic. You also can't help but be struck by this pit that cannot be escaped as a metaphor for their emotional state - sooner or later, a hole - whether it be a literal pit or feelings of depression and loneliness - begins to feel like home.

The Face of Another (Tanin no kao)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 April 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Man in the Dunes: Hiroshi Teshigahara)

A couple years later, Teshigahara would reunite with Kobo Abe, who wrote the screenplay from his own novel for Woman in the Dunes and does the same for The Face of Another. This is a quasi-sci-fi film (you know, the kind of movie that takes place in the present day but includes plot devices that are the stuff of fantasy) starring Tatsuya Nakadai as a man badly scarred in a factory explosion who is given a remarkable face mask that does not resemble his old face as part of an experiment. Rather than attempt to re-enter his own life, though, he rents a new apartment and sets out to seduce his wife.

The film enters dark territory as the freedom Okuyama finds in being somebody other than himself leads him to cut off contact with those who care for him, with sometimes surprising results when he engages them in his new persona. Nakadai shows he can play more than just samurai as this haunted man, and Machiko Kyo is every bit his equal in their scenes together. Somewhat less successful is a thread featuring Miki Irie as an otherwise beautiful teenage girl with her own scars whose loneliness is so acute that she yearns for her brother to fill the new voids in her life, as he is the only man who has ever treated her kindly. The parallels of how their scars have isolated them, either by their own choice or by those who would protect them, but the two lines don't quite seem to reach the same place.

As with Dunes, the cinematography is by Hiroshi Segawa, and his scenes of the siblings' home on the shore are as full of natural beauty as the previous film. They also shoot the city very well, giving a sense of how it teems with people but can still leave one very much alone. The scenes of the lab where Okuyama receives his new face are especially good, both in terms of their odd design and how normal and professional the people there behave. It acknowledges the science-fictional aspects without allowing them to take the picture over.

Pre-Code Barbara Stanwyck

Baby Face

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 April 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Pre-code Stanwyck)

The pre-code-ness of this movie is a huge part of what makes it so much fun. You have to get into the period, remember that it's the Depression and Prohibition and as much as Stanwyck's Lily Powers is being a self-centered bitch, she's pulling herself up from nothing, and a large chunk of the audience is all over that. And if the bank president and her eventually fall for each other, well, so much the better.

For the full effect, though, you've got to watch the newly-restored version which is followed up by the scenes that were added and changed to please the New York State film censors' board in 1933. It's hilarious; Lily's mentor Adolf Cragg (Alphonse Ethier) goes from a Nietzche-quoting opportunist to a man concerned with rising to the top "the right way"; a coda where Lily and her new rich husbad are now happily working in a mining community is added. Again, hilarious; as much as the original film is kind of so-so, the bowlderized version must just be an object lesson in how ridiculous and damaging censorship can be - this movie is twisted inside out because of prudishness that didn't last forever.

Night Nurse

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 April 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Pre-code Stanwyck)

Night Nurse is no classic; move it forward seventy-five years and this Barbara Stanwyck vehicle is somewhere between a Lifetime movie of the week and a tawdry Skinemax flick. Stanwyck charms her way into nursing school, makes a friend (Joan Blondell), and in her first assignment, suspects that her young charges are being poisoned. It's up to a kindly bootlegger (Ben Lyon) to protect her from the evil chauffeur (Clark Gable) poisoning the poor girl.

To call this movie thin is to severely understate the case. The two halves are almost entirely separate movies, and each of them takes a bunch of time out to watch the ladies change outfits. It's lowbrow-ish melodrama for the masses, and just because it's old doesn't make it any classier.

