Joe's Movie Reviews

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


It's 1866, the height of Victorian England, and the world is filled with wondrous technologies, devices that would dazzle the high-tech wizards of the 21st century... except that they're all powered by the mystically nuclear-like power of steam. A scientist with the family NAME of "Steam" has invented a device called a "Steam Ball" which concentrates that power with such force that it could change the course of the world, and two sides are fighting to the death over the right to possess it. Doesn't sound quite like the Victorian England you remember, does it?

Well, it certainly isn't, but part of the wonder of this fascinating film by Katsuhiro Otomo, his first as a director since the classic anime "Akira," is how the world he has created is so similar to the one we knew while at the same time being so startlingly different. Another part is how absolutely stunning it looks... if you think "Robots" gave you incredible eye candy, you haven't seen anything until you've seen "Steamboy." But perhaps the single most interesting element of this amazing film is the one that not so much as one single review of it that I've yet seen has made any mention of: the blatantly obvious parallels to a certain nation south of Canada and north of Mexico, and its recent escapades into the areas of "homeland security" and armed invasion and occupation of countries across the sea.

Why in the world has this not been brought up? I'm certainly a long way from the most perceptive genius writing movie reviews, but when you hear the unmistakable voice of Patrick Stewart condemning the character voiced by "Doc Ock" himself, Alfred Molina, for selling out to the corporations who build the 19th century equivalent of weapons of mass destruction and allowing him to use his device to power their weapons of war so they can invade and dominate foreign nations, and Molina responds that "No nation can be safe until it is secure! This is what a secure nation does: it takes action!" (against other nations that haven't attacked it yet), it's pretty hard to ignore the obvious. And what I've mentioned here only begins to touch on the parallels. The political aspect never interferes with the story... it never forgets to be a rousing, action-packed adventure... but that extra element definitely makes "Steamboy" a much richer experience. You can ignore the politics completely, and still have a great time... but you'll have a better time if you don't ignore them.

As for the basic film-making, Katsuhiro Otomo (who has made short films and written screenplays in the years since "Akira") has not forgotten how to hold an audience's interest with spectacular visuals while never ignoring the often-forgotten element of character and plot.
The fact that the film is in English is for once not a problem even for purists, seeing as how it's SET in that country and all of the characters are supposed to be British. And the voice actors all do fine jobs, including not only Molina and Stewart but Stewart's "X-Men" co-star Anna Paquin as the MALE lead, Steamboy himself (son of Molina's character and grandson of Stewart's).

There aren't many science fiction stories this futuristic that take you back over a hundred years into the past, but this is no ordinary science fiction story. However, there is a novel that comes to mind that might appeal to the same audience: "The Difference Engine" by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. I know that most movie reviews don't urge you to read a book, but I don't can't ignore the chance to recommend a novel that I'm sure will appeal to this film's fan base. And besides, I'm not ignoring my film reviewer duty: go see "Steamboy," you'll love it! (See... who SAYS I can never do the conventional thing?)

Sunday, March 20, 2005

A Lone Voice Crying In The Wilderness

1. "Travellers And Magicians." In a small village in the Himalayan nation of Bhutan, one villager has bigger dreams than the rest: he wants to leave his little town behind and journey to the promised land of America, where he dreams of making it big. But on the way, he acquires a travelling companion who begins to tell him a story of another Bhutanese man who wanted to travel to a "dreamland" and found the outside world not so friendly. As the traveller's dark tale of danger proceeds, we see some uncanny parallels begin to emerge...

"Travellers And Magicians" is a strange blend of styles. It leads you into thinking you'll be getting one of those picturesque and subtle stories of life among the far corners of the far east like "Spring, Summer, fall, Winter... And Spring", and the film certainly has more than its share of beautiful scenic vistas and quiet moments of philosophy and observation. But before you can get too settled into enjoying the scenery, the story takes a dark, twisted turn into territory that might seem more at place in the American film noir thrillers of the 1940's, as the tale that the Bhutanese villager's travelling companion tells him becomes more sinister and filled with murderous jealousy.

