Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Chandni Chowk to China

I nearly had this review posted on EFC before noticing that there's a second "n" in "Chandni Chowk", which just makes it more fun/difficult to spell. I really hated being disappointed by this, because, as I mention in the review, I first heard of it at Fantasia this summer, as Gordon Liu did a Q&A after a screening of Disciples of the 36th Chamber. He mentioned that one of his next projects was an Indian movie where he would be playing the villain. There was an exchange that I guess you really had to be there to appreciate, as someone in the audience asks if he would have to wear a goatee as the villain, and Liu responds (through his translator) that he would be "a very handsome man!"

And he is. They put him in a nice suit and give him Oddjob's hat with which to slit a few throats, and he is outright stylin'. He is, honestly, too awesome for this movie - it's almost a bad thing, as he's two or three tiers above everyone else in awesomeness.

Well, maybe aside from Deepika Padukone, who is Aishwarya Rai-level gorgeous.

Chandni Chowk to China

* * (out of four)
Seen 24 January 2009 at FEI Capitol Theatre #6 (Bombay Cinema)

Even though I've seen more Bollywood movies than most people I know, I don't have a particular affinity for them; they've basically got to involve something I'm already interested in. Koi... Mil Gaya had spaceships; Krrish was its sequel and had superheroes. Chandni Chowk got on my radar when Gordon Liu mentioned during a festival appearance that his next project was playing the villain in an Indian movie. It's a pity that the movie doesn't deserve the Shaw Brothers legend.

We start out in a village near the great wall of China, where the villainous Hojo (Liu) is exploiting the villagers to get rich, and they yearn for the return of their legendary hero, Lieu Sheng. An oracle tells them that he has been reincarnated in India, in the person of Sidhu (Akshay Kumar), a cook who works in his father's Chandni Chowk food stall and is constantly trying to luck his way into a fortune. Local con artist Chopstick (Ranvir Shorey) misleads Sidhu as to why the Chinese want him, but crazy things start happening as soon as he arrives in China: He quickly crosses paths with Hojo's henchwoman Meow Meow (Deepika Padukone), a dead ringer for Indian infomercial star Sakhi (Padukone again), who is in China to pick up some product samples and memorialize who Police Inspector Chiang (Roger Yuan), who apparently perished at Hojo's hands along with Sakhi's twin sister Suzy when they were just babies.

Chandni Chowk to China has a number of problems, but the biggest is that would be much better off without its main character. Sidhu spends much of the movie as an annoying moron clowning around on the periphery of the Chiang/Sakhi/Suzy/Hojo story; when he does decide to get serious in the last act - you can tell, because he shaves off the ridiculous mustache and gets rugged-looking five o'clock shadow as he trains in martial arts - Sakhi immediately gets pushed to the side, doing little more than standing in the background watching Sidhu (whom she now inexplicably adores). Sidhu does have a story arc of his own, in learning that his father Dada (Mithun Chakraborty) is right when he says that success comes from hard work rather than luck or destiny, but it's just empty words until much too late in the game.

It doesn't help that sometimes the filmmakers seem to think the audience is as dumb as Sidhu. It throws in narration for things that need absolutely no explanation, and has flashbacks to things that happened five minutes earlier. If a filmmaker feels that the audience has that short an attention span, perhaps he or she should not be making two-and-a-half-hour movies. Chandni Chowk to China may also set some sort of record for how often an awkward-sounding title is repeated over the course of the movie, and that's even without considering that it's a much-repeated phrase in one of the musical numbers.

The musical numbers themselves are a mixed bag. Chandni Chowk is much like recent American musicals in that it often needs to supply a reason for the characters to be singing and dancing. In some ways, that makes even less sense - would Sidhu be a goony dancer inside his own dream sequence? They are impressively staged, though. The other choreographed sequences, the fight scenes, fare better; they're overseen by Ku Huan-chiu, who has that job on many of Jet Li's movies, and though there's some obvious wire work, many of the hand-to-hand fight scenes sell it very well, even if Kumar and Padukone aren't the veterans Liu and Yuan are.

I came to the movie for Gordon Liu, and he does not disappoint. The filmmakers don't try to make him sing, so he can just concentrate on being menacing and handing out beatdowns when one is necessary. This is the first I've seen of Akshay Kumar, and he's actually not bad when called upon to do physical comedy or when the character is called upon to be prickly in the obligatory "why are you making me do these repetitive menial tasks when I want to be trained in martial arts" scenes. He just seems to be far more annoying than intended when called upon to be whiny and pathetic. Deepika Padukone is a pleasant surprise in her dual role; while Sakhi often seems a stereotypical Bollywood female lead (absolutely gorgeous but perhaps too polished), Meow Meow lets her show off some tomboyish charm. Ranvir Shorey has kind of a nothing part, but Mithun Chakraborty is quite cool as the father figure who commands respect.

The thing that really gets me about Chadni Chowk to China is that there are some pretty enjoyable bits in it - Sakhi and the James Bond style gadgets she gets from her infomercial supplier, fun bits of mistaken identity, a nifty fight scene where Chiang and Sidhu fend off a good-sized mob, and anything with Gordon Liu. The last joke sends the audience out laughing. For those who have never seen a Bollywood film, it's a fun novelty, but it could have been much better.

Also at eFilmCritic, with two other reviews.

Monday, January 26, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 19 January 2009 to 25 January 2009

I kept myself busy seeing movies this week, even if I found scant time to write about them - I got the review of the first part of Che done fairly quickly, but then work was dense - full days of mind-numbing copy, paste, and test at work left me with precious little interest in doing much with the computer either on the way home or once I was there. I just finished that tonight, and will probably only do a write-up of Chandni Chowk to China from this week, despite there being few reviews online for the older Lean films.

This Week In Tickets!

The Brattle's Lean series has been fun, although I've mostly steered clear of the epics to concentrate on the less-seen early British films. I vaguely recall seeing Lawrence of Arabia at the Coolidge when they had a 70mm print, and tend to think that only being able to vaguely recall what is generally considered an excellent film is something of an indictment of it.

I'm actually somewhat shocked that I got to see two films - two long films! - on Saturday: That was the day that June, July, and August Red Sox tickets went on sale, and my usual history with that is that I get two computers going at around 10am and then sit helplessly watching them until 7:30pm or so, a Saturday wasted. This time, I got tickets at around 11:30am. We live in a time of wonders.

Waltz With Bashir

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 January 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run)

Good intentions do not make a good movie. Waltz With Bashir is one of the best-intentioned movies you'll find, but despite attention-grabbing bookends, much of the film is inert, filled with rotoscoped talking heads who speak about their war experience in drones, including above flashbacks meant to help us experience the war and explain why the narrator cannot remember his part in it.

The big trouble with this film is the animation. It's not that animation is not an appropriate medium; it's that writer/director Ari Folman chooses a style that distances us from the people he's talking to but uses little of animation's ability to communicate in broad strokes. It tends to look artificial, and not the artificiality of memory.

Hobson's Choice

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 January 2009 at The Brattle Theatre (Encounter David Lean)

One of David Lean's comedies from his earlier period, Hobson's Choice is a breezy and enjoyable tale of two ugly ducklings who bring out the best in each other. John Mills is a hangdog delight as ignorant bootmaker Willie Mossop, and Brenda De Banzie (who reminds me of a friend I really must email) as the severe daughter of the man who owns the shop Willie works in and decides to seek his hand in marriage, at first to spite her father: He has laughed at the idea of the thirty-year-old spinster getting married, and she sees opportunity to go into business for themselves, as Willie is the true talent behind the shop's reputation.

Charles Laughton plays the father with broad, drunken slapstick, but he's mainly a distraction from the fine performances by Mills and De Banzie, who give their characters confidence and genuine affection as the film goes on. For all the pratfalls and roundabout plots around them, their finding the whole of each other is the film's main delight.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 January 2009 at The Brattle Theatre (Encounter David Lean)

Summertime is a small confection which offers different delights from Hobson's Choice - in this case, it's the beautiful photography of Venice which takes center stage, both Jack Hildyard's conventional cinematography and the moments where the scene shifts to what Katharine Hepburn's Jane Hudson sees through the viewfinder of her 8mm camera. It's a delightful example of how a tourist sees the city that we enjoy but don't miss once Jane puts down her camera and starts experiencing the city rather than just recording it.

