A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 602 – Capote

I’ll come out and admit, this is a late review. By a lot of time. I’m writing this in the fall of 2012, not quite a year since watching this movie for the first time. That’s going to be true of a lot of movies from here on, since I ran out of steam for writing a review every day and haven’t quite worked back up to it yet. For movies that I’ve seen a bunch of times, or things that I hated or things that really worked their ways into my head, well, that won’t matter much. For other movies, things have faded and I can remember bits and pieces, but not fully formed thoughts. I really should have taken notes for some things. Live and learn.

Fortunately, this movie stuck with me. It’s a fictionalized account of a real series of events, which, when you think about it, is a bit of a meta-textual situation, what with the story being about the writing of a novel about a true set of events. This isn’t a movie with pleasant subject matter and it doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s sad and unsettling and slightly disturbing but for some reason it didn’t affect me as viscerally as some other sad movies I’ve watched. I suspect it’s because there’s an aspect of removal here. The main character is unsettled, yes, but he’s also attempting to work with it and through it and use it for his own writing. He’s not an intrinsically unhappy person. He’s simply in a disturbing situation that he is also fascinated by.

The movie follows writer Truman Capote as he is introduced to and drawn in by the murders that eventually formed the basis for his book, In Cold Blood. It’s billed as a biographical movie, and that’s true to an extent, but it’s not telling Capote’s entire life story and it’s not telling much that doesn’t directly relate to the writing of his book. It’s a focused biographical movie, showing the effect the writing of the story and researching of the story has on Capote himself. And that effect is fascinating.

Really, this movie should be double-billed with Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, which, coincidentally, I rewatched the other night. Both movies contain threads of fiction and fact and both stories are addressing the nature of involvement between events and the media reporting them. Here, Capote finds himself having to balance between his role as a writer, recording and reporting the details of the murders and the events and people involved, and his role as a confidant of one of the murderers, Perry Smith. Much of the detail he’s able to get and therefore write about comes from the fact that Smith ends up trusting him enough to speak to him. Becoming close to Smith allows Capote a more in-depth look at what he’s writing about, but it also places him in a position where he comes to care about what happens to Smith. At the same time, he doesn’t want to influence events because that would compromise his neutrality as a reporter. That conflict is the heart of the movie and it’s one that isn’t ever fully resolved. The movie ends on a note questioning that very theme.

It’s a quiet movie, and a somewhat sad one. Part of the sadness comes from the crime that started it all. It’s a terrible crime, or set of crimes, really. These aren’t sad-but-fictional murders. These people were real and these people were killed.

I wish I could think of more to say about this movie. I suspect it’s my own damn fault for not writing this review closer to watching the movie itself, but short of watching it again (which I just plain don’t have time to do right now), I’m not sure how better to get things moving. I also wish I had read Capote’s In Cold Blood prior to watching the movie about its’ writing.

I will say that I thought the acting was superb. Of course Philip Seymour Hoffman was amazing in the title role, but his is not the only fantastic performance. It’s just that he fills the movie in so many ways. After all, it’s a movie about Truman Capote and it’s a movie about his writing and his process and his difficulties and him as a person in this particular situation. So of course Hoffman is all over this movie. And if his performance had been at all lacking, the movie would have suffered for it. Thankfully, that’s not the case. But the movie would also have suffered had the supporting cast, like Catherine Keener as Harper Lee and Clifton Collins Jr. as Perry Smith not been so good.

I often find myself conflicted when it comes to movies presenting a fictionalized account of true events. Not conflicted about liking them – I do tend to enjoy historical pieces – but about how to view them. Obviously this is not a movie in which every word, every emotion, every glance, every moment is true to life. It isn’t a documentary. It was made with intent and bias and is the product of interpretation and fictionalization. Such pieces, be they books or movies, need to be viewed as fiction with a heavy dollop of reality as the base. Which is really quite relevant to this particular piece, given that its subject matter has to do with a nonfiction novel. I mentioned above that this movie should be double-billed with Medium Cool and I stand by that. Both movies are dealing not only with the topics of involvement and detachment in media, sensationalism and truth, but are doing so in a medium which forces questions about fact versus fiction, which is fascinating, to say the least.

October 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 596 – Highlander: Endgame

Highlander: Endgame – October 17th, 2011

Oh, this movie. It’s miles ahead of its immediate predecessor and I’ll admit, there are some parts of it that I really quite enjoy. But it’s also got some really unfortunate flaws that squander its potential. I wish it had been better than it is, because one of the points behind it was to take the main character of the series – which had done rather well – and bring him onto the big screen. And since I love the series, well, I was totally on board. But then it goes and mucks with a lot of the established canon for the series (which had been rather good at staying internally consistent) and it gets messy plot-wise and there’s a lot of good material that’s just not used as well as it could be. It’s frustrating. And even more frustrating is knowing there was another movie after this, with the series characters, that I know enough about to know I will never watch it. I wanted so much better for the series cast.

As with all the others, this movie involves an epic battle between Immortals. In this case there’s a baddie named Jacob Kell who’s been hunting down Connor MacLeod not just to kill him, but to take away everything he ever loved. This is in retribution for Connor killing Kell’s father. Never mind that Kell’s father was, at the time, burning Connor’s mother at the stake. Kell’s been racking up heads and is now super powerful. Too powerful for either Connor or his younger kinsman, Duncan, to take on alone. Complicating matters are two things: Connor’s ennui and an old lover of Duncan’s (Kate, a.k.a. Faith) who’s taken up with Kell. There’s some more stuff involving the Watchers – a group of mortals who track Immortals and keep records of their lives – but honestly it mostly serves as worldbuilding and character development for the movie, not as an essential plot point. Eventually Connor and Duncan settle on what to do about Kell and there’s a big climactic fight.

So, here’s my problem with this movie: Kate. That’s not its only problem, but it’s the one that sticks in my craw. Because I don’t honestly think her presence in the movie is necessary. She gives Duncan a little bit of motivation, but how much motivation did he need other than Connor and the clan? Did he really need this wife he’d totally forgotten about to push him into facing the baddie? I honestly don’t think so, but there she is, lurking through the whole movie. And in the process she mucks with the canon provided by the series that Duncan is from. Maybe it’s not a big deal for this movie that Duncan MacLeod had never been married and was told he never would be, but it was a pretty huge plot point for the series. Not to mention that her character arc requires that Duncan had killed her on their wedding night so they could be together forever as Immortals and that seems, well, a little out of character for him. And then he doesn’t remember her when he sees her again in New York! Again, out of character. Duncan MacLeod is not a man who would ever forget a woman who meant that much to him and then it’s supposed to be this big dramatic love story that causes angst for Duncan in the present day. So her character arc messes with an established main character for the movie and it provides very little for the actual story.

