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Movies: Shakethrus: 2006 | 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002 | 2001

October 04, 2005

A History of Violence
David Cronenberg, USA, 2005
Rating: 3.0
Is David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (screenplay by Josh Olson and based on the 1997 graphic novel by John Wagner and Vincent Locke) a serious examination of violence and its effect on a nuclear American family, with satirical flourishes? Or is it a big thumb in the eye of a violence-obsessed, sexually repressed, ravenously consumerist American public? Sadly, it’s more the latter than the former. The setup is certainly promising: Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), wife Edie (Maria Bello), and their two children live an idyllic Hallmark life in vanilla, homespun Millbrook, Indiana. Tom runs a diner, and one day two ruthless scumbags try to rob the place. Tom dispatches the criminals with shockingly proficient ease and becomes a reluctant media sensation ... which draws unwanted attention from a group of Philly mobsters who show up claiming Tom is actually a vicious killer named Joey Cusack. So what’s the truth? A History of Violence works best dancing around the ambiguity of Tom/Joey’s true identity. The notion of a Big Lie tearing a family apart isn’t particularly fresh, but the tense dynamic between Bello and Mortensen adds tactile weight to the conundrum. Unfortunately, Cronenberg goes more for the exaggerated violence angle and reduces the family crisis to secondary plot status. If we’d stayed at the dinner table and avoided Tom’s bloody reconciliation with his past, A History of Violence might have had something more substantial to say about its titular subject, as opposed to simply wallowing in the gore of its own satirical cesspool.

::: Laurence Station

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September 22, 2005

Lord of War
Andrew Niccol, USA, 2005
Rating: 2.8
Assuming the assertion “based on actual events” is some badge of honor for cred-conscious Hollywood action flicks, Lord of War inexplicably embraces this hard-hitting tagline while breaking myriad rules of the “raw and real” school of filmmaking. Nicolas Cage plays the amoral Yuri Orlov, an arms dealer who makes a mint when the Cold War comes to an end. Yuri is detached from the carnage wrought by the weapons he procures for everyone from sadistic African warlords to small-time thugs. Since director Andrew Niccols and company lack the muscle or desire to follow through on a Salvador-brutal examination of dark places in this world and the people who leach off of bloody entanglements, we get innumerable clichés and obvious plot developments. Yuri has a screw-up younger brother (the talented Jared Leto) who wants to cook in the family restaurant but has to go on jobs with his older sibling to pay for a debilitating cocaine habit. Yuri’s really tight with his brother... Yeah, you know what’s coming. Then there’s the trophy wife (a wasted Bridget Moynahan) who remains clueless about how her husband affords such a lavish lifestyle for her and their stock cute, mostly mute and barely sketched young son. She has a major guilt trip when she finds out the truth and (in credulity-straining fashion) convinces Yuri to “go straight” -- if only for a little while. If Lord of War cut out the pointless supporting roles (who by film’s end have zero impact of Yuri’s utterly non-transformative character development) and focused instead on the motley crew of people Yuri meets during an average day for an international arms dealer, Lord of War might have measured up to something more than a wannabe expose on the economic engine that drives global conflicts. Imagine Oliver Stone, circa 1985, with this story... the possibilities are staggering.

::: Laurence Station

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August 29, 2005

The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Judd Apatow, USA, 2005
Rating: 3.5
Likable Andy Stitzer (Steve Carell) never grew up. His apartment is filled with toys, comic books and action figures. He rides a bike to his job at a consumer electronics store and loves to unwind after work by playing video games. And, as the title of the movie gives away, Andy has never had intercourse. Rather than offer a one-note gag about Andy and a trio of overly eager coworkers trying to assist him in taking a bold step toward adulthood, Judd Apatow’s 40-Year-Old Virgin opts instead for moral instruction. Thus, the trio of horny friends will learn from Andy’s celibacy and become better people (more or less) by the film’s end. Andy, naturally, will find an incredibly understanding woman (played by the wonderful Catherine Keener, in this case) to slow-walk him through the whole mating courtship process. Clichéd plot turns like the obligatory Big Fight and inevitable Makeup detract from Virgin’s effectiveness. But the laughs are plentiful (especially a painfully funny hair-waxing sequence and a visit to a planned parenthood meeting) and Carell -- who stole nearly every scene in Anchorman that he appeared in -- is definitely an average schmo you can root for. Like Anchorman, Virgin mixes the bizarre with the pedestrian. But it’s a better film, with richer characters and just as many laugh-out-loud moments.

