Saturday, January 27, 2007

Korea and stranger places

REMINDER: The Brattle Movie-Watch-a-Thon is in progress. Drop me a line if you would like to sponsor me, go here to make a donation, and check back on a near-daily basis to see how well I'm doing. With this films, I'm at 6 Brattle films seen and 10 elsewhere, which means 22 "points" total (or 11, depending on whether Brattle films count for two or other films count for ½)

"Korea" is another cheap attempt at a theme, as I try to create a link between Thursday's King and the Clown and Friday's M*A*S*H, with the basic understanding that El Topo is going to resist categorization.

Friday was the first really difficult choice in terms of which film to see, as the MFA's Korean Film Festival and Kim Ki-Duk's Time was going to conflict with the Brattle's Altman series either way (oh, how I wish the Jodowarsky films were playing a different week, or even just weekend midnights). The choice for Friday night got made for me as I got caught in the office until six, which would make it just possible to get to a seven p.m. start at the Brattle but made the three-bus route necessary to reach the Museum of Fine Arts by 7:45 iffy. I left work at five-thirty on Thursday and reached the museum at ten past seven with things running on time and connections being quick; I didn't feel quite so confident about the same thing happening two nights in a row.

Hopefully Time will get a non-festival release, as I found 5-Iron weird in a mostly good way and the synopsis intriguing, because I feel even less inclined to give the Sunday double feature (California Split and The Long Goodbye a pass).

King and the Clown (Wang-ui Namja)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 25 January 2007 at The Museum of Fine Arts (Korean Film Festival) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

I've seen King and the Clown referred to as Shakespearean a number of times, which is a pretty easy leap just from the title: Many of the Bard's most memorable scenes feature jesters and actors, and if certain sequences in this film don't remind you that "The Play's the Thing / Wherein I'll Catch the Conscience of a King", it's time to brush up your Hamlet. Shakespeare never did what these filmmakers do, though, placing his clowns front and center.

Those clowns are Jang-sang (Kam Woo-seong), a brash and gifted acrobat, and Gong-gil (Lee Jun-gi), whose smooth skin and lean frame make him ideal for playing the female parts in their street performances. After Jang-sang takes violent exception to their troupe's leader pimping Gong-gil out, they head to Souel, where they hook up with three other performers and make good money mocking the King (Jeong Jin-yeong) and his consort Nok-su (Kang Seong-yeon). They're thrown into irons when a minister sees this, although Jang-sang talks him into sparing their lives if they can make the King laugh. This succeeds, and gets them lodgings within the palace, but exposes them to greater dangers: One of the King's advisors opts to use them as Hamlet did, to smoke out traitors in the court; meanwhile, the dangerously unstable King becomes extremely taken with minstrelry in general and Gong-gil in particular.

It's not difficult to see why the King and others are drawn to Gong-gil. I haven't seen Lee Jun-gi in anything else, but he looks disconcertingly feminine; if not for an early shot revealing a flat chest, I'd strongly suspect it was a woman in the role. Lee doesn't go out of his way to mince or act girly, but in a way that only makes him more convincing - a girl who opted to be a street performer wouldn't be a delicate flower. It makes for an intriguingly ambiguous relationship with Jang-sang, one that could easily be a close friendship and which could just as easily be romantic, but Lee doesn't play Gong-gil as coquettish, but almost trapped by his appearance.

Full review at HBS.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 January 2007 at The Brattle Theater (Altman in the 1970s) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

M*A*S*H is now probably best known as a television series, which isn't surprising; the series lasted over a decade and even during its lower points was one of the medium's bright spots. Still, that's the kind of success necessary for a later version to outshine this film, considering the talent involved.

Robert Altman, of course, is the big name, though he wasn't at the time. Though not his first movie, M*A*S*H was his first in what would later become his distinctive style - the large ensemble cast, overlapping dialogue, and improvised dialog all appear here. It's almost surprising, for someone like myself who grew up with the TV series, that the film isn't really just a feature-length version of that but a no-fooling Altman picture, with its own strengths and occasional weaknesses.

The "story" is thin to the point on non-existence: Doctors "Hawkeye" Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and "Duke" Forrest (Tom Skerritt) are drafted and assigned to the 4077th, a "Mobile Army Surgical Hospital". They're soon joined by "Trapper John" McIntyre, and fight the insanity of war with their own brand of foolishness. The main targets of their tomfoolery are self-righteous Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) and regular army chief nurse Margaret O'Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). There's a whole slew of other characters, all of whom will have at least one scene to shine in.

Given the way the film is structured, it's not surprising to see that it would later be made into a TV series: Though certain themes carry on throughout the film, it takes a meandering route to get from its opening to the symmetrical ending, sticking a series of stories together rather than having one overarching plotline. The vignette about Duke mistaking Hawkeye for his driver that opens the movie is almost completely unrelated to the football game that occupies the final act, other than them sharing the same characters. This works out pretty well, as it allows the cast more latitude for improvisation and gives Altman the chance to jump back and forth between light tomfoolery, the serious business of performing surgery three miles from the front lines and the satirical bits that bridge the two.

Full review at HBS.

El Topo

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 January 2007 at The Brattle Theater (Special Engagements) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

The hell...?

Probably no full review of this one, since I can't be sure whether it just made no sense, period, or it made no sense because I nodded off at some point or another. Terrible habit, that, opening your eyes in a movie theater and being pretty sure it was just for a second or two, but...