Ladies They Talk About

* * (out of four) (incomplete)
Seen 13 April 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Pre-code Stanwyck)

And we finish with a movie that did a pretty good job of knocking me out. Stanwyck is entertaining as always as a gun moll eventually going straight as she falls under the spell of a radio preacher with political aspirations. What I saw was kind of bloated, but kind of entertaining. I'd like to see the whole thing someday, to see if it's better than I remember.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The SIX-MONTH Lighning Round (Part One)

Stuff piles up, especially when you go festival-crazy and then give those movies priority. So, to clean out my notebook, it's time to give capsules to six months of movies that fell between the cracks. I really wish I could give some of them more time, but they're just not fresh enough in my mind for me to do them justice.

Gads, there's a DVD link available on Amazon for all of these. Where does the time go?

First-Run Films

The Ice Harvest

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2005 at Loews Boston Common #9 (first-run)

A fun crime movie promoted as a caper comedy - sure, the director did Groundhog Day, but that's not particularly relevant. I don't know how well that sort of marketing works - it gets the first guy in the door, but does he then give it bad word-of-mouth because it's not really a comedy? Dunno. What I liked about it was how it was a bleak, noir-ish thriller with opportunistic comedy. John Cusack gives a thoroughly enjoyable performance as the (mostly) down-on-his-luck guy at the center, and Billy Bob Thornton is good as his partner in crime, and Oliver Platt steals every scene he's in as he is wont to do.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 December 2005 at AMC Fenway #1 (first-run)

This does a pretty nifty job of showing the insanity of military service during the first Gulf War. I've often read that the American military's unofficial motto is "hurry up and wait", and that's what's going on here, as directionless young men wind up in a service that provides them with structure but little direction, even when they're sent to war. Jake Gyllenhaal is as good as usual, and the director captures the right kind of smart-assery, something I think Mendes failed to do with American Beauty (which just annoyed the heck out of me).

Aeon Flux

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 December 2005 at Loews Boston Common #17 (first-run)

Here is something that could have been a great movie. I love so many things about it, from the funky visuals and tech to the far-out sci-fi concept that serves as its underpinning. The central idea of who the guys running the city are is basically swiped from C.J. Cherryh's Cyteen, but it's a good idea to swipe and the focus is different. I'll even forgive that it uses idea of clones being connected to their predecessors' lives by more than their DNA, even though the story could really do without it.

Unfortunately, despite having more cool ideas than about ten typical sci-fi movies put together, it doesn't execute in a cool way. It's like the actors and director can't really relate to that kind of thing, and thus can't invest any emotion in it. It's why I half suspect that really great science fiction will remain the sole province of the written word for a long time - it just requires the writer and the reader to grasp the concepts, rather than the writer, audience, and an entire cast and crew.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 December 2005 at AMC Fenway #12 (first-run)

Did I really mark this down as near-perfect six months ago. Huh. A lot of details have escaped me since then, but what I remember, I like a lot: George Clooney gaining weight to make his matter-of-fact delivery seem less charismatic and more beaten down. Alexander Siddig being one of the few Star Trek supporting characters to ever have a great role after his series ended. Jeffery Wright, who is rapidly becoming recognized as an enormously valuable supporting actor, finding his ethics in conflict with his greed. The stark pessimism about where the world's dependence on oil is leading us. The only issue I had was that there were a lot of characters who would occasionally disappear for a bit; you might need a scorecard to keep track of how some of the characters are connected.

Playing at the Brattle with Why We Fight this coming week (7-8 June), and worth checking out.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 December 2005 at AMC Fenway #12 (first-run)

The Narnia books are some of the last books I remember being read to me; the early ones, at least, were read alound by my fifth-grade teacher after lunchtimes. The story is as good as I remembered it, and the adaptation is very nice. Tilda Swinton is a fantastic White Witch, and the talking animals and mythological creatures are fanciful, but not cartoony or overly childish. It's material that could easily be juvenile, but manages to be kid-friendly without being kid-exclusive.

The way the end is written kind of bugs me. It hinges on the kids being pure of heart and honest at the like, but Aslan is kind of skating on technicalities and misleading his friends and rivals alike. But, hey, that's the sort of thing most Christian allegories leave out, right?

