December 05, 2004

Hero and The House of Flying Daggers (2004)

I have a lot of books to review or at least briefly note, but I'm taking the easy way out this evening.

Hero and House of Flying Daggers, as directed by Zhang Yimou, both have a vivid and sweeping beauty that you rarely see in Western cinema anymore, the Western epic movie having eschewed that style for a certain generally (if not always) hollow computer-enhanced grandiosity. In fact, the Western movie that these films remind me most of visually is The English Patient. Unfortunately, like The English Patient, very little lies behind the gorgeous exteriors of either film. They both lack coherent plots (Flying Daggers's is simply risible) or the meaningful emotional through-line that held Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon together. You walk out with a sense of having witnessed a spectacle, not a human journey.

Part of the weakness of Flying Daggers in particular must be attributed to Zhang Ziyi. At least to the Western eye (it's hard to say just how much is missed when one tries to discern nuance from dialogue in a language whose stress-patterns obviously have different meaning than English's), she has an effortful yet icy ingenue quality that reminds me of nothing so much as Winona Ryder's underrated turn in the otherwise unimpressive Age of Innocence. This served her to perfection in her role in Crouching Tiger, but after Hero and Flying Daggers, I have to ask if she has anything more to offer. She simply doesn't seem to have the depth, subtlety, and richness of Zhang Yimou's previous diva, Gong Li, and it makes it much harder for her to carry off a true heroine's part or to be a credible object of meaningful romantic obsessions.

I won't say that one shouldn't go see either of these movies. There are worse things to fill the screen with than gorgeously saturated color-compositions and elegantly-choreographed movement, and I'm sure they'll play better on the big screen than on television. Still, it's hard to understand what has prompted this director to make two such limited and shallow films after the gravity of his early work. I don't pretend to be any kind of connoisseur of Chinese film, but I still remember the awe and terror of Raise the Red Lantern and the bitter wisdom of The Story of Qiu Ju. Watching Hero and Flying Daggers is like listening to a talented composer of opera doing schmaltzy, if catchy, Disney-film musical numbers. I don't begrudge a creator's right to make money, but I do hope their motives aren't simply the same.

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October 02, 2004

Collateral (2004)

The genre of "thriller" is an awkward beast. It's usually applied to films just a little too cerebral or atmospheric to be labelled straightforward "action/adventure," but too violent or odd to be accepted as straightforward "drama." Good thrillers tend to be exciting, puzzling, suspenseful...but not necessarily possessing any deeper message worth thinking about once you're out of the theater. This isn't uniformly true, of course. The Third Man is biting political commentary and a painful exploration of the conflict between affection and duty; The Manchurian Candidate is as sweaty an evocation of paranoia as ever appeared on the big screen; The Silence of the Lambs wraps a feminist coming-of-age story so brilliantly in a serial-killer flick that Demme fooled the whole Academy. Still, the exceptions are few and far in between.

Michael Mann would like Collateral to be an exception. I do believe he thinks he's making points about connection and freedom here. He's not. There's nothing truly thought-provoking in this film. What there is to enjoy is a grainy, soft-edged portrait of LA, a "high concept" plot whose interest survives a few ill-chosen meanders and a conventional conclusion, some heartstoppingly-shot sequences of violence, and convincing turns by the lead actors (if not the lead actress). It's evocative and absorbing when you're watching it. It's worth watching again. But it'd be better still without Mann's occasionally labored pretensions. You'd think that with his resume he'd be over his genre anxiety.

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August 28, 2004

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle

I've always had a soft spot for the stoner/dimwit buddy film, going back to Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Even today, I've been known to voluntarily tune into Beavis and Butthead when I want a little background noise. Sure, they can be pointless, but they can also use their heroes' lack of common sense as a great wedge to open the film's world to surreality, and their celebration of the simple joys of life (playing air guitar, greasy hamburgers, hanging out with your best buddy) is often incredibly appealing.

Whether I can enjoy one of these films depends on (a) whether the boys are basically good at heart and (b) the proportion of gross-out jokes to goofy ones (the higher it is, the less likely I am to like it). Harold and Kumar pushes my limits on gross-out (one or two fart jokes isn't so bad, but some day, the Farrelly brothers are going to pay for making them the primary focus of the silly comedy), but it's essentially a good-humored little comedy with enough laughs to justify the ticket price. It also deserves the praise it's gotten for its radical message that non-Caucasian twentysomethings get the same agita from post-graduation life as their white quarter-life-crisis compatriots do, just in slightly different flavors, and they long to escape in much the same ways. If Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were junior analysts and med students, they would probably have gone hunting after sliders around midnight, too.

