Monday, April 23, 2007

Before BUFF, the Hot Fuzztival (et alia)

Here's the stuff I saw before going into festival-posting mode for the Boston Underground Film Festival. Hopefully I'll be able to get caught up by the time I'm seriously into festival mode again for the IFFB, but no guarantees.

Surprising: Some fairly obvious movies at the Hot Fuzztival are just not available on video right now - who would believe that Dead & Buried can be purchased, but neither Dirty Harry nor Hard-Boiled can. I've heard that The Winstein Company will be releasing either Hard-Boiled or The Killer as part of their Dragon Dynasty series, but it seems like these suckers should be available. Maybe they're about to be released in HD. That would be very nice indeed.

Also: The Most Dangerous Game, Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles

Grand Prix

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 March 2007 in Jay's Living Room (HD DVD)

Grand Prix is one part fast cars and two parts soap opera. That's not a bad recipe for a movie, although one highly dependent on the quality of the ingredients and preparation. Good thing, then, that John Frankenheimer is the chef, and he's mixing in a fine cast from around the world.

The movie starts in Monaco, where we're briefly introduced to many of the players: American Pete Aron (James Garner) and Brit Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford) drive for Jordan-BRM; Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) and Italian Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato) for Ferrari. Scott's wife Pat (Jessica Walter) is there, as is Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint), a photographer from an American fashion magazine, and Lisa (Françoise Hardy), a groupie who soon attaches herself to Nino. During the race, the Jordan-BRM team is involved in a spectacular wreck, hospitalizing Scott and getting Aron kicked off the team. He tries broadcasting for a bit, but when Japanese auto manufacturer Izo Yamura (Toshiro Mifune) offers him a a place on his team, Pete jumps at the chance. Soon Scott is back on the circuit, racing like he's fueled by bitterness and rage.

The film is just short of three hours long, and even if there weren't an intermission in the middle, it would logically divide into two halves anyway. The first half, though bookended by a pair of exceptional racing sequences, spends most of its time off the track. It's not quite an hour and a half of exposition, but the characters spend a fair chunk of it giving their life stories and making observations about each other. It's here we learn about Scott's dead brother, who was also a driver and held up as a standard that Scott can never quite meet. It's here we see romance bloom between Louise and Sarti, even though Sarti is married (the fire there is long extinguished). It's here that Pat moves away from her wounded husband and toward Pete. People picking this movie up for racing action are almost certain to get a little fidgety before by the break; for a movie that has speed as one of its draws, it moves at a deliberate pace.

Full review at HBS.

Dirty Harry

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 17 March 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Hot Fuzztival)

It was a bit odd to watch this knowing that Zodiac was playing in theaters and I'd be seeing it sometime soon. There's an obvious bit of wish-fulfillment going on here, as Clint's Harry Callahan tracks down "Scorpio", an obvious surrogate for the real Zodiac killer; some of the incidents are obvious parallels. Of course, Harry manages to cut through a lot of the frustration the real officers must have felt, with a few good action scenes thrown in.

It remains a pretty darn good cop movie, although it seems oddly subdued compared to later imitators. Harry doesn't shout, and while the character's sneer has become a popular object of parody, one can see the later Eastwood there too - even at that relatively young age, there's wisdom and world-weariness there.

The French Connection

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 March 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Hot Fuzztival)

The famous car chasing the subway, to be honest, has never been what sticks with me for this movie. It's all about watching Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle become more and more obsessed, while Fernando Rey deftly counters nearly every move with a twinkle in his eye.

It's one of the great police procedurals, set at a time when police procedure still routinely included blatant intimidation and shakedowns. It's gritty, nasty work, and Hackman makes Doyle an unpleasant protagonist, but one who is extremely compelling to watch. Director William Friedkin and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman opt to show us just the right amount of the criminal operation run by Rey's Alain Charnier and Tony Lo Bianco's Sal Boca: We see just enough for it to play as a chess match, but enough is kept hidden so that we can feel the frustration of Doyle and his partner.

Classic stuff.

Maxed Out

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 March 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Sunday Eye Opener)

There are a lot of true things said in Maxed Out, and the people it calls out deserve to get called out. I can't deny that the film accomplishes its goals: It communicates information to its audience in a clear, entertaining way. Still, anybody who has ever racked up a buch of credit card debt and lived to tell the tale can't help but notice what part director James Scurlock leaves out.

Before getting there, it is good practice to focus on what Maxed Out is versus what it is not. The film is a good primer on how credit card companies target the people least likely to pay them back in a timely fashion and then leverage their debt to create a steady but increasing income stream. When their clients fall too far behind, they package their debt as a commodity that can be sold in packages to debt collectors while lobbying politicians to make it harder to declare bankruptcy. Right now, the film points out, they've they've got a particularly sympathetic government: The Bush administration allowed MBNA to write the new bankruptcy law, appointed a credit card company executive who presided over massive fraud to a key administration position, and leads by example with massive deficit spending.

All of this is true, and Scurlock is good at putting it in front of an audience. He has knowledgeable people testify as to how the banking industry has changed (a former banker talks about how today's bank employees are expected to be salesmen, rather than investors) and also illustrates it with amusing footage from an old educational film on credit, pointing out how it was described as something to be earned in the 1950s as opposed to being given to college freshmen with a free t-shirt. He illustrates his points by building characters, whether it be the cartoonishly scummy men operating a collections company or the family devastated by their wife/mother's disappearance after the credit companies come calling.

Full review at HBS.

Hard-Boiled (Laat sau sen taan)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Hot Fuzztival)

Ah, John Woo and Chow Yun-fat at their most outrageously and maybe even grotesquely over the top. It starts out with a set of cop-movie clichés which are especially popular in Hong Kong - the dead partner, the cop (Chow) with a soulful side to complement his spectacular skill with the violence, the female superior officer on whom he has a crush, the complicated underworld dealings and betrayals. At times, a viewer might almost be tempted to snicker at how ham-fisted it is.

But is the movie saved by Woo pulling back from his excesses? Oh, no. Hard-Boiled takes it to the next level with a larger-than-life third act that has Chow Yun-fat and Tony Leung Chiu Wai infiltrating a secret triad base beneath a hospital that erupts into one of the greatest action scenes ever. There's gunfights, fires, and daring escapes out windows as SWAT teams climb the walls. It is, if one stops to think about it, entirely too much. The Triads are shooting at babies, for crying out loud... What's wrong with them? That's how well Woo plays us - they're lowering babies out windows wrapped in bullet-proof vests while the hospital burns around them and thousands of bullets fly.

Madness. But pure, delightful madness. This was Woo's last movie in Hong Kong before spending a decade in Hollywood, where he never had quite the same mojo. But in his Hong Kong heyday, man, he was something else.

The Fifth Element

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2007 in Jay's Living Room (Blu-ray)

I just got the Blu-ray Disc player and wanted to check it out, and this is the one I felt like watching when they came in. It was one of the first BD titles to come out, and partially responsible for BD's early reputation for not being as good as HD DVD. It's not that bad, although I'll certainly be sending in for the exchange once Sony Home Entertainment offers it. It looks more like a crappy print issue than anything intrinsic to getting it on disc, although that could be improved, too.

I love the movie, though, and I wish Luc Besson had done more movies like this (if he is, indeed, retired as he says). It's a fun space opera that combines French and American influences seamlessly (it seems much more like a Humanoids album than anything from America at times, but Bruce Willis is much more likable than the typical Jodorowsky protagonist). It's gorgeously designed, and opts for bright colors rather than the slick blacks that have infected American sci-fi. It follows the Besson template of rugged hero, almost childlike girl, and psychotic villain to a T, but it's a system that works for him.

And, yes, I love Chris Tucker in this movie. Comedian/actors must dream of roles where they have the opportunity to riff in character like Tucker does here, and the interaction between his hyperactive Ruby Rhod and Willis's irritated Korben Dallas is priceless.

Zodiac

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2007 at AMC Boston Common #11 (Hot Fuzztival)

I am so glad that this wound up not being Seven.

Understand, I loved Seven, although it's one I've put off buying on DVD for a couple reasons - the original DVD had to be flipped, for one, and it's like Schindler's List in that I wasn't sure I was interested in putting myself through that kind of dark intensity many more times. But as good as Seven was, I didn't want to see Fincher doing another serial killer movie. He's a talented filmmaker, and has much more in him than serial killer movies. It's sad to see a director backed into a niche because he doesn't feel he can survive out of it, whether it be commercially or artistically.

So I was very glad to see that Zodiac was something very different. It's brighter, for one - Zodiac is an intruder into the generally pleasant 1970s California landscape (though Harry Callahan may disagree on that) while John Doe seemed like something that the would be inevitably born from the urban decay of Seven's unnamed metropolis. Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt also get the lure of puzzles, and it lets us approach the task of finding the killer with a little excitement.

That's crucial, because it means we don't quite notice when Jake Gyllenhaal's Robert Graysmith and company cross the line from dogged, noble pursuit to unhealthy obsession. It may be a personal thing for each person in the audience - I know I, for one, found myself still sympathizing with Graysmith for some time after people were telling him to let it drop; he's got hold of a tantalizing mystery and feels he can help, even if, in retrospect, he's gone of the deep end. Well done, there.

Letting the audience decide when Graysmith has gone too far may go hand in hand with different people being quite ready for it to end at different times. After a certain point, we're all with the film in terms of Graysmith being awfully far gone, and after that, each moment of him obsessing over the Zodiac without making much forward progress wears on us. We're ready for the film to end, but it's a story that spans decades, and Fincher doesn't seem to want to step ahead too far at once. I was more than a little worn out by the end.

Dead & Buried

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 March 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Hot Fuzztival)

I was going to write a full review, since there doesn't seem to be one on HBS, but writing the BUFF stuff and a few other things has given the details for this the chance to fall out of my head. Plus, it seemed like we saw a pretty cruddy print, no matter how much that other guy in the theater thought it was supposed to be that red.

It's a quality horror movie, with plenty of bloody action, a creepy mystery, and some pretty enjoyable performances. It's part of the Hot Fuzztival series because of how James Farentino's sheriff approaches what seems to be a zombie/slasher infestation with solid police work, even as his wife seems to be looking suspicious.

I liked it quite a bit; I'm tempted to pick up the DVD, just to see if it's really supposed to be that red.

1 comment:

FearScene said...

Glad to hear that someone who liked Seven also liked Zodiac. I've heard from too many people that they wished Zodiac had stayed closer to the Seven level of darkness and intensity than it did. I, for one, liked Seven -- but I didn't want to see another Seven in Zodiac.