Thursday, August 31, 2006

En français: Fanfan la Tulipe et La Moustache

The past week was a slow one for watching movies; I went without on the weekend because Matt got us tickets to the Red Sox "Futures at Fenway" double header, and I spent time that could well have gone to seeing films spending more money than I'd like on a couple things that often seem of limited utility: A suit to wear to Kent's wedding on Saturday and a TV stand for the HDTV that should arrive tomorrow.

I don't get the suit thing. I understand wanting to look nice, but suit jackets are annoying to get into and out of, and it's not like a $100 pair of pants does anything that a $20 pair doesn't. I certainly don't feel better-looking wearing it. As to the TV stand, well, even if I'd bought a plasma or LCD, I wouldn't be allowed to hang it on the wall. The joys of renting. So I spent money on something which just sits there. It will let me tidy the living room up a little, but it was a pain to get home - it didn't quite fit in the cab properly, and then it was a good thing Matt was home to help me unload it. Since he's working tomorrow, I may have to devise an elaborate system of ropes, pulleys, and ramps to get the actual television in the house.

So, anyway, just the two movies in the past weeks, coincidentally French films from the opposite ends of the spectrum - Fanfan la Tulipe is old and light, straightforward period adventure; La Moustache is contemporary and arty. They're both pretty good at what they do, but I liked Fanfan a bit more - it's nonsense, but it's nonsense with a clear goal in mind, which it achieves. Moustache's nonsense probably achieves its goal, too, but I'm not sure that goal has merit. It's the sort of movie where I half-suspect the filmmaker is playing a practical joke on the audience - that the film has no greater purpose than to contradict itself, and the director is highly amused every time someone claims to find a theme or an explanation.

Also, one of these wasn't what I expected - Google's movie page pegged Fanfan as a 2003 remake with Vincent Perez and Penelope Cruz, rather than the early-50s monochrome version. I'm not complaining at all, though.

Ah, well. They're both short, under ninety minutes.

Fanfan la Tulipe

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 August 2006 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (Special Engagement)

This is sort of a fun, French Adventures of Robin Hood. Fanfan isn't out to rob the rich and give to the poor, though - he's a rogue who joins the army looking to avoid marrying the country girl he's defloured, and suckered in by a gypsy girl's claim that he'll marry the King's daughter. Gerard Philipe is a charmer as the title character, full of joie de vivre, impatient with things that might negatively impact his carefree lifestyle, but willing to jump headlong into danger. Gina Lollabrigida brings the sex appeal as the fake gypsy who falls for him, and a brace of supporting characters are memorable.

Fanfan reminds me of the Erroll Flynn Robin Hood, although it's shot in black and white rather than Robin Hood's bright colors. It's full of light-hearted derring-do, swordfighting, and athletic action pieces that may not be as polished as a latter-day Hong Kong picture, but are still exuberant. It features sly gallic wit, gently mocking kings who treat war as a game and deriving much more overt joy from Lollabrigida's pulchritude than an American family adventure of the time might.

Overall, a fun, frothy little morsel that fans of the swashbuckler should find delightful.

La Moustache

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 August 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagement)

It's not often you actually feel yourself going back-and-forth during a movie. The opening of this one is playful and kind of sexy, though it quickly seems to become a sort of melodrama about how the need to be right can poison a relationship. That drags on for a bit, though, and I find myself starting to get impatient. Then things get interesting as Marc (Vincent London), who shaved the mustache he has always worn off only to have people claim he never had one, starts to suspect that he's losing his mind, and then something more sinister.

And then, things go off the rails. The segment where he flies to Hong Kong, and then repeatedly rides the ferry back and forth between Hong Kong and Kowloon is just repetitive and mind-numbing. I stopped trying to make any sense of it here, because you just can't. It gets strange, and pretty much anything you might have thought the film was about is just rendered moot.

In the end, I'm not sure whether the first two thirds intrigued me more than the last frustrated me. That's not an uncommon reaction for me; I lost patience with Mulholland Drive the same way. It's not so much that a mystery requires a solution, but just wandering into other territory drives me nuts.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Fantasia Screeners: Synesthesia

The plan for this Red Sox road trip was going to be watching a movie at eight and reviewing it during the game, thus knocking off my four remaining screeners in rapid succession. That'll teach me to make plans.

The screener was the first anamorphic VHS tape I've ever had. Messed me up as I tried to get started - first I've got the TV in zoomed-in "TheaterWide" mode, but it's clearly cutting off picture along with the subtitles, then in 4:3 mode, which doesn't look quite right. Fortunately, in an early scene one of the characters pulls out what looks like a box of Lucky Strikes, and I figure out that the circular logo is distorted. I bet that this thing must annoy critics who don't have a 16:9 display, but if you like movies enough to be a critic, you've probably got one.

Synesthesia (aka Gimmy Heaven, Synesthesia Divine Thriller)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 August 2006 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Screeners 2006)

Synesthesia is a neurological condition that can be described as sensory cross-chatter. A synesthete may see the letter "A" and process it as the color red; scrambled eggs may taste like triangles. If you did not know this before seeing Toru Matsuura's first movie, don't worry - you'll have it explained to you twice before the opening credits.