Part of that is a romance with Rossano Brazzi's Renato de Rossi, a charming pairing of suave European man and uptight American woman. We know from the start that it is likely temporary (although, in a movie, it may not have to be) - Jane and Renato are still in the summers of their lives, but fall will be coming very soon, and this may be Jane's last chance to live like this.

Blithe Spirit

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 January 2009 at The Brattle Theatre (Encounter David Lean)

Ah, how this movie saddened me. There is such great potential here. Rex Harrison and Constance Cummings play a married couple that are each on their second marriage after the death of a spouse, only to find themselves haunted by the ghost of Harrison's character's first wife. There's thematic richness here that playwright Noel Coward may not have recognized before divorce and remarriage became relatively routine; who can't understand the idea of being haunted, literally or figuratively, by an ex who just would not go away? The movie also takes a twist midway through that could provide for some wonderfully black comedy.

It just doesn't come together, though - we spend much of the first act beating the joke about Harrison speaking someone only he can see and Cummings being insulted into the ground, and the second half dispenses with playing with the idea of an ex-wife who won't disappear like she should to spend time on the mechanics of exorcism. The jokes are all right, but the movie could be so much more.

One thing which is a delight is Margaret Rutherford as the medium whose first seance summons the ex-wife and who tries to exorcise her later. she's a character who is much more than just her purpose in the movie, and she does a fine job of neither playing the fool nor making the rest of the characters look foolish.

The Bridge on the River Kwai

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 24 January 2009 at The Brattle Theatre (Encounter David Lean)

Ah, what a joy this movie is. It starts slow, and I will admit to fidgeting somewhat as the initial battle of wills between Alec Guinness's Col. Nicholson and Sessue Hayakawa's Col. Saito played out - solitary confinement is not exciting cinema, and the rule Nicholson goes to the wall for (officers not having to do manual labor) seems ridiculously classist.

Then, though, the movie takes shape, and Lean handles his dual narrative tracks beautifully, as Nicholson uses the bridge as a way to build morale among the British prisoners, playing Saito for a fool from the moment he utters the line "if I were you, I should have to kill myself", while American prisoner Shears (William Holden) escapes and is dragooned into a mission back to the camp to destroy the bridge. Lean gives each half long sequences rather than choppily jumping back and forth, but never so long that we feel like the other is being slighted.

And then, in the last few minutes, he turns everything on its head. Guinness has probably never been better than he is in the film's last ten minutes, delivering a simple line ("What have I done?") with such understatement that it's devastating. We've allowed the movie to convince us of something that we thought was wrong in the beginning, and then in its final minutes we get the rug yanked out from under us.

The Unborn

* * (out of four)
Seen 25 January 2009 at AMC Boston Common #7 (first-run)

Unusually for a horror movie, The Unborn piles the stupid on early but finishes with some pretty nifty ideas. Sure, it's pretty easy to miss some of the stupid because writer/director Daivd S. Goyer is distracting you with Odette Yustman in all sorts of tight clothing (I mean, look at that poster!), but the film actually does a good job of pulling random jump moments into a story that involves Jewish mythology and the sort of Nazi mad occult scientists that you usually find in a Hellboy story, finishing up with a nifty cross-denominational exorcism.

A couple notes: (1) Unless the demons were cutting wires (which they weren't), why would flashlights still work when the electricity is mystically interfered with? Seriously, movie, the reason God invented candles was to make walking through deserted hallways creepy. (2) You let me down, youth of America. Normally I defend you against the people claiming teenagers have ruined the moviegoing experience, pointing out that seniors and others are just as bad, but you conformed to every negative stereotype imaginable at the 1:35pm screening on January 25th.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 January 2009 at Regal Fenway #5 (first-run)

Defiance isn't bad. Nothing in it will particularly stick in my memory for long, despite striving for epic status. I liked most of the characters and performances - Liev Schreiber makes a fine action hero, and I didn't really see that coming - and the action is well-done. It's well-meaning and sincere and its only real sins are pushing the True Story angle too hard at the ends.

Well, that and the subtitle weirdness. Most of the actors are effecting Slavic accents, since the movie tells us its set in Byelorussia. I knew that former SSR is now known as "Belarus", but based on the name they show in the opening, I got the impression that they spoke Russian there, so when the movie would switch to subtitled Russian, it often seemed random. Since there's never any need for characters to not be understanding each other until Germans show up, it seemed unnecessary.
Waltz With BashirHobson's ChoiceSummertimeBlithe SpiritBridge on the River KwaiChandni Chowk to ChinaThe UnbornDefiance


I was originally going to create a combined version of these reviews to describe my feelings about the strengths and weaknesses of the combined films, but that seems kind of redundant. The main thing I noticed is that there is not very much discussion of the time between the Cuban Revolution and Che's ill-fated trip to Bolivia, aside from the framing sequence of the first movie, which covers his 1964 trip to address the UN in New York. I wonder about this; is it because the two books Soderbergh and company opted to film didn't cover that period? (Speaking of which, movies about a figure who is as much an arguably manufactured icon as Guevera might have done well to use sources other than his own autobiography.) Is it because it might have shown Che in a more obviously negative light? I wonder about it, because it really seemed to me that the key to the second movie is in that time period: Something made him decide to leave his family and turn his back on building and solidifying the nation he had helped to bring about in Cuba, and I wondered what it was: Failure, finding himself unsuited for the sort of job where things cannot be resolved with gunfire, power and personality clashes with the Castros? The movie doesn't give us much insight into it, which is too bad; knowing the forces that drove him to Bolivia might have enhanced the film.

Of course, I suspect the packed house that I saw the film with saw the film differently than I did; despite my living in what is often called the "People's Republic of Cambridge", my politics tend to be at the opposite side of the square (I don't think a libertarian society is what's needed now, but it is what we should work toward). Thus, the mostly-favorable biography probably played better to them.

One interesting fact I learned, well worth sitting next to a guy who really freaked out excessively over my sloshed soda (ding those tops up even a little and they just don't stay on when you try to pick the cup up) is that Guevera would only talk to leftist interviewers during the swing through New York that the first part depicts. That strikes me as a man trying hard to control the perception others have of him, as opposed to the humble and open man the movie seems to be pushing on us (at least on the surface).

Che Part One (The Argentine)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 January 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square (Roadshow Presentation)

At various times, Steven Soderbergh's ambitious Che Guevera project has been described as one very long picture and as two, and I'm not sure which is how it started and which is considered the definitive experience. To further muddy the waters, I saw Che as a single feature with an intermission, but it separates into two distinct (though connected) films in my mind. Part One is the weaker of the two, but it does set up themes that are important for the second.

The film opens (after a graphical lesson in Cuban geography) in 1964, with Ernesto "Che" Guevera (Benicio Del Toro) in New York to address the United Nations. The bulk of the time is spent in flashback, as we follow Guevera's first meetings with Fidel Castro (DemiƔn Bichir) in Mexico. From there, they go to Cuba, where Guevera first serves as the rebel army's medic before being placed in charge of a new column which advances 150 on foot from the mountains in the southeast to the central part of the island. We're introduced to many other members of Castro's army, including Aelida (Catalina Sandino Morena), a messenger who would eventually become Guevera's wife.

Aficianodos of this segment of history and people with particular interest in Che Guevera will likely find this film intriguing, while the rest of us may find it very dry. The film probably doesn't spend as much time introducing us to various people - literally, often with the template of "I'm Che." "I'm Ramon." "How old are you?" "Twenty." - as I remember, but does so enough for the audience to notice the pattern. We can infer some purpose to it - noting that Guevera's stances on using teenagers and how his soldiers should be able to read and right weaken as time passes, maybe, although there's not much outward indication that the situation is becoming desperate. It comes across as Soderbergh and company wanting to touch upon as many figures from the Cuban Revolution as possible for completeness's sake. We are basically being told that these people are important historically, even though they don't obviously affect the film's narrative.

