Archive for December 2000

Shadow of the Vampire

December 29, 2000

Shadow of the Vampire is a provocative idea squandered. It asks one of those irresistible what-if questions: What if the mysterious actor Max Schreck, known today solely for his title role in F.W. Murnau’s 1922 vampire masterpiece Nosferatu, was a real vampire? Director E. Elias Merhige (who made the unbearably pretentious Begotten) and screenwriter Steven Katz run with the notion that not much is known about Schreck, so — who knows, maybe he was a vampire. Well, not much is known about him, but that doesn’t mean nothing is known about him. A bit of history; this won’t take long.

Film scholars usually describe Schreck as a “versatile” actor. He did a lot of movies and even more work on the stage. Nosferatu was neither his first film nor his last; he even worked again with Murnau, in the 1924 comedy The Finances of the Grand Duke. He died in 1936 (outliving Murnau by five years), not at the end of a stake or seared by sunlight, but of a mundane heart attack. End of history lesson; now let’s concentrate on why Shadow of the Vampire is a failure.

Even if we knew the above facts, why wouldn’t we be inclined to let talented filmmakers have fun with the conceit of Schreck as an actual vampire lurking in the shadows of Murnau’s set? Well, the filmmakers aren’t talented — the pace is leaden, the actors aside from the two scenery-chewing leads are neglected, the photography (by Lou Bogue) employs some of the most punishingly, pointlessly dark lighting I’ve ever not seen, the script is flat and obvious — and they’re not having fun. They have one idea — that Murnau the film-pioneer taskmaster was every bit as much a bloodsucker as his undead protagonist — and it’s a tired one.

Murnau (played by John Malkovich as the sort of irritable, pompous artiste you want to kick in the pants) tells his wary cast and crew that his star is a Method actor, “a student of Stanislavsky” who lives his roles. But Schreck (Willem Dafoe), we’re given to understand, is in reality a vampire Murnau found somewhere and wants to capture on film “for posterity and science.” Uh, I thought vampires don’t show up in photographs (and on celluloid), but never mind.

Schreck creeps around, draining the film’s first cinematographer, so that Murnau has to go and find a replacement, Fritz Arno Wagner (Cary Elwes), a goofy frat-boy type who doesn’t seem capable of devising some of horror cinema’s most lasting images. There’s tension on the set. Schreck freaks everyone out. The film’s producer (Udo Kier, stranded with little to do besides worrying) worries. The leading lady (Catherine McCormack) is being groomed for Schreck’s fangs — his payment for acting in Murnau’s shadowplay. The leading man (Eddie Izzard) is scared of Schreck. Murnau keeps cranking the camera. The movie goes on like this, passionlessly, without a fraction of the power of its source.

Willem Dafoe could have saved this affair single-handedly, and he has his game face on and his vamp fangs in, but Katz’s shallow script gives him nothing to work with. Eventually, his stylized performance moves into hamming it up for its own sake, and never comes back. The role is tricky — he’s playing a vampire playing an actor playing a vampire — and maybe that’s too many plates for even this gifted veteran to spin at once. A little ambiguity — perhaps the suggestion that Schreck isn’t a vampire, but that the cast and crew, with Murnau’s eager encouragement, come to believe he is — would have helped Dafoe and the movie.

But that’s not what we get. Shadow of the Vampire is a heavy-handed art-film semi-comedy about the director as monster, complete with heady jazz about how the camera takes your essence and immortalizes you at the same time, just like, you know, a vampire. It’s also unquestionably mean-spirited. It communicates no particular love for Nosferatu or the people who made it; it’s a hipster ride on the coattails of greatness. (Why isn’t this a movie about the making of Friday the 13th and how Jason was a real slasher? Answer: because there’s no art-house credibility in that.) At times it’s like Ed Wood without affection — and a lot of the footage recreated from Murnau’s classic is made to look as dorky as an Ed Wood film!

I think the film’s hip disrespect for real figures in film history — Murnau as a callous control freak who cranks the camera while people die in front of him? — is what annoys me about the factually inaccurate premise. Murnau’s Nosferatu was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and he had to change all the character names to avoid being sued by Stoker’s widow. The producers of Shadow of the Vampire had better hope any descendants of the Murnau or Schreck families (if there are any) aren’t as litigious as Stoker’s wife was. At best, this is a dawdling, toothless riff on a vastly superior film. At worst, it’s character assassination.