Look, I have no problem with there being a romantic subplot. The other movies have romantic arcs and the series has a bunch of women Duncan sleeps with or has slept with or wants to sleep with. But Kate’s arc is so poorly handled. It could have been done well, but it wasn’t. The backstory could have been better. The prior relationship could have made more sense. They could have done so much more with her. So much better. And it’s all just a mess. Also, at the risk of sounding pedantic, when Kate asks Duncan to give her back her ability to bear children? That’s all well and good, but she never had it. The series (and yes, I am going to harp on that because they took Duncan from the series) established that even prior to full Immortality anyone with the potential to become Immortal couldn’t have children. Nitpicky, yes, but it’s mentioned multiple times. It’s a major thing for male and female Immortals alike. I guess I shouldn’t expect much better, considering the movies’ past track record with prior established canon, but I do because there are other things in the movie that do follow along.

The relationship between Duncan and Connor as cousins and friends and student and teacher? Yup, that’s established. The Watchers and their not-so-slowly evolving role as meddlers instead of just observers? The database developed by Methos with records of all the Immortals and their histories? Connor’s home and his adopted daughter? Those are all established pieces of plot and story and worldbuilding and I like all of that. And I want the Kate storyline to work. I wish it did. It would make the whole movie better if it did because the character development it was obviously meant to do for Duncan was a good concept. It’s just built on a flimsy foundation.

From what I’ve read, it looks like this movie went through some unfortunate changes when the Highlander spinoff series The Raven got canceled. I wish I could have seen the earlier versions of the screenplay or the original concepts. I suspect there were other things done with the romantic plot and I suspect some characters, such as Jin Ke (one of Kell’s followers) were more fleshed out. His interactions with Duncan and Kate suggest there’s more to his character and backstory, but we never see it, which is a shame. Given the themes of mistakes and redemption and the effects of a long life on the emotional and mental stability of those who’ve lived it? There could have been some really interesting stuff there. For that matter, why not do more with Methos? He’s in the movie, but he’s really just fanservice, which is silly since as the oldest Immortal and one with a particularly nasty past you’d have thought they could work that in there. And if we’re going to look at the series much of the subject matter of this movie had already been covered in there (Methos, Something Wicked, Deliverance, Comes a Horseman, Revelation 6:8, Forgive Us Our Trespasses, Archangel, Avatar, Armageddon and To Be and Not To Be, to name a few relevant episodes). Oh well.

Honestly, I like this movie. I love the first movie and all, but my true love is the series. I greatly enjoyed seeing Duncan MacLeod get the focal role here and I loved seeing the Watchers and two of my favorite series characters (Joe Dawson and Methos) and it’s got some really fantastic fight scenes. Duncan and Jin Ke in Connor’s old condo? Fan-fucking-tastic. There’s a whole crapload of swordfighting in the movie and well, that’s one of the things I love about the entire franchise. I’m a sucker for swordfighting. It makes me happy like little else. I love Highlander as a concept because I love the idea of Immortals fighting with swords and leading these long and conflicted lives, and I mean conflicted both in terms of physical combat and moral conflict. Those series episodes I mentioned above? Aside from the Archangel/Avatar/Armageddon arc, those are some of my favorites in the whole series precisely because they deal with the concepts of past actions and consequences and just what might happen when one has lived for such a long time. And that’s what this movie is dealing with. I have no problem seeing Connor in the emotional state he’s in during this movie. I mean, realistically speaking, Christopher Lambert was getting too noticeably aged to keep playing an Immortal character who never grows old, so it was time for him to officially pass the torch. But it works for me in terms of character and plot too. So yeah, there’s a lot for me to like here. I just really wish that the Kate arc had been better handled. It would have made the movie far more solid and fun to watch.

October 17, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 594 – Highlander

Highlander (Director’s Cut) – October 15th, 2011

I’ve been saving this movie for two reasons. The first reason is that I love it and I didn’t want to waste it early in the project. The second reason is that this movie spawned sequels that, well, make me sad just by existing. And we’ll have to talk about that. Then again, the movie also spawned the television series, which is perhaps my very favorite television show of all time aside from Star Trek (and Star Trek is on a level all its own, so I usually discount it in this sort of judgement). It’s a weird movie with a weird following and have you heard there are plans to do a remake? Yes. There are plans to do a remake. That’s the sort of legacy this movie has.

Let’s talk for a moment about the bizarre array of related media that this movie inspired before we go talking about the movie itself. I’m always amused by discussions in other fandoms when it comes to ignoring bits and pieces of canon. Highlander fans have had to become quite skilled at denial. We’ve had to be, given some of the bizarre self-contradictory stuff that’s been put out. Not only is there the sequel-we-don’t-ownl, but there are actually three more movies after that. And an anime movie. And an animated series. And a video game based on that animated series. And the live action television series. And the book series based on the live action television series. I think there’s yet another video game out there and as I said, there’s a remake in the works and a new book series that’s looking for funds through Kickstarter (or it was a couple of weeks ago) so, that’s a lot. All from this movie. Something about it just makes people want to keep making stuff based on it. I’d say it’s an attempt to cash in on the success of this one but after all of the weird crap that’s been put out, it’s not like making something Highlander-based is a guaranteed success. Far from it.

I would say that this is somewhat of a polarizing movie. I’ve met people who love it – quite a few people – and I’ve met people who hate it and think it’s the most boring piece of crap they’ve ever seen. I’m one of the former. My mother is one of the latter. There’s just something about it and I don’t know precisely what it is. Personally speaking, I have a great fondness for kilts, swordfighting and the concept of immortality having both positives and negatives. So, really, this movie is tailor made for me. The series goes into it in more depth, but this movie definitely touches the key points. And has a bunch of fight scenes with clanging swords and lightning. What’s not to like? Okay, I can see how people might not be able to get into both the historical setting stuff with Connor MacLeod and his first love, Heather, living together in medieval Scotland as well as the modern murder mystery type stuff. In that sense I can understand that there’s a limited audience there. The movie has quite a few different genres tossed together and while I happen to think it works well, other people might well be turned off by one or more aspect and that would be that.

