HANGMEN ALSO DIE. Fritz Lang, 1943. 140 min.
Set in Prague during the Nazi occupation, the story unspools as the Nazi Reichsprotector of Bohemia/Moravia, the "Hangman" Reinhard Heydrich is shot and killed by a resistance fighter. A woman sees him and aids his escape. From there, this Bertolt Brecht-scripted film follows the stories of various citizens of Prague as they sacrifice their own lives in personal resistance to the Nazi's. Shot by James Wong Howe [who beautifully captured a gritty New York in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957)] the film suggests the confinement and dispair of its characters. However, compared to such films as GRAND ILLUSION (1937, Jean Renoir) and OPEN CITY (1946, Roberto Rossellini), it lacks resonance. Still, it is a good film, and a knowing indictment of the Nazis.
HAPPY TOGETHER (Cheun gwong tsa sit). Wong Kar-Wai, 1997. 97 min.
How amazing are Wong Kar-Wai and Christopher Doyle? Together they have created a cinematic language that they would appear to speak telepathically. Cutting between super-saturated color and desaturated black and white, roaming through confined spaces, chasing down streets, the film is vibrant and shockingly brilliant. Loosely based on a Manuel Puig short story, the story tells of a homosexual couple (HK superstars Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung) "starting over" in Buenos Aires. However, the film uses Argentina more as a backdrop with little interaction between the characters and the scenery. Kar-Wai has said that the film actually became a transported Hong Kong story (most of the scenes are shot in close interiors) but the fact of their being in Argentina at the edge of the world reflects back upon the story pointedly, as the story explores the end of a drawn out relationship. Many of the shots would be beautiful still photos. To see them stitched together in such a way is breathtaking. (As a sidenote, in interviews, Wong and Doyle have said that many of the effects in the film were done through necessity. Alan Parker was filming EVITA (1996) in Argentina and had already bought or leased most of the film stock and lighting equipment for his film. As a result, Wong and Doyle picked up what they could, using supersaturated film so that they could expose the low-lit interiors and switching stock when they ran out. A montage of a lighthouse at the end of the movie was shot with a still camera and filmed later in a studio for movement).
HEAT. Michael Mann, 1995. 171min.
A surprisingly literate thriller, HEAT functions best when the film concentrates on its characters. The film's core is less about the heists involved, than the main characters interdependencies on each other and the obsessiveness they bring to their professions, a relationship akin to that of Javert and Valjean, without Valjean's moral righteousness. The telling scenes are those where the characters are surrounded by their friends and lovers, reflecting their empty selves. Less interesting are the heists and the gunfights and chase scenes that are endemic to the genre, serving as the conflicts that will drive people apart or into each others arms. The casting of Deniro and Pacino provides a facile shorthand to the proceedings; as they have dominated American crime films of the past 20 years they inhabit their weary roles comfortably, and we can almost imagine they are weary with playing themselves. 01.25.03
HERO. Zhang Yimou, 2002. 96min.
An incredibly beautiful though vapid film, the film plays as a propaganda piece for fascism, recasting the Qin emporer who won out over the warring states as a crusader for unification and peace. HERO wears its influences on its sleeve, from Kurosawa's RAN (1985) to Wong Kar-Wai's ASHES OF TIME (1996), to Julie Taymor's TITUS (1999). Unfortunately, all the fantastic scenery and cinematography (by one of my personal heroes Chris Doyle) that would be at home in the most stylish of stylish fashion magazine is wasted in support of its material, as if the budget were spent entirely on art directors, photographers, and stylists at the expense of hiring just one good writer. Still, as a triumph of style over substance, it certainly triumphs, as each frame grabs your eyeballs and commands attention. The wire tricks are a little too cgi for my tastes, but when it all comes together, the film manages a visual feast well beyond ten courses. See it for the visuals, but don't expect much else. 04.13.03
HIMALAYA. Eric Valli, 1999. 108min.
A beautifully shot film marred by shoddy editing, HIMALAYA plays as an animated National Geographic magazine spread. The story is simple, pitting new ideas against traditional wisdom, and serves really as the MacGuffin around which to display the execellent cinematography. The interest lies less in the story and more in peeking into the way in which villagers of the Dolpo are of Nepal live, garnering access into their homes and the annual caravan to the lowlands in order to trade salt for grain.
THE HOLE (aka DONG). Ming-liang Tsai, 1998. 95min.
Part of a series of international films commissioned to depict the end of the millenium, THE HOLE is set in Taiwan seven days from January 1, 2000. A flu-like virus has been found in the city (giving new meaning to the term "Millenium Bug") whose main symptom finds its sufferers exhibiting the characteristics of cockroaches. They hide from the light and are often found hours after they have disappeared into a dark crevase. In a story oddly reminiscent of THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (Billy Wilder, 1955), a man lives above a woman; their only contact is through a hole left by a plumber in the ceiling/floor that separates them. An interesting study of human isolation and alienation, the film is almost silent, slowly revealing the characters and their (lack of a) relationship. The relentless rain serves as the background for most scenes, and what dialogue there is often originates off-screen in the form of radio and television broadcasts. What makes this film extraordinary (other than the well-done cinematography) is the fascinating incorporation of musical elements throughout. Are they the fantasies of the woman or the man? And will they serve in the end to bring the two together? 4.24.01
HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE. Hayao Miyazaki, 2004. 119min.
After the glorious heights of Spritied Away, Miyazaki returns with his 11th animated film. Howl's Moving Castle (loosely based on the book by Diana Wynne Jones) chronicles the experiences of a plain hatter, Sophie, as a chance meeting brings her into contact with the grand wizard Howl. A vengeful Witch of the Waste transforms her, prompting her to leave the relative safety of her home to seek out a way to lift her curse. For the first thirty minutes, the film is as beautiful, thrilling, and inventive as one would expect from a master such as Miyazaki. Unfortunately, after setting up the film, the plot meanders and becomes confused. Sophie is relegated to a passive role as she observes the comings and goings around her without much else to do but clean. And the backdrop of war is too abstract to really bring a strong sense of threat to the proceedings (it's unclear exactly who and why and what for the war is). It's hard to recommend the film because of its failings with respect to the plot and characters, and yet it's difficult not to recommend it because of its beauty and imagination. It's not all that Miyazaki is capable of, but perhaps it's a good introduction to his style and his wonderous imagination. 06.05
HANNIBAL. Ridley Scott, 2001. 131min.
I feel for Julianne Moore. At the start of the film I wished it were Jodie Foster reprising her role as Clarice Starling; by the end I was thankful that Ms. Foster had the foresight to steer clear of this mess. It's hard to know exactly where this outre movie goes wrong: the pacing is off; the disparate parts of the story don't hang together or build towards the grotesque conclusion; the confusion of film techniques (while sometimes interesting, they serve no purpose and do not further the story). If anything, HANNIBAL serves as a reminder that crafting a good film is no easy task. Hopkins is the highlight of the film, savouring his character and milking it for all its worth, but the supporting cast isn't given enough in the end to serve as a strong counterpoint to his lavisciousness. The miles separating Clarice and Hannibal deflate the tension that SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991, Jonathan Demme) so greatly created; Moore is relegated to sitting in a basement watching videos and listening to old taped conversations that remind us how good the earlier film was. After the hours have passed you wonder what you've spent your time doing. The film could have been easily told in five minutes with good editing and as you go not softly, but somewhat shaken into that good night, you shake your head thinking, what a waste of celluloid.
HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS. Chris Colombus, 2002. 167min.
Poor editing and lackluster direction reduce what is the most exciting of book of the series thus far into a turgid morass of aimless scenes piling up on one another rather than an exercise in cinematic storytelling. While the effects are some of the best in recent memory, the overall mystery and glee of the book is missing, and as each new discovery is revealed, the thrill is gone. Gone too is the sense that the three main characters are in cahoots together, for mainly this is a Harry Potter picture, and the supporting characters are merely given lipservice. Whereas the book goes to great lengths to show how, say, Hermione was instrumental in researching and discovering bits of information to solve the riddle, here she seems relegated to a passing, "We couldn't have done it without you." And Daniel Radcliffe, as Harry, cannot summon the necessary gravity to prove that the wizarding world does, in fact, revolve around him. Chalk that one up to direction. 11.15.02
HOMO FABER [VOYAGER]. Volker Schlondorff, 1991. 117 min.
Exactly where does this film go wrong? It's hard to tell. It was probably long before shooting began and Sam Shepard was cast as Walter Faber, the man who must deal with his past even as he unwittingly confronts it in the present. All the elements of an "art film" are in place, but maybe it tries too hard. Drops too many potential bombs that become so obvious that their power is difused by the time they slowly detonate. And the voiceover narration doesn't help. Spoken in such a plain flat way as to make us wonder why we should care for the characters if they don't even seem to care that much for themselves. The territory is better explored in Wim Wenders' UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (1991) and Louis Malle's DAMAGE (1993). Unless you want to spend two hours of your time wondering where two hours of your time went, I'd say don't bother.
HOUSE OF THE FLYING DAGGERS. Zhang Yimou, 2004. 119min.
Zhang Yimou returns to the wuxia ground he mined in 2001's Hero and brings us the compartively casual House of the Flying Daggers. The plot revolves around Zhang Ziyi, a blind courtesan who may or may not be a link to the Flying Daggersinsurgency group, intent on bringing down the Tang dynasty government. Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau play govermnent troops who are caught up in a love triangle with Ziyi; the ending, which seems to take months to complete, is then awash with revelations and counter-revelations. Not that you watch the film for the plot (which becomes somewhat ludicrous); it is the cinematography and the set pieces that enthrall. However, with the sheer spectacle of Hero fresh in the mind's eye, this film suffers by comparison. And while there are decent action scenes, they're not as beautifully filmed or performed as those in Hero, though not for want of trying. Certain effects seem to have been cast offs or borrowed from the earlier film. Unfortunately, the rather maudlin story can't save the film either. As a side note, this was supposed to be Anita Mui's final film; unfortunately she died before she could film her part. Yimou rewrote the script to remove her character, but kept her name in the credits. 10.04
HULK. Ang Lee, 2003. 138min.
While visually engaging for the editing techniques (if not for the computer generated Hulk himself), this too long film suffers from too little plot. Admirably, Lee attempts to build an action film from inside the characters out, but fails. Unfortunately, there's just not enough going on outside of the characters (and there's not enough going on within them) to sustain the film. And as much as Nolte shakes the rafters to squeeze a bit of emotion from the stone faces around him, there's almost no chemistry on the screen between the actors. As for the action sequences where an animated Hulk battles animated poodles and helicopters, I've enjoyed watching friends play video games more. At one level, the film is about a little boy trapped inside of a beast trying to find his way home, but by the end of the film I didn't much care. 12.04
HUMAN NATURE. Michel Gondry, 2001. 96min.
Gondry and Kaufman's first collaboration, this much simpler film runs two stories against each other, as a Tarzan-like character (dubbed "Puff") is taught to socialize and conform to society while a Dian Fossey character seeks to buck it and get back to nature. A black comedy, the points become established fairly quickly, and the film rarely progresses far past the initial commentaries and joke. A fun film, not as complex as it may seem on the surface, but amusing enough for fans of Kaufman's scripts.