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July 20, 2004

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

Really funny, laugh-out-loud moments are few in this movie, featuring Will Ferrell as a smug, airheaded 70s anchorman whose scripts go from his TelePrompter to his mouth without ever actually visiting his brain. Ferrell is genial enough, in a mild way that at least leaves you feeling like something hilarious could happen any second, and the director pulls a few amusing stunts, but what's missing here is any willingness to jump onto a concept and ride it all the way into the surreal. (The laughs are superficial enough that I'm not sure there's anything in the film that could sustain real zaniness, a point underscored by a manic cameo by Jack Black, who appears to have zoomed in out of a different comedy altogether.) Also, if I could shoot whichever SNL writer first developed the idea that a setup in a comedy bit which is deliberately awkward and unfunny is therefore on a meta-level the funniest thing ever, I would. However, Anchorman moves quickly, keeps the gross-out jokes in their proper place, and is ultimately good-hearted enough not to offend. It's a weekend afternoon rental.

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July 05, 2004

An American in Paris

As far as I can tell, An American in Paris is the Titanic of its time--a popular sensation that won a slew of Oscars which people now look back on and wonder, "What were we smoking?" No, it's not a dreadful movie. Even mere recycled Gershwin and coasting Gene Kelly are enough to prevent that. However, it's scattered, saccharine, painfully padded-out, and overblown. It also shares with the far superior Singin' in the Rain that film's one sour note: a really unpleasant and distasteful treatment of the older and powerful woman who has the misfortune of getting in the way of the hero's romance with the ingenue. Buy a couple of Gershwin CDs if you want to listen to the music, and give this film a miss.

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Spiderman 2

I don't agree with Roger Ebert that Spiderman 2 is the best comic book movie ever, but it is very good. Like last summer's X2, like the Buffy series before it, Spiderman 2 is blessed with a director who understands that the secret to a comic book movie's success isn't simply the ability to produce a whiz-bang spectacle. Sam Raimi produces plenty of spectacle, but he also seeks to convey the very real, accessible feeling that the best comic books address (express themselves though they may in the awkward idiom of the fifteen-year-old boy), the lyricism amidst the goofy costumes and over-the-top dialogue. Peter Parker is being crushed by responsibilities he never asked for, as well as guilt he at least partially earned. That's something we can all empathize with, even if we've never donned a spider-costume. Raimi, and Tobey Maguire, who may not be the finest actor in the world but brings geeky charm and gentle sympathy to Peter, make sure we don't forget it.

One of my favorite moments in the film is a quiet one: the daughter of Peter's boozy Russian landlord, a shy, gawky teenage girl named Ursula, stumbles into Peter's rathole while he's brooding and offers him some chocolate cake. He agrees, and she nervously risks further, "And a glass of milk?" This scene doesn't "go anywhere"; no romance or revelation comes from it; but it serves beautifully to connect Peter's anxieties with our own, more humble ones, to remind us that courage can be expressed by tackling mad scientists with mechanical legs, but also by daring to overcome our own insecurities and try to make a connection.

The film is also a touching paean to New York City. Comics have a special affinity for urban environments--where everything is so amazing and out-of-scale, it doesn't seem quite so ridiculous that a person could fly, or throw fire with his mind--and the odd proliferation of city buildings in their fantastic diversity is the constant backdrop for Peter's webswinging adventures. S2 handles tenderly the little hopes and dreams that the young people of the city bring to their squalid, tiny apartments. It was almost enough to make me sentimental about my own apartment (roughly the size of Peter's). There's nothing quite as unsubtle as the (apparently looped-in) dialogue of the crowd on the bridge in the first movie, but Raimi still makes it plain that the city can mock its heroes in one breath, but will embrace them in the next. The film's NYC is a place worthy of its freaks, the heroes and the villains.