Even before that, though, we join Detective Shibata (Hiriji Kojima) at a murder investigation. Mari (Aoi Miyazaki), the adopted daughter of an electronics company's founder and chairman, finds him next to a peculiar stain on his floor with a knife in his back, and the police note that it's the third time her foster parent has been killed, though the police captured the previous killers. This crime scene isn't the only place where the symbol appears; while investigating something peculiar at one of the webcams he manages, Shinsuke Hayama (Yosuke Eguchi) spots it on on a bed and recognizes it as the mark of "Picasso", a mysterious internet figure who deals in snuff feeds and supposedly is able to induce murder and suicide with a hypnotic video game. A synesthete himself, Shin thinks the symbol is a message from one person with the disorder to another. It leads him to find Mari in an unlikely place, and while his best friend and business partner Takashi (Masanobu Ando) immediately falls for her, she has flashbacks that reveal a traumatic life even before her first foster parent was murdered.

Synesthesia is built from several intriguing premises, but is frequently frustrating in how it tells its story. We're told that Shin has synesthesia, and that the way synesthetes perceive the world makes them terribly lonely, but Shin seems far too well-adjusted most of the time. He's functional, lives with his understanding girlfriend, and doesn't even seem particularly eccentric. Matsuura opts not to show us anything obviously from Shin's perspective until the very end - at least, it seems that way on first viewing - so the concept remains very abstract. Making the disorder something we normal folks can't grasp may have been the intent, but if so, shouldn't it appear to have a more obvious effect on him; shouldn't he appear different?

There are also certain standard thriller deficiencies; the villain who seems omniscient, the storyline that seems to fall apart under a little bit of scrutiny, the unlikely master plan. The idea of a video game that drives people to murder is an old one, but it's probably implemented better here than in many other instances: The game itself looks kind of boring, the sort of repetitive thing that at least looks like it could induce a trance state. The use of web cameras starts out as an interesting hook, but the film goes a little too far with it after a certain point - why does the killer know to put cameras at a certain site?

And yet, the cast does a pretty fair job of winning us over. Yosuke Eguchi doesn't necessarily make his character's syndrome obvious, but his performance is at once human enough and generic enough to interpret as a veritable wall of coping mechanisms. He's got a nice, easy chemistry with Ando; they rag on each other like real best friends. Aoi Miyazaki's dialogue over the course of the film probably runs one or two pages max, but she manages to convey plenty of hurt and fear. We see her attraction to Shin even though she's not able to state anything directly. And when she does finally have some reason to smile, it's briefly uplifting, even if everything is going straight to hell around her. In smaller roles, Ryuhei Matsuda manages to be creepy as "Picasso", in part because he makes the audience wonder how much of his off-center behavior is legitimate and how much is affected, while Hiriji Kojima is a small pleasure as the investigating detective: her Shibata is attractive and has a distinct personality without being the tough chick or stuck in a romantic subplot. It doesn't sound like much, but it certainly seems rare enough to be worth noting. I think Konno, the yakuza investor in Shin & Takashi's business, is played by Minoru Torihada; whoever it is, it's an amusing performance that still implies danger.

Matsuura makes what seem like some questionable decisions, but the ones he gets right, he gets a hundred percent right. For example, there's a cut toward the end that tells a great deal of story in very little time.I like the way he has "Picasso"'s face quickly dip into view in one scene, eliminating the idea that he might be someone we've already seen, but still preserving the unease of not being able to look directly at him. And while he doesn't spend much time showing a synesthete's perceptions directly, he does find ways to play with our senses; for instance, he and cinematograper Kenji Takama find spots in the otherwise very busy Tokyo where large swaths of the landscape are a single color to unbalance the picture, or cut to a cityscape with lots of motion and images projected onto the sides of buildings after an explanation of synesthesia to suggest unrelated sensory input coming together.

When it comes right to it, though, I think the concept of synesthesia got away from Matsuura and writer Yuji Sakamoto. It seems like it should be a slam-dunk way to mess with the audience's mind, but the story winds up being rather ordinary, even as the cast and crew gives it their all.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Black & White @ The Brattle- Overlord and The Window

Doing the alpha-and-omega thing a little here, finishing up my reviews of the first night of the Brattle's "Rare Film Noir" program just after seeing the last in the series this Tuesday. For the most part, it's been a fun series, although it's a bit bummer for me as a fan of the theater to see attendence drop off between the start of the series and the end. Of course, part of that is likely becaues the last two weeks were single bills compared to the double features that started the series, so there could very well have been the same number of tickets sold, just distributed between multiple showtimes.

I think it was a pretty successful series; some of the movies weren't quite as good as others, but only one or two were really worth avoiding. Even those probably merit a video release just on the basis of their casts. There's got to be some way for the studios to step up their releases of old films on DVD (or the next-generation formats) and still make a profit.

Anyway, it's kind of fun in a perverse way to write reviews for HBS of movies that most people reading will have a hard time tracking down for themselves. So here's Pushover and Nightfall, which I saw back here. Enjoy.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 August 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements)

This one is kind of an oddity. It was produced in 1975, but shot in black and white in a style reminiscent of the 1940s; this allows the filmmakers to integrate documentary footage rather than try to recreate battle scenes with special effects. The result is a film that blends the line between reality and fiction as well as many before and since. This is due in part to the astonishingly clean footage from the Imperial War Museum - it's footage filmed under very difficult circumstances that looks nice enough to have been shot on a soundstage.