The gist of the movie is pretty straightforward - black-clad gunfighter wanders through surreal Mexican landscape, but, wow, did it not work for me. Alejandro Jodorowsky's comics at least seemed to have something beyond being screwed up to recommend them, and he just seems to get way too much enjoyment out of the blood and guts for my taste. The end result is like David Lynch, only with less interest in telling a coherent story.

And yet, I'll still see The Holy Mountain tonight, glutton for punishment that I am.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Case of the Grinning Cat

REMINDER: The Brattle Movie-Watch-a-Thon is in progress. Drop me a line if you would like to sponsor me, go here to make a donation, and check back on a near-daily basis to see how well I'm doing. With this films, I'm at 4 Brattle film seen and 9 elsewhere, which means 17 "points" total (or 8.5, depending on whether Brattle films count for two or other films count for ½)

Another movie! I have to admit that I might have liked the shorts that came before it a little more: Since The Case of the Grinning Cat is only about an hour long, the Brattle attached "Chris Marker's Bestiary" to it, five short videos he shot with animals. There's something delightful about these little snippets, whether they're as straightforward as "Chat écoute à la musique" or sort of freaky like "An Owl Is an Owl Is an Owl" (that extra eyelid creeps me out, though not so much as zooming out to show that the owls are in captivity).

The Case of the Grinning Cat (Chats Perchés)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 January 2007 at The Brattle Theater (Special Engagement) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

Chris Marker likes cats, and owls, and subways, and street art. He has interest in politics although he's reached the age where what happens now is is inevitably compared to history. Where younger men might have a blog, he has a video camera, and in The Case of the Grinning Cat, he trains it on Paris to see what connections he can find between them.

He starts in late 2001, mentioning the attacks on New York City and briefly commenting on how a French newspaper ran a headline stating "we are all Americans", though that didn't last for one reason or another. He soon notices an interesting bit of street art: An orange cat with rounded paws and a Cheshire grin is painted on various rooftops above the city. The artist, he ponders, must be a combination of Charles Schulz and Spider-man, and though his attention over the next few years will be diverted to politics and war, "M. Chat" is never far away: He'll see it on subways, in crowds during demonstrations, and in other likely places.

Marker does not appear to have any particular agenda to push with Grinning Cat, except perhaps to contrast the whimsy of the cat with the growing discontent of the world. Indeed, the American name implies a quest for knowledge that the film does not engage in (in French, it's just Chats Perchés, "Grinning Cats"). The film gives the impression of a man who always has his camera with him in case he finds something interesting, which is all but guarranteed because of his curious nature. I imagine him with a tremendous stack of tapes, pulling from them in roughly chronological order as he finds something interesting to comment on.

He does have interesting and amusing comments - noting that Bush gave Saddam Hussein 48 hours to vacate Iraq and then compared him to Hitler, he wonders whether Churchill would have offered Hitler a similar ultimatum. He notes that activism has fashions and fads, far-right leaders appropriating poetry written by communists for their own purposes, and that advertisements featuring France's World Cup team bear a passing resemblance to Stalinist propaganda. At least in the English dub shown at the Brattle, the narration comes off as amused, as well it probably should; a man of 80 years is entitled to chuckle at things that might enrage younger people.

Just because Marker has been around a while doesn't mean he's set in his ways. He's trying new things, although it's not always successful - the "Morpheye" sequences that give a different look to political speeches don't really work. A segment where he "reveals" M. Chat in various artwork all the way back to cave painting got big laughs out of the audience, though, and in another sequence he seems to find more artistic merit in what he sees on the street than what is on display in the Louvre.

The Case of the Grinning Cat is kind of a slight work; it's less than an hour long, made for French television, and doesn't really have a point. The film is over before it gets too self-indulgent, but Marker is a man I'm willing to indulge.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Notes on a Scandal

REMINDER: The Brattle Movie-Watch-a-Thon is in progress. Drop me a line if you would like to sponsor me, go here to make a donation, and check back on a near-daily basis to see how well I'm doing. With these films, I'm at 3 Brattle film seen and 9 elsewhere, which means 15 "points" total (or .57, depending on whether Brattle films count for two or other films count for ½)

I figured I was going to be doing some form of Oscar catch-up last night after work; I just initially planned on going to Last King of Scotland at the Landmark Embassy in Waltham. Alas, I got out of work to late for that and wound up in Brookline.

I don't know if I'll be making the effort to specifically "catch up" so that I can kvetch during the broadcast with some sort of authority this year. I'll be seeing a lot of films, what with the watch-a-thon on and no baseball, but I noticed that I had only seen two out of five in each of the major acting categories this year without a huge specific desire to see the others. I figure that's probably heatlhy - see what you want, and not what some list tells you is necessary.

Still, this is one I'd been looking to see anyway, despite only having seen a trailer Friday with Volver. Judi Dench seems to get an award nomination every year for playing a fairly small role (and when she doesn't, she's playing a small part in a Bond movie), and I was curious to see her talent brought to bear on a larger role. And, hey, it's two people who have had great portrayals of Elizabeth I working opposite each other; I wonder if they chatted about that on set.

Notes on a Scandal

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 January 2007 at The Coolidge Corner Theater #1 (First-run) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

At least in her work that has shown up in America in recent years, Dame Judi Dench has mostly managed to avoid the "poisonous, meddlesome spinster" roles. This kind of surprises me, since they're generally small but memorable parts, the sort of thing where she excels. She's also the right age and has the right voice for them. Maybe she feels it would be too easy.