The film has its share of flaws. Mary Jane, the female romantic lead, continues to scuttle as mechanically as any film cybermonster between the men in her life without actually appearing to care for any of them, and her indifference to the consequences of her own behavior rises almost to the sociopathic by the end of the film. Kirsten Dunst doesn't bring her life, but I'm not sure what any actress could have done for her as written. Fortunately, and contrary to what the voiceover at the beginning of the first movie says, the film is not about this girl. Mary Jane is always more of an idea than a person--that allows her unattractiveness not to sink the film, though it leaves the film sadly limited in other ways. There are some sequences that could have been trimmed, a few anvils that didn't need to be bounced off the viewer's brow. The desire to set up the sequel means that the film wastes a well-wrought ending in favor of what is essentially a trailer for the coming attraction. If you're fond of Raimi's early Darkman, a film ahead of its time, you may also note some recycling of shots and concepts with a raised brow (though slightly less than in the first). However, Spiderman 2 is still a film that delightfully gets it, that leaves you with hope that a genuine modern American art form need not be ghettoized forever.

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June 13, 2004

Kill Bill, v. 2; The Godfather; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Catching up on (fairly) recent viewing...

Kill Bill: If I tell you that my favorite Tarantino film isn't Pulp Fiction, or even Reservoir Dogs, but rather Jackie Brown, you'll probably be able to guess that I found Bill overrated. As for the gender roles, I was discussing them with a friend:

FRIEND: You didn't like his portrayal of women as cold-blooded killers?
ME: No, I actually found that rather inspiring. What bothered me was that they had no agency of their own; all that killing was for their men or for their kids, never for themselves.
FRIEND: *edges away*

Still, there's no doubt that Tarantino has a gift for crystallizing a visual of ineffable cool out of the older styles he pillages. David Carradine was a delight, even if his ramblings could have been trimmed a bit. Occasionally, Tarantino even slips into humanizing the characters; the sequence of the Bride punching her way out of her coffin had a surprising emotional resonance for me--enough that I went to see it twice during finals.

The Godfather: A review of this movie seems superfluous, and I don't have time for a longer meditation on the way its enduring popularity makes me despair as a feminist (the film itself is not misogynist, but the way the male audience has embraced it as a patriarchal fantasy is deeply depressing). What struck me this time through is that though the subject matter is now well-worn (and one can't fault Coppola for originating ideas that became so popular as to turn into cliches), the film-making is still fresh, vivid, strong, accessible. For all of his saturated color, there's still a tremendous subtlety to the direction that I really appreciated as I tried to figure out how he achieved various effects.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: The first of the HP films to attempt an actual adaptation. The more I think about it, the more the structure of the film seems excessively loose to me, and there would be a million perceived loose ends for someone who hadn't read the book. The film finds the emotional truth of the book, however, and the cinematography offers gloriously melancholy support. Daniel Radcliffe continues to grow into his role--I find Harry's wordless but clearly very deep affection for Hermione to be particularly touching--and Gary Oldman and David Thewlis have trawled through the odd material Rowling offers them to produce appealingly coherent characters in Sirius and Remus.

I'm at a loss as to how they're going to successfully film the next book, nearly three times the length of Azkaban, but at least I'm back on board with the franchise, after dropping it out of sheer boredom after the first one.

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June 04, 2004

Grand Illusion

This is a difficult film to evaluate if you don't simply take it as read that it's a classic. Film ended up developing in a direction different from Renoir's, and so his techniques can seem dated. His characters, for all their strikingness, are broadly-drawn types rather than individuals realized in detail; this approach to characterization meshes oddly with Renoir's gentle, intimate camera, which insinuates itself into a scene rather than commanding it. Except for a handful of memorable shots, scenes drift to a close rather than being punctuated. The soundtrack is sparing, and though sometimes this silence is effective, sometimes it's simply an absence.

Nonetheless, Grand Illusion is a sad and lovely piece in its own way. Its very mildness conveys its anti-war message without shrillness. Its view of war is at once timeless and immediately of its moment (1937). You feel the futility and inevitability of war, the endless cycle of modern European history, and at the same time you feel the change in the air. Watching it now is a singular exercise in historical irony; the aristocratic characters lament the war's (that is, WWI's) overthrow of a centuries-old gentlemen's code of battle; I believe Renoir meant us to understand that the code itself was nothing more than an illusion, but here at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it's an illusion we don't even recognize except as a historical artifact.

In these times, I think it's worth peering into older views of war. You just might learn something.

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June 01, 2004

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Eh. Sorceror's Stone was sufficiently mechanical that I never bothered to see this til now. CoS has the same flaws--it's not a horrible movie, just relentlessly uninspired. Director Columbus has a remarkable skill for blunting the impact of any notable moment; he somehow manages to film it at just the wrong angle, or from too far out, or with a flat delivery from the actor, or with poorly-chosen soundtrack.

