Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Indie Sunday: How to Cook Your Life and Redacted

Sort-of kind-of a break in the middle of a few days spent mostly on the Brattle's Made In Boston series, though it was more opportunistic than anything: How to Cook Your Life was the final show in the Fall '07 Eye Opener series, and Redacted fit in easily with my need to go grocery shopping. Besides, I figured I wasn't going to get much of a chance to see Redacted - as much as I admire the way Magnolia & HDNet Films run this program to get it in front of as many people who want to see it how they want to, the end result is that these films come and go fast, and Redacted probably got as much attention as it did because it's obviously controversial.

Which is kind of sad - it's a new film by Brian De Palma, which used to be a big deal in and of itself. Now, he makes something that is arguably "important", and it runs for a week on the local boutique house's smallest screen after playing a preview on a cable channel Comcast doesn't even pick up.

How to Cook Your Life

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 November 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Sunday Eye-Opener)

I don't really have a lot to say about this one. It's a documentary with a likeable subject in Edward Espe Brown, good intentions and a nice mix of interviews and how-to footage. It's a lot of fun for fans of the "food movie", I'll bet (I did love watching the guy make bread). It's also kind of limp - the kind of documentary that makes a person feel bad or inferior but doesn't inspire a matching zeal to improve oneself. I found myself watching and sort of ruing the packaged food I eat, but not to the point where I can really consider baking my own bread (I just don't have the time!) or buying into the mumbo-jumbo about connecting with my hands.

Ah, well. If you like food movies or are interested in Zen Buddhism, you'll probably enjoy the film. It didn't hook me in much at all, though.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 November 2007 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

Remember MTV Unplugged? It was a series of specials where rock stars would do an acoustic set, relying on craft and material rather than raw power. Brian De Palma is doing something similar with Redacted; he was a rock star as a director for a long time, but now that he could use a late-career boost, it's time to pare his lush, flashy pulp style down to something digital and serious.

So he takes on a story inspired by a recent scandal where U.S. soldiers raped and killed a 15-year-old Iraqi girl. Our principal narrator is Angel "Sally" Salazar (Izzy Diaz), a private who joined the military to pay for film school; he's constantly shooting video. He's part of a group manning a checkpoint in Samarra, including bookworm Gabe Blix (Kel O'Neill), college boy Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney), senior NCOs Vazquez (Mike Figueroa) and Sweet (Ty Jones), and the pair of Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll) and B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman), who are serving as an alternative to jail. At first, the group seems all right - not terribly bright, but capable of the grunt work the Army expects of them, and they're not seeing much action. Two fatal incidents in short succession - with both American and Iraqi victims - take their toll, and soon a couple of the group are looking to take some spoils from a pretty teenager they'd seen on a raid the other day.

De Palma presents Redacted as if it were a collection of existing footage from multiple sources - Sally's video camera, a French documentary about the soldiers at the checkpoint, American and middle-eastern news programs, security cameras, and internet video. It actually winds up fitting De Palma's customary style better than expected: He's a guy who has always loved playing with the camera, and the long POV or tracking shots that often seemed showy in his other films wind up being the natural way home video is shot. He'll also force himself to leave the camera in place when his natural instinct might be to move it or get coverage from different angles, and then compound the effect by making the action an embedded video clip on a static web page.

Of course, he also has a little fun with the medium. A kidnapping scene, for instance, is quick, shocking, and clever. In Sally's opening segment, he talks about how this is the real, unfiltered truth without a bunch of Hollywood editing - and then De Palma cuts to the French documentary with its almost parodic soundtrack and urgent voice-over. That's also where the first of a few head-scratching bits appears - there's a shot of a car approaching the checkpoint from inside the car, and considering the point the narrator is making, I have to wonder how the camera got there. There's several sequences like that - most notably a scene late in the film where Flake tells Rush a story about his brother Vegas - where I wasn't sure whether De Palma was hitting the limits of what he could do with the faux-doc style or whether he was trying to make a point about how even "real" footage is often staged or recreated.

If it's the latter, it may be too subtle a point, as it's almost certain to get drowned out by the potentially incendiary nature of the film's main storyline. It has in the past been relatively unusual for a fictional film this openly critical of a military action to be released so close to the actual event, and Redacted has predictably attracted controversy. I think De Palma does exaggerate for effect and allow the less savory characters to dominate the picture, which is somewhat at odds with the realistic, supposedly "unbiased" style of the film.

I couldn't fault the film for being overflowing with outrage despite that - it's not as though any of the acts it dramatizes and issues it raises should be minimized. Ultimately, I think its main point is that weapons in the hands of people people without the proper respect for the consequences of using them will be abused and make a bad situation worse - and Iraq currently has a lot of people running around without the proper respect for the guns they're toting.

As befits that message, most of the actors playing the soldiers are young and unknown. I like how Izzy Diaz plays Sally - it's a part that could very easily played as naturally having the moral high ground, despite the fact that De Palma writes Sally as naïve, impatient, and maybe not so bright. Diaz also has to demonstrate that despite spending a lot of his "screen time" behind the camera, so we're just getting his voice and whatever body language comes from shaking the camera. Ty Jones is also very good; his Sweet could have stepped right out of Gunner Palace or any of the Iraq War documentaries that have been made. I might have liked a little more from Patrick Carroll; his character takes control of the movie's second half, but his performance doesn't quite expand the same way.

It's a sign of how much I enjoyed the movie, I suppose, that I'm willing to rationalize things like that - say that De Palma and company intended to show just how ordinary such people can seem rather than portray them as unusual. It's a bit rough, but it's the most passionate work by a great director in a long time. A lot of people will probably have their minds made up about it before entering the theater (or seeing it elsewhere, since the subject matter and release schedule almost guarantees a short run), but it's worth a look at the very least.

Also at HBS.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


Saw this with the Chlotrudis folks on Tuesday, kind of cutting in line to do so. I lamely justified it to myself by saying I had arrived nearly as early for a different preview screening at Boston Common five days earlier, only to be told it was sold out (and that cost me $5 in bus and subway fare). It was in one of the former balcony theaters at Harvard Square and we wound up in the far back and right, which reminded me that AMC Harvard Square is one of those theaters where it's vitally important to make sure the film you want to see is on the main screen, because all the others are poorly laid out.

Other reviews aren't up at HBS/EFC yet, so I don't quite know how it's going to be received among that crowd. I'm sort of cringing in anticipation of the reviews I'm expecting to see in certain outlets; just looking at the comments on IMDB shows people calling the title character precocious and wise beyond her years. In fact, I think she's the exact opposite; the movie goes out of its way to present her as childlike throughout.

Still, good movie; well worth a recommendation.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 November 2007 at AMC Harvard Square #3 (Preview)

There are moments in Juno, especially early on, when I worried about its title character being one of those teenagers. You know the type - the self-aware and self-referential ones who talk like thirty-year-old screenwriters who went to private schools and are nostalgic for the John Hughes movies of their youth rather than any actual memory of growing up in a small town.

Fortunately, the cast and crew generally manage to avoid those traps. Yes, writer Diablo Cody writes Juno as ostentatiously quirky at times - an early bit where she sets an easy chair up on her would-be-boyfriend's lawn seems like an awful lot of effort for little payoff. Fortunately, Juno is played by Ellen Page, who genuinely looks sixteen and grasps that Juno is far more child than adult. She's a clever and witty kid, but what she thinks is clever is often just in bad taste. Despite all the sarcasm and music snobbery, she's not mean; she's generally trying to do the right thing. She's also hilarious. Of all the things Page does, perhaps the most valuable is letting what are often precisely chosen words come spilling out of her mouth without making Juno seem particularly bright.

The bright girls, after all, generally don't wind up pregnant at the age of sixteen. There's no question that the father is Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), and initially there's no doubt that Juno's going to have an abortion. Something that the one teenage protester there says gets under her skin, though, so she tells her father (J.K. Simmons), stepmother (Allison Janney), and best friend (Olivia Thirlby), that she's going to carry it to term. She's even managed to find a couple to adopt the kid - sure, Vanessa Loring (Jennifer Garner) seems kind of uptight, but her husband Mark (Jason Bateman) seems cool.

Ellen Page is terrific, and she has to be - she's in every scene, with maybe one or two exceptions. She doesn't have to carry the whole thing herself, though - she gets a lot of help from the supporting cast. J.K. Simmons gives Mac MacGuff a dry delivery that's similar to Page's as Juno, though a little resigned and more mature; Allison Janney is humorously more frantic as Bren. Olivia Thirlby and Michael Cera are a ton of fun as Juno's friends. Cera does charmingly dorky better than any young actor out there, and he's as good as ever as Paulie; Thirlby's Leah is a bundle of enthusiastic eccentricity. Compared to them, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman look almost muted, though they wind up two of the more fleshed-out and interesting characters.

Just because how they relate to Juno provides much of the film's dramatic weight doesn't mean they're not funny, though. Juno doesn't have any characters who aren't, at one point or another, funny - even people at the school who just stand there, talking to someone else while Juno looks at them, tend to make for funny visuals. This seems like an obvious thing, but it's surprising how many comedies don't realize that every character has to pull his own weight in terms of making the audience laugh, or else they're just clutter. Juno the film is remarkably free of clutter, both as a comedy and as a story about Juno MacGuff: Everyone involved is funny, and there's very little in the story to distract us from Juno's tentative steps toward adulthood.