Since the story deals with a character who is “Immortal” and his background, it necessarily involves some bouncing between time periods. We meet Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod as he’s about to go into battle for the first time. He gets his ass killed and then rises from the dead only to be cast out from his clan because they think he’s possessed. Eventually he and a woman named Heather settle down in the ruins of a castle in the middle of nowhere, and he seems pretty content with that until Sean Connery shows up and tells him he’s immortal and has to learn how to fight duels to the death-by-beheading. Because that’s what Immortals do in this movie’s world. In the modern world Connor is living in New York and working as an antique dealer. When he gets into a duel in a parking garage and leaves the body behind, along with some traces of his super special katana, the police get involved and start to investigate him. So we go back and forth from the present day, where forensic specialist Brenda Wyatt has zeroed in on him due to her interest in swords and the past, where he trains with his new teacher, Ramirez (that would be Connery) and learns about being an Immortal. And through it all is a villain called the Kurgan, played with gusto by Clancy Brown. He’s a raider with a skull helmet in the past and a punk in a leather jacket in the present and he is a fantastically evil villain. I adore him.

The thing about villains in the Highlander universe is that they need personalities, but they don’t really always need motivation to be villains. After all, the universe has canon set up in such a way that the main characters fight other people with swords as a matter of course. That’s how they live. That’s half the point of the whole endeavor! So you’ve got a reason for your hero and your villain to be fighting. They fight because of course they fight! So really, what you need to do for your villain is make him evil. Make him power hungry and bloodthirsty and make him a jackass. Of course, in the series they had to do more than that or it would have gotten mighty boring, but in the first movie? Not so necessary. Set the Kurgan up as a dude who likes the high he gets from chopping other Immortals’ heads off and you’re good to go. I know I’ve complained in the past about villains that are evil just ’cause, but really, that’s not the case here. The Kurgan wants to be the last living Immortal so he can have all the power for himself and use it to rule the world. That’s some mighty fine motivation. Simple, blunt, but it’ll do. Especially when Clancy Brown seems to have had so much fun with the part.

I’ll admit, the love story part of it isn’t leaving me swooning, but I’m not really a swooning sort of person, so I don’t hold it against the movie. What I do like is how clearly the movie shows that part of the lives of the Immortals in this world is that they’ll have to say goodbye to people they love and they’ll have to move on with their lives and start fresh. In the modern day scenes Connor is flirting with Brenda and while there are ulterior motives at work for both of them, in the end there is a romance there and it’s just as believable as Connor’s romance with Heather. And it’s not that he’s forgotten Heather, it’s just that it was hundreds of years ago. That’s the sort of thing I like seeing in stories about immortality and immensely long lives. It’s not just not dying. It’s living through the deaths of others.

I would be remiss in my reviewing duties for this movie if I didn’t also mention the soundtrack. It’s entirely done by Queen, and it is fantastic. It’s just one more thing on top of everything else about this movie that makes me love it. Sure, it’s a little ridiculous and sure, it’s got some special effects errors and sure, it’s got its detractors. But it remains one of my favorites, despite the flaws and despite the sequels and despite everything. It’s got enough fun to it and it pushes enough of my buttons that I will always enjoy it.

October 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 564 – Orlando

Orlando – September 15th, 2011

I don’t recall when I first saw this movie. I have the impression of having seen it in college, but whenever I think back through my classes I can’t really pinpoint which class I would have seen it in. I was an English major and I took a lot of classes that featured films. I went to a women’s college and so a lot of the classes ended up touching on gender roles even if that wasn’t the focus. And I do not remember what class I saw this for. I’m fairly sure it wasn’t something I picked up on my own and I have a vague memory of being told something about the history of the time periods. But regardless of why I saw it and when, as soon as I did see it I fell in love with it. It’s stuck in my head, probably forever. I bought the soundtrack and listened to it on endless loop for a while. And I became convinced that Tilda Swinton is one of the most amazing actresses I have ever seen or will ever see.

The movie is based on a novel by Virginia Woolf. I’ve never read it and I really should, though from what I read while watching the movie, there are some rather substantial differences between the two. But I do like that the movie’s director, Sally Potter, was very cognizant of the fact that there were differences and that the changes were quite deliberate. It is as I have said before (such as in yesterday’s review): The page and the screen are different mediums and you have to use them differently to tell a story. Having not read the original book, I can’t speak to how good an adaptation this is. But I can speak to whether or not I think the movie itself has a clear vision and does a solid job with it. And I think it does. I also think it’s a beautiful bit of film regardless.

The story follows Orlando, who begins as a young man living with his parents in a manor in the British countryside near the end of Elizabeth I’s reign. When the queen visits she becomes fixated on him and eventually bestows upon him a house and lands of his own, provided that he never grow old. And so he doesn’t. Years go by. Decades. And Orlando remains the same, just with new fashions and new politics and new people surrounding him. Until one night, after a battle in Turkey where he is serving as an ambassador, Orlando falls asleep and wakes up as a woman. And as she says at the time “Same person. No difference at all… just a different sex.” Being accustomed to two hundred years of rights, respect and privileges accorded to men, Orlando finds being a woman to be rather different. For one, she cannot own property in her own name as a woman and besides, legally she’s considered dead. And so she lives in the house Queen Elizabeth gave her while the courts wrestle over the issue of her existence and some time later she finds that unless she has a son she will lose everything. But she doesn’t have a son. She has a very short affair with a man she meets in a field and he won’t stay. So instead we move on, watching Orlando move through time until the modern day. And she is still as young as she always was. She is slightly androgynous and seems to have embraced it. She has a child, a daughter, and she goes back to her house which she no longer owns and she publishes her story, that took her centuries to write. And that is the story. Just a little meta, there at the end.

There are two moments in this movie that make me tear up. One is the end, with Orlando and her daughter. And one is earlier in, when Orlando runs off into a hedge maze after being told she’s going to lose everything. It’s worth mentioning here that the soundtrack for this movie is absolutely beautiful and that the track playing during the labyrinth scene is key to its emotional impact. But really, I can’t watch it without feeling something. There’s no dialogue and no plot points, just Orlando running in the maze. And it is sad and beautiful at the same time. Were I to be writing about this for a class I’d have things to say about metaphors and the like, but I leave you to draw your own conclusions. All I can say is that it is one of my favorite moments in the movie.

And really, it’s saying something that I put that moment above all others since I love this whole movie. The earlier scenes are difficult, with Orlando a privileged young man of means. He’s never had to face much criticism and he’s always had money and he’s never been denied. The movie does an excellent job mirroring many moments from his early life into his later life, showing Orlando the opposite side of his previous actions and words. He tells a young woman, a Russian princess, that she belongs to him because he adores her. When the tables are turned, Orlando of course is appalled by the very idea. I have no idea how much of an impression this sort of thing might make on a man watching it, but as a woman watching it I can’t help but sigh a little. Because really, some of what Orlando learns feels obvious to me. And much of it is, by its nature, dated. It is taking place well in the past, after all. At the same time, having it set out there, that a person was (and is) judged not on merit but on gender, and that the same person with the same qualities and the same intellect and the same physical fitness and the same everything but gender might suddenly be disqualified for all manner of things? That’s an important point to make, regardless of the time period.