A few notable points: Kenneth Branagh is hysterical as Gilderoy Lockhart. Dan Radcliffe shows some real flashes of talent--or at least good inhabitation of the character--at various points. And, of course, Alan Rickman's Snape continues to be a delight, if not the Sex God of Slytherin that fanfic mysteriously turns him into.

The class and race implications of the books are even more painful on the screen. Like The Talented Mr. Ripley, CoS comes across as mostly a cautionary tale about the failure of the upper class to properly assimilate the most talented members of the lower classes, only, as Livia points out, "with less gay sex." And how tone-deaf do you have to be to name a race of slaves house-anythings?

Posted by Sarah T. at 01:23 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 21, 2004

"Covenant"

"God said to Abraham, go and kill me a son..."

Last season ended with a distraught Clark running off to escape his problems. That Clark at least had the excuse of feeling that he was bringing destruction to every life he touched. It was dumb, it was selfish, it did far more harm than good, but his flight to Metropolis was ultimately a good-hearted (and rock-headed) gesture.

This season ended (or would have, without Jonathan's intervention) with Clark, having learned NOTHING, apparently, from all the hurt he caused before, making the exact same mistake--and this time for the utterly selfish reason that he feels abandoned and betrayed by some of the people around him.

Clark's been fucking up a lot this year, but I was willing, mostly, to call it growing pains, even if I didn't call it very attractive. It seemed to me that the show was increasingly stressing the way his bad choices were causing pain to other people, and I thought the season finale might finally bring that home to him in a way that allowed him to acknowledge his mistakes and grow. That would have shaped the whole season into something meaningful.

Instead, we get Clark making the same stupid, inexcusable blunders as before and essentially getting a pass for them. What the hell else was this season of unsympathetic Clark *for*, if not for him to learn something?

Clark had learned nothing by the end of "Covenant" except some tidbits about Lex's interior decorating style. And I fear, with LaT, that Millar & Gough are going to try to do his character development off-screen.

That doesn't leave me very happy looking forward to next season.

Posted by Sarah T. at 01:29 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 14, 2004

"Forsaken"

Dear Millar and Gough,

It's the second-to-last episode of the year. It's the fulcrum of at least three plotlines, including one of your regulars actually leaving the show, one threatening to leave, and one getting hauled off in handcuffs.

Do you give this choice assignment to a writing team that can't plot their way out of a wet paper bag? No, you do not. Although this episode did have its characterization moments, its plotline was so painfully cobbled together it was embarrassing to watch. Yes, more embarrassing than the "Ancient spirits of evil! Transform this decayed form to Mumm-Ra, the ever-living!"-style Kawatche mysticism of the previous episode, and that's saying something.

Also, while writing Pete off the show shows a surprising, and pleasing, willingness to cut your losses, given that he's an actual Superman character, it would have had a lot more impact had you actually bothered to set up this plotline. I know it would've been touch and go, but your audience probably would've survived losing one go-around on the Chucklehead Twins' Carousel of Non-Dating in order to seed the story. You don't get all that many chances to axe a credits character, gentlemen! You need to make them count!

Next week, I vote Chloe gets to be the one to rip Lex's shirt open.

Not much love,
Sarah

P.S. You know how I said two years ago that the only thing that might make me drop the show is if a serious Clark-Lex-Lana triangle developed and contributed significantly to the deterioration of Clark and Lex's friendship? I meant it. I'm still saying "might," but...you don't want to test me on this one, gentlemen. Manipulative Lexana is proving surprisingly tasty. Don't spoil it.

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May 05, 2004

"Talisman"

"Talisman" spoilers...

I don't like the cave-mythology, and I like it least when the actual "Kawatche" are hanging around; they're really kind of an embarrassment. Because Ken Biller has skills, they weren't anywhere near as bad as in "Skinwalker," which I think may well be the worst episode of the show ever, but I still did a lot of wincing. (Does anyone else think Professor Willowbrook had better start rethinking his parenting/mentoring techniques before he produces another killer? With Kyla and Joseph, he's two-for-two. Hell, he's a more lethal parent than Lionel at this point.)