Is the film trying to say that the petty emotions that can destroy lives exist in even the remote, idyllic settings in which this film takes place? Or is it telling us that the "civilized" world is a constant danger to the remote people and places, ready to destroy their way of life if it can get a foothold? Or maybe it's just am entertaining thriller with a very unique manner of telling its familiar story? Could be any of these, though I do have some major doubts about the third. In any event, it makes for a unique and fascinating saga.

Either of the two parallel plot lines on its own could have made for an absorbing couple of hours at the movies, but the way the stories interwine with and comment on each other results in a film the likes of which you've rarely if ever seen. If you happen to be open to movies that take you beyond your usual comfortable genres and don't mind working a bit to get a film's meaning, a viewing of "Travellers And Magicians" will almost certainly be a very rewarding experience.

2. "The Ring Two." Here we come to the significance of today's title: I feel like that lone voice crying in the wilderness as I deliver what might possibly be (but I hope not) the only positive review you'll read of "The Ring Two." Time after time after time I've been reading critics complaining about the film's attempts at making things like pooling water and deer by the roadside into objects of terror, saying those things just aren't scary. I've been reading them complain that the film doesn't explain what all the different plot points mean and what it all signifies? And you know what I say to that? Well, actually, I probably can't say that here.

In this follow-up to the 2002 film, which was itself a remake of the Japanese original, the little girl whose ghost kept causing so much trouble is still hanging around, only now she wants to come back into our world in the form of the Naomi Watts characters's young son. Watts' attempts to prevent her possessing him make for an extremely creepy couple of hours at the movies, no matter what most of the critics are saying.

Director Hideo Nakata, taking over from the original's Gore Verbinski, made all three of the original Japanese "Ring" films and turns this sequel into one of the genuinely eeriest mainstream multiplex movies to come along in a long time. No monsters, no blood and guts... but perfectly normal things like water and deer become genuinely frightening in a much more Japanese-style movie than the first "Ring."
I personally think it's scarier, as well. Of course, if you prefer to have things spelled out for you and to have everything explained, you might have a problem. Hmm... maybe that's the problem so many critics have with it, though many of them liked "The Blair Witch Project," which didn't exactly make everything crystal clear either.

This is, after all, a story of the SUPERnatural... forces beyond nature and therefore beyond our complete understanding. If a supernatural horror movie is so filled with spooky atmosphere that the most ordinary scenes send chills down your spine, and make those chills return as you think about the film two days after seeing it (as they're doing now as I type this), then am I going to mind not understanding every little thing about it? I think you already know the answer to that question.
What I AM going to do, though, is to recommend that anyone who liked "The Ring" should go to see "The Ring Two" (the title actually IS spelled out like that). I very much doubt that you'll be disappointed.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Combination of the Two

1. "Robots." I'm pretty sure that I'm not the only person out there who has been waiting with increasing impatience for Robin Williams to get all of this sappy, sickly-sweet "Patch Adams" stuff out of his system... and even the sinister "Insomnia" image is starting to get old... ad go back to making movies where he can really BE Robin Williams: pure incoherent sillyness. But I'm not sure I was expecting that to happen in a movie like "Robots."

"Robots" is the story of Rodney Copperbottom, a robot with a dream to become an inventor of things that will improve the lives of robots everywhere. When he arrives in Robot City to go to work for his idol, the brilliant Mr. Bigweld, he finds Bigweld replaced at his own company by sinister forces who definitely don't have their fellow robots' good in mind. Now Rodney has to team up with a bunch of robot outcasts known as the Rusties to stop those evil forces.