Notes on a Scandal gives her the chance to play that sort of role as a lead, and she dives into it with relish. Her Barbara Covett describes herself honestly as a battle-axe, a high-school history teacher long past feeling any sentiment about her noble profession ("teaching is crowd control") and looking down at her colleagues and students with contempt. The irony is that in many ways, Barbara has never matured beyond the level of her students. Her diary entries are used as narration and a direct look into her mind, and Dench gives them the breathless voice of a teenager. Sure, that voice can become angry, bitter, and cynical at a moment's notice, but when she's first becoming friendly with Cate Blanchett's Sheba, there's a near-innocence to her obsession. It doesn't make Barbara any less monstrous; if anything, it marks her as even more maladjusted. Dench keeps us from finding Barbara crazy; indeed, she's frighteningly sane.

The movie relates how this bitter woman becomes infatuated with the new art teacher at he school, and while she's at first content to be friends with (and, perhaps, a mentor to) the young and beautiful Sheba Hart (Blanchett), her admiration is shaken when she sees Sheba making love to fifteen-year-old student Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson). At first she's appalled, but she quickly sees opportunity: Apply this knowledge properly, and Barbara can get much closer to Sheba - perhaps even pry her away from her husband Richard (Bill Nighy) and their children.

Full review at HBS.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A weekend's worth

REMINDER: The Brattle Movie-Watch-a-Thon is in progress. Drop me a line if you would like to sponsor me, go here to make a donation, and check back on a near-daily basis to see how well I'm doing. With these films, I'm at 3 Brattle film seen and 8 elsewhere, which means 14 "points" total (or 7, depending on whether Brattle films count for two or other films count for ½)

Updated HBS with a feature on The Animation Show 3.

The combination of there not being much out to see right now and the bitter cold has slowed my progress on the Watch-a-Thon something fierce. Oh, sure, the guy at the box office said I was busy Saturday night, but he didn't see me slack off Sunday. What can I say, other than that after getting groceries in the morning, I didn't have much desire to go out into the cold again. Besides, I figure I used up my quota of in-and-out on Saturday - I went to the 11.30am For Your Consideration in Arlington, the four-ish Letters from Iwo Jima at Fenway, and the midnight Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles at the Brattle.

Actually, I think I'll cheat and say that counts as Sunday. I think it started after midnight. So it's 'just yesterday and a week before that that I missed a movie. It's starting to look like a Monday thing.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 January 2007 at The Coolidge Corner Theater #1 (First-run) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

To be honest, I can take Almodovar or leave him. Maybe it's because I missed out on his early work, when he was doing wild comedies with Antonio Banderas, but I think I've only seen a couple of his films, and what I remember most about Talk to Her was the silent-movie portion with Paz Vega. Still, his rep can get my attention and sticking Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura in the cast as mother and daughter sells me a ticket: Cruz is kind of attractive and Maura has impressed me in a few Alex de la Vega pictures.

I'm gald I did. Almodovar keeps Cruz and Maura separate, for the most part, but sows the seeds for connections between them the will pay off by the end. The title appears in a song midway through the film, where it's translated as "coming back", a clever play on words: Maura's character comes back from the dead (Almodovar sets it up in such a way as to make it seem relatively believable, in context), while the sins of one generation are visited on those of the next. It could be a very bleak film, but there's plenty of good humor sprinkled throughout.

For Your Consideration

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 January 2007 at The Arlington Capitol #1 (Second-run) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

I wanted to laugh at this more than I did. It's packed with jokes, and most of them actually work, eliciting a chuckle instead of just laying there and dying. Even if only every other joke or so is working, For Your Consideration still packs enough comedy into its ninety minutes to bring it out ahead of truly bad comedies; it's a tick above average.

The trouble is that the things that don't work kind of don't work at a really fundamental level. The film-within-a-film, "Home for Purim", is hilariously awful, and the idea that it might be getting Oscar buzz based on a single internet posting is a perfect set-up to cruelly crush the characters' hopes when reality sets in. That actual Oscar buzz actually appears seems unlikely based on what we've seen, and by the time the hammer falls, the characters have been distorted to the point where it's tough to feel anything for them.

Letters From Iwo Jima

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 20 January 2007 at Regal Fenway #6 (First-run) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

I can sort of see why Flags of Our Fathers fizzled at the box office and likely won't get much in the way of award consideration, although I still thought it was an excellent movie. There's really no reason for Letters From Iwo Jima to share its fate, though - Clint Eastwood's companion piece, relating the same events from the Japanese point of view, examines the idea of a country and culture at a crossroads even as it constructs that story in front of a classic war-movie backdrop.

The doomed mission is to defend the island of Iwo Jima - a barren rock that's of little use except as a stepping stone to the main islands - from an invasion force that dwarfs the defenders not just in sheer numbers, but in terms of technology and in terms of how they think. The commanding general has spent time in America and knows what he's facing, that his job is to slow the Americans down even if it means acting in a way that is more pragmatic than traditional definitions of honor and nobility would demand.

Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 January 2007 at The Brattle Theater (Special Engagement) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

I understand that for many people my age, Robotech was the gateway drug which led to anime, manga, toy kits and every other for of Japanese pop culture imaginable. I just missed it; by the time Mill Road in North Yarmouth was wired for cable, Fox and Disney were starting to push that sort of import of television. As a result, I came into Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles somewhat cold.