However. I can forgive anything for the emergence of smart Lex, subversive Lex, the Lex who can turn a paradigm inside-out and outthink them all. This may be, after all, the value of his extraordinary experiences, even his plunge into madness; he knows in those kryptonite-irradiated bones that there's more in heaven and earth, and he's smart enough to discover it. Finally, Lex has come to consider the possibilities that fanfic writers and critical analysts alike have been pointing to for seasons now, about the possibly positive (or at least necessary) nature of his own role in the mythos, and it is very satisfying to see.* When his insight is matched with a spine as well--I loved the way he handled Clark at the TA's office, making it plain that he knew Clark was being a big hypocritical liar and giving nothing away himself--it's a beautiful thing. God bless you, KB.

Lana needs to be beaten to death with a shoe. This is nothing new, nor is it out-of-character. I just feel the need to say it again. No, really, sweetheart, you can't cash out of the Talon to go to Paris and at the same time continue to control what happens to it. If you want to preserve an investment, you actually have to, you know, remain invested in it. People aren't going to keep running the world just the way you want while you run off and have fun somewhere else just because you want them to. When you consider that the only reason Lana is part-owner at all is because Lex gave her a share...*shakes head* I strongly prefer to think that Lex's distressed expression at the end of their last scene was not because he can't bear to be losing his pure-hearted partner, but because he feels a little guilty about manipulating her so much.

I said it last week when we witnessed the revival of the Lionel/Martha flirtation, and I say it again: Jonathan's dying in the season finale (or over the course of the cliffhanger, if they insist on having one again), and Lionel will survive.

I'm not sure what to make of the Pete subplot. Did the writers suddenly just wake up and realize they'd forgotten to give him any meaning or relevance all season long? Still, nice to see SJIII's chest again, and Chloe getting to be more sympathetic, and willing to back off, after her not-particularly-attractive turn in "Truth."

*(Yes, it would take someone more grownup than me not to be a little gleeful about seeing the show taking the same approach as "Immanence" when it comes to Clark/Lex and the same approach as "Self-Portrait, Still Life" when it comes to Lex-Lana. There was one line of dialogue that was nearly identical between "Talisman" and "Self-Portrait," and I am eight years old enough to jump up and down and say, "I guessed right!!!")

Posted by Sarah T. at 10:18 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 28, 2004

Oh, wait... ("Memoria" pt. II)

Oh, wait, they took crappy option #2. Blah.

Weepy, wailing, *weak* Lillian and the plot out of the *worst* of the badfics, implausible and overwrought, and not in the good-crack way. (Basically, there's a point where "Luthorian grand opera" turns into "Have you ever actually, you know, known other human beings?", and "I murdered my baby because my husband 'chips away at our other child's spirit'" is it.) Blah!

Everything else in this episode was sooooooo good, so why this? Why this way?

*plugs ears* It was post-partum depression. Post-partum depression. Not her normal reasoning. Not some kind of "sound decision" based on Lionel's parenting for which Lionel can be blamed.

You know, Millar and Gough, much as I love you, and much as this episode was extremely good in other ways, I'm never going to forgive you for the way you've handled the theme of mothers. More than an episode about Clark and Lex, this was an episode about Lara and Lillian (and Martha), and what do we learn? Mothers may mean well, but they're mostly good for whimpering on the sidelines while the manly men lay down the destinies. At best, they're only capable of murderously misguided destruction in the name of love. They have no other options.

Blah!

Posted by Sarah T. at 08:55 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 23, 2004

"Crisis"/"Truth"

"Crisis" was a very frustrating episode for me--a textbook case of a set-up episode that lacked a clear self-contained plot of his own, so felt more like a succession of unrelated plot points than an actual episode. I also wish to God they'd give Martha her agency back. However, I cannot be too critical of an episode in which Clark rips Lex's shirt off.