Fun With Dick & Jane

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 December 2005 at AMC Fenway #12 (first-run)

I like Jim Carrey. I like Alec Baldwin. Heck, I even like Tea Leoni, and they all seem to be doing the right thing in this movie. And yet, it doesn't quite come together. It's funny more often than not, and enjoyable absurd at times, but even though Carrey is really trying so hard, it's not nearly as funny as it should be. Maybe he's being too zany while the rest of the cast is going for deadpan; or maybe it's just a disconnect between the larger-than-life comedy and the way it rails against corporate excess and greed.

Especially when you see a whole screenful of credits about Mr. Carrey's assistants, hairdressers, drivers, trainers, etc. I mean, way to miss the point, Mr. Carrey.

The Family Stone

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 January 2006 at AMC Fenway #1 (first-run)

Nice cast. Good sentiment. Most of the funny bits work, at least a little. But, when I got out of it, it was just sort of time spent. I think it tries to force the family's quirkiness on the audience a little, like they're being aggressively eccentric. I guess you need to do that to make Sarah Jessica Parker's character sympathetic, because otherwise she's just unlikably standoffish. That does introduce Clare Danes into the picture, though, which is a Good Thing, as she's as easily charming as the rest of the cast is trying to be.

I kind of question the ending, though. It's awfully tidy. What are the chances of brothers or sisters (let alone both) changing parties that smoothly?


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 January 2006 at AMC Boston Common #1 (first-run)

Steven Spielberg has been on one of the more incredible rolls in modern film history over the past few years, setting projects up and knocking them out with an efficiency few other modern-day directors can match. And not little movies, either - big, elaborate productions. Munich continues this string; it's tense and despairing, demonstrating just what a toll the missions are taking on the characters. It starts out as a thriller and darkens until it's a pit that seems impossible to climb out of.

It's not quite that dark; this is a Spielberg film, after all, but one where the optimism is tempered. It never compromises and makes the targets sympathetic, but slowly reveals the taking of vengeance and the rage that leads to it as being just as destructive as the original assassination of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.

Spielberg's good. He's been good for a long time, but this is the type of movie that makes everyone realize how good he is - even the people who think themselves too sophiticated for Steven Spielberg movies.

Match Point

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 January 2006 at Landmark Kenall Square #2 (first-run)

Eh. This is what lowered expectations get you.

Match Point isn't a bad movie at all. If it had been a British film produced by a small English company with a director that had been working for the BBC, it would have popped up in a few theaters in the U.S. and barely been noticed. But, it's Woody Allen's new one, and since Woody's movies have been so bad for so long, this looks pretty good. Heck, just the fact that it's got a significantly different feel from his other recent movies makes it feel fresher than it is.

But when you get right down to it, it's a familiar movie about the attempts to break into English gentility that's unusal only in the auteur making it and being set in the here and now, rather than the early part of the twentieth century. The big negative is that it doesn't display any of the wit that Allen at his best is capable of and traditionally leavens this cold genre.

The Matador

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 January 2006 at AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run)

Pierce Brosnan wasn't my favorite James Bond, but he handled the role competently enough, given how uninspiring the movies surrounding him were. But he's been enormously successful deconstructing the character, first with the amoral, corrupt spy of The Tailor of Panama and now with this movie's hit man on the verge of a breakdown.

It's a funny movie, as Brosnan's role of international assassin is a life many in the audience would dream about and he can do and say anything he feels, whether it be hedonistic or callous, because who is someone like that accountable to? No-one. But he lives up to the script's declarations of how toxic that life is. Greg Kinnear makes a darn good straight man for him, jealous of the freedom but ultimately better than that. The two have great chemistry with each other, and make it a fun movie to watch, even when it turns serious.

The Producers

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 8 January 2006 at AMC Fenway #4 (first-run)

As much as it may surprise people who've talked to me, I don't have anything against the musical as a form. I just really think it's got no room for error. Failure to live up to potential that would only hurt a regular film (or play) will make a musical unwatchable. Fortunately, the film of The Producers never takes that kind of hit. It accepts its artifice and works with it.