::: Laurence Station

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August 1, 2005

Murderball
Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro, USA, 2005
Rating: 4.0
Based on a Maxim magazine article by Dana Adam Shapiro, the documentary Murderball wheels the viewer headlong into the world of quadriplegic rugby, a fast-paced contest played out, as the name suggests, by men in wheelchairs (the term "quadriplegic" applies to impairment, not necessarily paralysis, in all four limbs). Since the film is receiving widespread release, it's a cinch that the directors establish a respectful and inspirational tone, but Murderball avoids the mawkish sentimentality one half-expects: Your typical feel-good sports doc a la Hoop Dreams, this isn't. But it does build, and maintain, a surprisingly strong level of suspense, via a Heaven-sent narrative that tracks the highly competitive Team USA from the 2002 Wheelchair Rugby World Championships in Sweden to the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. It helps, too, that Team USA has a perfect foil in loudmouthed Joe Soares, a former USA player who now coaches the Canadian team after being cut from the American roster. But Murderball isn't really about the climactic showdown between the USA and Canada in Athens: It's about the steely determination shown by figures like Soares, Mark Zupan (a brash, aggressive fireball with the tattoos and presence to give Henry Rollins pause), Bob Lujano (good-natured despite his lack of limbs) and others -- and about the ways in which their approaches to the game mirror their approaches to life. The film is given additional heft by the filmmakers' decision to parallel their primary narrative with the story of a newly paralyzed motocross enthusiast at the very beginning of his journey of adjustment. Ultimately, Murderball is less a standard sports documentary than a rousing profile of men for whom crashing into each other in wheelchairs is much more than a game -- it's an extension of their will to live.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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May 11, 2005

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Alex Gibney, USA, 2004
Rating: 3.0
Alex Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, based on the book by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, engages in a bit of agitprop against the free market system, which is about as bold a stance as the documentary takes in examining the most stunning collapse of a large corporation in American history. That greed drove top executives at Enron to fabricate earnings and then cash in once the bloated stock price rose, all the while sticking the lower-ranking employees with worthless 401(k)s when the bottom fell out, is hardly shocking; anyone with a passing interest in corporate scandal has heard all of the information divulged here. The Smartest Guys in the Room simply compiles the various reports and wraps them in an entertaining package. But there’s no smoking gun, no heretofore-unknown document (blame the shredding machines at accounting firm Arthur Anderson) that exposes a Machiavellian plot to fleece shareholders. What we do learn is the obvious: Without checks and balances, corruption happens. There’s no villain on whom to pin this debacle -- just typical businesspeople making as much money as they can and hoping they don’t get caught in the process. Which is actually a more alarming notion than if there had been some grand conspiracy at play. Alas, it was just business as usual, and that's a depressing but hardly a revelatory truth.

::: Laurence Station

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May 11, 2005

A Love Song For Bobby Long
Shainee Gabel, USA, 2004
Rating: 2.8
Based on the novel Off Magazine Street by Ronald Everett Capps, A Love Song For Bobby Long (adapted by director Shainee Gabel) has a location, New Orleans, that's incredibly evocative, if not easy to capture the essence of on screen. But in telling the story of an alcoholic, down-and-out former college lit professor (John Travolta, in top ham-fisted form in the titular role), his equally under-motivated protégé Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht) and a young woman named Pursy (Scarlett Johansson) who enters their lives, the film fails to rise above cliché and obvious plot turns. Bobby and Lawson are squatters in a house owned by Pursy’s estranged mother, who has recently passed away and left the property to her daughter. According to the will, Bobby and Lawson can remain in the house for one year, and then Pursy can give the pair the boot if she so chooses. Naturally, the three bond, with Bobby taking on a more paternal air and Lawson struggling to figure out what he should do about his feelings for the fetching but considerably younger Pursy. There are no surprises here, and the overly poetic voiceover by Macht and pointless “name the author of that quote” English major games quickly grow wearisome. Johansson does a nice job revealing the tough exterior/tender heart of Pursy, and the city is photographed in a beautifully squalid manner. But Bobby Long fails to hit enough of the right notes to ring true.

::: Laurence Station

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May 02, 2005

Primer
Shane Carruth, USA, 2003
Rating: 3.0
Filmmaker Shane Carruth claims his speculative sci-fi debut, Primer, was made for the “cost of a used car.” Winning the Grand Jury prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival should ensure Carruth covers his z-budget expenses. As notable for its shoestring DIY backstory as well as its tech-heavy dialogue, Primer takes a familiar premise -- time travel -- and attempts to contain it within a semi-plausible set of rules derived from modern physics. Thus, we follow aspiring inventors, Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), who unexpectedly create a device that can move objects through discrete segments of time, prodding the two day-job engineers to cash in accrued sick time and begin playing the stock market. Unfortunately, nagging issues like spatial continuity and space-time paradoxes trip up the duo’s seemingly foolproof plan to get a jump on Wall Street and retire before 40. Double Aarons and Abes run amok, and by the end of the film, whatever trust the pair had established has been completely shattered. Carruth does a solid job with the technical aspects of Primer and, even though it’s still a little too self-consciously obtuse, the film satisfactorily presents an intriguing take on what mere mortals might do if given God-like prescience. Carruth’s weakness is in telling a compelling narrative and crafting interesting, three-dimensional characters: Aaron and Abe are fairly interchangeable -- one has a wife and child, but both wear the Dilbert uniform and their motivations are transparently similar. The cat-and-mouse games between the doubles and the real McCoys are also regrettably underplayed. As a Joe Average litmus test, this reviewer invited B-movie junkie Clemenza to watch Primer. Less than halfway through the lean, 75-minute running time, Clemenza had hooked the microwave to the toaster and successfully managed to pull his own double out of some future time stream, which he then dispatched to watch the remainder of the film in his place. If nothing else, Primer is a speculatively engaging science project.