"Truth," on the other hand, contained mere self-shirt-ripping by Lex, but I enjoyed it a good deal more. As I've been on board with Allison Mack since about the third episode, I don't feel the need to go on at great length about her performance, which was only what I expected, but she does deserve recognition for her ability to infuse vulnerability and charm into a character who could easily become shrill and unlikeable even without the writers' sabotaging her as they did last year. I do think the episode would have benefited if there had been one confession that was a revelation to the audience, not just the characters, but since the confessions did serve as lovely character work in many cases, I can live with that. Naturally, I was most pleased by the responses of senior and junior Luthor to Chloe's interrogation: Lex's agonized confession of something I think he had been at least denying to himself for some time was pitch-perfect, and Lionel's cheerful discussion of his sociopathy was both perfect counterpoint and funny as hell. I was also touched, however, by Pete's willingness to throw himself on the grenade by confessing his secret rather than Clark's--it was a Buffy moment from an ex-Buffy writer, I feel, and we got more a likeable and understandable Pete than we have in months from it. I was further pleased to see Clark's ability to forgive Chloe (while still making a reasoned assessment of her behavior) at the end of the episode. I was really hoping that his own fall from grace this summer would teach him more compassion for human frailty, and it seems to be working. While I find the new plan for Lana's summer as badly grounded as everyone else does, I take some small hope from the fact that it indicates that the writers realize that they still haven't sold her to the audience and need to retool her yet again. Perhaps she will come back from Paris having grown a soul, though, honestly, listening to her unblinkingly narcissistic assessment of the family who took her into their home as well as the people who rearrange their lives for her on a regular basis, I think the City of Lights will be sowing its seeds on stony ground.

"Memoria": I may have to build a pillow fort to hide in before watching this one. Just the trailer jabs at some personal vulnerabilities in a way that SV rarely has before. I hope to survive the trauma--it will help if Lana doesn't turn out the heroine of the piece.

Posted by Sarah T. at 03:01 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 12, 2004

"I don't want another murder in the case, and you were born to be murdered."

As a long-time devotee of the Brattle in Cambridge, I was embarrassed to find that I'd failed to discover an art/rep theater right in my neighborhood, the Film Forum, after a good three-quarters of a year living there. Chalk it up to my general dislike of Houston St., which feels to me like the least pedestrian-friendly street in Manhattan, or at least my neighborhood. Anyway, tonight I went to see The Third Man, because I always go to see that movie when it's on the big screen.

First, I must say that the Forum doesn't hold a candle to the Brattle in terms of price, amenities, or facilities, especially after the latter's renovation. I don't really expect to pay the same price for rep films that I do for first-run movies (one of the reason I've seen so many more rep films than first-run over the past several years has been economics!) and I certainly don't expect to pay $3.40 for a 22-oz. cup of Coke, which is steep even by first-run movie house standards, but if I do, then I expect facilities commensurate with the price. I've made many a joke about the Brattle being the middle-school auditorium of our youths preserved in amber, and some of the marginal seating there is pretty marginal, but that's better than being jammed into a narrow rectangle (I think it was eight seats across) between two big red pillars in front of a postage-stamp screen, with worn, old seats featuring not so much as a cupholder. When you consider that you can see a double-feature in the comfy new seats of the Brattle for about $8 (with the discount cards, another feature lacking at the Forum, more like $6.50), and actually get real butter on your popcorn--the Forum doesn't even offer the artificial kind, no lie, and I don't eat that stuff, but come on!--there's a clear winner here. The Forum strikes me as typical of the nasty New York institution that assumes you'll pay a good bit more for a good deal less and like it, just because it's in Manhattan. Well...no. (None of this means, however, that I'll never go back. The sad fact is, I'm a sucker for old movies, it's close, and The Battle of Algiers is playing til Thursday. I'll just kvetch when I do.)

Second, The Third Man. What can I say about this movie, except that it deserves to be at least as well-known as Casablanca, and you should all run out and rent the Criterion DVD release right now? It's gorgeous to look at, blackly witty in a way few films ever can be, and heart-breaking, and it has a cracking great chase sequence at its climax. Although it is not explicitly a political film, its topicality is as great as it's ever been, as a clueless American careens about a foreign city he doesn't understand and leaves nothing but wreckage in his wake. Rarely has a film had such a tremendous realization of place; the "bombed-about-a-bit" post-WWII Vienna is a character in its own right.

Most people who know of the film do because of Orson Welles's small role. Although his performance is memorable, the greatness of this film really rests on director Carol Reed's brilliant assimilation of German Expressionism into a style at turns lyrical and grotesque which is in the service of the story rather than the point in itself, and Joseph Cotten's full commitment to an increasingly unysmpathetic character. (I consider Cotten to be one of the most underrated actors of the last century.) The closing shot is one of the most memorable in film history, and it's only possible due to their conviction. This film ends in a way you can't possibly imagine a Hollywood film ending today, and that's a great pity.

Rent it. Rent it (or, if you must, go to the Forum), and you'll thank me. But do avoid the introduction by Peter Bogdanovich--not merely because he's the most annoying little butt-monkey in the world of film, but because he gives away the twist without so much as a warning.