Both writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman are still a little rough at times - their use of music is a bit heavy-handed, for instance, though not as much as the chair motif in Juno's narration. They do manage the potentially awkward turn the story makes down the home stretch without missing a beat, and Reitman has a knack for finding good images. He hasn't yet put all his tendency toward smugness behind him, but Juno suffers from that much less than Thank You For Smoking did.

And, to be fair, Juno might just be "pretty good" if it were a smoother, more polished work. It's a fine line between the title character being well-intentioned with a lot of growing up to do and her being stupid and unlikeable, even with Ellen Page's great performance It's the ability to stay on the charming side of that line that makes Juno one of the most enjoyable comedies of the year.

Also at HBS, when the embargo is lifted.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Love and Honor

Damn you, New York. I'm certain you're to blame for this cold I've been nursing all week.

All in all, I'm sure it probably would have been more sensible to wait for Love and Honor to maybe show up at the Brattle; creative director Ned Hinkle mentioned on a mailing list that he was hoping to book the film for some screenings there, or at least as part of the Sunday Eye Opener. But, you know how it is - someone says "probably" and "hopefully", and you hear "maybe not". So, off to New York.

First, I mistakenly think the ImaginAsian theater, where the film was playing for a week, was at 239 East 9th Street. Well, there is no 239 East 9th Street. There is a 239 East 59th Street. Time to walk. I barely get to the theater in time for the start of the film.

The movie's good, at least. My plan is to check out Diva at the Film Forum at 5:30, and you'd think two hours would be enough time to get there. It's not; I get distracted by a bookstore (so I can buy a map) and a street fair, then when I try to take the subway... Well, there's confusing signage, a hockey game, the smell of urine, a delay for tunnel congestion... Long story short, I don't make it, so it winds up being a $40 movie. Yikes.

And I'll probably do it again sometime. Just with more planning, a transit map, etc.

Love and Honor (Bushi no Ichibun)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 November 2007 at the ImaginAsian (Limited Engagement)

As Yoji Yamada's samurai dramas have become bigger and bigger hits in their native Japan, their American distribution has shrank. This is a real shame, because all three (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, and now Love and Honor) are films that could appeal to a broad range of people if only the audience was aware they existed.

The man at the center of Love and Honor is Shinnojo Mimura (Takuya Kimura), a 30-koku samurai growing disenchanted with his position as one of the lord's food tasters. He's already considering resigning his position when a bad piece of seafood strikes him down, leaving him blind and out of a job. His family worries about what he will do for an income - they have few contacts left within the castle - until Shinnojo's wife Kayo (Rei Dan) mentions that Chief Superintendent Toya Shimada (Mitsugoro Bando) has offered to intercede on her behalf. Of course, such favors seldom come without a price.

Part of why Yamada's samurai films have been successful even though the genre was nearly as out of favor in Japan as westerns were in the U.S. is that his samurai, rather than being idealized warriors, were instead portrayed as an earlier century's equivalent to salarymen. Modern Japanese could easily relate to the conflict between the samurai's commitment to serve both their master and society's rules and their own desires to feel happy and personally fulfilled. The film overplays this a little early on: Shinnojo discusses leaving the service so that he could open a kendo school, where he would not only accept students regardless of caste, but would tailor his lessons to the individual's strengths! For a moment, it's a little too on-the-nose as commentary about the modern world.

The moment passes, though, and much of the rest of the movie is actually fairly traditional - the villain is well worth the audience's disdain, there is a formal duel (with the expected gore), and ritual suicide is presented as an honorable decision, if not the required one. The system is far from seeming as broken as it was in Yamada's earlier films, although it still occasionally feels cold.

"Cold" is about the last word that would be used to describe Takuya Kimura's and Rei Dan's performances. Shinnojo is a big-hearted but proud man, and Kimura makes it clear that the samurai's stoicism is a mask that he is not particularly comfortable wearing. His despair upon discovering his blindness is genuine feeling, so that when he later begins training for a duel, the question is always in the back of one's mind that it's as much an honorable suicide as an attempt to avenge a wrong. Rei Dan is very good in what appears to be her first film role - it's easy to like Kayo, since she's kind and supportive without concern for her personal position. In many old samurai movies, this character would be played as stupid or weak, but Dan has a nice way of making Kayo a little smarter than she first appears. Watching her, we get that Kayo is aware when she's in dangerous territory, but doesn't have the skills at social politics she would need to make things work out in her favor.

The rest of the cast is quite enjoyable to watch, as well. Takashi Sasano plays the Mimura's long-time servant; he provides a little comic relief as well as being the main characters' sounding board. Kaori Momoi is memorable in her role as the aunt who likely plays and enjoys the social games that Kayo doesn't. Mitsugoro Bando makes for a proper villain, a thorough creep whose lack of theatrics just makes him more detestable.

Yamada and his cast get a lot of little things right. The scenes in the food-tasting room, for instance, feel like both office chatter and ritual. Though this is a fairly tradition samurai tale, there are still some pointed barbs shot at the dehumanizing elements of castle (or corporate) life. And I love the attention paid to the mechanics of how a blind fighter would have to work. Shinnojo is not Daredevil or Zatoichi with highly enhanced senses; though he says he can sense motion, it's not that effective. Instead, we see him maintaining contact with his opponent's sword, trying to keep track of his location.

Love and Honor isn't the best of Yamada's samurai movies, but that's nothing to hold against it - The Hidden Blade was excellent, and The Twilight Samurai deserved every award it got. This one stumbled a little at the start, but is otherwise a very fine samurai story, and I hope more people get a chance to see it.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Boston Fantastic Film Festival: ­Zebraman

You can't have a festival of this type without something from Takashi Miike. Actually, you should generally be able to scare up two or three films by Miike, the man is so prolific. I still haven't watched my DVD of The Great Yokai War yet, so this was my first exposure to "Takashi Miike, family filmmaker", and I liked what I saw. I kind of wish the Festival had scheduled it for an earlier hour and advertised it to families a bit - I would have loved to see how genuine kids reacted to it.

For those unfamiliar with Takashi Miike, him directing a family comedy is roughly equivalent to executives at Warner Brothers getting together and saying "you know who would be a great director for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows? David Cronenberg!"

Although, now that I think about it - that needs to happen anyway.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

Zebraman actually came out before The Great Yokai War in Japan, although the latter made it to America first. So let the record show that Takashi Miike did have some practice making family films before that better-known one. Though more modestly budgeted, Zebraman is still a bunch of fun, with an injection of crazy that would delight kids it their parents would let them anywhere near it.

Sho Aikawa stars as Shin'ichi Ichikawa, the second-grade supervisor at a medium-sized elementary school. No-one at the school respects him, to the point where the kids are beating up his son. His teenage daughter Midori (Yui Ichikawa) is seeing a much older man. It would probably only be worse if they knew he spent his evenings cosplaying in a papier-mache costume based upon the hero of his favorite 1970s superhero show, Zebraman (which, as if to illustrate how pathetic Shin'ichi is, was canceled after a handful of episodes. The sad thing is, the city is actually in need of a superhero. Midori's boyfriend has a second life as crab-masked villain, and there are enough slimy green aliens lurking underneath the school's gymnasium that the government has dispatched a team to investigate.

The line between playing a superhero story straight and doing parody is hard to find in the best of cases; Miike and writer Kankuro Kudo spend most of their time on the spoofy side, but play it straight enough to earn a bit of suspense. Their pastiche of 1970s sentai programs seems pretty close to spot-on, both in clips and a dream sequence where Shin'ichi fantasizes about the mother of one of his students as "Zebranurse". Affection can come across as disdain when filmmakers try to precisely replicate something that might not hold up to a more critical eye, but they generally find the right mix. The trick, apparently, is that it's okay to initially mock Shin'ichi for dressing up in a stupid costume by having him get his butt kicked early, but the somewhat corny good-intentioned messages of the genre are to be embraced rather than mocked.

Because Miike's name is attached to the movie, I don't know how many kids this winds up playing to outside Japan - the folks who would pick up a foreign family adventure know his reputation. Of course, I don't know who its target audience was over there, or whether it was aimed for the teen and older crowd. If it were remade in the US, Crab-man probably wouldn't be seducing sixteen-year-old girls, and I really doubt that the fungus that has Koen Kondo's military investigator scratching his junk would still be around; they might also tone down the violence with the possessed kids. A lot of the other kid-friendly stuff is done without the slightest hint of irony, though. Kids love green slime, and the CGI for the aliens is almost cute. The hero and the kids who love him are perfectly pure of heart. Some of the details are wonderfully silly, like Shin'ichi's "bedhead" (his hair grows into a zebra's mane when his zebra-sense detects that it's time to save the day!). And the final big action scene is just gloriously over the top.

Sho Aikawa is a lot of fun as the Shin'ichi. He embraces the dorkiness of the character in all its forms - the teacher no-one respects, the loser in a homemade costume, the guy who discovers it's all real but ridiculous. Koen Kondo is similarly fun as the man investigating the apparent alien activity, since he always seems to expect that job would be a little cooler and high-budget, and alternates between trying to elevate it, being disappointed, and finally just giving in to the fact that he's in a low-budget-sci-fi world (but without winking at the audience).

