Saturday, March 24, 2007

Boston Underground Film Festival Friday Night: The 4th Life

The MBTA somehow knows when I'm trying to get someplace by a specific time, and responds by slowing their bus service down to a crawl. I honestly thought that two and a half hours would be enough time to run an errand between getting out of work at 5pm and the start of Dante's Inferno at 7:30pm. Apparently, not the case.

So, just the one film last night instead of two. I'll be trying to make up for it today with a program of shorts, When is Tomorrow, Urban Explorers, The Hamster Cage, and Viva. Tight fit between Urban Explorers and The Hamster Cage, especially since the short before the latter is only two minutes long and they're at different theaters, but I've handled tighter at other festivals

The 4th Life

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 March 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival IX)

The funny thing about The 4th Life is that for a film that is having its North American premiere at an "Underground Film Festival", there's arguably a pretty conventional film inside it, yearning to break free. Whether by temperment or budget, director François Miron makes something that feels bizarre and unreal, but that's what works for him.

Right now, Marie March (Janet Lane) is married to an antique dealer about to go under, and although she doesn't love him nearly as much as he loves her, she's well aware things could be worse. Her husband has heard of a collection for sale in far-off Darckeville, so she hops a freight train (passenger trains and buses to that area were just discontinued) and makes her way out. Meanwhile, Caz (Andrea Sheldon) is breaking out of an asylum for the criminally insane along with her brain-damaged brother George (Tod Fennell). Caz and Marie were lovers in the past, and having one's crazy, homicidal lover on the loose is never a good thing.

The plot is not quite conventional, but unlike a lot of filmmakers who work beyond the fringes of mainstream film, François Miron does concentrate on his story. He uses flashbacks well, illustrating the history Marie and Caz share so that we're clear where everybody whenever that information is going to be useful. Nothing ever seems to happen without a good reason, and the plentiful strange events seldom seem to simply be the result of a whim. The climactic scenes are fairly tight and suspenseful, so often a weakness among arty filmmakers.

Full review at HBS.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Boston Underground Film Festival Opening Night: American Stag

First, I'd like to note that I've got a review up on HBS for Maxed Out. It'll show up in the blog next week, along with the Hot Fuzztival and HD/BD viewings that surrounded it.

First night of the Boston Underground Film Festival last night. It's definitely a laid-back atmosphere - the festival started with the Alloy Orchestra accompanying silent adult movies, programmers Kevin Monahan and Anna Feder joked with the audience when there were early technical issues, and later tossed a vibrator into the audience as a door prize (hey, they're a festival sponsor).

There was also a short film, "Beyond the Pearly Gates of Ill-Repute", that fit with the theme of the night quite well - it was silent, a bit risqué, and funny.

Today's plan: Work, then Dante's Inferno and The 4th Life. Hopefully I'll be able to get screeners of some of the stuff I'll miss, because End of the Line looks pretty darn good (but has already been reviewed for HBS/EFC), and Bulldog in the White House looks agreeably bizarre.

American Stag

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 March 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival IX)

No matter what the subject, apparently, it's possible to say things were better before everything went commercial. At least, that's the case made by American Stag, which has its eye not on the modern porn film, but on the blue movies made up until about 1968, when the courts ruled that film was protected by the First Ammendment.

After all, as soon as something is legal, it's ripe for commercial exploitation. Before this, American Stag tells us, blue movies - called "stag pictures" or "smokers" because of how they were exhibited in the smoke-filled, men-only rooms in V.F.W. halls or Elks' lodges where "stag parties" were held - were generally the work of amateurs. They were shot on consumer 8mm or 16mm equipment, were seldom more than one reel in length, and produced in almost complete anonymity due to their questionable legality. Even well into the sound era, they were frequently silent films.

And, based upon what director Benjamin Meade shows us, kind of charming. Production values weren't that great, and the people involved tended to be ordinary people, with original-issue breasts, pasty skin, excess hair and all. The staging and camera work isn't sophisticated, but there is the sense of people having fun, telling a story and having sex because they enjoy it. Certainly, not everyone will agree with this assessment - Meade has fun juxtaposing a female film historian discussing how they were disgusting and even worse when interracial pairings were involved with a male one saying they could be considered educational (where else were men going to learn new ways to please their partners at the time?) and, hey, they were integrated when people of different skin colors couldn't even hold hands in commercial film. Admittedly, there' s no real response to the charge that these films presented rape as good fun.