The actual film may not be for everybody; it's more than a little arty, spending a lot of time on the monotony of training as it follows far-from-worldly young Tommy from sign-up to the invasion of the title. A lot of the archive footage is presented as connected to Tommy's story through his dreams, and maybe not even that. There's two converging things going on, Tommy's life and the war, and when they connect, it's initially unsatisfying, but also the kind of kick in the pants the audience might need.

The Window

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Rare Film Noir)

The film opens with a quote from Aesop's "The Boy Who Cried Wolf", and that's what you're getting with this movie. Bobby Driscoll gives a very nice performance as nine-year-old Tommy Woodry, a kid with a penchant for tall tales who witnesses a real murder. The film then gives us a totally believable look at how nobody believes him.

One thing I really liked here is how Driscoll looks and acts like a real kid, or at least, how I tend to think of kids looking and acting. He's not a little adult, or precocious in any way. He's small and skinny and has his limbs flying all over the place when he runs. There's also some very nice effects at the end, as the killers chase Tommy through a condemned building, with multi-story drops and collapsing staircases looking a lot more convincing than they do in many films with this provenance.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The week in movies: Between Midnight and Dawn, The Illusionist, Snakes on a Plane

I meant to see more at the Brattle this past week, catching all three repatory series that are running down the calendar, but it didn't quite work out that way. I wound up hanging around the comic shop long enough to miss the beginning of The Phantom Tollbooth on Wednesday, and then stuck at work long enough that I would have been seeing Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion on an empty stomach, and it looked just long enough that I figured I would rather not. Weak, I know, especially when I planned my Saturday around Snakes on a Plane.

I did stop in to get the new Brattle schedule on Saturday, though, and I like it. It's got Schwarzeneggar midnight shows, a week of Terry Gilliam, Mutual Appreciation, Azumi, Yellowbeard to celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day, and Bruce Campbell introducing Bubba Ho-Tep. That last one may have to substitute for the traditional Halloween showing of Evil Dead 2, since at the end of the month, they're doing an almost-unheard of four-week series of new prints from the Janus Films library (Janus, remember, got its start at the Brattle).

The Boston Fantastic Film Festival is also back for its fourth year, and its six-week run may (I think) be its longest yet. The really good news is that a preview screening of Tideland has already been booked for it. I'm really hoping that it's six days because Ned & company feel momentum as opposed to a six-day hole in the schedule; I'd like this festival to get within an order of magnitude of Fantasia.

So, I've been a bit of a movie-viewing slacker this week, but to tell the truth, it's been a weak summer anyway. I had to toss one of my AMC reward tickets because I didn't find something I wanted to use it on before it expired.

Between Midnight and Dawn (aka Prowl Car)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Rare Film Noir)

The film opens by almost fetishizing cops in their prowl cars, delighting in the code numbers that the dispatchers read to the various patrolling units. We follow one that gets involved in a shoot-out and then has trouble getting a store-owner to testify against a tough running a protection racket. It's the latter that sets off the chain of events that consumes most of the movie, as Edmond O'Brien's Dan Purvis becomes obsessed with taking down this gangster, even as a new guy moves in from the East Coast and sets of a gang war. Mark Stevens's Rocky Barnes has a more benign obsession; he's smitten with the dispatcher's sexy voice and sets out to woo her.

Between Midnight and Dawn would be considered a set-up for a TV series rather than a movie now; it spends a lot of time setting up situations that might seem more fitting playing out over the course of a season rather than in a film. It also seems to lose focus a little, as it starts out as a thing about the front-line cops responding to 911 calls, and then becomes a higher-level story, about two patrol copsversus the mob. It's decent at that, and the cutesy romance isn't bad, either, but it would almost be better if Purvis and Barnes weren't so personally involved - make it truly about the beat cops.

The Illusionist

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2006 at AMC Boston Common #4 (First-run)

You'll have a hard time finding somebody less snotty about the use of CGI in films than me, but even I've got a line to draw, and that line is at a story of a stage magician. It's one thing to show things disappearing into thin air when Paul Giamatti's character is recounting the semi-legendary story of the origins of Edward Norton's character, but when he's actually performing on-stage? If you can't do it in-camera, you shouldn't be doing it. Peiod, end of story, because otherwise there's no real limits on what can be done with the inevitable rest of the movie.

Also, everyone is doing a silly-sounding Austrian accent - although, as seems typical, pretty young girls have accents that are less thick than the rest. I say, let them use their real accents as in The Grey Zone - after all, the characters are not speaking accented English, they're speaking (relatively) unaccented German, so the logical translation is to have them speak clearly. Edward Norton sounded very silly. So did Paul Giamatti, but he sold it better.