The art of computer generated animation has progressed at such an incredibly fast pace that each new production leaves the last one in the dust, and this is no exception. The film has a look that has to be seen to be believed, and even that might not be enough. Williams has plenty of opportunity to do his hyper routines (they seem to annoy as many as they amuse, but I'm not among that crowd), and the rest of the voice cast (Ewan McGregor, Mel Brooks, Halle Berry, Amanda Bynes and many others) actually manage, somehow, to keep up with him. Logically, this movie ought to be one a winner, start to finish. So why does it feel so flat so much of the time?

Well, for starters the basic story is every "poor boy goes to the big city to make good" story you've ever seen. Yeah, it has a cast of robots this time, but you might be surprised how little difference that makes. The dialogue, other than Williams' (which was largely improvised by him) isn't exactly filled with snappy, memorable one-liners, either... but then, it WAS written by two former writers of "Happy Days" and "Laverne and Shirley." And the characters they created to SPEAK that dialogue are, by and large, a pretty bland lot. On top of all of this, there's the fact that a major, gigantic Hollywood studio is once again putting out a film about evil, gigantic major corporations being beaten by the little guy... let's pacify the audience by not only giving them false hope, but make them think that WE'RE not one of those evil mega-conglomerates, shall we?

If this were a Disney movie (speaking of mega-conglomerates) there'd probably be a "Greatest Characters" video eventually featuring excerpts of their most memorable characters from different movies and featuring plenty of Williams' highlights from this film. But this film was made by 20th Century Fox (thank you, Rupert Murdoch) so no such luck. You don't exactly have to suffer through a wretched turkey to see Williams, but still... is it worth it, really?

It probably is true that small children will not be so picky and will likely have fun at "Robots." But is that an excuse to continue making bland, not-much-of-anything movies: "Hey, the kids will see anything!" You want a really good animated movie? See "The Incredibles", or check out "Incredibles" director brad Bird's previous movie, "The Iron Giant."
They may even be enough to restore your hope for good kids' movies. As for "Robots," well... I guess it's better to have this in theatres than "Baby Geniuses 3."

2. "Nobody Knows." And now, for something completely different. Inspired by actual events in Tokyo, this Japanese import is the story of a not very devoted single mother who decides that her children are cramping her style, so one day she simply walks out on them. Among the problems: she never told her landlord about the three YOUNGER children, only the oldest (12). So the 12-year-old has to become the head of the family, hiding the others from prying eyes while providing them with a meager existence.

This is the kind of story that, if it were made in Hollywood, would likely be played for the maximum amount of sentiment and artificial pathos possible. But director Kore-Ida Hirokazu (of the wonderful "After Life") doesn't take that route. "Nobody Knows" is as simple, unadorned and straight-forward as it's possible for it to be. Nothing exagerated, nothing overblown. Which makes many moments all the more powerful, including very strong scenes in which Akira (the 12-year-old) makes a futile attempt to communicate with his estranged father in hopes of getting him to help, or when the weight of the awesome responsibilities he's taken on really begin to sink in. This is no piece of sentimental fluff... this is the story of the kinds of circumstances that adults would often find hard to face, being dealt with by four children who aren't even in their teens yet. They may have surprising reserves of strength, but how can you expect them to thrive?

And here, once again, we find another of those "But I don't want to see that, it sounds DEPRESSING!" movies. To which I can only respond: is it depressing to see how people overcome or at least endure situations that ought to destroy them? Just because a movie doesn't feature fist-waving triumph and a thousand strings playing a dramatic victory theme, that doesn't mean there isn't anything positive to take away from it. A movie doesn't always have to make you feel good to be a good movie (I've trademarked that phrase, and if you use it without permission I'll find out). Besides, I think a movie that can make you forget you're watching fiction and become as engrossed in the lives of its characters to the extent that "Nobody Knows" does has accomplished something most film makers can only dream of, and that's enough reason for it to exist.

As unusual a film as "Nobody Knows" is, there IS one other film that it doesn remind me just a bit of: an early (1993) effort by Stephen Soderbergh called "King of the Hill." If you're interested in how strongly a film about children can effect the emotions of adults, you should definitely check it out. But don't watch it back to back with "Nobody Knows", though... there CAN be too much of a good thing.