What problems it has really have nothing to do with being a musical. If this had just been a straight remake of the original movie, it would have worked with the same issues: It abandons its cynicism in the last act, and Matthew Broderick just doesn't quite grab the audience the way the rest of the cast does.

Still, the rest of the cast is good enough to make up for it. Nathan Lane is a guy who can ham his way through anything and have it work, and his exuberance is exactly what the film needs from him. And Uma Thurman is fantastic - she throws every ounce of her considerable sex appeal on-screen, plays dizzy-blonde without being alienating. Expanding her role seems to have been a great choice.

The New World

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 January 2006 at AMC Fenway #12 (first-run)

Terrence Malick does beautiful well. This film chronicalling the arrival of English sailors on the untamed Virginia coast and their early encounters with the local people is lush and gorgeously shot; several sequences were captured in 65mm and it's a crying shame it wasn't projected that way in very many places (including Boston). As with his last film, The Thin Blue Line, Malick leads the audience through his world without much reliance on dialogue.

One thing I really liked is that Malick doesn't play this as simply "cruel Europeans destroy beautiful nature-loving native people". John Smith encountering the unspoiled Americas is only half the story; we also get to see Pocahontas coming to England and being astonished by cities and the hectic, crowded life there. It doesn't make the history any less tragic, but does make the story more nuanced.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 January 2006 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

Art films that pick up genre trappings are among the most frustrating type of movie for me to watch. I love mystery stories, and when the filmmakers set up a mystery only to be more interested in subverting it, avoiding resolution and enjoying the feeling of paranoia. I want a bloody resolution, and I don't find being denied it particularly clever or enjoyable.

Which is the point, of course. Doesn't mean I have to like it.

But maybe I'll give it another chance; it's playing at the Brattle June 14-15.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 January 2006 at AMC Fenway #4 (first-run)

Takashi Miike makes a cameo in this movie, and I always imagined him watching the dailies with Eli Roth, saying "yes, that's kind of fucked up. But have you considered slicing off her nipples?"

Hostel brings the exploitation, but that's about it. The violence and mutilation of the human body makes one uncomfortable, but never really takes it to the next level, where it's disturbing, even to someone who's been desensitized by years of horror movies.

A Good Woman

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 February 2006 at AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run)

Not really a terrible movie, but it didn't do a whole lot for me. My ears pricked up at "Scarlett Johansson in a film based on an Oscar Wilde play", but Johansson doesn't really have a lot to do until the end other than look pretty. Helen Hunt is well-cast as a beautiful but aging woman who has come to Italy after wearing out her welcome in New York, setting her sights on Johansson's character's husband. The movie's smooth and not unpleasant, and some of the casting is spot-on. It just should be a lot better.


* * (out of four)
Seen 5 February 2006 at AMC Fenway #1 (first-run)

Ugh. I know, we all like to say that you can make a good movie without much of a budget, but there are times when a little money spent would be much appreciated. Take Hoodwinked, which actually gets some mileage out of its kind of played-out premise (a fairy-tale world where folks talk in modern vernacular and have present-day attitudes) by doing a nice multiple-perspective thing and having a few good voices (Patrick Warburton, for instance). It's got a better song from Ben Folds than anything he did for Over The Hedge.

But, man, is it cheap-looking. We're talking video-game quaity computer animation, and not even during the cut scenes. It's just a thoroughly unimpressive movie visually, mostly bland but with the occasional strong element, thoroughly undercut by the low-quality animation.

Why We Fight

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2006 at Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run)

It's almost a lecture delivered on film, but it's a well-delivered one. Why We Fight has a strong opinion, but it manages to avoid being insulting to those with a different one. It feels well-sourced, with ego checked at the door. It constructs its argument methodically, with information that may seem familiar from high school social-studies class but which you haven't likely heard put together so well in this long.

Playing at the Brattle this week (7-8 June) with Syriana.