It does a good job of recapping what's been going on up until that point - the discovery of Robotechnoloy and protoculture, the war with the Invid that resulted in the Earth falling to the aliens, a mission to deep space to recruit potential allies. It does all that only to resolve it, set up a new enemy, and completely change the story's direction somewhere around the midpoint. And... Okay. Fine. I get that this is being made to both provide fans some sort of resolution and hopefully start up a new franchise. It strikes me that the liberation of Earth from the Invid after a twenty-year occupation should be a bigger deal, but whatever.

The whole thing left me a bit cold. I'm not sure how much attachment we're supposed to have to given characters, and I could have done without some of the goofier anime-isms (what was up with the singing robot?). The space opera stuff was pretty decent, though - there clearly wasn't a lot of money for CGI, but the battle scenes were suitably grand-scale, and there's a lot of them for a ninety-minute movie.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Red Doors & The Animation Show 3

REMINDER: The Brattle Movie-Watch-a-Thon is in progress. Drop me a line if you would like to sponsor me, go here to make a donation, and check back on a near-daily basis to see how well I'm doing. With these films, I'm at 2 Brattle film seen and 5 elsewhere, which means 9 "points" total (or 4½, depending on whether Brattle films count for two or other films count for ½)

Updated HBS with a review of Our Man in Havana.

Memo to self: If you ever get a chance to make an independent film, make sure to include at least one gay couple in there somewhere. It gets you invited to festivals that all-straight films don't get invited to, and more laurel leaves to display in your advertising can only be a good thing. Red Doors is a big case of something that's not a particularly "gay" film seeming to get a lot of awards at gay film festivals, if its trailers are any indication.

And, yeah, I'd engage in some nepotism, too. Maybe I'd cast my brother as part of a gay couple.

Speaking of him, he's got to hit The Animation Show 3 if it makes another pass through Boston, at either the Brattle or Coolidge, and so does everyone else.

Red Doors

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 January 2007 at The Brattle Theater (Special Engagement) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

It's not hard to like the Wongs; after all, unlike a lot of subjects of family dramas, they seem to like each other. They don't raise their voices, and they don't go to the other extreme and speak in clipped, icy tones. What you see is more or less what you get with them, and while that doesn't make for a big, splashy movie, it does make them pleasant company.

The parents, Ed and May-Li, have been married for thirty years and have three beautiful daughters. Toward the beginning of the film, Ed is being hit with two parties that mainly serve to make him feel old and used up - a retirement party, and another one for his sixtieth birthday. His hearing is starting to go, too, and that's making him feel old and worn-out enough to start to consider suicide, although he always seems to get interrupted. It's a crisis many must feel as they get older - the kids are ready to be on their own, you're not needed at work, and your body is failing in telling ways - and Tzi Ma captures it perfectly. He makes Ed depressed, though not despairing, grappling with the question of what, if anything, to do with his life going forward. Ma is a familiar face, the type of character actor able to boost an ensemble without overpowering it. He's got relatively few lines, but never fails to make an impression. Freda Foh Shen is chattier as May-Li. She's the only member of the cast with a traditionally asian name or a notable accent, and she's the one who represents the voice of tradition, nagging that all the white at a wedding will make it look like a funeral. She doesn't play May-Li as backwards or especially wise for all that, though; she's just a mom, constantly fretting about her husband and daughters.

The wedding May-Li is worrying about is that of oldest daughter Samantha (Jacqueline Kim). Sam recently turned thirty, and she's finding herself looking back more than forward herself: The wedding is mainly in the hands of the groom-to-be (Jayce Bartok), and it's a wonder they've got time to plan it, considering their scheduled their lives are with long hours. Oh, and she just saw an old boyfriend (Rossif Sutherland) playing guitar in a bar. Jacqueline Kim gives a performance that in many ways mirror's Ma's, even if her worries are more about wrong decisions already made than the future. She talks more, but it's the moments when she's caught speechless when she says the most. Bartok and Sutherland play opposing ends of the spectrum, with Bartok's Mark a blond, not quite icy but not quite warm presence and Sutherland's Alex almost too touchy-feely as Alex, the high-school boyfriend who now teaches music in the same school.

Full review at HBS.

The Animation Show 3

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 18 January 2007 at The Somerville Theater #1 (Special Engagement) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

I'll have more on this tomorrow, probably writing up a feature for HBS. In short: If it's going to show up near you, go for it. Bunches of this collection are flat-out brilliant (Don Herzfeldt's "Everything Will Be OK", Shane Acker's spectacular "9", the quick and crowd-pleasing "Game Over", the grotesque but very cool "Rabbit", and Joanna Quinn's gorgeous "Dreams and Desires").

Perhaps the best thing about "The Animation Show" is that it is really put together by enthusiasts, not just a couple guys trying to make money from their shorts. Bill Plympton was signing autographs for nothing, and if you got there early there were animated shorts from local college programs playing. That's stuff they didn't have to do but which I think the audience greatly appreciates.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

REMINDER: The Brattle Movie-Watch-a-Thon is in progress. Drop me a line if you would like to sponsor me, go here to make a donation, and check back on a near-daily basis to see how well I'm doing. With these film, I'm at 1 Brattle film seen and 4 elsewhere, which means 6 "points" total (or 3, depending on whether Brattle films count for two or other films count for ½)

Bizarre how scheudles work. My plan on Monday had been to work until about six or so, then take the bus all the way back to Kendall Square and catch something, probably Miss Potter, during the 7:00 to 7:30 window. Instead, I caught a ride home and wound up watching 24 with my brother and his girlfriend all evening. Then, last night, I got stuck in work until seven, which made it easy to get to Kendall Square for Perfume.

