Thursday, November 27, 2003

Several short reviews 

I've been getting behind on these things, so rather than put myself through the angst of trying to write longer reviews of each of them (augmented by the whole Thanksgiving thing), here are some quick takes of what I've seen recently. Just don't expect plot summaries.

The Station Agent (Thomas McCarthy, 2003) - A good film, with some terrific performances (Peter Dinklage holding down the lead, Patricia Clarkson navigating another difficult role without tripping up, and Bobby Cannavale absolutely wonderful on the fringes), and featuring the kind of easygoing observational humor that makes "slice-of-life" dramas actually seem like a slice of life; the way the central trio are drawn together rings particularly true of how such friendship circles are usually formed, with one overbearing (but good-natured) person constantly organizing get-togethers, while the other two find that they don't mind so much the company of these other people. Extra props for not making that big a deal out of the lead character being a dwarf, though of course it doesn't go unnoticed by the characters in the film. And really, The Station Agent would be a great film if not for the unfortunate turn towards melodrama in the final act -- which would not, in itself, be a bad thing, except for the fact that when this film gets melodramatic, it gets predictable -- and the little problem that the film doesn't end so much as it just stops. B

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir, 2003) - It's a nice old-school time at the movies, about when men were Men and earned their honor on the high seas. For a movie with such a morbid fascination with the mechanics of 19th-century medicine, Master and Commander is surprisingly light on its feet (really, there's a certain comfort in knowing that Weir and company have gotten their details right regarding the period), moves quickly, and has solid actors like Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany to carry the material. In fact, there's nothing particularly wrong with Master and Commander, except that it doesn't contain the one element that sets it dramatically apart from everything else, or the one moment that makes you jump out of your seat and say "Wow!" -- which is not to say that there's anything wrong with a consistently watchable film, just that it's not going to make my Top Ten when the year is up. B

21 Grams (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2003) - Inarritu is clearly a filmmaker of great promise; in 21 Grams, as in his previous effort, Amores Perros, he displays a talent for structuring a scene so as to create the maximum dramatic impact. He doesn't, unfortunately, display much of a talent for making those scenes fit together in a structurally sound manner. I do, of course, realize that 21 Grams is not going for a conventional narrative approach -- there's a chronological shift after, at most, every two scenes -- but there also doesn't seem to be any overriding plan at all; as far as I can tell, the scenes are literally placed in random order. While this accomplishes the task of disorienting the viewer at frequent junctures (seemingly one of Inarritu's desired goals), it also carries the unfortunate side-effect of blunting our emotional response to the characters' plight. Frankly, I can't see a reason that 21 Grams couldn't have been better served by a linear narrative, though even that wouldn't have fixed the problem of allowing nearly every scene in the final hour to go to an emotional "11". Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, and Benicio Del Toro, as you might expect, make the best they can out of the situation, and 21 Grams isn't exactly a failure (I liked the way the religious theme was weaved into the Del Toro character's story, not taking a stand on whether or not his faith was justified), but it does contain more hysteria and less coherence than it needed. B-

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003) 

Um, well, argh. I don't think much of this movie. I don't mean I dislike it. I mean it did little for me one way or the other. Director Clint Eastwood seems to consider this story something great, tragic, operatic, Shakespearean, etc., but I couldn't help but feel that the rather pulpy plot might've benefited from a more, well, pulp aesthetic. All those soaring crane shots and Big Emotional Scenes (yeah, Sean Penn can cry, great) felt a little like wheel-spinning, and the ultimate resolution to the whodunit plot feels a lot smaller than it ought to. I suppose one could argue that the "smallness" of the resolution is the point, but judging from Eastwood's overbearing musical score and obvious symbolism (gee, I wonder if that guy's ring will have some significance), I doubt it. Some scenes are very nicely done (like the way the Kevin Bacon character tries to connect with his wife), and some seem to come out of nowhere (Laura Linney giving a Lady Macbeth speech for some odd reason, Tim Robbins raving about vampires -- wha?). My reaction's about as mixed as you can get. C+

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

The Matrix Revolutions (The Wachowski Brothers, 2003) 

The most disappointing thing about The Matrix Revolutions is not that it fails to keep up the genre-bending friskiness of the original The Matrix, nor that it fails to continue the philosophical rambling of The Matrix Reloaded. The most disappointing thing is that it's barely recognizable as a Matrix film at all. Revolutions, for a good portion of its running time, looks like it could be almost any other sci-fi action movie from off the Blockbuster rack. Gone are the bizarrely compelling synergetic sequences combining techno music, Hong Kong wire-fu, and philosophical discussion. Gone are the technical innovations that wowed audiences back in 1999. The originality of this series has completely left the building, and all that's left on the screen is a generic action picture.