Dracula 2000

December 22, 2000

The following is not really a review, which is fitting, since Dracula 2000 was never screened for critics prior to release. Rather, it’s an email I sent to a friend, writing in a mood of extreme disgust and disbelief after having sat through the DVD. Read on…

To: K.S.
From: Rob
Subject: 99 minutes of shit

We’re talking 5,940 seconds better spent doing anything else under the sun, including but not limited to pulling out one’s toenails one by one. We’re talking a cinematic experience not unlike having someone open the top of your skull and fart all over your brain. We’re talking one of the stupidest horror movies in the history of horror movies.

We’re talking Dracula 2000.

Wes Craven presented this. Wes Craven also presented Wishmaster, if you recall. Wes Craven should never be allowed to present anything ever again. To borrow a joke from Gene Siskel, if Wes Craven presented the lost footage from The Magnificent Ambersons, it would still suck. Not to slam Craven as a director of his own films — Dimension is whoring his name to sell shitty horror movies. I really hope he has nothing more to do with these movies than sitting in on a couple of meetings.

This isn’t a remake, as you may have heard. It’s a modern-day Dracula story. The third-billed Gerard Butler makes probably the least impressive Dracula since, I don’t know, ever. He looks like a guy who works in a bowling alley part-time.

I’m gonna go into detail about the movie’s stupidness, so if you don’t want spoilers, save this for after you’ve suffered through this Panavision smegma, then come back here for laughs.

We open with a recreation of Dracula’s landing at London, with all the crew members on the ship dead. This will later be reiterated. After the credits we’re in London, present day. Dr. Van Helsing (Christopher Plummer), who’s still pissed because Bram Stoker made his ancestor look like a nutcase in his book, runs some sort of antiques dealership in Carfax Abbey. His assistant is Jonny Lee Miller, who gets top billing, because he was in Trainspotting. He has another assistant, Jennifer Esposito, who distinguished herself as eye candy in Summer of Sam, and that’s basically all she is allowed to be here.

Jennifer is secretly in cahoots with a bunch of high-tech thieves (led by Omar Epps), who break into Carfax and make off with the weird coffin they find in Van Helsing’s vault, but not before a couple of their number have been impaled on traps. They take a plane back, but Dracula busts out of the coffin and vampirizes everyone aboard and lures Jennifer to become one of his vampire bitches. The plane crashes in New Orleans. Jeri Ryan, the Borg chick from Star Trek, reports on the scene with her cameraman. Camera guy gets killed, Jeri becomes Vamp Bitch #2.

Meanwhile, some Sarah MacLachlan-looking British chick is having nightmares about Dracula. Her roommate is Colleen Anne Fitzpatrick, better known to the kids as pop singer Vitamin C. (They really went for the MTV demographic on this one.) They both work at a Virgin Records superstore, providing a lame bit of cleverness when Dracula first has a vision of British Chick and she’s wearing her “Virgin” shirt from work. Ha ha.

Meanwhile, Dr. Van Helsing jets over to New Orleans after he conveniently sees Jeri’s news report on the plane crash and recognizes the coffin amidst the wreckage. The “bodies” from the crash are left at the town hall (I guess because if they were taken to the morgue, as in most non-stupid movies, they’d be quickly drained and dissected and left with very little vampire potential). Jonny Lee follows Van Helsing to the town hall. Cue vampire attack. Our heroes have nifty anti-vamp hardware, including a gun that fires silver spikes. In a really idiotic shot, Jennifer seems to leap away from her attackers into a sunbeam — uh, excuse me? sunbeam? sun + vampire = sizzle? — but a few shots later we see it’s night outside, so we have no idea where this sunbeam-looking light is coming from.

We find out Van Helsing is the Van Helsing, kept alive all these years by injecting himself with Dracula’s blood, which he gets from leeches that he put on Dracula’s body in the coffin. (Why didn’t he just drain all of Dracula’s blood in one whack? I dunno.) We also learn that British Chick is his daughter and Dracula is drawn to her because she was born with his blood in her. He visits the Virgin superstore and all the teen girls get wet just looking at him (okay, that’s pretty funny, I’ll give it that much).

