Long Lost


The femme fatale hard at work.

(2018) Erotic Thriller (Indie Rights) Adam Weppler, Catherine Corcoran, Nicholas Tucci, Fran Kranz. Directed by Erik Bloomquist

 

I think all of us from time to time wonder about (or even fantasize about) having long-lost family members we never knew we had. A rich uncle, birth parent or sibling who will take care of our problems like a deus ex machina descending from the rafters. But what would you do if you actually got a letter from such a relative?

Seth (Weppler) gets to find out the answer to his question. A struggling blogger, he is just getting by financially and maybe not quite even that. One day, he gets a letter from a man claiming to be his stepbrother, inviting him to his home in Greenwich, Connecticut – all expenses paid. Intrigued and with nothing better to do, Seth agrees to go. I know I would if I were him.

Seth ends up finding a huge, beautiful mansion with acreage and there he meets Richard (Tucci), the stepbrother he never knew he had. At first Seth is greeted warmly but then things get…well, weird. He meets Abby (Corcoran), Richard’s girlfriend that he neglected to mention, stepping nude out of the shower – and apparently not minding Seth’s presence a bit.

Richard turns out to be something of a hyper-competitive bully, urging Seth to play childish games like flashlight tag and something called “Fluffy Bunny” which involves stuffing mushrooms in the mouth (don’t ask). He also uses every opportunity to belittle and insult Seth who quickly tires of the abuse. Abby gets her share as well but whereas Seth can walk out the door at any time, Abby perhaps can’t. Besides, Abby is taking quite a shine to her boyfriend’s stepbrother and makes no bones about it which makes Seth distinctly uncomfortable. Seth has a bit of a stick up his anus, you know.

Even given the enticement of a very willing Abby, Seth keeps trying to leave and Richard pleads with him to stay, offering him ten Gs for one more night of his company. Seth can’t say no to that kind of money so he stays and then the party really starts to go off the rails.

In the 80s and 90s, erotic thrillers were a staple of cable TV and featured prominently on HBO, Showtime and particularly Cinemax. They have fallen out of favor in more recent days – the erotic part pales to the kind of pornography that is easily accessible on the Internet – and as a result the erotic thrillers that come out these days tend to be missing something either on the erotic or thriller sides of the equation.

This one, from first-time feature writer/director Erik Bloomquist, is missing out to a certain extent on both sides. While Catherine Corcoran is amazingly attractive and crazy sexy, there are no real sparks between her and Weppler. Her seduction of him seems arbitrary and forced in order to make the plot work; Seth as a character is kind of devoid of any sort of heat. He seems to be a nice enough guy but he’s super uptight and after awhile you just would rather spend more time with Richard and Abby. Tucci gets to have the most fun with his character who has an explosive temper and few redeeming qualities of his own, but Tucci plays him with enough gusto to make him interesting.

The thriller part is lacking a bit as well. While Bloomquist makes good use of the lighting (or often, the lack thereof), the atmosphere never really acquires the quality of suspense a film like this needs to work. The twist isn’t really a bad one, but by the time it comes you really haven’t developed any sort of reason to care. You are left with a feeling of “Oh, those crazy rich people, they can get away with anything BWAHAHAHA” which isn’t the way you want to leave an erotic thriller. The mansion itself is beautiful as is the grounds and Bloomquist makes excellent use of the setting.

I can’t say for certain that Bloomquist was trying to make a 90s-style erotic thriller but there are certainly elements here thereof. The overall tone is unsettling rather than suspenseful and I don’t think that’s what Bloomquist was going for. There are some scenes that work and Corcoran makes an excellent female lead and Tucci gives it the old college try but at the end of the day this is far too cliché to be worthwhile.

REASONS TO SEE: Corcoran makes a wonderful femme fatale.
REASONS TO AVOID: A very generic entry into the genre.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, sexual situations, drug use and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tucci and Kranz were both members of the Suite 13 comedy sketch club while at Yale.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodbye Lover
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Tangent Room

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The Millionaires’ Unit


Few aviators today truly know the joy of flying as they did when airplanes were new.