It is impossible to truly capture the spirit of this movie in a review and I suspect that reading the book would be an entirely different experience. A good one, I hope, but different. Because so much of what makes this movie magical to me is in the music and in Tilda Swinton’s performance. I truly enjoy what Sally Potter put on the screen, regardless of its changes to the original work it’s based on. And the concept of it is sound. It doesn’t need a boat load of back story or explanation. What does it matter why Orlando doesn’t age or by what mechanism he becomes she? It doesn’t. And the movie doesn’t really invite you to wonder. It is simply stated: This happened. This happened and this is the life that was led as a result.

September 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 532 – The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai – August 14th, 2011

This is a movie I never really had any intention of seeing. It’s not that the time period and subject matter don’t interest me, it’s that I’m not a big Tom Cruise fan and I didn’t particularly want to see this time period and subject matter with him at its center. I wish I could say that the movie surprised me, but I can’t say that and be honest. It was precisely what I was expecting, which is incredibly frustrating because really, it’s a beautifully made movie. It’s just a beautifully made movie that has no particular need for its main character.

The story follows a former soldier named Nathan Algren. He’s a drunk who works as a pitch man for a rifle company, telling stories of his war experiences to try and drum up sales. Of course, since he’s drunk and horribly conflicted about his role in the war, massacring Native Americans just because they were there and he’d been ordered to, he ends up driving people off more than attracting them. And it’s not that I doubt that there were people who fought at that time who questioned the orders they were given and felt guilt about their actions later, I just don’t really feel comfortable with their stories being made the important ones. So already, by fifteen minutes in, I’m not terribly interested in this man who is clearly supposed to be the pivotal figure in the story.

Algren is recruited to travel to Japan to help train troops to help fight a civil war going on there. Once in Japan he meets some American soldiers, a British linguist and sociologist and a number of Japanese soldiers he can’t communicate with and has little interest in. They’re barely trained and have never handled firearms before and of course Algren makes it clear to his superiors that regardless of what the senior officers and officials want, the soldiers aren’t ready to fight anyone. And if I hadn’t already been rolling my eyes, this would have made me start. Because really? No one else could tell these folks weren’t ready for battle? No one else was going to notice they’re practically Imperial Stormtroopers when it comes to aim? Not that I expect anyone would care if all these guys were supposed to be was fodder who might get off a few lucky shots and intimidate the enemy by dint of even having guns, but still. Welcome to Nathan Algren: Showing Those Japanese Idiots How It’s Done.

In short order the troops are ordered to march against the samurai whom Algren is told are rebelling against the Emperor, and of course they’re totally outclassed since Algren was right and they’re not ready and the samurai are bad-fucking-ass and wipe the forest floor with them. Algren witnesses some things he doesn’t understand and ends up captured after facing off with a samurai and winning. And thus begins the re-education of Nathan Algren. He spends some time in a remote village where samurai leader Katsumoto (played by Ken Watanabe) is gathering people loyal to him and to the Emperor. Because, you see, the samurai aren’t really rebelling against the Emperor. They’re fighting against what they see as foreign influences that threaten to destroy Japan and which they believe are manipulating the Emperor against them.

It probably goes without saying that as Algren spends more and more time in the village he comes to learn about and respect the samurai and the Japanese people. Of course he does. He’d be a pretty lousy hero figure for the film if he didn’t. Katsumoto tries out his English with Algren and they learn from each other and Algren starts taking lessons in swordplay from the men in the village. He stops wearing his western clothing, replacing it with clothes left for him by the woman whose house he’s staying in, whose husband was the samurai he killed in battle. And if you’re thinking “Oh, well then, he can’t possibly end up with her!” you’re wrong. I’m so sorry.

Now, I do like seeing Algren gain an appreciation for the culture he’s been immersed in. He’s made out to be a sympathetic character, certainly, and it speaks well for him that he does apply himself to learning the language of his hosts and to respecting their customs. While there is a good deal of stupid American stuff going on when he arrives, it doesn’t last long and it’s easy to chalk it up to him being grumpy at being captured and in an utterly foreign situation. So I do rather like the bit where he’s learning about it all and being open and receptive to new ideas and practices. But soon enough the movie has to show just how essential Algren is and so we’re back to battle.

The big fight between the samurai and the Emperor’s new gun and cannon-bearing troops is the climax of the film and it’s obviously a losing battle. The thing is, Katsumoto is present for the whole thing. He was present throughout the movie, showing a keen understanding of tactics and the ways his enemies fight. But it comes down to Algren to come up with the sneaky plan that devastates the enemy and renders their firepower far less useful than it was supposed to be. Throughout this movie it’s made clear that while the Japanese people and the samurai in particular are highly intelligent and skilled, it’s always Algren who saves the day or thinks of something the Japanese people didn’t think of. It’s frustrating beyond belief.

On one hand, I suspect that the idea behind movies like this and Dances With Wolves is to show a period in history to mainstream US white folks and to give us a central figure to relate to. But while this movie does do a good amount towards showing the Japanese people with a lot of respect, Algren is clearly the main character in a story that isn’t really his, or shouldn’t be. It should be Katsumoto’s, with a side of Algren. How different would this movie have been had it started not in the US with Algren drunkenly scaring children with stories of scalping, but in Japan, with Katsumoto learning that a former comrade had been conscripted? That the army raised against him was being trained to use firearms by American soldiers? That is a movie I’d be interested in seeing, though it would still be historically inaccurate. So take the US out of the picture entirely! Not every story is our story, no matter how beautifully it’s told.

August 14, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 528 – The Perfect Storm

The Perfect Storm – August 10th, 2011

This movie was one we got sort of by accident, along with another movie, and we’d been hanging onto it because it’s long and we weren’t terribly interested in it. But it’s got a bit of local interest for us, being set in New England, and I admit, I do have a thing for accounts of real disasters. Still, this wasn’t a disaster I was particularly interested in and it’s not one I’ve read about. After watching the movie, I think I’d be curious about reading the book it’s based on, but even more so I’d be curious about reading the memoirs of Linda Greenlaw. That doesn’t say a heck of a lot for the movie, but really, it’s an odd piece of cinema.

To be honest, this movie reminds me of nothing so much as Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (the book, not the movie) in that going into it I knew exactly what the outcome would be. The whole point of the story isn’t whether or not anyone will come through this. It’s how the events unfolded and why it happened and how. The thing about Krakauer’s story is that he was there. Yes, his account of events is flawed, as he himself acknowledges, and it’s missing things like specific reasons why certain people were where they were when they died. But it takes into account survivors’ stories, including his own, to piece together what’s there. And the trouble with this movie is that it simply doesn’t have that sort of material to latch onto and it makes the whole thing feel like it has less impact for me because of it.