He meets Vitamin C, does the meat-slap with her, and turns her into Vamp Bitch #3. So now we have three babes as vamp bitches, but if you see a picture of them on the web somewhere you’ve pretty much seen all there is to see (except for brief nudity by Vitamin C). They swoon around slowly like Drusilla and act slutty and sarcastic. They have lots of lame one-liners. So does Jonny Lee, who after fending off the vampire Omar delivers one of the saddest lines in any movie ever: “Don’t fuck with an antiques dealer.”

There is no Renfield figure here. Jennifer is the closest we get, and she gives maybe the best performance because she’s very into being a vampire bitch. She may be worth watching in the future.

Oh, and somewhere in here Van Helsing gets killed and is found stashed under a bed somewhere. “Hey, Mr. Plummer, you wanna do this shitty Dracula movie and end up dead under some bed?” “Sure.”

Oh, and somewhere else in here there’s the worst acting since Ed Wood was alive, in a scene where Jennifer is in jail (this is her almost-Renfield moment) and Dracula arrives to bust her out. He’s about to kill some doctor who happens to be there, and the guy playing the doctor has the most ridiculous overstated “oh God please don’t kill me” expression I’ve seen in any movie ever. Remember that craptastic Keanu moment in the Coppola film when he sees the vamp bitches start to feed on the baby and he goes “Noooooo!!! Aaaaaaagh! NOOOOOOO!!” That was subtle compared to this.

Oh, and somewhere else in here there’s a scene where British Chick gets a phone call from undead Vitamin C who’s somewhere in the house. I couldn’t help it, I just said aloud “What’s your favorite scary movie?” All that’s missing is the Jiffy Pop.

Dracula has the ability to command the elements as well as fog machines and CGI. He turns into wolves and bats. There’s a fair amount of wire-fu in the climax — what is this, Crouching Vampire, Hidden Crucifix? (Actually the cinematographer on this was Peter Pau, who also did Crouching Tiger. Two David Cronenberg regulars, set designer Carol Spier and costume designer Denise Cronenberg [yeah, his sister], are also credited here. I pity Dave for probably having to sit through this shit just because two of his posse worked on it.)

People get thrown across the room a lot. People get thrown through windows equally frequently. British Chick lets herself be vamp-ized by Dracula, but not really. She finds out the only way to kill him is to hang him by the neck from a large neon cross (I think Joel Schumacher told her). This occurs. He dies. The sun comes out and the film crew sets fire to a stiff-looking Dracula dummy on a rope.

What really sucks is they actually had a decent idea to rework Dracula’s origin. Here we’re told that Dracula is really none other than … Judas Iscariot. Hence his loathing for the cross and anything silver. (Doesn’t explain why sunlight hurts him, though.) It’s a cool Twilight Zone twist ending but it comes at a price of 99 minutes of peanut-filled shite.

With the aforementioned three technicians at work, this is a good-looking film. It’s not terribly directed either; longtime Craven editor Patrick Lussier does okay. It’s the script, by some guy named Joel, that takes the pipe. It’s way too transparently “Let’s do Dracula for teenagers.”

Really bad. Don’t be tempted. If you’ve read this far, either you’ve already seen it or you’ve decided not to. I hope for your sake you’ve decided not to. Stoker is spinning in his grave. The lamest episode of Buffy is Kurosawa compared to this.

Cast Away

December 22, 2000

dnt-not-pay-for-the-screen-time-after-the-films-release-fedex-saw-a-significant-increase-in-brand-awareness-in-asia-and-europe-where-brand-recognition-was-lowRobert Zemeckis, the mainstream-populist visionary who made Forrest Gump and Contact, is an extremely accomplished director; his problem these days is that he tries too hard to accomplish a masterpiece every time out. Zemeckis wants to make films for the ages, fables that speak to us about us, about the mysteries of the universe. How he graduated from the pop prankster who made Used Cars, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Back to the Future to the pop shaman who has now made Cast Away is itself one of life’s great mysteries. (Maybe Zemeckis will make a movie about it.)

Tom Hanks, chubby and waddling fast in a winter parka, is Chuck Noland, an efficiency guru who troubleshoots FedEx operations around the world, his voice rising in contempt at the workers’ slowness. Don’t they know they’re FedEx? Let’s go, people! Hanks embodies the sort of modern man for whom every job situation assumes the wired priority of a sucking chest wound; he plays ER in his head, and his personal life gets put in triage. He has little or no time for his girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt); rather glumly, they exchange Christmas gifts in his van before Chuck takes off on a flight to shepherd yet another vitally important shipment.