::: Laurence Station

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May 02, 2005

Undertow
David Gordon Green, USA, 2004
Rating: 2.9
Undertow, David Gordon Green’s third feature, is an interesting mix of poetically sinister Southern Gothic storytelling and indebted inspiration derived from Charles Laughton's bravura 1955 film The Night of the Hunter. Green’s debut, George Washington, and the young director’s follow-up, All the Real Girls, moved along a plotless line of barely-there narrative lyricism. Green focused on everyday life, with the occasional shocking turn, couching his dialogue in an artificially grand mode and generally making it all work thanks to an auteur’s viewpoint and clear-eyed sense of purpose. Undertow retains the flowery dialogue but is weighed down by something Green’s never tackled before: Plot. Evil Uncle Deel (Josh Lucas) shows up at the family farm of his widowed brother, John (Dermot Mulroney), who’s having difficulty raising his two boys. Deel offers John his services in return for room and board, but what he’s really after is a clutch of gold coins left by their father. Unsurprisingly, violence ensues, and soon the two boys (young Devon Alan and Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell) are on the run, coins in hand and an angry Deel hot on their heels. What's surprising is how much momentum Undertow loses after the chase begins. Green takes too-frequent time-outs to spotlight oddball Southern folks Deel and the boys meet on their respective ways. And, unlike Night of the Hunter, there’s no particular viewpoint. We follow the boys for a bit, then Deel. Even the inevitable showdown lacks punch, since Green is trying too hard to work in an earlier referenced link between the gold coins and Charon -- the ferryman for the dead in Greek mythology. What saves the film from being dragged down to an even lower rating is the photography of Green mainstay Tim Orr, and solid acting from its principals.

::: Laurence Station

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May 02, 2005

2046
Wong Kar-Wai, China / Italy / France / Hong Kong, 2004
Rating: 3.5
In the year 2047, Hong Kong will lose its autonomy to the Chinese government. When the British pulled out in 1997, Hong Kong was granted a "One Country, Two Systems" policy for 50 years. Wong Kar-Wai, whose edgy, fun 1994 effort Chungking Express captured the giddy feeling preceding the British handover, latches onto the year 2046 in an interesting manner. During the early 1960s, it's a room number shared by trysting lovers in the director’s 2000 feature In the Mood for Love. In late 1966, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), who was involved in the affair and has since been jilted, tries to rent room 2046, but it is temporarily unavailable (due to a murder) and he is forced to take room 2047 -- which has a peephole that allows him to gaze upon the comings and goings of room 2046. Chow, a writer, spends the next three years in a variety of relationships, none of them as permanent or as profound as his earlier affair. Chow also works on a tale set in a future time, in which a man is stuck on a train, intercoursing with beautiful androids that, naturally, resemble the women Chow is seeing in his life. Wong Kar-Wai ably conveys a sense of Chow being haunted by past feelings and dreaming of a constrictive future, but trapped in an unsatisfying present -- not unlike Hong Kong during the city’s 50-year “free” period. When the future has already been decided for you, how much joy can one derive from the present? Frustratingly, 2046 winds up caught in limbo itself. The film is neither expansive enough to explore the various ideas, metaphors and time-space concepts it posits, nor sufficiently brief to serve up a focused, satisfying narrative. Perhaps on New Year’s Eve 2046, the film will be shown in retrospective and carry an even richer meaning for its end-of-an-era revelers.