Full review at HBS.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Across Asia: Sha Po Lang, I Live in Fear, and The Namesake

Not much time before I head for the Boston Underground Film Festival, so here's some movie reviews, including one for Puzzlehead, which I saw waaaay back during the SF marathon.

Sha Po Lang (aka Kill Zone)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 March 2007 in Jay's Living Room (upconverted DVD)

Sha Po Lang (even if I don't understand the astrological reference, it still makes more sense to me than the generic title The Weinstein Company have used to sell the movie) is an impressive movie, no question. It's a fine example of the slick neo-noir style exemplified by Infernal Affairs, but that's not quite what I was expecting. I was drawn in by the promise of action, so imagine my surprise when the stuff in between the punching and kicking wasn't just filling time, but the basis for what would be a pretty decent crime movie without the martial arts.

Remember: When Jackie Chan first started alternating between Hollywood and Hong Kong, he commented in an interview how much more focus American movies placed on story compared to his usual work... and this was in response to working on Rush Hour, of all things. So finding a story that twists and turns a bit and uses a little subtlety in the middle of an expected beat 'em up is a pleasant surprise.

The story's not that complicated: Detective Chan-Kwok Chung (Simon Yam) wants to put gangster Wong Po (Sammo Hung) away in the worst way: Three years ago, Po was let off after a witness Chung was guarding was murdered by Po's men. Chung adopted the witness's daughter, but the attack left him with a tumor that could kill him at any time. He formed a team of young detectives who weren't afraid to break the rules if it meant taking down organized crime. Days before retiring and handing his team over to Inspector Ma Kwan (Donnie Yen), he's delivered evidence that is enough to put Po away for life... if they tamper with it a bit, intimidate a witness, and dispose of the man who actually delivered the killshot. Which, as one might imagine, is the sort of thing that earns them visits from Jack (Wu Jing), Po's best assassin.

Full review at HBS.

I Live in Fear (Ikimono no Kiroku)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 March 2007 at the Harvard Film Archive (Cold War Films)

My most recent viewing of I Live in Fear was as part of a double feature with Godzilla during a series on films of the Cold War. It's an apt pairing, as both tackle, in their own way, the fear of the atomic bomb - an anxiety which Japan would of course feel especially strongly. Where the other film makes nuclear destruction into a tangible monster to fight, I Live in Fear spends its time on how we deal with the real one.

Dr. Harada (Takashi Shimura) must ponder the question of how much time people should spend worrying about the atomic bomb. A dentist by trade, he is also respected enough for family courts to use him as a mediator, and his latest case is an unusual one - the family of Kiichi Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune) is suing to have him declared incompetent. Over the past year, he has become so obsessed with the idea of nuclear war that he first spent millions of yen to build an underground bunker to his family to move into, then, deciding that was not safe enough, hatched a plan to move the lot (including the children fathered with a series of mistresses) to Brazil. Since he is willing to trade the family business that supports them all, they feel they have no other recourse.

In retrospect, the idea seems crazy, but what makes the film compelling is that Harada is able to see the sanity in the elder Nakajima's actions. Everyone he talks to admits to being frightened of the atomic bomb, but, they say, there's nothing that they can do about it, so worrying does little good. But if Nakajima can do something about it, isn't he obligated to? Harada spends most of the film as an observer, sometimes thrashing the case around with his son, and Takashi Shimura does a fine job of showing Harada's growing sympathy for Nakajima without going over the edge into madness himself.

Full review at HBS.

Godzilla (Gojira)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 14 March 2007 at the Harvard Film Archive (Cold War Films)

Kid of a weird screening - the HFA didn't get the first reel of the film, so they showed twenty minutes from a DVD before switching over to 35mm.

Still the greatest monster movie ever made, though. No matter how many times I see it, I'm still impressed by what a somber film it is - it's hard to believe that it could spawn the franchise it did. Don't get me wrong, I love movies like Godzilla Mothra King Ghidorah: Giant Monster All Out Attack! (heck, I just like names like Godzilla Mothra King Ghidorah: Giant Monster All Out Attack!), but this is a movie with real heft to it.