Snakes on a Plane

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2006 at AMC Fenway #13 (First-run)

It's been a tremendously disappointing summer, but this little movie about snakes on a plane delivers the goods. It's a bunch of generic characters stitched together in something that would go direct to video without Samuel L. Jackson, but it's handled with wit and aplomb. And even if the vaunted marketing didn't put a whole lot of butts in seats, they were some of the most enthusiastic folks I've seen at a regular movie in a while.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Pre-Fantasia: À Double Tour, Lifeboat, and The Break-Up

It'd be tempting just to punt these three movies I saw before Fantasia and my new, more purely bloggish plan of making this a journal while HBS/EFC gets the full reviews. But, there's stuff that interests me here, even if I won't be writing about it directly - I noticed that À Double Tour was based on a novel by someone whose work was also adapted into a movie in the Brattle's Rare Noir series, I spotted that HBS does not have a review of Lifeboat... So I figured I'd try to catch up with these. Why not, right?

À Double Tour (aka Web of Passion)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 June 2006 at the Harvard Film Archive (Eight weeks of Film History)

As À Double Tour opens, the beauty coming from the Marcoux house is enough to make men trip over their own feet, so drawn are their eyes to the half-dressed girl in the window. Of course, as most have by now come to expect, it is just the trappings of their prosperous life that shine so brightly - Julie is not a member of the family, but the maid. So, in a way, the beautiful servant is just another extension of the beautiful garden outside the beautiful house; a trapping of Henri Marcoux's success that doesn't reflect the strain and dissatisfaction within.

Henri (Jacques Dacqmine), of course, has a mistress - a fabulous red-haired Italian girl named Léda (Antonella Lualdi) whose nearby home is filled with souvenirs from her life in the Orient. He's barely doing anything to conceal it, and his wife Thérèse (Madeline Robinson) is unwilling to divorce. Husband and wife both disapprove of Laszlo Kovacs (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the Czechoslovakian man their daughter Elisabeth (Jeanne Valérie) has taken up with, especially since he has brought a friend (László Szabó) with him to their house - the friend is polite and seems uninterested in participating in Laszlo's freeloading, but it's the principle of the thing. Son Richard (André Jocelyn), meanwhile, is the kind of unfailingly polite young man that has to be hiding something, and his awkward attempts to flirt with Julie (Bernadette Lafont), the maid, might give the audience a good idea what it is.

This being a film by Claude Chabrol, there will be a murder, and a detective (André Dino) come to solve it. The detective, of course, will be largely irrelevant; this murder is a family matter, and the Marcoux family figures it doesn't have a whole lot of reason to be forthcoming. The prime suspect appears to be Julie's boyfriend, and for her sake they would like it to be someone else - especially if that someone else was Laszlo. Not that Thérèse and Henri plan to offer their daughter's fiancé up to the police on a silver platter - no, they must be more subtle.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 June 2006 at the Harvard Film Archive (Eight weeks of Film History)

As I write this in August of 2006, there don't seem to be many Gulf War II movies being made aside from documentaries, which strikes me as a bit odd, considering that films like Lifeboat sprung from World War II in real time. Is it because the country is currently too divided for a film to appeal to everybody, or because of something more practical (films take longer to create and change potentially coming much quicker)? Whatever the reason, it's a shame that the present conflict doesn't seem to be spawning any films as topical, intelligent, and gripping as this.

The film starts with a Liberty Ship sunk, and one survivor, award-winning photographer Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) in the lifeboat of the title. Soon, others are fished out of the wreckage - sailors John (John Hodiak), Gus (William Bendix), who is wounded, "Sparks" (Hume Cronyn) and George (Canada Lee), the only black man in the boat; industrialist Charles "Ritt" Rittenhouse (Henry Hull); nurse Alice McKenzie (Mary Anderson), and pregnant Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel). Also saved from the sea is Willy (Walter Slezak), part of the crew of the German sub which was also sunk in the battle. Many think he should be thrown out of the boat, but Constance plays the "we'd be no better than them" card. Which initially seems fortunate, because he seems to be one of the most capable people on the boat.

Hitchcock made several films which took place in relatively confined spaces - consider Rear Window, The Lady Vanishes and Rope, but Lifeboat is easily the most constrained. The lifeboat doesn't give people a lot of room to move around, but it's not quite so tight as you might initially think. As factions form among the survivors, there's just enough room for them to separate a little, and maybe even hide things from the others. There’s not enough room for the camera to go anywhere, though, and there’s no easy way to remove a character from a scene for convenience’s sake. It’s quite a challenge Hitchcock and screenwriter Jo Swerling (working from a story by John Steinbeck) have set for themselves, but it’s one they meet with alacrity. There’s a bizarre combination of claustrophobia and agoraphobia at play here, as the characters have neither room to move nor bounds to their world. Hitchcock is free to move his camera around, but the irony is that even if we’re not locked into one view, we’re still seeing much the same thing.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Break-Up

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 4 July 2006 at AMC Boston Common #19 (First-run)

The Break-Up feels genuine because it is comfortable with a basic truth: Well-meaning people can be complete jerks. People being ugly is not necessarily the most enjoyable thing to watch in terms of being entertaining in a straightforward manner, but every once in a while it's nice to see a romantic comedy's wacky hijinks exposed as not being particularly wacky.