It's great fun, even if the goofiness has a bit more in the way of claws than its American equivalents. Still, it's not too nasty for anyone old enough to read the subtitles, and grown-ups shouldn't find it too terribly juvenile, either.

Also at HBS.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Boston Fantastic Film Festival: ­Cherry Valley

Ugh. I hate punting festival films, but I just could not come up with a thing to say about The District!. I think I drifted off once during it - it was the middle of a four-movie day after staying up late to watch a ballgame on delay the night before. It was also one of those deals where the comedy was coming from such an unfamiliar place as to just not register with me.

Still, The District! was far from bad; it just kind of got blotted out by being between Exiled and Cherry Valley (and Zebraman). Cherry Valley is one I think is going to fall through the cracks unfairly; it's something that seems like it would have mainstream appeal, but it's tough to imagine studios taking a chance on it. Maybe the Sci-Fi channel would pick it up. I think it would be neat to see how well it fit into the After Dark Horrorfest; that's the sort of event where a larger audience may give it a chance.

Cherry Valley

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

Cherry Valley is undeniably amateur hour, which is part of its appeal. Even if it had the intention of being anything other than sincere, the budget isn't there for much in the way of fakery. That lack of pretense won't necessarily convince anyone that the houses of Cherry Valley, New York is actually haunted, but it might just do a better job of sending a thrill up the spine than its fictional counterparts.

The movie starts with a supposedly haunted house owned by Jeremiah Newton; three of his students at NYU (including director Patrick Steward) go up there to check it out - setting up cameras, tape recorders for EVP, all that good stuff. They may detect something - after all, staying overnight in an unfamiliar house after a long drive and being primed with stories will certainly put you in a receptive mood - and do some follow-up with people in the town. What they find out is that while not many locals have heard of a ghost in Jeremiah's house, many have stories about their own house, of that of their neighbors. Further research leads Steward & company to learn about an eighteenth-century massacre, and a group of "devil worshipers" who used a place on the outskirts of town in the 1970s.

It's probably not too much of a spoiler to say that the filmmakers don't capture indisputable proof of the supernatural on-screen, but even skeptics might find themselves suitably impressed by the sheer volume of stories they dig up. The stories told on screen come from a variety of people, from teens to seniors, men and women, small-towners and college-educated outsiders, so there's not enough of a common thread that a significant chunk can be dismissed all at once. They are much more believable than the expert on the paranormal interviewed, who clai that the existence of ghosts doesn't contradict Einstein. I question the messenger, at least, as I strongly suspect that someone who understands special relativity might not suggest that you can only see ghosts under light that is not electromagnetic in nature (despite electromagnetism being light is).

Like most documentaries, Cherry Valley comes together in the editing room. It's one of the best-cut movies I've seen in a while; no interview segment seems to go on too long, and the jumps between them are smooth. The "haunted house" bits last just long enough for the audience to be right with the guys on screen in terms of freaking out without sucking the sense of danger out.

Where there's no good footage, Steward makes do with some simple, but generally effective, animation. It's something he maybe goes to a little too much toward the end, especially since the leans on the music more in those scenes. It works some at the moment, but a couple minutes later you recognize that the filmmakers have just pushed a button, rather than letting the audience scare themselves by just taking what's on-screen seriously. And as creepy as the scenes in the abandoned houses are, there are some moments that just play as goofy, like when they're on the trail to one of the houses and one guy's allergy to ragweed is revealed as if they'd just seen a real ghost.

As silly as that moment is, it's also charming, showing the would-be paranormal investigators as regular folks. It's not a perfect movie, but I'd like to see a distributor take a chance on it; it would make for a fun Halloween release and better schedule-filler than a lot of fictional ghost stories.

Also at HBS.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Boston Fantastic Film Festival: ­Exiled

Exiled was easily the best of the festival, even with The Signal playing. I was glad to see it used as the week's Eye Opener because of the Sox game on Monday - I'd be able to watch the end of the game off the DVR after The Vampire Lovers without staying up until 3am - but also because... Well, one of the reasons I like the Eye Opener is because it makes me watch movies I would probably not go out of my way to see and maybe learn something, but once in a while, it's nice to be the guy who can name a couple of Johnnie To movies, compare his style to John Woo's, and generally enjoy a well-choreographed gunfight while the people who love the Canadian independent films are in unfamiliar territory.

And, as much as there was a lot of talk about it being a male-bonding story and what it said about how this kind of man in this sort of hierarchical organization has a hard time making decisions for himself and the way China insists movies which show police corruption be set before the HK/Macao handover... They are really good gunfights. Action scenes in a lot of American movies can be so bad that many people might not realize how good what To does is, but compare what To does here with, say, Paul Greengrass in The Bourne Ultimatum or Michael Bay in Transformers; where To gives us a genuine thrill from showing what's going on, the guys doing the big American action films seem to be trying to hide that they're not as good at their jobs as To.

Anyway, Exiled opens next week (2 November 2008) at the Brattle and runs for a week. There's a good chance it's the best action

Exiled (Fong Juk)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Sunday Eye Opener / Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

Johnnie To is one of Hong Kong's busiest directors; by the time you've finished one of his movies, it seems like he's already got another one out. They're generally pretty good, too, but Exiled is something special. It's one of the really great action flicks, the type that others all too often don't even aspire to be.

It starts with two pairs of men visiting an apartment in Macau, just before the handover to China. Blaze (Anthony Wong) and his partner Fat (Suet Lam), then Tai (Francis Ng) and his partner Cat (Roy Cheung) both ask for Wo; the woman who answer says she's never heard of him. They wait. Blaze has been sent to kill Wo; Tai has come to protect him. When Wo (Nick Cheung) does arrive, there's the expected shootout; what's maybe unexpected is that afterward, they put down their guns, help Wo and his wife Jin (Josie Ho) move in, and share a meal. Then they hash out a plan - they'll go to Jeff (Cheung Siu-fai), find one last job for Wo to do, and see that his family gets the money. Of course, "one last job" is movie talk for "things go terribly wrong".

Johnnie To has been making Hong Kong action movies for a long time, and was one of the biggest names to stay stay there when the likes of John Woo, Tsui Hark, and Corey Yuen opted to try their luck in Hollywood when the UK returned the territory to China. This film is a departure for him, not in terms of subject matter - he has made a ton of crime flicks - but style. To is one of those directors that generally doesn't call attention to himself with stylish flourishes but can certainly tell a story as well as anybody else. That invisibility goes out the window with Exiled, and not just because the gunfights have the the loving slow-motion shots and rain of shell casings one would expect from a John Woo movie. To is making something very close to a western here, and a spaghetti western at that. The world often seems empty aside from the bad men confronting each other, and setting the story in Macau rather than Hong Kong lets him take advantage of the Mediterranean architecture of the former Portuguese territory. To even permits himself to get meta for a second - in a moment when the band of outlaws is discussing an escape to Europe around a campfire, one pipes up that he "doesn't know English, but [he does] know Italian."

He's not just engaging in genre pastiche, either. Like To's other crime films that have made it over here, Exiled does a fine job of setting up its story and background quickly, emphasizing the humanity and relationships of its cast of gangster characters, without trying to get the audience to believe that these are admirable people or casting them as romantic outlaws - they're crooks, and though on one hand they're just guys with a nasty job, they also deserve what is coming to them (whether immediately like Wo or down the road). The action is top-notch, with at least four gunfights in the running for best of the year (and a fifth which isn't bad at all). Even if To had opted to shoot in his usual understated style, this would have been a top-tier action movie.

The closest thing to a misstep occurs somewhere around the middle; the aftermath of the second and third gunfights could very well mark the end of the movie, and for a while it's not obvious why the credits haven't rolled yet. What comes after solidifies the Western feel of the movie, as the survivors find themselves outside of the modern city - in the desert, even - with what had seemed like a throwaway comment earlier assuming more importance. Josie Ho's Jin also takes on a more prominent role. In some ways, it's this second half that makes Exiled especially interesting - there have been plenty of stories told about two teams with opposing goals but little personal animosity, but seldom do they spend as much time on the effects of the sacrifices generally reserved for the final act. The closeness of the handover is a constant undercurrent, and while it likely won't reverberate quite so directly for people outside Hong Kong and Macau, the uncertainty of what will change and what will stay the same with new people in charge will be familiar to many.

The film is well-acted, too. Though you might expect Nick Cheung to be the star as Wo, it's Anthony Wong who has the meatiest role. He, of course, has the biggest conflicting loyalties, ordered to kill a long-time friend, but rather than playing Blaze as obviously tortured, Wong makes him resigned: he's trying to be nice about it, and make it work out as well as it possibly can for everyone, but his boss just won't step aside and let things run smoothly. Nick Cheung is quite likable as Wo; he gives the impression of having known the score from the beginning. He gets us to believe that Wo has accepted the necessity of his own murder in order for his wife and newborn son to have a normal life, although he would still really like to live. Simon Yam has a delicious "guest star" role as the crime boss who wants Wo dead. Josie Ho makes Jin an intriguing character in her own right, while always seeming just nervous enough to remind us that these criminal types aren't normal, and that most people should be afraid of them. Everyone else fills their roles almost perfectly.