Based on the real events of the huge storm that happened in October 1991, the story mostly follows a crew of swordfish fishermen who leave from Gloucester, MA and get caught in the storm. A huge part of the movie is introducing the six man crew and getting to know them and sympathize with them as characters. We meet the captain, Billy Tyne, and learn that he’s a good fisherman but he’s been in a slump lately. We meet his crew, from rookie Bobby to ship’s steward, Murph. We learn about their families and troubles. We see that Bobby wants to save up so he and his girlfriend can get a place of their own and try to get custody of his girlfriend’s kids. We find out Murph has a son who misses him and an ex-wife who still cares about him but can’t be with him. We meet a few others, we get some ideas of their lives, and then out they go on a bid to bring in more fish than they did on the last trip to try and turn things around.

Now, I read up a little during and after watching the movie and the whole thing about Tyne being in a slump wasn’t really true. For the movie’s sake, it makes for a better story to have him be desperate to bring in a good haul. Otherwise it looks more like hubris than need, and you can’t have that in your movie’s tragic hero. So they changed that, and I get it. I get why things were done for the sake of drama for the story. The thing is, once you start altering things like that, you’re on a slippery slope.

The movie starts to really suffer for me once the crew is out on the ocean and the storm starts to kick up. Oh, I’ve got no trouble with the Action Meteorology! sections. It’s that the movie fractures and ceases to be just about these fishermen and their inevitable fate. And it just gets messy, which is incredibly frustrating. After spending so much time getting to know these guys whom we also know all die by the end, we meet two other groups of people caught in the storm: A trio on a yacht and a helicopter rescue team. And we know nothing about them until we meet them mid-storm. We don’t get to know their families or their reasons for being out in such weather. For the rescue team, well, it’s their job. But there’s nothing to humanize them. They all wear similar helmets and uniforms and I’m sad to say they end up being pretty interchangeable to me. And then there’s the trio on the yacht. Why are they out there? Why do they stay out there? Why is this even included in the movie? I get that in the book there is mention of a group who were on a yacht and who got rescued by helicopter. I get that they gave accounts of the storm and the conditions. But they add almost nothing to the narrative of the movie. If anything, they make it weaker, because these three, one of whom insisted they stay out in the storm because he owned the yacht and he said so, survive. The people with no good reason to be out there make it through and the folks we’ve gotten to know don’t. Maybe it was an attempt to make the deaths of the fishermen all the more tragic, but it just ended up irritating me. And it takes up a huge amount of time.

The other problem here is that once the Andrea Gail is out of range of any of the other boats, there’s really no record of what happened on board. In reality no one knows what happened. No one knows how well they were doing or what took them into the storm. No one knows what happened on board or whether anyone fought with anyone else or went overboard and was rescued. The events on board, which make up a good chunk of the later part of the movie, are entirely fictionalized. And again, I get that this is a movie and it wouldn’t really work as a film if it took us to the point where the Andrea Gail drops out of contact and then pops back on with the news reports of their assumed deaths. The thing is, there’s a whole bit with Billy telling Bobby he’s a natural fisherman and billy going down with the ship while Bobby rises to the surface. And I can’t help but wonder why, if this movie was going to go to such lengths and fictionalize so much, it didn’t just go whole hog and have a miraculous survivor? It wouldn’t have been a good choice, in my opinion, but it would have fit the fictional version of the story. It’s just a strange mish-mash of a movie.

Despite this movie’s flaws, when the end came, with the crew of the Andrea Gail facing the rising water, then the families gathered in church acknowledging that their loved ones have no graves, I found myself fighting tears. In some part it was the movie’s doing, as I think the performances of the cast members at the end are all very well done – William Fichtner in particular, who showed a perfectly quiet resignation – but not all of it. A lot of it was growing up near the water and paying attention to maritime lore. I am reminded of sea chanties at the end of this movie. Songs about ships lost at sea, their fates unknown (one such is Lady Franklin’s Lament, though details of Lord Franklin’s expedition were later found). It’s not the movie. It’s the fact that as fictionalized as this movie is, the situation of a ship lost at sea, leaving families and friends to mourn loved ones who never came home, is not fiction. Living on the coast, seeing storms hit the beaches, having sailed through tame seas that still made my stomach churn, it’s poignant to me. So I’ll give the movie credit for evoking enough of that in me to bring tears to my eyes.

August 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 509 – Newsies

Newsies – July 22nd, 2011

Several years back, when Christian Bale was announced as the new Batman, I remember being immediately excited. I stated at the time that I thought he was an excellent choice and I was looking forward to seeing him in the role. And, at the time, Andy looked at me and wondered where he should know Christian Bale from. My incredulous reply was “NEWSIES!” Which didn’t really help him, because he had never seen it. I, on the other hand, had it memorized and had entertained a brief early teen crush on Bale based solely on his performance in it. I stand by my 12 year old self on this one. Bale was a cutie even at 17/18 and he dances in this!

Given my antipathy towards both Disney and musicals, one might wonder just how in hell I came to watch this movie so many times that I know it by heart. One would have to know my family’s history with cable for that. We didn’t have cable when I was younger. Most of my friends and classmates did, but we didn’t. For the most part, while I knew that in theory there were many things to watch that I was missing, I was content with what we had on broadcast television. And then my family spent two weeks renting a house on Cape Cod one summer. And this house had cable. And on A&E, for two hours every evening – just at the right time for dinner – The Avengers was on. Two hours of Steed and Emma or Steed and Tara(raboomdiay) that we hadn’t seen in ages because no broadcast channels were airing the show and the episodes we could buy on tape were limited. We lasted about four days when we got home. The cable guy was called in before the week was out. My mother had him lock out MTV and VH1 and subscribed to Disney as a “wholesome” channel for myself and my brother. Of course, she never changed the default code on the remote so I unlocked MTV whenever I was home on my own, but I did watch the Disney channel every so often as well. And they played this movie over and over and over and over and over.

Eventually I taped it off tv so I could watch it whenever. Inexplicably my brother also enjoyed it enough not to complain when I put it in. We’d sit and watch it and I’d make jokes about it (I was a born riffer) and make him laugh and somewhere along the line I memorized every line, every song, every stage direction. Everything. It was hard-pressed not to sing along with it watching it now, but I thought Andy would likely look at me funny. I’m sure he was laughing at me when I couldn’t help but mouth the words. Really, I should have been watching this with a couple of friends from college who love it like I do, so we’d have outnumbered him and been able to sing along. I mentioned on facebook that I was watching it and immediately one friend posted “I’M DA KING OF NEW YAWWWK” and we discussed the upcoming stage musical opening in September (why yes, I will be going). So what I’m saying here is that this movie is full of nostalgia for me.

