Archive for August, 2004

Hero

Monday, August 30th, 2004

hero

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A stunning visual feast boasting strong performances from its attractive quartet of leading actors, “Hero” finally makes its American debut this week as a theatrically released feature. Fans of wuxia have been trading imported and bootleg DVD copies of the movie for many months, often speaking with reverent awe about the storytelling skills of Zhang Yimou, the film’s Chinese director. Zhang, previously known in America almost exclusively to arthouse fans as the director of several incomparable collaborations with onetime girlfriend Gong Li (including “Ju Dou,” “Raise the Red Lantern,” and “To Live”), tackles the project with the same commitment he previously brought to his politically edgier films. The result is a sumptuous fairy tale recounting the original third century B.C. unification of China.

Martial arts superstar Jet Li plays Nameless, a cunning strategist and flawless swordsman who enters the royal palace grounds in the kingdom of Qin, reporting that he has vanquished three ruthless assassins previously charged with attempted murder against the king. Bearing physical evidence of his exploits, Nameless is allowed an audience with Qin’s monarch (Chen Dao Ming), where he recounts in detail the circumstances of his victories. Surprisingly, the king refuses to accept Nameless’ initial tale, and the stories of his exploits are then retold, ala “Rashomon.”

Zhang makes the most of this simple flashback structure, staging breathtaking set-pieces with veteran cinematographer Christopher Doyle (longtime Wong Kar-Wai D.P.) that vividly shift the color palette according to the thematic and emotional underpinnings of the storyline. Following a mind-boggling courtyard fight between Nameless and Long Sky (Donnie Yen), the film settles on an interesting love triangle involving deadly lovers Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), Broken Sword (Tony Leung), and Broken Sword’s gorgeous apprentice Moon (Zhang Ziyi). Each time Nameless’ story is questioned, a new version explodes before the eyes of the audience.

“Hero” bursts with unforgettable images. In one duel, Moon and Flying Snow face each other in a blizzard of dazzlingly yellow autumn leaves; when a fatal blow is delivered, the yellow changes to a burning crimson. Another battle, which equals the grace of Ang Lee’s treetop confrontation in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” pits Broken Sword against Nameless in the middle of a mountain lake. The two warriors fly over the placid surface, skittering and skipping on the water so lightly, they scarcely make a ripple. Another heart-stopping shot, designed in a gauzy blue, allows Nameless to demonstrate his peerless skill with a blade as he catches a delicate bowl on the edge of his sword. A climactic showdown is staged among cascading sheets of lush, alluring green silk that recall the rapturous fabrics of Zhang’s “Ju Dou.”

Several critics have taken Zhang to task for abandoning his earlier humanist treatises in favor of government-mandated nationalism. Certainly, the director is at his best when allowed to display his keen eye for stories that explore the psychological shadings of power struggles great and small. Many fans are holding out for the director’s upcoming “House of Flying Daggers,” which will mark another team-up with Zhang Ziyi (in addition to “Hero” the young actress has also appeared in Zhang’s “The Road Home”). Early reports suggest that the new film is as resplendent as “Hero.”

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/30/04.

Before Sunset

Monday, August 23rd, 2004

beforesunset

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Before Sunset” is one of busy filmmaker Richard Linklater’s most deeply felt and satisfying movies. A real-time sequel to 1995’s “Before Sunrise,” (the uber-undergraduate backpacker in Europe fantasy) the new work is simply astonishing throughout its entirely concise 80-minute running time. Wistful and occasionally heartbreaking, “Before Sunset” is the rarest of all sequels in that it catapults the relative insignificance of the first film into a universe that is suddenly concrete and identifiable. Gliding along on the strength of Steadicam operator Jim McCroskey’s perfect compositional balance, “Before Sunset” is at once so beautifully fragile and so classically constructed that it must be placed alongside the great romantic films.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reprise their roles as Jesse and Celine, and the two actors had considerable input into the creation of the new script. Because the film is one continuous conversation (in many ways reminiscent of “My Dinner With Andre”), Linklater and co-writer Kim Krizan have the golden opportunity to delve into the psyches of their creations. Even more remarkable is the world-weary maturity that marks the second encounter of Jesse and Celine: the events of “Before Sunset” take place nine years following the action of the first movie, and every single one of those days can be felt in the conversation shared by the two leads.