Johnnie To is one of the world's most reliable action storytellers, so Exiled being good is pretty much expected. This is a master at his peak, well worth a look even if your tastes don't normally lean toward the Asian action.

Also at HBS.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Boston Fantastic Film Festival: ­Murder Party

Murder Party is another movie that played Fantasia after I'd returned to Cambridge, although I think it may actually have run the last Friday or Saturday I was in Montreal, too. At any rate, it wasn't one I was terribly broken up about missing at the time. Here, it sort of got swallowed by Game 2 of the ALCS, whose eleventh inning was a horror show of its own.

I hope that this isn't really typical of Fantasia's second half; I see from their website that they'll be running 3 July - 20 July in 2008. I don't much want to miss the Fourth in Boston, but the tail end of Fantasia often seems to include a lot of less-exciting things. But I guess I can worry about that next summer.

Murder Party

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 October 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

In comedy terms, what is an easier target than young artists who think they're more revolutionary and clever than they really are? Nothing's immediately leaping to mind, and, the jokes made about them tend to be funnier than the ones made about other easy targets. I'm not sure that's exactly what this movie needs, but it's amusing nonetheless.

We don't meet the art-school types right away; first up is Christopher Hawley (Chris Sharp) renting some crappy horror movies for Halloween. On the way home, he happens upon an invitation to a "murder party". He whips up a crappy cardboard costume and takes the train out to the edge of town. What he soon finds is that he has not been invited to a murder mystery, but an abandoned warehouse where five art students are competing for the approval for Alexander (Sydney Barnett), who has a $300,000 grant for the one with the best idea for making their guest's murder a work of art. Even before Alexander shows up with his drug dealer Zycho (Bill Tangradi), things begin to go wrong; a little truth serum and competition later, and things start to get really strange.

One thing that filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier doesn't do is make Christopher into a simple straight man. Sharp plays Christopher as oddly calm amid the chaos, and more a sad, lonely loser than a regular guy. He doesn't come across as clever enough to play his captors against each other, but he's alert enough to make a break for it when they start getting at each other's throats on their own. And as weird and amoral as his captors are, they're just as freaked out by Alexander and Zycho as Christopher is by them. It doesn't quite make them sympathetic, but it does set up the possibility of shifting alliances later on. It's a neat little set-up.

The execution could be a bit better. It doesn't particularly drag or come off as poorly done, but I kept expecting it to be a bit more... something. Maybe more funny, maybe more tense, maybe gorier. The movie just seems to be biding its time in the middle, separating the initial surprises from the action and splatter of the end. A few of the characters blur together, and the folks brought in toward the end to increase the body count make that much of an impression. There's plenty of black comedy, but it doesn't really go for the throat like it could.

Things to perk up when people start dying en masse. Christopher finally gets out of the chair he's chained to and does something, and the characters get to run around a little. The splatter effects are done pretty well, and the movie finally gets to be cruelly funny in a way it hadn't been since Christopher first arrived at the warehouse (the extension cord is the comedy gift that keeps on giving). This is probably what Saulnier and his Lab of Madness partners were looking to do, and they do seem to be having a good time as they finally get to cut loose.

A lot of movies in this genre are like that - fifteen minutes of bloody mayhem and an hour or so of story/padding to feature length. Murder Party is actually better at it than most - maybe not so well done as to win over people who aren't already fans of silly low-budget horror, but I can easily see it getting cheers from those who are.

Also at HBS.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Boston Fantastic Film Festival: ­Mercy

Brattle Theater creative director Ned Hinkle chose Mercy for the Sunday Eye-Opener program that the Brattle and Chlotrudis Society co-present in part because he felt it was something of a failure, but that the way it failed and what it was striving for might make for interesting discussion. It's not a bad idea to occasionally screen what you know is a bad film in a series like that, although I think he might have been surprised by how much we as a group did not like it.

One thing that I found interesting, considering how part of Chlotrudis's charter is about watching films actively, is how much people seemed to have trouble articulating why they didn't like Mercy. A couple got in good lines about how little they liked the film, but specific details why were a little harder to come by.

Which is interesting, when you compare it to the popular perceptions of the art-film-loving crowd - that they/we enjoy tearing things down but never have anything good to say. This screening was just one example of how the opposite frequently seems to be true more often.


* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 October 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Fantastic Film Festival / Sunday Eye-Opener)

When Martin Landau was promoting Ed Wood, he was asked a question about what it was like to do a movie about the worst director in history. He corrected the interviewer, saying that the worst thing a movie could be is boring, and Wood never made a boring movie. I haven't seen nearly enough of Mercy director Patrick Roddy's work to say whether or not it's typical, but he has certainly made at least one boring movie.

Gary Shannon plays the title character, John Mercy, out of prison on parole after twenty-five years and an apparently changed man. His parole officer (Charles McNeely III) doesn't really believe in John's reformation, and expects to see him back in jail soon. He's given a nondescript job and a nondescript hotel room, told that any screw-ups there or drug or alcohol use or missed appointments will send him back to jail. He meets Eve (Shelley Farrell), a nice-enough seeming girl, while having a club soda at the local bar, but initially keeps his distance. He doesn't really know what to make of the outside world.

Once the situation is set up, Roddy and company spend a good chunk of time demonstrating just how isolating and repetitive John's life is, and it's one of those situations where the filmmaker maybe does his job a little too well. There's a montage that seems to take forever of John sleeping in his spartan hotel room, going to work, operating a machine press, walking back through an alleyway filled with prostitutes and a street preacher, siting at the bar, and repeat, although it probably only takes ten minutes or so in reality. The audience gets the point, sure enough, but there's going to be a fair-sized chunk of that audience who wind up just checking out completely, even when things do start moving.

In fact, the first time John appeared on screen with his hand bandaged, I cursed myself for having apparently fallen asleep and missed the part of the movie where, finally, something happened. That was not the case, though - these are mysterious off-screen injuries. That's where the horror/suspense part of the movie comes in - is it Eve who injured him? The ghost, presumably of the girl whom he killed all those years ago, that he sometimes sees though no-one else does? Someone or something else? Trouble is, even if you're still interested, the movie doesn't really seem to be. There's never a very strong feeling of suspense or even mounting dread. Roddy does do a pretty good job going for the gross-out later, though.

To give Roddy his due, he's got some skills with the camera. He's going for a noir feel, and the crisp black-and-white photography is quite nice. He's also done a fine job with locations and production design to evoke the feel of the era. His artsier choices - dubbing animal noises over the poor/homeless people in the street, using almost no extras in other scenes - may work better for others than it did for me. Garry Shannon gives a pretty nice understated performance as John, although Shelley Farrell isn't so solid as Eve (as the screening's host mentioned in the discussion, it takes a better actress to play a bad actress well).

The idea is that Mercy is only superficially a thriller, though underneath it's a film about isolation and alienation. Unfortunately, the surface isn't very thrilling, and what's underneath isn't so clever as it tries to be.

Boston Fantastic Film Festival: ­The Devil Dared Me To

I "missed" this one at Fantasia - it wasn't one I was really super-excited to see anyway, but I would probably have gone if the schedule lined up right. The program made it out to sound like a Jackass movie, only with the stunts worked into a rudimentary plot. It's not that, really, although there probably are some real bits in there - for example, I wouldn't be shocked if Bonnie Soper and Chris Stapp did set their costumes on fire in a certain scene. I've never really been a fan of the "injury as entertainment" thing. There's a line between being impressed by Jackie Chan's willingness to do his own stunts or take hits in order to create a well-choreographed fight scene and seeking out people crashing into a wall in order to crash into a wall, at least for me.

No, this is more an "extreme slapstick" comedy, a Farrelly Brothers sort of thing without the heart so prominently displayed on its sleeve. Nothing wrong with that, really, although it's not my usual thing. So while I can recognize that Chris Stapp and Matt Heath are pretty good at their chosen genre, I stop well short of falling in love with it.

The Devil Dared Me To

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 October 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

The Devil Dared Me To is a moron movie. It is about finding reckless idiots being on the receiving end of injury, mayhem, embarrassment, and death funny. If that's not your thing under any circumstances, then this is where you and this movie part ways.

The central moron is Randy Cambell (Chris Stapp), the latest in a long line of New Zealand daredevil-stuntmen. As a kid, his father was killed in a stunt gone wrong, and he lost his aunt in one performed by the South Island's most popular stuntman, Dick Johansonson (Matt Heath). Years later, he dreams of being the first to jump the (fifteen-mile) strait between the North and South Islands, but in the meantime he's working for Johansonson, trying to impress childhood sweetheart Tracy "Tragedy" Jones (Bonnie Soper). Johansonson is jealous of Cambell's growing popularity, and sets out to sabotage him.

Stapp and Heath are part a well-known comedy team in New Zealand ("Back of the Y"); they co-write the film with Stapp directing, and I gather from a few of the clips that run during the credits that this is basically their schtick - over-the-top, cartoony violence complete with gushing blood and severed limbs. They are pretty good at it, basically making things work by basically playing loss of limb as if it's no big deal. Yes, they do lean a little too heavily on the shock value of a guy gushing blood a few times, but they do have a little more than that up their sleeves: They know that carnage happen after it had seemed safe is funnier than just dropping a car on someone, or that treating a bomb in a car like a prank rather than attempted murder can be funny with the right character. I especially love the shot of a dumpster with "Broken Glass and Used Syringes ONLY"; that shot is funnier than the actual glass and syringes can possibly be.

