This Week's New Releases
dir. Chan-wook Park
Opens Fri April 22.
Winner of the Jury Award at last year's Cannes Film Festival (and an avowed favorite of head voter Quentin Tarantino), the South Korean revenge opus Oldboy poses a heck of a quandary review-wise. In terms of sheer virtuosic moxie, director Chan-wook Park's vision (a SIFF favorite for his earlier films Joint Security Area and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) is close to faultless: visually dazzling, darkly funny, and consistently, astonishingly, inventive. That said, his chosen subject matter and delivery are so relentlessly and ruthlessly vile that even the most rabid pulp enthusiasts might find the need to scrub down with steel wool afterwards. You've never seen anything like it… which, depending on your constitution, may be a good thing.
Based on a popular Japanese manga, the storyline calls to mind a particularly whacked-out fever dream (the description of which should probably be kept brief so as to protect the number of left-field twists): After being nabbed in the night, an oblivious prisoner (the amazing, and amazingly game, Min-sik Choi) is released from his dingy hotel room cell following a decade and a half of seething captivity, and, with the help of a beautiful young sushi chef, ruthlessly vows to hunt down those responsible. Hammer fights, impromptu dentistry, and a guy eating a live octopus swiftly follow. To call this story ludicrous is to be charitable, yet such is the passion of cast and crew that it somehow sees its amped-up insanity through to a surprisingly poignant, seriously warped, finale. It may not make a lick of sense afterwards, but in the heat of the moment, everything fits.
In the wake of Sin City (which verges on light comedy in comparison), Oldboy's success may well be predestined. The advance buzz has been thunderous among the bootleg crowd, and honestly, there is a lot to recommend for those with strong stomachs. (The aforementioned hammer battle, set in an extended hallway via a single unbroken shot, may be the best action scene in recent memory.) I've seen it twice now, and my queasy ambivalence remains, albeit tinged with downright awe. Style may ultimately not be able to triumph over content, but it's one hell of a fight. ANDREW WRIGHT
dir. Sydney Pollack
Opens Fri April 22.
You're sure to hear much talk about a single breathless chase sequence in Sydney Pollack's The Interpreter. It is indeed the shit--a long, impeccably assembled slow rev-up to a fiery conclusion, able to create gasps and knock socks off of feet. But here, alas, is the thing: Surrounding this wowza centerpiece is a thriller so confused and over-plotted, not to mention anemically acted, that it nearly lulls you into a coma. How do you turn a political thriller into a sleeping aid? Call up Pollack and his slew of writers--they obviously know how.
The idea certainly has promise: One night after work, a United Nations interpreter named Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) slips back to her work station to retrieve a forgotten bag. While there, she hears whispers from down on the General Assembly floor about a coming assassination of an African president--whispers conducted in the African dialect she just happens to specialize in. Suitably freaked, Broome does the smart thing and calls in the cavalry; unfortunately, a recently widowed federal agent named Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) arrives in its place.
As it turns out, Broome has a bit of a murky past involving protests and rebels in Africa (just how she made it past UN security is never really explained), so Keller, being the good agent he is (despite the fact that his wife died just two weeks ago--no, seriously), immediately suspects she may be fibbing. But what if she's not? And what if she's actually in on the plot? These questions become secondary as, sadly, The Interpreter stumbles upon a minefield, turning what could have been a smart and twisty political thriller--with heavy emphasis on political--into a bogged-down and bland mulling over of wounded souls and suppressed sexual attraction. It's hard to care about Broome and Keller since both Kidman and Penn seem to care very little about the characters themselves (she hides beneath a weak accent; he is in full-blown Penn mumbling mode), and with their brooding relationship (kept chaste, thankfully) routinely burying the intricacies of the plot, interest easily wanes. Instead of a Sydney Pollack film in the Three Days of the Condor vein--paranoid, tense, intelligent--we get an ungodly spackle-job of that Redford/Dunaway classic and Pollack's last film, the abominable Random Hearts. In other words, it's a nonengaging mope-fest occasionally spurred to life by a brief flurry of intrigue. But hey, at least there's that one glorious sequence. BRADLEY STEINBACHER
The Girl from Monday
dir. Hal Hartley
Opens Fri April 22.