Posted by Sarah T. at 06:34 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 03, 2004

"If I had legs, I'd kick your ass!"

Hellboy is the sort of movie where, if you find the lead character appealing, you'll put up with the thin, jerky plot and rushed character development, and if you don't, then you'll find the whole exercise pointless. However, you'd have to have a hard heart indeed not to grow fond of Ron Perlman's lovable mensch of a demon, with his grumbling dedication to the crummiest job in the world and his hopeless crush on a pretty girl. (Confidential to the Spike: he is a giant woobie and you will nub him. You must go!)

Is it just me, or was there some subplot about Myers's mysterious origins, powers, and/or plain old mental capabilities that was excised? I don't know the canon (from the trailer, I was calling him "boy-faced boy"), but there did seem to be quite a few hints dropped that were never picked up.

Posted by Sarah T. at 03:59 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 27, 2004

"To smite is to go upside the head."

PSA: Stay away from the 34th St. Loews on Saturday nights. It's ghettotastic.

The Ladykillers is an odd combination of broad physical and black humor that reminds me of a book I'm currently slowly working my way through, Halldor Laxness's Iceland's Bell. On the one hand, you have jokes about Irritable Bowel Syndrome; on the other, the dry underlying implication that we're all bound for the garbage island in the end. I agree with the reviewers who said it was uneven or "loose," but Tom Hanks's performance really is quite a comic treat, and Irma P. Hall is charming. And was that an uncredited cameo from Eddie Murphy as the choir director? (Maybe...)

If I hear one more complaint about the unfaithfulness of the adaption of the original, I'm going to scream--Ealing Studios has a fine early body of work, especially, to my mind, The Lavender Hill Mob, but I doubt many people under the age of 60 have actually seen them. If you just re-film the earlier movie, there's no point in making it. Sheesh.

At any rate, I enjoyed it, in a skewed sort of way, but it's not a conventional comedy. If you're an Ethan Rayne fan, you may want to check it out.

Posted by Sarah T. at 10:52 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 13, 2004

I tried... (Wonderfalls)

I did! I even put the VCR on to tape the Wonderfalls premiere while I was watching. I could see where they were going with the show, too, but...something about the tone just grated across my nerves like you wouldn't believe. I only made it to the fainting. The correct adjective is eluding me. The first one that came to mind is "twee," but that's not it. Neither, quite, is "precious." "Droll" was what didn't get accomplished...perhaps "arch" in the most negative sense is what it struck me as. The way Dennis Miller can be funny for fifteen minutes and then you just want to punch him in the face.

Perhaps the lead actress should not have holed up in her house and watched Daria on infinite loop for days?

Anyway, I'll give it another shot later. Maybe I just wasn't in the right mood.

Posted by Sarah T. at 01:05 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 16, 2004

Having seen it last night, I'm surprised at the vast wave of critical acclaim that Mystic River has gotten. I tend to attribute it to a still-predominantly-male critical establishment's sympathy for the choked and stunted emotional life of the traditional American blue-collar male which it depicts.

Admittedly, I tend to react to that depiction with frustration and anger rather than sympathy, but the problem with Mystic River isn't its subject. It's its tone. Mystic River is about as relentlessly grim as The Seventh Seal, but as the material is slighter, to say the least, the result is heavy and sententious rather than gloriously ruthless. The characters are scarcely allowed to breathe, so that very few of them seem alive, despite strong efforts by the actors. (Being required to shift from muttered tough-guy talk to well-shaped phrases about the cruelty and frustration of life doesn't help the male characters, either.) In some places, the cinematography is wonderfully evocative and atmospheric; in others, it lapses into jarring cliche. The score is literally one-note (or, I should say, four-note), to the point that it actually became annoying.

There's a real story in Mystic River, and real characters laboring to get out from under the oppressive hand of the direction. It wasn't a bad movie, just woefully misguided. It's painful to see such hard work and thought by all involved be so wasted.

Posted by Sarah T. at 06:02 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 08, 2004

Memo to awards-show producers everywhere: "Hey Ya" is an almost ludicrously catchy tune, but you can't all use it for your promos. There is such a thing as over-exposure.