The film opens with Gary Grobowski (Vince Vaughn) and Brooke Meyers (Jennifer Aniston) meeting at a Cubs game. Brooke's there with someone else, but Gary's aggressive, making the point that if she's not really enjoying the date, why see it through to the end when she has the chance to do something that really makes her happy? The credits roll, a photo montage of the next three years of their lives as they go out and move in together. On the other end of the credits, though, things aren't so rosy, as Brooke's preparing for a dinner with her family and Gary's not helping the cause. The dinner is the straw that breaks the camel's back, and they're soon splitting, but unable to come to a decision over who should keep the condominium they purchased together.

At this point, we probably expect The Break-Up to go in the general direction of The Awful Truth, and certainly the advertising points in that direction. Indeed, at certain points it seems reasonable to assume that The Awful Truth is Brooke's plan, but as we all soon learn, part of the fun of screwball comedy is in just how divorced from reality it frequently is. Being broken up and in the same condo makes it almost impossible to see what they loved about each other; their interactions are a long series of finding new and familiar ways to irritate each other. Indeed, as the film goes on, we find ourselves more and more having to strain to remember that photo montage, as it gets harder and harder to visualize these two not just in love, but even liking each other.

Read the rest at HBS.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Classic adventure: Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Adventures of Brisco County Junior

After heading north to Maine to celebrate the imminent birth of our first niece (if seven weeks is imminent) on Sunday, Matt and I threw the pilot episode to The Adventures to Brisco County Junior into the DVD player. It is, as the couple million of us who watched the show in its first run will tell you, kind of brilliant, and a nice companion to seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark on the big screen at the Coolidge the next day, and not just because the man who wrote Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade would rather co-create Brisco.

Both works are very deliberate throwbacks to the Saturday serial style of adventure, with one crazy escape after another. Both involve a search for a magical artifact of great power - one from a religious past, and one (as we later learn) from the distant future. Both give us iconic action/adventure stars - Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, Bruce Campbell as Brisco County Jr. - playing educated, intelligent men but more comfortable with a day's growth of beard, searching for something amazing away from the city. Both feature sly, self-deprecating wit.

Both also look really good. Sure, you expect it from Raiders, which has Spielberg and Lucas backing it and works hard to create its untamed 1938 aesthetic. It still looks great 25 years later. But Brisco was a production for what was still an upstart Fox network in 1993 - and back then, not only was Fox not a major TV player, but television in general didn't have a lot of money spent on it. As Matt commented, it doesn't look nearly as good as today's big-time adventure series like 24 or Prison Break. It does, however, look a lot like old Westerns; John Wayne or Randolph Scott wouldn't look out of place on its sets. Heck, much of it was shot on the studios' remaining "Old West Town" standing sets; Campbell and company may have been following in the footsteps of those legends in a very literal sense.

Indeed, it's one of the things I love most about both - the filmmakers are very aware of the genres they're working in, and throw winks to the audience (occasionally for Raiders, frequently for Brisco), but they work hard at recreating the pulp adventure environments they love, throwing a new coat of paint on it to keep things from getting too kitschy. These films aren't genuine recreations of 1930s/1940s serials - they're better, with more talented writers and directors than most of those ever could have had.

One more thing they've got in common - I would drop serious money if either were to get a six-inch toy line. I realize neither is exactly current, but maybe something Diamond Exclusive? It would seriously rock.

The Adventures of Brisco County Junior (Pilot Episode)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 13 August 2006 in Jay's Living Room (Brisco!)

My college friends and I loved this show, and to this day we regret missing the pilot episode because we went out to see Demolition Man on opening night (which I also love, of course, but it could have waited another day). It's amazing how fully-formed the show is right from the start - favorite recurring characters Albert Wickwire, Pete Hutter, John Bly, Big Smith, Lee Pow, and, of course, Dixie Cousins, are all there. We're given a taste of anachronism and the paranormal to show us that this won't be a typical western, but enough to assure us that it will still feel like one. And the characters and their relationships are gently set on the paths they'll follow without it ever feeling coercive.

This show is a big deal to me - I discovered Bruce Campbell here, which led to Army of Darkness and Sam Raimi, which warped my taste in film in ways that have gone unrepaired to this day. It's also one of the few shows that managed to hit the sweet spot between grand serialization and entertaining done-in-one episodes; as good as television is today (there's a serious argument to be made that it's never been better), few series seem to have a premise that is flexible enough for a new story on a weekly basis while also being able to build up a larger narrative.

As much as I loved this show, I don't mind that it lasted just one year. It left no major dangling storylines or cliffhangers, and never suffered a quality drop as its writers ran out of ideas. It's twenty-eight great hours of television.

(That said, if I were a producer at Warner Brothers, I would absolutely reunite the cast for Brisco County Junior in the Valley of Gwangi.)

Raiders of the Lost Ark

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 14 August 2006 at the Coolidge Corner #1 (Big-screen Classics)

I've got this movie on DVD, but I might as well not, since I'm lucky enough to live in Boston, where both the Brattle Theater and the Coolidge Corner Theater run it roughly once a year. I may not make every showing, but I can see it on the big screen just often enough to sate my desire and for each viewing to be better than I remembered it.