The film also has what feels like an overly-sympathetic view of its title character, at least at first glance. The film frequently takes great care to note that Che insists upon only engaging military targets, and the interview segments tend to present him at his very best, saying things like how love for the people is the most important trait for a revolutionary to have. Che's better qualities are so directly presented to us that it's very difficult to see his bad side, which must be inferred: There's a powerful ego to be seen in his advancing on the last offensive without waiting for the group his was supposed to meet, and how concerned he is about who will be allowed to speak from the podium and the floor. Perhaps the most telling scene is when he expresses relief that another physician has joined the cause, so he can shift his attention from saving lives to ending them. There are several moments like that in the film, but they must be hunted for, compared to the praise that is clear for all to see.

Benicio Del Toro mostly seems interested in playing the heroic Che, albeit in a fairly restrained manner. I will readily admit that I may be missing a lot in translation; his entire performance is in Spanish and there may be intonations I don't catch by concentrating on subtitles or the overlapping voice of Che's translator. Del Toro does get across the man's passion, and how uncomfortable he is during his trip to New York. The rest of the cast is good, although not a one of them manages to stand out as terribly memorable.

Soderbergh does manage to make a fairly impressive movie visually: For as much as this is the story of one man, the battle sequences are grand, filled with people and shot from interesting angles. The digital photography is is sharp and clear, capturing the lush colors of the jungle beautifully. Scenes in New York, by contrast, are shot in grainy 16mm monochrome; the contrasting style is an often-used idea, but one that works well enough.

Seen alone, Che Part One is likely a bit unsatisfying, perhaps needing the second part to bring the title character's faults into focus. Even with that second half, it still comes across as striking an imperfect balance, presenting the facts of the Cuban Revolution without much emotion and making the audience work at finding Che an interesting or complex figure.

Also at EFC.

Che Part Two (The Guerilla)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 January 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square (Roadshow Presentation)

As Part One did, Che Part Two opens with a geography lesson, this time showing us the landlocked nation of Bolivia. We're also given a text scroll telling us that Che Guevera suddenly disappeared from Cuba in the mid-1960s. This, and the sequence of Guevera disguising himself and making his way to Bolivia, isn't really necessary, but you've got to get from Point A to Point B somehow, especially since what comes after Point B is the more interesting part of the whole undertaking.

Guevera (Benicio Del Toro) arrives in Bolivia looking to accomplish there what he and the Castros did in Cuba, forging a group of ragtag group of rebels into a fighting force. It's complicated, though - he goes by the name Ramon in order to disguise the fact that a foreigner is leading their campaign, even though almost everybody knows who he really is. This includes President Rene Barrientos (Joaquim de Almeida), who is more than happy to have the Americans train his men to hunt Che down.

This movie is the story of Che's downfall, and, unlike Part One, it actually feels like a story. It's a rise and fall, but a steady one; we can see how the noose tightens around Che, and we've got room to speculate about whether it's mainly because of the force Barrientos throws at him or because Che is disconnected from the people he's fighting for. The pursuit provides a structure, and it is intriguing to watch things build and fall apart.

Del Toro still plays Che as something of an enigma, but he's a bit more of an intriguing enigma now. There is an aura about him, and we do wonder about his motivations - is this a man so possessed of revolutionary fervor that he feels the constant need to return to the front lines to lead the oppressed, or a thug who has found that he does not fit anywhere but the battlefield? Del Toro clearly leans toward the former, showing us Che gutting through powerful asthma, although he does perhaps overdo some of the better-known traits (aside from the asthma, odd attention is called to his pipe-smoking). During the Q&A following this screening, Del Toro mentioned that this second part was shot first, in roughly reverse-chronological order - I'm guessing so that he could bulk up and trim his beard during filming rather than vice versa, so perhaps the rough feel toward the end was just Del Toro getting a feel for the character.

The rest of the cast is good, as well; there are some more recognizable faces here - Franka Potente as the band's sole female member, de Almeida as the puffed up general trying to squash him. Unlike Part One, most of the supporting characters appear to have a part to play, rather than just showing up to have their names mentioned. I especially liked the old man pulled between Che's guerrillas and the army.

Although I felt that this second part was a superior film, and I felt that they were distinct films with their own stories and story arcs, part of what makes the second film strong is that we retain thoughts of the first; Che wouldn't quite be set up for this fall without the success and resultant arrogance we'd seen before. This film tells its story somewhat better, but no story of a life truly feels complete from just a single part.

Also at EFC.

Monday, January 19, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 12 January 2009 to 18 January 2009

Memo to self: Do not do a four-hour movie on Sunday night if you want this up by Monday morning (and intend to actually work on Monday)!

This Week In Tickets!

... To be fair, I probably wouldn't have done that if Benicio Del Toro wasn't appearing in person on the 18th and 19th. It was an interesting Q&A, although I don't think I was as enthused about the subject matter as the rest of the audience.

The Wrestler

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 January 2009 at AMC Harvard Square #3 (first-run)

Very nice work by Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei here as a pair of friends, possibly headed toward more, who are aging out of their less-than glamorous professions (pro wrestler and stripper). It's an obvious parallel, sure, but one the film never tries to make too explicit. Though most of the spotlight is going on Rourke, Tomei is just as good as the woman recognizing that she's nearing the end of the road (while Rourke's Randy has a hard time accepting it).

Despite being the director's most grounded-in-reality film yet, it definitely has the look and feel of a Darren Aranofsky film. He's got a way of getting the camera in uncomfortably close to his characters while still giving the audience a look at their world. Robert D. Siegel's script is also impressive, and Randy is a wonderful creation - a man who has hit the top and bottomed out, seemingly content in his new life but unable to let go.

Repo Man

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 January 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (The Brattle Selects)

Gonna be honest here: That was a long day at work, I was full of food (they really stuff you during the company meeting, to make amends for you being at the company meeting), and I'd already seen The Wrestler that evening. I didn't really stand a chance with Repo Man.

It's a fun little movie, and I'll likely enjoy it at the sci-fi marathon if I go this year. It's goofy, but sincerely so, in the way all the pre-fabricated cult movies of today don't quite capture. I'm not terribly fond of Emilio Estevez here, but I love Harry Dean Stanton in this; there's something wonderfully gruff and off-kilter about his performance. "A Repo Man is always intense", indeed.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 January 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (The Brattle Selects)

Man... The rest of the horror movie world just hasn't caught up with early John Carpenter at all, has it? The other horror movie I saw this week, My Bloody Valentine, is positively anemic compared to this, mere violence compared to the nightmarish ideas that Cronenberg comes up with and puts on the screen. He also bites the hand that feeds him far more eloquently than most, asking what sort of sickos want to see this sort of thing.

And, in a thing that pleases me irrationally, the main computer in the TV station's video room is an Atari 800 (and James Woods's character clearly has a 2600 hooked up to his TV at home). I love those old Atari machines.

The Reader

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 January 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (First-run)

The Kate Winslet movie that people really should be seeing this winter. It's a wonderful meditation on sex, guilt, and shame, with a small but fascinating plot twist in the middle that makes it even more interesting. It gets more fascinating as it goes along, and I like how it handles its sex: The movie is somewhat titillating early on, but takes repsonsibility for it by the end - the older woman taking advantage of the teenage boy does long-lasting damage, but not in an overwrought, hammy way.
The WrestlerRepo ManVideodromeThe ReaderLast Chance HarveyMy Bloody ValentineChe

Last Chance Harvey and My Bloody Valentine

An odd double-feature, to be sure. The usual Saturday movie plan - or at least, the reasonable-weather Saturday movie plan - is to see something at the $6 show in Boston Common and then walk to Fenway to see something else. Saturday was just damn cold, though, and when I got out of Last Chance Harvey, it was a rare case of there being about a fifteen-minute turnaround before another movie I'd like to see. So, yeah, I grabbed onto that.

To no great surprise, Last Chance Harvey is a better movie than My Bloody Valentine. To be expected, but I was really hoping Valentine would at least be a good example of what it is. Instead, it's just a paint-by-numbers horror remake notable for its gimmick.

Which is too bad. I like 3-D, and would have been really happy to have a good 3-D blood & guts movie. Didn't happen, and I don't hold out a lot of hope for this summer's Piranha (if it even gets a chance to take theaters from Ice Age 3).