Even Reloaded, despite its uneven pacing and frequently dreary speechifying, couldn't be mistaken for anything other than The Matrix. But Revolutions? It steals elements wholesale from films like Aliens, Terminator, Starship Troopers, and even its own original predecessor. Stealing kung-fu battles and putting them (for the first time) in a sci-fi film qualifies as legitimately post-modern; stealing material from other sci-fi movies and putting it in your own sci-fi movie qualifies as nothing in particular. Even the one ray of hope coming from Reloaded -- that all of the overbaked talkiness would eventually gel into a coherent point -- gets tossed out the window in Revolutions. Entire plotlines seem to have been forgotten. The primary characters (Neo, Morpheus, Trinity) are jettisoned for long stretches while we watch unknown soldiers shoot at endless lines of mechanical squid during a real-world battle that doesn't actually become as important as it seems to be while it's happening. The film spends about ten minutes in the actual Matrix and an unconscionable amount of time having characters say what they're going to say before they say it.

I hasten to add that Revolutions isn't pure, unadulterated trash. It's thrilling sometimes (like when the humans try to pilot one of their ships down a machine-controlled corridor), funny in others (like how Neo tries to escape the virtual subway station he finds himself in at the film's opening), and it's still got Hugo Weaving's deliciously over-the-top Agent Smith characterization, the one Matrix element that hasn't lost a bit of its charm over the last four years (and Weaving is the one actor whose performance hasn't declined). The problem isn't that the filmmaking is incompetent. With the exception of the over-explanatory dialogue, it's perfectly competent. The problem is that it's generic, that it doesn't carry enough of a familiar stamp to set it apart from the rest of the blow-em-up action films we see every summer. There was a film released in 1999 that had that stamp, and it was called The Matrix. This film that's been given to us in the latter stages of 2003 carries the same name, but it's worlds away. C

Bubba Ho-tep (Don Coscarelli, 2003) 

Bubba Ho-tep is the kind of film that should be made on a big budget, but it's also, obviously, the kind of film that would never be given a big budget. Let's see: Elvis (or at least a guy who claims to be Elvis) is living in an old folks' home in the South, his best friend is a black man who believes he's JFK, and their home is being attacked by a mummy. Naturally, the mummy is a big deal to them, because while they know they're going to die, being killed by a mummy means it takes your soul with it -- and you don't want to die without a soul. Try fitting all that into a 30-second TV spot.

Surprisingly, delightfully, the film pulls together and makes sense, hinging in no small part on the terrific chemistry of Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis as the lead pair of oldsters. Campbell, in particular, delivers a performance of remarkable depth in a role that the actor easily could've played for his familiar camp, proving to those who may have doubted that he is a legitimately good actor. The whole thing is funny and smart and poignant to equal degrees, and doesn't wear out its welcome. The only thing that's missing is the visual on the mummy; budgetary limitations obviously force director Don Coscarelli to skimp on "money shots" of the monster, who is mostly seen only in shadows and at a distance (though the cowboy-hat-and-boots outfit is a nice touch). Still, lack of reliance on flashy visuals probably increased the need for a good script, and Bubba Ho-tep has one. In a perfect world, it'd have both, and we'd have a great film on our hands. There's no shame, however, in the fact that we've still got a good one. B

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Kill Bill, Volume 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003) 

I've been reluctant to write a review of this film for two reasons: (1) It's not finished, and (2) there's so much going on in it, in terms of the little referential details and chronological shifting, that I felt a second viewing was demanded before I could write about it. Well, I've seen it again, and I'm still having trouble coming up with something to say. So, I figure, to heck with the standard review format this time. Here are some comments:

1. Technique. In terms of the visceral impact it had on me, I loved the heck out of Kill Bill. Quentin Tarantino is one of the few truly gifted filmmakers on this planet, and it's incredibly refreshing to watch a film in which every element seems to have been thoroughly considered, how the cinematography, the editing, the musical score, and the production design -- right down to the smallest detail on the back wall of a room used in one scene -- were all working in perfect synch with one another. It's been a while since Tarantino made a feature-length film, but Kill Bill reminds you that he puts this kind of effort into what he does, because he really cares that much.