The little plane, as we all know, goes down over the ocean, and the sequence is one of the most wrenching bits of crisis ever filmed. It hits fast and hard, with no warning; even though we know it’s coming, we don’t feel ready for it — we’re thrown into it as rudely and abruptly as Chuck is. Zemeckis uses the technological effects at his disposal to give us each nightmarish detail of the experience right up to the impact. Afterward, when Chuck washes up on a godforsaken rocky island, the director abandons technology but still focuses on the details of Chuck’s survival. Even here, Chuck is a problem-solver; he uses bits of salvaged goodies to make tools, shelter, even a friend named Wilson (a volleyball with a face rendered in blood — a creation saved from too-cuteness by its slight Lord of the Flies aura).

To be honest, the gruelling study of Chuck’s ordeal — it spans over four years — wore out its welcome for me after about half an hour. The built-in problem with movies like this is that you’re stuck out in nowhere along with the character(s); you can’t wait to get home. It needs to be said, though, that Zemeckis’ tranquil control never wavers, and that Hanks takes whatever starch he can out of the primal-man conception. Even when he’s swathed in more beard than the two bearded guys in ZZ Top put together, Hanks comes across as a sane if ornery modern man, even as he’s carrying on animated chats with his volleyball — we accept it as any person’s natural hunger to connect with someone. And he never loses his humor.

Zemeckis and writer William Broyles, Jr. have been planting a few hints, though, and toward the end, after Chuck has returned home, we hear about something that almost happened on the island during those four (offscreen) years. Chuck becomes a figure of endurance, a real chicken-soup-for-the-soul story, and the movie closes up shop about 20 minutes before it ends. Hanks has a remarkable intense, haunted look — it isn’t just his weight loss, though there seem to be new planes and contours to his face — but we never understand how it feels to be back among people who take trivial things seriously after you’ve been spearing fish and talking to a gory volleyball for the length of a presidential term. (It doesn’t help that Broyles’ script contains several glaring set-ups at the beginning that will predictably “pay off” later: a bad tooth, the ailing wife of a co-worker, etc.)

Chuck goes to see Kelly, whose photo kept him alive all that time, but Helen Hunt can’t work up much energy for the occasion; maybe she was dispirited by how few scenes she has. She could play the kind of woman a man would risk death to get back to, but she doesn’t here, and the awkwardness of their late scenes together feels less like realism than like a casting mismatch. Alan Silvestri’s score, which sounds like an unfinished piece of music (most of the movie has none), whines on cue to lock in on Chuck’s pangs of loss. It whines, with a glimmer of hope, when Chuck imparts the moral of the fable: that you have to keep breathing, keep living. The movie takes too long to deliver us this banal package of wisdom, and we know what it is before we open it: a box of chocolates. Tom Hanks’ performance held me, but as written Cast Away is about the great mystery of the human will to survive — and, incidentally, about the great mystery of the mass audience’s will to accept pabulum.

Battle Royale

December 16, 2000

Children killing children: that’s the main reason that the superlative Battle Royale hasn’t yet gotten an official American release, and probably won’t anytime soon. It’s the conceit of the movie, and of Koushun Takami’s rather thick (616 pages in the translated version released in 2003) novel of the same name, that the Japanese economy is on the skids and the government has lost all control over juvenile delinquency. Enter the BR Act, which stipulates that a class of ninth-graders will be selected by random lottery to participate in a cruel “survival of the fittest” contest on a remote island. Each student is assigned a knapsack containing basic supplies as well as a weapon stuffed in there at random (you might get an Uzi, or you might get a relatively benign pair of binoculars). The kids are expected to kill each other off until only one “winner” is left.

The opening twenty minutes of Battle Royale, which explain all this and much more, have a malevolent brilliance; the remainder of the film is merely kick-ass. But don’t mistake it for an amoral shoot-em-up. Veteran director Kinji Fukasaku, who died early in 2003 while working on the sequel, was not interested in blood and guts for their own cathartic sake. The heroes of the film, after all, are two peaceful kids — Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda) — who just want to survive from hour to hour without having to kill anyone. The villains, aside from the impersonal government feeding its youth into the meat grinder, are the natural-born killers — kids like the punky Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando), who joined up “for fun,” and the spiteful bitch Mitsuko (Kou Shibasaki), who racks up the most kills of any of the girls. It’s hard to decide who’s scarier; Fukasaku, like Takashi Miike in Audition, knew that the pretty smile of a Japanese girl, in the context of sadism, can look like the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen.