Last Chance Harvey

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 January 2009 at AMC Fenway #12 (first-run)

Looking at the seven-year gap in Joel Hopkins's filmography makes me glad that, as much as I like movies, I'm not trying to make them. After all, Jump Tomorrow had to have been considered something of a success for a rookie filmmaker: It won awards at festivals, made it to theaters, and the people who saw it generally liked it, describing the filmmaker as one to watch. So why no follow up until now? I can't say. Maybe Hopkins had writer's block; maybe things kept almost happening but falling through; maybe studios just didn't see him as a good risk. I don't know if I could take years of that, though I'm glad Hopkins did.

Last Chance Harvey isn't complicated; it introduces us to Harvey Shine (Dustine Hoffman) and Kate Walker (Emma Thompson) quickly: Harvey writes music for advertising in New York, Kate conducts surveys in London. They have a couple of near-misses when Harvey comes to London for his daughter's wedding, finally meeting in an airport bar after Harvey (who had left the wedding early because he was afraid for his job) misses his flight. Harvey is charmed by Kate's forthrightness, which is something she's not sure how to react to.

Like the story, Harvey and Kate are straightforward, but interesting individuals. Harvey, for instance, spends the first act suffering various indignities, from an anti-theft device being stuck to his suit to losing his job to the gut-punch of daughter Susan (Liane Balaban) saying that he wants her stepfather Brian (James Brolin) to give her away. Even before Harvey acknowledges it, we suspect he brought some of what's happening upon himself, he can be prickly and distant. Hoffman doesn't allow that to define him, though; there's an embarrassment to his grumpiness that says, yes, he recognizes that he's not doing the best he could, but he can't not be frustrated. The neat thing that Hoffman captures is that Harvey does not have to be the top dog, and in fact doesn't particularly seem like he wants to be, but he has a hard time finding the spots to be assertive and the line between being gracious and being treated badly. He likes strong women - he wouldn't have been attracted to Kathy Baker's Jean otherwise and he's perfectly comfortable letting Thompson's Kate tower over him.

Emma Thompson is a pleasure as well. In some ways, Kate is interesting for what she is not: She's not used to a man pursuing her, but she is also not down on herself for being single in her forties - in short, a woman who is far less concerned about her marital status than the people around her are. She's quite the likable character, smart and funny if also a little cautious when it really matters. She's not quite perfect - there's impatience with her mother (Eileen Atkins) - but Thompson does a really fantastic job of showing Kate get swept off her feet while still being very much Harvey's equal. That certainly doesn't diminish toward the end when she has to explicitly show a little more vulnerability, either.

Of course, that section at the end comes in part because of a plot "twist" that made the audience groan a little. It's a problem that threatens to rear its head earlier in the movie - Harvey and Kate are one near-miss short from this being a movie about destiny rather than actual romance. The thing is, the movie really doesn't need that sort of obstacle or complication - Harvey even grumbles about it being a needless nuisance - as we've come to enjoy the pair reacting to each other enough that we don't really need outside stimulae at this point to move the story forward; we trust the characters. Hopkins tended to push a little hard at times in Jump Tomorrow, too, so it's something to work on.

On the other hand, just having the movie play out like Before Sunset with more mature characters might be considered playing by the book as well, albeit a somewhat less common one. Last Chance Harvey is never quite going to be that - adults do have other factors that interfere with their lives. Both Harvey and Kate have plenty of interesting but not distracting supporting characters to keep it from being entirely a two-person show.

That two-person show is where the movie becomes more than an interesting idea well-explored, though. Watching Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson discover each other is a bit magical. That's worth a few awkward moments; not enough filmmakers are willing and able to be this romantically optimistic.

Also at EFC, along with two other reviews.

My Bloody Valentine

* * (out of four)
Seen 17 January 2009 at AMC Fenway #16 in digital 3-D (first-run)

I am not, in general, a big fan of the lowered-standard argument in judging movies; setting the bar low and then clearing it is not actually impressive, even in horror movies. I made an exception for My Bloody Valentine, though - I was ready to judge it entirely based on how much fun it was to have bits of people flying off the screen at me. That still needs to be surrounded by basic competence, though, and sadly, My Bloody Valentine isn't even very good based upon those low expectations.

Ten years ago, we're told, a tunnel collapsed in the mining town of Harmony. Blame fell on Tom Hanniger (Jensen Ackles), the son of the mine's owner who forgot to bleed the pipes. There was only one survivor, Harry Warden (Richard John Walters), and he was found to have killed the other miners to save air. Coming out of his coma on Valentine's Day, Warden slaughtered a couple dozen before being shot by the sheriff.

Now, Tom (who has been out of town ever since) is back to finish the paperwork necessary to sell the mine. It's awkward for a number of reasons: The mine is the town's lifeblood, Tom's old girlfriend Sarah (Jaime King) is now married to the new sheriff, Axel (Kerr Smith) - though perhaps not happily, as Axel's girl on the side and Sarah's best friend Megan (Megan Boone) has just informed him that she is pregnant - and, of course, anniversaries of holiday killing sprees are the perfect excuse for a new killing spree, especially when no body was recovered and there's a group of survivors of the first spree - specifically, Tom, Sarah, Axel, and local tramp Irene (Betsy Rue) - who haven't been skewered by Warden's pickaxe.

Given the movie's initial "we're not trying to win Oscars here" goal - a 1980s style, hard-R slasher enhanced by the latest 3-D projection technology - it starts out on track. The effects used for the initial "ten years ago" section are cool, and the movie does not screw around with making the audience wait for what they paid to see - within minutes, blood is flying, the hospital is a charnel house, picks are sticking out of the screen with eyeballs on the end. There's a short break in the action to get us to the present, but the gore quickly starts up again, and I don't think we ever see Irene wearing more than high-heeled sandals in 2009, either.

Things are going good, and then the filmmakers make the fatal mistake of deciding that this thing needs a story. Worse than that, they decide that this story should be a mystery, with claims that Warden is definitively dead and the characters pointing fingers at each other. I'm all for horror movies having a little meat to their bones, but My Bloody Valentine is far too stupid to invite the audience to start paying attention to what people are saying and use their brains to figure out what's really going on. It's counter-productive; this is a movie that could happily get by running on adrenaline that regularly slows down to let the audience examine its weak spots.

Aside from being a bad mystery - it lies, seems to choose its solution at random, and the Valentine's Day angle... As wonderfully disgusting a visual as human hearts being ripped from chest and displayed in boxes of chocolates is, it never really makes much sense: Did Warden look at a calendar when he came out of a coma and decide that he needed a signature to his spree-killing? (What would he have done if he awoke a few days earlier or later?) Is it a useful bit of psychology later? (Not really) Anyway, aside from that, the movie just isn't put together well as a trashy slasher flick. Everybody covers up after the promising early nudity, and there's a limit to what can be done with a pickaxe as a murder weapon.

To be fair, the filmmakers do come up with some nifty ways to use the 3-D technology, and the gore is nicely done. The acting isn't that bad for a slasher film - nobody should quit their day jobs on TV, but the cast is hobbled by a story that just doesn't make any sense.

It's not a capital crime for a story like this not to make sense. Just don't give the audience time to notice the situation.

Also at EFC, along with two other reviews.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bad Day at Black Rock and Lonely Are the Brave

No clever commentary, other than wondering how Lonely Are the Brave isn't available on DVD. Sure, it's Universal and B&W, and they don't seem to be too keen on digging through their catalog for more obscure titles like that unless they can release the movies in some sort of three-pack. You'd think Kirk Douglas in a movie from the writer of Spartacus might have been worth a look, though.

Bad Day at Black Rock

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 January 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Brattle Selects)

Check out the cast on this movie: Spencer Tracy. Lee Marvin. Ernest Borgnine. Anne Francis. Robert Ryan. Walter Brennan. That's not quite a bloated epic cast, especially since a few of them were still on their way up. It catches the eye in retrospect, though, doesn't it? It's certainly worth checking out based on the cast alone, especially since the audience will get a tight little thriller for its trouble.

A few months after the end of World War II, John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) gets off the train in Black Rock, Arizona, which causes something of a stir in the tiny town; no-one has done that in something like four years. He's looking for a Joe Komoko, which puts the residents even more on edge, and downright uncooperative. Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) seems to be the ringleader, giving Macreedy "friendly advice" to leave things alone, while Hector David (Lee Marvin) and Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine) are more overtly hostile. Doctor/vet/undertaker T.R. Veile (Walter Brennan) and layabout sheriff Tim Horn (Dean Jagger) are more sympathetic, but are pretty pointedly ignorant. Pretty young mechanic Liz Wirth (Anne Francis) doesn't get the memo before renting him a jeep, and his trip out to the Komoko homestead at Adobe Flats has the townspeople even more determined to figure out just who Macreedy is and why he's so interested in Komoko.

