2003 Milk Plus Droogies

Best Picture
Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Director
Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Actor (tie)
Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

Best Actor (tie)
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

Best Actress
Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Supporting Actor
David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

Best Supporting Actress
Miranda Richardson, Spider

Best Screenplay
Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

Best Foreign Film

Best Cinematography
Harris Savides, Gerry

Members' Marquees

Critical Contacts

Lobby Reading

The Video Store

Reel Resources

The Blog Bijou

-Admit One
-Artistic Delusions
-Belligerent Bunny's Bad Movie Shrine
-Beware of Blog
-The Brain Drain
Biancolo Notes
-The Big Ticket
-Bitter Cinema
-Black & White World
-Bull Durham's Hot Corner
-Brewed Fresh Daily
-Camille's Film Journal
-The Chutry Experiment
-Cineblog (II)
-Cine Club
-Cinegraphic.Net: The Avante-Garde Film and Video Blog
-Cinema 24
-Cinema News
-Il Cinema Secondo (Italian)
-Cineaste (Russian)
-Cinema Toast
-Concentrated Nonsense
-Confessions of an Indie Filmmaker
-Cult Movies I Dare You to Watch
-Cutting to the Chase
-Cynthia Rockwell's Waiting Room
-The Daily Despair
-The Daily Digest
-Day for Night
-Delta Sierra Arts
-Dinky's Docket
-Distorting the Medium
-Donald Melanson On Movies
-Electric Movies
-Fade In: Blog
-Feeling Listless
-Filmfilter (German)
-Filmtagebuch (German)
-Film Talk
-Five Easy Pieces
-Frank Booth
-A Girl and A Gun
-Glazed Donuts
-GreenCine Daily
-Harlequin Knights
-He Loved Him Some Movies
-The Hobo Reviews
-Hot Buttered Death
-Iggy's Movie Review Weblog
-Iguano Film Blog
-In Development
-Japanese Films' Journal
-Joe Sixpack's Film Blog
-Joe's Weblog & Film Project News
-Junk for Code
-Kumari's Movie Blog
-Lights Out Films
-Like Anna Karina's Sweater (Filmbrain)
-Listen Missy
-Magnolia Girl
-Marley's Ghost
-Media Yenta
-Michael I. Trent
-Moov Goog
-Motime Like the Present
-Movie Boy
-Movie Criticism For the Retarded
-A Movie Diary
-The Movie Generation
-The Movie Marketing Blog
-Movie Retard
-The Movie Review
-Moving Pictures
-Nando's Blog
-Netflix Fan
-Or Kill Me
-Out of Ambit
-Out of Focus
-Paolo - Cinema's Radio Weblog (Italian)
-Pigs and Battleships
-Plot Kicks In
-Pop Culture Junkies
-The Projector
-Qwipster's Movie Reviews
-Reel Reviews (Podcast)
-Reviews, Reviews, Reviews
-The Screening Room
-Screen Watcher
-Short and Sweet
-The Silver Screen
-Stinky Cinema
-Sunset Blvd
-Tagline: A Movie Weblog
Talking Pictures
Tea for One
-Tom Vick's Asian Cinema Blog
-Trailer Park
-Truly Bad Films
Waste of Tape
-Wayne's Movie Blog
Whippin Picadilly
Wittgenstein's Bunnies
-Yay! Movies!
McBain Recommends
-Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
-Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
-Kill Bill vol 2
Shroom Recommends
-Top 20 List
-Head On
Joker Recommends
-Top 20 List
-House of Flying Daggers
-The Aviator
-Bad Education
Yun-Fat Recommends
-Eight Diagram Pole Fighter
-Los Muertos
-Tropical Malady
Allyn Recommends
-Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
-Songs from the Second Floor
Phyrephox Recommends
-Top 20 List
-Design for Living (Lubitsch, 1933)
-War of the Worlds
-Howl's Moving Castle
Melisb Recommends
-Top 20 List
-The Return
-Spirited Away
-Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...And Spring
Wardpet Recommends
-Finding Nemo
-Man on the Train
-28 Days Later
Lorne Recommends
-21 Grams
-Cold Mountain
-Lost in Translation
Merlot Recommends
-Top 20 List
-The Man on the Train
-Safe Conduct
-The Statement
Whitney Recommends
-Femme Fatale
-Gangs of New York
-Grand Illusion
Sydhe Recommends
-In America
-Looney Tunes: Back In Action
-Whale Rider
Copywright Recommends
Top 20 List
-Flowers of Shanghai
-Road to Perdition
Stennie Recommends
Top 20 List
-A Matter of Life and Death
Rodney Recommends
Top 20 List
-The Pianist
-Talk to Her
Jeff Recommends
-Dial M for Murder
-The Game
-Star Wars Saga
Lady Wakasa Recommends
-Dracula: Page from a Virgin's Diary
-Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler
-The Last Laugh
Steve Recommends
-Top 20 List
-Princess Raccoon
-Princess Raccoon
-Princess Raccoon
Jenny Recommends
-Mean Girls
-Super Size Me
-The Warriors
Jason Recommends
Top 20 List
-Old Boy
-Million Dollar Baby
-Head On
Lons Recommends
-Before Sunset
-The Incredibles

