Thursday, September 30, 2004

Film Round-up:
a review of The Five Obstructions, The Village, Intimate Strangers, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Shaolin Soccer, and Hero

What with the Chicago International Film Festival coming up, not to mention a big fall movie season, I want to wrap up a bunch of movies I've seen in the last couple months. Out with the old, in with the new.

The Five Obstructions
The Five Obstructions is a curio for cinephiles, a kind of game played out over many months between Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth, one that reminded me of the kinds of parlor games played by European surrealists, or the kinds of assignments commonly given in writing classes. Leth is to remake his classic short film, "The Perfect Human" (an experimental gem which, frustratingly, we never get to see in its entirety), and von Trier is to set rules each time to make Leth's task more difficult. Of course, limitations famously cause artists to draw on new levels of creativity (von Trier, after seeing the first film, admits, "I see I gave you a gift" instead of a barrier) and there's some fun here in seeing Leth play with the rules, often interpreting them in ways that suit him. The short films he produces are somewhat interesting, and the project raises interesting issues about authorship (von Trier writes and directs the final installment but attributes it to Leth), ethics (one short is a film of Leth dining elegantly in the middle of an impoverished Indian neighborhood), and creativity, but the most successful short here is animated by Bob Sabiston, the genius who worked on the great Waking Life. The Five Obstructions may, however, be most useful for providing insight into von Trier's simplistic philosophy of cinema, which involves provocation through punishment: of his characters and of his audience. Here he poses as if he's punishing his friend, but it's pretty clear he has participated in this game at least partly to help a friend pull out of a funk, which, aside from being a nice thing to do, suggested to me that his anti-humanist style is one he emplys simply for show. Underneath it all, his filmmaking is empty, nihilist, something to pass the time. Rating: 2 and a half stars out of 4

The Village
Well, what can I say? I'm a Shyamalan fan. The twists get people worked up and hog all the attention in the reviews, but his work is consistently unique, fresh, and fascinating. He seems to approach film with his full creativity, his highest goals being to surprise and entertain us. What's wrong with that? He may not be the most intellectual man ever to direct films (Signs is supremely stupid when looked at from some angles), and his take the Hitchcock imitation too far (giving himself cameos), but, then again, he seems unusually willing to address big questions. The Village had me guessing outrageous scenarios in my mind--at one point I thought, Maybe they're on another planet!--but he sprinkles in enough clues that, for once, I was able to guess the twist a little before it was fully revealed. Bryce Dallas Howard is extraordinary as a young blind woman--what a find! (I'm so glad I didn't know who she is when I saw the film, so I won't tell you.) The rest of the cast varies, and I question many of the writer-director's little touches here and there, but overall it's certainly worth seeing. People are speculating that his next project will be an occasion for change in his work, since he's directing someone else's story, the prizewinning Life of Pi, but there's a killer twist to that book, too. It's actually a perfect fit, without asking MNS to change or grow much at all. Rating: 2 and a half stars out of 4.

Intimate Strangers
How's this for a juicy premise: a woman, heading for her first therapy appointment, walks into the wrong office (that of an accountant) and starts spilling her guts. He says nothing, used to clients getting stuff off of their chests, but then is so drawn in that he fails to tell her he's not a psychologist. Juicy, right? Too bad the rest of the movie sucked beyond belief. What a dull disappointment. Rating: Half a star out of 4.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith
Part of a beautiful recent package of Hitchcock films, Mr. and Mrs. Smith is completely different from what you expect of a Hitchcock film. It's an old-fashioned screwball comedy, and guess what? It ain't half bad. Featuring that queen of screwball comedy, Carole Lombard, playing opposite Robert Montgomery, the story plays with the idea of a well-established, happy, marriage that is suddenly discovered to be illegitimate due to a legal technicality. The chemistry is wonderful, mostly due to Lombard's zany charm, but for my taste the story gets a little too mean, takes its own silly premise just a few steps too far. Rating: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Shaolin Soccer
This quirky Hong Kong film was championed by critics while it languihsed in Miramax's famously overcrowded vault of acquisitions, but I didn't see the reason for the fuss. Articles about the DVD release, though, which includes more footage, suggest it also suffered (when finally released) in Miramax's equally infamous editing room. Still, I can only review what I saw, which was a lame narrative of oddball superhuman soccer. The bad soundtrack and perplexing romance are probably Miramax's fault, but the film's special effects are cheesy and ugly, the kind of low-rent visuals you get in the Spy Kids movies. And, I'm not sure, but I think I detected an ugly whiff of anti-Korean nationalism in the mix. The basic story idea (a bunch of lovable losers have to pull together as a team) had potential, but the film never got me to care. Rating: Zero stars out of 4.

I enjoyed Hero, but I much prefer the more comic book-like Crouching Tiger. Hero is getting praised left and right for its stunning visuals, but what it comes down to is a simple design of strongly accenting one or two colors at a time, which strikes me as actually a little dull, like a children's let's-learn-colors book. The story structure is elegantly simple, a single conversation that flashes back to some action that is revised in version after version (yes, a bit like Roshomon). Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung are beautiful actors, and it's great to see them re-teamed after the exquisite In the Mood for Love, but the casting of these Hong Kong actors only underscores the troubling Chinese imperialist themes of the script. They play assassins assigned to kill a warlord bent on unifying the various factions of ancient China to create one great nation, and the script clearly sides with the cause of unification. No wonder this officially sanctioned film was so lavishly budgeted. Underneath the samurai swords and colorful robes, the film boils down to propaganda, plain and simple, a message that undermines democracy in Hong Kong, and I find it bitterly ironic that this film draws on Hong King cinematic traditions to convey that message. Rating: 2 stars out of 4.

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