I remembered why I don't see too many movie during the week - it leads to movie snacks basically replacing a meal (in last night's case, a brownie and a hot chocolate), and that's just not healthy. I felt like I should be eating some real food, but wasn't really hungry enough until midnight.

I did notice a somewhat tempting offer at Landmark: Five free Blu-ray Disc movies with the purchase of a Samsung player by June 30th. Now, I'm happy with my HD-DVD player, but if, sometime within the next five-odd months, a Samsung BD player drops below $500 and I've got a Best Buy coupon, I may bite.

Perfume: The Storyof a Murder

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 January 2007 at Landmark Kendall Square #8 (First-run) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

I went into Perfume expecting strange but very little else in particular. I just knew that it was Tom Tykwer's latest film and thus likely to be interesting. My first surprise came when the actors were speaking English rather than the filmmakers' native German or the French of the film's setting, but new and interesting surprises would come at a regular clip.

The film starts with Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) about to be executed in an especially brutal way. We flash back to his birth in the most squalid, smelly section of Paris in 1738 - a fish market, where his mother squeezes him out and leaves him on the floor while serving a customer, thinking him to be a stillbirth like her previous four pregnancies. His cries alert the people, and he is soon shipped to Madame Gaillard's orphanage, where he discovers that he has a superhuman sense of smell, one which is wasted at the tannery to which Mme. Gaillard sells him. When making deliveries to the city, though, he discovers wonderful smells - notably that of a pretty girl selling plums (Karoline Herfurth). Her smell is so intoxicating that he wishes to find a way to preserve it, leading to an apprenticeship under once-celebrated parfumier Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), and then to Grasse, the perfume capital of Europe. As he nears Grasse, he is captivated by the scent of debutante Laura Richis (Rachel Hurd-Wood), but when his experiments in preserving a woman's distinctive scent coincide with a series of womens' bodies being found, Laura's father Antoine (Alan Rickman) fears for her safety and becomes obsessed with catching the killer.

That's a rather torturous summary of a somewhat meandering film, and in some ways the roundabout path it takes can be just as torturous. There is a lot of narration at times, as if John Hurt is just reading long sections of the original novel, and when the focus suddenly shifts from Jean-Baptiste's childhood to Baldini's backstory, it's like he's picked up another book. There are other bits detailing the bad ends that Jean-Baptiste's parent figures encounter that, while darkly amusing, maybe aren't the greatest idea. Doing so presents Jean-Baptiste as merely a sort of nexus of bad fortune, as he has no direct hand in those events, rather than the source of it. Tykwer also expects the audience to make progressively larger leaps, and while Jean-Baptiste's unusual olfactory sense is a necessary one for the premise, and the one at the climax is foreshadowed, but the last may be a little too fairy-tale.

Full review at HBS.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Kid's movies. Sort of. Okay, it's a weak theme.

REMINDER: The Brattle Movie-Watch-a-Thon is in progress. Drop me a line if you would like to sponsor me, go hereto make a donation, and check back on a near-daily basis to see how well I'm doing. With these film, I'm at 1 Brattle film seen and 3 elsewhere, which means 5 "points" total (or 2½, depending on whether Brattle films count for two or other films count for ½)

Updated HBS with a review of Forbidden Planet.

Not a bad start for the first weekend of the watch-a-thon, although I could have done better: I arrived at Kendall Square in time to get a ticket for the only showing of Little Children, but I didn't know this because the showtime wasn't posted inside. Ah, well, it's not like the number counts - I don't think anyone has pledged an amount-per-movie for me yet.

My moviegoing plans for the week look something like this: Miss Potter tonight (I'd go for something later or longer, but I want to see how many terrorists Jack Bauer eats on 24), a wild card tomorrow, Red Doors Wednesday, and The Animation Show 3 (with Bill Plympton in attendance!) Thursday. Not as many chances for Brattle films this year as there were last time, but then again, no life-force deadening Jacques Doillon series to attend because it's for a good cause, either.

(Although that series was busy; I wonder why the Brattle and Cahiers du Cinema didn't do another)

Linda Linda Linda

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 January 2007 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

My insides clenched up a little at the painfully earnest scene that opens Linda Linda Linda: A teenage girl, speaking into a video camera, saying how important this time is and how they'll never leave it behind. It can make a body gag. The good news is that she's not a part of the group we follow for the rest of the movie; even if they feel the weight of what their last school festival means, they're to busy trying to prepare for it reflect.

These girls are in a band, or at least, they're trying to be. The trouble is that as we join them, the band is falling apart: Moe (Shione Yukawa), their guitarist, has broken a finger playing volleyball, which has somehow precipitated a fight between singer/songwriter Rinko (Takayo Miomura) and keyboard player Kei (Yu Kashii), the two who started the band. Rinko quits, leaving Kei, drummer Kyoko (Aki Maeda) and bass player Nozomi (Shiori Sekine) shorthanded. They tell their teacher that they want to keep their slot on stage - instead of playing original materials, they'll play songs by the Blue Hearts - but Kei doesn't think she can sing and play guitar at the same time. Deciding that the next person they see will be their singer, they wind up asking Son (Bae Doo-na), a Korean exchange student who can barely speak Japanese, let alone sing it.