Part of the reason that an American remake of the movie would be folly is that there’s really no American equivalent to Takeshi “Beat” Kitano. A wildly popular actor/director in his own right, Kitano shows up here as a teacher named (ha) Kitano, who has been ignored and mocked (not to mention knifed) by his students too often. Now he works for the BR program, smiling ever so slightly as he tells the unfortunate chosen class what’s what. Enjoying his power over his now-attentive students, he casually kills two of them. Is he evil? Well, he develops shadings as the movie goes on. Repeat viewings may reveal the teacher as a no-nonsense drill instructor trying to instill in his students the life-and-death stakes of this game, for their own good. I can’t see anyone other than Kitano — his face partially immobilized by a real-life car accident — in the role; our nearest match might be Charles Bronson in his ’70s prime, or perhaps Lee Marvin.

Battle Royale is high entertainment in its own way. The training video shown to the class, hosted by a chipper Yûko Miyamura (who chirps things like “Listen to fight well and with gusto!”), is beloved by anyone who’s seen the film; it’s a vintage piece of sick comedy. The soundtrack, made up largely of booming classical music, gives an epic, Kubrickian scale to the proceedings. When the two grinning killers Kiriyama and Mitsuko meet at last, the clash has weight and force; so does a forest encounter between jogger Chigusa (Chiaki Kuriyama) and a hapless boy unlucky enough to nurture an unrequited crush on her. Many of the killings have their roots in hysteria or previous enmity (the girls turn on each other with frightening speed). Back at BR headquarters, Kitano tracks it all impassively, perhaps hoping that this will be the year that one or more of the students beat the program.

There’s a reversal or two at the climax, involving a mysterious and more experienced older boy, Kawada (Taro Yamamoto), who takes the pacifistic Shuya and Noriko under his wing — either out of pity or because they remind him of himself in earlier days. Other alliances are formed, too, between a group of girls in a lighthouse whose civility crashes and burns when paranoia enters the picture, or a trio of boys who hack the system and have plans to bomb the headquarters — we spend a fair amount of time watching their progress before they run into the Uzi-packing Kiriyama. Fukasaku is saying that in war, some bonds will come apart while others hold fast; it’s probably no coincidence that the bond that endures is the one forged in the hope of peace, not out of convenience or collective conniving. Battle Royale is a violent film that stands against violence, and maybe that’s the real reason for its controversy. Violent movies that just use brutality as punctuation don’t threaten the order of things; violent movies that give us to ponder the costs of man’s inhumanity to man will always be inconvenient.

What Women Want

December 15, 2000

Though it isn’t quite Oscar material, Mel Gibson gives what may be the most entertaining big-star performance of the year in What Women Want. He’s perfectly cast as Nick Marshall, who as a boy was raised in a Las Vegas casino, surrounded by glittering showgirls, and has very happily stayed frozen in that pre-feminist state. Now a suave ad executive and ladies’ man, Nick has made a name as the go-to guy for babes-in-bikinis ads. Gibson enjoys himself to the hilt; his Nick lives in a constant mellow, self-satisfied vibe of heterosexual male privilege. He doesn’t waste a thought on those who disapprove of him; they don’t know what they’re missing.

Of course, What Women Want is about how Nick gets his consciousness raised, but the surprise of the movie is that Gibson’s performance only gets more satisfying, not duller as you might expect. Nick’s male privilege is broken down piece by piece. He loses out on a coveted creative-director spot when the firm’s boss (Alan Alda), noting that young women have more buying power than ever before, brings in top idea woman Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt). Darcy passes around various feminine products and asks everyone to devise ad campaigns for them, geared to women. Nick looks crumpled; he can’t possibly relate to this chick stuff — he stares at the nail polish and Biore strips as if they were Incan antiquities.

One drunken night, as much out of a scornful parodic tantrum as out of desperation for an idea, the hapless Nick tries all the products — lipstick, panty hose, leg waxer — and falls into a goofy accident that somehow allows him to hear women’s thoughts. He hears lustful thoughts, banal thoughts, and, most painfully, honest thoughts — he hears what the women at his office really think about him. Even his 15-year-old daughter (Ashley Johnson) doesn’t cut him any slack, though there isn’t much difference between her derisive thoughts about him and her derisive statements to him. For long stretches, Gibson plays Nick’s awakening as agonized comedy; every woman’s mental capsule review of him shoots an arrow into his swollen ego.

