Thursday, October 25, 2007

Boston Fantastic Film Festival: ­Exiled

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

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

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

Exiled (Fong Juk)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also at HBS.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Boston Fantastic Film Festival: ­Murder Party

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

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

Murder Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also at HBS.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Boston Fantastic Film Festival: ­Mercy

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boston Fantastic Film Festival: ­The Devil Dared Me To

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

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

The Devil Dared Me To

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also at HBS.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Boston Fantastic Film Festival: ­Trapped Ashes

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

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

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

Trapped Ashes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also at eFilmCritic.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

­Eastern Promises

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

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

Eastern Promises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also at HBS.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

­Lust, Caution

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

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

Lust, Caution (Se, jie)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also at eFilmCritic

Thursday, October 04, 2007

­Dragon Wars (D-War)

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

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

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

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

Dragon Wars (D-War)

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

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

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

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

Full review at HBS

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

­BFF: Million Calorie March

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

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

Million Calorie March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also at eFilmCritic

Monday, October 01, 2007

­BFF: High and Outside

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

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

High and Outside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also at EFC.