But they get better. In fact, one of the real joys of Linda Linda Linda is that even with just a couple weeks to go, these girls get better not because some adult or male mentor takes them under their wing, but because they practice their hearts out. They sneak around the school so that they can use the pop music club's room after hours, they take a bus to the studio where Kei's old boyfriend works, and they meet up at each other's homes to try and quietly practice rock & roll, giggling at the silliness of the idea. They practice so much that they clearly don't have time to sleep, and that time is not glossed over with montage; we watch them play the better part of a whole song at several points during the movie, each time better than the last.

Full review at HBS.

Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 January 2007 at AMC Boston Common #16 (First-Run) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

Until about halfway through Pan's Labyrinth, I thought that maybe the R rating and "fairy tale for grown-ups" hype was a little overblown. Fairy tales have always had violent, disturbing components, and in truth this one is probably no worse, in terms of content, but actually seeing it up there is something different.

It's great filmmaking. Ivana Baquero is heartbreaking as Ofelia, and Guillermo del Toro builds both his worlds - the harsh reality of the Spanish Civil War and the fantastic underground kingdom to which Ofelia escapes - in such a way that they intersect; you can see Ofelia moving smoothly from one to the other. It's also one of the best I've ever seen at working the ambiguity of the situation. You hope, especially in the midst of the brutality that Ofelia's facing, that there is some reality to her adventures.

Indeed, I'm not sure whether Pan's Labyrinth is so much a fairy tale as it is a story about a girl escaping into one. Maybe it doesn't matter; maybe all that's important is the ability to believe in magic even when faced with the most brutal realities.

Happy Feet

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 January 2007 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

I wish I'd seen this when it originally came out, near Thanksgiving, so I could make a big show of being thankful for George Miller. He's got high opinions of his audience, even when that audience is kids. Happy Feet could have been yet another one in a series of computer-animated family films that posit a world Just Like New York City only populated by penguins, but instead he drops pop-culture onto the ice and makes it seem like it belongs there.

And how he works with the pop culture is, if not quite cutting edge, a little more creative than the usual puns and obvious inserts. Miller starts off by giving us Nicole Kidman doing her best Marilyn Monroe singing a song by Prince, although Tom Jones's cover is probably the best-known version. It's also being mashed up with a dozen other songs at the same time. It's a hipper tack than usual, more Moulin Rouge than Little Mermaid, and I could see it giving parents fits while kids love it.

What's most amazing, though, is how absolutely surreal Miller will let things get before getting to his fairy tale ending (which itself is a bit on the odd side). There's some heavy-handedness with the environmental stuff, and I don't know if folks seeing this at a venue like the New England Aquarium will be quite so eager to see the penguin exhibit after its take on what such exhibits are like. But it's also got got Hugh Jackman absolutely owning a scene despite the enormous challenge of connecting with the audience via an animated penguin with the voice and mannerisms of Elvis Presley. The critic part of my mind wants to say that this is a hyperactive cartoon desperately stringing flashy scenes together without a real plot, but any move where an actor can manage that deserves some serious respect and even love.

Arthur and the Invisibles (Arthur et les Minimoys)

* * (out of four)
Seen 14 January 2007 at AMC Boston Common #11 (First-run) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

I want to give this film the benefit of the doubt, say that it lost some crucial piece of its soul when the Weinstein brothers got hold of it, likely cut it for time and dubbed it into English. And maybe if Angel-A makes me all excited about Luc Besson again in March, I'll give the HD-DVD a shot, especially if it's got the original French version on it.

But, maybe not. The storytelling is pitched relatively exclusively at the younger set, and as cool as some of the action scenes are (Luc Besson is directing this, after all), the jump between them and the rest of the movie is jarring. The CGI feels a little choppy, too, and the bits where it's supposed to be integrated with live-action are somewhat wanting, as well.

I've been reading that this and Angel-A are Besson's last films as a director, though I hope he continues on as a writer and producer. He's done great work, and it would be unfortunate if this is the last we see of him.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Wild Bunch

REMINDER: The Brattle Movie-Watch-a-Thon starts tonight. Drop me a line if you would like to sponsor me, go hereto make a donation, and check back on a near-daily basis to see how well I'm doing.

Updated HBS with a review of The Quiet American (1958 version); kind of surprised to see that the ratings for the 2002 version were only so-so. It makes it kind of amusing that I give the '58 version four out of five stars and say it's not as good as the remake, and then the remake averges to 3/5.

Still haven't picked up my Watch-a-Thon materials, since I got to the theater just as The Wild Bunch was starting last night. Next time they do this, I'm starting earlier. I've colleced a bunch of $25 flat fees but no-one willing to do even $1/movie. Reputations are dangerous, and apparently folks have figured out that I go to a lot of movies even when it's not for a good cause.

The Wild Bunch

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 January 2007 at the Brattle Theater (Staff Picks 2007)

Maybe The Wild Bunch isn't quite as shockingly violent today as it was upon its first release; what Peckinpah did in 1969 was pretty close to unprecedented. But even if the amount of raw blood and guts isn't the sort of thing that challenges the boundaries of the "R" rating by todays standards of mayhem, it's still able to take the audience aback.

This is, after all, one of those movies where you have bad guys and worse guys, as opposed to good and bad, and as we watch the opening robbery of a Wells Fargo office turn into an ambush and then a bloodbath, it's far from clear which is which. The robbers are thieves, after all, and the one guarding the hostages is a real creep, but the railroad detectives and bounty hunters staking the place out are all too willing to shoot first and ask steal the boots off the corpses later; it's no wonder that Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), the former member of the gang the the railroad has dragooned into helping catch them, spends most of his time feeling like he's on the wrong side.