The World's Fastest Indian

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2006 at Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run)

This has a flat-out fantastic trailer, and the movie isn't the straight-ahead adrenaline rush that that is. It's still a whole bunch of fun. Anthony Hopkins is all laid-back charm as Burt Munro, a New Zealand engineer spending his retirement customizing his classic Indian motorcycle. He goes to America to test-run it on the Utah salt flats, and it's a fun road movie as Munro encounters a crop of American eccentrics. Then he gets there and the speed freak stuff begins.

And that's the super-fun stuff, though everything coming before is a blast, too.

Tristam Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2006 at AMC Harvard Square #4 (first-run)

This sucker's playing at the Brattle the next couple days (5-6 June, with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), and if the Red Sox weren't playing the Yankees, I'd be tempted to give it a second chance. The metahumor is fun, if on the dry side, and maybe a little excessive. It really, really seemed to drag while I was watching it, and I don't know if a second chance is going to make it better.

Pity. I've liked Steve Coogan before, and him playing a weird, snotty Steve Coogan is almost always a kick. Gillian Anderson has an extended cameo type role.

Maybe I'll give it another try. Sometime. When it doesn't interfere with Sox-Yankees.


* * (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2006 at AMC Fenway #8 (first-run)

This is a pretty bad movie, dull and full of "thriller" clichés. Harrison Ford is capable of so much better, and it just makes me sad to see the most consistently good movie star of my lifetime reduced to something that is, at its best, competent. I think I had more fun waiting for Mary Lynn Rajskub to do something Chloe-esque, and then enjoying it when it happened.

Although, I have to admit that I did enjoy finding a glitch in the AMC MovieWatcher system through watching a movie about security holes. It works like this: The system at the theater downloads your MovieWatcher points from a master database every morning, so if you have, say, 88 points on the morning of 18 February, you can go to Tristam Shandy in Harvard Square and have it say "90 points! You get a free movie ticket!", then hike to Fenway to see Firewall and have it say "90 points! You get a free movie ticket!" Then, when you see another movie the next day, it has sent all that information back and added it up so that you have 92 points to start with. I'd feel bad about exploiting this, but, hey, I first discovered it when I was denied a free soda because it though I reached 48 points twice, rather than 50.

16 Blocks

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 4 March 2006 at AMC Fenway #12 (first-run)

It's distressingly easy to forget that Bruce Willis can be a darn good actor when properly motivated, especially if he's in a run of uninspiring crap. Working with a name director like Richard Donner can bring out good Willis, as will having co-stars like Mos Def and Barry Morse. It's the Sean Connery syndrome: Coast when you can, but don't let the audience leave the theater talking about how much they like the other guys.

I think he's also enjoying the idea of showing his age. Here he plays an aging cop limping to retirement, when this sudden attack of conscience motivates him to do the right thing, even if it means facing down the crooked cops who have allowed him to be lazy for the past few years. The cast and crew wind up making a movie that works like the best westerns and action dramas of yore - not wall-to-wall pyrotechnics, but a quest that has room for some good set pieces but also focuses the audience on the imperfect hero.


* ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 March 2006 at AMC Fenway #7 (first-run)

The first five minutes or so of Kurt Wimmer's follow-up to the spiffy Equilibrium have such potential - mocked-up comic book covers from the industry's best artists, a crazy-fun over-the-top special-effects sequence, and some decent action. And then it all goes to hell. The fight between human-types and vampire-types becomes arbitrary, the action choreography seems to get worse as the film goes on (often, Milla Jovovich seems to be posing rather than fighting), and Cameron Bright shows up (I'm guessing directors like him because he's very professional and grown-up on the set, because he's sure not a likable presence).

By the end, it's just loud and stupid, completely failing to live up to that early promise.

