CHARADE. 1963, Stanley Donen. 113min.
A wonderfully comedic romantic thriller, Charade casts Cary Grant opposite Audrey Hepburn in a stylishly executed film. At the time of its production, the genre had all but disappeared, and while the mystery has enough twists and turns to keep the audience guessing, the real reason to see the film is to watch the two stars play off of each other. Paris plays the third role as the characters find their way in and around various locales, and even race their way through the subway. Donen's assured hand and Charles Lang's able camera block out some fantastic scenes introducing characters and literally casting shadows over others. After the film had wrapped, Grant was quoted as saying, "All I want for Christmas is to make another movie with Audrey Hepburn." Would that it could have been so. [Note: This film was remade by Jonathan Demme as The Truth About Charlie in 2002.] 01.02.03
CHARULATA. 1964, Satyajit Ray. 117min.
An interesting film that suggests what Edith Wharton would have done were she observing Indian society in the 1870s. Set in the bedrooms and drawing rooms of a middle-class household, the husband embroils himself in political and financial woes, setting up his downfall through misplaced trust, as his wife begins to become enamoured of another. While not ascending to the heights of his Apu trilogy, the film nevertheless is a poignant study of Indian bourgeois life centering around the husband's newspaper and the wife's literary abilities. The ending oddly puts one in the mind of It's A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) mixed in with The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959). Or not.
THE CIRCLE aka DAYEREH. 2000, Jafar Panahi. 89min.
It's hard to be a woman in this world, even more so in Iran. This is the message of The Circle, an interesting exploration of woman's place in contemporary Iran, and it is a message the film repeatedly drives home as it follows one woman after another in a strange quest for freedom (we learn in time that each character has at one time been in jail, some of whom have just that day escaped). From the first scene, the film makes clear that being a woman is less a cause of joy than sorrow, a scene that is oddly echoed in the middle when another mother attempts to rid herself of her female child. It is difficult to imagine living in the world these women do, but the camera makes us accomplices to their acts, ducking behind cars and running along sidewalks as they run from the police even though they have passes to allow them to walk alone on the streets. As things come full circle, a neat framing device brings the women together for a curtain call of sorts. You can almost hear the James Brown singing "It's a Man's World" in the background.
CITY OF GOD. 2002, Katia Lund and Fernando Meirelles. 130min.
Speaking of Goodfellas, City of God is an energetic look into the slums of Rio de Janiero. Beautifully filmed, the film suffers from an uncharismatic narrator and storytelling tropes that have been used and abused all too often in the post-Tarantino world. Made by a former director of comercials, the stylistic effects will be familiar, and he throws in everything but the kitchen sink. It works for the most part, but it's a triumph then of style over substance as the oft-told (and somewhat long winded at 130 minutes) tale is forced to rely on the visuals to tide the audience over. However, the film remains worth seeing for its window into the marginalized population of the City of God, some of whom were cast in the film.
THE COMPANY. Robert Altman, 2003. 112min.
Robert Altman's sketch of Chicago's Joffrey Ballet offers a well-filmed attempt at a portrait of a dance company. The film works best when it offers slices without introduction, when characters drift in and out and things happen to them without comment. The flaws become evident when structure is imposed upon the film in the form of Campbell's character's story, such as it is, which follows a fairly obvious arc. Also among the more unfortunate choices is that of the dances included. While what is there is shot well, the dances aren't always that interesting (especially the "climactic" dance towards which the second half of the film builds). Re-edited, it could have been an interesting fly-on-the wall look at the ins and outs of a ballet company. As it is, it seems to be unwilling to challenge the audience with a series of vignettes, instead offering Campbell as a sympathetic character to follow throughout the proceedings. And that's too bad. For while Macdowell is great, Campbell is not, and Franco is mere windowdressing. Still, I enjoyed it (I'm a sucker for films that give a behind the scenes look at something) and thus give it a marginal see. 1.2.04
COWBOY BEBOP. 1997, Shinichiro Watanabe. 650min.
One of the most stylish anime series I have seen, Cowboy Bebop follows a band of interstellar bounty hunters as they pursue their prey and run from their pasts. WIth a jazzy score written by Yoko Kanno (which embodies a number of styles of jazz, blues, and rock) and a kinetic energy, the series maintains a consistent level of cool that is near irresistable. Heavily influenced by Hong Kong action films (and American music), the series will be familiar to fans of John Woo and Bruce Lee. The stories are well written and drawn (sometimes with beautiful hard shadows or interesting camera angles), and the histories of the characters (as well as the demons they face) slowly unfold over the overall length of the 26 episode series. My only complaint is that it had to end so soon. See you, space cowboy. [NB: After the series ended, a movie was made [Knockin' on Heaven's Door, 2001] which is comprised of an episode in the series and which refines the stylized approach to animation that is BEBOP's hallmark.]
COWBOY BEBOP: KNOCKIN' ON HEAVEN'S DOOR. 2001, Shinichiro Watanabe. 114min.
It's been a long time since I've seen such a stylish whammy, from the heightend care with which the frames are composed to the fantastic score by Yoko Kanno, which ireeverently mixes rock, r'n'b, jazz, and choir music in counterpoint to the action. An extension of the popular anime series, the film tells an episode in bounty hunter Spike Speigel's adventures. A man, presumed dead, has returned and threatens to unleash a deadly virus on the populace of Mars. While the film drags a bit in the latter quarter as exposition sets in to tie loose ends together, the action sequences rival anything John Woo put to film in his Hong Kong days. And be sure to watch the end credits through to the end for a coda.
CROOKLYN. 1994, Spike Lee. 115min.
In some ways, Spike Lee's Crooklyn is Missy Elliott's Under Construction, bringing it back to the roots to a more innocent time before crack invaded the streets and drive by shootings kept people off the sidewalk. A memory play of sorts, the film is as much about the New York of the late 60s and 70s as it is about the characters themselves. Boasting a soundtrack of classic soul, the film wraps the songs around a coming of age story coscripted by Lee's brother and sister, and it's easy to see how the film could be read as autobiography, which in the strictest sense, it is not. By dropping us in the middle of the action, the film lets us soak in the broader aspects of the family and neighborhood's relationships with each other before making us aware of where the central character lies. While not a great film, Crooklyn is an adept portrayal of childhood, containing a loss of innocence that reaches beyond to a broader age.
THE CELL. 2000, Tarsem Singh. 107min.
Were it for diligent FBI work within the confines of the film, there would be no reason for its existence. That the plot hinges on that one slipshod fact suggests what a terrible waste of electricity this film is. While the dream sequences bring some visual splendor to the proceedings you can't help that they were borrowed sets from any number of music videos that might have been under production at the same time. Interestingly, the Singh directed the video for R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion". Unfortunately, this could have been a much better film. The film offers glimpses into what could have developed into interesting explorations of their motivations that could have been brought out within the dream sequences, but it's a case of could have beens. What we are finally offered is a mishmash of scenes with little or no substance. A shame.
CHICAGO. 2002, Rob Marshall. 113min.
Strange that this film would come to movie theaters at a time when the broadway play is still on stage, but be that as it may, the film is a pale representation of the musical, using neither the Fosse choreography, or talents that could have brought it to life. In the film, the musical numbers play as subtext or parallel versions of key events, and the editing between the action is exceedingly well done. Nevertheless, while the film manages to make the story more comprehensible, the other trappings of a musical are compromised by using film actors with neither the ability to dance or sing convincingly. While quick editing and simple moves aid in the performances of the former, the singing lacks presence. At various times, as the film seemed to suggest Liza Minelli's opening scenes in Cabaret (1972, Bob Fosse) or Marilyn Monroe's in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953, Howard Hawks); unfortunately, instead of viewing the scenes as homage, they merely made me long to see those those films again. 01.24.03
CHINESE FEAST. 1995, Tsui Hark. 100min.
From a bravura opening duel between rival chefs, this film degenerates into an over-the-top comedy wth some of the wildest acting that has probably ever graced the screen. Starring Leslie Cheung and Anita Yuen, the plot involves the hostile takeover of Yuen's restaurant, to be decided by a cook-off. The interesting story that is suggested in the first five minutes (involving a great chef who loses his girlfriend because he almost prizes his performance in competition over being with her in the emergency room) is somewhat brushed aside to let Cheung and Yuen take front and center in haphazard romantic comedy fashion.
A CHINESE GHOST STORY (Sinnui yauman). 1987, Sui-Tung Ching. 98 min.
Produced by Tsui Hark, A Chinese Ghost Story tells of a tax collector come to town needing a place to stay for free. He is directed to a haunted temple where he unknowingly falls in love with a ghost. While capable, the film never really transcends its genre, and the story isn't as well told or formed as, say The Bride with White Hair. In the end, the film is diverting with, perchance, too many songs (visions of karaoke laserdiscs ran through my mind at times). The martial arts is fairly accomplished using many hidden wire tricks, but, again, there's probably more song than kung fu spectacle.
COFFEE AND CIGARETTES. Jim Jarmusch, 2003. 95min.
Jim Jarmusch takes a high concept and creates eleven situations (to call them stories would be generous) from the same premise: two to three characters meeting over coffee and cigarettes. If we scored this based on the success rating of each situation, the film would get a failing grade, as only one crackles with any vibrancy, and only one or two have any other redeeming qualities. The remainder range from one note (Afred Molina and Steve Coogan) to obvious (Cate Blanchett in a dual role) to dull. And while the black and white cinematography is attractive, I'd rather be looking at still portraits in a book. Then I'd have more time to admire the photography without having to suffer through the attempts at creating drama or cull humor from the encounters; I could make up my own stories. If you happen to visit someone who has the DVD, skip to the skit with GZA, RZA, and Bill Murray. It recycles dialogue from the first segment, but seeing how these three breathe life into the same material, you wonder why Jarmusch didn't work the others harder; or just leave them on the cutting room floor. 10.04
THE CORRUPTER. James Foley, 1999. 110min.
Chow Yun-Fat stars as a decorated Chinatown police officer assigned to cop Danny Wahlberg in a new twist on the old buddy picture, for the good guys aren't quite so straight or narrow--something Wahlberg must learn as he learns the ins and outs of working in Chinatown. While the film offers a slightly new perspective on the genre, it is still full of the same drinking scenes and car chases as we've come to expect. However, while all the touchstones are facilely marked, the almost ambiguous morality played out in Wahlberg serves to inject a bit of new life into an otherwise old genre.