Maybe he is, and maybe he isn't. It soon becomes pretty clear that the gang's leader Pike Bishop (William Holden) isn't terribly attached to anybody in his gang, except maybe Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), and will sacrifice them without batting an eye. Indeed, leaving one ember behind for the law to pick up seemed to be his plan. None of the gang are completely amoral, though - especially Angel (Jaime Sanchez), who is looking for a way to defend his village - and both in between and amid the violence, the audience has to keep eye out for which individuals have personal moral codes, and how willing they are to cross those lines. Age and experience are a factor, although not always in the same way: Pike and Dutch have made it to middle age by eschewing the sentimentality that Angel carries around, but their brand of pragmatism doesn't wear so well on the younger members.

William Holden and Robert Ryan are seldom less than riveting on-screen. Their characters share a bond of respect and betrayal that unites them so strongly and sets them up as clear counterpoints that it's easy to miss that the only scene they have together is a flashback - and that scene was left on the cutting room floor when the film was originally released. Holden makes Pike appear tired, recognizing that he has to adapt to changing times and showing the strain, even though he's generally able to handle it. Ryan's Deke seems more active, but less willing to be flexible. There's impatience and contempt in his every expression. He's resigned to his lot, but always looks like the only reason he doesn't kill the idiot he's dealing with is that he knows what prison is like.

Full review at HBS.

Good stuff. Pity that there's no HD-DVD version of the snazzy two-disc DVD set that just came out; I'd be all over that. No excuse for that, Warner - I've seen and loved the spiffy Robin Hood, Forbidden Planet and Casablanca sets too much to not demand them going forward.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Vacation (and since) catch-up

New Year's Resolution: To at least put these placeholders in where I can, especially during the upcoming Brattle Movie-Watch-a-Thon, so that people can tell exactly how much they hall be generously giving to the Brattle Theater. Drop me a line if you would like to sponsor me, go hereto make a donation, and check back on a near-daily basis to see how well I'm doing.

Fair warning: I won the prize for "most movies seen" last time, a shiny iPod Shuffle that looks positively gargantuan next to this year's model and which I somehow lost between my old apartment and the bus stop. That's unlikely to happen again, since the distance between my house and the bus stop is much shorter than it was.

Children of Men

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 December 2006 at AMC Boston Common #2 (First-run)

When P.D. James's book first came out, I didn't read it, even though I was in the middle of my teenage phase of devouring every book by a writer that was featured on PBS's Mystery! and greatly enjoyed the adaptations of her Adam Dalgliesh mysteries starring Roy Marsden. I was dissuaded by a review that said it might seem like something new and different to James's mystery fans, but was nothing science fiction fans hadn't seen a million times before.

Seeing the movie, that still bugs a little - the genre snob in me thinks that, absent a convincing explanation, the story is relegated to anything-goes fantasy. I'm still not generally interested in dark, everything-has-gone-to-hell futures, but that's in part because they're seldom as convincing and well-thought-out as the one in Children of Men, with equal parts people going through the motions of daily life to try and maintain normality as long as possible in case things get better, striking out violently because there's little future to lose (and that somehow makes life cheap rather than precious), and giving in to despair. Too often, filmmakers will emphasize only one of these things, or push into parody, but this one really feels like some thought has been given to what the end of the world is like.

It would have been nice to have more Julianne Moore and Michael Caine and maybe a little less Clive Owen. Owen arguably does a good job relating the depressed tenor of the world around him, but given that his character is chosen to be the central figure, I would have liked to see evidence that he was a little more substantial.

The Good German

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 December 2006 at AMC Harvard Square #4 (First-run)

You can see Steven Soderbergh having fun with this movie. I strongly suspect that when it comes out on home video, the commentary will reveal that every shot is an homage to something else, from the retro-style opening credits to shots that painstakingly create the composition of 1940s newsreel footage. The movie poster is a pastiche of Casablanca and the film uses more than a bit of its plot, although it probably cribs even more from The Third Man.

And that's fun, in a way, and I'm willing to forgive that The Good German doesn't quite live up to its obvious inspirations. It feels just a little bit cobbled together - a narrative film from the 1940s doesn't look quite like a newsreel from the same era, and the jump between styles can be a bit jarring. The relay-race structure of the film is handled pretty well, and might work a bit better for someone who went in without the notion of George Clooney being the star: The middle segment is his, but Tobey Maguire and Cate Blanchett each have a turn at pushing the other two to supporting-character status.

Clooney and Soderbergh remain one of Hollywood's most enjoyable pairings, and they (along with Maguire and Blanchett) frequently manage to raise the film past the level of being a technical exercise. Too often, though, the film is just a little too chilly.

The Rules of the Game (La Règle de Jeu)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 December 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements)

Rules of the Game is a very French comedy of manners, centered around the idea that different groups have different ideas of what proper manners are. That a marquis has a mistress is less scandalous, it would appear, than his wife having a platonic male friend. Different rules seem to be in place among the servants, although the closer they are to the guests at the marquis's party, the more they try to play by those rules.