(2015) Documentary (Humanus) Bruce Dern (narrator), Marc Wortman, Michael Gates-Fleming, Henry P. Davison II, Gaddis Smith, Adele Quartley Brown, Hill Goodspeed, Erl Gould Parnell, Daniel P. Davison, Geoffrey Rossano, William MacLeish, John Lehman, Gene DeMarco, Malcolm P. Davison, Javier Arango, Sunny Toulmin. Directed by Darroch Greer and Ron King

 

Those folks who studied the history of the First World War are likely aware of the “Flying Aces,” daring pilots who engaged in dogfights with enemy pilots, shooting down their foes, gallant knights of the sky who were dashing romantic figures both then and now. America, late into the war, didn’t have much of an air force when they entered the war in 1916. In fact, they had none. The army had their own air corps to which heroes like Eddie Rickenbacker belonged. However there were also pilots working for the navy.

What’s extraordinary about the Naval Air Corps was that their genesis came from a civilian air club based at Yale University. There, an underclassman named F. Trubee Davison was sure that the United States would eventually be drawn into the conflict raging in Europe. He was so sure that airmen were going to be crucial to the war effort that he founded the Yale Air Club with the intention of training young men to be pilots so that when Uncle Sam called for pilots there would be some ready to go.

One has to remember that only 13 years had passed since the Wright Brothers had made their historic flight just south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Although they may not have been aware of it at the time, the life expectancy of new pilots entering the war was just 20 minutes; typically pilots only survived several weeks even well-trained. The casualties among the knights of the air were truly terrifying.

The members of the Air Club were born of privilege and wealth. The father of Trubee Davison was J.P. Morgan’s right hand man, a banker of considerable importance who visited Europe in the days before the war to help France secure loans to pay for their war effort. Trubee was very much affected by that trip and resolved to take part in defending what he termed our most sacred rights.

Although the Navy was at first resistant to having a civilian air corps (this was during peacetime remember), it wasn’t until war was declared that the idea of using airplanes to bomb enemy U-Boats became an idea embraced by Naval brass. Impressed by Trubee’s enthusiasm and resolve, they enlisted every member of the Yale Air Club into the Navy and sent them to Florida to train.

These boys were willing to put their lives on the line for what they believed, something that many don’t associate with the children of wealth. It was a different era however, one in which the belief was largely “to those to whom much is given, much is expected.” In other words, those who had more to lose should be expected to be willing to pay more to retain what they have. These days the examples of wealth and privilege is a whole lot less flattering.

Not all of the Yale Air Club returned home alive but those that did went on to success in life. Yale has always been a pipeline for Washington policy makers and several of the boys portrayed here would later, as men, be high-level officials in both the military and government while others went on to success in business and in the arts.

The film here is buttressed with excerpts from the letters and diaries of the men involved, recollections of their descendants, commentary by historians and best of all, archival film footage as well as vintage photographs of the men, their training and of the war. To a history buff like myself this is meat and potatoes but understandably those who are less fascinated by history will find this much less compelling.

Also at two hours the movie can be a bit of a slog. Although the stories are fascinating at times they get a little too detail-oriented on such minutiae as why the Sopwith Camel was a superior flying machine as well as its drawbacks, or details on the social mores of the time. Either this should have been a miniseries on something like the History Channel, or some of the more detailed descriptions cut. One suffers from informational overkill after the first hour

In any case history buffs – particularly those into military history – will find this compelling. Those who sat through history class with a blank stare and frequent glances at the clock may be less enthusiastic about this. Although I would have personally rated this a bit higher, I did bring the star rating down a bit to accommodate those who would not find this interesting; I can see how this would appeal to a niche audience but the material is definitely more than compelling.

This has been available on Blu-Ray for a while but is just now become available for streaming. Although only currently carried by one service (see below), the website promises wider availability in the near future.

REASONS TO GO: The story is absolutely a fascinating one and is well-augmented by vintage photographs and archival footage.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary is a bit on the long side and might have made a better mini-series on The History Channel.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dern is the grand-nephew of Kenneth MacLeish who was one of the men profiled in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Living in the Age of Airplanes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Boy Downstairs

The Boss


A smile only a dentist could love.

A smile only a dentist could love.