::: Laurence Station

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April 17, 2005

Dig!
Ondi Timoner, USA, 2003
Rating: 3.0
The fact that one of the main subjects of Ondi Timoner's seven-years-in-the-making, warts-and-all documentary Dig! serves as the film’s narrator sums up the entire project. It's obvious that Timoner was hoping to catch a Beatles-Stones (or hell, even a Blur-Oasis) rivalry for wealth, glory and fame between two up-and-coming West Coast rock bands, but the fact that Dandy Warhols frontman Courtney Taylor gets the final word on the film's central relationship -- his friendship-turned-rivalry with Anton Newcombe of Brian Jonestown Massacre (BJM) -- is a sort of concession on the filmmaker’s part that maybe there wasn’t such a vicious competition between the two groups after all. (The fact that neither band has attained widespread notoriety -- though the major label-backed Dandys keep getting close -- also undermines any cultural cachet Timoner counted on accumulating as she tracked the Dandys and BJM during the 1990s.) Dig! does offer a look at the issues, drugs and dissimilar attitudes toward industry standards and practices that set the two groups apart. But the film's main attraction is its focus on the fascinating human train wreck that is Anton Newcombe. From a crippling heroin addiction to a propensity for attacking audience members indifferent or insulting to his music, Newcombe is framed by Timoner as a true enfant terrible. Why? Because it keeps viewers glued to the screen. (Were there no moments of clarity during the entire seven year stretch for the mercurial bandleader?) The seemingly well-adjusted Dandys look like they’re having a ball, but that doesn’t translate nearly as well, so Newcombe takes one for the film. Today, both bands are still recording, making music and, presumably, avoiding people with digi-cams. Sounds like a smart career move.

::: Laurence Station

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April 05, 2005

Downfall
Oliver Hirschbiegel, Germany, 2004
Rating: 3.0
Downfall, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s examination of the last days of Hitler’s life, is a structural mess. Rather than focusing on a single character, it presents a chaotically jumbled narrative that leaps from the war-torn streets of Berlin to the bunker where the Führer (a compelling, spittle-flying Bruno Ganz), his lover Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler) and various aides hunker down as Russian forces encircle the city. Just because the situation in Berlin was insane doesn’t mean the storyline has to follow suit. It’s not that Downfall’s assorted plot threads are confusing; it’s just that no particular character is given enough space to breathe. Additionally, Hirschbiegel’s choices regarding which horrors to show and which to cut away from are bafflingly inconsistent. We see limbs being sawed off from bodies on operating tables, but cut away from Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) shooting his wife and then himself. Hirschbiegel painfully lingers on Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) methodically administering each of her unconscious children a cyanide capsule, but never shows the corpses of Hitler and Braun. In telling such a complex yet widely discussed tale, Hirschbiegel would have been better served sticking with one principal lead and letting us see only what that person sees. And with the recollections of Hitler’s private secretary Traudl Junge (played with doe-eyed bafflement by Alexandra Maria Lara) still fresh in moviegoers’ minds thanks to the documentary Blind Spot, the choice of whose version of events to dramatize seems obvious. Downfall goes for an epic scope when an intimate viewpoint certainly would have proved far more compelling and insightful.

::: Laurence Station

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March 26, 2005

Feux Rouges (Red Lights)
Cédric Kahn, France, 2004
Rating: 3.0
Cédric Kahn’s Feux Rouges (Red Lights) is an “urbanites tested in the wild” suspense thriller that relies too heavily on a whopper of a contrivance to justify its big twist revelation at the end. Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and his wife, Hélène (Carole Bouquet), set out from Paris on a long journey to pick up their children from a camp. Hélène is the primary breadwinner; Antoine's a binge-drinking underachiever. Testy conversation during the trip results in Hélène abandoning their car and heading for a train station, while Antoine knocks back whisky in a bar. Antoine tries to catch up with his wife at the station but is too late, leading to another bar detour and an encounter with a morose young man (Vincent Deniard) who inalterably changes the lives of the unhappily married couple. Darroussin’s performance as the self-loathing Antoine is expertly handled, conveying the right amount of impotence coupled with a slow, simmering fury. And since Red Lights is ultimately about the emasculated male reasserting his primacy in the domestic pecking order, it’s crucial we pity Antoine but believe him capable of the subsequent actions that validate his caveman-encoded DNA. Though the film’s resolution is too easily debunked thanks to a highly improbable coincidence, Red Lights still nets points for underplaying the violence and emphasizing the emotional distance between a married couple who, after a dozen years together, have lost whatever magic brought them together in the first place.

::: Laurence Station

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March 21, 2005

End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones
Michael Gramaglia, Jim Fields, USA, 2003
Rating: 3.4
The Story of the Ramones does a decent job of rehashing fairly common knowledge for those interested in the seminal New York punk rock band: Guitarist Johnny was a right wing control freak. Singer Joey was a hypersensitive romantic geek who never nabbed the love of his life and suffered for his art. Bassist Dee Dee was the soul of the band but also a self-destructive junkie. Original drummer/band manager/album producer Tommy just wasn’t cut out for the rigors of the touring lifestyle. Coincidentally, of the core four, Tommy’s the only one still alive, with cancer claiming Johnny and Joey and an overdose knocking off Dee Dee. Filmmakers Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields spend the majority of the film's time examining the pre-history and early days of the band. We get a tour of Forest Hills, Queens, and hear from those in the neighborhood with tangential connections to the bandmates, and the groundbreaking mid-’70s CBGB club period is well documented -- although the recounting of the drug- and drink-fueled Phil Spector-produced End of the Century sessions is more depressing and sordid than insightful or fascinating. The MTV-dominated ’80s and alterna-rock ’90s periods get a cursory glossing over, as drummers come and go and Dee Dee bolts for an abortive rap career. Showing the Ramones' Hall of Fame acceptance speech should put a nice bow on the chronicle, but it’s obvious the band's most vital period happened decades earlier. Never being (or trying to be) a particularly innovative band pretty much guaranteed a weird, time-warp existence for the group, branded with bowl haircuts, leather jackets and denim jeans. In the end, the best way to hear the story of the Ramones is to listen to their first four albums. Everything the band felt, meant, and had to say is encapsulated there better than it is in this interesting but inconsistent documentary.