Not surprisingly, Nick soon learns to use his ability to his advantage, and when he “hears” Darcy’s ideas for a Nike campaign, he steals them and passes it off as the uncanny synchronicity of two creative people on the same page. Nick and Darcy are also required by the plot to fall in love, the movie’s least convincing aspect. Helen Hunt relaxes and breathes here (a relief after her Acting in Pay It Forward), but part of her strength as an actress is that she can show us what she’s thinking — she can do a lot with her eyebrows or a slight nod — and when we hear what she’s supposedly thinking, it doesn’t live up to what Hunt can do silently.

Nick finds himself in situations he wouldn’t have known how to handle before, and barely knows how to handle now, except that now he listens. It’s as if there’d been nothing in his head (except his own pleasure) before women’s thoughts took over the space. He deals with his daughter’s budding sexuality; he deals with a smitten coffee-shop clerk (Marisa Tomei); he deals with an office messenger (Judy Greer) whose thoughts sound bitter and unhappy. The concept isn’t wholly original (the most recent treatment was the controversial Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Earshot”), but what is original is the effect that female consciousness has on a smug vulgarian like Nick Marshall, and on Mel Gibson.

Women may leave the theater wishing that men could be electrocuted into enlightenment more often; they may wish that about Gibson, too. The journey he makes here — from a slick womanizer, to a bedevilled receptor of women’s thoughts, to an opportunist capitalizing on those thoughts, and finally to a good man who’s learned to intuit what women want simply by facing them — brings out all of Gibson, all the shades of intelligence and stupidity, of deception and candor. It’s a full package — a full performance.


December 15, 2000

Chocolat nipsAs soon as I saw the mother and daughter trudging into the quaint French village wearing matching red cloaks, I knew Chocolat was going to be one of those movies. Whimsical, uplifting, politically correct, resolutely unchallenging, predictable right down to the floor, Chocolat is the sort of warmed-over, food-oriented “magic realism” many otherwise sensible people seem to fall for. It takes the radical stance that people should indulge their pleasures, unless they’re really mean, in which case they should eat some chocolate and learn to be nice.

The matching mother and daughter are Vienne (Juliette Binoche) and Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), who seem to be ushered into town by a strong wind that apparently tells them when it’s time to move on. (I felt that wind about fifteen minutes into the movie, but managed to resist it.) Many of the locals distrust Vienne and Anouk on sight, perhaps because, in this allegedly French village, Binoche and Thivisol are almost the only people onscreen who are actually French — the cast of colorful French locals includes four Brits, two Swedes, and a Canadian (from British Columbia, mind you). I mean, sheesh, the allegedly American town in Dancer in the Dark where poor David Morse seemed to be the only American around was more credible than this crew, who in any event don’t act any more French than I do.

Vienne and her cutie-pie daughter (who, very unfortunately, has an imaginary kangaroo friend) settle in and open up a chocolaterie. The village mayor, Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), reacts as if they had opened a whorehouse. This heavily religious mayor, who frowns on culinary indulgence during Lent, has nothing else to do with his day but go around smearing Vienne’s name. She makes chocolates! And encourages people to eat them! Good Lord, protect us from this concubine of Satan! (Protect us also from writers — Robert Nelson Davis, adapting Joanne Harris’ book — who simplistically equate faith with prudish meanness.)

Of course, Vienne helps a lot of people. She helps her cranky landlady (Judi Dench) to reconcile with her grandson (Aurelien Parent-Koenig), who has an overprotective mother (Carrie-Anne Moss, light-years away from The Matrix). She helps a frazzled, abused woman (Lena Olin) who has the misfortune to be married to the abusive Peter Stormare. The movie uses both Stormare and Olin stupidly; Olin deserves luscious, outsize roles — it’s too depressing to watch her be gentled into this sort of Spitfire Grill character (come to think of it, this entire movie is a fancy-pants version of Spitfire Grill) — and Stormare has been cast as a heavy so often that a change of pace like his compassionate Dancer in the Dark role is a relief.

Johnny Depp turns up midway through the film, as some sort of Irish pirate; he effortlessly makes his scenes more interesting, because you feel that he’s just dropping by — the mediocrity of his surroundings doesn’t stain his clothes much. He, too, plays an outcast, and he comes along at just the right time to catch Vienne’s eye and inflame tensions in the village even more. The mayor keeps grinding his teeth about the moral turpitude of Vienne and her new playmate, and everyone unaccountably listens to him; why they should do so, when there’s no apparent police force in town to back him up, is beyond me and probably the screenwriter too.