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell, Peter Dinklage, Ella Anderson, Tyler Labine, Kathy Bates, Cecily Strong, Mary Sohn, Kristen Schaal, Eva Peterson, Timothy Simons, Aleandra Newcomb, Annie Mumolo, Presley Coley, Ben Falcone, Margo Martindale, Michael McDonald, Robert Pralgo, Larry Dorf, Cedric Yarbrough, Mark Oliver, Rico Ball, Carla Fisher. Directed by Ben Falcone

Woman Power

The bigger they are, the harder they fall or so goes the old saying. These days, the super-wealthy are the biggest they are. It is rare for one of them to fall, but when they do it leaves a crater that could swallow a number of European nations.

Michelle Darnell (McCarthy) is the 47th richest woman in the world. Orphaned at a very young age and never able to latch onto a foster family (she would be taken by some but always returned shortly afterwards), she has grown up believing that family is more than a hindrance to success than a help. Her self-help empire is largely run by her long-suffering assistant Claire (Bell). One of her longtime business rivals (and former lovers), the crafty Renault (Dinklage) has leaked information to law enforcement that Michelle has been indulging in insider trading. As a result she is jailed for six months and her assets seized.

When she gets out of jail she has nothing and nowhere to go, and despite Claire’s misgivings, she invites Michelle to stay with her at the behest of Claire’s daughter Rachel (Anderson). At first Michelle is morose, defeated but as she gets involved with Rachel’s Bluebird group (think Girl Scouts), she hits upon a scheme to make her fortune again using Claire’s delicious brownies.

This ignites a turf war with rival Bluebirds and attracts the attention of Renault who wants to squash Michelle like a bug. With the help of Claire, Rachel, the Bluebird troupe and Claire’s new boyfriend Mike (Labine), Renault and the competing Bluebirds don’t stand a chance as Michelle will stop at nothing to get back on top – but will it be at the cost of her new family?

There are many who believe that McCarthy is the most gifted comic actress working today and there is certainly good reason to support that. She is certainly the most popular. When McCarthy is at the top of her game, she can be devastatingly funny, but with the wrong script the laughs come at her rather than with her. This is somewhere in between those two extremes.

The script isn’t the best one McCarthy has had to work with and in this regard she has nobody to blame but herself since she co-wrote it along with her husband (and the film’s director Ben Falcone) and fellow Groundling Steve Mallory. The plot is wafer-thin and doesn’t stand up to a great deal of scrutiny. Darnell is supposed to be a cross between Martha Stewart and Leona Helmsley, but with a heart of gold deep down. Sadly, she just comes off as a bitter woman who largely deserves the indignities that come her way. I had almost zero sympathy for the character and that makes it really hard to root for her during the climactic scenes.

That’s not to say that elements didn’t work. McCarthy, as I’ve mentioned, is as talented as they come and her relationship with Bell works well. The two women make an excellent team. Some of the comic bits are extremely funny, although the best one involving a sofa bed is in the trailer. However, there are a lot of bits that fall flat including one involving Michelle and Claire comparing boobs, which an excerpt from also appears in the trailer. I guess that’s equal opportunity publicity.

There is kind of a mean tone to the movie that I found slightly disturbing. I get that the condescending attitude of the 1% for the rest of us is supposed to be getting grilled here, but McCarthy should have used a little less lighter fluid. The flame is burning the meat and there is quite enough meanness in the world without adding to it. Still, there are enough funny moments to make a look-see at the film worth your while.

REASONS TO GO: McCarthy and Bell have some fine chemistry. Some fairly funny slapstick moments.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is dumb as a rock and is completely implausible throughout. The overall mean tone was really disconcerting at times.
FAMILY VALUES: The language is considerably salty, and there is plenty of sexual innuendo and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: WWE wrestler Dave Bautista made a cameo in the film, but his part was eventually cut out. It appears in the trailer however.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Get Hard
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Love & Friendship

The Two Faces of January


The Crete airport has a pretty out-of-the-way lost luggage location.

The Crete airport has a pretty out-of-the-way lost luggage location.