::: Laurence Station

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March 11, 2005

Carandiru
Hector Babenco, Brazil / Argentina, 2003 (2004 U.S. Release)
Rating: 3.2
In detailing the events leading up to the October 2, 1992, prison riot known as the Carandiru Massacre, Hector Babenco only bothers with humanizing the victims (in this case, the prisoners) and gives no insight into the riot squad that allegedly gunned down the defenseless inmates. Babenco uses a sympathetic physician (Luis Carlos Vasconcelos) as our window into the world of the men behind bars. In episodic fashion, we get the back-story on several colorful convicts (most of them innocent, mind you, according to their version of the facts), learn about the assorted rivalries and inner workings of the drug trade, and witness a “marriage” between two inmates (only after both get negative results on their AIDS tests). And then a fight breaks out, which escalates into a full-scale riot -- which is when the storm troopers show up and indiscriminately massacre scores of fleeing or cornered criminals. We are told at the end that only God, the riot squad and the prisoners know what really happened that bloody day. Fine, but at least putting a human face on the enforcers would have helped greatly in rounding out the story. From a narrative standpoint, Carandiru’s start-stop episodic structure dilutes its momentum. It also lacks either the gritty, chaotic feel of Babenco’s best film, 1981’s Pixote, or the fanciful poetic escapism that enhanced his most famous work, Kiss of the Spider Woman. Babenco uses Carandiru to indict the Brazilian prison system, but in failing to give equal weight to both sides of the tragedy he leaves the viewer with more questions than answers.

::: Laurence Station

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March 09, 2005

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle
Danny Leiner, USA, 2004
Rating: 3.1
Dude, Where's My White Castle? is a more apt title for this retread of Danny Leiner’s 2000 drug-induced comedy Dude, Where's My Car? Two stoners on a quest (in this case for burgers instead of a lost vehicle -- though the car the titular leads uses gets swiped as well) learn a few lessons about life and themselves along the way; this is hardly fresh material. What makes Harold and Kumar so enjoyable, then, are the two leads (John Cho and Kal Penn, respectively). And despite the fact that much ink has been spilled extolling the film’s use of Asian- and-Indian-Americans as the leads and the fact that the movie pokes fun at sundry racial stereotypes, this is quintessential gross-out lowbrow fare with no deeper agenda. Thanks to the likability factor of Cho and Penn and the various misadventures experienced by two roommates on a nighttime fast-food binge, Harold and Kumar proves a worthwhile journey and breezes along at less than ninety minutes. Neil Patrick Harris of Doogie Howser, M.D. fame makes the most of an appearance as himself, tripping on acid and seeking strippers. And a hospital sequence where Kumar shows off his deft medical skills on a gunshot victim (even though he’s a complete slacker otherwise) is hilarious. Harold and Kumar does exactly what the title says, but it’s in reaching cheap-burger nirvana that the film proves a worthy entry into a genre well-mined by Cheech and Chong two decades earlier.

::: Laurence Station

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March 08, 2005

Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior
Prachya Pinkaew, Thailand, 2003 (2005 U.S. Release)
Rating: 3.3
Ong-Bak is essentially a B-movie calling card for Thai martial artist Tony Jaa, and as such it wisely sticks to a simple, bare-bones plot, the better to focus the audience's attention on the considerable skills of its star. Rather than stick the youthful Jaa into a credulity-stretching police drama, Ong-Bak casts him as Ting, an earnest young villager in rural Thailand who has learned the deadly martial art of muay thai from the village monks. Ting travels to the big city when a thief makes off with the titular head of the village's Buddha statue, and gets in a series of fights designed more to show off his skills than to further the story -- many of them in a dimly lit fight club overseen by a nefarious crime boss. A cowardly and conniving but ultimately good-hearted sidekick named George and his mostly superfluous female con-artist partner help Ting retrieve the head, and dispatch justice to the bad guys. There are no surprises or complications, not even a romance to get in the way of the quest; George's eventual redemption is as close as Ong-Bak gets to a subplot. That leaves Pinkaew free to lavish attention on Jaa's lithe, angular form as Ting leaps, kicks and elbows his opponents, and even runs across the tops of their heads. The lack of plot clutter also allows the director to inject some sly humor into his chase scenes (Ting leaps through a roll of barbed wire two workers are conveniently carrying; George fends off a gang of attackers with a knife, until a woman wanders into the frame selling knives). Ong-Bak is no-frills escapist fun; it may be too slight to invite repeated viewings, but it nonetheless whets the viewer's appetite for more of Jaa's low-key, boyish charisma and visually appealing fight skills.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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February 28, 2005

Mean Creek
Jacob Aaron Estes, USA, 2003
Rating: 3.4
[Editor's Note: Not that it's a gargantuan surprise, but this review does give away Mean Creek's essential plot twist. Stop reading now if you don't want to know what happens.] Jacob Aaron Estes’ debut feature Mean Creek takes the familiar “trick-that-goes-to-far” setup and applies it to a schoolyard bully who gets unexpectedly fatal payback during a Saturday afternoon boat trip. The performances from the young actors are commendable, even if the dialogue they’re forced to speak seems a bit too obvious and stagy at times. Estes strives for a seemingly curious mix of the eerie amorality that pervaded Tim Hunter's The River's Edge and the loss-of-innocence nostalgia of Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me. The main drawback is the antagonist/victim being punished. As played by heavyset, baby-faced Josh Peck, bully George comes across as one of those terribly spoiled, lonely kids who spend most of their waking days lost in the reality of their own minds. His bullying behavior -- pummeling Rory Culkin’s outwardly pacifistic Sam, which sets the payback plan in motion -- seems contrived, as do a few particularly nasty verbal attacks that verge on overkill; they’re here more to justify George’s overboard plunge than to add character shading. It’s as if Estes couldn’t kill George off without ensuring that the boy had some culpability in his own demise. Such over-planning on Estes’ part is excusable to a point, as he successfully imbues Mean Creek with a piercing emotional intensity regarding the often conflicted, awkward world of youth.

::: Laurence Station

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February 24, 2005

Goodbye, Dragon Inn
Tsai Ming-Liang, Taiwan, 2003 (2004 U.S. Release)
Rating: 4.0
A cavernous Taipei movie house will close its doors forever after a final late night screening of King Hu's 1966 martial arts film Dragon Inn. Rain drives a Japanese man into the theater. A hobbled woman working the box office wanders the vast halls seeking the projectionist, the only other employee in the place. Two men watch the movie, acknowledging the other's presence as their younger selves battle onscreen -- celluloid ghosts from a forgotten era. Tsai Ming-Liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn continues the director's fascination with isolation in public spaces. And what better environment to examine modern culture and people's disconnection from one another than a movie palace? It’s here, after all, that individuals come together but aren't expected to interact with one another, comforted in the dark, basking in the warmth of human contact but not compelled to express themselves. Plotless, poetic and respectful of the power of still silences -- yet imbued with humorous touches (a group of men standing at urinals, awkwardly avoiding conversation and eye contact) -- Goodbye, Dragon Inn masterfully explores nostalgia, loneliness and longing with minimal, beautifully layered brushstrokes. It’s the antithesis of the hyperactive action movie, with little concern for the impatient viewer. Those seeking a more meditative experience will be hard pressed to find a better cinematic evocation of "more with less" filmmaking than this minor-key jewel.

::: Laurence Station

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February 22, 2005

Last Life in the Universe
Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Thailand / Japan, 2003 (2004 U.S. Release)
Rating: 3.6
Fundamentally, Last Life in the Universe is about a man moving from a state of clinical stillness to a condition of harmonious disorder. It's also a gangster film more interested in innocent bystanders than hoods or the police who chase them. Tadanobu Asano plays Kenji, a meticulous, exceedingly introverted Japanese librarian living in Bangkok, who fantasizes about various ways of ending his life. Whenever Kenji attempts to follow through on these desires, however, he's repeatedly interrupted. The most egregious intrusion is by Kenji's brother (Yutaka Matsushige), an obnoxious Yakuza thug who's fled Japan for unexplained reasons and has apparently had improper relations with Kenji's daughter (whom we never see or learn anything about). After Kenji's brother is murdered in his apartment and Kenji kills the assailant, our remarkably calm protagonist leaves his now-defiled home and takes refuge with Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), a young Thai woman who's recently lost her sister in a car accident (which Kenji coincidentally happened to witness). Where Kenji is soft-spoken and orderly, Noi is aggressive and chaotic. Clearly, opposites attract but, fortunately, the film doesn't follow typical romantic movie conventions. Last Life is more concerned with how people make fresh starts in the wake of personal tragedies than with ensuring its mismatched couple finds everlasting happiness. The film's main drawback is the too-enigmatic Kenji: Clearly, he left Japan for a reason, and, based on the elaborate tattoo on his back and skillful fighting ability, he most likely was a gangster like his brother. But we never learn any of this, and that severely limits our ability to connect to or empathize with him. Pen-ek Ratanaruang obviously prefers an illogical, magic-realist narrative to a conventional one, and in this respect he's aided enormously by Christopher Doyle's beautiful, painterly photography. But there's a point at which being too opaque can prevent a film from achieving a richer, sublime truth. Last Life is tongue-tied by its own pretensions regarding the subjectivity of reality.

::: Laurence Station

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February 12, 2005

Bad Education
Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, 2004
Rating: 3.1
Who else but Pedro Almodóvar could mix trans-gender junkies, film noir, furtive hand jobs at the movies and a scathing indictment of the Catholic Church -- and still come out with a semi-coherent film? Almodóvar's Bad Education is unique in its combination of elements, and the Spanish auteur deserves credit for holding the entire mess together. Unfortunately, it's lacking in the one aspect evident throughout the director's career: passion. (We do see passion once, at the very end: The word surges toward us just before the credits roll.) Director Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez) is stumped for a new project at the dawn of the 1980s. On cue, mysterious Ignacio Rodriguez (Gael García Bernal) enters Enrique's office with a story he's written. The catch: The tale recounts the time Enrique and Ignacio attended the same Catholic school together in the early '60s, where they had a brief fling before Enrique was expelled by Ignacio's jealous, pederast teacher. Ignacio's tacked on a fictional payback ending, in which he blackmails the priest years later, to finance a sex-change operation. Enrique agrees to turn the story into a film, and rekindles his romance with the beguiling Ignacio. But all is not as it seems (is it ever?). While the subsequent revelations add up (and a tad too tidily, at that), Bad Education suffers from a lack of wit and spirit. Clearly Almodóvar's touching on some painfully autobiographical issues here, and perhaps being so close to the material prevents him from infusing things with the fire so prevalent in his past work. Bad Education wants us to feel the sting of betrayal and the confusion that comes with feeling trapped by one's birth gender. In that respect, it succeeds, even if we never gain any real insight into Bernal's "femme fatale" Ignacio or the even more opaque Enrique.

::: Laurence Station

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February 07, 2005

Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera
Joel Schumacher, USA, 2004
Rating: 3.0
The famous silent version of Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney in truly ghastly death's-head makeup, ran a lean 79 minutes. Nothing was wasted in its tale of the mysterious figure haunting the Paris Opera House, who teaches young ingénue Christine to become a great singer. Joel Schumacher's big-screen adaptation of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's enormously successful theatrical  musical adds nearly an hour to this running time. And since most of that span is filled with characters singing their inner thoughts and feelings, the question of whether this garishly ornate, blood-red gothic romantic spin on the familiar story works really comes down to how in tune patrons are with the score. Those who enjoy music painted in broad strokes, with nothing remotely ambiguous left to chance, will probably be in heaven; those hoping for a tad more subtlety and less "Jesus Christ Superstar" bombast had better stick to the silent version. Schumacher does what he can, freeing the musical from the artificial environs of the stage and imbuing it with lively camera movement and evocative lighting. And the actors (especially the vocally gifted Emmy Rossum as love interest Christine) accord themselves nicely. The main problem with the singing Phantom, then, stems from making the Phantom less a tragic, horribly disfigured outsider (basically, the Hunchback of Notre Dame composing music instead of ringing cathedral bells) than a tall, enigmatic anti-hero who wears stylish, custom-fit half-masks to cover what is essentially a really gnarly birthmark. Chaney forced Christine to decide whether she could bear his horrific visage and still love the man inside; the updated Christine basically has to choose between two hunks, and (Spoiler alert!) goes with the more emotionally stable of the two: the bland nobleman Raoul (Patrick Wilson). For pure grandiose spectacle, Webber's Phantom wins, even if it runs too long and is bereft of any suspense.

::: Laurence Station

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January 26, 2005

Infernal Affairs
Andrew Lau, Alan Mak, Hong Kong, 2002 (2004 U.S. Release)
Rating: 3.6
Infernal Affairs is a Hong Kong crime drama that doesn't rely on gravity-defying, guns-akimbo shots or the expressive imagery of hot shell casings bouncing off the floor. Rather, we get a meditative study of two men existing in opposite worlds: Ming (Andy Lau) is sent to the police academy by criminal underworld boss Sam (Eric Tsang) in an effort to infiltrate the department and stay one step ahead of the investigators. While at the academy, Ming watches as Yan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) is expelled for "breaking the rules." Actually, Yan is kicked out so he can be sent undercover to infiltrate the triad crime world. Fast-forward ten years, and the two moles, Ming and Yan, are now attempting to expose one another in a deadly cat-and-mouse game. Infernal Affairs features sleek, confident cinematography and an appropriately pulse-driven, urbanized score. But it's in the exploration of the conflicted psychologies of Ming and Yan (how long before a criminal pretending to be a cop becomes what he's pretending to be? and vice-versa) that elevates the film above standard crime/action fare. Granted, the basic setup isn't exactly fresh, but it's the execution, from the believable performances by the two leads to a few surprising plot twists, that contributes to the film's effectiveness. Some hokey use of flashbacks and supporting players that aren't sufficiently developed are minor slights. Infernal Affairs (slated for an Americanized remake by Martin Scorsese, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon as the possible leads) is an excellent example of cool restraint from a genre better known for its gratuitous overkill.

::: Laurence Station

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January 23, 2005

Assault on Precinct 13
Jean-François Richet, USA, 2005
Rating: 2.3
This tepid remake of John Carpenter's vastly superior 1976 B-movie about a police station under siege bends over backwards to violate every rule of the action drama. Instead of building tension throughout to a pulse-quickening conclusion, Assault 2005 takes habitual breaks to gives its characters every possible chance to emote. Rather than quickly sketching character types and then letting them dive headlong into the fray, it overloads the back story and inserts crosses and double-crosses that are obvious from the outset. Ethan Hawke's Jake Roenick, the clichéd cop-with-a-tortured-past, spends far too much time rediscovering his manhood before kicking some corrupt cop ass. Laurence Fishburne's superthug Marion Bishop (the reason a group of cops is assaulting the isolated, cut-off Detroit precinct) still hasn't entirely shaken the Zen-cool Morpheus affectation he employed in the Matrix movies, offering a one-note performance far too assured of its character's long-term survival. The rest of the players (including a wasted Maria Bello) are mostly fodder for Gabriel Byrne's rogue-cop hit squad. Ultimately, it comes down to this: John Carpenter knows how to create suspense; French newcomer Jean-François Richet does not. The updated Assault makes the false presumption that audiences will have a vested interest in these people; Carpenter already knew that answer going in and made sure personality never got in the way of the action.

::: Laurence Station

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January 19, 2005

Talaye Sorkh (Crimson Gold)
Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2003 (2004 U.S. release)
Rating: 3.5
Working from a screenplay by acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi's Talaye Sorkh (Crimson Gold) examines modern Tehran and its social structure as viewed from the lower rungs. Hussein (Hossain Emadeddin) is a pizza deliveryman acutely aware of the seemingly unbridgeable gulf separating rich from poor. After a jewelry merchant insults Hussein and his friend Ali (Kamyar Sheisi) by refusing to let them into his store, the opening scene of Hussein's botched robbery and shooting of the man is (partially) explained. Cleary, Crimson Gold isn't too concerned with building suspense or offering a typical, plot-driven narrative. This is a character study of a city and its people, from the invasive police who punish young people from mingling with members of the opposite sex, to the spoiled rich who haven't a clue just how good they have it. A too-easy corollary is Taxi Driver and its window into the dark recesses of mid-'70s disaffection. But Hussein is no plus-sized, mute variation on the self-inflated, fatalistic machismo of Travis Bickle. He's a simple man desiring something better in life, realizing too late that it will forever be beyond his grasp. Crimson Gold putters rather than lurches, more meditative than proactive. Call it an impotent indictment of societal conditions that destroy individuals like Hussein, born into a world with a very low ceiling for advancement and little room for expressing a rage that simmers but never quite rises to a boil.

::: Laurence Station

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January 13, 2005

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead
Mike Hodges, USA / UK, 2003
Rating: 3.1
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead retreads the same basic plot of Mike Hodges' 1971 debut feature Get Carter: A man avenging his brother's death. In the update, Clive Owen plays Will Graham, an ex-gangster who has retreated to the forest to find peace. Then his younger brother is found dead in a bathtub filled with blood, a presumed suicide. Of course, there's more to it than that, and -- since Hodges shows us with brutal clarity what happened to the young man -- solving the mystery is left to Graham and his old 'hood mates. Crime genre clichés abound, from the woman our lead left behind to the current top mobster curious as to why the once formidable Graham has returned to his old stomping grounds. Is it just to attend his brother's funeral or something more business-oriented? But Hodges has more contemplative matters on his mind than whether Graham settles the score regarding his brother's death or meets his own demise from interested rivals. Clive Owen's Will broods... a lot. He's clearly a man who knows violence and wants no part of it. The rub: You can run but you can't hide from what you are -- and Will Graham is a stone-cold killer. The rest of the film is window dressing, and never fully developed to any satisfying degree. In the end, we have a man trying to reconcile his brother resting in peace with finding a little parcel of contentment for himself, which makes for a mild rather than wholehearted recommendation.

::: Laurence Station

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