The Pink Panther '06

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 March 2006 at AMC Fenway #8 (first-run)

As much as I feared this being a disaster, it's really not. The idea to mostly refocus "The Pink Panther" it as a kid-oriented franchise is not exactly ideal, but it gives Steve Martin the chance to make his character less a completely slavish imitation of Peter Sellers and more another take on the character. The slapstick works at a reasonable rate, Kevin Kline does a very nice frustrated slow burn, and the Clive Owen "guest appearance" is extremely funny. As is Jean Reno dancing, after being so reserved for the rest of the movie.

Do I necessarily want to see a new Steve Martin Pink Panther movie every couple of years? I could do without it, easily. It's not the horrifying prospect it was when this movie was being made and its release was being delayed, though.

The Three Burials of Meliques Estrada

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 March 2006 at the Coolidge Corner Theater #1 (first-run)

Tommy Lee Jones is a guy we really don't see often enough. He makes every movie he's in better, and his combination of keen intelligence and down-home straightforwardness is on display here as he makes his directing debut as well as starring in the picture. We're given a picture of a couple people having a hard time dealing with the world the live in: One, Jones's ranch-hand, is angry over the lack of justice and concern for his friend; the other, January Jones's Lou Ann, is going stir-crazy because her husband has put her in a position where she's nothing but a wife.

The film is beautiful, with Jones encountering a number of interesting characters as he brings his friend's body back to his home in Mexico to be laid to rest, and Jones knows and understands the land like a Wester director of old.

Winter Passing

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 March 2006 at the AMC Harvard Square #4 (first-run)

Gads, another "writers are so friggin' tortured, and they mess up their loved ones, too" movie. In this case, the writer is Ed Harris, the messed-up daughter is Zooey Deschanel, and they are re-united because a book publisher wants Zooey's character to retrieve her parents' love letters. Mom is deceased, which is apparently what set Harris's character all the way around the bend.

There's also Amelia Warner as the former grad student who is calm and devoted enough to make the rest of the cast seem extra-special dysfunctional, and Will Ferrell to annoy people. They're all very sad in their own ways, because writers think that makes them sound even more interesting.

Gah. Enough already.

Failure to Launch

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 March 2006 at the AMC Fenway #13 (first-run)

I sometimes get the impression that Matthew McConaughey isn't a big star because he chooses movies based on how much fun they look like, as opposed to whether they'll wind up particularly good or benefit his career. Failure to Launch probably looked like a lot of fun - kiss Sarah Jessica Parker, be laid-back and charming, shoot on boats and other nifty places, have some outright silly scenes where otherwise peaceful animals attack him.

And there are probably worse criteria for choosing a project. This is by no means a great movie, but it's a somewhat above-average way to pass a couple hours. It's got what initially seems like a mean premise but turns out to be populated by softies. McConaughey really should be a big star, the way he can breeze through this sort of movie and make you overlook the flaws. Terry Bradshaw and Kathy Bates are fun as his parents who want him out of the house but are still fiercely protective of him, and Justin Bartha and Bradley Cooper are fine foils as his other still-at-home friends. And, hey, Zooey Deschanel is Sarah Jessica Parker's quirky roommate. She's at her best when being funny with a sardonic edge like she is here (especially compared to the drag she was in the other movie I saw that day).

Lucky Number Slevin

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 8 April 2006 at the AMC Fenway #12 (first-run)

Aw, man... There is a whole metric ton of folks I like in this movie, and the best thing I can think of to say about it is that I really wish Lucy Liu would play funny and charming more often, because she's unexpectedly good at it, considering all the ice queens she's played. Seriously, the lady needs to re-evaluate her choices.

This is a movie that takes a sharp turn that doesn't really please me - it goes from "guy caught up in bizarre and dangerous situation" to "elaborate revenge plot", and that's not nearly as much fun; it sucks the playfulness right out of the movie. It's also got Bruce Willis sort of coasting, along with Morgan Freeman and Sir Ben Kingsley in supporting roles that aren't nearly as amusing as they should be. And once Josh Hartnett isn't just a guy in over his head and incapable of panicking, all there is to really watch is Liu.

Next up: Brattle (and the like) catch-up.