DVD Review: Ride With The Devil

Director Ang Lee chose to follow up the excellent familial drama, The Ice Storm, with an epic Civil War film. The filmmakers put in much work to ensure that it was as historically accurate as possible. And on this end they did a wonderful job. Yet as a viewer of the film, with limited knowledge of Civil War history, many of the details seem false. Yes, there were black men who fought on the side of the South. It is true that there were many, intelligent, courageous, even good men who fought for the South as well. However, true these things are, my 21st century mind had difficulties believing them.

It goes against the grain of traditional Hollywood war, or even action, pictures. Our main characters are fighting on the losing, and wrong side. (Yes, there were many other factors contributing to the Civil War besides slavery, but this film does not get into them, and so neither shall my review.) We watch these characters commit many atrocities, including the murder of innocent people. Yet it also shows soldiers from the North commit similar atrocities. It seems more a film depicting the horrendous actions of coming-of-age men than any real declaration on the themes of the war itself.

There have been great movies made from the perspective of the wrong. These films show how even soldiers fighting on the wrong side of a war are still human. They have families, loved ones, hopes and dreams. If done well this type of film can show us the humanity in each person, and the atrocities of war. Yet in Ride with the Devil I never learned to care about any character. With few exceptions, the men we watch in this movie, are not sympathetic. Even the few with redeemable qualities are not given the space for us to care about their lives.

The story centers on a small community within the grand scale of the war. It takes place in Missouri, where literally brother fought against brother on both sides of the battle. Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) play friends who run off to join a gang of outlaws fighting on the side of the South. Here they meet George Clyde (Simon Baker) and a black man named Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright). Holt's reasons for fighting for the slave minded are only slightly revealed toward the end. Yet it is his relationship with the other three men that make up the central theme of the film. As each of these characters learns to trust and care for Holt, they must question the sense in fighting a war bent on keeping his fellow brothers enslaved. It is to Ang Lee's credit that he uses subtle hints to follow this theme rather than pounding it in with a sledge hammer. The characters change, and evolve, but in slow, slight movement that resemble real life rather than movie life. For even at the end of the pictures no one has made new resolves with life, or changed their beliefs drastically.

The action sequences, though well directed, still fall flat. Lee is unable to stir any real emotion out of the war's central motives or the intensity of its loss. It is when Lee focuses his attention of the relationships between his characters that this film succeeds. This is not surpassing when considering Lee's earlier films were small films focused on familial relationships. The bonds that grow between Roedel and Holt are moving. The love story between Sue Lee Shelley (a surprisingly good Jewel) and her suitors (to give names would be to give too much plot away) is also a treat. In Lee's next picture, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he found a way to entwine both beautiful action sequences and smaller, meaningful exchanges of love. Here, he seems to be still growing into this ability.

For Civil War buffs this film offers a reliable package of history. For the rest of us, it is a well made film that ultimately doesn't generate enough interest to really care.

DVD Review: Rififi in Paris

We now have a library card for the Strasbourg city library. In France you have to pay an annual fee for a library card. There are actually two different prices, one if you wish to only check out books, and another, higher prices card that allows you two check out multi-media items such as DVDs. Hearing that they had a selection of over 900 DVDs Amy and I decided we would shell out the expense of getting that type of card. We calculated that even if you only check out one move per week for the remaining time we are here, we would still come out cheaper than if we rented the same amount of films. The funny thing about their movies, is that they almost never have any. Out of the 900 owned, there is usually only 6 or 7 of them available for check out at any time. We have been lucky in still being able to find films that we would like to see. Both Rope and The Man Who Knew Too Much both came from the library.

This week I picked up Rififi in Paris thinking it was an old bank robber movie that I have heard good things about. Unfortunately, that film is entitled just Rififi. I am unsure if this is supposed to be a sequel or if it is just a coincidence in title. There is limited information on The Internet Movie Data Base, and it wasn't good enough to really look further than that.

The basic story of this film is that an American agent, Charles Binnagio (George Raft),is working undercover in Paris to stop a French group of gangsters. Working through his contact with a high class hooker, he begins working for the gangsters by smuggling Gold to Tokyo. After saving second in command mobster, Paulo Berger's (Jean Gabin)life, Binnaggio is promoted to Berger's bodyguard. Excitement ensues.

Due to complications involving the regional coding of the DVD I could only watch this film in an English dubbed version. I am universally opposed to dubbed movies, and try my best to only watch films in their original languages with subtitles if necessary. Watching this in the dubbed format was like slow torture. The plot was rather complicated to follow and I am not sure how much too blame on the language problem. What I was able to follow was resolutely bad.

There is no explanation why an American CIA agent would be infiltrating a group of French gangsters. There is a small subplot involving weapons trade with Cuba, but it is not followed enough to make this the cause of the CIA's involvement. To move the plot somewhere, a group of New York mobsters begin making threats to Berger and his cohorts to back off of several law breaking activities. Violence ensues.

Binnaggio is so bad as an undercover agent it is sheer movie magic that keeps him from being found out and killed. He visits the American consulate at will, he talks with other agents as he pleases, and even snoops around the big bosses house at will. It is surprising to see the French gang doing so well since they seem to have no ability to pay attention to their own members. The movie tries to build tension by having Binnaggio nearly found out or caught on a couple of occasions, but then the action moves forward and the enemy seems to forget. What little tension is built, always dies rather fast.

There is an odd quirk with the filming of this pictures. More times than I could count there is a mirror located somewhere in the shots. Often we see one or more of the characters reflection in said mirror, but many times we see only part of the stage. Once we even see a character's reflection in a well polished wall. I'm sure the filmmakers were attempting something meaningful out of all these reflections, but what that could be is beyond me. I was too busy being appalled by the sheer stupidity of the film to be bothered with such trivialities.

Movie Review: The Aviator

I have been a fan of Martin Scorcese since I have been serious about film. His films are intelligent, technically brilliant, and artful. He causes us to meditate on characters we'd rather forget, or shuffle to the back of society and our minds. His movies are often tough, meaty films that take a great deal to work through. His films have never been as popular as contemporaries like Spielberg or Lucas. But he doesn't seem to mind, nor do his fans. While these other filmmakers soar to the heavens and look for the good in people, Scorcese seems to dig into the trenches, and inhabit the rough sticky worlds that inhabit the low lives of troubled men. He seems interested in why people live violent, hurtful lives. He is…well many other people have praised his work far better than I can.

I have seen every Scorcese picture in the theatre since Kundun. Each time I venture into his films I come with high expectations. I know an excellent Scorcese picture is a true treasure, something to behold and love. I was well pleased to see that the Aviator was playing here in France in version originale, or with an English language track.

Scorcese pictures are always a technical marvel. And the aviator does not disappoint in this category. In post production, he manipulated the colors of the film to mirror production scales of the time period being represented. In early scenes the colors are "two-tone Technicolor" then evolve into "three-tone Technicolor" and on to full scale color by the films end. The flight sequences are spectacularly shot. Scorcese is such a master of the technical aspects of film making that he makes even the most difficult shots look easy.

I have been a closet Leonardo DiCaprio fan for many years. It is difficult to admit this in mixed company because of the general distaste for the actor. Since Titanic drove a million adolescents wild, it seems no serious fan of the cinema can admit admiration of the actor (except for people like Steven Spielberg and Scorcese who keep putting him into their pictures). Yet, I continue to find him to be an actor of excellence. He does a marvelous job here, portraying a complex, fascinating human.

Cate Blanchett does a pitch perfect job as Katherine Hepburn, one of the many Hollywood romances of Howard Hughes. Ms Hepburn was such a caricature herself, portraying her must have taken plenty of guts. It is a fine, outstanding performance.

Many people carry only a vague notion of Howard Hughes. We know that he was quite rich, lived a glamorous, flashy life as a young man and became a maniacal hermit in his old age. Pictures of a hunched, old man with long, white hair; an unkept beard; unclipped, yellow toenails and boxes on his feet come to mind instantly whenever Hughes' name is mentioned. This is the Howard Hughes we have become fascinated by. Yet this aspect of Hughes' life is barely dealt with in Scorcese's picture. Yes, we catch many glimpses of the demons inside him, and we even capture a few weeks of isolation, but mostly Scorcese dwells on the younger man, full of life.

Though Scorcese is often fascinated with eccentric, crazed lives, it is rare for him to give any reason for the lives of his characters. We can tell that loneliness helps to bring Travis Bickel, in Taxi Driver, over the bring. We see greed and violence begetting more violence in films such as Goodfellas and Raging Bull. But these things are only the beginnings of why they behave in such reprehensible ways. Preferring to allow his films to be questions, Scorcese never fully gives us answers. The Aviator, also, give us hints to what may have driven Howard Hughes to such madness, but it never fully explains his actions. We see hints of a protective mother, and surely his drive to control every aspect of his life helped him become obsessive compulsive. Yet these things are not answers, more symptoms to the overall problem. Scorcese is more interested in the behavior of his characters. The nuances of their actions, and the subsequent damage it causes. You won't find cookie cutters to make you feel better about life in this film, but you'll find a meditation on a brilliant, troubled man. If you care to dig a little deeper, you might be moved.

DVD Review: Amelie

There are some films that are pure joy to watch. These are films to be watched, cherished, and loved over and over again. There are certainly films that I may not herald as perfect cinematic achievements, but bring a smile to my face, and warmth to my heart. Amelie is such a film.

Jean Piere Jeunet made a series of dark, depressing films before Amelie. They seem to come from some strange crossing of Brazil era Terry Gilliam and HR Giger inspired Alien landscapes. In fact Pierre directed the 4th installment of the Alien franchise, Alien Resurrection. Prior to Amelie's huge success he was only known in the US for this picture. Which is a shame, because her previous two films (Delicatessen and City of Lost Children) are real gems.

In Amelie, Jeunet has lost his Orwellian vision of the world and has come up top of the world into the clear, blue sky. It is a beautiful, color filled, world that he has come up into. Amelie is alive with color and beauty. It is as if his first three films were harrowing graphic novels, and this one is bright, technicolor Saturday morning cartoon. It is even a change of story for the director. Where his previous films concerned such meaty subjects as cannibalism, child murder, and those bloody awful Aliens, here is a simple story about making people happy. I'm not sure what caused these changes in the director, but it is a treasure to behold.

The story revolves, of course, around Amelie (Audrey Tautou), a shy, quiet, and lonely young women living in the Montmatre section of Paris. Through a random series of events she decides to make people happy. The means in which she manages this, and the heart of the movie, is through devising an extraordinary, and quirky, series of stratagems. For example, in order to bring some excitement into her saddened fathers life, she kidnaps his garden gnome and sends it across the globe with an airline stewardess. Her father sees the gnomes through a series of photographs taken with the gnome standing near national monuments! The entire film is played out with a child like innocence and beauty. Jeunet uses his camera to create images that are light and joyous. Audrey Tautou plays Amelie like a pixie who is bursting inside to tell the worlds funniest joke.

Having actually visited Paris before watching this film again I found an additional joy by noticing the little details unknown to me on previous viewings. I have walked the steps of the Sacre Couer, have seen the photograph kiosks in the train station, have seen the top of the Notre Dame. These actions did not bring any further realizations into the film, but brought a little more joy to my viewing. It is like when a film is set in an area you once lived. It may not have anything to do with you, but there is a pleasant joy in knowing where the events take place.

The film does not look or feel like the Paris that I visited last Christmas. It is almost a fairy tale version of the city. A city that, as an American, I conjured up with such names as "City of Light, City of Love." The reality is a much darker, dirtier sort of place. But in this film everything is lighted beautifully, there is no garbage piling up on the streets, and the metro stations look lovely. Even the people if not always cheerful, are quirky and cute in their unhappiness.

There are other films that achieve more in their 2 odd hours of screen time, than Amelie. Though I could site more serious, and relevant films, it would be difficult to find one so full of innocent joy.

A Change Around the Corner

Welcome those of you coming from Blogcritics! I've apparently been chosing critic of the day on that site. I have no idea if this is chosen randomly or if some kind soul actually picked me out. I suspect the former, but I'll still allow myself to be honored.

It seems I have been pretty busy lately, at least if you judge by the number of reviews I have written lately. I have been giving some serious thought about changing the content of my blog. Originally it was created to keep a journal on my year abroad, in Strasbourg. Eventually even the excitement of living in a foreign country that speaks an unknown tongue, wore off. Oh, I'm still enjoying myself, and am having quite the adventure, but there is a definite groove that I have worn myself into. This does not make an interesting blog. Anyone that might be interested in the regular goings on of my day, I e-mail anyway, so it seems redundent to maintain that aspect of my blog. This does not mean that I plan to give up posting about my experiences. I simply hope to be a better editor of the information. I am proud of my grocery shopping story from the other day, and I would like to continue to post similar expieriences. Also, when we do any traveling, or have any real adventures, I will be sure to post them. This is not a declaration of fact, or a change of rules as of yet. These are just things I have been considering and will eventually, probably, move in that direction.

It has been snowing. Strasbourg snow seems to be like its rain: it comes in slow, continual drizzles. Essentially it has been snowing for the last week, but we barely have an inch sitting on the ground. And that's only because we got what I would call a proper snowing for about an hour last night.

We went to see the Aviator a couple of nights ago. I will have a review posted in a day or two. Strasbourg movies houses are set up differently than their American counter parts. They actually do have a large multi-plex, but I haven't been to it. The ones we frequent (if once a month can be considered frequently)are smaller and more interesting. This particular one had a little cafe connected to it, where presumably, people could wait before their movie started. We arrived a good twenty minutes early and were informed we could not yet enter into the theatre. Being Americans, the whole cafe idea seems peculiar to us and so we simply waited outside the door. While we waited I realized I needed to use the restroom. None were visible. I went downstairs, into the lobby, to look. Amy reassured me on my question "Ou son la toilette?" Yet when I arrived in the lobby, and found no visible toilet, I froze up. The usher was looking at me as I passed down the steps ready to help me in anyway. But I looked away and walked towards the door, pretending that I was waiting for someone. I looked at my watched and generally looked impatient. I cursed myself for being such a chicken, and paced about hoping that some sign would show me the way. I had no such luck and returned to Amy feeling no relief.

Why can I not ask a simple question? I know the words, the pronunciation is easy. Perhaps I was afraid I would not understand the answer. But it is a question of where, and this was a small building. Surely the answer would incorporate hand gestures that would help me along. There have been no recorded incidents of movie ushers suddenly devouring unintelligent tourists. The man's job was to help, surely he would be willing to repeat himself slowly, if I could not understand. Yet there I sat through a 2 hour movie without the ability to relieve myself.

To add insult to my stupidity I got another lecture from my French tutor. During my classes on Monday and Wednesday I have not been a particularly good student. My brain has just drawn blanks on the simplest of things. Ann chastised me for not talking with Amy or doing internet work on my own. I feel really bad, because she seems to take it personally. As if she is not a good teacher, because I am a bad student. Not talking to the cinema usher and not talking to Amy are tied together. I am extremely embarassed when I speak in French. I am afriad of getting the pronunciation wrong, of misusing grammar, of not knowing what words to say. So I simply don't say anything. Which, of course, does not improve my language skills. I have vowed again to speak more, and work more on my own. We'll see how it goes.

Book Review: Serenade by James M Cain

Rating **

James M. Cain wrote in the first person, from the criminals perspective. His storytellers are not usually hardened criminals, yet through circumstances commit the most atrocious of crimes. He writes about down trodden, out of luck schmucks, who fall for the wrong kind of girl. Interestingly, it is usually his women who are tough, manipulative, and full of lust for crime. The men tend to be suckered in by their seductive charms.

Serenade centers around a down and out opera singer, John Howard Sharp. He is so down on his luck that he's been singing in a small club in Mexico, before, even they, kick him out. His luck seems to change when he meets a cheap whore, whom he falls with. His love for her causes his once faultering voice, to come back. What follows is a transcontinental series of adventures cataloging John's skyrocket rise in both movies and the New York opera, and his subsequent fall.

There is plenty to like about Serenade. Cain's terse, cynical prose moves across the page like a song. He accurately portrays John's love and hatred for his Mexican whore. There are plenty of nice character moments. Moments that give just the right details that give meaning to ordinary events. Much of the "action" of the story revolves around the little moments of life: sitting in a room talking to friends, stroking the hair of a girl, listening to music. Cain understands that much of life is filled with these types of moment and that great changes and meaning can be found in them.

Before Cain became a writer, he was trained as a singer. In part, this novel seems to be an attempt for him to allow his musical knowledge and training come to some use. Throughout the book John converses about, or describes internally, music he likes and hates, musicians, and his own singing. Some of this is vitally important to the story, for he is a professional singer, and the plot concerns his successes as such. Yet it is so infused with information that it, at times, feels more like a trade magazine than a proper story. At only 136 pages, it is superfluous to fill so many with discussions on Puccini and Mozart.

There is a revealing moment about John's character in the last third of the book. Even while reading this in 2005 it seemed shocking. Yet it is treated with aplomb, handled with an experts hand. The feelings that arise out of the character seem true, if no entirely kind. It is also interesting to see how that particular issue was handled at that time.

Overall, Serenade is an interesting read. It is well written and the characters are well drawn. However, if you have never read anything by James M. Cain, I would recommend picking up The Postman Always Rings Twice and then Double Indemnity before I began reading this.

Book Review: Diary by Chuck Palahniuk

ni·hil·ism (n-lzm, n-)n.

1.) Rejection of all distinctions in moral or religious value and a willingness to repudiate all previous theories of morality or religious belief.
2.) The belief that destruction of existing political or social institutions is necessary for future improvement.

Chuck Palahniuks first novel was the bitter, cynical, diatribe called Fight Club. It is the story of young males who are so disenfranchised by materialistic American culture that they must beat themselves silly to feel anything. It is a scathing review of a society that numbs its members with consumerism. They characters become nihilistic in their views and begin destroying all that society deems worthy, including themselves. It spoke directly to a generation of males (and many females) including myself. It is a theme that permeates his following novels.

After seeing the excellent 1999 movie based on Fight Club and reading the book, I planted myself firmly in fandom of it's writer. I began reading his subsequent books in no particular order (other than what I could find at the library.) I made it through Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, and most recently Diary. Each of these stories follow the same basic guidelines. An assortment of odd and often disturbed characters move through an increasingly absurd amount of crazed plot lines. There is the former cult member on a plane to his death (Survivor) the faceless ex-model on the road with a transexual (Invisible Monsters.) You get a man who intentionally chokes on food in crowded restaurant so he can bilk his saviors out of cash (Choke)and an involuntary killer who can summon a culling song of death at will. And finally a coma Diary "written" by the wife of an attempted suicide. Each of the novels are filled with jabs and slashes at societal norms. All of the characters go through extreme changes and end with a shocking twist. Unfortunately, they wind up being mostly the same.

Diary tells the story of Misty Wilmont, a once promising art student, who now waits tables at a sea side resort while she writes a coma diary to her husband. It seems her husband, Peter, whisked the young artist to the resort tourist island of Waytansea. Throughout the story Peter is in a coma from an apparent suicide attempt. All is not well on the once quaint Waytansea island and Misty quickly finds herself being locked in a hotel room by her mother-in-law and daughter, being forced to paint picture after picture blindfolded. I won't give anymore of the story away, because it is filled with the usual Palahniuk twists that are have the fun of reading his stories. Once again this book is filled with, mostly true factoids, and a biting cynicism towards all things culturally held dear. The problem, here, is that we've heard it all before.

Try as he might, Mr. Palahniuk, has been writing the same story novel after novel. Oh, he gives us different characters and more outlandish scenarios, but his central themes remain the same. I read this one just waiting for the new twists to occur. But even the twists seem more of the same. I wasn't expecting the actual twists to occur as they did, but I was expecting the twists, and that knocked half the shock out of them. The characters seem less real, and more as a cheap device to rattle off more nihilistic castigation.

Palahniuk is a talented writer. I just wish he'd get off his philosophy and get to writing something new, something fresh, something that Fight Club was when it first arrived in book stores.

Book Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

I have been posting mini reviews to the books I have read for several weeks now. You can find the link on my sidebar under the books I have read link. I finally tried my hat at doing a full book review with Michael Chabon's 2001 Pulitzer prize winning book. I've never reviewed a book before, so let me know how I do.

I started reading this book in February or March of 2003. For one reason or another I was only a couple of hundred pages into it when it was due back to the library. As is usual with me, I decided to give up reading it and turn it in, rather than recheck it. This is not a comment on the quality of the read, but rather a quirk in my own existence. I was fairly busy at the time and I figured that if I only made it through 200 pages in the first three weeks, another three weeks wouldn't get me to the end of this 636 paged tome. Finding it in the library here, I decided to pick it back up. I'm glad I did, and grateful I managed to finish it this time.

Chabon has created a magical book. Slightly based on the history of the comic book, and partly a fictional account of a small group of Jews during the atrocities of Hitler. Though, as Chabon admits, he chooses to ignore facts and history as it suits his story. It is the story of the friendship between Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay. The story begins with Joe having fled Nazi run Prague for the comforts of his cousin, Sam's comfortable apartment in Brooklyn. They quickly become great friends and enter into the burgeoning comic book world.

Chabon writes beautifully crafted sentence that course forwards and backwards through time to tell a multi-faceted story. His pen pauses in moments of time during the present and pulls the reader into a back story of Prague, the Kavaliers and comic books. Joe Kavalier's story is beautifully told, encompassing a stint as a magician and escape artists before traveling from Prague to New York by way of Asia and California. The story of how Joe traveled to New York by way of a golem filled box is hilarious, frightening and poignant. For the first 2/3s of the book, Chabon's pen doesn't let the reader down from it's magnificent beginning.

Yet it is about 2/3s of the way in, that the story begins to faulter. In an effort to tell a grand, epic story, Chabon treads beyond the beautifully told past, and magnificent present, into a less than glorious future. Seeing his characters rise from humble, troubled beginnings to a stellar, triumphant present, only to have them fall again was a mistake. It's not so much the fall that hurts the story but the rushed way it is told. The novel moves at a slow pace, giving many sumptuous details and never minding to slip into the past for a revealing story. Yet, when it moves to the future it seems to force things along. You can feel the writer telling his story to point towards his final concluding point, rather than just allow the story to unfold. To really flesh out the future section he would have needed another few hundred pages. I would have preferred him to wrap up the story leaving out the future scenes. He does manage to salvage the conclusion and bring his characters into fully realized beings.

DVD Review: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Three reviews in three days. Ridiculous isn't it?

Now that wire work is pretty standard in American film, it is hard to remember how impressive the effects were in the Matrix. Though the Matrix was hardly the first to use that type of effect, Asian cinema had been doing it for awhile, it was the first time I had seen anything like it. I remember being completely awed by the look and movement of the film. Though much of the style and effects quickly became vamped by many films, shows, and commercials, it remained perfect in its visual effects. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came out a few months later and pushed the Matrix visual envelope even farther. For my dollar, Ang Lee created a smarter, more beautiful use for the effects than the Wachowski brothers ever dreamed of creating.

The story is a bit tricky. A master martial artists, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat), decides to give up his heroism and settle down. Proving his seriousness in this new direction he gives up his famed sword, the Green Destiny, to a friend. The sword is quickly stolen throwing Li Mu Bai and another friend, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) into detective work to reclaim it. Added to the plot is a noble woman, Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang), about to be married against her wishes and Li's old nemesis Jade Fox (Pei-Pei Chang). To add a little more to the plot (I told you it was tricky) Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien are lovers destined to never have their loved fulfilled.

Ang Lee manages to sort out this complicated plot rather smoothly. The film is sumptuously shot on location in China. The renowned action sequences are poetic and beautiful. It feels more like watching ballet than a sword-fighting action movie. The more skilled fighters can climb up walls, jump great heights and seemingly fly through the sky. Though the film never explains how they are able to manage such incredible feats, they do it with such agility and grace, that you never think to question it. There is a scene fought out amongst tall whisp trees that is pure poetry. Yet they action sequences never stand in the way of the story. This is not a film designed to wow the audience with nothing but visual tricks, the action serves the story alone and is not there to give cheap thrills.

As the film unfolds a theme develops. Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lin never express their love for each other out of honor and loyalty. They hold to strict codes that must be obeyed over all of their own desires. Jen Yu is also bound by codes of conduct, but she chooses to disobey them and strives to live her own life. This serves as the central conflict between the characters. I will not give too much of the plot away, but will say that film concludes this conflict in manner not seen often in cinema.

It is difficult for me to judge the acting of a foreign film. I choose only to watch the original language, with subtitles. This allows me to hear the nuances of the actors voices, but since I must rely on the subtitles to tell me what they are saying it is difficult to really judge a performance. That being said all of the actors do a fine job. Chow Yun Fat does a remarkable job as a master fighter. Each action scene he is in he fill the screen with a knowing presence. He fights with great poise as if he knows he will be the victor, but does not want to show his true ability. Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang are also stand outs.

My only complaint has to do with one of the sub-plots. In the middle of the picture, we get a long back story on part of Jen Yu's life. After watching the film again I can see that the back story is essential to the overall theme of the film, but it is still too long in the telling. It also serves to slow the film down just as the plot was finally moving along. I believe the essentials of the back story could have been told at a quicker pace allowing us to understand what is needed without slowing the pace of the film down, or lengthening it too much.

This is a small complaint with a truly wonderful film. I have been a fan of Ang Lee for many years, and this film stands as his finest achievement. He is known for his smaller, character driven family films. Here he manages to achieve something on a more grander scale, yet maintains a beautifully portrayed character drama.

DVD Review: Rope

Well, aren't I the little movie critic. Two reviews in two days!

This 1948 Hitchcock film is mostly noted for its technical achievements. Hitchcock filmed this story, about two well-to-do rich kids who decide to commit a murder for the fun of it, as a play. Which, it in fact, originally was, though based in London and not New York. Technical limitations did not enable his original vision of making the entire picture one continuous long shot. Instead it is made up of several 8 minute continuous shots. This was the length of film that fit into one reel. Using some very inventive cutting techniques the film appears as if it was filmed all in one take. This is more impressive when you see the actual size that color film cameras were during this time period. They were absolutely enormous, bigger than a man standing. To move the camera in and around the small stage space, many of the set pieces were set on casters and rolled about to keep out of the way of the camera. Some of the actors were noted in saying that they worried everytime they sat down, that there might not be a chair for them to fall into. Another achievement of the film is in terms of lighting. The apartment that the entire film is set in has several large windows overlooking the city. As the movie is more or less uninterrupted from start to finish we see the lighting change as the sun begins to set and night falls. It is a testament to this achievement that upon first viewing you don't really notice the effect. Yet, the filmmakers took great pains to get it to look realistic, staging numerous re-stock for the final few scenes.

Though the technical achievements are quite wonderful, it is a shame that they have overshadowed what it really a very good bit of suspense. It seems the two high society murderers have planned a dinner party just after the murder. They store the corpse in a wood box that is featured prominently in the midst of the dinner. This creates an excellent mix of suspense and the macabre. Throughout the party the murderers become more unraveled even as they are enjoying their little game.

All of the acting is quite good. The two murderer (John Dall and Farley Granger) do a fine job of playing intellectual, society playboys, with a desire for excitement. It is slightly annoying watching their excited, nervous mannerisms (especially some stuttering by Jon Dall) but it is fitting with the characters. Their former instructor, Rupert Cadell, is played magnificently by the impeccable James Stewart. This is a bit of departure from Stewart's typical roles. Here he is a tough, cynical intellectual. This was his first of four collaborations between Stewart and Hitchock and it is hard to imagine his role as Scottie in Vertigo without having first played in this movie.

The story unravels in typical Hitchock fashion. The suspense is built, then lessoned by some well timed comedy, and then built again to a final crescendo. Hitchcock was excellent as a technical director and allowed his actors the breathing room they needed for fine performances. In the end I left the picture feeling more excited about the superb storytelling than any particular technical achievement. It is a testament to his craft, that Hitchock allows you to leave a picture being enamored with his story over his technical achievements. Some of the greatest effects are those you don't notice because they seem so natural and real.

The documentary that accompanies the DVD version had some discussion of the homosexual nature of the two murderers as well and James Stewart's character. The production codes of the time would only allow the slightest hints of homosexuality in a motion picture. In fact I had no idea any character might be homosexual while watching the movie, and it was until I watched the documentary that I thought anything about it at all. Upon review I can see where the two murderers mannerisms may have pointed in that direction. Although James Stewart's presence is so wholesome and devoid of sex that any notion of the characters sexuality is more a point of trivia at this point.

Alfred Hitchock manages a triumph of technical brilliance and suspense in Rope. It's influence in the technical realm of cinema far outshines any effect the story has on future movies. This is a shame, for the story being told is one of suspense, macabre and excitement.