Though Stapp is playing the film's main character, Heath gets most of the really good bits. "Dick Johansonson" is just a funny name to begin with, and Heath plays him with arrogant obliviousness. The entire cast of characters is idiots, but Dick is also a mean-spirited wuss, so it's that much funnier when bad things happen to him. Stapp's Cambell, of course, is so basically trusting and friendly that his escaping unscathed is nearly as funny. Andrew Beattie steals almost every scene he's in as "Big Jim" Watson. Big Jim is Dick's mechanic, the father of Randy's best friend, and as over-the-top as anybody else in the movie, constantly feeding his beer gut, barely hiding his contempt for his employer, and cursing a blue streak whether he's talking to to his co-worker or ten-year-olds. He also has truly magnificent facial hair.

The gags are delivered with the all subtlety of a sledgehammer to the nuts, which can get old fairly quickly; fortunately the movie is only about an hour and twenty minutes long. More importantly for a movie with this sort of sadistic sense of humor, it doesn't hold on to any single gag long enough for a sour taste to develop. This is double important because I figure only about one in three are actually funny; and that's a situation where the mean but not-funny ones can turn the audience against the film. The film also looks and feels properly cheap, both because it describes the South Island sheep-farming towns where it starts as the arse-end of the world and because it's going for a bit of a campy feel.

One thing that strikes me as odd: "Back of the Y" was described as being a Jackass-like group, and a few of the clips at the end showed them taking real hits and more believable stunts. There's not a whole lot of that in The Devil Dared Me To; it's kind of fantastical. That's not really bad, but it seems a little strange to so consciously become a parody of yourselves like this. Maybe native New Zealanders can clarify this for me. I also hear that there are plenty of jokes in there that are less funny the further you get from NZ, although to the film's benefit (as far as being enjoyable for the rest of us), there aren't many moments that puzzled this outsider.

To a certain extent, none of this really matters; movies about stupid people doing stupid things are almost always movies where "it's the sort of thing you like if you like that sort of thing". If you like this sort of extreme slapstick, there's a good chance you'll enjoy this movie.

Also at HBS.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Boston Fantastic Film Festival: ­Trapped Ashes

I love the BFFF (not to be confused with the BFF). Sure, it causes a pronounced lack of sleep when it conflicts with a Red Sox playoff series - my plan tonight is to record ALCS Game 1 on the ReplayTV, start watching it when I get home at around 9:15 after watching The Devil Dared Me To (since I can push The District! to a Sox-free Sunday showing rather than sticking around for the 9:30 show) - but Ned likes a lot of the same sorts of movies as I do, and this year especially has a knack for booking stuff that I wanted to see at Fantasia but couldn't make. Trapped Ashes, The Devil Dared Me To, Murder Party, Zebraman, and Exiled all fit into that category this year (I did see The Signal there, but I certainly don't mind giving other folks the chance to see it).

I have to admit, I was kind of hoping we'd get some guests for Trapped Ashes; Joe Dante has been listed as part of the festival's steering committee in previous years and I figured that might translate to him coming to Boston to introduce this film. Didn't happen, and I suspect the turnout might have been better if the festival's opening film hadn't run Thursday at 10pm. I wonder if it was bumped to accommodate the screening of The Darjeeling Limited with Anderson & Schwartzmann at 7pm (sadly, 5pm was not early enough to leave Waltham to see this one).

So, first night a bit disappointing, but I'm looking forward to The Devil Dared Me To tonight. And Go Sox!

Trapped Ashes

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 October 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

It's got to be somewhat disappointing to be in writer Dennis Bartok's position: You write an screenplay for an anthology film that's got four pretty decent ideas for horror stories in it. You land the likes of Ken Russell and Monte Hellman to direct segments, and Joe Dante to do the framing sequences. The unknown actors you cast really aren't bad. And yet, when it gets put together, it's not that good. And if Bartok isn't disappointed, the audience certainly is.

The set-up has an elderly tour guide (Henry Gibson) giving six people the VIP tour of "Ultra Studios", reluctantly showing them the house where the (fictional) classic horror film Hysteria was shot. They wind up trapped in the room where that movie's characters told each other horror stories, and suggests that maybe, if they tell their own scary stories, they'll be let out. It's as silly as it sounds and Dante takes a while setting it up, but the house is a fun set, albeit overdone (Dante is a bit prone to over-indulging in pastiche).

The first of the stories is "The Girl With the Golden Breasts", directed by Ken Russell. It's about Phoebe (Rachel Veltri), a would-be actress whose fortunes change after she gets the latest in breast implants - human tissue taken from organ donors. Except... those wouldn't have nipples that bite and suck blood, would they? As with most of Bartok's stories, it's not really a bad idea, and I kind of like Veltri in it. I think Russell errs in being a little too casual with the material; even if he didn't want to take the straight-out horror route of David Cronenberg's Rabid, this is material for dark, pitch-black comedy, but Russell and Bartok go for weak, name-dropping parody and "isn't this weird?" rather than actual scares or really clever satire.

Next up is Sean S. Cunningham (the original Friday the Thirteenth) with "Jibaku". Julia (Lara Harris), the wife of American architect Henry (Scott Lowell) at a convention in Japan, meets a handsome man (Yoshinori Hiruma) in front of a strange painting, only to later find him hanging outside a temple. He's still in her dreams, though, and when she disappears a few nights later, the head monk (Ryo Ishibashi) tells Henry that he must enter a scary cave and place a piece of paper with a spell written on it into her mouth to save her. Cunningham gets some nifty atmospherics with the changing painting, and the switch to animation for some shots inside the cave is actually pretty creepy, but there's something oddly inauthentic about his jaunt into J-horror, despite actually shooting some in Japan rather than British Columbia and the presence of genre favorite Ishibashi - everything feels too much like a soundstage, everybody who speaks English does so without an accent. There also doesn't seem to be much about Henry and Julia that's special, and they just go through the motions here; there's never a sense of urgency or importance to what they're doing.

"Stanley's Girlfriend" is the first thing Monte Hellman (best known for Two Lane Blacktop) has directed in over fifteen years. His protagonist Leo (John Saxon) has also not made a film in a long time, and tells us how, as a younger man (Tahmoh Penikett), he met a fellow filmmaker by the name of Stanley (Tygh Rynyan) with whom he became fast friends until he also met Nina (Amelia Cooke), who transfers her affections to him when Stanley leaves for New York and Europe to shoot a movie, never to return. Leo can't seem to get any work done, though, and he doesn't have much idea why until Stanley bequeaths him a package forty years later. The film is well shot, and the revelation of one of the character's identity is a bit of a kick, but honestly? Nothing happens. Film fans may find the details clever in the end, but Hellman and Bartok don't do much to make lethargy particularly frightening.

Oddly, it's rookie director John Gaeta (most of his credits are doing special effects) who delivers the best segment. "My Twin, The Worm" has Michele-Barbara Pelletier playing a dual role, as present-day narrator Nathalie and her mother Martine, who contracted a tapeworm at about the same time she became pregnant, and since the treatment for tapeworms would also cause a miscarriage, must put up with both growing within her, even as this odd prenatal situation is having a peculiar effect on Nathalie, which comes to light when we see her as a child who goes to live with her father and stepmother after her mother's nervous breakdown. Gaeta's got a head start, in that the premise of his story is kind of discomfiting even before anything overtly supernatural happens, and the setting (French immigrants with a California vineyard) is just off-kilter enough to seem out of time. Then he's got Matrya Fedor as young Nathalie, and in just a couple parts, she's demonstrated a knack for playing scary kids without making them seem unearthly or like little adults (all the scarier because it implies that that kind of amorality is part of every child's nature).

The movie's ready to send us out on a high note with that, but unfortunately it brings us back to Joe Dante's framing device, which not only wastes Henry Gibson and a blink-and-you'll-miss-him Dick Miller cameo (Robert Picardo, apparently, was unavailable), but doesn't deliver the inevitable twist on horror tales that leave their narrators alive as well as one might like. Like much of the movie, it's kind of limp, which is frustrating, because Dante should be able to do better.

That's what the whole movie is - segments that aren't quite as good as they could or should be individually, and while none of those segments would be crippling with better neighbors, together they add up to a big disappointment.

Also at eFilmCritic.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

­Eastern Promises

I wore myself out a little, trying to get to see this one. It was my birthday and I was going to do something fun, so I tried to get to the 3-D Imax dinosaurs at the Aquarium, only to find that the Imax theater was closed for a private function. A quick glance through the wallet revealed that a free movie from Regal's customer-loyalty program was expiring that day, so I got to a Green Line stop and headed out there, where the computer at the box office appeared to be shot, delaying me long enough that I had no time to get popcorn and soda at the concession stand (which had four people and no lines compared to the one person and impatient people at the box).

Well worth the effort, all told (although I wish I hadn't missed the dinos), but I was pretty hungry by the time I got home.

Eastern Promises

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 October 2007 at Regal Fenway #1 (first-run)

Eastern Promises makes me wish that filmmakers today were a little more prolific, because I'd love to see David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen crank out some new crime every year and still have time to do other things. The pair's previous collaboration, A History of Violence, set an impressive standard, and Eastern Promises shows that it was no fluke.