Oh, it’s not perfect. I have to wonder what the impetus was for this movie, to be honest. It’s the story of the Newsies strike in 1899, which was a real thing that happened and was part of the whole labor reform movement in the US. And I find early labor reform really fascinating. So I’m all for a story about children organizing a strike to demand fair treatment. But what an odd choice for Disney to make a movie about. For children. I mean, it’s about kids, but it’s about a period in US history that’s rarely touched on. I mean, who covers the Spanish American War and its domestic consequences in depth at the age at which this movie is targeted? The late 1800s and early 1900s aren’t really a time period that gets a lot of kids movies made about it. Apparently it was originally conceived as a drama without musical numbers. And yet here we are, watching Christian Bale and David Moscow leap and kick and tap their way through Seize the Day, King of New York and several others. It’s a truly bizarre combination that to this day I can’t quite wrap my head around. No wonder it was a theatrical flop.

Despite all that, however, there is something about this movie that I find irresistible. I’m not sure what it is, specifically, that draws me to it because if all I wanted was to see Bale dancing I could just watch clips of this movie set to songs by Lady Gaga (yes, this is a thing, and it is wonderful) but that’s just not as satisfying. I do like the story, which follows Bale as Jack “Cowboy” Kelly and new friend David Jacobs (played by David Moscow) as they urge their fellow newspaper-selling peers to strike in protest of a price increase they can’t pass on to their customers. Jack’s an orphan with a history he’d like to forget about, sings about going to Santa Fe and is generally considered the best of the best by his peers (except the kids from Brooklyn, who have their own leader) where David gets into newspaper selling at the beginning of the movie to help out his family while his father is recovering from a work injury. With David’s smarts and Jack’s charisma and connections they manage to rally all the newsies in the city.

Of course the movie needs a villain and we get two good figures: There’s Joseph Pulitzer, played by Robert Duvall – the man who, in the movie, introduced the price hike that spurs the strike. And there’s Warden Snyder, who runs a juvenile detention hall where he stiffs the kids their meals and pockets the money that should be spent on their care. Snyder is after Jack since Jack escaped from the hall several years back. He goes to Pulitzer and identifies Jack as an escaped criminal, giving the city cause to send in the police to break up the strike. Of course you know that the newsies will prevail here. Regardless of any actual historical events this movie wouldn’t be getting a negative ending. It’s certainly going to be triumphant and involve singing and dancing because that’s how it works. But before it does there are threats and betrayals and people get beaten up and the reporter who’s been helping the newsies gets reassigned and just when you think it’s all going wrong the newsies print their own newspaper and distribute it to all the working kids in New York. Who are, of course, literate.

Not that I’m complaining about widespread literacy! But I highly suspect that this movie is embroidering the truth just a bit in terms of how many dock workers and laundry girls could read. One would expect the newsies to, but not necessarily everyone else. Still, it makes for a good crowd and a good feeling at the end, seeing all these child laborers standing up for their rights. This isn’t a movie that’s trying for verisimilitude. It’s trying to give a little bit of a history lesson, dressed up with song and dance. And some cute male leads. The acting isn’t fantastic and the script is somewhat predictable. But the songs are catchy (I’ve had King of New York in my head since watching it) and the dancing is fun to watch and really, it is a time period and subject I’m interested in. I still think it was an odd choice for Disney to make a movie for but it’s become a favorite of mine. And judging by the response I got from every friend I mentioned it to online, I’m not alone.

July 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 445 – Finding Neverland

Finding Neverland – May 19th, 2011

Last night I was having a very hard time reviewing I Am Legend, not because it was a hard movie to review but because I was having a bit of a down evening and simply couldn’t get the words out. I think I finally finished my review around 2 a.m. after railing a bit against the world in general and fantasy in particular. This wasn’t the fault of the movie. It was just a thing that gets to me every so often. Because much as I would love the world to actually be full of wizards and magic and much as I would adore all the things I’ve read and imagined to be out there waiting to be discovered, sometimes it hits me hard that they aren’t. I know it, but there’s a difference between knowing it and feeling it. Last night I felt it and it made everything more difficult. So when it came time to pick a movie for this evening I looked at the list and saw this and knew that this was it.

This is a movie about imagination and how we need it. I had a short discussion with a friend this morning about the importance of fantasy and imagination and the worlds inside our heads. She said some good things and I was heartened to read them. Things about how while sometimes we use fantasy for an escape, we can also use it as the impetus for our real world actions. And I responded that I can normally do the latter, but sometimes I need the former. I honestly believe sometimes we all need the former. Sometimes an imaginary world where things work in different ways and we can be something other than what we normally are is the world you need to believe in, even if only for a short time. Even if it’s only a small part of your mind believing in it while the rest of your mind believes in bills and groceries and cleaning all the things. Sometimes you need to have not grown up. Just for a few moments.

It’s one of the things I enjoy a lot about this project. Yes, we have documentaries and historical films that are based on real events. But we’ve got a hell of a lot more fantasy and science fiction and magical realism. And for an hour and a half or more every day I get to visit a different world and escape into it. And then after it’s over I get to come back to the real world and talk about what that other world was like. Did it manage to accomplish its goals? Did it transport me? Did I enjoy the trip? Was I supposed to? And I can say, without a doubt, that for me this movie accomplished its goals, transported me, and I enjoyed every second of it even when I was in tears.

Perhaps it’s that I picked it on a night after I’d been thinking so much on the nature of imagination and how I process it and how real it is to me and the difference in the kinds of belief one can have in one’s imagination. It’s certainly possible to say that this movie has flaws. It’s precious and a little saccharine in places and I think the last scene with Barrie and Peter was a bit much even if I do think Freddie Highmore performed admirably. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The point is that flaws or not, this movie struck me at the right time in the right way. It is the perfect movie to reaffirm one’s faith in the power of thought and imagination and fantasy. It is the story of the creation of Peter Pan, after all. A story within a story with that famous bit about believing in fairies.

Johnny Depp is the center of this movie, playing J.M. Barrie. And you know, that’s fitting since the man seems not to have aged in decades (were I to believe in such things, I would claim he’s immortal) and the central figure in the story he’s telling is Peter Pan, who never grew up. And I do so like Depp. He seems to have a lot of fun romping around with the family he befriends. The Llewellyn Davies boys and their mother meet him in Kensington Gardens one afternoon and soon he’s playing with them on a daily basis, inventing adventures for them to go on and joining in. He grows close to their mother, Sylvia, a widow whose mother disapproves of the friendship. It causes difficulties for Barrie as well as his wife grows jealous of the time he spends away from her though they seemed to be somewhat distant anyhow. The interpersonal relationships between the adults does impact things, since it provides a framework for Barrie’s life and the writing of the play, but it’s not what interests me most.