Hal Hartley is calling his newest digital venture a "fake science fiction film," by which he intends I'm not sure what. Perhaps he means that it's set in the future, but that the fantastical plot has only the most tenuous relationship to science. Or perhaps he means that the dystopian future he's envisioned is a teenage boy's wet dream, but the script knows it and often seems to wink at its own naughtiness.
Brazilian model Tatiana Abracos plays an alien from the constellation Monday. On her planet, the sentient beings don't have bodies, so she's occupying the body of a human while she's on Earth. (There's no explanation as to where the person whose body she's stolen has gone.) She spends a lot of time lounging around this guy's apartment, opening her pretty eyes wide as she tries out her elegant, attenuated limbs and gradually learns about liquor and sex. Meanwhile, the owner of the apartment (Hartley regular Bill Sage) is busy fighting a cool counterrevolution against a "dictatorship of the consumer" that has branded everyone's wrists with bar codes and linked sexual promiscuity with "buying power." Everybody feels used; but on the other hand, it's a surefire way to get good girls to sleep around.
The plot is propelled by a ponderous, semi-mystical voice-over that keeps repeating, "It's such a long way down, and strange. The word becomes flesh. No, the body becomes… what?" The digital photography serves its disorienting purpose--electric-blue ocean, lurid orange city--and the flat, serious acting style makes silly lines like "You are sentenced to two years hard labor… teaching high school" seem mildly amusing. But ultimately, even the arch tone of the film can't compensate for the hollow, oversexed plot. ANNIE WAGNER
Kung Fu Hustle
dir. Stephen Chow
Opens Fri April 22.
Stephen Chow must be tired of being regarded as the next big Asian import. For the last decade or so, the writer/director/actor has been polishing a technique which seamlessly blends rapid-fire verbal hysterics with increasingly outlandish physical gags, only to find his efforts gone unrewarded stateside. (His Shaolin Soccer went through a nearly two-year series of cuts and redubbings before finally being left at the doors of unsuspecting theaters in the dead of night.) Give Sony credit for finally taking a gamble and releasing his latest film uncut (props, also, for being able to resist putting "Kung Fu Fighting" somewhere on the soundtrack, which may be a first for a martial arts comedy). Their bet should pay off.
Chow's Kung Fu Hustle, in which snazzy ax-wielding mobsters find themselves thwarted by a slum in which virtually every single senior citizen possesses mad fighting skills, is a loving send-up of seemingly every martial arts convention in the book. If you're in the mood for this sort of thing, the first 40 minutes or so are close to dead-solid perfect, culminating in an extended sight gag involving snakes and misthrown butcher knives which belongs in the physical comedy Parthenon. The second half, in which Chow's sad sack gangster wannabe takes a backseat to colossal bouts of CGI combat, suffers somewhat, but only in the sense that the inspired gags slow down to one or two per frame. (Even Bugs Bunny needed an occasional breather.)
It's difficult to do justice to Chow's manic vibe in print, but suffice it to say that this is the rare parody that doesn't do a disservice to its source material. While longtime fans will find much in the margins to gawk at, Chow's respect for the trappings of the genre (most of the elder parts are portrayed by legends from the golden age of chopsocky) should be apparent even to newcomers. More, please, and soon. ANDREW WRIGHT
dir. William Bindley
Opens Fri April 22.
In a town where the very name of Chip Hanauer inspires frequent genuflecting, a movie about hydroplanes hits the screen with a large amount of goodwill. The proudly retro sports saga Madison, which finally sees a release after idling on a studio shelf since 2001, derives a certain amount of hokey satisfaction from its rumbling backdrop, but buries most of its advantage in a lather of excess vanilla.