Jean Renoir juggles a large cast of characters, aristocracy and servants, men and women, all romantics in their own way. He starts the movie out witty and genteel, then keeps pushing things a little farther, and then just a little more, until the final act when things have spun raucously out of control. A movie that starts with understated wit expands into broad physical comedy by the end. But even as it gets more silly, it casts a more jaundiced eye on how frivolous things are. There's pathos in Gaston Modot's gamekeeper, even if he seems the most buffoonish character.

Forbidden Planet

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 January 2007 in Jay's New And Improved Living Room (HD-DVD)

Somehow, I've missed this up until now, although I gather it will likely show up at the Sci-Fi marathon this year. I bought it in part because I was infatuated with my new HD-DVD player and thus was buying almost anything that looked interesting, much like I did when DVD was new ten years ago. The HD-DVD was a pretty good investment.

The movie is famously taken in part from The Tempest - an exiled nobleman, his daughter who has never had contact with the outside world, an assistant of incredible power - but it works in a good dose of classic sci-fi. In fact, it's one of the best-looking sci-fi films ever made, especially taking its time period into consideration. It's a clear influence on Star Trek, and some of the environments are as impressive as the ones George Lucas would come up with for Star Wars.

Leslie Nielsen as the young, square-drawed captain is great fun for those of us who really only know him from his spoofing of such roles. Anne Francis is cheerfully oblivious in a series of ever-shorter dresses, and Walter Pidgeon imperious as Doctor Morbius. They're the exact same characters you expect to see in a bad fifties sci-fi movie, but everything around them is higher quality than you'd otherwise expect.

The Good Shepherd

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 January 2007 at Regal Fenway #12 (First-run)

The couple dozen times I looked at my watch during The Good Shepherd sound pretty bad, but it's a long movie. So it's not as bad as if I'd been that bored during a seventy-eight minute movie.

There's two separate stories going on, or so it seems: The early history of the CIA as seen through the eyes of Matt Damon's Edward Bell Wilson and his own family travails. The trouble is, Wilson isn't very interesting - he does what he's told, only occasionally allowing some small trace of individuality to emerge from his bespectacled face. It's genuine, but two and a half hours is a lot of self-denial. It's a single note played over and over again.

The two threads do eventually come together at the end, along with the two time periods - the film has jumped back and forth between investigating the Bay of Pigs leak in 1961 and tracking Wilson's life to that point. The connection just isn't quite interesting enough, though; despite the time spent, Wilson's family just never becomes important enough to us for the moments that make the whole film come together to seem worth the time.

The Quiet American '58

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 January 2007 at the Brattle Theater (Staff Picks 2007)

I saw the second adaptation of Graham Greene's novel first, and I tend to think that it's the superior version: Brendan Fraser acts circles around Audie Murphy, and Michael Caine made his character pathetic in a way that Michael Redgrave just wasn't able to do. The recent version has the benefit of hindsight, as well; when this movie was released in 1958, the title character's vision of a democratic, self-governed Vietnam still seemed like a possibility.

Still, films are the product of their times and The Quiet American represents the 1950s well. There's optimistic Americans running headlong into a world that doesn't necessarily share its ideals, and being torn down by its corrupting influence. There are arrangements that look good on the surface and mask bitter dissatisfaction. Elaborate plans that hinge on deception still fool the characters and the audience even though they're laid out with a theatricality that has fallen out of favor in later films.

It's also interesting to see Vietnam as setting; the film was shot there before Kennedy started sending "advisers" over, and even if the area sometimes looks a little to clean for the period it covers (1952), there's still an authenticity that studio-based films don't quite match.

Full review at HBS.

Our Man in Havana

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 6 January 2007 at the Brattle Theater (Staff Picks 2007)

When I think of Carol Reed and Graham Greene, "funny" isn't the first adjective that comes to mind, which makes Our Man in Havana an even more pleasant surprise - it's a light-hearted Cold War romp that remains funny even as elements of genuine danger and maybe even a hint of romance creep into it. That's not a total surprise; Alec Guiness had a real knack for giving dark comedy a light touch, and he excels at it here.

It works because things start out harmless enough before escalating to absurdity. The idea that a vacuum cleaner salesman can make up an entire spy network out of nothing is the best sort of satire - amusing and seeming to arise naturally from the situation, but honestly frightening when you really stop to think about the implications. Also, Reed and company opt not to dwell on the violence that enters the picture later - it's shocking, but not explicit enough to make you regret laughing earlier or render you incapable of laughing again later.

Cat People

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 January 2007 at the Brattle Theater (Staff Picks 2007)

So... let me get this straight: I understand that premarital sex wasn't exactly the given in 1942 that it is often considered to be today. Still, I would think that at some point "I can't have sex because I honestly think I'll turn into a panther and rip you to shreds, even after we get married" would be mentioned. It's just good manners.

Credit to the film for milking a lot of atmosphere out of lighting and set design to counter a special effects budget of basically zero; it's a spiffy-looking movie with excellent use of shadows. There's not much to it, but it at least looks good.

The Most Dangerous Game

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 January 2007 at the Brattle Theater (Staff Picks 2007)

An all-time classic story made into a great movie without an ounce of fat on it. It's also a kick to see how it recycles jungle sets from King Kong; that tree over a gorge looks awful familiar. Robert Armstrong and Fay Wray are also both on-hand.

There should be more hour-long movies, maybe as part of a double feature like Grindhouse or the "iDol"/"Sukeban Boy"/"Negadon" package I saw at the last day of Fantasia last year. Making this movie longer isn't going to improve it much at all, but nobody even thinks of shooting something less than ninety minutes today.