Black Rock upends a lot of genre expectations. It's structured as a mystery, it turns that form right on its head: The film couldn't be much more clear from the beginning on who committed which crime, so we spend a lot more time puzzling out the history and motivations of the sleuth than the suspects. The setting is a ramshackle western town, but the movie takes place smack in the middle of the 20th century. It's full of murky film noir morality and betrayals, but scenes occur in broad daylight. Sure, many westerns are technically crime films; it's still unusual to see the two blended in this way.

It works, though, because the writers have a pretty reliable engine with which to run the story: Secrets, by their nature, breed mistrust. Black Rock initially seems to be in a state of uncomfortable equilibrium, but Macreedy is throwing that off even before he specifically expresses interest in Komoko, and his very presence soon begins to fracture the town in addition to making him a target. What's really impressive is how the movie, despite a short running time (81 minutes!), finds the time to trouble the souls of most of its characters and see how each reacts individually.

Spencer Tracy is a pleasure as Macreedy, grumping his way through the movie with his left arm in a pocket the whole time to signify an amputated hand. It's emasculating for him to be looked at as a cripple, so he and he certainly has the air of a man who won't start any more trouble than he has to, but will by god finish it. Robert Ryan takes the opposite tack as Smith, appearing calm throughout, confident of the hold he has on his town. When he does lose his cool, it's a temporary thing, and the effect is to make him seem even colder afterward.

As good as they are, the colorful supporting cast is what really makes the film stand out. Smith's main henchmen, for instance, are played by Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine before they became stars in their own right. Marvin intimidates; he plays Hector as having something close to Smith's self-control but more willing to overtly throw his weight around. Borgnine is the film's loose cannon, laughing maniacally as he tries to get rid of Macreedy. John Ericson is good as the young and uncertain member of the crew, while Ann Francis is pure brass as his little sister. Dean Jagger is pitiable as the drunk of a sheriff, and Walter Brennan lively as the closest thing the town has to a conscience.

Director John Sturges doesn't waste a drop of any of these ingredients; he's got the town and audience on edge right from the very beginning, pushing the tension every second he gets. He stages three quality action scenes - Macreedy does all right for a guy with one hand - but the movie never seems like just the means to connect them.

Also at EFC, along with one other review.

Lonely Are the Brave

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 January 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Brattle Selects)

Lonely Are the Brave has a really fantastic opening: A cowboy breaking a horse on the open range, suitably weathered, taking a nap with his hat pulled down over his eyes. It could come out of any of a hundred westerns, except that when the cowboy removes his hat and looks up, there are jet contrails in the sky, indicating that it's the present (that is, the 1960s), rather than a century earlier.

That cowboy is John W. "Jack" Burns (Kirk Douglas), and he's been making his way to New Mexico, where old friend Paul Bondi (Michael Kane) is in jail for helping some illegal immigrants. Bondi's wife Jerry (Gena Rowlands) informs him that there's no visiting day before Bondi is to be sent upstate to prison, so Jack gets into a bar fight in order to be tossed in there with him. Bondi doesn't want any part of Jack's plan to help him escape - serving his two-year sentence beats the five tacked on for a jailbreak - but Jack doesn't figure he can handle the year he's facing for assaulting a police officer. He escapes, but that puts Sheriff Morey Johnson (Walter Matthau) on his trail, with all the modern technology available.

Kirk Douglas is wonderful in this role. Jack is bigger than life in a lot of ways, a personification of the old West (or at least, the romanticized version of it). He's affable, friendly with just about everyone; even when things come to blows, he'll fight with one hand behind his back if his opponent is a one-armed man or stoically take a beating. It's very easy to be in awe of Jack, and enjoy how he flummoxes the police by not carrying any sort of ID. Douglas reveals the downside of being a throwback slowly; we see him uncomfortable in Jerry's kitchen, and though there's no one scene where he or anyone comes out and says it, we see that underneath his Western ruggedness and charm, Jack is afraid of the modern world.

It makes us re-examine him as the film goes on, and maybe view some of his free-spiritedness as antisocial behavior, although it's hard to view him terribly negatively - he means no-one any harm and comes across as someone who couldn't be any other way even if he were to try. It makes the second half more interesting, because we're not only never quite sure which way the manhunt (and its flip side, Jack's dash to Mexico) will go. Is this the sort of movie that paints Jack as an anachronism that is ultimately no match for the modern world, or celebrates his indomitable spirit (either by him escaping or by him going out in a blaze of glory)? Will that come at a price? Director David Miller and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo don't tip their hands until very late in the game, so there's quite a bit of suspense attached to each move Jack makes.

It's not entirely Kirk Douglas's show; there's a nice cast of (then) up-and-coming actors supporting him. There's Gena Rowlands as the charming Jerry Bondi, and Michael Kane as her husband. There's early work by Carroll O'Connor (as a truck driver in a seemingly separate subplot) and George Kennedy (as a sadistic guard/deputy); both just what is needed from their smaller parts. And then there's Walter Matthau, a delight as the sheriff pursuing Jack. Matthau provides a bit of comic relief just from the annoyed looks he gives Johnson's deputy, but never plays up the comedy so much that we don't think of him as smart. He's a worthy and respectful adversary.

Miller ends the film with an image nearly as iconic as the first, with nary a false step in between. Aside from being the home of Douglas's own favorite roles, Lonely Are the Brave is a loving but clear-eyed eulogy for the Old West as well as a highly entertaining chase film.

Also at EFC.

Monday, January 12, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 5 January 2009 to 11 January 2009

Not quite so hectic a week as I thought it might be; I'd pondered picking up the second Nagisa Oshima film at the Brattle at some point, as well as going to Showcase Cinemas Revere to see one or two from the After Dark HorrorFest. Alas, I opted to do that on Sunday, when buses and trains are sparse, and wound up arriving at Sullivan Station about five minutes after the 109 bus to Revere left. The next one wouldn't be for another hour, good to miss the start of the only movie playing in the series that I really wanted to see (The Broken), so I headed back home to hunker down against the cold. Still, an average of one-plus films a day isn't bad:

This Week In Tickets!

One of the unintentional juxtapositions here is Revolutionary Road and Marley and Me. I find myself grumbling about movies like Revolutionary Road a lot, but I am admittedly not always very quick to recognize when Hollywood does its opposite and does it fairly well. Marley and Me hits a number of the same themes as Revolutionary Road - particularly, dissatisfaction that one's life isn't what one planned it to be - but does a fine job of not presenting suburban life as a barely-hidden freak show populated by people who barely seem to tolerate each other, let alone ever loved one another. It's oddly reassuring to see that a movie family can actually get along and still be interesting and entertaining.

Granted, it helps to have a dog. The Wheelers might not have had all that trouble if they'd just gone and gotten a puppy.

Revolutionary Road

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 January 2009 at Landmark Theaters Kendall Square #7 (first-run)

There are some movies I have a hard time judging rationally, and the likes of Revolutionary Road are right up there. I enjoyed the life they mock as empty and stifling, and even though I know there can be unhappiness and disappointment there, the lifestyle itself isn't to blame. As much as my family probably figures I've assimilated into urban life and its associated attitudes, movies like this still get my traditional small-town back up.

That said, this movie is pretty decent at what it's trying to do, especially in the first half. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are great. But it's also got all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, frequently demonstrating exactly how little it actually has to say: There's a crazy guy (well-played by Michael Shannon) whose craziness includes the tendency to voice uncomfortable truths, for instance. The movie is basically over about halfway through, once DiCaprio's character makes a decision on taking a job offer versus Winslet's plan to move to Paris, but there's what seems like another forty-five minutes of playing out the string afterward. And then there's the ending, which is simplistically symbolic while clumsily forcing a dramatic resolution.