So: anybody recognize the source of this column's title?

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Kings Of The Sky

The U. Film Society (being a real Minneapolitan, they will NEVER be "The Bell" any more than Dayton's will ever stop being Dayton's or the Hungry Mind ever REALLY became Ruminator) is currently showing a two-week festival of documentaries about the many aspects of the circus. Now, almost everyone finds SOME aspect of the circus interesting, right? And what with side shows, high wire artists, magicians and more, there ought to be plenty to fascinate. Well, yes. But not in "Kings Of The Sky", the first of the series that I've gotten to see, last night.

This film tells the story of a high wire act in a circus touring the rural areas and small towns of China. You have the visual spectacle of the act itself, the look at a culture you rarely see in the movies, and the cultural differences between the circus performers and the people they're entertaining. All in all, prime ingredients for a great time. What went wrong?

For starters, the film uses some truly perplexing camera work... in far too many of the shots of the troupe performing their act, they're shown in such extreme close-up that you can't even see their entire bodies head to toe, much less get any sense of how dangerously far from the ground they're performing... and when one of them is injured in a fall, the camera totally fails to convey the shock of the moment because as far as you can tell from watching the film, she's only fallen a few feet.
Then there's the fact that sub-titles are used for only a fraction of the dialogue, so all the personal insights into the performers that we could be getting just go up in smoke. What do most of them feel about their work, what do they get out of it? We'll never know.

There's a very telling sequence in which the camera zips from one member of the troupe to another as they show their various scars and injuries and tell us where and how they got each of them that reminds you that this light amusement for the audience often comes at a high cost to the performers themselves. That could have had quite an impact if there had been a few more scenes like it, but no such luck.

"Kings Of The Sky" is a rare film of an unfortunate kind: one that takes a subject that only has to be presented straightforwardly with no elaboration in order to be exciting, and makes it into a bit of an endurance test, even at a short 75 minutes. Undoubtedly other films in this "Under The Bell Big Top" series must avoid the mistakes that this one has made, and I intended to find out by checking out at least one or two more. But anyone who's a big fan of the circus or merely curious about it can safely skip "Kings Of The Sky." It's not exactly The Greatest Show On Earth.

Monday, March 07, 2005

The Jacket

In "The Jacket", Adrian Brody plays a Gulf War veteran accused of a murder he may or may not have committed, sentenced to an institution for the criminally insane. His doctor (Kris Kristofferson) puts him through a very unorthodox treatment: strapping him into a straight-jacket like device and sliding him into a morgue drawer for hours at a time to create a kind of isolation tank atmosphere. Jack (Brody) finds that in this setting he goes wandering into the future, fourteen years in the future to be precise, and learns that he died of a head wound on New Year's Day of 1993. So with only four days remaining until that time, how is he going to make enough people believe his story is true to enable him to find out what happened and prevent his death? And besides, just because he... a man known to suffer hallucinations... believes this to be true, does that mean it is?

Now, there are movie reviewers who would have you believe they're always open-minded. Not me. I admit to an instinctive dislike of sports movies, for instance (unless they're about baseball), and likewise I almost always find myself at least INTRIGUED by "puzzle" movies like "Memento" and "The Machinist", in which the very reality of what you're watching is called into question, where you're never sure what certain plot developments mean until the very final scene, and where several different seemingly contradictory things could nevertheless all be equally true. That is exactly the kind of movie "The Jacket" is. And while it may frustrate those looking for standard linear story telling, it had me hooked right from the beginning.

The story takes place in several different times almost simultaneously: flashbacks to Jack's Gulf War experiences and the murder he might have committed are presented in a halucinogenic, nightmarish style; the "present day" scenes in the institute are totally naturalistic; and the "future" scenes are often filmed in a kind of golden glow more often associated with dreamy nostalgia, which somehow makes them frightening. Pay attention and there's nowhere near as much trouble keeping it all straight as you might fear, even if what it all MEANS is up for grabs.

The acting is uniformly fine, including that of Jennifer Jason Leigh as a doctor at the Institute who's considerably more kindly than Kristofferson, and Kiera "Pirates of the Carribean" Knightley as the "future" adult version of a 10-year-old girl Jack meets in the "present."
The look and feel of the film makes even the most prosaic of moments terrifying, and while not overwhelming the story or characters, makes "The Jacket" one of the most stylish movies in recent years. You're sitting there in the theatre, safe in your seat, but at the same time you're having a very beautiful looking nightmare.

By the end of the movie, are you at least clear about what's happened? Well, sort of. Depends on how much of which events you
choose to believe are real and which aren't. Depending on your choice, you could have at least a half-dozen different versions of what it all means. Personally, I don't even want to limit myself to just one... I think any one of them is equally intriguing. And, just in case you're thinking I'm only praising this movie because I like "puzzle movies"... well, yes, I do, but while I might still ENJOY this film even if it wasn't as well-made as it is, I wouldn't be PRAISING it. This really IS a well-MADE movie.

"The Jacket" takes a genre (well, it really is a kind of genre of its own) that has been taking up more and more screens in art houses in recent years, and brings it into the multiplexes to baffle some audiences and dazzle others. Count me among the dazzled.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Nothing To Get Excited About

1. "Imaginary Heroes". A seemingly normal suburban family hides a seething core of hatred, resentment and pain. One of their sons has just died, and another son blames himself for his death, retreating into his own private world. The mother has responded by becoming a cold, bitter shell of a person, and the father genuinely cares and means well, but is too innefectual to really help. Yes, folks, it's a re-release of "Ordinary People"... what? You say it isn't? It's a NEW movie called "Imaginary Heroes"? Well, you can't blame me for making that mistake!

For all practical purposes, "Imaginary Heroes" really is a remake of "Ordinary People", with the roles originally played by Timothy Hutton, Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland taken by Emile Hirsch, Sigourney Weaver and Jeff Daniels, respectively. Some remarkably creative films have come about from variations on themes others have used before, but in those cases SOME new element or perspective has been added. Not here, folks.

Hirsch has been quite effective in films like "The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys" and "The Emperor's Club", but here he just sulks and mopes for two hours. Daniels settles for playing a dramatic version of the same hapless loser he usually plays for laughs, and Michelle Williams, formerly of "Dawson's Creek", plays the family's estranged daughter so listlessly you might start to wonder whether her charming turn in 2003's "The Station Agent" was a fluke. The only major performance with anything to recommend it is Weaver's... stuck in a role that's really just Mary Tyler Moore redux (mixed with a little bit of her character from "The Ice Storm"), she manages to find layers of complexity in her under-written character that make her more than just a cardboard villain... she loves her family, she hates her family, she wants the world to go away, she wants to be part of it... you have no trouble believing her character is torn so many ways she isn't sure what she feels, except that what she feels is intense, as is the complexity of your response to her. But is that enough to recommend a movie? I'm afraid not... particularly when its early promise of at least being realistic and not backing off from unpleasant truths vanishes like smoke and plot threads are resolved in a manner that has more in common with an episode of some weekly TV family drama.

There is no reason that stories of dysfunctional families should all fall into the same predictable rut. After all, Tolstoy once wrote that unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way. That ought to at least allow for the possibility of a couple of original movies on this subject to have come along since "American Beauty" back in 1999. But as wise as Tolstoy normally was, a viewing of "Imaginary Heroes" might be enough to make you question that wisdom in this one case.

2. "Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior". A lot of people are still pining for the days of the Kung Fu movies of the early 1970's, when there was no wire work or special effects, every stunt performed by a character really WAS performed by the actor, and every punch and kick landed with such brutal impact that you almost felt your own bones breaking. They're tired of poetic martial arts movies like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", or comedy variations like the films of Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow. Well, I yield to very few in my fondness for Hong Kong action and martial arts, but I'm not one of those people. I like a bit of style with my martial arts, some sense that a character has learned a real discipline and isn't just smashing their enemies' bones into powder. And there's very little style in "Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior."

Heavily promoted as a successor to Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Jackie Chan, this Thai import stars Tony Jaa. he plays Ting, a resident of a small Thai village whose sacred Buddha, which the town relies on to bring them good fortune, has had its head cut off and taken to Bangkok where it will be sold by a criminal gang. Ting promises that he will go to Bangkok and use his amazing fighting skills to retrieve the head of the Buddha (known as Ong-Bak) even if it costs his own life... or that of seemingly half the people he meets.

An action movie CAN still have an actual plot... it's not COMPLETELY impossible... but the makers of this film don't seem to know that. After Ong-Bak's head is stolen and taken to the city, Ting follows and catches up with the thieves almost as soon as he gets there. This is only about 20 or 25 minutes into a one hour, 50 minute film. But does he just attack them and either triumph of suffer defeat right then and there? Of course not... not when it's possible to have another 85 to 90 minutes of non-stop chase scenes, stunts and brutal combat designed for no purpose other than to stretch the story out to feature length. Sounds great, you say? A lot of classic martial arts films have been little more than stunts and fights with minimal plot? Well, yes... but those stunts have been designed with stunning imagination, and the fights
choreographed to make them works of art along the lines of a more hostile Gene Kelley or Fred Astaire. "Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior", on the other hand, gives us almost two hours of ultra-violent, bone crushing brutality with no art involved at all. Again, there are people who are genuinely nostalgic for that sort of thing, and if you're one of them, knock yourself out (so to speak). BUT...

Aside from the sheer wearing, relentless thud and blunder, this film also takes that old martial arts movie standby, the action scene shown from from two or even three different cameras and points of view, one at a time, and doesn't just run it into the ground, but runs it so FAR into the ground that it comes out on the other side of the world. This technique can be dazzling when used sparingly (as in Jackie Chan's "Project A"), but when virtually every single blow of every single fight scene in the entire movie goes through that process, it wears out its welcome faster than Jet Li's "No Shadow Kick." And haven't there been WAY, WAY too many martial arts movies filled with scenes of one-on-one combat in an illegal, underground "fight club"? I thought this kind of thing went out of style when Jean-Claude Van Damme's movies finally started going direct to video, but now here it is again!

Tony Jaa himself is a remarkable fighter and athlete, capable of performing feats that will take your breath away (in the case of his opponents, literally). But he deserves better than this rehash of a movie. Of course, Jackie Chan and Jet Li weren't always (or often) in brilliant films at the beginning of THEIR careers either, so there's still hope that Jaa will get the movie he deserves. And fans still pining for a return to the days of blood, blood and more blood probably won't care how talented he is, anyhow. So for those folks: this is your movie, hope you enjoy it. As for the rest of us: well, there should be a new
Jackie Chan movie out before long...

3. "Be Cool." Ten years ago, basking in the glory of his "Pulp Fiction" comeback, John Travolta starred in "Get Shorty", the story of a small-time hood from New York sent to L.A. to collect a debt, who winds up becoming involved in the world of movies. Like the Elmore Leonard novel it was based on, it was wry, clever and amusing, with plenty of pointed barbs at the lunatic world of Hollywood. A decade later, SOME of the same cast, plus a different director, have reunited to film Leonard's own sequel to that book, with Chilly Palmer (Travolta) leaving the movie business and becoming a record producer. The novel itself was a worthy successor. This film? Not so much.

It was a major mistake to dispense with the services of former Coen Brothers cinematographer-turned-director Barry Sonnenfeld. Sonnenfeld has a real talent for finding the off-beat and off-kilter in seemingly normal moments and characters, but "Be Cool" is directed by F. Gary Gray, whose most notable previous achievement was the by-the-books, unexciting remake of "The Italian Job" starring Mark Wahlberg. Then there's Travolta... the man seems to have lost all of the passion for acting that "Pulp Fiction" revived in him, and is going through the motions as much as Gray is. Even teaming him up with Uma Thurman once more doesn't help... the chemistry that sparked "Pulp Fiction" just isn't there anymore, something that's especially and painfully notable when the two of them go out on a dance floor and, trying bravely to conjure up the spirit of their greatest moment together in that movie, fail miserably. In fact, this movie is filled with good actors who do sub-par jobs here... James Woods, Harvey Keitel... they all parade across the screen without making any major impression. Of course, it doesn't help that so much of their time is dedicated to taking way too easy shots at sitting-duck-type targets (in both a literal and figurative sense).

There are a couple of real surprises in the casting in the smaller roles, though, where the greats have the movie stolen from them. Action mainstay The Rock plays the gay-and-proud-of-it bodyguard of a sleezy record executive with such a strong sense of sheer fun and enthusiasm that it reminds you how much most of the movie misses that kind of thing... he seems to be thinking that if the movie isn't any good, at least HE'S going to enjoy himself, and he certainly is, in a character that couldn't possibly be further from "The Scorpion King." There's also Andre 3000 (real name Andre Benjamin) of the group Outkast, as a trigger-happy gunman who gets very, very frustrated waiting for someone to allow him to use his talents. The man is genuinely funny, which is more than you can say for most of the participants in this movie. Once again, as has been the case so often in recent months, there are small moments of creativity and a couple of interesting characters and performers that give you just enough of a glimpse of how much better the movie could have been to make you frustrated that it wasn't. Except for a three-year stretch in the late 90's, Elmore Leonard's books haven't fared well at the movies, and "Be cool" does not improve the track record.

So, the movie fails as a sequel, as an adaptation of a good novel, as a comedy... is there anything it succeeds at? Well, sort of. It does succeed as a negative example for film-makers doing future Leonard books... this is what not to do. Quentin Tarantino, who brought Leonard's "Rum Punch" to the screen as "Jackie Brown", still owns the film rights to three other Leonard novels. We can only hope...

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Off The Beaten Path

1. "Vodka Lemon." In icy, snow-bound Armenia, a small village, and
most of its residents, have definitely seen better days. An old widower keeps body and soul together by selling off his few remaining possessions, and very little is left. Villagers don't really communicate with each other, and certainly not with their children, and let's just say that nobody in town is going to challenge Donald Trump or Bill Gates in the personal wealth sweepstakes. Oh, and did I mention that it's a comedy?

There may be a sharp difference between what constitutes humor to
mass audiences in America and other nations of the world, but somehow this American has no problem finding the comedy in the often bleak films of directors like Finland's Aki Kaurismaki. So while a lot of folks may not be able to understand what's so funny about "Vodka Lemon", I found it absolutely hysterical... as well as very touching.

So many modern Hollywood comedies don't really have characters so much as gag machines spouting out one-liners. A film like "Vodka Lemon", on the other hand, puts its cast of very real-seeming people through the paces of their daily trials with a real sense of sympathy for their suffering and a sense of real (if small) triumph when they overcome them. And it manages to find humor in small, unexpected places, never forgetting that often the best way to get past the roadblocks of life is to laugh at them. Ultimately, this is a very upbeat film, just not in a phony way... and even some folks expecting (and hoping for) nothing but pure Hollywood hokum will be pleased at how some of these folks' lives turn out.

And if you're wondering about the title: one of the main characters operates a liquor store that sells a particularly popular item called Vodka Lemon, which actually has an almond flavor. When another character asks her "Why is it called Vodka Lemon when it tastes like
almonds?", she simply shrugs and says "That's Armenia!" And that says pretty much all you need to know about "Vodka Lemon" the movie.

2. "The First Annual Twin Cities Gold Film Festival." Every year, millions of people take bathroom breaks or fix snacks during the short film awards at the Oscars, figuring it doesn't matter who wins because these are films nobody ever sees or will ever get the chance to. This showcase, which played last weekend at the Riverview Theatre, clearly demonstrates why this is a very bad thing indeed.

A collection of eight of the films nominated in one or the other of the three different short film categories this year, the incredible range of styles and sheer dazzling creative imagination displayed in any individual one of these short films puts most full features to shame. In the computer animated "Gopher Broke", the spirit of the Road Runner and Looney Tunes lives again in the story of a frustrated gopher trying to hijack the contents of a produce truck. In "At 7:35 in the Morning", a simple attempt at getting breakfast in a cafe in Israel is interrupted by
a terrorist laden with dynamite taped to his waist... and by a mighty spectacular song and dance number. In "Ryan," the true story of an award-winning Canadian animator fallen on hard times is told in a surrealistic animated style that somehow manages to tell a great deal more truth than straight-ahead live action ever could. And if you're in the mood for something less surreal, "Mighty Times: The Children's March' brings the historical events of one of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s greatest moments to stirring, powerful life.

These, and the other four films contained in this festival, are clear evidence that there is far more sheer brilliance in these little obscure films than most people will see in a year of multiplex moviegoing. That most of them will never play at a theatre near you is a shame, but you don't have to settle for the safe, tame and predictable. Seek them out: catch next year's festival (the fact that Saturday's screening completely sold out the 700-seat Riverview indicates that there will be one), check for DVDs of any or all of these films, just in general keep alert to any possible sources that will enable you to see some of the best work being done in movies today. it may be difficult, but it will be worth it, and you'll be very, very glad you did.

3. "Cursed." Well, you knew that all three couldn't be gems. In Wes ("Scream", "A Nightmare On Elm Street") Craven's latest, a brother and sister rescuing a woman trapped in an overturned car are bitten by what appears to be a very large wolf. But who ever heard of a wolf in L.A.? Then, when they begin to develop a taste for raw meat, start getting anxious when the moon rises, and appear to have grown a great deal more hair in a very short time, they start to think that maybe that was no ordinary wolf...

It's always interesting, and generally disappointing, to me to see how modern horror film makers try to update or "translate" some of the classic horror film concepts to the modern age. It's pretty "Universally" (sorry) acknowledged that "Van Helsing" was a disgrace to the classic Universal Pictures monsters that supposedly inspired it. In "Cursed", Wes Craven has commissioned a script by his "Scream" screenwriter Kevin Williamson that at times is so clever and original that it's worthy of comparison to "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" (the TV show, not the movie). The werewolf curse is used as a symbol of both HIV/AIDS and of homosexuality in snappy, well written and observant dialogue, and the movie has that "Buffy" touch of taking itself JUST seriously enough, but not TOO seriously. Christina Ricci is certainly the ideal choice for the female lead and does the job well, and there's actually some clever use of that old, usually boring, celebrity-cameo-as-themselves routine.
But that's the script... Williamson didn't direct the film, Craven did. And
Craven doesn't have the same touch as his writer.

It doesn't help, for one thing, to have the various werewolves be all computer generated creations of such blatant digital fakery that they make the awful creatures of "Van Helsing" look like the height of realism. Then there's the casting: aside from the use of celebrity cameos and a nice understated turn by "Smallville" 's Michael Rosenbaum as a TV producer, the smaller roles are generally filled with what one can only assume are actors cast for their affordability on a relatively low budget... certainly it wasn't for their acting ability. Craven doesn't seem to be nearly as imaginative visually as he was twenty years ago in the first "Elm Street" movie either, and settles for a series of shots clumsily photographed, poorly designed, and badly framed.

"Cursed" is another case of a good script sabotaged by a weak execution, though usually that's done by reworking the good script until it's a shadow of its former self... Craven's ability to do this is a rare achievement of a very unique kind. It's also a strong argument for the position that Wes Craven shouldn't be allowed to direct movies anymore... and that Kevin Williamson should.