“Before Sunset” has a remarkable urgency in its narrative, which ideally captures the awkward thrill of seeing someone special after nearly a decade of almost daily thought. Jesse is now a successful writer, and his book tour has taken him to Paris. Naturally, his novel recounts in autobiographical detail the night he spent with Celine in Vienna all those years ago. Celine has read Jesse’s book, and shows up at the signing. Even though his plane is set to leave in about an hour, Jesse and Celine journey through the city in order to catch up with each other, and their discussion is segmented by the many gorgeous sights of a sun-dappled Paris.

Admirers of the original movie will recall that it ended with a mutual promise by the characters to reunite exactly six months following their magical encounter. Linklater immediately disabuses the romantics in the audience of the notion that Jesse and Celine found their way back to each other (fortunately, his new layers of intense, personal, star-crossed destiny make up for the failed rendezvous). Celine’s grandmother died, and she could not meet up with Jesse because of the funeral. This information rekindles the same thrill and desire the two had discovered in the past, and both Delpy and Hawke are at their absolute finest in the skin of these one-time lovers.

Linklater’s fans – who were afforded a tantalizing moment with Jesse and Celine in animated form in “Waking Life” – are richly rewarded for their patience. Linklater intersperses some shots from “Before Sunrise” into the new film, and the effect, which shows just how much both people have aged, is arresting. “Before Sunset” adds up to one of the most powerful conclusions captured on film this year, a moment of clarity perfectly attenuated in the equilibrium of certainty and doubt. The final few minutes, punctuated by an acoustic guitar waltz and a Nina Simone impression delivered with supreme seductiveness by Celine, speak volumes about the tentativeness of love and the guarantee of loss. Who knows what will happen?

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/23/04.

Alien vs. Predator

Monday, August 16th, 2004

alienvspredator

Movie review by Greg Carlson

If one maintains sufficiently low expectations going in, “Alien vs. Predator” is not a completely terrible sci-fi slugfest. Because Twentieth Century Fox opted out of advanced screenings of the film, critics everywhere assumed that a turkey, and not a face-hugger, would be hatching out of the slimy egg laid by the Alien Queen. By now, both the “Predator” and “Alien” franchises reside in the dustbin of once relevant movie cycles. “Alien” was always the powerhouse, with its A-list directors, iconic H.R. Giger design, and its creepy, atmospheric suspense. “Predator” had, well, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bringing the two worlds together (notwithstanding the clever “Alien” skull in the trophy room in “Predator 2”) is so inherently problematic, even the movie tagline, “Whoever wins, we lose,” alludes to the rub: where do the humans fit in?

Billionaire Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen, murkily and frustratingly linked to his android characters from previous “Alien” movies) invites a ragtag group of scientists and tough guys to a strange archaeological dig beneath the ice of Antarctica. A gigantic temple/pyramid, bearing similarities to the architectural styles of several ancient cultures, has piqued Weyland’s interest, and he has the cash to check it out in person. Outdoor adventurer Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan, effectively assuming the Ellen Ripley-esque role) is predictably skeptical, and offers many dire warnings that the dangerous trip is not worth the risk of life and limb.

Before you can say “bursting ribcage,” the pitiful human explorers figure out what the audience has known since the trailers appeared: they are now trapped in a gruesome war between two of the most lethal interstellar species ever to cause you to spill your popcorn. Writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson puts his imagination into overdrive to explain how the Predators have actually bred Aliens in order to provide worthy prey for their young hunters (the flashback scenes are completely nutty, and also boast some of the best CG shots in the entire movie). The results are as preposterous as one would imagine, but the fanboys came to see Aliens fight Predators, and that is what Anderson intends to deliver.

“Alien vs. Predator” rapidly comes to resemble a video game, as the mostly faceless crew exists only to be killed by either species. While both creepy monsters boast nasty vagina dentata along with their predisposition for either beheading or eviscerating the puny homo sapiens who get in their way, the Predators are just a little bit more bipedal than the Aliens. They also wear helmets and have armor, which further identifies them as thinkers. This information proves important as the movie grinds on, as Alexa has to find a way to take sides in order to survive. Fortunately, Anderson is willing to tinker with the respective mythologies of the title creatures just enough to keep things moving.

Where the movie really fails, however, is in its lack of interest in the human characters. Ridley Scott and James Cameron were able to sketch vivid, individual personalities in their supporting players, but Anderson’s exposition is woefully inadequate – especially considering that the vicious space fiends don’t show up until well into the movie’s running time. Henriksen is wasted, particularly since Anderson chooses not to reveal anything specific about the Bishop android or the Weyland Corporation. Lathan, like Sigourney Weaver, manages to avoid being upstaged by the oozing, dripping puppets, which is no mean feat. The greatest single disappointment, however, is the movie’s PG-13 rating. By hedging its box office bets, Fox hamstrings the drawing power of the original films: unfettered, graphic violence.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/16/04.

Collateral

Monday, August 9th, 2004

collateral

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Director Michael Mann straddles a line occupied by very few commercial filmmakers, placing his own visionary stamp on scripts that might otherwise be handled with conventional banality. Like some of his best work, “Collateral” merely uses the urban crime genre – with a bit of police procedural thrown in for good measure – as a way to examine masculinity. The film is undeniably attractive : it packages essentially the world’s biggest star, Tom Cruise, with another veteran performer, Jamie Foxx, who is just now being allowed to show off his formidable talent as a dramatic actor.

Cruise plays Vincent, a steely contract killer with a metallic suit that matches his silvery hair. He enters a cab driven by Foxx’s Max, a fastidious employee whose dreams of owning his own limousine company have never materialized. Reluctantly agreeing to shuttle Vincent to five stops (it’s against company rules, but the fistful of crisp C-notes proves too tempting), Max immediately regrets his decision when a body lands on the windshield of his spotless taxi. Mortified, Max realizes that Vincent is not a typical fare, and before you can say “high concept,” Max becomes a reluctant accomplice in Vincent’s gruesome, nighttime odyssey.

Mann knows how to capitalize on Stuart Beattie’s screenplay, and “Collateral” easily shifts back and forth between frenzied, high-wire action and penetrating psychological disclosure. Mann makes movies in which men must do things with, to, and for other men in order to define their maleness, and there is something perversely delicious about the homoerotic tension developed between Max and Vincent as they come to depend upon one another. We never lose sight of Max’s desperation to escape from Vincent, but the frequent conversations about the need to improvise, take risks, and break away from the expected routine allow Mann to explore the unlikeliest of possibilities: mutual respect and possibly even friendship between the two characters.

Stylistically, “Collateral” is as tight as Mann’s other movies; stray coyotes pad across neon-lit streets while overhead shots of L.A.’s labyrinth of concrete highways sweat with a strange beauty. Because of its linear structure, “Collateral” has to be effective with each of the movements in its quintet, and several of Vincent’s actions take on surreal and operatic qualities. In one set-piece, Max and Vincent listen to jazz at a night club, and engage musician and club owner Barry Shabaka Henley in conversation. Henley’s performance, an actor’s dream in which a lengthy monologue about meeting Miles Davis in the 1960s merely serves as a metaphor about sadness and regret, is one of the jewels of “Collateral.”

Along with Henley, “Collateral” is populated with interesting actors in small but intense roles. Mark Ruffalo is underutilized as an intuitive detective, and Jada Pinkett Smith’s character gets stuck in a Hitchcockian time warp after playing in one of the movie’s most intriguing early scenes. Javier Bardem gets to deliver a juicy speech about Santa Claus and Black Peter, and Irma P. Hall makes an impression as Max’s hospitalized mother. Undoubtedly, though, the strength of the film rests with the exchanges between Max and Vincent, and both Cruise and Foxx are excellent. In “Collateral,” Mann has managed a tricky task: he has made a hard-boiled, suspenseful action movie with both a beating heart and a brain.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/9/04.

Napoleon Dynamite

Monday, August 2nd, 2004

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A thoroughly disjointed collection of weird sketches and odd circumstances revolving around a superbly awkward teenager navigating high school hell, “Napoleon Dynamite” bursts with a remarkable gift for observational detail.  Already drawing frequent comparisons to Todd Solondz (accurate) and Wes Anderson (not so accurate), first time feature director Jared Hess follows in the footsteps of filmmakers who ferociously document elements of their own experiences in ways that allow everyone to recognize something eerily familiar.  Freshening up the archetypal isn’t exactly easy, and Hess does not always succeed with “Dynamite,” but the movie is so unique that its quirky universe has a way of sticking with you for weeks at a time.

Jon Heder plays the title character, and his performance is as terrific as it is creepy.  With his tight-fitting thrift store t-shirts, jeans, and moon boots, Napoleon seems to instinctively sense that clothes can indeed make the manchild.  Given to machine-gun outbursts of fatuous lies (he claims to have spent his summer vacation hunting wolverines in Alaska) and jerky, sudden movements, Napoleon endures the cultural vacuum of rural Idaho (although the movie could be set in darn near any small town) with a sort of stoic optimism.  Even though his pencil drawings indicate that he has no eye for depth, perspective, or line, Napoleon is sure that his renderings of unicorns, warriors, and attractive classmates will be recognized as amazing by those lucky enough to see them.

When Napoleon’s very active grandmother does something unfortunate to her coccyx (to borrow a line from Steve Coogan), she sends sleazy Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) to babysit, even though Napoleon’s brother Kip (Aaron Ruell, stealing scene after scene) also lives at home and is 32 years old.  Even though the movie feels like it is set in the mid 1980s, Kip constantly scours online chatrooms in search of a soul mate.  He gives up his seat behind the monitor just long enough to embark on some door-to-door food container salesmanship with Rico.  Napoleon resents the team-up, and tries to raise some money of his own by taking a job at a poultry farm.  Needless to say, it doesn’t exactly work out.

At school, Napoleon bonds with new kid Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and the shy Deb (Tina Majorino).  Before you know it, Pedro has mounted a campaign to run for class president, and Napoleon eagerly accepts the management position, with the idea that he could eventually be in charge of security in the event Pedro wins the election.  The depths of Napoleon’s ineptitude are bottomless – a poster-hanging montage set to the theme song from “The A-Team” is hilarious – but Hess always finds a way to make you believe that even the wildest dreams can come true at the most unexpected moments.  The director probably should have skipped shooting the bonus ending that was attached to prints when the film earned a wider release, but stay all the way through the end credits to see what could just as well be the contents of Napoleon’s rich fantasy life.

“Napoleon” works as a fractured fairy tale, even though Hess fails to satisfactorily negotiate the fine line between laughing at and laughing with the characters.  The movie’s resolution also sneaks up too fast, and without the proper prelude.  The whole last act is tremendously funny, but would Napoleon’s otherworldly dance routine really trigger the admiration of his classmates?  Hess finds a few exhilarating moments that really indicate his strong sense of visual storytelling, such as Kip’s exit and Napoleon’s tetherball game with Deb, but the script (which Hess wrote with his wife Jerusha Hess) leaves you wanting just a little bit more.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/2/04.