I did enjoy the movie’s version of the friendship between Barrie and Sylvia, because I felt the friendship between them was the product of some great on screen chemistry from Depp and Kate Winslet and it was thoroughly believable as a friendship but not necessarily a romance. It could have been and the interpretation is certainly possible. But the friendship comes first and I think it’s entirely possible to read them as just that, friends who might have become something more if circumstances had allowed. As it stands, in the movie Barrie remains married well throughout his friendship with Sylvia and Sylvia grows ill too soon after his marriage falls apart.

Really though, the movie is about the world Barrie creates through his imaginary adventures with the boys. And we see those adventures as he gives the boys a place to start and sparks them to imagine more themselves and we see the transitions from real world to imagination and back again, sometimes between shots in the same scene, multiple times, over and over, blurring the lines. They play as cowboys and as pirates and they go flying and imagine wonderful things. In the movie Barrie especially encourages Peter, who seems to be grown before his time with grief for his father and worry for his mother. He appears to have rejected his imagination because it helps nothing and here is where the movie resonates for me. With Barrie’s encouragement Peter re-embraces his imagination and starts to tell stories of his own and the world is not kind to him and it’s hard to keep believing when the world keeps insisting that believing doesn’t matter. This is where I was struggling last night. But Barrie encourages him to stick with it. Because sometimes we need to believe in the worlds in our heads.

I loved how the movie combined the real with the fantastical. I loved the development of the imaginary stories into the play and then into a world where Barrie, Sylvia and the boys can just walk out to. Visually it’s absolutely amazing and Depp, Winslet and Highmore (as Peter) are all fantastic and carry the emotional weight well. As I mentioned, the last scene between Barrie and Peter felt a little much to me. It dipped into telling in a movie full of wonderful examples of showing. But I blame the script there, because the emotion in the scene was well done and I credit Highmore for pulling off the tears just right. Better than that though is the play itself, which is performed very nicely within the movie. I admit, I totally love the gimmick used in the movie where children were seeded through the theater to prompt the adults into reacting the way they should. And I love all the theater scenes in general. Dustin Hoffman as the theater owner has some fantastic moments and steals a lot of his scenes. It adds some humor to a movie that has a lot of moments that invite you to cry, such as the play performed in the Llewellyn Davies living room and Barrie realizing that the eldest of the boys has had to grow up right before his eyes.

There’s definitely a sentimental feel to the whole production here and I can appreciate how that might turn some people off. I, on the other hand, needed that tonight. I needed to see people feeling better because of something outside of reality. I needed to see lives transformed by the wondrous and amazing. And that is precisely what this movie shows and it shows it well. It has some fantastic acting from everyone in the cast and it has some beautifully written lines and it has a stage play and some amazing camera tricks and theatrical effects used outside of the theater. It’s beautiful and quiet and heartbreaking and affirming for me all at the same time.

May 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 440 – Brotherhood of the Wolf

Brotherhood of the Wolf – May 14th, 2011

This is a movie I’ve been hearing little things about for some time. I’ve meant to watch it for ages, but it’s so long! And it’s subtitled! And it seemed pretty dark. All together that’s a pretty hefty movie viewing experience, so I put it off. And put it off. And put it off. Until tonight when we had the time and Andy suggested it and a long dark French period piece sounded like a good idea. I don’t know why it appealed to me tonight and not some other night before now, but it did and so we put it in utterly ignorant of what we were actually going to end up watching.

I’m not entirely sure how to even begin to describe this movie. It isn’t any one single type of story. It isn’t even two types. It’s a whole laundry list of genres combined into something unlike anything else I’ve ever seen before. Oh, I’ve seen period action, which is part of what this is. I’ve seen political drama, which it also is. I’ve seen political action and period political. I’ve seen mysteries and martial arts and supernatural themes woven in through intrigue and I’ve seen many combinations. But not all of them in one place. Oh, I’m sure they exist, but I haven’t seen them. But now I have seen this and it is a wonderful thing to know that it exists.

The story is apparently at least superficially based on actual historical events involving a beast or beasts that killed a large number of people in south central France between 1765 and 1767. The exact nature of the beasts responsible for the historical killings is still debated, though there were two large wolves killed at the time which seemed to stop the attacks (if you’re curious, try poking around the links in the wikipedia article on the beast). In the movie the beast attacks are merely the hook to draw the viewer into a story of political intrigue, religious fervor and a small and somewhat isolated town terrorized into submission. It appears to be a supernatural thriller but really, Sherlock Holmes might as well be in play here, for all the actual supernatural events that happen.

The main character in the movie is Grégoire de Fronsac, a royal taxidermist and naturalist who studies animals and has done quite a lot of traveling. He is indisputably the hero of our story, arriving in the area to study the beast’s attacks and to preserve it once it’s caught and/or killed. And Fronsac quickly determines that the beast is far from supernatural, but is also far from the wolf most people believe it to be. It’s something else entirely and he aims to figure it out. Staying at his side is the mysterious Mani, a Mohawk shaman whom he met when in America. Mani may not be the hero of the movie, but he is certainly awesome, kicking a fair amount of ass as well as giving some great little quips and sly looks at just the right moments. Fronsac is all well and good and I certainly liked him as the hero, but Mani’s more fun to watch, and not just because he’s played by Mark Dascascos (who is also the Chairman on Iron Chef America). Of course, since Fronsac and Mani are so determined to get to the bottom of the whole situation there will have to be something standing in their way.

I don’t think I can really go any further with the plot synopsis without spoiling things even more than I already have so I’ll gloss a little. There’s a lot more at work here than a beast attacking shepherds. The title alone implies that there’s a group involved and that group has a motive and a goal and they certainly don’t want Fronsac ruining it all. And all of that would be complex enough, but then there are the two female leads. On one hand you have Marianne, a young noblewoman whom Fronsac becomes enamoured of right from the start. She’s sheltered and young but also clever and compassionate and unwilling to be swayed by tricks and wit. She holds her own quite well for the vast majority of the movie, even in the fairly constrained position she’s grown up in. On the other hand is Sylvia, an Italian courtesan who works in a local brothel. Sylvia is, without a doubt, my favorite character in the entire movie. Mani’s a close second, but Sylvia wins, hands down.