Powered by Blogger Pro™

links open windows

(c)2002 Design by Blogscapes.com

The Blog:
Friday, May 14, 2004

A Scene at the Sea

Back in 1991, anyone paying attention to the film career of Takeshi Kitano would have probably been surprised by his third film, A Scene at the Sea (kind of like people primed on the video releases of Sonatine and Hana-bi were probably unprepared for Kikujiro no natsu), a sweet love story and an ode to surfing without a whiff of the violence that Kitano was, and is, notorious for. Even without a storyline centering around cops and yakuza, the film is distinctly Kitano: there is a relationship where love is expressed via actions not words (quite literally, the central couple, Shigeru and Takako are deaf, and they do not utter one word of dialogue in the entire film); an emphasis upon the sea as a place of life, expressed through play, and death (there are two directors currently working today that I always associate with water: Kitano and his obsession with the sea, and the “darker” Tsai Ming-liang, whose films are dominated by torrential downpours, humidity, dripping faucets, dirty rivers, etc.); though still in an embryonic stage, the human form in a silent, motionless pose (in my opinion, Kitano is the best working director when it comes to creating tableaux’s with the human form); the elliptical cutting and barely there plot; and a film laced with Kitano’s off-beat, slowbuild brand of deadpan humor.

A Scene at the Sea, Kitano’s first film in which he did not appear (he is credited as the writer-director-editor), begins when the deaf-mute sanitation worker Shigeru, finds a broken surf-board in the trash; the ever industrious Shigeru repairs the broken board, and with his doting girlfriend Takako in tow, attempts to learn how to surf. At first he’s a source of amusement to the local surfers and their girlfriends, as well as a pair of bumbling soccer players who eventually also turn to surfing (and who provide much of the film’s comedic content), but soon his perseverance and improving skills gains him both acceptance and the attention of a local surfing guru who encourages Shigeru to enter some amateur tournaments. At the end of the film, Shigeru drowns in an accident, though this tragedy is expressed in subtle, elliptical fashion which I was struck by and would like to describe:

1. The scene begins on a gray, overcast morning, in contrast to the normally sunny seaside town we are accustomed to. In an extreme long shot, we watch Shigeru, with board in hand, walk along the sea wall towards the beach (an action repeated many times throughout the film), with the camera panning to follow him as he exits frame right. There is a pause as the camera lingers on the shot, and then a noticeable jump cut as we then watch Takako from the same camera set-up. Sheltering herself from the drizzle with a blue umbrella, she also walks across the frame. As before, the camera lingers on the grey scene after Takako has exited the frame.

2. There is another cut, and from a new camera set-up, another extreme long shot, we watch Takako walk down the stairs leading the beach, taking her customary spot in the sand. She stands still for few moments, before Kitano cuts into a medium close-up of Takako, whose brightly colored, striped sweater is offset by the deep blue of the umbrella. With only her eyes she scans back and forth along the shoreline.

3. Kitano then cuts back to the extreme long shot of Takako, who is now noticeably centered within the lonely confines of the frame, before quickly cutting back to the medium-close up of Takako expressionlessly searching for Shigeru. She looks off camera to her left, and then Kitano cuts to a POV shot of the pounding surf, which he holds for several seconds, before cutting back to the medium close up of Takako

4. Kitano now holds the close-up on the mute Takako, whose eyes now seem sadder (though on further analysis, her expression really hasn’t changed that much, perhaps this is an example of the Kuleshov effect), before cutting back to the POV shot of the surf. Kitano breaks his established pattern ,cutting into a close-up of the surfboard, which takes up the entire length of the frame, being tossed around by the tide. Then he cuts back to the medium close-up of Takako, which is again held for several beats, before cutting back to the POV shot of the surf. This particular sequence finally, ends with another cut to the extreme long shot of Takako standing at the center of the frame, which is again held for several seconds, providing a sense of symmetry to the sequence of shots, before Kitano cuts to the next scene, Takako sitting alone on a ferry we saw earlier, with Shigeru’s surfboard leaning against the bench.