Everything leads to a near-tragedy as well as a scene where a character dies peacefully in her sleep (no one seems terribly affected by this, not even her relatives) — of diabetes, yet, which makes the film’s chocolate-as-transcendence metaphor look sort of goofy. And if you’ve seen more than one movie, you know what has to happen with the mayor — he finally tastes the chocolate, which magically cleanses his soul and brightens his attitude, as if he were some Rankin-Bass villain who learns to believe in Frosty the Snowman. There follows an enormous celebration, with the village streets swarming with revellers and fire-breathing, juggling circus acts — not bad for a town that had seemed to have a population of about fifteen before. All of this smug whimsy gets to be too much, I think, for Anouk’s imaginary kangaroo friend, which we see hopping away at the end — perhaps in search of another girl who needs comfort in another threadbare little fable.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

December 8, 2000

As a child, Ang Lee devoured the popular, time-honored wuxia novels of China — fiction combining themes of loyalty, honor, and chivalry with lots of page-turning swordplay and adventure. Hong Kong action cinema has been decidedly wuxia-influenced, which may be why native or Western fans of Hong Kong “flying swordsmen” movies may walk away from Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — his tribute to the books and movies that fed his childhood imagination — a little underwhelmed, as opposed to many American critics, who seem overwhelmed. The movie is good, sometimes very good, but I suspect it’s a masterpiece only for those who haven’t seen all the earlier masterpieces that equal or surpass it.

I’m glad Crouching Tiger is here, though. For one thing, it’s going to introduce a lot of people who wouldn’t have seen Hard Boiled or Supercop to the undeniable star power of Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh (both of whom have been ill-served in their forays into Yankee films). And if you’ve seen these giants in other films, you can’t help but get buzzed watching them act together for the first time, doing what they do best, and seeing it all on the massive wide screen, immaculately shot by Peter Pau, and not dubbed into hamfisted English. It’s a good way to ease newbies into the charms of Chow and Yeoh, and the gravity-defying stuntwork of Yuen Wo-Ping (The Matrix) — Hong Kong Cinema 101.

The story is simple and classical, based (by screenwriters Wang Hui-Ling, James Schamus, and Tsai Kuo Jung) on a wuxia novel by Wang Du Lu. Master Li Mu Bai (Chow), a retired warrior, pays a visit to a nobleman friend to give him a sword — not just any sword, but a sword that can apparently cut through anything, and has earned itself the name “Green Destiny.” Mu Bai wants to leave his sword behind along with his violent past. But then the sword is stolen, and Mu Bai joins forces with old friend and unrequited love Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh) to get it back. Western minds may see Freudian meaning in this quest, but the code of this movie holds that the sword simply belongs to the man to whom it was given. Further, Mu Bai believes the thief is the legendary Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), who killed his master.

A seeming subplot character who takes center stage for a while is Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), a bored teenager due to be married to a (probably) boring nobleman. Jen looks at the exciting Shu Lien and wants the warrior woman’s freedom of movement, the lethal skills that might set her equal to men (or superior to them). She flashes back to an intoxicating time spent with a “barbarian” known as Dark Cloud (Chang Chen) — it’s good to see that teenage girls’ fantasies are so consistent as to cross cultural and temporal barriers.

The high-flying action sequences have gotten a lot of ink, but again, if you’ve seen earlier works like John Woo’s Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1978) or Ronny Yu’s The Bride with White Hair (1993), there’s not a lot here to boggle your eyes or mind. If you haven’t, well, have fun. Some of the soaring and jumping bits are impressive; some are a little too obviously wire work. At the very least, it’s refreshing to sit in an American theater and watch action sequences that strive for lyrical beauty more than routine button-pushing excitement; and it is, as always, a deep pleasure when the camera simply stands back and lets Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh show their stuff (capably matched by young Zhang Ziyi, who’s already gotten nibbles from Hollywood). Ang Lee has done a smooth and sincere job here, bringing a sample of Hong Kong magic to art-house patrons accustomed to the likes of Billy Elliot, but don’t go to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon expecting a cross between Gone with the Wind and The Seven Samurai. It’s well-done, and I suppose that’s going to have to be good enough.