The Namesake

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 March 2007 at the Brattle Theater (preview)

In an era of previews that give every event in the film away, the promos for The Namesake have been pleasantly deceptive. To see the advertising, one would think that the film centers around Kal Penn's character, and how his and his parents don't see eye to eye about his unusual name or white girlfriend. That's there, but it's only part of the movie, and the preview cuts pieces from opposite ends of the film together to give the story a very different shape.

Indeed, Penn's Gogol Ganguli isn't even born until about a half-hour into the movie, and isn't grown until nearly halfway through. The first scene introduces us to his father, Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan), who is wiling away a long train ride by reading a book by Nikolai Gogol as the guy in the next seat tells him he should see the world in person, rather than through books. There's a loud noise, a glimpse of a recuperating Ashoke, and then we meet Ashima (Tabu), whose parents are arranging a marriage between the two. They come to New York, and though it's a difficult adjustment for Ashima, they do well for themselves, moving to the suburbs where they raise two children, Gogol and Sonia (Sahira Nair). The kids are thoroughly assimilated Americans, and Gogol especially chafes at his odd name and family traditions. After finishing college, he tends to spend more time with the family of his girlfriend Maxine (Jacinda Barrett) than his own. They, of course, have found a nice Bengali girl (Zuleikha Robinson) for him.

The first half of the movie belongs to Khan and Tabu, both popular actors in India but nearly unknown in the United States. It's intriguing to watch them get used to each other and their new country in the first half-hour, as the color and beauty of their wedding ceremony serves as a sharp contrast to wintry New York. The way they grow closer out of familiarity and raising children together is understated yet beautiful, from the way Ashima appears stiff the first time Ashoke touches her to how they can't conceive of being separated the first time he leaves her for any great length of time, over twenty-five years later. Both actors play the characters from start to end, with aging accompanied by very good make-up jobs. Tabu's performance is especially strong at the center of the film; Ashima does many of the things such a character is expected to do without becoming a cliché, and there's a very real balance between her curiosity about America and her nervousness at confronting it. I like how she never quite seems to embrace her new life, seeming much more at ease on her back to India. Khan is very good, too, aging more visibly over the course of the film, showing Ashoke as sometimes frustrated that he doesn't quite seem to bond with his son as he'd like to, but almost always flawless in his scenes with Tabu.

Full review at HBS.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

New Stuff: Starter for 10, Black Snake Moan, The Wind That Shakes the Barley

New Stuff

A few years ago, there was a middling film called The Baxter that told a romantic comedy from the point of view of the Other Guy - you know, the one the female lead is dating/engaged to who has nothing wrong with him, but just isn't exciting enough for her.

Watching Starter for 10, I wonder about the possibility of the coming-of-age film told from the point of view of the Obviously Pretty Girl - the one played here by Alice Eve, who is blonde and busty but, of course, not nearly as cool as the smart brunette who is fairly pretty herself. Starter for 10 does a better job than usual in making the Obviously Pretty Girl a fun character in her own right, but it strikes me that there's got to be some fun way to turn the cliché on its head.

Starter for 10

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 March 2007 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (preview)

There is almost nothing in Starter for 10 which isn't somewhat familiar from nearly every coming of age film ever made: The dorky yet kind of good looking narrator, the awkward parents, the weird friends, the obviously pretty girl and the cooler (but also pretty) girl. You can see what's coming a mile away. That's not exactly a bad thing; it just means the movie has to make up for its lack of creativity with execution, and it does all right there.

The dorky narrator is Brian Jackson (James McAvoy), a bloke from Essex starting at Bristol College. He meets Rebecca Epstein (Rebecca Hall) at a "tarts and vicars" party his first night there, and then meets Alice Harbinson (Alice Eve) when they both sign up for the "University Challenge" team (he remembers random facts, she wants to be on television). Alice proves impossible to resist, and even though a Christmas break spent at her family's cottage shows he's more interested in her than vice versa, it's not quite so simple to jump to the other girl.

It's pretty obvious where all this is going, so it's important that the getting there be enjoyable. It is, mostly because writer David Nicholls has provided the cast with a bunch of amusing characters to play. Aside from the main three, there's Dominic Cooper and James Corden as Spencer and Tone, Brian's friends from back home who are worried about university making him a complete wanker; Spencer is in the leather jacket and too cool for the room while Tone is the excitable one in the jean jacket. Patrick (Benedict Cumberbatch) is precisely the sort of wanker they're talking about, a Challenge-obsessed grad student who freezes up on camera and is more than a bit of an upper-class snob. That Brian is better at this than him confuses Nigel, and he tends to respond with a hilarious blank stare. The students' parents are also a stitch: Catherine Tate is charmingly maternal as Brian's mother, with John Henshaw as the ice cream man she's taken up with. Charles Dance and Lindsay Duncan are Alice's parents, bohemian types who insist on being called by their first names and who completely fail to understand Brian's dorky pop-culture jokes - vacation goes straight to hell after the inevitable Graduate reference. And then there's the guy at every party who just got back from India...

Full review at HBS.

Black Snake Moan

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 March 2007 at AMC Fenway #4 (first-run)

Craig Brewer has my respect - this is his second film in a row that has delivered more than I expected. That's impressive, really - after all, not only does his new film have a couple of actors I like in Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci, but it's the new film from the maker of Hustle & Flow. Anyone who can get me to like a movie about a pimp trying to make it as a rapper is going to have high expectations the next time around.

This time, Brewer gives us a couple of people with self-control trouble. Rae (Ricci) is a nymphomaniac, collapsing with sexual need as soon as her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) is out of sight on the way to his hitch in the National Guard; she's soon looking for relief from others. Lazarus (Jackson) is a farmer who used to be a blues singer. His wife has just left him for his best friend - whom Lazarus nearly kills in a fit of temper when they meet up in a bar. Their paths collide when a messed-up Rae laughs at the wrong guy's manhood and his response is to beat her and leave her for dead near Lazarus's front door. Lazarus nurses her back to health, but is determined to cure more than her cough and bruises - even if that means chaining her to his radiator.

The movie's set-up promises exploitation, and there's no shortage of shots that would make good pulp-magazine covers, as those who've seen its advertising will attest. Brewer spends some time delivering on that promise, too, with Jackson howling about getting right with God and the camera tracing every inch of Ricci's curvy, barely-dressed body as she practically sweats sex. You want the Angry Black Man and the Wanton White (Trash) Woman, you've got it. Or at least you do on the surface; the film's not about race at all. It just uses the strong emotional response race can create to get off to a running start. It's the same with the sex; the audience that hoots a little at Rae falling down to pleasure herself even as Ronnie drives away may look back on that scene and see more despair than sex appeal.

Full review at HBS.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 March 2007 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye Opener)

There's a school of thought that says that every conflict comes down to economics at some level - the haves pushing around the have-nots and the have-nots rebelling. There's a certain amount of truth to this thinking, but taking it too literally can make for some relatively dry entertainment. Ken Loach's interest in presenting Ireland's fight against the British Empire in the 1920s as a fundamentally socialist rebellion - or at least, one that should have been - saps a little life from the film's last act. Not all, or even most of it, but the abstract nature of the conflict makes it somewhat less powerful than it could be.

It's a shame, because the film is, at its heart, a story about brothers, and squandering even the least bit of their role reversal is a shame. As the film starts, Cillian Murphy's Damien is apolitical; he's studied to be a doctor and is about to travel to a London hospital for his internship. Padraic Delaney's Teddy is not; he's in with the IRA. A front-row seat to various abuses by British and mercenary troops - a friend is beaten to death after refusing to give his name in English, his train's driver is arrested for following his union's edict not to transport armed troops - he joins up. Being a soldier in a secret army has its costs, though: Sometimes, you have to kill Irish as well as English; sometimes you can only hide and watch as troops burn your beloved's family home. And you may not agree on when victory can be declared.

Loach and the writer, Paul Laverty, make the audience work a bit in the early going. Teddy and Damien aren't introduced as brothers, and it's some time before they're revealed as such. The Irish accents are also laid on rather thick in the first twenty minutes or so - one audience member wished for subtitles, and it took me a moment to realize that the man killed early in the film was in fact speaking Gaelic rather than heavily accented English. I'm glad Loach (and the film's American distributor) chose not to use subtitles, as has occasionally been done when the accent is thick and the dialect working-class; soon enough my ear was trained. I suspect the accents were deliberately thicker in the early going to highlight the contrast between the two sides; once that was done, they back off a bit with a few exceptions (mostly older characters).

Full review at HBS.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Odd lots

I did something kind of dumb last month, waiting for my bank to send me a new ATM card by the end of the month rather than calling them and saying, hey, I need to be able to access my money in March. When I finally got around to it, I found out that they had sent one of the new RFID-enabled ones to my old apartment last year, only to have it returned to sender. So I went into this weekend, when movies that I actually wanted to see were coming out, somewhat cash-poor. Indeed, when I was through grocery shopping on Sunday, I found myself thinking that seeing The Devil's Backbone at the HFA Saturday night was an extravagance.

It's given me the excuse to finally watch some of the DVDs I've been accumulating. So did this article on HBS about John Carpenter - to which I ironically contributed a couple lines about how Carpenter doesn't give home video the slightest thought when shooting a movie.

The Thing

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2007 in Jay's Living Room (HD DVD)

I've really got no excuse for not having seen this before, other than not renting many movies. I've seen The Thing from Another World, I've probably read "Who Goes There" at some point, and I've got the nasty-looking toys Todd MacFarlane made in one of his Movie Maniacs lines (I'd actually purchased a box and distributed the extra Ashes and Snake Plisskens to Matt and Justin). And with the fuss it took to get this movie properly in my home - Deep Discount DVD initially sent me the regular DVD when I'd ordered the HD version, and by the time I'd sent it back, postage had eaten up any savings I would have seen from just buying it on Amazon - you'd think I would have watched it just to claim victory.

Ah, well. At least I did get around to it. John Carpenter's take on this story is the rare horror movie that is both gleefully disgusting and full of genuine tension. It starts with a nifty shot of the Thing's flying saucer which could be lifted directly from a fifties monster movie and then jumps to the present with an opening scene that seems both off-kilter and desperate at the same time, with a Norwegian helicopter desperately trailing and attempting to kill a beautiful dog. The American outpost where they wind up doesn't know what to make of it, yet. They soon will, though, as the Thing first finishes of the other dogs and then starts to work on them, duplicating its victims and taking on bizarre, alien forms when it's caught and has to escape.

That's when the gross stuff starts, and it's a blast. The special effects department gets to be very creative, coming up with all manner of ways to mutilate the human (and canine) body to create a number of grotesqueries. It quite frequently made me cry out in shock and revulsion, even as a part of me was delighted at the design sense - the biology looks good. Still, the effect that probably made me jump the most was one of the simplest, as alien blood leaps from its petri dish upon sensing a threat.

Great stuff, and a potent reminder of how right the article on HBS was - this is nitty-gritty genre filmmaking without anything wasted. It's not today's style, but it gets the audience to the edge of its seat. It also shows just why John Carpenter deserves every second chance we give him - he's got movies this great in him.

The Devil's Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 March 2007 at the Harvard FIlm Archive (The Spanish Civil War on Film)

This is kind of embarrassing. The Devil's Backbone is a fantastic movie, and yet twice during the past year I've been certain I haven't seen it. I picked up the DVD when Tower was blowing DVDs out a few months ago, and then a week ago I decided to go see it at the Harvard Film Archive, even though I really shouldn't have been spending the money, for much the same reason. And then, as I did so, I found each scene familiar, soon realizing that I had, in fact, seen it on its U.S. release.

How does one forget seeing a movie like this? Makes no sense.

The Secret Life of Words

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 March 2007 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

One of the people I saw The Secret Life of Words with described it as a "feel-bad movie", which isn't quite fair: Hope does occasionally manage to crack its dour nature. Its goals are, I think, a little more abstract than making the audience feel good or feel bad; writer/director Isabel Coixet seems to be more interested in the difference between feeling and not feeling at all.

"Not feeling" is represented by Hanna (Sarah Polley), a Balkan refugee who has been quietly working at a silk plant in England for the past four years without a sick day or vacation. Indeed, her boss insists she take a month off, lest the other employees think their jobs are in danger if they don't meet her example. A seaside holiday doesn't bring her any pleasure, though, so when she overhears a man at a nearby table talking on the phone about the difficulty of hiring a nurse to tend a patient on an oil rig, she immediately offers her services. That patient is Josef (Tim Robbins), who feels far too much, thanks to severe burns from an accident that killed his friend.

Hanna and Josef are both damaged people, in a very literal sense: Hanna's hearing is severely impaired (she won't discuss how other than to say she wasn't born that way. On top of the burns, Josef was blinded by his accident. It will, of course, be some time before they tell us what has hurt them emotionally; Hanna won't even respond truthfully to Josef's most innocent questions, even to the point of revealing her name.

Full review at HBS.

Tears of the Black Tiger (Fah Talai Jone)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 March 2007 at Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run)

When I saw Wisit Sasanatieng's Citizen Dog at the Montreal Fantasia festival last year, the introduction included a fair-sized rant on how Miramax had done a major disservice to people in North America who like movies by keeping his debut in limbo for five years or so. I can't disagree - how many movie-lovers have died or lost their vision while Miramax spent years trying to figure out how to market it, trying to fit it into a schedule, or just plain ignoring it before giving up and selling the rights to Magnolia? How can they begin to apologize to those people?

I exaggerate, of course, but this is the sort of movie that inspires grandiose statements. I have heard it described as a "Thai Western", but that is a woefully incomplete description. I can best approximate the experience by saying that it is like an old-fashioned Western fused with a Wong Kar-wai period romance, but with heaping helpings of Raimi-esque splatstick and Tarantinoid genre awareness. But that makes it sound like some sort of disjointed imitation, when it's not. It's a Wisit Sasanatieng film, with all the colorful environments, comedy tinged with melancholy, and fantasy that will eventually imply as he grows in fame.

The story has a straightforward love triangle at its heart - Rumpoey (Stella Malucchi) is soon to be engaged to police captain Kumjorn (Arawat Ruangvuth), but is none too happy about it, for she has loved Dum (Chartchai Ngamsan) ever since they were children, even though her father was a successful businessman and his a mere peasant. What she does not know is that Dum is The Black Tiger- a gunslinger working for Fai (Sobat Metanee), the province's worst bandit, whom Kumjorn has vowed to capture.

Full review at HBS.

Hellboy: The Sword of Storms

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 March 2007 in Jay's Living Room (direct-to-video)

I'm in for all the Hellboy I can get. In some ways, I actually like the adaptations better than the original comics, because Mignola gothic style (which the newer artists on Hellboy and B.P.R.D. have taken up) sometimes obscures what a fun group of characters he's created. The animation style for Sword of Storms is very different from both the comics and Guillermo del Toro's movie, but it works just fine for this story which takes Hellboy to Japan and then a strange spirit world. There are monsters to be slain and adventures to be had, and Tad Stones packs his 77-minute movie full of fun.

That said, I already know I'm going to miss David Hyde Pierce as the voice of Abe Sapien in the next movie; Doug Jones just isn't the same. Still, I think I liked Selma Blair more this way, and Peri Giplin is a great call as B.P.R.D. bookworm Kate Corrigan. I also wonder if Liz's repeated line that water is not her element suggests they're looking to eventually bring in Johan and Roger. I hadn't really looked at the B.P.R.D. crew that way, but they do sort of make up the four elements - Liz is fire, Abe is water, homunculus Roger is earth, disembodied psychic Johan is air.

At least, it seems they're thinking along those lines, even if the characters don't seem to appear in Blood & Iron, either. Hopefully that means they're planning on doing a lot of these.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Academy Awards Weekend

Not that I did a whole lot of Oscar-oriented stuff to get ready for the ceremony. I saw The Last King of Scotland, which was very good, but that was as much about seeing movies at two AMC theaters on the same day as it was about cramming for the awards show.

Not that there was a whole lot of need for that. The top four awards (Picture, Director, Actor, and Actress) were pretty easy to guess; no matter how much the guy who used to cover movies for MTV talked about how many surprises we had seen, the last four were going to go pretty much as expected. I did like Will Ferrell's and Jack Black's song about how comedians don't get any respect, and as much as I preferred Letters From Iwo Jima to The Departed, I think the reaction to Eastwood beating Scorcese for the second time in three years would have been ugly.

Although The Departed winning best adapted screenply - crap. The writer took one of the leanest, most exciting suspense films in recent years and (a) compacted the two girlfriends unnecessarily, (b) added two or three extra police characters that brought nothing to the film (well, other than (d)), (c) thought it would be really clever to make Jack Nicholson's character a thinly-veiled Whitey Bulger, and (d) inserted approximately two thousand instances of the words "fuck", "cocksucker", and their various adjective/gerund forms. I won't say that every good thing in the movie came from Infernal Affairs, but every good thing in the screenplay did.

Well, that was crankier than truly necessary. I suppose it's like the thing with Trail of the Screaming Forehead last week - it didn't truly upset me at the time, but the more I think about it, the more it chafes.

The Astronaut Farmer

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 February 2007 at Regal Fenway #8 (first-run)

The Astronaut Farmer, on the other hand, grows on me the more I think about it. It's a big, warm fuzzy hug of a movie, aimed straight at families in a way that's tough to describe without being dismissive: It has high ideals about the importance of dreaming big and pulling together for a common goal that it articulates plainly, and an adult moviegoer might dismiss this as unsophisticated if not for the kids in the next row who are dilligently absorbing it the way they should at that age. But it's also not really about kids, and is very true in how its adults act, how they can be cynical or immature or mean, and there's a good argument to be made that Billy Bob Thornton's Charles Farmer is hugely irresponsible in how he tries to achieve his dream. You almost need to be in that kind of family setting to truly appreciate its different facets, and that's fascinating.

The Polish Brothers are playing with some pretty potent stuff in terms of technique, too. There's a scene in the middle of the film, almost dead-center, that plays like it would be a dream sequence in most movies, the sort of thing where the character wakes up and thinks, well, I'd better make sure that doesn't happen. But it goes on until the audience realizes that this is actually happening, and that's sort of a weird sensation. It's also quietly anti-authoritarian while still allowing us to like the civil servants who carry out the orders of an overzealous government: The FBI agents assigned to watch the Farmers are genial enough fellows, while Bruce Willis's completely uncredited cameo as an astronaut who trained with Farmer, once upon a time, makes him worthy of our respect even as he tells Farmer why this can't happen (and that, yeah, NASA is kind of messed up).

That's something their previous film, Northfork, did very well, although it and The Astronaut Farmer are almost literally night and day. The Polishes get some dazzling footage of New Mexico doubling for Texas; indeed, the film opens with the surreal image of an astronaut on horseback against a beautiful red sunrise. There's a real affection for small-town America in this film - the room to breathe, the eccentrics it produces, and the practical people like Virginia Madsen's Audie who hold it together.

The Last King of Scotland

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 February 2007 at AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run)

Forest Whitaker has this movie more or less handed to him. The story, of course, is about James MacAvoy's brash young doctor who goes to Africa for the wrong reasons and is swept up by Idi Amin's charisma; it opens with him leaving home and ends when his story is finished, leaving us to learn about Amin's later life in text. But Whitaker plays Amin so well that just as in real life, he's always the most captivating figure in the room. MacAvoy, charming as he is, doesn't have a chance.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 February 2007 at AMC Harvard Square #1 (first-run)

Breach is an actors' piece in the form of a procedural. It's got an intriguing story, and those who love cat and mouse games will probably get a real kick out of the scenes in the center of the movie where the FBI tries to gather evidence on a mole who is better at counter-intelligence than any of them. But even as you're watching that, the first thing that catches your notice is Chris Cooper and how he's doing some fantastic acting.

Part of what makes it so good is that this character would be well worth watching even if he wasn't a mole. If he was just an brilliant but abrasive man who took his religion far more to heart than is fashionable for many Americans, he'd still draw the audience's attention. We're never really given a motive for his treason other than pure ego, although what more do we really need? Cooper's not alone in the great acting, though - Laura Linney also does a great job in grabbing the audience in her relatively limited screen time, all-business to the point of not existing outside the Bureaui; with her and Cooper's Robert Hanssen as dueling mentors, it's no wonder Ryan Philippe often looks like he sees no future but misery as an agent. The supporting cast is filled with people who have been convincing leads in other projects - Gary Cole and Dennis Haysbert as fellow agents, Caroline Dhavernas and Kathleen Quinlan as the wives of Philippe and Cooper, respectively.