Hey folks, Harry here with a whole list of reasons to hate Anton Sirius for his damn access to Toronto and these films. If I concentrate hard enough, I'll make a pimple sprout and pop on his nose upon his chance meeting with Zhang Ziyi, which will cause her to kick him away as she begins to leap atop buildings in Toronto. HA! That'll show him!
I'm on an absolute roll right now. I even managed to have a perfect day on Monday schedule-wise, fitting in the maximum possible seven feature-length films, while still squeezing in the odd interview here and there. But that's meant little time for reviews, so rather than continuing to send them to Harry in roughly chronological order, I'm just going to fire them off when they're done.
* * * * *
Kung Fu Hustle (2004, directed by Stephen Chow)
Forgive my lack of professionalism, but: nyah-nyah-ny-nyah-nyah, we saw it fir-irst, nyah-nyah-ny-nyah-nyah...
Getting its world premiere in Toronto, Kung Fu Hustle is both a glorious tribute to and gentle spoof of classic Hong Kong martial arts movies. Con artist Stephen Chow stumbles into trouble when he instigates a confrontation between the residents of Pig Sty Alley (every second one of which seems to be a kung fu master) and the evil, lethal and impeccably choreographed Axe Gang, but the ensuing war helps him to find his true destiny.
There's no way to adequately describe how insanely over the top the fight sequences are in the film. Yuen Wo Ping and Sammo Hung helped stage them, but then crazy effects that put films like Storm Riders and Volcano High to shame are added on to create something hilarious and magical. From the first confrontation in the Alley, to the attack of the world's second-best assassins, to the final sprawling battle with the Beast, each one ups the ante and kicks more ass than the last.
But the film also shows a comedy master at the height of his powers. Chow's timing is genius as always, his supporting cast great, the dialogue sharp, and he even remembers to include the obligatory no sequiter film quote (in Shaolin Soccer it was Jurassic Park... here it's, of all things, The Shining).
It's been a long, long time since I've seen a film as purely entertaining as this. Four fests ago I saw Crouching Tiger and predicted a couple of Top Six Oscar noms and $100 million plus in North American box office. Kung Fu Hustle won't get the noms of course, but I see absolutely no reason why it can't easily hit nine digits at the BO.
This is the one that will finally break Stephen Chow in the USA. And it's about damn time.
* * * * *
Tell Them Who You Are (2004, directed by Mark Wexler)
Copernicus hinted at the elaborate lengths to which we went to score tix for this movie, but if anything he understated the intricate series of cons and triple-crosses we engineered to get into the screening. I can't tell you everything (it would sour the bidding war on the screenplay) but it involved a steamer trunk full of counterfeit Action Comics #1's, not one but two sets of twins, and five identical briefcases (only three of which shared the same combination).
And the amazing thing is, all that zany madcap fun still paled in comparison to the film itself.
Tell Them Who You Are is the story of a father and son, one of whom (guess which) happens to be a Hollywood icon and irascible old son-of-a-bitch. if you don't know the name Haskell Wexler, just check the credits of your favorite movies. The odds are good his name will be listed as cinematographer. The doc is resolutely not about his career though (a renaissance for Haskell's film Medium Cool is clearly overdue, however). His son Mark's film is, as he himself, says, an attempt to find out who Haskell the father (not the filmmaker) is.
It's no easy task. Their relationship is, to be polite, prickly, and Haskell isn't the most open person in the world. Plus he keeps sniping about what a lousy job Mark is doing shooting and making the film, which actually puts mark in good company. Every director gets abuse from Haskell on a shoot. (Goddess knows what young George Lucas got heaped on his head during American Graffiti).
The dynamic between the two is fascinating, as the two spar with each other as star and filmmaker, father and son, and even protagonist and antagonist. Haskell's charisma makes him a naturally sympathetic character, which at times forces Mark into an uneasy adversarial role. It's hard, for instance, not to see things like Mark's 'gift' to his ultra-leftist father of a framed picture of Mark meeting George H. W. Bush as little more than petty button-pushing. But as the film progresses their relationship evolves and matures as each starts to understand the other, and Tell Them Who You Are's final scene (Haskell finally signing his release form), which could easily have been played for a laugh, is actually quite moving.
I gotta agree with Rajah on this one. Tell Them Who You Are is a slam-dunk Oscar nom, and deservedly so. Hopefully it'll win too, so they can release a two-disc special edition DVD which includes that killer Jonathan Winters interview Mark teases us with.
* * * * *
A Hole in My Heart (2004, directed by Lukas Moodysson)
This has been one of the more challenging reviews I've ever had to write. Sorting out, in my head, what I felt while watching the movie is tough enough, but getting it down on paper (or pixel) too? Impossible.
Still, I've got to try. After all, I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.
A Hole in My Heart is about three people who hates themeselves, a fourth who isn't sure yet what he sees when he looks in the mirror, and the lengths to which they go to try and feel like they belong.
And by lengths, I mean every form of nasty amateur porn short of scat and snuff.
It would be very, very easy to dismiss the movie as shock for shock value's sake, but it would also be wrong. Moodysson is simply not that lazy a filmmaker, and clearly lays the groundwork for the nastiest elements of the movie (note, for instance, the way he plays with the blurring of product labels, eventually in one sequence reducing the characters themselves to labels by blurring their faces). What really makes the film so difficult to handle is the pure honesty of the performances though, especially Sanna Brading's awe-inspiring turn as Tess. There's really no way for the audience to escape the choices Tess makes (although I'm sure the Andrea Dworkin types would argue with me about whether they were 'choices' at all), but it's Brading's choices as an actress that snap the trap shut.
(Yes, I know I'm being vague on the details, not letting you in on the blow-by-blow of the 'depravity'. Like I said, Moodysson doesn't just toss them into the film, he earns the right to do so, and for me to just say 'so-and-so did such-and-such' wouldn't be anything more than reviewer porn. If you really want to know, go watch the movie.)
The other stand-out in the cast is Bjorn Amroth as Eric, the observer who wants nothing more than to shut his eyes. But really all four actors (Thorsten Flinck and Goran Marjanovic round out the cast) are amazing.
Glamorizing nothing but somehow celebrating everything, A Hole in My Heart is an astounding film, Moodysson's best yet. It's too bad so many people, including US censors, aren't going to be able to see past its NC-17 content.
* * * * *
Dead Birds (2004, directed by Alex Turner)
Dead Birds feels like a movie adaptation of a video game that doesn't exist, something like a prequel to the 7th Guest, or maybe House of the Civil War Dead III.
And we all know how good video game adaptations tend to be.
The plot is basic. A band of deserters rob a Union payroll deposit, massacring the guards, bank employees and one young innocent bystander. Fleeing into the wilderness, they camp out for the night at an abandoned plantation.
Shocking no one in the audience, Things begin to Stir.
Now on the technical side there's nothing much wrong here at all (although the sound on the gotchas was cranked way, way, WAY too high, almost like an admission the story and visuals alone weren't going to do the trick.) The effects are good, the monster designs fairly twisted.
What the movie lacks is a heart. None of the characters are fleshed out well enough to become sympathetic, which makes the whole production an exercise in waiting for the cast to drop one by one. It's certainly not the actors' fault; they just don't have much of anything to work with. I simply didn't care whether these people lived, died or got stuck in between, and that always spells doom for a horror film.
Dead Birds is certainly more stylish than a good chunk of the horror being released in North America today, so at least it's got that going for it. Just don't expect anything more than style if you do see it.