Was Paul Freeman always that good as Indy's opposite number? Does Spielberg always have such good fight choreography in his action movies? How many other movies can slip from action/adventure to horror with such minimal effort? And Harrison Ford. Man, Harrison Ford; not even Bruce Willis can take a beating and still keep at it like Ford does in this movie.

Steven Spielberg is one of the world's great filmmakers because of movies like this, where he's able to get a thousand little details planned out and right while still having room to discover and improvise things on set. He's not always perfect, but his instincts never seem to lead him astray here. Oh, and he's got one of the greatest John Williams scores, too.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Fantasia Screeners: Junk

I'm doing something odd here, re-watching the film as I write the review. I watched it at eleven o'clock Friday night, went to bed right after, and didn't retain it that well. I remember the basic structure, but some of the details fled my mind. So, as I start to write this, it's eleven o'clock again, but Sunday night, and I've thrown it back in the DVD player to re-watch while writing the review. I figure I've got enough sugar in me to keep me up and get something movie-related done this weekend.

I kind of wonder if the Russian film industry could become an international powerhouse, like Hollywood. There's a population large enough that big-budget extravaganzas could potentially break even domestically, neighboring countries that speak either Russian or slavic languages close enough for subtitles to be a minor nuisance, and maybe an economy that is edging ever-closer to being robust enough to fund blockbusters without partnering with an American studio. Not today, but maybe in five or ten years. On the other hand, I imagine Hollywood may be enough of a juggernaut that it's not possible for Russia (or India or China) to even displace it a little.

Junk (Zhest)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 August 2006 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Screeners 2006)

There's something great to be said for misleading trailers. A subtitled preview for Junk must have played in front of at least ten movies that I saw in the festival's main theater over the first week, highlighting a bunch of characters and their roles - The Reporter, The Editor, The Cop, The Psychologist - implying that they'll have the same relative importance, even if they have different agendas. I got so thoroughly conditioned to expect that sort of movie that the turn it takes about half an hour in caught me completely flat-footed, which is a nice place to be in when watching a suspense film.

After an opening sequence with the incident that caused Pravda crime reporter Marina (Yelena Babenko) to quit the job, her former editor (and lover) Sasha (Anatoli Belyj) asks her to cover one last story - interview a high-school teacher who abused and killed several of his students. The mental hospital's head doctor (Sergei Shakurov) says to come back tomorrow, but when she does, the man has escaped. A Moscow cop by the name of Pavel Petrovich (Vyacheslav Razbegayev) leads the pursuit, with Marina tagging along. The fugitive flees into a dacha village, eighty square kilometers of mostly-abandoned houses on quarter-acre locks, filled with squatters and other dangerous men. Marina and Pavel wind up stranded there when Pavel crashes the car, and capturing the fugitive soon takes a back seat to just getting out.

It's a good basic adventure storyline, and the inevitable intersection of the various folks on the run - the killer from the police and the reporter from the criminal elements is reasonably smooth. Director and co-writer Denis Neimand occasionally gets a little too arty for his own good, though. Take the trailer's money-shot, for instance, with Marina jumping into a lake from an exploding house, with a flaming car landing behind her. Great shot, and then later it runs in reverse, and a pair of thugs we'd seen in the house (Yusup Bakshiyev and Igor Lifanov) show up alive and apparently unscathed to harass Monica. So, what is this - a director trying to have it both ways, a drug-induced hallucination, a comment that we can't know the whole truth from just one side of the story? Maybe all three, and it kind of works that way, but it also kind of confuses. The last act feels a bit sloppy to me, too, and not just because of some dodgy effects work in the final scene. Part of the idea, I know, is that Marina's seldom in control, but she becomes just a little too peripheral to the final action.

Read the rest at HBS.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Rare Film Noir: The Big Night and The Burglar

I didn't get to as many movies as I expected this week, just the Brattle's "Rare Film Noir" series. I worked late Monday and Thursday, so what I had planned didn't come off, and I wound up watching accumulated TV and soul-crushing baseball games. I'd really like to see the Sox go on a winning streak soon, since Arroyo's recent struggles and Wily Mo Pena's recent gigantic home runs are vindicating my claims that this was a darn good trade.

(Actually, I probably could have made La Dolce Vita last night, but it would have been close and I was kind of hungry when I got home, which meant I would have been really hungry by the time the three-hour movie ended)

I would have really liked if the Brattle had switched the movies' order (or I'd been able to bolt work in time to start two hours earlier); The Big Night is the shorter movie, and finishing at 10.45 rather than 11.00 with a half hour intermission rather than a forty-five minute one can seem like a world of difference. Still, this at least let me end the night on a better movie, as The Burglar is a whole lot more entertaining than The Big Night.


Just when I thought I'd finished Fantasia with Samurai Commando Mission 1549 and Train Man, they go and send me five screeners, two and a half weeks after the festival ended! But, hey, why not - filmmakers and studios get their films booked at festivals to get exposure, so if the festival does this, it's helping them, it repeats the Fantasia Festival name in the media a little more, and it gives me something to write about. Not quite as good for all of us as having reviews ready by the time they'll show at the festival, but we're all still washing each other's backs, even if I don't particularly like a movie.

Aaanyway, to get back to the reviews: See Train Man if you can. It's really good. As of right now, 0 Fantasia reviews to do, 23 others.