Where Violence was firmly centered on Mortensen's character, Promises is more an ensemble piece. The first major player we meet is Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife who recovers a diary from a woman who died during childbirth. It's in Russian, and when her Uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) refuses to translate it, she takes it to restaurant owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Of course, he's the wrong guy to go to - he's head of the local Russian mob, his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) is mentioned by name, and Kirill's new driver/bodyguard, Nikolai (Mortensen) is ever-alert for an opportunity to impress the boss.

The attentive audience member will quite possibly be a step or two ahead of the story at times; Steve Knight's script has a couple of interesting plot twists that it does an uneven job of camouflaging. Cronenberg counters that by focusing as much on atmosphere as story. He spends time explaining the significance of Russian prison tattoos and lingering on gatherings at Semyon's restaurant. The Russians in this movie are somewhere between exiles and expatriots, the older ones clinging tenaciously to every vestige of their culture that they can preserve or recreate while the next generation is starting to pull away, keeping only what they need. That includes Anna, whose late father was Russian, but whose only real attachment to the culture aside from Uncle Stepan is the Soviet-era motorcycle she rides to and from work.

Anna is the film's weakest link as a character. The connected worlds of Russian emigres and crime families are presented vibrantly enough that we don't need an outsider perspective to draw us in, and she doesn't really do anything else once she's accidentally alerted the bad guys to the existence and location of the story's MacGuffin, and her recent miscarriage is a very standard-issue motivator. That's not a knock on Naomi Watts; she does a nice job and I like how she resists the temptation to play Anna as particularly drawn to Nikolai; there's a nice balance of confidence, naivete, and skittishness to her. I suspect that the only reason not to rewrite the script without her is that otherwise, the only female characters are junkies, prostitutes, and other victims, even though might represent the criminal underworld well enough.

The Russian gangsters, on the other hand, are seldom less than a delight to watch. This might not be Armin Mueller-Stahl's greatest achievement in creating a father figure with a block of ice where his heart should be, but it certainly does the job. There's a little bit of Don Corleone in Semyon, a nice mix of wiliness, sociopathy, and genuine charm. Then there's Viggo Mortensen, slimmed down so that there's not a gram of wasted bulk on him; Nikolai is so cocky that not only does he know he's the smartest guy in the room, but he's willing to wait for you to recognize that fact. Even his occasional displays of conscience have attitude; doing the right thing when he can marks him as smarter than the other thugs. By thugs, he means guys like Vincent Cassel's Kirill. Kirill is as nasty and arrogant as any of the other gangsters, but doesn't have the brains or spine to back it up. Cassel's performance might be the best of the bunch; he makes a potential monster whose attempts to prove it make him oddly sympathetic.

Cronenberg keeps his movie going at a steady pace. Promises is a little miscast as a thriller, because even though there's danger, it's not so much the constant edge-of-one's-seat variety; it kind of lurks around the edges. When it does come front and center, though, it's nasty, whether in the form of graphically split throats or Nikolai's exceptionally brutal fight in a steam room. As much as he sucks us into this world and makes it fascinating, he certainly doesn't sugar-coat it.

Cronenberg doesn't quite attain the perfection here that he did last time out, but his near miss compares favorably with many directors' best work. Eastern Promises might not quite achieve greatness, but it certainly does achieve something on the upper end of "very good indeed".

Also at HBS.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

­Lust, Caution

I wonder how much I would have liked Lust, Caution if it had gotten the Kill Bill treatment - split its two halves into two separate films, which could have their own different feels. It's a strange case - it's a long movie, but it also feels kind of generic, like it could use fleshing out. Maybe if each half were its own film, they'd each feel more complete.

Of course, making a short story into a double-feature-length feature sort of sounds like overkill. That's certainly what it felt like it needed to me, though.

Lust, Caution (Se, jie)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 October 2007 at AMC Harvard Square #1 (preview)

Lust, Caution is almost long enough to contain its own sequel, although more in the literary mode where an author revisits characters in a way that seems almost disconnected from the initial work. Ang Lee's latest doesn't quite split neatly in half like that, but it nearly does, and I suspect many will prefer one section to the other, though they do combine into a unified whole.

The bulk of the first section takes place in 1938 Hong Kong, and focuses on a college drama club. Many of them have arrived in the city as exiles from Japanese-occupied Manchuria, and their leader, Kuang Yu-min (Wang Lee-hom) suggests they put on a show that does more for the war effort than the patriotic play they just staged. He knows a guy, Tsao (Chin Kar-lok), who works for Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), a notable figure in the collaborationist government. Yee is very cautious, but maybe they can find a way to get close enough to assassinate him. So Auyang Ling-wen (Johnson Yuen) becomes Mr. Mak, working for his family's import-export business, and freshman Wong Chia-chi (Tang Wei) becomes Mak Tai Tai, who befriends Yee Tai Tai (Joan Chen) and attracts the attention of Mr. Yee. Things don't go according to plan, of course, but three years later in Shanghai, Wong once again meets up with Kuang; he's now with the organized resistance and believes Mak Tai Tai could come in handy once again.

It's the second half of Lust, Caution that has gotten the most note, but the first may actually be more interesting. It's not quite a caper movie - the mission is too serious for that - but it's something we don't see that often: Resistance fighters starting from scratch, rather than being led by an ex-soldier or recruited and run by some canny spy master. There's the potential for screw-ups and everybody being in over their heads, and the private dramas of college students (a low-key love traingle going on between Wong, Kuang, and the other girl in the group). There's also some black, black comedy to be wrung from certain elements - dealing with the fact that Yee will notice if the supposedly-married woman seducing him is a virgin, or how hard it can really be to actually kill someone. There may also have been some more straightforward comedy - the Chinese-speaking audience around me was laughing hard at times, but I don't know whether that was from nuances a person reading subtitles misses or bad accents/dialect.

The second half is a more familiar espionage thriller, though more explicit than most: Chia-chi goes undercover, has to have sex with her target in order for the deception to work, and by the time the resistance is ready to strike, the cover seems like her real life and the good guys seem pretty damn callous. It's a solid story that has stood the test of time in its many incarnations, but Lee and his writers don't give it enough unique embellishments. The world also shrinks to little more than Wong and Yee; Yee Tai Tai, Kuang, and resistance leader Old Wu (Chung Hua Tou) are there, but are practically stage dressing.

So what sets Lust, Caution apart is the sex, and Ang Lee does make effective use of it, at least at first: Not many members of the audience are going to have the "hey, you got to sleep with Tony Leung out of the deal, so it wasn't all bad" reaction. They're tough scenes to watch, almost as much as the violence, or scenes of people dying in the streets because there's no food. Wong is paying a heavy price to try to liberate her country, and actually watching her be stripped of her dignity is much more effective than simply being told about it. It's a well Lee and company maybe go to a little too often; by the end, the shock effect has worn off a bit, the movie's gone on for a while and I started to wonder if Wong ever did anything else.

That doesn't take away from Wei Tang's performance - as far as I can tell, it's her feature debut, and she carries the film on her back without making too much of a show of it. She makes us impressed with her character's talent and initial enthusiasm, and shows us how the situation wears on Wong even though the character is trying to put on a placid front. Tony Leung is more experienced, of course, and does a great job of being extremely restrained until Yee's tension explodes when he and Wong are alone.

Lust, Caution is slick enough that it manages to keep the audience interested even when it's started to drag a bit. It's a pretty good movie, although I wonder if it could have been a better one if the filmmakers had focused on one half or the other.

Also at eFilmCritic

Thursday, October 04, 2007

­Dragon Wars (D-War)

Being generally busy with the BFF got in the way of seeing Dragon Wars during its first couple of weeks in release, which most people would probably consider fortuitous. I had the morbid curiosity going on, though - they'd been talking about this thing on Twitch and Kaiju Shakedown for what seems like forever, and having seen a few good genre flicks from Korea in the past decade, I wondered how well someone from there would do with the Hollywood toybox.

The answer is, basically, "not well", although it's worth noting that we're talking about Shim Hyung-rae, who doesn't seem particularly noteworthy as a director, as opposed to Park Chan-wook or Bong Joon-ho (who did a nice job playing with the CGI toys himself, with The Host). Which is a shame; he blows crap up as well as anyody - his property damage is the best I've seen of that sort of thing since Jackson's King Kong.

I also thought it was pretty cool to see a guy who is so clearly and proudly influenced by George Lucas. Lucas takes a lot more crap than he deserves these days, but there's no one better at directing a Great Big Action scene, and Shim is clearly referencing Lucas's playbook a lot in that area. Heck, the design of some of his creatures seems to be directly lifted from The Phantom Menace. Sadly, Shim also has Lucas's issues when it comes time to direct actors, at least in English. I half-wonder if I might enjoy this film dubbed into Korean or with a Korean cast, because I wouldn't necessarily know what sounded wrong or off. Which also raises the question of how good foreign films really are sometimes - do I just assume that the "foreign" stuff is also good, giving it a pass because I can't access it directly?

Also worth mentioning: I felt terrible once I got home from this movie. Whether it was the mozzarella sticks at the concession stand or using earbuds while playing my Nintendo DS on the bus to and from, something knocked me down pretty good.

Dragon Wars (D-War)

* * (out of four)
Seen 29 September 2007 at Showcase Cinemas Revere #1 (First-run)

Every once in a while, people look at my DVD shelf and ask why some movie or other is there, since they've heard me talk about how it stank. In the case of movies like Dragon Wars, the explanation is that occasionally one-star movies can have four-star pieces to them. I don't think Dragon Wars will end up on my shelf - I've got better impulse control than I once did - but it does do one thing pretty well, even if it's awful otherwise.

And let's be clear - there aren't words for how badly Dragon Wars sucks when the characters open their mouths. Calling them characters is probably generous; Ethan (Jason Behr) and Sarah (Amanda Brooks) are walking plot devices in service to a crappy story. Along with Jack (Robert Forster), they are reincarnations of players in a story of a girl prophecized to merge with an "Imoogu" (as sort of giant snake creature) so that it could become a "celestial dragon" which took place in 1507 Korea, although another giant snake has decided it wants to become a dragon, so he and his army are looking to grab the girl first. Since the virgin sacrifice and her protector fell in love and jumped off a cliff, everything apparently got put on hold for five hundred years, until Sarah's twentieth birthday. Now, there's giant snakes appearing in the Los Angeles area, but Ethan has apparently fallen in love with Sarah again and is looking to defy the prophecy, because reincarnated couples just don't learn.

Chosen ones, prophecy, reincarnation, and destiny are generally crutches used by lazy writers, and that's the case here. Nothing Ethan and Sarah do is really their decision; they're dragged along for the ride as much as we are. Jack is a walking, shapeshifting plot device, appearing in various guises and basically pointing the other characters toward where the filmmaker wants them next. Nobody, between bouts of ridiculous-sounding exposition, says anything memorable, supporting characters appear and disappear as is convenient, and some pieces feel like they were put together in the wrong order. The finale takes place near a giant temple that you'd think people would have noticed being in the Greater Los Angeles area.

Full review at HBS

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

­BFF: Million Calorie March

There... Done with the Boston Film Festival's features - I'll probably write a little something up about the shorter films, since the filmmakers were by and large nice folks who deserve at least as much ink as the guys who made Metrosexual or The Poet - just short of two weeks after the festival ended. Better than I do with Fantasia, but then again, it's not like the BFF straps me down and force-feeds me stuff I want to write about the way Fantasia does. What can I say, but there's been baseball and stuff at work and I swear, something about the experience of seeing Dragon Wars on Saturday actually made me ill.

Anyway, I see the Brattle has started announcing titles for the Boston Fantastic Film Festival, so I can start the process all over again.

Million Calorie March

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

The subject that inspired Gary Marino's Million Calorie March - both the documentary and the event itself - is certainly worth the audience's attention; adult and child obesity is a major problem in the United States. As a movie, though, it falls into the unfortunate trap of meeting modest expectations: Gary's trek was neither a rousing success nor a catastrophic failure, so the movie winds up feeling something like a vanity project.

The event of the title is Gary's eighty-day walk from Jacksonvlle, Florida to Boston, Massachusetts, to raise money and attention for the cause of fighting obesity in general and his "Project Excel" foundation in particular. He would walk about fifteen miles in a day, with his partners trailing him in an RV meant to serve as his headquarters and rest stop, with stops along the way to give speeches and interviews. Live with Regis & Kelly covers the kickoff and he's scheduled to make a stop there when he arrives in New York, and he meets some people along the way.

And, basically, that's what happens. There are some hiccups along the way - the RV gets banged up on one of the first days, he has some pain in his feet, and the amount of money raised during the trek is not that impressive. There's basically zero drama; the RV getting its roof torn up just means they stay in motels more than campgrounds, which doesn't turn into a critical drain on their budget. We're told that Gary and the trip's co-ordinator are butting heads, but we don't see it that much.

Gary does meet some nice folks along the way, and that's usually a nice bit. Gary's a friendly guy and the people he meets in the street at least seem to be taking his message seriously. He's also a good public speaker, so the stops he makes to lecture about obesity, food addiction, an the problems that come with it (diabetes, sleep apnea) look like they may get through.

There's also some staged bits in the beginning that work less well; he recreates the moment at the doctor's office where he learned that his weight had reached 397 pounds, but sort of glosses over the exact methods he used to get back down to a little more than half that. There's also some cringe-worthy moments as he shows the roots of his food addiction as a kid in some scenes. The bits about what he's done since at the end aren't bad.

Gary Marino doing this walk is a nice little story. In the hands of an exceptional filmmaker, it could maybe have become more; as it stands, it's just okay.

Also at eFilmCritic

Monday, October 01, 2007

­BFF: High and Outside

So, remember how I described The Poet as the Festival's Closing Night film? Well, it was billed as such, but the festival went on for one more night, with High and Outside and a second screening of Million Calorie March. I guess they didn't know whether they'd have this night or not (the website said the fest ran through the 21st in some places and the 20th in others).

This review was a bear to write, in large part because it was hard to separate out, a week later, which stories Bill Lee told on-screen and which ones came out during the Q&A afterward. Bill Lee is a funny guy, and still a fan. It is kind of a riot to hear him go off on Jason Varitek and Carlton Fisk; he really doesn't seem to like catchers that much.

High and Outside

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

It's probably pretty easy to make a fairly entertaining documentary about Bill "Spaceman" Lee: Point a camera at him, ask a question, and let him go. Repeat until out of questions or time, do a little follow-up with the people he mentions in those interviews, and find some archive footage to edit in. You won't wind up with one of the greatest baseball movies of all time, but what you get should certainly entertain the folks in New England and Quebec, where Lee played his big-league ball.

In fact, High and Outside is the second film in as many years to be built around him. Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey came out last year, chronicling his trip to Cuba to see and play baseball there; I imagine the two crews must have crossed paths at some point. This movie's focus, if you believe the title, is how his recreational marijuana use and tendency to make things difficult for team and league management led to him being blackballed from Major League Baseball. It's happy to wander, though, allowing Lee to spout off about pitching, hitting, the noisy kids who knocked over his mailbox, or anything else that might cross his mind.

"Bill Lee talking" isn't a bad basis on which to build a movie. As much as he talks about liking his adopted Vermont home because there aren't many people nearby, he'll happily talk an audience's ear off. He got the nickname "Spaceman" for sometimes being way out-there, and he seems to have actually gotten more of an education in college that the stereotypical college athlete, so he's one of those guys where it's often a toss-up between whether he's really smart or thinks he's smarter than he actually is. Even when Lee sounds like he's full of crap, though, he's full of crap in an interesting way. The inside of his house is filled with books with the odd baseball glove stuck in between them, which sums him up pretty well.

His stories are interesting, too. He talks a lot about how a team's union representative was more likely to be traded, recounts the 1975 World Series, and the 1978 race with the Yankees. Thirty years later, he still has a real, visceral hate of New York's team, born out of a couple of nasty brawls that did some damage to his pitching shoulder. As a Sox fan, it's fun to see that. As much as Fox and ESPN push those games now, while the teams obsequiously talk about how much you have to respect the other, they truly despised each other back then. There's a funny bit about how the world would have been a much better place if he had pitched down the stretch; his stories about how he only used marijuana as a condiment are also a stitch.

The film's biggest fault, I suppose, is that it's a little too much in Lee's corner. Director Peter Vogt consistently portrays him as a likable eccentric, which is true enough - how can you not be fond of a guy who enjoys the game of baseball so much that he still plays in organized leagues when he's pushing sixty? It's telling that there are no interviews with, say, Don Zimmer (the manager he feuded with in Boston), the way his hard-partying ways destroyed his marriage in Montreal is given only a passing mention, and there's basically one comment from Bernie Carbo about how Lee's own behavior might have hastened the end of his career. Yes, the information is there, but it's presented as bumps in the road, with Lee always in the right, rather than as facets of a complex and sometimes flawed man.

That makes High and Outside kind of a puff piece, but at least one that knows its audience. Red Sox fans, at the very least, should enjoy this, as should fans of a more colorful era in baseball.

Also at EFC.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

­BFF: The Poet

Closing night of the Boston Film Festival offered me a choice between director Frank Whaley and star Freddie Prinze Junior introducing New York City Serenade and writer Damian Lee doing the same for The Poet. Suffice it to say, I feel I chose poorly, even if I did meet a cute and friendly girl there (and chickened out from getting her name because I nearly said "hey, that's my youngest brother's favorite band!" when talk of Trade led to Kevin Kline led to Life as a House which apparently had a soundtrack by Guster. I'm old.). She was a little annoyed with the festival organizers, since she'd dropped $10 on one of the fifteen to thirty-minute short programs that was supposed to start at seven and hadn't by The Poet's 8pm start time.

I've tried not to be unkind to the people running the festival - they didn't put together a very impressive event, and the well-attended screenings tended to be either stuff that was shot locally or stuff for which they gave away a lot of tickets. Part of that's self-serving - I'd like a media pass next year, after all, and would hate to burn any bridges should the festival actually get good again. Part of that is me just not wanting to make a film festival about personalities, even if personalities are part of the experience.