2. References. Critics like to talk up the references Tarantino puts into his films, probably because they're easy to extract for the purposes of analysis: What do these references mean? How do they fit together? And while I feel the same impulse, I think there's an unfortunate side-effect to this kind of criticism; it gives the impression that all Tarantino has to his method is what he's taken from other works. Granted, the references he builds up in Kill Bill (kung-fu films, Blaxploitation, etc.) are great fun for anyone who gets them, and in some cases absolutely essential to the film's existence (in other words, Kill Bill wouldn't exist without its predecessors, and Tarantino cheerfully admits that fact), but Tarantino is not just building a highlight reel of the movies he loved while working as a video store clerk; he's using those things as inspiration for the story he wants to tell. Unfortunately, proof of this thesis cannot yet be found, which leads me to the next point:

3. The story. It's perfectly understandable why some viewers will be put off by the unfinished nature of Kill Bill. After all, it is Volume 1, and there is indeed another volume to come in a few months. Kill Bill requires a re-structuring of what a lot of American movie audiences have come to expect from a narrative: it's not finished, it's not meant to be finished, and it won't be finished until some later date. It's not that piecemeal narratives have never existed in American cinema -- theaters used to show Western serials every Saturday, once upon a time -- but it's all but vanished until very recently. (The recent rise of comic book-based and fantasy-based film series has improved upon this, but even stuff like Lord of the Rings and X-Men tries to provide some resolution at the end, and not end on an absolute, dead-in-the-middle-of-it cliffhanger.) The fact is, I'm glad to see it -- fans of somewhat fringe genres (comic books, Japanese anime) should already be used to this brand of storytelling, and I see no reason why it can't be applied to American cinema as well. Tarantino does his best to tip you off to the fact that he's telling his story in chunks: there's the anime sequence in the middle of it (which is bloody brilliant, by the way), the referencing of samurai serials, and, of course, the chapter headings. A second viewing crystallizes this: each chapter truly represents a little piece of the story, with a specific focus -- kill Vernita Green, escape the hospital, get a sword, etc.

4. Digressions. The chief complaint about Kill Bill that I've witnessed is the fact that Tarantino sees fit to stop the story dead in its tracks on several occasions and simply indulge in a bloody swordfight or a bit of witty banter, and this is apparently a bad thing. For those who are put off by the violence, I haven't an answer; that's personal preference, and different people will react differently, but I saw the bloodletting as so over-the-top (and obviously fake) as to be amusing, not offensive. As for those who object to the digressions, period, it's quite clear that we've got a philosophical difference here. Personally, I believe there is value in watching a kick-ass fight scene simply for the sake of watching a kick-ass fight scene; there is value in watching Sonny Chiba and Uma Thurman verbally duck-and-weave at each other for a while just for the sake of seeing them act together. Are these things completely disconnected from the narrative? Not really. It's pretty clear that, for example, O-Ren Ishii is the head of the Japanese mafia, so for Thurman's character to get at her, she's going to have to get through all the bodyguards first -- thus, a big and bloody throwdown. But they are digressions, make no mistake, and I have no problem with that, as long as the digressions are well-done.

I also hasten to add that other Tarantino films have included more than their share of digressive stuff (lots of conversations about nothing in particular in Pulp Fiction, for example, included mostly for the fact that the dialogue was funny and we get to see more of these characters), but have always managed to make the whole thing cohere into some kind of a theme. I firmly expect that Kill Bill will also cohere in a similar fashion by the time Volume 2 reaches its conclusion. Unfortunately, there's no way to know that for sure, not yet, so my rating it based on those expectations, and on the numerous sensory pleasures to be found in the opening volume, like: that wonderful animated flashback; "Wiggle your big toe"; Lucy Liu's first consistently strong performance, including that rockin' speech about if the fuckers had anything else to say; O-Ren strutting into a surf-party teahouse with her posse, accompanied by what is possibly the most perfectly-chosen musical piece I have heard in a film all year; Sonny Chiba hurling a sushi knife at his assistant for bitching about having to get the sake, which had me giggling for several minutes (don't ask me to explain why); and everything else that made Kill Bill, Vol. 1 the most balls-out fun movie to come down the pike in quite some time. The temporary rating, subject to change: A

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