The Big Night

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 8 August 2006 at Brattle Theater (Rare Film Noir)

Somewhat below average noir with John Barrymore Jr. playing a teenager whose birthday party is interrupted by a sportswriter beating the crap out of his father. He wanders through the city looking for revenge and an explanation. Even at a short seventy-five minutes, though, the movie seems kind of flaccid - the stops between the initial beating and the confrontation with Al Judge just string the movie out; they don't really seem to build to anything. After that, it's cheap melodrama.

The Burglar

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 8 August 2006 at Brattle Theater (Rare Film Noir)

This, on the other hand, is a fun caper with Dan Duryea as a thief who pulls his crime off iwthout a hitch but has a little trouble with the getaway. It's got a ton of sex appeal from Jayne Mansfield and Martha Vickers, and a potboiler story that chugs along nicely. It's also got a neat opening, with a faux newsreel newsreel that the camera eventually pulls back from to reveal Duryea's character in the theater. I don't know that I've seen an earlier example of that kind of false start (the film was released in 1957), and it caught my eye.

It's really not that much deeper than The Big Night, but it's got a better cast, and you can start to see the start of later decade's more naturalistic styles here, even if it is still rather theatrical, too.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Weekend update: Pirates, Streets of Fire, The Night Listener

Low-key movie weekend for me. The films were good, of course, but I was kind of in a place where there were few things that I really wanted to see. Taking myself out of the new-release loop for a couple of weekends with Fantasia put me "behind", in a way, but also gives me a chance to examine just how much I'm really interested in certain movies, and how much I'm just sort of riding along. I just got around to Pirates of the Caribbean II, and it was just the one that fit my schedule that day better than Lady in the Water, divorced from "every website on earth is leading with this and you're seeing dozens of trailers and and and and..."

So I saw some decent movies, with the most fun winding up being the midnight movie at the Brattle.

Only a couple more Fantasia reviews despite the time between the recent posts, because they're the type of decent-but-not-exceptional movies that are hard to speak passionately about: Shinobi and Vampire Cop Ricky. The count now stands at 2 Fantasia reviews left, 21 others.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

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

A fun sequel to a fun movie. I thought the first Pirates was an above-average time at the summer multiplex, and the team returns mostly intact, doing the quality work I'd expect. In a way, that's an issue - the same Johnny Depp performance that was fresh and full of surprises a coupe years ago became, well, the same Johnny Depp performance this time around, and still manages to wipe Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley off the screen. The first was an exciting blend of swashbuckling and the supernatural; this one amps up the supernatural but the characters are no longer shocked by it. And Bill Nighy is almost completely squandered.

But, it's got great set pieces - I loved the sheer exuberance of the hanging cage sequence, for instance. I dug the cynical black comedy as Sparrow tries to recruit a crew whose sole purpose is to be given over to Davy Jones. And the kraken is a cool effect. I must admit, I can't wait until next summer, when we get Chow Yun-Fat.

Streets of Fire

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 August 2006 at Brattle Theater (The Late Show)

I'm a big fan of films that bring the crazy, and Streets of Fire has all kinds of crazy - its environment is a strange mix of eighties urban paranoia and fifties style; it's got Michael Paré, Amy Madigan, and Rick freakin' Moranis mouthing off to each other while on their mission to rescue Diane Lane; it's got Willem Defoe leather overalls being completely insane. People fight a formal duel with sledgehammers. And it's one of those "would like to be a muical but doesn't quite go there" deals - you know, where no-one breaks into song but there are a succession of stages where people can sing.

It's all in good fun. I dig it.

The Night Listener

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 August 2006 at AMC Boston Common #8 (first-run)

A nifty little low-key thriller with the toned-down, serious Robin Williams. He makes an interesting amateur sleuth, a writer and high-end radio personality trying to figure out if the precocious, dying child he's been speaking to on the phone actually exists. There's nifty ideas to it about the nature of truth versus fiction, and how we can blur the line between the two with enough massaging and repetition. It is not, however, a particularly exciting story, and once we've got the idea that Williams's character looks like the dangerous creep from certain perspectives, it kind of gets into a rut.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

One chance: Talladega Nights, Nobody Lives Forever, Russian Dolls

A few one-night stands this week. Well, just one, really - Talladega Nights was a preview, and Russian Dolls was on its last night. But since I wouldn't be able to see Talladega free the next night or Russian Dolls at all, so I'll count that.

I also saw A Scanner Darkly on its last night at the Coolidge, but that thing knocked me out. I don't know if it's just an example of how incredibly hit-and-miss Linklater can be for me, or something about that movie that night. I'd found the style torturous during Waking Life, too, and while it had not bee a particularly hard or long day at work, Russian Dolls had sort of softened me up. Man, that movie needled me.

I am liking the Coolidge's new arrangement, with handicapped folks able to get upstairs and a larger concession stand and ticket bureau. I do kind of wonder how it works on nights when it's a busy show in the main theater - it seems like you'll have people trying to buy tickets and going in and out crowding past each other. There's a little more room in the lobby, but I I don't know if it's come at the expense of seats in the main theater.

More Fantasia is up: God's Left Hand, Devil's Right Hand; Meatball Machine; 3 Mighty Men; All-Out Nine

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2006 at AMC Fenway #7 (Preview)

I'm still not sure about Will Ferrell. Matt suggests that Ferrell isn't really funny, but is good at surrounding himself with funny people. I don't think that's quite it. I think he's just not terribly good at playing a character who is simply stupid, and when the joke is that Ricky is a moron, the movie feels generic. When he does something weird, crazy, or surreal, the movie is about twice as good.

Nobody Lives Forever

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 July 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Rare Film Noir)

I honestly thought this was going to hit Dirty Rotten Scoundrels territory at one point. It kind of lives in the area between film noir and a caper film. It's a nifty combination, with the romantic fun of a con job along with a dark reminder that the characters aren't getting any younger. It's got a nice cast, with John Garfield, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Waltern Brennan, and Faye Emerson. Hopefully, Warner Brothers pulls it out of the vaults for their next film noir box set.

Russian Dolls

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 July 2006 at the Coolidge Corner Theater #2 (First-run)

Honestly, I'm not sure why I was interested in seeing this - I remember not being particularly fond of L'Auberge Espagnole, so why did I feel some sort of need to catch the follow-up. Maybe it's just the more indie than you thing: Sure, you may have seen that when it was being pushed as a big thing in the boutique houses, but have you seen the sequel? No? Well, then you're just a poser.

It's not a bad movie, but it could have about forty-five minutes cut out of it. Like, everything with Audrey Tautou, who had a miniscule role in the first one, but sucks up a whole bunch of the movie's first act only to disappear once the main story starts. Then comes another episode with Xavier's lesbian friend Isabelle pretending to be his fiancée. And then, just as in the first movie, things kick into gear when Kevin Bishop shows up as the boorish William, only here he's very likable as he romances a Russian ballet dancer, which kicks an actual story into gear. And from there forward, it's a pretty enjoyable movie. But, lord, you've got to wade through an awful lot of unnecessary stuff to get there.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Perfect Suspense: Body Double and Rear Window

Reminder for the future: Leave two hours before trying to see a movie at the furniture store. Getting there from Cambridge involves at least two of the commuter rail, subway, and bus... And at some point, the T will screw it up, even if you're catching every train really quickly.

So... No Ant Bully in IMAX 3-D last weekend. I wound up not going to the Birds/Jaws double feature because futility is kind of draining, and by the time I finished the ballgame, I knew I wasn't going to make it to eleven o'clock in a darkened theater.

But, nothing keeps me from Rear Window. Matt and I wound up staggering how we hit the double feature - I did Body Double at 4:00, he showed up for Rear Window at 6:30, and then I left him to watch the 9:00 Body Double. Because I just had to watch the ugly ballgame on ESPN.

Great stuff, though - Rear Window is one of Hitchcock's very best, and Body Double is a great example of Brian De Palma stealing all the right things from his idols and adding his own twisted sensibility to it. It's not often you get a four-star double feature, but when you do it's delightful.

More Fantasia is up: Necromancer and Frostbite

Body Double

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2006 at the Brattle (Hitchcock & Friends Thriller Weekend)

Brian De Palma will steal anything that isn't nailed down, and this delightful thriller borrows liberally from its double feature partner, and Vertigo, and probably a ton of others that I couldn't immediately identify. What he comes up with is a tightly constructed thriller that doesn't cheat the audience and reveals all its cards in good time. De Palma has a great pulp-like thing going on with the gleeful sexuality and violence, and isn't afraid to indulge in a little darkly comic winking at the camera when he has the chance to go over the top.

What De Palma does with the camera in this movie reminds us of why his new films are worth looking out for, even when he hasn't had a major success that was really his in around twenty years. No-one does a long, continuous shot like he does; someone really should give him a couple million to use today's digital equipment to make a film that's one continuous shot.

It's also fun to see what's happened with the cast over the years - two of the leads have more or less disappeared, Melanie Griffith probably never had another role as good (and has fallen off the map as women over 35 are sadly wont to do), and Gregg Henry has become a dependable character actor. Probably the most famous now is Dennis Franz, billed low as the director of the movie the main character is acting in.

Rear Window

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2006 at the Brattle (Hitchcock & Friends Thriller Weekend)

When this was restored and rereleased a few years ago, I got to know that trailer by heart. It's one of the best trailers of the past ten years, and the movie itself isn't chopped liver, either. Rear Window truly merits being called multileveled - it's enjoyable as an amateur-sleuth adventure, but it's also a delightful romance as James Stewart and Grace Kelly discover that they're not nearly so mismatched as they initially thought. You can also get all intellectual about what Hitchcock and company are saying about voyeurism and our acceptance of it, or all analytical about how he keeps the camera within Stewart's apartment at almost all times. It's rare to see a film so satisfying in so many ways.

And it's got James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Matt asked afterwards who the modern day Grace Kelly would be, and I really couldn't think of anyone. Scarlet Johansson came to mind as an impeccably constructed blonde beauty, but her flat voice doesn't just drizzle melted class over you the way Kelly's does. Maybe Naomi Watts or Olivia Williams, but, honestly, there probably won't ever be another one like her.