But it's tough to let Creative Director John Michael Williams off the hook where that's concerned. Absolutely every film he introduced was really excellent, which is what you have to say, but he certainly didn't sell it like Mitch Davis does at Fantasia. Mitch seems genuinely excited about every film they screen and lets it show - I remember when they screened Citizen Dog and he had us all upset about how Miramax was keeping Wisit Sasanatieng's Tears of the Black Tiger in a vault and chanting "Wisit Rocks!" even though I suspect many of us (myself included) had never heard of the guy.

Guys like Davis radiate sincerity and enthusiasm. I'm not saying Williams isn't sincere, but here's the thing: The audience laughed at The Poet. This was a serious drama that wanted to really move the audience and we snickered at how clumsy and ham-fisted it was. And then Williams comes out afterward to introduce the director, and he's still acting like this is the greatest thing to happen to film ever. Which, I suppose, he may honestly have believed it was. And most of the people laughing bolted before the Q&A (or even before the film ended), so there probably wasn't much point of acknowledging them, I guess. It just made the continued effusive praise seem more like kissing the butt of one of a director who was willing to show up at this festival than legitimate praise.

Maybe I'm just spoiled by Fantasia, where everybody running the festival seems really jazzed about everything they're showing, or how Ned Hinkle (at the Brattle) or Clinton McClung (late of the Coolidge) are able to not avoid overselling films before they run and seem to have the pulse of the room afterward. Or, much more likely, I'm making too much of a non-event (the crowd and the programmer disagreeing on the merits of a film). Still, it made for an odd atmosphere, at least for me.

The Poet

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

You're not supposed to laugh at movies like The Poet. It's serious business, after all: Polish Jews running from the advancing German army! A good young man caught between his own loving, artistic heart and the brutality of his country! Sure, it's not like we were roaring or yelling at the screen, but let's face it: Once the audience is snickering, you've failed.

The story of Oscar (Jonathan Scarfe) and Rachel (Nina Dobrev) is supposed to be grand and tragic - Oscar is a poet, but during World War II he was doing intelligence work for the army in Poland, which finally made his father (a general) proud. He comes across Rachel during a snowstorm that arose rapidly, bringing her back to his home to nurse back to health. They fall in love almost immediately, despite the awkward question of Rachel's fiancé Bernard (Zachary Bennett). Oscar helps the two escape, but the Jews only make it to the Russian frontier, where paths will cross once again.

There are problems with this film from the very start, many stemming from its insistence that we like Oscar early on. I'm sure that we're supposed to be coming to a more complete understanding of him or seeing him as growing because he's in the German army and that makes him unsavory by default, but that plan backfires badly: His first poems (voiced over like a high-schooler who just wishes people understood) are about the injustice of war, his mother (Daryl Hannah) outright tells us and his father (Kim Coates) that he has a soul that should not be tainted by this evil, and he has no visible reaction when he finds the Star of David in an unconscious Rachel's locket. So the net effect is that we wind up respecting Oscar less, since despite all the film's attempts to portray him as basically good, he's still helping the Nazis invade Poland. Scarfe doesn't do much to further our interest; his performance is as bland and wishy-washy as the character.

There is some chemistry between him and Nina Dobrev, but their relationship doesn't ring very true - it's love at first sight, although that's a little creepy when that first sight comes with one of the parties unconscious. One of the movie's weaknesses is portraying the passage of time, so we've got no real idea how long Oscar and Rachel take to actually fall in love. It certainly feels like they're professing their devotion with Rachel ready to ditch Bernard within about a day (to be fair, it's something of an arranged marriage). Neither Dobrev nor Bennett is quite so wooden as Scarfe, but neither really manages to grab the movie and make the audience care about their fate, though Dobrev comes close.

What's particularly frustrating is that toward the end, we get glimpses of what could have been more interesting movies. Dobrev's transformation from pretty naïf to pragmatic cabaret singer in a Nazi camp is more or less jumped over, and the fallout from the cabaret segment leads us over the Russian border - and I would have happily watched a movie about the woman leading the local cell of partisans. These are much more interesting characters than Oscar, but the film has a frustrating habit of returning to its title character, culminating in an ending that just boggles the mind.

I can appreciate that Damian Lee wanted to do something better than the direct to video dreck that has made up the bulk of his career, but I'm not convinced he has the skills for it. I know Roy Scheider is better than his stilted segment as a rabbi who officiates over an impromptu wedding (with a conveniently perfect wedding dress!), for instance. The courtship between Oscar and Rachel is, as mentioned, awful, and I've got to think that Kim Coates and Daryl Hannah could do even better if there was a little meat on the bones of their characters, rather than them just being personifications of the two directions Oscar is being pulled.

Sure, The Poet likely has more redeeming value than most of Lee's other work - he does have Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe on his résumé, after all. That's damning with faint praise, though, and Black Book is out there if you want to see a really good Nazi-Jew love story.

Also at EFC.

­BFF: Strength and Honour

­This is one I just barely got to see; In the Land of Merry Misfits started late and had a short attached, so it got out at 9:37 when Strength & Honour was scheduled for 9:30. Fortunately, it was running a bit late, and I managed to snag a seat up front just before Mark Mahon and Michael Madsen started talking (Mahon drops "y'know" into his sentences even more than I do).

Not a bad little movie, and it was kind of neat to see Madsen play something other than his usual tough-guy role - and, yeah, that's kind of a weird thing to say when the movie features a big bare-knuckle boxing tournament. Also kind of amusing is that since there were no opening credits, I spent a good chunk of the movie wondering who that Vinnie Jones-looking guy playing the heavy was... Only to discover it was Vinnie Jones.

(Hey, it was quarter of ten after a full day at work and already seeing a movie that hurt my brain and not having a lot of down-time because of the festival. I'm entitled.)

Strength and Honour

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #18 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

Strength and Honour is likely not a movie I see outside of a festival setting, because it looked to combine a couple of genres I'm not particularly fond of - the "poor and miserable Irish people" movie and the boxing movie - and I'm not a particular fan of Michael Madsen. I would have missed out; this is certainly a movie that's better than its trappings might indicate.

It certainly doesn't waste much time heaping misery on Sean Kelleher (Madsen) and his family: In the first ten minutes or so, a sparring session ends with Sean's brother leaves the younger man dead, and then we flash forward seven years to see his wife Shannon in the hospital, dying from a nasty blood disease. Soon after she is laid to rest, Sean's son Mikey (Luke Whelton) falls ill, and the doctor says it will cost three hundred thousand dollars to get him the treatment he needs in America. The solution, obviously, is to enter a "Traveler" (Irish gypsies; remember the "pikeys" from Snatch?) bare-knuckle boxing tournament, even though he promised his wife he would never fight again.

Would this tournament ("The Puck") really have a two hundred fifty thousand Euro prize? Heck, would many Travelers have the ten thousand Euro entry fee? I kind of doubt it, but the film does a pretty good job of glossing over that inconvenient question by giving us Vinnie Jones as the reigning six-time champion, Smasher O'Driscoll. Even before the idea of Sean going after the Puck starts to germinate at all, we learn that Smasher has recently been cleared of murder and manslaughter charges in the death of someone in the last Puck. Jones embraces his typecasting and plays Smasher as a vicious sociopath; any fighting tournament with him in it is going to have to have high stakes. It's an outsize performance for what is basically a small-scale drama, but the film needs him to be a monster.

That's in part because Madsen's Sean is so very good. Madsen's normally a guy that you'd expect to find in Jones's role, but he's surprisingly good as a big softie. His Cork accent sounds genuine and working-class enough to my admittedly American ears - he doesn't bury its inherently gravely nature in order to sound more Irish - but it's his body language that sells the character. Sean is beaten down by the events that open the movie, and only manages to hide or forget that around his son sporadically. When he moves into the Traveler campground, he projects a note-perfect combination of shame and new-found belonging, especially as the McGrath family makes the Kellehers feel welcome. We hardly ever see Sean angry, which probably would have been the easy way to play it.

The rest of the cast is memorable, too. Michael Rawley is quite likable as Chaser McGrath, the young boxer Sean trains with who comes to regard the older man as a father figure, and Gail Fitzpatrick makes his Mammy the sort of woman that one doesn't mess with under any circumstances. Patrick Bergin lends quiet authority as the Traveler clan's leader; Richard Chamberlain a somewhat more boisterous presence as Sean's and Chaser's trainer. Even Myles Horgan's Barry Lacey (Sean's affable best friend and co-worker) and Sheridan Mahon's Coco McGrath (Chaser's sister and Mikey's babysitter) stick in the audience's mind. Youngster Luke Whelton winds up being the weakest link; he seems to overdo the cuteness a bit.

First-time writer/director Mark Mahon is partly to blame for that; he really doesn't write his characters with many shades of gray, so it makes sense that just as Smasher is very nasty, Sean is very good, Mammy is very passionate... Well, Mikey's going to be very innocent, and the kid just doesn't have the experience to make a fully rounded character out of that. Mahon and his cast do wind up doing a fine job of taking a worn premise and adding the details and polish that make it an enjoyable movie. He has a few nifty directorial flourishes; I especially like the stylized opening segment.

By the time it was over, this movie had impressed me. Not just because it got me to enjoy subject matter that I normally have little interest in; that's too specific and subjective to be that big a deal. In broader terms, though, it's a good example of a potentially forgettable movie executed well, and those are always nice to see.

Also at EFC.