The Station Agent is a quiet character piece about a little person who inherits an abandoned train depot in the wilds of New Jersey and decides to move there. James Dinklage turns in an intriguing performance as the trainwatcher and "very simple, boring guy" whose physical condition seems to forever deny him the anonymity he desperately craves. The film is a loving visual depiction of the raggedest edge of suburbia and some rather ragged people. There's a good deal of wry humor. It does feel a little slight--there's a real lack of traditional plot or climax, and even the characters' through-lines are understated--but given that it's only an hour and a half, it doesn't overstay its welcome. Worth giving a shot, or at least renting if it's ever released.

Posted by Sarah T. at 03:22 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 07, 2004

More media!

Okay, just one.

Cheaper by the Dozen: Built into this bland family comedy is a secret subplot for the middle-aged mothers in the audience. That subplot is: TOM WELLING BEING SEXY. In the course of the film, we see him: rumpled and sleepyheaded in bed; wet in the team showers; leaning over the hood to fix his car; shirtless, then pulling on a tight white T-shirt; and holding cute kids on his lap. I'm amazed they managed to slip that much fanservice so discreetly into the film...your average eight-year-old, or your husband, won't even notice!

This film is inoffensive, as long as you don't think too hard about the gender implications (or the fact that the high-school-age kids apparently don't really consider it part of their role in the family to look after their younger siblings). Just sit back and watch the special story put in just for you. And stick around for the credits: Welling gives Hunt a sweeping romantic kiss!

Posted by Sarah T. at 02:49 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 05, 2004

Some media consumed during the first half of the break

This year, I'm going to try to keep a better record of what I read. I'm reading more nonprofessionally than I have in several years, so I'll brave the future in which I wince rereading my notes in order to be able to remember it all.

The Return of the King

Smallville: "Lineage" and "Hourglass"

Reversal of Fortune. This is a longtime favorite of mine. To my mind, it's the most thoughtful of all movies about the American legal process, which manages to wrap a troubling meditation on the inescapable indeterminacy of narrative and the inherent limitations of a system of justice that depends on it in a traditional crusading-lawyer-rights-a-wrong story. Strong performances by Glenn Close and especially Jeremy Irons as the impeccably, hilariously, disturbingly odd Claus von Bulow (though you'll never convince me that the Oscar he won for the performance wasn't a retroactive award for his work in Dead Ringers a year earlier--Jonathan Demme hadn't yet established that you could win Oscars for a mere horror film). A bit too celebratory of Dershowitz, but what can you expect?

Tom Shales, Live from New York. This was a Christmas present from my sister, a Saturday Night Live retrospective. To me it was interesting primarily as an exercise in triangulation of characters described from multiple perspectives, though there were some hilarious passages. There was more candidness than I would have expected from the interview subjects, but that's only valuable in so far as you're really interested in the topic, and my interest is fair-to-middling, especially after the earliest era. Still, if you enjoy SNL, you'll probably find this a worthwhile read.

Rex Stout, The League of Frightened Men. I am perpetually rereading the Nero Wolfe novels. Despite the obvious flaws (occasionally half-hearted puzzles, authorial manipulation to delay resolution), their charm will never fade for me. Nero Wolfe was my first model for how to live an independent intellectual life, though even as a naive kid I appreciated the value of Archie's sardonic counterpoint to his pretensions. LFM is the tale of a group of men who fear they're being murdered one by one by the victim of a college hazing many years earlier. It's one of the earlier novels, in which Stout was, I suspect, trying to sell his mysteries as more mainstream dramas. Wolfe pontificates at the drop of a hat and there is some lurid melodrama that's supposed to be character work. Read it for the banter and the period atmosphere.

Stout, Too Many Cooks. A slightly later novel, with Stout just hitting his stride. Wolfe attends a retreat of world-class chefs for...reasons of his own. The characterization is much more appealing and plausible in this one (if it's fanciful in spots, it's a charming rather than a grim fantasy, and it manages to avoid the Curse of Twee that so often strikes the "exotic-world-of-[x]" mystery), the humor is top-notch, and the puzzle better-than-average. [Note: there are some awkward moments dealing with black characters, but given that the book was published in the 30s, I tend to think Stout was well-meaning if insensitive at points here.]

Lost in Translation. This is the kind of film that may not improve with multiple viewings, as it's so delicate and lyrical that it suffers when the mind starts dissecting mid-scene. My third viewing was not the best, but it's still a lovely and haunting piece, a perfect depiction of cultural vertigo and the tender fragility of human affections. It also features the first Yalie heroine in recent memory.

Posted by Sarah T. at 09:43 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack