America, the Idiotic, and THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR, a semi-review, but not really.

All right, that's it. I've had it with you, America, and your lame sense of being "entertained." Sure, I fall for Hollywood's tricks more often than not, becoming enamored with something because of this or that that reminds me of something I genuinely loved at one point, but no more! Thanks to Rob Cohen's THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR, I have decided that you, m'lady, are full of rancid shit.
The movie itself wasn't horrible; mildly enjoyable adventure film, I'd say. Not the disaster that THE SCORPION KING was, but close enough to THE MUMMY RETURNS territory as to wonder what the hell the filmmakers could possibly be thinking. After a solid first half, the film derails from its fragile and hastily laid tracks by implementing an attempt at humor so egregious to anyone who halfway has a brain that they should wind up hating this movie.
In the midst of a fight with some bad guys, a few Yeti are called into action - okay, it's a fantasy action film and we're in Nepal, so why not? But can someone please tell me why the hell there's a sequence where one Yeti punts an enemy off the mountain, looks over to his friend behind him, and expresses pure joy when the observer pronounces his field goal is "good" by making the standard American football signal for it? HOW THE FUCK DOES A YETI, admittedly a fictional creature, KNOW WHAT THE FUCK AMERICAN FOOTBALL IS?!?!?!?
And why are YOU laughing at it, you standard American idiots I saw the film in an auditorium full of? Is that "clever" to you? I doubt it. I think you're just that stupid.



In the hope of actually giving a much more thorough trek through my recent viewings, I write mini-reviews/thoughts/etc. of those movies I just don't have the time to devote to writing up as a longer piece. I give you once again, an installment of "Blurbs":

Guillermo del Toro is one of the most exciting directors I’ve ever become enamored with. He doesn’t shy away from pop sensibilities, nor more artistic ambitions, and he is frequently brilliant in his horror/fantasty/action films. PAN’S LABYRINTH, certainly his best film to date, was a trailblazing experience, adopting all the wonderment that comes with the best told fables and fairy tales. With HELLBOY II, del Toro has fully stepped into his own creatively, fully realizing a fantastic world that doesn’t just come to life, but simply is; something that could conceivably exist within the parameters of our own reality. It’s not a film that is as successful or coherent as PAN’S LABYRINTH, but it is certainly a must-see film that delves into the characters and cares for them so much. HELLBOY II is a quirky, dark, lighthearted and ultimately thrilling film that seems like the work of an improv artist, and that, though it seems like it could fall apart at any moment, thankfully for the audience, it never feels like it is attempting to do something it just can’t quite accomplish. It is this sense of anarchy in the production - the hilarious asides, the frequent sense of amazement, and the exuberant energy of just about everything - that gives the film its real heart and purpose.

The biggest surprise is that THE INCREDIBLE HULK doesn’t suck. It’s not a great movie by any means - not even close to IRON MAN or THE DARK KNIGHT - but it pulls off what it sets out to do beyond anyone’s expectations. This is a re-booting of the franchise launched originally by Ang Lee in 2003 in an adaptation that has divided fans and critics, and which I think is a superb movie that bears the distinct mark of its maker. The latest outing is a much more action-centric telling. It’s the opposite side of Lee’s more cerebral take on the character five years ago. Edward Norton and Liv Tyler are servicable as Bruce Banner and Betty Ross, which is more than I can ask for, and there are some flashes of their true capabilities from time to time; if only they were given more to do. But, as I stated, the action is on center stage here, and not the characters. It's essentially a three-stage actioner that I didn't mind sitting through, and that gives a pretty good representation of the other, "smash"-ier side of the Hulk than previously seen.

This is a movie that I never in a million years would have picked up or watched (outside of it being on the Sci-Fi Channel at 3 AM), but decided to try after reading a couple of really positive reviews. Well, add my own opinion to the recommendation pile because this movie has it in spades. What is a well-worn genre is given a much-needed invigorating spike of juice in this taut, thrilling giant-animal-develops-taste-for-humans tale about a killer crocodile on a river in Australia. Radha Mitchell stars, and delivers a nice turn (I like listening to her natural accent) as an Aussie river tour guide, and the gore and effects are really well done. ROGUE was written and directed by Greg McLean, who delivered the delicious Outback horror film WOLF CREEK a few years back. This one's worth checking out, and I'm gonna keep my eye on McLean.



Wong Kar Wai has been called the world's most romantic filmmaker, and with good reason. His films CHUNGKING EXPRESS, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, and 2046 express the longing and desire of being in love while being wrapped up in stories and characters that feel fresh, exciting and new. They are lush films that fill their audience with sumptuous visions and delights. With his English-language debut, MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS, he delivers a lesser film, a sweet ode, not entirely unlike the blueberry pies from which the film takes its namesake.

This is not to say that the film is any less sumptuous in any respect, but that the impact is a much lighter one, and is easily resolved without too much heavy digestion afterward. This worked fine for me, as it was what I wanted at the time, as opposed to a less airy film. Sometimes you want the full meal, and sometimes you just want coffee and dessert, right?

MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS is essentially a road movie, though a lot of the conventions of the genre are largely missing, like most of the scenes that tend to take place traveling to and from places. It starts in New York City, where cafe owner Jeremy receives a phone call inquiring about a customer. Before long, Elizabeth shows up with a set of keys and a message for her boyfriend. We learn it was her on the phone, and that she is in the area because he lives nearby. Her boyfriend is cheating on her, and she is feeling rejected. In one of my favorite "meet-cutes" in a long time, they have the following exchange about the pie that no one ever eats:

Jeremy: Hmm. It's like these pies and cakes. At the end of every night, the cheesecake and the apple pie are always completely gone. The peach cobbler and the chocolate mousse cake are nearly finished... but there's always a whole blueberry pie left untouched.
Elizabeth: So what's wrong with the Blueberry Pie?
Jeremy: There's nothing wrong with the Blueberry Pie, just people make other choices. You can't blame the Blueberry Pie, it's just... no one wants it.
Elizabeth: Wait! I want a piece.

Before long, Elizabeth is visiting the cafe regularly to talk to Jeremy and eat the pie that is always left at the end of the night. There is no real mystery about who is going to end up with who here, even though Elizabeth does take the keys back and decide to try it out one last time with her boyfriend, and even though Jeremy's ex-girlfriend pops in at one point only to check on the cafe and friend she left behind all that time ago.

One night, after seeing her boyfriend with another woman in his apartment window, Elizabeth leaves town and heads west. The film picks up in Memphis, where she, now going by Liz is working days in a diner and nights in a bar, and where she meets Arnie Copeland, an alcoholic police officer separated from his wife Sue Lynne. Arnie and Sue Lynne enter Liz's world slowly, and she witnesses their destructive behavior while attempting to figure out her own self. It's clear to her that Arnie and Sue Lynne care about one another, but that they have fallen out of love; at no time more evident than when she smacks him after he beats up her boyfriend and he threatens to kill her with his pistol if she walks out the door.

Again we jump forward to Nevada, where Elizabeth has taken up another job waiting tables, this time at a small-time hotel and casino outside of Vegas. There she meets Leslie, a gambler who is never playing even. Out of money and out of a high stakes poker game, Leslie gets Elizabeth to finance her re-entry into play, with her car as leverage. After losing the money again, the car is Elizabeth's, but she must take Leslie to Vegas first, though she doesn't seem to want to go there, as we learn later, due to her estrangement from her father.

After these vignettes about relationships and the nature of love, Wong Kar Wai brings us and Elizabeth back to New York, where she reunites with Jeremy and everything works out beautiful and melt-y, just like the slice of blueberry pie with ice cream that keeps popping up in extreme close-up. It may be a hammy metaphor for love, but its a delicious looking one, and one that is perfect at describing the warmth that comes from the emotion.

The film is not perfect, but the perfomances are, with Norah Jones making her debut as Elizabeth, and veterans Jude Law, Natalie Portman, David Strathairn, and Rachel Weisz all turning in top-notch work. The cinematography, also wonderful and impressionistic (as always) is perfect, with enough gloss and sheen that the cafe Jeremy owns is filled with lush blues and pinks and reds, usually with a hint of neon from the signs that adorn its windows. MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS is a wonderful little film about learning life's lessons, and how even when you journey far from home, sometimes the thing you want the most, and the person you want to be, is right under your nose.


Watching INSIDE is akin to running a marathon, albeit a marathon through a house of horrors so unimaginable that it's difficult to breathe during or afterward. Like ILS (THEM), and FRONTIER(S), it is a film that is relentless in its pacing, and unflinching in its horrific brutality. Another win for the French horror filmmakers, I guess.

INSIDE is without a doubt one of the more disturbing films in recent years, concerning not only its subject matter, but how far it is willing to push the envelope with its violence and cruelty. As a horror film, it succeeds on every level, creating an atmosphere of dread that becomes blood-soaked very quickly, and with a series of events and an ending that left me, and no doubt will leave you, feeling like I had been bludgeoned and stabbed myself. I haven't felt as uncomfortable watching a film in quite a long time.

The film is about a mother-to-be named Sarah who, four months after a car crash killed her husband, is about to deliver her baby. The day before she is to deliver, a strange woman comes to her door, knowing
Sarah's name, and that her husband is dead. Sarah calls the cops, but the woman is nowhere to be seen. Promising to check in periodically, the officers leave Sarah to go to sleep, assuring her the woman probably fled when they show up. What follows the police, I'll leave you to discover, though it's all very bloody, elaborate, and utterly realistic.

Apart from the violence, there is some interminable suspense and mystery that oozes through the film, mostly regarding the woman, who she is, and when she will strike. Beatrice Dalle, who plays the woman - that's the character's name, as she is never given one proper - is no stranger to French horror, having herself starred as the woman afflicted with cannibalistic desires in TROUBLE EVERY DAY. Here she plays a largely emotionless killer who is obviously faced with bouts of rage and denial about what she is doing and what has happened to her (especially noticeable after the "twist").

Speaking of that twist, I think I should point out how well it is executed within the film's story, and how it makes perfect sense, but is something that isn't put together far in advance based on the clues of what the woman says or does to Sarah. Once it hits, though, before the film's climax, it makes everything that happens afterward a bit more horrific, and after an hour of being subjected to things I thought I would never find anything more terrifying than, this one thing pushes the last bit just that much farther. I was truly disturbed by the film's finale. I'll leave it at that, because to say anything more would give it away.

INSIDE is not a film that should be seen by everyone. In fact, I would wager that it would not appeal to the vast majority of viewers. But for a horror fan, or a fan of films that disturb, provoke and leave one's head filled for days afterward with questions, images, and just in general shake someone to the core, this one's for you.


Stephen King and the Adaptation to film

I found this in an article about Stephen King's new "motion comic" that will be released online through Aug. 29, based on a short story of his. While I'm looking forward to the comic itself, I find his observation on the nature of adaptations of his work rather amusing.

"I've got my own work to do, and all this is something else," he says. "To me, when I finish with something, it's like dead skin. And if people want to make dead-skin sculptures, that's fine. Just give me my cut."

I'm not sure why, but when I read that, I laughed out loud. At work. I think it was the combination of morbidity and biting wit that did it for me. That's the largest reason I think he's so fantastic as an author. He's honest - often in the most bizarre ways - and that's something you just have to respect.

I know he has been deeply involved in and critical of his own adaptations from time to time, but I think he is probably being very honest here, taking less interest in those projects he hasn't been asked to be involved in, and going in full-steam ahead for things he has co-adapted (the mini-series adaptations, comics, etc.)

I love Stephen King. Maybe Alan Moore could learn something about this approach instead of coming out against everything on principle.



ILS (THEM) is a French horror film that fits only somewhat into the French Transgression, the current mode of horror filmmaking that is having its heyday right now that insists on explicitly exposing the human body in every way imaginable. Most films in this genre are ultra gory [see my brief write-up on FRONTIER(S) for an example] and subject their main characters to what amounts to torture, for better or worse, and with varying effects on the viewer. Some are amazing works, satisfying and layered explorations of what it means to be a certain thing - in this case, human [FRONTIER(S), IRREVERSABLE, TROUBLE EVERY DAY]. Others are mere exploitation, or just can't seem to get over the trappings of their own mechanics to achieve that greatness, as is the case with the much-lauded HIGH TENSION, a film that manages to be scary, gory, and all sorts of other wonderful before falling apart with what must be the worst ending to a good film I've experienced in many years of seeing horror films in theaters, or with any of the American attempts at the same experience [HOSTEL, VACANCY, et al].

And so, we have now THEM, a film set in Bucharest that tells the story of the terrorizing of a French couple in the middle of nowhere by someone in and around their remote house. It is basically the plot of a million other movies (the recent American release THE STRANGERS has the same exact story, if it moves in a completely different direction), but that doesn't matter, because THEM is a film entirely about the execution. For 70 minutes, it is a rollercoaster of creep-outs, the majority of them taking place in the humongous house the couple, Clementine and Lucas, owns in Bucharest, where she is a teacher.

Also like THE STRANGERS, THEM is allegedly based on a true story, though like anything claiming to be so this must be taken with a grain of salt. I tend to err more on the side of the Coen Brothers' FARGO when it comes to adapting "truth", and believe that the statement only serves to enhance the film's capability if it is pulled off well. And THEM certainly is pulled off. Clementine and Lucas are believable characters, and they don't act like idiots throughout their assault, so that serves as a plus right from the get-go. Even when they do behave like morons, it's at least in a way that is believable and grounded in reality, and not some mere setup for them to get into more horrific shenanigans like so many characters in your run-of-the-mill schlock.

There are sequences in the film so terrifying and claustrophobic, like a masterfully executed pursuit through a corner of the house under renovation, that I felt like I was under attack myself. Clearly, these are filmmakers who know their territory, and they don't even use an overabundance of blood and gore to do it (which is why I say it barely fits into the current wave of French horror). On the flip-side, however, there are places where the film is lacking. I felt it should have been a bit longer, perhaps showing more of the dynamic of the titular characters as the film enters its final third, and its final chase, beneath the town, and through an elaborate and wonderfully creepy tunnel/sewer/aqueduct system. But this is a minor quibble about a film that managed to nonetheless make me feel uneasy from beginning to end, and which was truly unpredictable in its details.



I love the Coen Brothers something fierce, and I'm sure I won't be disappointed by their latest effort, which comes out extremely soon (Sept. 12). With a lot of their usual crew along, they aim to wrap up their "Idiot" Trilogy with Clooney, and from the looks of it, it should be done with some gusto.

I'm not a huge Harry Potter fan, but I do enjoy the film series, and I really can't wait to find out what happens - I know, everyone should already know this, but screw that...Anyway, here's the new trailer, and I'm excited about learning more about Lord Voldemort.

This is Baz Luhrman's long-awaited follow up to his wonderful MOULIN ROUGE, and it's set in the Australian outback. The trailers are always a poor indication of what to expect from him, but nonetheless, here it is, and I'm sure we're in for more than a few surprises come time of the film's release.


"You're high as a fucking kite!" That line is uttered by the mother of twenty-five year-old stoner Dale Denton's high school girlfriend at a dinner where he tries to explain the absurd situation he has found himself in, and the immediate danger to his girlfriend and her family. The thing is, at that moment, he is telling the truth; it's just that it sounds like some outrageously paranoid delusion that only someone stoned out of their mind could concoct. And so goes the entirety of PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, a film so sublimely off-kilter and outrageous that it seems like the wet dream of its two main characters after having a smoking binge on the couch after watching too many action movies before passing out.

The film, scripted by Seth Rogen, who plays Dale, and his buddy Evan Goldberg (the pair that also wrote last year's fantastic SUPERBAD), is directed by David Gordon Green, a filmmaker who, until now, has specialized in low-key indie fare, and has been quite adept at it. His films GEORGE WASHINGTON and ALL THE REAL GIRLS, for example, are two of the few examples of truly incredible work in independent film. With PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, Green shows he more than has the chops for the big-time, and that he probably deserves the opportunity to import more of his own brand of drama and humor into the mainstream market.

PINEAPPLE EXPRESS follows Dale Denton, who goes on the run with his pot dealer Saul after witnessing a murder by a powerful drug lord. The two are tracked by hired hitmen based on the rarity of the weed they were in possession of (that Dale dropped at the murder scene) - called Pineapple Express - and through constant botched logic, end up getting into some rather serious shit. The film plays like a stoner comedy with action movie plotting, succeeding in combining some seemingly incompatible genres, and in pointing out the ridiculous nature of most "serious" films, much like last year's more brilliant HOT FUZZ.

When the drug lord comes on, it's like gangbusters, and the pair find themselves in car chases, shootouts and fistfights that defy logic and common sense, but fit perfectly within the realistic fantasy-milieu of the film. The best of these sequences, the car chase between Rosie Perez's corrupt police officer and Saul (also in a police cruiser), and the climactic battle on the pot farm that, literally, pulls out all the stops are so brutal yet flat-out hilarious that just to fathom them in their entirety is an ordeal in and of itself. Seriously, these things could have only been dreamed up by an inebriated soul.

If there's one standout thing in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, it's definitely James Franco's performance as Saul, which is achingly hilarious, and definitely as awards-worthy as Heath Ledger's Joker. Any fan of FREAKS AND GEEKS will tell you that he is more than capable of carrying comedy, but after a film career of being cast in somber roles, Franco is finally showing that spark that he had all those years ago, and is really hitting his stride. As Saul he is lovable and carefree, and every moment spent away from him is a lesser one. He provides the heart of the film - searching for a friend, looking after his grandmother - and eventually pulls Rogen's Dale back from the self-destructive cynicism he employs earlier on, and grows out of by the end of things.

The final scene, in which the duo, along with their injured friend Red, a mid-level dealer who originally was ratting them out, are eating breakfast is true to form. After all, what would stoners do after such excitement except reminisce over pancakes and omelettes? Hell, I do that after simply seeing a movie in which all of that happens. Then, they leave the restaurant in Saul's grandmother's (Bubby) car and they need her to drop Red by the hospital. Fitting, no?

In short, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS is a fun way to end the summer season, even if you're not a stoner, because there's a lot to laugh at here. Franco's performance is a winner, and that alone is worth the price of admission. And don't let the silly premise fool you into thinking it's not that good. The film is a fresh concept in a glutted comedy landscape, and, to paraphrase one of the film's best lines, its like God's vagina.



In the hope of actually giving a much more thorough trek through my recent viewings, I write mini-reviews/thoughts/etc. of those movies I just don't have the time to devote to writing up as a longer piece. I give you once again, an installment of the soon-to-be regular column "Blurbs":

A nasty little horror movie that takes place right after the election of an extreme Right-wing government in France. A group of friends takes the ensuing chaos as an opportunity to loot some cash, but when things go wrong and one ends up shot, they take up refuge in a small hostel along the French border where they are tortured and killed by a group of Neo-Nazis and the protagonist, Yasmine, is intended to be the new brood mare for a new master race. It starts out strong and gets really creepy before the last third turns it into more of a genre retread. I don’t mean to sound like I dislike this film at all, only that this rehash of familiar material and themes was a slight let-down from the first parts, which were so invigorating. The film stays inventive, though, and really works up until the very end instead of concluding with an incomprehensible twist like some other recent French horror films I’ve otherwise really liked (I’m talking about you, HIGH TENSION.) FRONTIER(S) is violent, shocking and contains its fair share of disturbing moments, notably the "children" kept underground in the old mine, but never compromises its characters, who are fleshed out and realistic. This film is a standout effort in a field already gluttoned by far too many meat movies.

I’m a fan of Harold and Kumar; I like them, I root for them, and I think they’re genuinely funny characters. Their first outing, HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE was a fresh, R-rated comedy that stood out because it had no interest in playing by the rules of the genre, and injected a lot of broad humor and situations with very pointed, precise critiques about society at large. This new film moves into the territory of political satire while still remaining an entertaining romp through classic stoner-movie gags. The boys are caught smoking a bong on an airplane and due to misunderstandings, are held as suspected terrorists. They quickly escape from their prison, and return to the U.S. from Cuba in the only logical way, and attempt to get out of the trouble they’re in. The rest of the movie is about their journey to Texas to be cleared of the charges. The characters themselves are slightly more like charicatures this time around, and it may be the character of Rob Cordry’s Homeland Security agent that pushes the movie over the line of believability. Unfortunately, his character is so absurd that it’s seemingly incomprehensible why a turn so broad-minded and loopy could be considered good in a movie that’s otherwise grounded in the reality it is trying to satirize. Aside from that, though, the movie remains very funny, and Neil Patrick Harris still has impeccable comic timing (as anyone who watches the hilarious HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER well knows), and it makes for a good time.

FIEND WITHOUT A FACE is a decent enough sci-fi/horror flick from the 1950s. A hallmark of the British genre films, which more often than not had a mad scientist at the root of all evil, the film boasts some impressive special effects for the time, including the brain-monsters themselves, crawling about and shooting through the air across the room, as well as their blood spilling out and their decay after they’ve been shot. The story concerns a town in Canada where the U.S. has set up an experimental military base that may or may not be causing mysterious deaths in the town with its radiation tests. While the science is absurd today, this is serious stuff, but I was a little put off by the lack of characterization, even by 50s B-movie standards. A solid viewing experience, and a must-see for fans of sci-fi/horror, but ultimately, it’s a trifle, and not nearly as memorable as contemporaries like THE BLOB.

Scripted by Adam Sandler, Robert Smigel, and Judd Apatow, YOU DON’T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN creates an absurdist realm in which the Palestinian/Jewish conflict is seen as a moot point by even the hardened fighters on both sides. As a Mossad super-agent (and believe me, there’s nothing even remotely realistic about him), Adam Sandler fakes his own death to leave the business and move to New York to become a hair dresser. While this leads to the usual homosexual jokes by commenting characters, the joke is not completely lost, thanks in large part to the dialogue, which mixes in absurd, overdone accents with words formed with just enough English and Yiddish-sounding verbiage that the end result is something that comes off mostly as pretty funny. Being written by three prominent Jewish men helps the humor (which could often be construed as offensive) come off as acceptable, especially when a multitude of Hummus jokes gives way to a message of peace and understanding. I had a fun time with ZOHAN, finding a lot to laugh at. Even Rob Schneider gets some laughs, if that’s telling you anything. This may be the first Sandler film worth watching since MR. DEEDS, which had some moments, but not enough of them.

I hadn’t seen the first film in this series in about seven or eight years, so when I watched it last week, it seemed fresh and new again. For a movie that is over thirty years old, MAD MAX has aged remarkably well, perhaps in spite of itself. After all, a post-apocalyptic action/drama where the gangs all dress like punked-out rejects at biker bars should make no sense at all to current pop culture, but here I am, not having lived then, and finding it all to be perfectly acceptable. While nowhere near as good as the visionary turn the series took with THE ROAD WARRIOR, this film does explore the beginning aspects of the semi-police state the Australian Outback has become. I had forgotten how nothing was really explained about the post-apocalyptic world - how it became what it did, etc. - and I like that immensely. Everything today seems to want to over-explain its premise, especially when dealing with future events. The films of the 70s and 80s took it at face value and said, "This is what happens, doesn’t it make sense?" Of course it does, and thank the heavens for not pandering. Modern Hollywood could take a page from MAD MAX and cut out the mindless, needless exposition. There are other ways, after all, of finding out information aside from straightforward dullness. Oh, and before I forget, the final showdown with Max and the biker gang is still one of my favorite action sets ever, despite its being short.

This little seen Woody Allen film from 1992 is a remarkable effort if for no other reason than its sheer experimentalism. Taking on the aesthetics of classic German Expressionism, and a Borscht-belt comedy that is the spiritual kin of Lang’s masterpiece, M, SHADOWS AND FOG is a comedy that gives its audience something to ponder two-fold. Apart from some real gems of non-sequiturs and wordplay, the film exudes a mood and feeling that permeates every frame; something rarely done in 1992, let alone 16 years after its release. The use of black and white photography is masterful, and the fog rolls along in great barrels, following the film’s plot threads like an enemy intent on obfuscation. The end result is, just like its ending, something of profound, moving power, and quite simply, it’s magical.

Steve Carell is a good Maxwell Smart. The film, based on the classic television series, is a breath of fresh summer air. The jokes are funny, the action thrilling, and the movie zips along, cramming in as much as possible before its termination. If ever there were a film to benefit exponentially from its pitch-perfect casting, it is this incarnation of the GET SMART franchise, which sees not only Carrell, but Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Alan Arkin, Anne Hathaway, Terrance Stamp, and a load of others turn in some truly remarkable comedic work. The story is mostly forgettable, but that’s okay. The entire point of GET SMART is that the spy genre is overworked and labored, and it points out all of its inanities in one fell swoop. I must say I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, and found myself laughing so hard at points that I think it must surely be worthy of a repeat viewing.

Dreamworks Animation has finally produced an animated film that is on a par with the work of Pixar. A step above CARS and A BUG’S LIFE, and probably worthy of the same shelf space as MONSTERS INC. and TOY STORY, KUNG FU PANDA features some of the most gorgeous animation I’ve ever laid eyes on. Bright, colorful and intriguing, there is something to offer to - quite literally - any type of viewer, from the very, very funny jokes, to the highly choreographed fight scenes that feature so prominently throughout the movie. Also worthy of note is the complete lack of pop-culture references that make other such CGI affairs unwieldy and, often, just downright intolerable.



Pixar’s film WALL - E is nothing short of a miracle in light and sound. The vision of this film is so complete, so breathtaking, and so touching that it is easily the best film I’ve seen so far this year.

WALL-E tells the story of Wall-E, a robot left behind to clean up Earth after mankind leaves it in a heap of trash, and who, 700 years later, is the last robot (presumably) left on the planet. One day, a probe droid named EvE comes to Earth on a spaceship, searching for any signs of life, and Wall-E becomes smitten with her. What follows is a love story, pure and simple, with Wall-E’s pursuit of EvE forming the emotional core of the film. There are other plot threads, of course, as well as a timely message about environmentalism that grows organically from the story and never feels forced or ham-fisted.

Visually, the film is gorgeous, with crisp lines and breathtaking animation. It’s another high watermark for Pixar, of which I would expect no less. Pixar has continually pushed the boundaries of the medium’s possibilities, and they construct a world around one different aspect to improve each time (for FINDING NEMO, it was water effects, for CARS, it was lighting.) WALL-E, at least to my eye, is all about particles and textures; things blowing in the wind, or dust sitting on a robot’s metal structure. There are times when Wall-E looks so life-like and realistic it might be possible just to reach our your hand and touch him. And the effects are superb. One scene in particular - with Wall-E running his hand through the dust and particles of a planet’s ring while riding on a spaceship - comes to mind as a prime example of everything this film does right in its animation.

On top of the technical achievements, writer-director Andrew Stanton (FINDING NEMO) has crafted a beautiful and touching story about loneliness and the redemptive quality of love. Pixar has always been a studio that cares first and foremost about the story, and it has always shown through in their work. The saga of Wall-E and EvE is definitely center-stage here, framed by a similarly themed book-ending of sequences and songs from the musical HELLO, DOLLY! All of this heart is achieved with minimal dialogue, and brilliant sound design that never ever loses the viewer’s attention.

In this regard, and although completely different in story, tone and character, WALL-E inhabits the same cinematic space as Paul Thomas Anderson’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD as an exercise in classical Hollywood storytelling. WALL-E is engaging, funny, heartfelt and sincere. It rides on the strength of its protagonist, and it’s a very enjoyable and often magical ride that I can’t wait to let wash over me again and again.



I’m going to skip the precursory discussion of the first three films and which one’s my favorite (TEMPLE OF DOOM, though I feel RAIDERS is probably a better movie) and instead dive right into the series’ latest outing, INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. Please consider yourself duly warned that there are going to be a lot of spoilers here, so if you haven’t seen it yet, and don’t want to know anything, stop reading now, and come back later.

It has been 19 years between Indiana Jones films, and between the events that take place in THE LAST CRUSADE and KINGDOM. The year is now 1957, and the Cold War is raging. Indy, now older, but no less capable, is kidnaped by Soviet spies and forced to help them find mummified remains in a warehouse at Area 51. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what those remains are, exactly, and once they are found, the villain, Irina Spalko, wants to use the remains to further her knowledge and research into the field of psychic warfare. The ensuing journey takes Indy and the Russians on a trek to South America and into ancient Mayan temples while trying to return an ancient religious relic (a crystal skull) to its home.

The film is decidedly different from the original trilogy in its subject matter, but not in its tone. The wit and humor is still intact, as is the sense of wonder and thrilling action set pieces. I have no doubt that many viewers will take issue with the fact that the Indiana Jones movies have moved into science fiction territory, but I really can’t understand why that in and of itself is an issue. The original films were throwbacks to the adventure films of the 1930s, when Merian C. Cooper and the like ruled the day, and exotic locales and action were what put tickets in people’s hands. They took place in the 1930s, and imitated the movies of the era. So it goes with KINGDOM, which takes place in the 1950s and features many of the popular genre motifs of the decade, sci-fi included. There are more updates for the character as well, though none so noticeable as the existence of aliens. Really, though, when one thinks about it, is an alien race really that much more realistic than the Ark of the Covenant being opened and melting anyone who looks into it, complete with spirits flying about the room? I don’t think so.

Aside from that, the argument can be made that the aliens themselves are religious artifacts, just like the Ark, the Grail and the Sankara stones from the first three films, and thus fit perfectly in line with the series’ mythos. All of this, though, is really just getting into semantics. The one thing that anyone really cares about is if the wait was worth it, if it was any good, and if Harrison Ford is worth a damn. The answer to all three questions is a resounding “Yes” as far as I’m concerned.

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have delivered an Indiana Jones film, just like they promised. It’s action-packed, suspenseful, full of real archeological information (yes, there is archeological evidence and theories that back up the whole Mayan technology from an alien race angle), and, perhaps most importantly, it’s really, really fun. This is exactly what I was expecting, and I knew just enough about the angle taken with the updating of the series to not be too surprised by the way it all played out, meaning I knew about the inclusion of science fiction and pulp before I even stepped foot in the theater. Did I know there was going to be aliens actually in the film? No, but I knew that it probably had something to do with what artifacts Indy was hunting, already being exposed to the theories about ancient cultures and technological advances. Nothing about the plot feels out of place for one second.

The action sequences are what the series is known for, providing some of the most memorable setpieces in movie history, including the giant stone in RAIDERS, the mine cart in TEMPLE and the tank chase in CRUSADE. Add to that list not one, but two amazing stunt sets in KINGDOM: the opening warehouse/bomb sequence, and a motorcycle/car chase through the University grounds. Each is thrilling in its set-up and execution, and each feels more fresh than anything that could be conceived by the likes of Michael Bay. Even a throwaway action/comedy bit like the "three times it drops" waterfall scene is better and more pleasing than the majority of what gets acknowledged as an action sequence. The amazing action is just one more way that Spielberg and Lucas prove they still know how to make a good film when their hearts are in the right place. They love Indiana Jones, and though either one of them has their soft spots as, they know the character of Jones and what does and does not work.

And rest assured, this is a pure Indiana Jones film, not a pass-the-torch movie, and certainly not a movie about anyone else other than Jones himself. The biggest question I had going in was whether or not Harrison Ford would show up for the job. I’m a huge fan of his, but it’s no secret that he’s been zombie-like in the majority of his movies since AIR FORCE ONE. Well, from scene one, Harrison Ford owns the screen like he did all those years ago, and it’s one of the best things that could have ever happened. Mr. Ford has been an actor I’ve missed looking forward to seeing. Hopefully, some of this will rub off on his future performances. About the acting throughout the film, I must say that there aren’t any weak links. Some actors aren’t given enough to do, but that’s not their fault as much as it is the screenplays. Cate Blanchett is quite good as Irina Spalko, and it’s refreshing to see Karen Allen reprise her role as Marion Ravenwood. Shia LaBeouf also turns in an entertaining performance as Mutt Williams, Indy’s sidekick of sorts, and I’m pleased that, despite the character turning out to be Henry Jones III as I think we all suspected, neither Lucas nor Spielberg managed to make him precious and unbearable, though there is one scene, ludicrously staged and involving Mutt swinging from vines with an assist from some CGI monkeys that had me almost to the point of groaning. At least they had the good taste not to include a Tarzan call.

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is the third best of the series, after RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and TEMPLE OF DOOM. It’s a strong film, and fits perfectly with the spirit in which the series was created. The script is a little weak, but to be honest, it’s maybe as good a script as could be culled from about five or six bypassed screenplays over the past twenty years, so I’m letting David Koepp off the hook. On a side note, I went to see KINGDOM twice in twenty-four hours, something I haven’t done in years. It’s an exhilarating ride I had to experience again, and more likely than not, I’ll be back for yet another round.


Trapped Until Judgement: IN BRUGES

Martin McDonagh's feature debut is a curiosity in a year that has so far seen too few of them. It's a film that stars A-list talent (believe me, if Colin Farrell's not on your must-watch list after this, he probably never will be), contains some very violent set pieces, and is really quite funny; usually the sort of film that people flock to see in droves, or at least they used to. It's not, however, in any way typical. The humor is black as night at points, and sometimes swerves so far over the edge that it becomes difficult to know if you should be laughing at the joke itself, or the nonchalant nature with which it was presented. The A-list talent mentioned above is also likely people American audiences don't have any idea who they are in the first place, so their names don't matter. And, lastly, the violence is reserved, rather oddly, for the last quarter of the movie, in which the whole ordeal turns exceptionally bloody and dark. It may be the best serio-comic dream sequence/metaphor about existence in Purgatory to come out this year.

IN BRUGES, in quick summation, tells the story of two hitmen, Ray and Ken (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, respectively), sent to Belgium (in the eponymous town) to hideout while their boss, Harry, attempts to deal with an unfortunate incident back in London that took place during Ray's first hit - on a priest. The plot is pretty straightforward, but there are enough twists and surprises in the how that I'm not going to ruin it in a review. Needless to say, Harry gets miffed and shows up in Bruges to take matters into his own hands, and everything gets really bloody very quickly.

The film plays like a nightmare, which Ray can't seem to wake from. Apart from the tragedy that landed him in his current situation, he is stuck in Bruges, Belgium, a place he finds so appallingly bland that it is tortuous to be in the city at all. This, of course, is the opposite of his partner, Ken, who we learn has brought Ray into the organization he works for now, and who is a slightly older, worldlier man, interested in the many sightseeing offerings that Bruges has to give. Both Farrell and Gleeson are wonderful, with the first half of the movie resting almost entirely on their shoulders as the two men wander around the city waiting to hear from their boss. The film smartly delivers its back story, and it never feels rushed or, even worse, like it was cut and pasted from another screenplay entirely, despite its adherence to many of the rules of the "down and out hit man" genre.

A lot of the freshness that the film has comes from its writer/director, Martin McDonagh, an Irish playwright who won an Academy Award for his first short film in 2006. The screenplay for IN BRUGES is a wry mix of humor and pathos, and the film's style very much accentuates the feeling of some awful dream from which one cannot awake; it's not a nightmare exactly, but a möbius strip, with parts eternally looping back on one another, and cross-referencing and coming back to the starting point. Bruges is purgatory, and Ken and Ray are simply waiting for their judgement at the hands of the hot-tempered Harry.

During the waiting they get into some mischief, and meet all kinds of odd characters, who only lend to the dream-like state: a dwarf actor filming some Eurotrash art-film, a drug-dealer who sometimes robs tourists with her ex-boyfriend and falls in love with Ray, and a sweet inn-keeper who is pregnant and refuses to give up her hotel even when faced with certain death at the hands of a psychopathic Harry. Harry himself may be the most nightmarish character in the film. He is a mob boss of some kind who has a wife and children, and who has some very strict rules about his profession that make for some awkward moments, like the aforementioned showdown in the inn. The final act, in which Harry shows up in the town, is one of the most impressive paths of destruction I've ever seen, careening down bell towers, across waterways and through myriad alleyways before winding up at the only conclusion possible, and bringing everything full circle.

That very, very smart concept of looping is even upheld in the humor of the film, which continuously builds on gags set up long before (the scene with the overweight American tourists seen in the trailer pays off not one, but two more times). And Colin Farrell, I never thought I'd say, is very very funny here. Ray is a character who cannot enjoy himself, even when not being burdened by a dark secret. Everything that could end up right for him does end up going wrong, though, so maybe there's a reason he's got such a cynical view of the world. Or, maybe he brings it on himself, and maybe he has bad luck, but I think the lesson that should be taken away from IN BRUGES is that being a constant sourpuss gets you nowhere. If the film's ending is any indication, and Ray's suspicions about Bruges are correct, then I think it's safe to say that it certainly does not get you anywhere you want to be.


Obsession: Martin Scorsese (Part I)

To get to the essence of why I absolutely love Martin Scorsese, it takes both copious amounts of, and also absolutely no time. In short, he's the most accomplished, most fantastic, and, simply, the best living American filmmaker; the last great bastion from the group known as the "Movie Brats." All of this is, I think, public record, though, and as such it definitely serves as the shallow version of my affection toward Marty - something I toss off to those less familiar with his work as a means of not sounding like the enormous geek that I truly am. "Who?" they ask, and I rattle off that he was the director of GOODFELLAS, TAXI DRIVER, and THE DEPARTED. "Oh, I like those movies," they say, and sometimes, "TAXI DRIVER was weird," or "I didn't like the ending for THE DEPARTED." All of this, of course, drives me absolutely insane. This is because I want people to love Marty as much as I do. So that's why I'm going to attempt to give you the long version, going on and on through a few of my favorite films of his, and, hopefully, we'll get to the bottom of my borderline psychosis. But, likely not.

I guess the first time I remember seeing a film and noticing the name Martin Scorsese was CASINO. I'd heard the name, knew what he looked like, and even had seen a lot of his movies sitting on video rental shelves, but had never sat down to watch a film of his. I was blown away by the film's style, it's grandiose vision, and it's seriously dark streak of humor. When I later found myself watching more Scorsese, and realized that CASINO was nowhere near his best movie, I was in awe. From that point on, I had to see anything involving Scorsese I could get my hands on, and I now find it safe to say that Scorsese has never made a bad film. Not one. Sure, some may be more successful than others, but anytime a film comes out directed by Martin Scorsese, it's sure to be better and more interesting than anything else coming out in theaters.

From CASINO I moved backward, to TAXI DRIVER, GOODFELLAS, CAPE FEAR, and RAGING BULL. More on these, later. To fully grasp Scorsese, and why I find him a fascinating, in-your-face filmmaker, we need to start at the beginning, with MEAN STREETS.

MEAN STREETS is a film that's influenced very heavily by Scorsese's real-life experiences, and its style is a take-off of John Cassavettes' independent work, particularly in SHADOWS, but it flourishes and grows, right before your eyes, into its own beast. The effect of watching MEAN STREETS is that of visceral shock, and I can only imagine how amazingly progressive it was style-wise when it was released in the early 70s.

One of the things that has always struck me about this movie is its outstanding use of spatial relations in the bar fight sequence, when a camera is being hurdled head-first into the battle after the characters. This simple movement results in an in-your-face fight that seems much more realistic than fights in movies normally do. And its effectiveness in conveying the gritty quality of the story and the world of the film is without question. Of course, this is a quality that Scorsese would continue to develop throughout the next decade, in TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL, eventually enveloping his Italian Neo-realism influence in a very expressionistic style reminiscent of classical Hollywood films noir. MEAN STREETS, though, was the start of it all, and every time I see Harvey Keitel’s head on a pillow I immediately think of “Be My Baby” and get filled with utter excitement for the events that lay ahead, especially the aforementioned bar fight, and the brilliance of Robert De Niro as Johnny Boy.

As noted by Roger Ebert, the movie is not about gangsters, but about living in a state of sexual sin. This is, of course, one of the overriding themes of every narrative film Scorsese has ever made post-MEAN STREETS. Most of the men Scorsese makes films about, whether villains or anti-heroes, or even moral compasses like Christ himself, share the weakness of sexual desire, and are punished or ruined in some way by it (with the possible exception of Christ, but more on that later). Of course, occasionally there is redemption, or the consequences are not so severe as utter ruin. Sometimes, as is the case, I would argue, with THE DEPARTED, or THE AVIATOR, or even GANGS OF NEW YORK, any destruction of life is caused by greed or ambition (this is also the case in other Scorsese films, or, all of them, depending on your view).

I think what really sold me on Scorsese is the fact that all of his films can be read in so many ways, and with a consistency that is perhaps only paralleled by those of Kurosawa, Renoir, or Fellini, meaning that each film stands on its own as a variety of statements on a variety of things and ideas, but that these ideas are so important to the filmmaker they show up across the board, almost uniformly, in every film he ever makes. And while emphases may be placed on different points, the similarities of Scorsese's work cannot be denied, whether it is the destructive personalities, the sensuality associated with religion (and sin), or the quest for redemption. Each film is unabashedly a Martin Scorsese picture. MEAN STREETS, the first "Martin Scorsese Picture", leaves his previous work behind (BOXCAR BERTHA may share similarities in theme and style, but it lacks a distinctive touch) and runs with it into the abyss that many of Marty's surrogates eventually find themselves succumbing to.


Everything In Its Right Place: Three Procedurals

The procedural is probably as old as narrative cinema itself, with the crime film's prominence never having waned. As early as 1915, French director Louis Feuillade immortalized the genre with his groundbreaking, scandalous serial LES VAMPIRES (worth checking out for a hot-mama Irma Vep, played by Musidora, a popular performer at the time; the term "vamp" was also coined because of this character, coincidentally.) So, here are three of my favorite procedurals, old and new, murderous and scandalous, and altogether quite thrilling, gripping, and - in the words of Peter Travers - "mesmerizing."


Jules Dassin’s brilliant film THE NAKED CITY is an achievement in police drama that stands heads-and-tails above any other in its influence on the genre’s plots and detached structure. Telling the story of the investigation into Jean Dexter’s murder, the film follows the detectives of the 10th Precinct as they methodically follow all the leads and search for clues in a city of 8 million people (in 1948.)

The mystery is engaging, but thanks to the film’s narration and loose, go-with-the-flow storytelling and commentary, it’s the detectives that we eventually care so much for - when they get awfully close to catching Garzah in a back-alley chase, or when they’re in mortal danger, or even when they’re just plodding through the repetitive nature of the job. And the final chase through the Lower East Side to the Williamsburg bridge is still riveting to this day. Framed as just one of many stories to be told in New York (the actual murder of Ms. Dexter is shown in the beginning montage discussing all the things going on throughout the city), and told by and commented on by an omniscient narrator (with occasional interjections from the thoughts of on-lookers or general citizens), THE NAKED CITY is a remarkable film; still the crown jewel of Jules Dassion’s career.


ZODIAC, one of the best films of 2007, is an amazing case study, serial killer, police procedural, investigative journalism, character study hybrid that can only be described as mesmerizing (apologies to Peter Travers for using one of his overused go-to phrases.) Pulling together all of the pieces of the 40-year-old, unsolved Zodiac killings and making an utterly compelling drama from them, the film succeeds immeasurably. No doubt fans of Se7en were salivating when David Fincher announced he was working on a film based on the serial killer, and I bet a lot of those fans were somewhat disappointed with ZODIAC.

Over the course of nearly three hours, Fincher methodically plugs in all the puzzle pieces, from the first murder to the end in the early 90's when the prime suspect dies and the case is seemingly put to rest by a definitive book by the film’s main character, Robert Graysmith. The effect is one of mesmerizing the audience with a whirlwind of information, placing them front-and-center in the investigation, and really it may be the most boring movie I’ve ever been so completely enthralled in. From scene one, in which we are shown the killer’s first victims through the first letters mailed to the newspapers, and on through to the journalists and detectives who sort out the facts, the movie layers on detail after detail after detail, dwindling in minutiae for the sheer enjoyment of it, and it’s wonderfully refreshing.

Maybe the single best thing about the film is the way in which all of the clues ultimately prove fruitless, as much for circumstantial reasons as for practical ones, like time. And it’s maddening. The film follows the characters all the way through the investigation, and it’s left open-ended, with only the consolation that the main suspect - never convicted, and never even arrested - died in the 1990's. The order isn’t restored to the lives of the people who are investigating this crime as it is in something like THE NAKED CITY. This crime isn’t just an episode; it’s the overriding event of these peoples’ lives, and it rips them apart like a disease, starting with their internal thoughts and obsessions until it spills out and destroys families, reputations and careers. It’s fascinating in every sense, and it may be the best police procedural ever made. And dear lord, Robert Downey, Jr.'s good.


Not all great procedurals are crime stories dealing with killers and the detectives chasing them down; 1976's ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN proves that beyond the shadow of doubt. A thrilling exposè of how two newspaper reporters broke the story on Watergate, the film operates on a level of savvy dialogue and exposition (and style, in spades - when the overhead camera kicks in for a menacing top-down trip to a meeting in a parking garage with insider Deep Throat...) that is still considered rare. The chemistry between Redford and Hoffman is electrifying as they plod through layers and layers of red tape, government roadblocks, and eventually uncover the truth about Tricky Dick’s less-than-honorable business relationships.

Playing on some similar ground as ZODIAC, which obviously took a lot from ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, the movie questions authority while showing how dangerous the questioning of authority can be, professionally and privately. There are no lost lives here, no opening-sequence murders, but the murder of a reputation, either by snooping through files of rivals, or by making your enemies in the media seem like kooks, proves to be just as merciless an undertaking.


So, realistically, I don't have the time to write extensively about every movie I see. However, I thought I'd share with you my thoughts on a few things I've watched recently (for the first time, or just my latest viewing of it) that struck me as interesting or pleased me in some way.

This amazing crime story from the 1970s sports an amazing performance from perennial hang-dog Walter Matthau, whose face is as distinctive as his performance style - a mix between melancholy and ironic wit that sparkles with an active imagination. Telling the story of a gang of criminals who take a subway train hostage, the film is even more amazing the second time through, knowing all the twists, and focusing on its mechanics, the performances, and just falling completely in love with it. The best “moment” of the film for me is when Matthau gives a group of visiting Tokyo police a tour of the NY Transportation police office, saying outrageous things (and with a bit of a back-and-forth with co-sourpuss Jerry Stiller), only to realize they speak and understand English perfectly well. And, when the movie ends, and the final crook is caught, Matthau’s “gesundheit” and freeze frame say it all.

The Japanese certainly have a way with the splatter genre. Whether action, drama, or horror (sometimes, when ghosts aren’t involved), if the word “splatter” even gets mentioned in a review or synopsis, rest assured there’s blood by the bucket load. While auteurs like Takashi Miike utilize shock as a method to their madness, and the usual gore is inventive and thought-provoking for aesthetic reasons (think a much more physically violent David Lynch), director Kinji Fukasaku’s BATTLE ROYALE employs its blood to much more socially conscious ends. A morality tale (of sorts), as well as a satire on the process of growing up (also, of sorts), the film is haunting because of its complete submission to its high concept - a blood sport in which classmates are to kill each other until only one is left, or all of them will die, because of the out-of-control nature of the nation’s youth. An amazing movie that will stay with you for days.

Tina Fey’s latest outing on the big screen isn’t nearly as successful as her first (the amazingly hilarious MEAN GIRLS), but that doesn’t mean BABY MAMA doesn’t have some laugh-out-loud moments. The always-worth-watching Amy Poehler plays an opportunist willing to have someone else’s embryo implanted in her, while Fey plays said embryo-giver. The chemistry between the two is obvious, as it always has been, but it may be the weakest link here. In an effort to play off of Poehler, Fey misses her opportunity to shine, relegating herself to some rather dry delivery, content to coast by on their chemistry alone. A far cry from her own consistently brilliant show 30 ROCK, or Poehler’s own part in the underappreciated UPRIGHT CITIZEN’S BRIGADE, though she does get the best line ever uttered about birthing pains (“It feels like I’m shitting a knife!”) Worth seeing, and I found it pretty funny, but ultimately it’s fairly forgettable.

I first saw this about six years ago when I got it out of the library. Alain Resnais’ NIGHT AND FOG is the most poetic film ever made about the Holocaust, and at a total running time of about half an hour, it achieves this despite the length and in-depth nature of something like the 9+ hour SHOA (also worth watching.) With a script written by poet Jean Cayrol, and an amazing modernist score by Hanns Eisler, the film is a real horror movie, made bearable to watch only because of the pensive nature of the film’s proceedings. This may be the first “essay” film, as it’s not really a traditional documentary. In any case, there’s no denying the power of it. For an even more haunting experience, try picking up the Criterion Collection’s DVD and watching the film with the isolated musical track.



Here are three movies I'm looking forward to that may not make it out to my neck of the woods in South Carolina. A shame, really, since they're likely to be just the proper filler for my glutton on summer blockbusters.

This is the first adaptation of a Clive Barker story on-screen in almost a decade (it may actually be more than that, now that I think about it), and I cannot wait. I like the body-horror genre quite a bit, but with Cronenberg unlikely to make a return to his roots anytime in the very near future, Barker's voice will be extremely welcome indeed. Always inventive and visceral, he comes up with some out-there ideas and "wacko" concepts. MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN looks like no exception.

Wong Kar-Wai's films have a delicate touch, and are mostly romantic, but from a fairly realist-fairytale perspective, meaning I don't know what, exactly. See IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE or CHUNGKING EXPRESS for examples of what I'm not clearly relating to you. This is his debut in the English language, and it's also the acting debut of songstress Nora Jones, who I am rather fond of anyway, so why shouldn't I want to see this movie? It promises to be a waifer-thin, light pastry of a good time, and with the pedigree it has, I have no doubt it will be a favorite of mine.

I really haven't looked too much into this one, but I will say that it looks absolutely hilarious in mostly all the wrong (and best) ways. Ignore the "Will Farrell and Adam McKay" marketing (I like them,but c'mon...use some imagination), and try to take it all in.


The Power of Truth: The Kurosawa Hero in Three Films

In Akira Kurosawa’s films the figure of the hero is always prominent. The hero, as seen in these films, is a selfless individual, who often sacrifices for the greater good. The hero is someone who is courageous and powerful, alternately natural and supernatural in his abilities. The hero is also cautious, and knows when to act and when not to act. He also understands that sometimes the rules of his class, or of society in general, must be altered in order to fulfill his duty. The Kurosawa hero serves to change the existing social climate, be it in THE HIDDEN FORTRESS when Rokoruta vows to restore his clan, or in SANJURO or THE SEVEN SAMURAI when the main characters agree to stave off corruption and evil. Above all, the hero is true to himself and his virtues.

While there are exceptions within his filmography, those films which portray anti-heroes (THRONE OF BLOOD, THE LOWER DEPTHS), in which the protagonist of the film is a form of tragic hero or non-hero, the model of Kurosawa’s hero remains in the periphery, embodied by non-central characters. The model can also be developed by the use of the anti-hero, which acts against Kurosawa‘s hero figure and thus defines the hero by presenting its opposite. In short, the hero model is the constant force behind the portrayals of Kurosawa’s main characters.

In addition, the hero is often seen as being defined by his intent, despite the sometimes contradictory words or actions he pursues in order to reach his ends. The means, if well meant, often define the hero in other unexpected ways, like Sanjuro’s seeming intolerance of other people even though he acts on their behalf, or Rokoruta’s willingness to act like a common thief in order to escape from the clutches of the enemy. What the actions tell us about Kurosawa’s hero are themselves definitions of other hero models; ones which are often undercut by Kurosawa in his films and his hero’s portrayal.

To illustrate the model of the hero in Kurosawa’s films, I will discuss heroes in the following three films: THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, SANJURO, and THE SEVEN SAMURAI. I will compare and contrast characters within each film, as well as discuss them all together within the context of the hero model I believe Kurosawa has presented. I will also discuss how each hero says something unique about the hero in Kurosawa’s films, through the use of their behavior, which varies widely among the many characters portrayed in the three films.

The Princess, General Rokoruta, and the Peasants

Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto’s discussion of THE HIDDEN FORTRESS in his book, Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, ends with the declaration that “the film…lacks the by now familiar Manichean moral dichotomy, which is simultaneously asserted and problematized in many of Kurosawa’s successful films.” He makes this assertion because of what he sees as the ambiguity of good and bad within the film, noting that the original Japanese title for the film (Three Bad Men in the Hidden Fortress) connotes the existence of evil within the film, yet there are no “bad” characters in the film at all, other than by name.

Many scholars, including Stephen Prince and several quoted by Yoshimoto in his brief essay on the film, seem to think less of THE HIDDEN FORTRESS because of its lack of the moral dichotomy they claim is in his “successful films.” I refer here again to Yoshimoto’s specific wording, as I believe that THE HIDDEN FORTRESS is not only successful, but it is so because of its ambiguities within the filmic reality presented to the characters themselves.

The film is candid with the viewer in a way that it is not with the characters it presents, revealing who each character really is, even though other characters are either deceived by appearance and action, or their own prejudices against other people. The peasants, for example, seem greedy, but not evil. This is because they are presented as peasants to the viewer - out for easy money and scheming to get away with it. The princess, and sometimes the general, however, see them as merely bad, greedy people, not knowing their circumstances the way the viewer has become invited to know them. Similarly, General Rokoruta bullies the peasants into helping him escape with the gold, but his lies and deceptions are never meant to be perceived as harsh by the viewer. And yet, it is precisely because of these things that Rokoruta appears harsh and brutal to the peasants, or that the peasants are seen as bad by either Rokoruta or the princess.

The film is ambiguous, yes, but not when it comes to the presentation of character to the audience. Though everything is clear-cut, and there is never a question in the viewer’s mind as to whether or not anyone is actually good or bad, the ambiguities between the characters remain. It is as though what Kurosawa has done with THE HIDDEN FORTRESS is bring the audience into the film, allowing them a sense of identification denied to other characters. This identification is something which Kurosawa has heretofore denied in his films, much like with Watanabe in IKIRU, or Gondo in HIGH AND LOW.

I bring the viewer into my discussion because it is precisely through these moments between the general and the princess that we learn his motivations and his true character, revealing him as the hero model within the film. Without these scenes in which the viewer is made a confidant, the viewer would be welcome to perceive Rokoruta as a potentially evil man. He is shown in these scenes to be a man of great self-sacrifice and power, heroically acting upon his own virtues in a manner which he sees fit to get the job done, which is not unlike the characters of Sanjuro (in YOJIMBO and SANJURO) or Kambei (in THE SEVEN SAMURAI).

One of the great sacrifices the general makes is in conjunction with his sister, who he surrendered to the enemy as the princess, thus allowing for the execution of a decoy while he attempts to sneak the real Princess Yuki away quietly. The scene in which this revelation is made takes place in the cave in which the princess and her servants are hiding. Here the princess shows her rage at someone so loyally following her, a mere human being, and she is disgusted by Rokoruta’s lack of emotion at the loss of his sister. Yet, what this scene shows of the general more than anything is the steely resolve so typical of Kurosawa’s heroes. He is unwaveringly loyal to the things he believes in, which above all else are his princess and his now-destroyed clan. Rokoruta knows the struggles Princess Yuki must go through in order to rebuild their people, and he is willing to give anything he can for this to happen, including his own life.

General Rokoruta leading the Princess head-first into danger, attempting to cross a heavily guarded border.

He risks his life on several occasions during their escape from enemy-occupied territory, not in the hope of defeating the enemy single-handedly, but more as a distraction while the princess continues running. He faces the enemy on several occasions, though he does not battle them. His power is often hinted at, but not shown in this regard. Rokoruta does become involved in a single duel, however, and his skill with various weaponry is shown in a scene which begins with his chasing several scouts into an enemy encampment and ends with the aforementioned duel with a rival.

Rokoruta is a character not unlike Sanjuro, who considers all possibilities before taking action, despite his considerable and formidable talents in battle. He knows that his own life is not the only thing at risk, and therefore much more caution must be observed in order to achieve his goal. This caution is the overriding theme of the film SANJURO, but also takes a central role here. For instance, Rokoruta never divulges information to anyone who is not already informed of his mission, thus the peasants, as well as no one else, never know his identity, nor what he is doing with all of the gold. He also does not divulge all of the information to the princess, fearful of how her knowledge may jeopardize the plan. Rokoruta, in all his glory, is the embodiment of Kurosawa’s hero model, though as a character he obviously favors certain aspects over others: self-sacrifice, cunning, and power.

The title character of SANJURO is a hero defined more by his actions than his appearance or words. He is scruffy and dirty, rude and crass, and cynical beyond belief. And in spite of his outward characteristics, or perhaps because of them, he is another perfect example of a Kurosawa hero.

When he first wanders lazily into the film’s narrative he is an anachronism, existing in a place which he cannot call his own. As a ronin, he does not belong in the castle town, which has its own feudal system, nor in the society which exists there as a result of this system, which presents Sanjuro as somewhat of a paradox throughout the film. The young samurai who he helps in the film are clean and idealistic, and brilliantly juxtaposed to Sanjuro’s world-weary cynic. From the first, Sanjuro performs his heroic duty, by saving the young samurai, who are in need of his help. He also attempts to separate the youngsters from their preconceptions of every situation throughout the film. If anything, Sanjuro’s experience has taught him that not thinking through a problem and devising a plan, or in the case of the young samurai, not following the plan and acting rashly, is very dangerous, and ultimately costly no matter whether he wins or loses.

Sanjuro is misunderstood because of his appearance more than anything. But like all of Kurosawa’s heroes, Sanjuro is better judged on action rather than appearance, which is also a lesson he attempts to teach the samurai he is helping in the opening scene, showing that they only think the chamberlain is corrupt because of how he looks, when the handsome superintendent is more likely corrupt. By Kurosawa’s logic, this makes perfect sense, since appearance very rarely correlates to reality in his films. Sanjuro is no different.

Sanjuro, resting while others are acting, allowing for events to unfold for him, rather than act on impulse.

As a samurai, Sanjuro is very unorthodox, accepting money for services, or unwilling to act in times of perceived urgent need. Yet Sanjuro is cunning, and realizes the value of waiting to strike. As mentioned previously, the hero weighs all things in his mind before acting upon them, because impulses can lead to mistakes and unneeded danger. There are several scenes in which this is shown to be exemplary of a Kurosawa hero, and all involve a subversion of one of Sanjuro’s plans by the rash actions of the youngsters. They have not learned patience, which Sanjuro understands. This relates directly to his unorthodox behavior, as it shows his understanding that he must do what he sees as fit. After saving the lives of the samurai, he accepts money because it is what he needs, not because it is honorable. He is unwilling to kill when it is not needed because it is simply not needed, despite honor. Sanjuro, in these and many more respects, is a walking critique on the code of honor that his society supposedly operates on.
SANJURO is a film which operates openly as a commentary and criticism on Japanese society, its films, and its constructed hierarchy. As a hero, Sanjuro is the facilitator of this criticism, and his subversion of almost every ideal the young samurai hold always succeeds because as a hero figure, he understands that perceived honor - honor which extends from outside sources rather than from within oneself - is meaningless.

There is also the film’s violent content, which Sanjuro himself is conscious of, but which is also commented upon by the chamberlain’s wife, who condemns all violence as unnecessary. While the latter assertion is disagreed upon by not only Sanjuro, but also Kurosawa himself as evidenced in his films, it is not a completely alien concept to be wary of violence and its horror. Both the film and Kurosawa seem to be very much in touch with this concept, presenting an anti-violent message in various ways during the film’s entire running time, yet simultaneously recognizing the need for violent action in certain instances. It is in this way that the film reaches into the realm of moral ambiguity, which has been viewed negatively by some scholars in previous Kurosawa films like THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, as discussed earlier. That ambiguity is not that different from this one in some ways, presenting a main character who can be perceived as evil, but is in fact not. Perhaps the only difference is that the real bad men are actually shown on screen and given names in SANJURO. Still, the issue of violence, and a seeming ambiguity about it, is one of the film’s main talking points.

Stephen Prince, for example, sees the film as a failure in its condemnation of violence, since it “helped inaugurate a new level of gore in samurai films.” The final duel is a point of much contention and debate in this regard, both condemning and glorifying violence in the same breath. Sanjuro, apprehensive of fighting Hanbei because of its uselessness (the narrative of the film at this point is complete, with Sanjuro’s objective of rescuing the chamberlain having been achieved), slices his sword so deep into his opponent’s chest that a geyser of blood erupts from within him. It is at this moment that the young samurai, looking on, admire Sanjuro, mistaking swordplay as the measure of someone to be admired. But as has been espoused throughout the film, violence is only necessary when it is the only option. In any other case, it is horrifying and purposeless. Hanbei, for example, had no reason to die, and he did so for no other reason than his honor, which Sanjuro already condemns as meaningless. Sanjuro’s heroic makeup hinges completely on his personal actions and methodology, caring not for honor or esoteric ideals, but instead attempting to understand the entirety of the situation and proceed as best he can.

The Seven Samurai at the ready, with Kambei in front.

THE SEVEN SAMURAI is a film which deals with this understanding in a few ways, mainly the characters of Kambei, the leader of the band of ronin, and the master swordsman. Both are deliberate in their actions and only act when it is necessary. Both are introduced into the film by showing their willingness to do only what is necessary, or in Kambei’s case, whatever is necessary, in order to achieve their goals. Kambei will be the main focus here, as the Kurosawa hero, but first I would like to discuss some of the other samurai, and the themes of heroism introduced in the film in order to gain a further understanding of the scope of THE SEVEN SAMURAI.

The film is, in the words of Stephen Prince, an examination of heroism in Kurosawa‘s personal view, and as a film, it shows this heroism in many lights, not the least of which is the defense of the village which makes up much of the film‘s narrative. “This is the familiar Kurosawa insistence that true human action must carry a socially beneficial aim, that heroism is measured by the rectification of social oppression,” he writes, assuring that the central message of the Kurosawa hero is always to do what is right and just in order to help others as according to one’s personal values. This message is certainly not unlike that in SANJURO, where the main character helps save the chamberlain even though he has no vested interest in doing so, or THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, where Rokoruta’s concern for his people’s future compels him to do for his princess whatever is necessary in order for his clan to survive and be rebuilt.

First, Kyuzo, the master swordsman, is skillful and deadly. His skill is demonstrated early on during his first scene in the film, in which he is engaged in a duel. During the initial phase of this duel, the two men keep their swords sheathed, showing the master swordsman’s interest in swordsmanship as purely academic; a means to improve both his skill and knowledge of form. When his opponent, whom the master swordsman insists he has beaten, insists on a real duel for proof, the swordsman hesitates, knowing he has already won and that a real duel would only end in senseless death. Like all of Kurosawa’s heroes, he is uninterested in meaningless acts of violence, and sure enough, his opponent falls from a single movement. This skill is later demonstrated two other times: when he jaunts off to take out one of the three guns possessed by the bandits, and again when he and Kikuchiyo run after three advance scouts and kill them.

As for the character of Kikuchiyo, he is an interesting examination of the hero in and of himself. He is virtuous and full of pure intentions in helping the farmers (it is later revealed he is a farmer’s son himself), yet he is impulsive and does not contemplate his actions. He is an example of how the hero can go astray under certain circumstances, particularly in a quest for recognition. Kikuchiyo attempts to emulate the master swordsman and gain admiration for his skill as well, yet he returns to the camp with another musket, after abandoning his post, and is greeted with scolding from Kambei, who realizes how foolish it is to act in such a rash manner. He does not understand Kambei’s distaste because Kikuchiyo does not understand why the swordsman is admired while he is not for performing the same task. Here Kambei is shown as a leader who “knows his men - knows that the swordsman can safely do this, and knows that Mifune cannot, that his getting the gun and returning alive is only luck.”

Which returns us to Kambei, who is indeed the leader of the samurai, and the central character of the film, as well as the prime example of the Kurosawa hero model. In all instances he is shown to do what is right and just, accepting the mission to save the village from bandits despite his status as a samurai. When he shaves his head at the beginning, he foregoes the visible status of the samurai, but Kurosawa shows what matters is Kambei’s spirit and intent, which is truly deserving of recognition as a hero. Again, later in the film, when confronted with the battle, Kambei insists on everyone doing exactly as they are told, recognizing, much like Sanjuro, that a well thought-out plan is more valuable than even skill or rage.

Kambei Shimada - The Kurosawa Hero embodied in one character.

Kambei, like all other Kurosawa heroes, also strives for knowledge which will help him achieve his mission’s goal. Without everyone‘s honesty, the samurai will fail in their mission. This is why Kambei becomes so upset with Kikuchiyo when he runs off to take out another gunman. He left his post completely open, not informing anyone, and thus put the entire group in jeopardy. By misinforming or excluding the samurai defending the village from any information whatsoever, their trust is violated, and the samurai question themselves. But more importantly, Kambei realizes that information is the basis of truth and that truth is the essence of his decision making abilities. In other words, “information must be the property of the group, and private knowledge is a threat to its security.” For Kurosawa, as well as Kambei, Rokoruta, and Sanjuro, a just judgement can only be made with as much information as possible.

Kambei, of all of Kurosawa’s heroes, seems to come closest to conforming to all the ideals of the hero model. He is just, powerful, self-sacrificing, and compassionate. He is willing to do what needs to be done in order to succeed in his tasks, and he always comes forth with a plan. While Rokoruta and Sanjuro also embody these marks of the Kurosawa hero, they are not as evenly fleshed out as Kambei, who exemplifies these merits across a fairly even canvas as a character.

The Kurosawa hero, as observed, is powerful and intelligent, willing to help whoever is in need, and above all else, make the social climate a better place for everyone to live, not just himself. A hero is self-sacrificing, and has a keen sense of what should be done in a given situation. In THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, SANJURO, and THE SEVEN SAMURAI, examples of this figure abound, and come in different variations on overall emphasis and makeup. Although not all of Kurosawa’s heroes are perfect, they all embody something which Kurosawa holds dear in all his films: truth. They are true to themselves, to others, and to their goals.