Marley & Me

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 January 2009 at AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run)

One of my brothers has a yellow lab who is pretty much the exact opposite of this dog's in temperament; the best-behaved dog you'll ever meet (aside from stealing their other dog's toys). Not really important, other than to bring up the fact that my family tends to be dog people, and I loved how this movie really seemed to get how people relate to their dogs.

Otherwise, it's a nice little movie, and while that's often something people say to diminish a film, I don't mean it that way. I think movies like Marley & Me must be tremendously difficult to do well, because they tend to eschew drama. There are dramatic events in the lives of the characters, but they are by and large handled with grace, maturity, and good humor. In my experience, that's much more common and "realistic" than the other extreme, but it doesn't have the easy high points that would punctuate a film like, say, Revolutionary Road.

And if the end doesn't get to you - it ends as so many boy/man and his dog movies do - well, then, I'm sorry. You should have had a dog growing up; they're great.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 January 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Brattle Selects)

Picnic at Hanging Rock is an interesting case; a mystery that doesn't present a solution. Director Peter Weir makes its setting quite otherworldly and unnerving, whether it's a girls' school, an aristocrat's estate, or the forbidding location of Hanging Rock itself.

Though it doesn't share many of the usual trappings, it's one of the finest horror movies ever made. Where most films in that genre eventually offer rationales and release, Hanging Rock only offers eeriness and uncertainty. There are a couple of shocks, but those come from utterly understandable (and thus more disturbing) sources. The real fear here is that of the unknown.

Merry Christmas Mr LawrenceRevolutionary RoadThe Man in the White Suit / The LadykillersMarley and MePicnic at Hanging RockBad Day at Black RockLonely Are the Brave

The films of Alexander Mackendrick: The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers

I couldn't get to many of the other films in the HFA's Mackendrick series, with plenty of good stuff at the Brattle scheduled for the same weekend. When all is said and done, though, I'm happy with the two I saw. The Man in the White Suit has become a favorite of mine, and I was happy to see the Ealing verison of The Ladykillers for the first time. Though I knew I had seen the remake, I wasn't sure whether or not I had seen the original; it turned out to be new to me and quite entertaining.

The Man in the White Suit

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 January 2009 at the Harvard Film Archive (Alexander Mackendrick and the Anarchy of Innocence)

It's possible to miss what a wonderful film The Man in the White Suit is because it jumps between so many different things, and doesn't necessarily finish any of them. It is romantic here, political here, and the light science fiction of a Twilight Zone episode here. It is funny throughout, to be sure, but that comedy goes from quiet farce to cartoonish bombast to sharp satire. It's never unsatisfying, as it turns out, a perfectly balanced comedy.

When we first meet Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness), he (despite having been at Cambridge) is a janitor in the textile factor of Michael Corland (Michael Gough), who is trying to get more established manufacturer Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker) to invest - and romancing his daughter Daphne (Joan Greenwood). It's Daphne who spots the odd apparatus that Sidney has set up in the corner of the R&D department, and the discovery that he has been using company funds to purchase heavy hydrogen gets him fired. He soon finds a job as a laborer in the Birnley factory, where the discovers a synthetic fiber that doesn't get dirty and doesn't rip. Birnley initially sees pound signs, but soon both his competitors and the unions are up in arms about the implications of an indestructible fabric.

I don't think I've seen The Man in the White Suit on many lists of great science fiction films, which is a shame. No, it doesn't necessarily feel like one, or use many of the trappings other than a number of scenes in laboratories, but it's more prescient and insightful than many of its peers. It's the rare example of a film that seems to have actually listened to its science adviser; the technobabble Sidney spews actually sounds pretty reasonable almost sixty years later - the long-chain molecules he describes aren't so different from the carbon nanotubes much of today's materials research focuses on - and the screenplay anticipates nit-pickers' questions. More important is how it focuses on the immediate reaction to such an innovation - specifically, how items which never need replacing will throw industries into panic from top to bottom.

Granted, few people who aren't me are going to give all tha tmuch thought to how an Ealing Comedy works as science fiction as opposed to as a comedy. Happily, it's excellent on that count, too - director Alexander Mackendrick and his co-writers (including Roger MacDougall, who wrote the original play) start slow, with chuckles coming from Sidney's attempts to do his experiments on the sly, even though his apparatus pumps out a distinctive (and catchy!) beat. Lots of comedy is mined from the tendencies of Sidney's early formulations to blow up, and Guinness does a fine job both running around in chase scenes and playing something of a wide-eyed innocent, though not a stereotypical absent-minded scientist.

There's plenty of other amusing folks in the cast. Michael Gough is mainly a straight man as Corland, but Ernest Thesiger makes a late entrance and wins just about every scene he's in as Sir John Kierlaw, the hilariously old and infirm but still fiery leader of the fabric-makers' coalition. Cecil Parker sells Birnley perfectly, kind of stuffy but also kind of in over his head, led by his greed but not defined by it. Henry Mollison makes every scene he's in as Sidney's assistant funnier, and Vida Hope is hilariously strident as the union member who befriends Stratton.

At first, I wasn't terribly impressed with Joan Greenwood as Daphne - she's got kind of a weird voice and initially just seems like the obligatory girl. They do interesting things with her character, though, and I don't just say that because it's a pretty girl who suddenly finds herself interested in science. The arc of the character is interesting, because it's probably more complete than Sidney's, but since the movie is not actually about her, done in the background. She gets a few very nice, understated scenes in the third act, and I found myself liking and appreciating that Daphne's growth amounts to more than switching one boyfriend for another.

And that's marvelous. The Man in the White Suit has belly-laughs aplenty, and could have just done the usual thing around them. Instead, it's just a little smarter than it has to be, and rewards even the picky audience members.

Also at HBS.

The Ladykillers

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 January 2009 at the Harvard Film Archive (Alexander Mackendrick and the Anarchy of Innocence)

The theme given for the Harvard Film Archive's retrospective of director Alexander Mackendrick's films is "The Anarchy of Innocence". It's a theme that runs through all his films, perhaps never more clearly than in his best-known work, Ealing Studios' The Ladykillers.

One is unlikely to find a more innocent person than Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), a widow of some years who is currently busy apologizing to the local police superintendent (Jack Warner) for the previous day's report of an alien invasion. She's also advertising for a boarder, an offer that "Professor" Marcus (Alec Guinness) takes her up on. Any reasonable person can see that this man is not to be trusted, and his story that he and his friends are a string quartet. Those friends are Claude (Cecil Parker), Harry (Peter Sellers), One-Round (Danny Green), and Louis (Herbert Lom), and they're planning a payroll robbery. Their plan involves Mrs. Wilberforce's unwitting participation, and is, of course, vulnerable to the greed of its participants.

Katie Johnson is billed seventh, as "The Old Lady", which doesn't come close to indicating how crucial she is to every part of the film. She initially appears little more than someone worthy of pity, and we're never quite able to take her seriously throughout the film. And yet we never fear for her or find her to be in particular danger, because she does have that purity of heart that almost wills her to be safe. She's not given many lines that are funny in and of themselves, but she delivers them with dry perfection. As befits the lead in a Mackendrick movie, she has the sort of innocence that leaves a trail of destruction behind her, and though it's not always easy to believe in her obliviousness to it, Johnson sells us on that, as well as the moment when she does realize just what she's involved in.

The five crooks of the title are all amusing in their own way. Alec Guinness makes Marcus into a grotesquery, with a face filled with ugly teeth and hair and an oily, arrogant manner that immediately repulses everyone in the audience. It is, truth be told, the sort of outlandish character one might normally expect Peter Sellers to be playing, but Sellers is perhaps the least memorable of the crew, a somewhat jittery youngster. Cecil Parker is blustery and charming as the middle-aged veteran, while Herbert Lom tends to dominate scenes with his slick, hard-edged tough. It's Danny Green who steals the show, though, as the group's muscle, and though he basically hits on every familiar note as the big, dumb lummox sick of being called stupid, it's seldom been done so well.

Mackendrick and the other filmmakers place and keep us in a world that is slightly askew, filled with pictures that won't hang straight because the house itself has been crooked since the War. Marcus first appears as a menacing shadow, and his face seems to go to pieces along with his patience. The heist is a wonderfully timed bit of action, and the last act, where the crooks try to eliminate the old lady but find themselves stymied, is wonderfully nasty and a brilliant example of how to use a running gag to punctuate what's going on.

Nearly fifty years later, the Coen brothers would assemble a fine cast in their attempt to transplant the story to America, but they would be unable to capture the original's innocence and anarchy. It's Mackendrick's specialty, and seldom is it done to better effect.

Also at HBS, along with one other review.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

The Brattle was showing Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence as a not-quite double bill with another one of Nagisa Oshima's films, In the Realm of the Senses, in that they were playing back-to-back in the same theater but were separate admission. I will reluctantly admit to chickening out on that one, though: It was only running at 9:30pm, I hadn't yet had dinner on the Monday where I saw Mr. Lawrence, and other excuses come freely, but let's face it: I was mainly squeamish upon seeing the NC-17 rating, although in my defense, my quick attempts to find out what the film was actually about mainly led to comments like "it's porn, but good porn." Which isn't really helpful; I get that it's an adult film vs. an "adult film", but is it something that would interest me?

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 January 2009 at The Brattle Theater (Special Engagement)

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is a double dose of boutique film: On the one side, it gives us a story of would-be samurai confronting the limits of their code; on the other, a tragedy of the English gentry. Both are genres with an (often deserved) reputation for being overly formal, and while Nagisa Oshima does make a movie that is occasionally admirable when it could be engaging, he doesn't just deliver twice as much stuffiness in one package.

The would-be samurai are the Japanese army during World War II, specifically Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto), who administers a prisoner of war camp on Java in 1942. Recently captured Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) is the scion of a wealthy English family. Yonoi convinces the military tribunal to spare Celliers's life, but finds that Celliers is not quite what he expects. While those two find their minds occupied by questions of honor, others at the camp - Sgt. Hara (Takeshi Kitano), commander of the guards; Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson), the ranking prisoner; and Col. John Lawrence (Tom Conti), who lived in Japan before the war and speaks the language - worry about more practical concerns.

As with many war films, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence has an all-male cast, and it doesn't shrink from what that may imply: In one of the very first scenes, Hara yanks Lawrence out of bed to assist him in deal with a Korean guard found having intercourse with a Dutch prisoner. The film stops just short of specifying it to be rape, although it certainly suggests that shame and punishment are being unfairly visited upon the presumed victim. There are speeches about how war strengthens the bonds between men, but not in that way. For all it protests against any charges of homo-eroticism, it is, among other things, a story of the unrequited love at first sight one man has for another.

Even though we're given very little insight into Yonoi's thoughts, you can tell that's what's going on from how we see Celliers. All the other men in the camp, prisoners and guards alike, are tanned, of course, but Celliers is golden; it's little wonder Hicksley sees him as a threat to his position and Lawrence is so deferential despite his higher rank. The only times Celliers doesn't look otherworldly is in his own flashbacks, which are a fine pastiche of English manor dramas. Not all of the film's visual appeal is focused on him, of course - Oshima does not shy from relatively graphic depictions of how poorly nourished Allied prisoners were in a Japanese POW camp, and also frames shots in the camp with shots familiar from samurai dramas, even while also showing that the traditional design motifs are far from a perfect fit to the current situation.

The film is not just about Celliers and Yonoi, though, and the rest is in many ways more interesting. It consists in large part of Lawrence and Hara handling more practical matters, but as they go about doing so, they learn about each other, personally and culturally. Some of that is Lawrence explaining things to Hara, but it's more than that: We see Hara absorb that knowledge like a sponge, while Lawrence reacts to seeing Japanese military culture in visceral, immediate action, finding it quite different from what he learned before the war. It's quite a notable pair of performances: Conti is quietly impressive as the English soldier who is quietly but often humorously stoic in the face of war, as is Jack Thompson. Takeshi Kitano would later become one of the biggest and most respected names in Japanese cinema, and his youth and vitality took me off guard, since I only knew him from later, roles. He's got both the arrogance and ability to grow that define youth here, while his more recent films generally portray him as much more settled. It's only fitting that the film always comes back to these two, no matter what else is going on.

Bowie and Sakamoto are impressive, too, Sakamoto especially, since the film tells very little of his character's story but we are still able to see Yonoi as a multifaceted individual. Sakamoto also composes the film's striking score (he is a musician by trade). Oshima does occasionally let the story get away from him, as he will often decide to concentrate on an image or skip over details which don't necessarily have much to do with the ideas he is trying to express, even though their absense may frustrate the more story-focused viewers.

It does keep the purity of the themes, primarily the stated one about how war sharpens the bonds between men. We see how that's not always true, and how sometimes it is the most true when they are on opposite sides.

Also at HBS, along with one other review.

Monday, January 05, 2009


Let's skip right to the review, eh?


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 January 2009 at Regal Fenway 13 #10 (First-run)

Valkyrie is a thriller where the result is never in doubt except for the details - and even with those, it's made clear that there won't be much room for escape or leniency should the plot fail. This means the film has to work harder, not just in terms of building the tension, but giving us other things to think about.

We meet Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) in 1943, when he is stationed in the African desert. As a professional soldier, he hates seeing his soldiers' lives thrown away on what he sees as inevitable defeat and the atrocities being committed in the name of his country - and that's before a bomber attack maims him, leaving him short an eye, a hand, and two fingers on the one that remains. On the Eastern Front, General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) attempts to kill a visiting Hitler (David Bamber) with a bomb which fails to go off. Sensing a kindred spirit, von Tresckow recruits von Stauffenberg into a conspiracy to bring the Nazis down, led by Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp), Dr. Carl Goerdeler (Kevin McNally), and General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy). Col. von Stauffenberg soon conceives of an audacious plan to assassinate Hitler and then use the Nazis' own contingency plan - Operation Valkyrie - to seize power by framing the SS. There are complications, though - not the least of which is that only the commander of the Home Guard, Gen. Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson) can initiate Valkyrie, and he won't officially join the plot.

Though there are a lot of people involved and as many events, director Bryan Singer and writers Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander make the operation fairly easy to follow. The specifics of the military action is glossed over apart from what is necessary to give the audience a sense of scale, but we are given enough details to spot how the mechanism works: What must happen simultaneously, what must happen in sequence, and which of them are potential points of failure. And unlike many films built around a caper, Valkyrie doesn't pull the trick of saying that important events were withheld from the audience and the assumptions that they have been operating under for the past twenty minutes or so are false.

Unless, of course, you count the one that we all know from history class, but that's the point - we know it, but they don't, and that's what makes the last act so engrossing. The first half of the movie was somewhat thin, emotionally - we see soldiers torn between obeying their oaths and their consciences, but it's hard to feel much ambiguity ourselves because they're talking about killing Adolf Hitler. When the plan kicks off, on the other hand, we see that they've overreached, and exactly how things went wrong. As the characters become confident and emboldened, we become a little more skeptical. We see hubris where we once saw virtue.

That's when it becomes clear how well Tom Cruise is suited for the role, too. Col. von Stauffenberg is revealed as the sort of hot shot that Cruise built his career on. He'd been that way from the start, of course, but it's finally let loose there. It's the sort of thing Cruise is really good at playing, and he gives the rest of the movie a ton of momentum. There are even moments where we perhaps believe he'll pull it off, especially when his energy is compared to how physically unimpressive David Bamber makes Hitler - the one almost has to win out over the other, right?

Cruise isn't alone in stepping up; Bill Nighy tosses aside his doughy, dithering persona to become a fierce presence, while Tom Wilkinson grabs nearly every scene he's in. There's an exhilarating clash of idealism and pragmatism throughout, and that's before getting to the rest of the ridiculously good cast - Eddie Izzard, Carice van Houten, Thomas Kretschmann, and Jamie Parker just to start. The cast is good enough that one doesn't even miss Kenneth Branagh that much after his relatively early exit.

Singer opts not to have his anglophone cast affect German accents, and it's a direction that I wish more films would take. These characters, after all, are speaking their native language, so their words shouldn't sound unusual or "foreign". There are some other missteps - von stauffenberg seems to recruit people rather recklessly, for instance - but overall, Singer and company have done an impressive job making a quality thriller out of a story where we all know how it's going to end.

Also at HBS, along with two other reviews.

This Week In Tickets: 29 December 2008 to 4 January 2009

Frost / NixonThe SpiritAustraliaValkyrieRachel Getting MarriedWelcome to a new feature of this blog, which will hopefully make it more useful for me, in terms of keeping track of what I watch, and you, if you are for some reason or another interested in this information. (Hi Mom, people from work!) So, without further ado, let's take a look at... This Week In Tickets!

This Week in Tickets, 29/12/2008 - 04/01/2009

On video: War, Inc.

(Note: I considered "This Week In Tickets to the Cinema and Home Video" for the potentially cooler acronym - T.W.I.T.C.H. Video - but I figured that might upset these good people.)

Anyway, I stole the idea of saving ones' tickets in a calendar from another Brattle regular. The calendar itself is the teNeus 2009 Book Calendar of Bunny Suicides. I admit it's hard to be sure with numbers this low, but I'm almost certain the free advertising is worth more than anything you'd get from suing me.

General thoughts on this week's movies: Half of it is stuff that people looking to make a point one way or another might aruge is meant to resonate with current events. Certainly, that's obvious with War, Inc.; Cusack and company are making pretty much zero attempt to disguise the targets of their satire. It's certainly difficult not to think about the outgoing administration and their crimes when watching Frost/Nixon - they put the line about "when the president does it, it's not illegal" right in the trailer. Valkyrie is the biggest reach, but there might be something to it - Germans, ashamed of their leader, trying to restore pride in their country...


* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 December 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (First-run)

A pretty enjoyable couple of hours - Frank Langella is simply fantastic here. At first, it just seems like an impersonation, but that becomes less the case as the movie goes on, and Langella gets at the heart of why Nixon has always been such a fascinating character.

There are some rough spots; I never really like cuts to "interview footage" of the actors in character. Also, in one of those spots, a character claims that what happened did so because David Frost "knew television", but there's never really a sense that Frost eventually prevails because of his mastery of the medium.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 January 2009 at AMC Harvard Square #3 (First-run)

Australia, at times, almost seems like Baz Luhrmann's attempt to make two movies, a conventional western and its war-movie sequel, and even a bit less than three hours time the pair don't quite get a full chance to breathe. I like the western, which is good, classic stuff - a proper English woman (she would be from "back East" in an American western) inherits her estranged husband's ranch, and falls in love with the handsome but rough around the edges cowboy she enlists to drive the cattle to Darwin, the only way to save the ranch. It's classic, iconic stuff, and gives the filmmakers a chance to shoot a lot of beautiful footage of the outback.

That would be enough of a movie on its own, but threaded through it is the setup for the second half, where they try and recover the "half-caste" boy who is like a son to them against the backdrop of Australia's entry into WWII. As worthy a story as this is (and a fascinating subject; see also Philip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence), getting into it after we've had the finale of the first is awkward. The explanatory text in the beginning makes it seem like Luhrmann is trying to squeeze too much in, as it really won't come to the fore in earnest until later.

Both halves are actually pretty good, and I half-wonder if there will be a home video cut that maybe fleshes them out a bit more. This is the rare movie that I feel could be improved with an intermission.

War, Inc.

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 January 2009 in Jay's Living Room (Blu-ray)

Not really close to the thematic sequel to Grosse Pointe Blank that some are trying to paint it as, despite sharing John Cusack as a hitman and Joan Cusack and Dan Aykroyd in supporting roles. It's an angrier film, but also more cartoonish, and Cusack's co-writers this time around don't seem to be nearly as talented as D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink (who really seem to have disappeared since re-teaming with Cusack on High Fidelity, especially DeVincentis).

It's still kind of fun, especially if you like that kind of very broad comedy, but very uneven. It lurches between slapstick and stuff we're supposed to take seriously, not always finding an edge to its black comedy. It also feels a little cheap in places - a joke is used twice because, it seems, like the set was too expensive to build for just one use; the would-be Turaqistani hip-hoppers don't feel so much like middle easterners appropriating American pop culture so much as Americans weakly parodying it.

Rachel Getting Married

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 January 2009 at The Captiol #6 (second-run)

I readily admit, I was sort of staying away from this one because, well, it looked a lot like Margot at the Wedding, and though I was pretty sure Noah Baumbach was nowhere near it, the whole "look how messed-up suburban people are despite their nice houses!" genre annoys me no end. Fortunately, Rachel is fortunate to have a trio of impressive performances from Anne Hathaway (Kym, the sister in rehab), Rosemarie DeWitt (the Rachel of the title), and Bill Irwin (Paul, the father trying to please both), some of the best of the year that may not get recognized because they aren't exactly showy.

I admit, there were bits I might like to cut - director Jonathan Demme makes absolutely sure we see Kym's need to make herself the center of attention, to the point where I was groaning and really hoping there would be more to this. To counter that, though, I was impressed with how enjoyable the actual wedding itself was - it's the kind of ritual that I'm not the hugest fan of in real life, but Demme and writer Jenny Lumet create a very enjoyable ceremony. I also really like the way Demme often makes us look for Kym in shots, even though she's the lead character.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Kinda entertaining crap: The Spirit

Stayed up late for new year's, slept in. By the time I felt like hauling myself out of the house and to the theater, it was The Spirit and stuff I'd already seen. Oddly, it's never the really good movie that starts at the convenient time.

The Spirit

* * (out of four)
Seen 1 January 2009 in Regal Fenway #9 (First-run)

When I first saw trailers for The Spirit, and compared them to what I've seen of the comics, I figured that the biggest potential problem with the movie would be that Will Eisner's creation (which had a fine revival by Darwyn Cooke a couple years ago) was somewhat whimsical despite its noir elements, and Frank Miller doesn't do whimsical. Upon seeing it, I stand corrected: Frank Miller does do whimsical, but his idea of what fits in that category is rather different than Eisner's - and, likely, that of most other people.

This doesn't make The Spirit a good movie, but it does have potential as a guilty pleasure. The Spirit is the gloriously bad product of a single lunatic, with Miller's fingerprints on every frame, and you could sprain some part of your brain trying to figure out which individual bits he's trying to play straight and where he's indulging in (self) parody. It hasn't been homogenized to make it less idiosyncratic or cut down to 88 minutes to squeeze an extra daily showing in. It's consistent enough and the story makes enough sense that someone whose sense of humor is in line Miller's can enjoy this quite a bit, and the rest of humanity may find themselves fascinated by the sheer insanity.

It starts off a bit odd, even for a superhero movie, as Central City's masked hero, The Spirit (Gabriel Macht), leaves his cats behind to answer a call from one of his policeman allies. After thwarting a mugger, he picks up the trail of arch-nemesis The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), who along with his cloned thugs (Louis Lombardi) and comely assistant Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson) is trying to retrieve a mysterious crate. He's got competition, though, in the person of Sand Serif (Eva Medes) - a former girlfriend of the Spirit, back when he was young Denny Colt, and what she finds could hold the secret to The Spirit's and Octopus's unusual healing abilities.

Though Miller and Eisner respected each other's work as comic book artists, they had very different styles. Miller opts to shoot his film in a style similar to how he and Robert Rodriguez shot Sin City, an approximation of the way he draws. That wouldn't necessarily be a big deal if he were doing this as a comic; it's not unusual for an artist to bring his own style to a long-established character, but Miller's doesn't seem particularly suited to this one. Sometimes I thought he was deliberately trying to send up how wordy comics used to be, with panels filled with words and characters explaining themselves out loud even though there's no one besides the audience that needs to hear it. It's awkward and artificial, and Miller never gets it to work either as good exposition or entertaining parody.

There are occasional spots where things work, in large part due to the large, fun cast. Most of the time, they tend to choke on Miller's dialogue, but every once in a while they hit on something that works. Macht finds a naive charm in the moments when he doesn't have to be hard-boiled, and Jackson chews some good scenery (though the whole egg obsession never works). Lombardi and Johansson are goofy and deadpan, respectively, as Jackson's sidekicks. Sarah Paulson is sadly underused, while Miller goes for shameless exploitation with Eva Mendes and Paz Vega (though anyone who complains about shameless exploitation of Paz Vega just must not like the female form).

The Spirit isn't a good movie, but I have to admit, there were plenty of moments when I enjoyed its insanity. Not enough moments, and few of them are truly great, but that's why its upside is "guilty pleasure", rather than "genuinely good movie."

Also at HBS, along with three other reviews.