Plata quemada **½/**** starring Eduardo Noriega, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Pablo Echarri, Leticia Brédice screenplay by Marcelo Figueras, Marcelo Piñeyro, based on the novel Plata Quemada by Ricardo Piglia directed by Marcelo Piñeyro
by Walter Chaw Pushing the submerged homoeroticism of Strangers on a Train to the surface, Burnt Money's homage begins with Jean-Pierre Melville's genre cool and Hitchcock's cigarettes and lighters at a carnival and ends with a certain Wellesian noir seediness (complete with The Lady From Shanghai's ill-fated passion, Touch of Evil's corrupt officials, and even Citizen Kane's totemic paperweight). Burnt Money is deliriously beautiful to look at--all pale greens and mute browns--but its overt politicism in the closing moments begins to dispel the film's magic in favour of over-heated parable. It's an expert genre piece that tries to bear the brunt of all of Argentina's national cynicism and economic corruption (a leaden socio-political platform reflected by its title), and despite his cineaste smarts, director Marcelo Piñeyro just isn't up to the task.
by Walter Chaw Doug Pray's non-fiction Scratch, about the men behind the dual turntables digging new grooves into much-abused vinyl, presents a fitfully fascinating glimpse into the DJ music scene. The problem with the film is that it's more of a performance piece than a documentary, spending too much time extolling the questionable and specific virtues of the music while giving little insight into what it is that makes said music attractive to a growing audience. The picture's strength lies in the curious revelation that in resurrecting old and forgotten "breaks" (beats embedded in vintage tunes), these generally uneducated "turntable-ists" are engaged in the same process as T.S. Eliot was: the reclamation of art as it is filtered through the prism of artists who see themselves as the repository of the whole of a particular Western media.
*/**** starring The Rock, Steven Brand, Kelly Hu, Michael Clarke Duncan screenplay by David Hayter and Wil Osborne and Stephen Sommers directed by Chuck Russell
by Walter Chaw I stopped marking the rip-offs perpetrated in The Scorpion King once Kelly Hu's jiggle priestess recreated a scene entire from Mike Hodges's legendary craptavaganza Flash Gordon. Sadly, The Scorpion King doesn't have the benefit of a Queen soundtrack to push the "just bad" into campy. It steals the rolling gong gag from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the cave murders and human bow-hunting of Rambo III, the feral kid of The Road Warrior, and its overriding ethos, apparently unintentionally, from Sergio Aragonés's comic book barbarian "Groo." If you manage to stifle a chuckle when Dwayne Johnson (a.k.a. The Rock) suffers all manner of horrendous falls and physical mortifications with a confused expression that all but screams "did I err?"...well, you're a better man than I.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 ***/**** BD - Image A Sound B+ Extras A DVD - Image B+ Sound B- Extras B starring Dennis Hopper, Caroline Williams, Jim Siedow, Bill Moseley screenplay by L.M. Kit Carson directed by Tobe Hooper
by Walter Chaw If the first film is about living with malevolent ghosts--the sins of the father made flesh and leather, if you will--then the second is a cunning piece about the Reagan '80s: the fantasia, the nostalgia, the delusions of grandeur, the inflationary monomania, and, finally, the decay of actual values in a society believing itself to be the illusory City on the Hill. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is also a highly sexualized film, the American Psycho of its day, mixing sex with money until the two are indistinguishable from the great gouts of blood, bluster, and designer suits used in their acquisition. The picture's smart enough to be a commentary on its time while its time is still unspooling. Undeniably, there's something bankrupt about the morality of this story told in this context--the rise of corporations in the McDecade skewered as the monster Sawyer clan of the original launches a successful man-meat chili business with affable, no-longer-reluctant Cook (Jim Siedow) as its clown pitchman. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 can be read as every bit the product of its era as the following year's Wall Street and Predator--a science-fiction of regression and animalism that is not entirely unlike its star Dennis Hopper's Blue Velvet, also from 1986. It feels like the twelve years separating source and sequel (just like the ten that separate the first two George Romero "Dead" movies) mark director Tobe Hooper as a sharp sociologist when painting with this very specific brush, evolving the tumor of the Vietnam War manifested as a pair of lumpen bogeys on a young girl's back into this florid bloodbath erected on those conservative tent poles of mass media, mass consumerism, and misguided phallic projection. No accident, either, one supposes, that its central avenging angel is a dim-witted, swaggering cowboy figure, ambling in from the 1950s to win fights we've already lost.
****/**** Image A- Sound A+ Extras B- starring Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau, Ziyi Zhang, Song Dandan screenplay by Li Feng & Zhang Yimou & Wang Bin directed by Zhang Yimou
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. For the dozen or so eye-bleedingly beautiful sequences in Zhang Yimou's new wuxia pian, the encapsulating image is that of the incandescent Ziyi Zhang prostrate beneath a would-be paramour, her delicate, ivory hand pressed against his lips in an eloquently ineffective ward. It's a tableau introduced in a more overt attempted rape in a brothel and revisited in a stream where a quartet of thugs nearly succeed in literally/metaphorically piercing Ziyi with their long spears. House of Flying Daggers (its title in Chinese the loaded "Ambush from Ten Directions"--essentially an ambush from everywhere) is at its essence an allegory for rape and the Chinese tradition of concubinage that Zhang has already explored to varying degrees in Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou, Shanghai Triad, and, of course, Red Sorghum, in which a young woman played by Gong Li (Ziyi's predecessor as Zhang's muse) is saved from rape by a young man with whom she later runs a winery. But the conceit of a young woman teaming with her knight in shining armour is complicated in House of Flying Daggers by the fact that she is more than capable of taking care of herself, except, fascinatingly, when the attacks against her are sexualized.
**/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras C- starring Charlie Sheen, Angie Harmon, Denise Richards, Rosanna Arquette screenplay by Daniel Margosis & Robert Horn directed by Steve Rash
by Walter Chaw In the proud tradition of Straight Talk and Dr. Detroit (and Spellbound, I guess), Charlie Sheen digs at his own apex role in Wall Street before pretending to be an abusive advice columnist at a failing paper run by the lovely Angie Harmon in Good Advice. More Hot Shots! than The Front Page, the film--buoyed by a consistently light screwball tone unfortunately only occasionally matched by neo-screwball dialogue--nonetheless has a few unexpectedly funny moments. Denise Richards is suitably reptilian when typecast as an airhead bitch princess, and Sheen demonstrates the kind of comedic timing and Shatner-esque gift for self-effacement (he gets an enema bath at one point) that might extend his career despite being a boondoggle magnet, e.g., the Heidi Fleiss thing and, of course, the "I married Denise Richards" thing.
Kill Bill, Vol. 2 ****/**** Image A Sound A Extras C+ starring Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
by Walter Chaw Genre poetry from B-movies' poet laureate, Quentin Tarantino's conclusion to Kill Bill is marked by the filmmaker's carefully-calibrated celluloid insanity, as well as a deceptive maturity that allows a few powerfully-struck grace notes for the cult of femininity and the sanctity of motherhood. Its first portion overwhelming for its craft before lodging in the craw with its ever-present but tantalizingly difficult-to-nail moral code, Tarantino's epic whole clarifies a dedication to a sort of low, Samuel Fuller/Nicholas Ray tabloid cosmology, grounding itself eventually in the bold, lovely, curiously old-fashioned declaration that the last best reward is to be true to the primal clay of an idea of innate gender roles. The Bride (Uma Thurman) is so named not merely for camp grandeur's sake, but also to highlight the power of cultural archetypes and their roots in biology.
Kill Bill, Vol. 1 ****/**** Image A- Sound A Extras C+ starring Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, David Carradine written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
by Walter Chaw There is a palpable, undeniable perversity to Quentin Tarantino's fourth feature film, a taste for the extreme so gleeful and smart that its references are homage and its puerility virtue. I seem to find a reason between every Tarantino film to dislike him, to cast aspersions on my memories of his films, but I'm starting to think the source of my dislike is jealousy. Tarantino is the director Spielberg is too timid to be: a gifted visual craftsman unafraid of the contents of his psychic closet, and a film brat whose teachers happen to be blaxploitation, samurai epics, and Shaw Brothers chop-socky instead of John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock. And it isn't that I have aspirations of becoming a filmmaker, it's just that I want to be as good at something as Tarantino is at making movies.
**/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras B+ starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz and Don Payne directed by Kenneth Branagh
by Walter Chaw An uneasy collision of the Henry V Kenneth Branagh and the Peter's Friends Kenneth Branagh, Branagh's foray into the long-form Avengers trailer sweepstakes Thor features a star-making turn from handsome Aussie soap actor Chris Hemsworth (whose star was actually made as James T. Kirk's dad in the Star Trek reboot), a lot of debt to the kitsch elements of Superman II, and another waste-of-life post-credits teaser starring everyone's favourite one-eyed motherfucker. It has the titular Norse God of Thunder deposited fish-out-of-water-style in bumfuck New Mexico (better than Arizona, I guess, where he'd be asked for his papers, denied an education, then probably shot), where he falls under the care of mousy (?) physicist Jane (Natalie Portman), her mentor Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), and wacky alterna-intern Darcy (Kat Dennings). He's been banished, see, by daddy Odin (Anthony Hopkins); betrayed by tricky brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston); and separated from his beloved hammer until such time as he can prove himself a true Asgardian. Gibberish? You bet. Leave it at this: the movie's pretty decent in a Starman sort of way when Thor's tossing down coffee mugs at a local greasy spoon and demanding more drink and pretty horrible when it's depicting the war between the Norse and the Frost Giants on a massive CGI stage that triggers Tron: Legacy flashbacks like wet heat does Vietnam.
***½/**** starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Sam Shepard written and directed by Jeff Nichols
by Walter Chaw Jeff Nichols's Midnight Special is beautiful. It's a film about aspiration and sacrifice. It believes that the world is still a mysterious place anchored by love and hope and devotion to simple ideas about how hard it is to be a parent--and how important. It's about nurturing a thing with all your heart and letting it go when it's strong enough. It's about listening when it's the last thing you want to hear; it's about believing there's a future for your kids even if all evidence seems to suggest the opposite. It's like Tomorrowland in many ways, but mostly in its suggestion that there's a place maybe where things feel like they used to feel when you were a kid and everything was still possible. Even though nothing made sense, things would make sense one day when you were big. Midnight Special deserves its comparisons to films like E.T. and Starman and especially Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It works in the same small places with ordinary characters who grow to fill larger, echoing spaces. Nichols puts us in medias res with Roy (Michael Shannon) and his best friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) on the run from cult leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), having fled at some point before the movie starts with Roy's son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). We learn it was around Alton's oddities that the cult largely formed. We learn that Alton's oddities are perhaps supernatural, or extraterrestrial, or interdimensional. It doesn't really matter. They're profoundly strange, and there are times it appears that he's able to tell a little of the future.
El Abrazo partido */**** starring Daniel Hendler, Adriana Aizemberg, Jorge D'Elía, Sergio Boris screenplay by Marcelo Birmajer, Daniel Burman directed by Daniel Burman
Hard Goodbyes: My Father Diskoli apocheretismi: O babas mou ***/**** starring Yorgos Karayannis, Stelios Mainas, Ioanna Tsirigouli, Christos Stergioglou written and directed by Penny Panayotopoulou
WALK ON WATER **/**** starring Lior Ashkenazi, Knut Berger, Caroline Peters, Gideon Shemer screenplay by Gal Uchovsky directed by Eytan Fox
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Woody Allen's been on something like a two-decade slide, so if there's a little voice in your head telling you that the last thing you need to see is an Argentine version of a Woody Allen "where's daddy" neurosis opera: listen to it. Daniel Burman's Lost Embrace (El Abrazo partido) is an interminable slog through the congested headspace of one Ariel Makaroff (Daniel Hendler), an insufferable, navel-gazing Pol expat living out his self-loathing strut and fret in the ridiculous family lingerie shop of a cut-rate shopping centre. (Yeah, it's Scenes from a Mall in Spanish.) Burman likes breaking the fourth wall, likes humourless inter-titles that separate his film into a dozen awkward sketches, and really likes dense monologues about, essentially, why no one is ever happy. The extent to which you will cotton to Lost Embrace has a lot to do with how much you enjoy wallpaper narration and old Jewish-Polish grandmothers singing homey folk songs square to the camera--how much you delight in Jewish mothers nudzhing their schlemiel sons before divesting their aggressively middle-class closets of ancient infidelities set against intra-mall flings with an Internet café bimbo. Ennui, listlessness, and gab gab gab, Lost Embrace earns the occasional moment of interest or topicality in stuff like a semi-amusing interview Ariel endures before the Polish consulate (during which he expresses admiration for the recently-deceased Polish Pope), but the film spends most of its goodwill on masturbating with a furious, chafing intensity. Oh, and it's mawkishly sentimental, too.
**/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras C+ screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire and Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel directed by Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha
by Walter Chaw Surprisingly, perhaps shockingly, Robots isn't terrible, even though it's a product of the same chowderheads behind Ice Age and even though it's your basic ramshackle kid's flick/self-esteem trope (complete with closing musical number) upon which the Shrek franchise has founded a scatological empire. What works in its favour is its attention to the little details of a world that, without explanation, is completely populated by robots that employ other robots in specialized, superfluous functions. What works against it is the lack of a firm grip on Robin Williams's bridle (resulting in a bunch of gay jokes that weren't funny when Milton Berle was doing them half a century ago), a weak reliance on pop cultural in-jokes that are already dated (Britney Spears? C'mon--why not Ricky Martin?), and the usual roster of fart and diarrhea jokes, which aren't exactly a calling card for immortality. The appropriately-named Blue Sky animation studio promises a lot with its giant mainframes, but it can't deliver anything beyond a brilliant opening sequence, a Tom Waits song (like Shrek 2), and then a lot of the same passionless, heartless idiotspeak that passes for children's fare nowadays.
½*/**** Image C Sound C- starring Tom Cruise, Craig T. Nelson, Lea Thompson, Charles Cioffi screenplay by Michael Kane directed by Michael Chapman
by Walter Chaw Seedy in that ineffable Eighties way, Michael Chapman's All the Right Moves is a star vehicle for a young Tom Cruise, following up his leading role in Risky Business with what is essentially a feature-length Steve Earle song about a downtrodden Pennsylvania steel town. Think Flashdance (released in the same year, strangely enough) with teenage boys instead of merely for them. Turmoil on a high-school football team (the Ampipe Bulldogs) functions as the microcosm for factory layoffs, teen pregnancy, and the existential angst embedded in the image of a horrible Lea Thompson playing a mournful saxophone on a street corner. Though there are a few moments of "was this ever cool" cheeseball nostalgia sprinkled here and again, All the Right Moves is teeth-clenchingly awful: half "The White Shadow", half somehow more embarrassing and dated than even that popular TV series.
OLDBOY ****/**** starring Choi Min-sik, Yu Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jeong, Ji Dae-han screenplay by Hwang Jo-yun, Lim Chun-hyeong, Park Chan-wook directed by Park Chan-wook
THE BALLAD OF JACK AND ROSE **½/**** starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Catherine Keener, Camilla Belle, Paul Dano written and directed by Rebecca Miller
by Walter Chaw
"I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter, and with her I will found the purest dynasty the earth has ever seen."-Aguirre, Aguirre: The Wrath of God
A Greek tragedy, an opera, a showcase for South Korean cinema, and one exhilaratingly sick piece of cinema, Park Chan-wook's Oldboy is like the three plays of the "Oresteia" distilled into one pure, malevolent, volatile essence. It's vengeance served hot and perverse like a Medeaen stew, a story of settling scores old enough to be archetype married to sounds and images so invasively intimate that the process of working through the film is a little like getting physically violated. It's vital stuff, this Oldboy, its very title suggesting an ironic superhero alter ego--sketching anti-hero Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik) as a fright-mask of arrested development, a child raging against its prematurely-aged body. We meet him one drunken night as he's bailed out of a night in the tank only to spend the next fifteen years in a solitary-confinement prison cell masquerading as a chintzy backwater motor inn room. He watches TV there, mostly cable news and its horrorshow of buildings and bridges falling, with periodic gassings allowing his anonymous captors to stitch up his wrists and gather biological mementos to leave at the scenes of crimes he didn't commit. When he's finally released, it's not clear if he's been falsely led to believe that he's free, if he's escaped by the graces of an ingenious plan involving a chopstick and a lot of time, or if he's died and this is his demented brain's oxygen-starved fantasy of what he woulda done to the lousy sons o'bitches if only he'd lived.
½*/**** Image B Sound B+ Extras C+ starring Renée Zellweger, Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Jim Broadbent screenplay by Andrew Davies and Helen Fielding and Richard Curtis and Adam Brooks, based on the novel by Fielding directed by Beeban Kidron
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. The gusto with which a certain audience will guffaw at Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (henceforth Bridget Jones 2)--will buffet each other on the back in robust bonhomie at a joke well told and a prejudice indulged in appropriate company--says all there really is to say about the class schism that the film itself broaches but stops short of actually addressing. (If you squint, you can see them rendered satiric as swine in top hats, smoking cheap cigars and playing cards in their pearls and print dresses.) We reunite with our porcine heroine (Renée Zellweger) a little more than a month after the end of the first film, at which point she's shagged her new boyfriend Darcy (Colin Firth) a lot but remains saddled with her suspicions that he's a prick. He's a lawyer, see, and clearly too good for her, so Bridget, as is her wont, proceeds to embarrass herself in polite stuffed-shirt company, scoffing at the prig who suggests that giving to charity is bad and pretending to be able to ski whilst wrapped in a dreadful pink jumper. The resulting delightfully-patronizing humiliations are the sort of thing generally installed as the engine in romance novels, the main audience for which is one that looks like Bridget, is probably ten years older, and would be surprised to see that, were a film ever actually made of their fantasy projection of themselves onto the heroine role of their little pulp bodice-rippers, would look just as preposterous as Bridget Jones 2.