Director/cowriter William Bindley tackles a legend beloved to hydro fans: In 1971, a dying Indiana town pins its last hopes on hosting a championship regatta, led by the efforts of a former driver (Jim Caviezel) and his adoring son (The Phantom Menace's Jake Lloyd, whose performance here sadly proves that it maybe wasn't all George Lucas' fault, after all). Against all odds and the evil, long-sideburned presence of Team Budweiser, the down-home favorites and their aging boat struggle to stay on the boards. It's a truly inspiring story, but the filmmakers do it no favors by shoring off even the slightest hints of differing personality: Despite the time period, there's nary a trace of fuzz-rock or wacky tobaccy to be found, in favor of a hermetically sealed squaresville time capsule that even the residents of Mayberry would find hard to live up to. Only in a closing-credit montage of actual home-movie footage do the characters briefly flicker to life.
Not everything needs to be edgy, of course, and in truth, there's something admirable about Caviezel and Co.'s all-out, darn the torpedoes dedication to family values. (And, yes, you can't help but grin when those improbable thunderboats go full-tilt.) Still, it's hard not to wish for something, anything, to shake the complacency and goose the frame. If ever the drunken, terrifying louts of the Seafair Pirates were needed, this is the time. ANDREW WRIGHT
A Lot Like Love
dir. Nigel Cole
Opens Fri April 22.
The problem with this romantic comedy is the problem of nostalgia. When Ashton Kutcher and Amanda Peet lock eyes at an airport sometime in the mid-'90s (if the pop soundtrack is to be believed), they're actually kind of charming. He's a slacker with hair that falls into his eyes; she's got a taste for the darker shit in life, with her black eyeliner and tiny plaid skirt and a dramatic penchant for laying flowers at the graves of dead relatives. When she jumps him in the lavatory as the plane makes its way to New York City, you can sort of see why he'd still be obsessing about her years later.
But an adorable past only gets you so far. The "three years later" title card flashes, and it's all bad fashion and depressing careers from there on out. She's a failed L.A. actress turned mildly successful bohemian photographer. He's a successful dot-com diaper salesman turned failed dot-com diaper salesman. They do this. They do that. They are boring. Needless to say, neither one has cute hair.
The worst thing about this movie is the torturous dates the two would-be lovers go on whenever they meet up. Since they have awful, deadening California lives, they try to recapture their shared, spontaneous Manhattan history (which, by this point in the movie, we also remember fondly) by abandoning all semblance of adult conversation. Nostalgia for the recent past blurs with nostalgia for kindergarten, and the two overgrown babies spend all their time sticking straws up their noses and spitting mouthfuls of water at each other. And when plastic walrus tusks get old, they take long-exposure photographs of themselves embracing naked on a rock in Joshua Tree National Park. They never should have left New York. ANNIE WAGNER
dir. Sam Peckinpah
Opens Fri April 22.
Of the great American directors, Sam Peckinpah has always been one of the more problematic, spiking even his most impressive films with hard-to-digest moments of outré misogyny, sadism, and just pure meanness. Major Dundee, Peckinpah's first large-scale production, was famously screwed by its producer in the editing room, eventually garnering a rep as something of a lost masterpiece. It may not be that, quite, but this newly restored version proves to be one of the most purely enjoyable, least thorny examples of his work. The plot--driven military man enlists a ragtag squadron against scads of murderous Apaches--leans toward the cookie-cutter, but that's without taking into account the director's blazing rage against the machine, which manages to douse even the most conventional Hollywood oater moments with an intriguing 'Nam-era sensibility. The 12 newly added minutes (particularly a scene where Charlton Heston recovers from an arrow wound via a skinful of booze and a kindly brothel worker), especially, hint at a dry run for the richly bitter worldview of The Wild Bunch. As for the cast: My God, what an embarrassment of macho richness (James Coburn! Warren Oates! Slim Pickens!). In the lead, Heston delivers his usual fiercely underrated mix of gargantuan strength and subtle self-parody (has any actor ever been more at home in epaulets?), but he's matched turn for turn by Richard Harris, who infuses every fiber of his character's Irish Confederate being with a wonderfully plummy grandeur. We're talking testosterone Valhalla. ANDREW WRIGHT