Sylvia is ruthless and calculating and cold and brilliant and very well versed in manipulation and observation. And Sylvia has her own agenda and motives and follows her own path through the events taking place around her. She sleeps with Fronsac several times and seems to know far more of what’s going on than anyone else does. But being a woman of ill repute, she’s gone unnoticed by those who might otherwise try to silence her. Sylvia kicks ass. Sylvia is precisely the sort of character who always makes me giddy and she is played beautifully by Monica Bellucci. I loved every second she got on screen and she certainly made the entire plot more interesting and complicated and I love that.

And even after all of that I have yet to really touch on the fight scenes, which were a fantastic combination of styles and weaponry and camera work. I hadn’t been expecting the sorts of fight scenes this movie has, with beautifully choreographed stunts and enough martial arts to keep it from being just brawling and European swordfighting. Not that I’d have been disappointed with swordfighting! But that would have been expected and really, nothing about this movie is what I expected. Not the action, not the plot, not the intrigue, not the characters and not the epic quality to it.

The movie exists in several acts. There’s the first act, where Fronsac arrives and studies the situation and meets Marianne and her brother, Jean-François and the marquis, Thomas d’Apcher and all the rest of their friends, relatives and associates. The second act involves Fronsac and Mani returning from Paris to resume the hunt. And the third act is when it all comes to a head, with Fronsac exposing the whole conspiracy and exacting revenge for every wrong done against him, his friends and the people of the area. That, plus the gorgeous scenery both inside the buildings and out in the countryside make this movie feel larger and more expansive. It’s both folklore and political history wrapped into one package, a politically minded tall tale with the ultimate femme fatale and some truly awesome fight scenes and yes, it’s a little long, but it’s worth every minute.

May 14, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 409 – Hero (2002)

Hero (2002) – April 13th, 2011

After last night’s bizarre entry in our collection, with its lack of understandable dialogue (in any language) and plodding plot, we decided to go for something very much the opposite tonight. Not in English, no, but far from unintelligible. The plot isn’t fast paced but it certainly isn’t plodding. It’s a slow and beautiful dance and it was a joy to watch from beginning to end. To be honest, even two hours after finishing it I’m not sure I’ve sorted out my feelings on it.

This is part of the problem with this project. Much as I enjoy it most of the time, the review aspect can be a little difficult. It’s not like we get a lot of time to write these. They’re done in the hour or two or maybe three if we’re lucky after we finish the movie. Often we don’t quite finish the reviews until after midnight even if the movie is long over. And some movies are easy. Something we’ve seen many times before and know how we’ll review even before we put it in for the day? Yes. No problem. Something vapid and fun or something thoroughly rage inducing? I can plunk a review like that down in no time. But something like this makes me think and I don’t have enough time to do that in enough depth. Some day I’m going to have to revisit some of these reviews because they simply don’t do some movies justice.

This is going to be one of those nights. This movie was achingly lovely and bittersweet and conflicted and just plain difficult in places, but not in a negative way. And it’s so rooted in Chinese history and culture, I don’t feel well equipped to really dig into it in the way I believe it deserves. Because there are certainly things being said under the surface of the movie. While the director and cinematographer have said that the saturated dominant colors used in each section of the movie were for aesthetic purposes, not symbolism, one can’t help but look at them a bit (and here is a simply fantastic graphic to assist if you want to do just that: Colours in Cultures ). There are threads tied to politics and cultural history that I only know the surface of. I feel like there’s so much I’m missing but the fault lies in my own knowledge, not the movie. Because the movie is fantastic.

I mentioned the colors in each section. They’re impressive, to say the least. We meet our protagonist, Nameless, and learn that he has studied the art of the sword his whole life after being orphaned and never named. He approaches the king of the state of Qin, who has been hunted by three famed assassins. Nameless tells him he has defeated all three and brings their weapons as proof. The dominant color here is black. Lots of black. But it gets splashes of color here and there. The king invites Nameless to tell him how he bested the assassins and Nameless settles in to tell his story. First we hear about his encounter with Sky, who fought with a spear and was bested at a chess house. Were I going to go into this academically, I’d probably be poking at game theory and the black and white of the pieces shown and the black worn by Nameless and the white worn later on by other characters. I’m not going into this as an academic though, so go ahead and do that on your own.

Now, after we hear about Sky we move to the next section, which takes place at a calligraphy school where the other two, Snow and Broken Sword have been living. They are lovers who haven’t spoken in some time and Nameless explains how he studied them while asking Broken Sword to write him a huge scroll with the character for sword on it. As he tells the story we see it unfold in vibrant reds and scarlets, billowing silk and splashes of ink. He claims to have ignited a jealous fury between the two and used it to make them turn on each other. And when he is done, the king nods and tells him he’s totally full of it.

Not in so many words, of course. The king knows more than Nameless realized. So we get his vision of how things really went, with the saturated reds replaced by ice cold blues and cyans. It felt like the screen had been doused in ice water. When the two versions have been told we see yet more. Things as they really went, with everyone in white and the starkness of it all laid bare. Flashbacks from within the story are told in greens and still the king’s palace and all his soldiers and Nameless are in black. The visuals of this movie are so incredibly stunning you could watch it with no sound and still be blown away by them. The fight sequences are gorgeous and the wire work is fantastic but the cinematography and bold colors make this movie so visually arresting that it took my breath away. It sets such fascinating moods and underscores the various emotional moments and I am incredibly impressed by it all.

What I truly loved about this movie is that even though on the surface it is a story of a man on a mission and how he accomplished that mission. Or didn’t. It’s a story about a king on a mission as well, and whether that mission is for good or ill is, I believe, not entirely settled by the movie. It leans distinctly in one direction, but without giving it away I believe an argument could be made for there being some hesitation there still. A window looking out on the other side, as it were. But despite that surface, it is, on another level, the story of Snow and Broken Sword, who, as we learn, are truly and deeply in love but conflicted over their views of the world around them. It isn’t the full focus of the movie and yet it is so important to its core. Without their relationship and their conflict, much of the movie wouldn’t happen as it does and in the various scenes we see them in we see Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai give performances that made me ache for them. They were phenomenal. People in the US may recognize Jet Li as Nameless and Ziyi Zhang as Broken Sword’s apprentice, Moon, before they recognize any of the rest of the cast. But good as they were, Snow and Broken Sword were the heart of the movie to me, largely due to the performances.

I wish I could comment on the messages this movie probably carries for people with more in-depth and personal knowledge of the history of China, both ancient and recent. I can’t and I feel like I should be and that makes me so sad. Regardless, though, I thought it was a beautiful movie. Well worth putting on again if only to have something so gorgeous playing in the background but more likely because I’ll want to see the whole thing again, even knowing that it will make me cry.

April 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment