by Jeremy Hart
I was thinking the other day about just how many movies I watch, and I came to a somewhat startling conclusion: yes, I am addicted to that flickering picture up there on the screen. I can't entirely explain why. I love the feeling you get while watching a good movie, where you just sort of forget who and where you are for a little while -- it really is escapism, even if the film's of the more serious variety. Movies allow you to get away from your real life, however good or bad it may be, and follow along with someone else's, at least for a little while. And sure, maybe they don't really exist, but who cares? Some of the characters I've seen in movies seem as real to me as the people I see on the way to work every day. It's a wonderful illusion, and it gets addictive; you get hooked on that escape, and then you're screwed, doomed to spend a large chunk of your life in dark movie theaters with overpriced popcorn or roaming the aisles of your local video store for just the right film. If you get as far down that path as I have, then a bad line of dialogue sticks out like an out-of-tune guitar string, and makes you cringe just to hear it. You may get downright self-righteous when it comes to stupid marketing and idiotic movie stars who make millions for their stupidity. You may find yourself ridiculed by friends and family, told to "lighten up" and not be so darn picky. They just don't understand, and chances are, they never will. It's a sad, lonely life for many of us.
Is there no hope, then, for the movie addict? Actually, it's not that bad, on the face of it -- as jonesing goes, I'd much rather be dying to see the latest Janeane Garofalo movie than dying to slam back a shot of Jack Daniel's. I've seen nic fits up close and personal, and they don't look like much fun, either. Movies are less expensive (at least for the moment) than smoking, drinking, or indulging in other substances, and the only health risk is the fact that someday your eyes may be shot to hell from sitting too close to the TV. So, for now, I choose to revel in my addiction, tracking down and watching obscure movies that nobody but the director really ever cared about and dragging my fiancée to the movie theater more times a month than she thinks is sane. I'm a movie addict, and that's fine with me. And hey, when was the last time you heard about a drunken brawl breaking out at a movie theater?
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Sony Pictures Classics/Edko Films)
I went into this movie knowing only a couple of things about it -- it starred Chow Yun-Fat; it was directed by Ang Lee, who did The Ice Storm and The Wedding Banquet; and it was supposed to be a kung-fu movie. Sort of. The reality was something I didn't really expect, but I'm nicely surprised by the result, because it manages to take several different film genres and meld them together nearly flawlessly. Sure, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a kung-fu flick, but it's a hell of a lot more than that. For one thing, it's considerably smarter than most of the kung-fu flicks I've seen (sorry, kung-fu afficionados, but I'm just speaking from my own personal experience), and director Lee uses the fight sequences more to push the plot along and pay tribute to past martial arts epics than just to say "whoa, look at that kick!"
On top of that, the movie's several subplots revolve around a number of subjects, including love (both between Yun-Fat's Li Mu Bai and Michelle Yeoh's Shu Lien and between would-be fighter Jen and barbarian leader Lo), duty (notably Jen's duty to her family and her master Jade Fox, and Li's duty to the fighting world), violence, and trust. Hefty issues, for sure, but they get dealt with without making the characters seem like cardboard cutouts; a pretty impressive feat. And then, to top it all off, the whole thing's done in incredibly beautiful style, from the panoramic landscapes to the clothing -- at times it felt like watching Yun-Fat's last major film, Anna and the King.
Now for the downside: okay, so parts of the movie were just plain silly. I couldn't help but crack up when characters ran up walls or fought in the treetops, and just barely stopped myself from humming the Superman theme song when Li (Yun-Fat) flew through the air after Jen during one battle. As one moviegoer behind me quipped, "this was back before they invented the laws of physics." On the other hand, though, I got the distinct feeling that the silliness was intentional (esp. during the treetop scene), used to break up the seriousness of the situation. Whatever it was, it worked -- this is one grand epic, the likes of which I've only seen a few other places, and it's pretty unforgettable.
The Ninth Gate (Artisan Entertainment)
It's sad when this sort of thing happens. A good movie, well-done and with a good storyline, crashes and burns at the box office because of crappy marketing. So, to set the record straight: this is NOT a horror movie. Hell, it's not even particularly scary, and I get scared by things as mundane as the mirror in my living room and old episodes of V. What Ninth Gate is, instead, is a thriller, a detective story of the Raymond Chandler variety -- disreputable rare book dealer Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) is hired by a very wealthy guy to authenticate his copy of a very, very rare book that he can't go looking for directly, because people will get suspicious.
During the course of his hunt -- which isn't all that difficult, hunting-wise, since he's told who has the other copies of the book -- the hero of our story ("hero" used very loosely, since it's made clear from the first scene that the guy's a scumbag and just plain doesn't give a shit) gets beaten up, seduced, and framed pretty spectacularly, and everybody he comes into contact with seems to end up dead. He's not sure who he can trust, and neither he nor the audience has a clue who the mysterious beautiful woman who's helping him out is working for (although there's definitely something odd about her; figures that in reality she's director Roman Polanski's wife). All in all, I found it an entertaining ride, but I may be a little odd, since I like both books and stories about historic things (think The Red Violin), and anybody looking for typical Satanic-worship fare is going to be disappointed.
A number have people have told me they hated the end of the movie, but I think that the misguided marketing's to blame for that one, as well. If you've only seen the preview, it sure looks like there's gonna be some freaky-ass special effects showing up at some point, and when it doesn't show up during the movie, well, it's gotta be at the end, right? Bad, bad, bad marketing people. The ending may not stun or surprise anybody, but it fits the film -- it's just not a horror movie ending, is all.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Touchstone Pictures/Buena Vista Pictures)
Are the Coen brothers geniuses? Nah, probably not -- if you look at their record, they've had some misses as well as hits (and I still think that anybody who liked Barton Fink more than The Big Lebowski needs their head checked, by the way). They're decent writers, especially in that they seem to follow their own particular artistic vision, no matter where it may take them, but they're nothing compared to, say, Tom Stoppard. They create intriguing characters, yes, but they're more often than not sort of one-dimensional archetypes, rather than "real" people.
That kind of character-creation fits in with their true talent, however, which is to make the ordinary seem somehow magical and otherworldly. I can't entirely explain it, but they've got the knack -- that's why Raising Arizona features an otherworldly biker from Hell, or why a Baptist congregation meeting at the river in O Brother, Where Art Thou? seems like a gathering of ethereal angels. They take mundane, everyday events -- like three women washing clothes in a river, for example, and imbue them with a deeper significance, like there's something at work that the viewer can't really hope to understand.
With that in mind, the Coens' decision to adapt Homer's Odyssey (it's a loose adaptation, by the way) made me slap myself on the forehead and say "well, duh." It fits perfectly, because what these guys have built their career on has been essentially making their own modern myths. Their characters are just like the old Greek heroes like Heracles and Odysseus, who were propelled along by events they generally had no control over. Things happen in Coen brothers movies, and sometimes it seems like they happen for no real reason whatsoever, except that the gods (speaking metaphorically) want them to. There's something bigger at work here; that's the feeling, and it's done so well and in such an understated way that it's absolutely beautiful. That's the magic of most of the duo's films, and it's definitely in effect in Brother.
As for the movie itself, it's a blast -- a creatively bizarre interpretation of '20s Americana, full of in-jokes from the Robert Johnson-like figure of Tommy standing at the crossroads to the one-eyed man/Homerian cyclops/Ku Klux Klan "Grand Cyclops" connection. All the actors turn in spectacular performances, particularly George Clooney (although I'm somewhat saddened to learn that that's not really him singing) and Tim Blake Nelson as two of the happy-go-lucky trio of escapees, and the music played throughout is incredible. And, naturally, everything turns out alright in the end, which makes sense if this truly is an American myth -- I've never read a myth where the heroes don't win in the end, have you? END