(2014) Thriller (Magnolia) Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Bevan, David Warshofsky, Yigit Ozsener, Karayianni Margaux, Prometheus Aleifer, Socrates Alafouzos, Ozcan Ozdemir, Nikos Mavrakis, Ozan Tas, Omiros Poulakis, Evgenia Dimitropolou, Peter Mair, Pablo Verdejo, Brian Niblett, Mehmet Esen, Kosta Kortidis, Okan Avci, James Sobol Kelly. Directed by Hossein Amini

In Tom Ripley, novelist Patricia Highsmith created a character whose moral compass pointed straight at himself; Ripley remains fascinating in the imagination not just because of his ability to become a chameleon but because he takes acting in his own self-interest to the ultimate.

While Ripley doesn’t appear in the latest film adaptation of a Highsmith novel, his ghost is hanging around the fringes of the themes here. Things start out pleasantly enough; Chester MacFarland (Mortensen) and his stunning wife Colette (Dunst) are vacationing in Greece in the summer of 1962. They wander around the Acropolis relying on Greek guidebooks that may or may not be terribly useful when they come upon an American named Rydal (Isaac) who is a tour guide who speaks fluent Greek. He’s also a bit of a hustler, although Colette doesn’t realize it. Chester however, wouldn’t trust the guy to mow his lawn although he does humor his wife and allows her to hire him to guide them the next day.

They spend a pleasant day together and if his eyes linger on the beautiful young Colette a little bit too much and if she is a bit too taken by him, it seems to be harmless. However, Chester is far from the innocent that his summer white suit would indicate. He left behind a mess back in the States of fraud and larceny which catches up with him in his five star hotel room that night. When that ends badly, it is inadvertently witnessed by Rydal who helps Chester clean up a literal mess. It becomes necessary for Chester and Colette to make a hasty getaway but they are unable to pick up their passports from the hotel, without which they can’t leave the country.

Rydal takes the couple to Crete where they can hide out. The ex-pat knows a guy who can forge some documents and while they wait for the passports to arrive, they try as best they can to lay low but once again things don’t go according to plan. Now paranoia and suspicion rule the day and getting out of Crete won’t necessarily be the end to their problems.

Amini, who earned his Hollywood stripes as a writer, chooses a writer’s writer to adapt for his first feature as a director and does a credible job for a debut. He sticks to a basic visual style, relying on his cinematographer Marcel Zyskind to bring the Greek and Cretan landscapes to life. The charming villages, the urban ruins of Athens, the desolate landscape of Crete all play a role in the action.

It doesn’t hurt that each of these lead characters are essentially flawed and make morally-challenged decisions, and yet we still root for them and identify with them. In a sense, there are no villains here; each character is his or her own villain. If there is a villain, it’s Lady Luck; if it wasn’t for bad luck, poor Chester wouldn’t have any luck at all.

Mortensen has ended to choose obscure roles after his breakout performances in the Lord of the Rings trilogy; I had predicted big stardom for him at the time but Mortensen hasn’t really taken roles that would further his profile, preferring to stick to small budget indies and lower profile films with roles that interested him. More power to him. Dunst has taken a similar career path, with only the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy having that kind of major star profile. She has since taken meatier roles like this one. Isaac, on the other hand, is an emerging star who is about to embark on a major franchise of his own, the new Star Wars trilogy. I wouldn’t be surprised though if he stayed the same course that Mortensen and Dunst have taken on.

Highsmith doesn’t exactly write empty-headed upbeat novels so don’t go into this looking to escape. It requires a certain amount of brain power and a willingness to accept behaviors you might not ordinarily approve of; these are after all desperate people far from home and if you understand that, you’ll understand why they act the way they do.

There are some twists and turns, not all predictable. However I must admit that the movie seems to slowly lose steam during the last third and maybe it’s the somnolent atmosphere of a sleepy small town in Crete or the hard-baked prairies of the center of that island. It just doesn’t bustle with energy is what I’m saying.

This is a much better than average thriller, although maybe not as gritty as noir lovers might like, nor as fast-paced as the average thriller junkie might be comfortable with and yet this is one worth seeing if you get the chance, which Central Florida filmgoers can if they hurry.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific triumvirate, every one likable. Gorgeous Greek scenery.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses momentum over the third act.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence (none of it bloody), some sexuality, a bit of foul language and plenty of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the directorial debut of Amini who is best known as a writer for such diverse films as Killshot, Drive and Snow White and the Huntsman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Third Man
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Big Eyes

Babies (Bebes)


Babies

Laughing all the way to the bank.

(2010) Documentary (Focus) Bayar, Hattie, Mari, Ponijao. Directed by Thomas Balmes

 

As a species, we have a thing about babies. Now, that doesn’t differentiate us much from any other species – procreation is, after all, a survival imperative. However, what does is that we obsess about the babies of other people, not just our own. While other species will protect the babies of those within their own family or group, they don’t particularly show much interest beyond that. You don’t see a lion cooing over another lion’s cub.

Of course, lion’s don’t coo either. However, humans can and do and will. Here we have plenty of opportunity to coo. This is a French documentary about four babies born in four different parts of the world – Hattie in San Francisco, Ponijao in tribal Africa (Namibia to be exact) Bayar on the frozen steppes of Mongolia and Mari in bustling Tokyo. The film covers roughly the first year of their life, from shortly after birth.

What differentiates this movie is that there are no cute graphics, no narration and no attempt of some Hollywood star to read a script from a writer who purports to know what the babies are thinking. This is not a Disney nature film in other words. There are no statistics, nothing particularly depressing, just 78 minutes of watching babies do their thing, be it nursing, snoozing, smacking other babies about the head, playing with toys, crawling, crying and being cuddled.

While it is a fresh approach (and welcome to most), therein lies the issue for me. It really is completely observational of the babies themselves and while that can be fascinating for a short time by the end of the movie (and it’s a short movie folks) I found myself fidgeting. It’s really akin to watching someone else’s home movies, albeit with better production values. Most of us don’t have HD film cameras and high-end film stock; we mostly have to settle for digital cams and cheap home video recorders, even cell phone video cameras.

That said, there are a lot of people who are going to ooh and ahh over this and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you love babies in general, you will find your nirvana here. All of the kids have definable personalities and indulge in all manners of cuteness, whether they are in a yurt or a pricy Tokyo apartment. There is also a lot of nudity, both from the babies and their moms (and in the case of Namibia, most of the rest of the tribe as well although the men are rarely seen).

The cinematography can be quite beautiful, ranging from the gorgeous Bay Area shots to the majestic but desolate Mongolian steppes, the hyper-kinetic Tokyo cityscape to the dry and dusty African plains. You will certainly get a sense of the environment each baby is growing up in and no value judgments are made either – the ones growing up in abject poverty are no less happy than the ones growing up in the West.

I’m not really a baby person. They’re cute, sure, but I don’t need to spend a whole lot of time around them. I’ve kinda done my time. So take this with a grain of salt – I admire the technical end of the film, the filmmaker’s dedication to giving an unfettered, unvarnished look at babies around the world. I know that there are plenty of people who are going to love this movie.

I’m just not one of them. It was a little like watching paint dry from my aspect, and having a repetitive musical score didn’t help matters. Maybe I’m a little too MTV but I need a bit more than a static camera focused on a bunch of proto-humans who left to their own devices would eat dirt. Not my cup of tea – but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be yours, nor are you any worse a person if it isn’t.

WHY RENT THIS: Cuteness personified. Reaffirms that we are more alike than not.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Is like a 78 minute home movie; if watching someone else’s baby isn’t your thing, you’re going to get restless.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is nudity here of the maternal sort; some nursing and such. If that offends you, this might not be the film for you..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ponijao belongs to the Himba tribe who live near Opuwo, Namibia.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an update on how the children are doing three years after they were filmed. There is also the winners of a studio-sponsored contest in which parents were urged to submit baby videos.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie was almost certainly profitable.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: This Means War

Melancholia


 

Melancholia

Kirsten Dunst is sinking fast.

(2011) Science Fiction (Magnolia) Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Alexander Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, Brady Corbet, Jesper Christensen, Udo Kier, Cameron Spurr. Directed by Lars von Trier

It is not often you root for the end of the world at a movie.

Lars von Trier is a Danish director of some renown who is known for movies with remarkable imagery and an artistic aesthetic. His films sharply divide audiences; some proclaim that he is a genius, others a charlatan. Critics tends to moon over him like a lovesick teenager.

I try to take each film as it comes to me, and not review the filmmaker so much as his work. I will say this; I’m not the sort of person Lars von Trier makes movies for. It’s not that I have a problem with trying to make something that is art; I respect any attempt to do so and encourage it. There is room in the world for all sorts of palettes.

But then there is Art. The kind of thing that is created by people who think Art is above everything, who deliberately try to shock and disturb not so much to make a point or even force the viewer to confront their own viewpoints but simply to grab attention. I view this with the same affection I have for a child screaming at the top of their lungs in an inappropriate setting; the message that is being sent is “Look at me! Look at me!”

The film here is divided into two parts, preceded by a prologue of images that essentially tell you the story in a series of slow-moving interactive pictures many of which appear on the trailer. The first part is entitled Justine and is about the character of the same name. Justine (Dunst) is a brand new bride who is at her wedding reception at the home of her super-wealthy brother-in-law John (Sutherland) who is married to her sister Claire (Gainsbourg).

Among the wedding guests are Justine’s parents, Dexter (Hurt) and Gaby (Rampling) – who along with Claire have British accents, something Justine doesn’t have – and who don’t get along at all. Dexter is a bit of a womanizer and Gaby somewhat bitchy. Also there is Justine’s boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgard) who is also her husband Michael’s (Alexander Skarsgard) best man. Jack is tightly focused on getting a tag-line for an advertisement Justine has been working on and sends Tim (Corbet) to get it.

It turns out Justine has some psychological problems, ranging from clinical depression to possibly bipolar disorder and like her mom she’s also a bit of a bitch. She manages to alienate nearly everyone at the wedding. For the viewer, it’s like being at a party that gets more and more awkward to attend. Da Queen was urging me to leave the party but like witnessing a train wreck, I felt compelled to see what the damage would wind up being.

The second part is entitled Claire and shows her, John and their son Leo (Spurr) coping with the sudden appearance of Justine some time after the wedding. She is pale, nearly inert and looked for all the world like an addict coming down from a major bender. The atmosphere is tense with John fed up with Justine’s antics and Claire trying to appeal to her sister in some way.

Hanging over all of this, literally, is planet Melancholia, a gigantic rock that suddenly appeared from behind the sun and is threatening to collide with Earth. While John insists that Melancholia will merely pass by, Justine seems convinced that the Earth is doomed. She knows things, after all.

Having a character “know things” is a bit of a cop out. It’s lazy writing. I will grant you that Dunst, who won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her work here, gives a brave performance, having to urinate in her bridal gown on a golf course, portray a character who isn’t very likable at times and turns up stark naked and sexually aroused at the sight of the approaching planet.

I suppose there are metaphors here and I suppose that I’m not getting them. For me, this was an excruciating two hours that seemed a pointless exercise in making pretty images, which I grant you were in some cases breathtaking, gallery worthy. However, the movie did nothing for me but leave me with an angry wife who demanded an explanation as to why I’d dragged her to the Enzian to see this.

Again, I don’t have a beef with trying to create a work of art. But there’s art and then there’s Art. The difference is that the former is a communication between the artist and the audience, a point that is being made or some insight imparted. The latter is an exercise in self-indulgence.

I have written a review that could easily have been condensed to two words, but I’m making a point. All of these words I’m putting to page are extraneous and ultimately superfluous. They are unnecessary wastes of time for you, the reader for which I apologize. All of the review you need to read is this: Fuck Art.

REASONS TO GO: Some pretty images and Dunst makes a brave effort.

REASONS TO STAY: Where to begin? Pretentious, overbearing, badly written, aggravating, awkward – it’s just a mess masquerading as art.

FAMILY VALUES: Graphic nudity, sex and implied masturbation, as well as some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The above image, used in the movie’s poster and briefly seen in the prologue, is based on John Everett Millais’s 1852 painting Ophelia.

HOME OR THEATER: Don’t do it. For the love of God, don’t do it.

FINAL RATING: 1/10

TOMORROW: Winnie the Pooh

The Promise (Wu ji)


The Promise

Just one of many stunning visuals from The Promise.

(2005) Martial Arts Fantasy (Warner Independent) Hiroyuki Sanada, Dong-Kun Jang, Cecilia Cheung, Nicholas Tse, Ye Liu, Hong Chen, Cheng Qian, Anthony Wong. Directed by Chen Kaige

Over the past ten years or so America has discovered the films of Asia. Ever since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon major Hollywood studios have been looking for the next Asian film to connect with Western audiences. In particular, the Weinstein Brothers of Miramax films and more recently of Weinstein films have snapped up a number of pictures in the Crouching Tiger vein and left them languishing on the shelf, leaving fans of Asian films (like myself) twisting in the wind.

Long listed on Weinstein release schedules as Master of the Crimson Armor, the Weinsteins and filmmaker Chen Kaige (who is best known for Farewell My Concubine) couldn’t agree on a release strategy so eventually the rights were let go and picked up by Warner Brothers, who in turn shuffled them off to their independent arm Warner Independent. Finally the now re-titled The Promise (which was its title in other English-speaking territories) would see the light of day here in America. Unfortunately, it didn’t get such a wide release that a ton of people were able to see it, and quite frankly it didn’t do thrilling box office numbers.

In all fairness, it’s somewhat of a confusing story and Western audiences may not appreciate Eastern fantasy. Set in the Kingdom where Gods, mortals and not-quite-mortals dwell side-by-side, a young girl makes a promise to a goddess to forego true love in exchange for wealth, comfort, beauty and power. Somewhat later, the young girl has become a princess (Cheung) in the Kingdom where the King’s best General (Sanada) fights against a ruthless warlord (Tse). Aiding the general is a slave (Jang) with remarkable powers.

The general receives word that the King (Qian) has been surrounded by the forces of the Warlord and sets out to save the King, but is attacked by a mysterious man in black (Liu) and wounded. He sends his slave to rescue the King, dressing him in the general’s magical Crimson Armor to hide the slave’s identity. The slave, not knowing who the King is, kills the King when the King tries to murder the Princess (don’t ask). The slave rescues the princess and the two fall in love, except that the Princess thinks he’s the general. Unfortunately, the Princess is recaptured and to spare her life, the slave agrees to jump over a cliff, which he does. This being a Chinese fantasy, he survives long enough to aid the General in rescuing the Princess. However, she thinks she’s in love with the General, who discovers her feelings early on and because he has fallen for the girl himself, doesn’t correct her error. However, according to her promise to the goddess, she is doomed to lose her love. What’s a fantasy princess to do?

The plot is all over the place and the less said about it the better. Don’t try to follow it or else your brain will swell up to the size of a dishwasher and float out of your head until it reaches some bizarre Chinese heaven at which point it will….see, it’s happening to me too. There are numerous CG effects in the movie and quite frankly, some of them simply don’t work. Both the writing and the special effects really make it difficult to love the movie.

What saves it is the cinematography of Peter Pau, who is for my money the best at what he does in Asia. Almost every shot is visual poetry, filled with color, form and elegance to the point that you nearly weep. After awhile, I found myself just tuning out the dialogue and plot points and just watching the visual imagery, like a visit to an art gallery.

The DVD contains both English and Mandarin versions of the movie. I do recommend the Mandarin version for two reasons. Firstly, the acting isn’t nearly as overwrought and quite simply it is much easier to then ignore the plot and subtitles to concentrate on the visuals. I can see now why the Weinsteins hesitated to give this the kind of general release that Kaige wanted. Quite frankly, it isn’t up to snuff in terms of Western storytelling expectations. Still, it is lovely to look at and worth seeing just for the visual aspect alone, but just don’t say you weren’t warned about the plot.

WHY RENT THIS: Stunning cinematography by Peter Pau. Impressive martial arts seqneuces.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot meanders all over the place and quite frankly defies belief. The acting is nothing to write home about.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some stylized violence and fantasy martial arts sequences, as well as a few moments of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PUSUITS: At the time of its release, this was the most expensive film ever made in China.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $30.9M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Green Lantern