The payoff for this atypical sequence is one of Kitano’s most beautiful images. As life goes on in their seaside town, Takako visits Chiba, the site of Shigeru’s first tournament. She tapes a picture of the happy couple on the beach to his surfboard, and pushes it out into the water. This is crowned by another extreme long shot of the surfboard, floating calmly, silently on the placid, azure surface of the sea.

What comes next is equally surprising, as Kitano doesn’t end the film there. Instead, he cuts to a pre-credit montage, which reprises what was really the emphasis of the film: beaches, beautiful seascapes, sunny days, Shigeru and Takako playing together on the beach, friends and surfing comrades posing for pictures, minor characters being deftly defined in short sketches, all of which actually composed 95% of the movie. Kitano’s choice to leave the audience with a taste of what came before the drowning, is very appropriate, a bittersweet reminder of love and life.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004


Women love a bad boy. David Benioff, fresh off his brilliant script for Spike Lee’s terrific 25th Hour, has written (probably with the help of several highly paid uncredited studio script doctors, whom I hope are responsible for most of the bad dialogue) a sword-and-sandal period adventure that couldn’t be further from the present-day New York elegy of his debut – but both films have as their sexy heroes a brutal, authority-defying bad guy. Brad Pitt hasn’t kicked this much ass in anything but Fight Club and Snatch, and even then his fists of fury were no match for the blade-slicing, spear-chucking, Matrix-diving warrior Achilles that he plays in Troy. And just after he murders enough people and rolls around sweaty, naked, and caked in dirt and blood, that’s when the enemy slave girls go nuts and yank him into their beds.

Plenty more material in Petersen’s summer blockbuster appeals to a modern-day crowd, and it’s material that’s timeless enough to feel appropriate for the days of Greek mythology that Homer made so famous. Nations still went to war over land, greed, and power, and one of the best lines spoken to Achilles is: “War is young men dying and old men talking; you know this. Ignore their politics.” And when it comes time to debate the existence of God and the relevance of devotion, Achilles says to his new girlfriend Briseis, “Why do you choose to love the Gods? I think you’ll find the romance one-sided.” With good, old-fashioned themes that can the press buttons of any generation, Troy is ripe for good, old-fashioned Hollywood movie-making.

While the extreme amount of special effects makes this film quite different from the 1950s blockbusters of yore, the fast-paced, pulpy storytelling, opulent costumes and set design, skillfully choreographed action, and bold, earnest performances allow it to fit the mold in the same way films like Titanic and Gladiator did. Both of those Oscar-winners suffered from equally cornball dialogue, and Troy has some laughable lines. But only flicks like this, where massive sets swallow hundreds upon hundreds of (computer-generated) extras and props, can make us forgive shots like Pitt staring off screen in slo-mo into the wind and sun, and Orlando Bloom’s Paris uttering “We will be together again, in this world or the next.”

What makes Troy a likable work of grand entertainment is Benioff’s characterization. There are very few obviously “good” or “bad” characters here, since the morality is relative and everyone has a solid motivation for what they do. Soldiers aren’t automatically loyal to their leaders, one country doesn’t have the righteous mandate to victory over the other, and when two proud men of warring sides are fighting each other, each has a good reason for it and neither deserves to die. Thanks to Eric Bana’s fiery performance, having been awoken from the trance Ang Lee put him in, the character of Hector is as sympathetic as Achilles or Helen (played by a brain-dead, talentless Diane Kruger), the latter of whom couldn’t help but leave her abusive Greek husband Menelaus (an always appealing Brendan Gleeson) And when Brian Cox, having loads of fun as the power-hungry Agamemnon, spits out the word “peace” three times, mocking its stupidity while he’s trying to go to war, one gets the feeling this guy has the same thirst for control mixed with contempt for his people as George W. Bush.

Troy won’t go down as one of the great Hollywood period epics, but it’s a rare summer thrill ride that is pleasing enough in spirit and theme to push us through its moments of cringe-worthy dialogue and hokey, outdated sincerity. Compared to something as simplistic and lugubrious as The Alamo, with cardboard villains and a worthless subtext, this war picture has a few more brains to go along with its brawn and is a far more enjoyable voyage to the past.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004
(Spoilers abound...)

Warriorrrsss…come out and playee-yayyyyyyy” If you’ve seen Walter Hill’s 1979 cult-classic The Warriors, it’s a given that you’ve mimicked Luther’s (David Patrick Kelley) infamous battle-cry. Extra bonus points if you’ve inserted 3 beer bottles on your fingers and clinked the bottles whilst loudly chanting. This stunt is especially effective if you’d like to get rid of unwanted party guests. You know, the ones who stay wayyyyy too late and are boring you out of your skull. If you attain the insane fever-pitched banshee yelps like Luther did and keep maniacally clinking those bottles, I guarantee you’ll clear your house out. And if by some chance, the boring party-guests are too drunk and stupid to be frightened by the macabre nature of this routine and they insist on spending the night, switch to Plan B: tie them to a chair, douse them in gasoline, put on your Steeler’s Wheel’s album and invite Michael Madsen over. That’ll teach em. But I digress…..

The Warriors was released to an avalanche of negative publicity in 1979 with reports of real-life gangbanging erupting in cinemas across the nation. While there is brawling and bashing a-plenty, the film is utterly benign in comparison to some of the more violent movies of today. The Warriors are UNARMED, for fook’s sake. What they lack in weaponry, however, the Warriors more than make up for in style, resourcefulness, mad ass-kicking skills and all-around coolness. They are 9 bare-chested, leather-vest wearing, wee sexy Coney Island bastards who, along with thousands of gang members from the 5 boroughs of NYC, attend a clandestine gang convention in the Bronx. With a temporary truce declared, the gangs gather to listen to the fiery rhetoric of prominent Grammercy Riffs gang leader, Cyrus (Roger Hill) who wants to unite all the gangs to march as one against the whole city. “Can…You…Dig..It?”

Luther, a psychotic and very, very excitable member of the rival Rogues, has another plan in mind for Cyrus. He shoots him dead. In the ensuing chaos, Luther hysterically points and accuses Warriors leader, Cleon (Dorsey Wright), of assassinating Cyrus. Unfortunately, Luther’s bait and switch stunt works. The truce is off and the safety of the Warriors' Coney Island home turf is several long and danger-filled subway-train rides away. Cleon falls prey to the police in the ensuing melee and the 8 remaining Warriors must “bop” their way back home without him. The loss of Cleon sets up the very wise and sensitive Warrior, Swan (Michael Beck), to take over leadership responsibilities. Of course, it doesn't hurt that chicks dig him both in the audience and on-screen. Chick-magnetism aside, Swan must endure the requisite power struggle between he and the trigger-tempered, macho, misogynistic Ajax (James Remar). The power struggle is very brief, however, because The Warriors have incurred the wrath of every street hood and gang member in the city and have to get the heck outta Dodge (or the Bronx as it were). Unarmed (I repeat…UNARMED!) and wrongly accused of a crime they didn’t commit, the Warriors continue to “bop” their way from the Bronx all the way back to their Coney Island home turf, while being endlessly pursued by rival gang members. The gangs are fueled by the implied superiority of Cyrus’s gang, the Grammercy Riffs (shout it: RIFFS! ), who appear to have 10,000 members, which makes me wonder why THEY couldn’t spare a little manpower to hunt down the measly EIGHT Coney Island gangbangers. Apparently they’re all about taking credit for the end result...Dude,where’s your WORK ETHIC??

Also on the Grammercy Riffs payroll, is the radio “DJ” (Lynne Thigpen). Her funkified low voice and luscious lips (the luscious lips being the only thing the audience ever sees of the DJ) are integral to the look and pace of the storyline as she lobs her sexy, sultry taunts at the Warriors via her radio mic. “Be lookin' good, Warriors. All the way back to Coney. You hear me babies? Good”. Too bad the Warriors don’t have radios. DOH. The DJ also spins appropriate songs (Nowhere to Run) and provides simmering news updates after each gang is successfully ass-kicked or outwitted (or both) by our Coney Island Warriors. I say “our” because you root for the Warriors like your favorite sports team, especially when they are outnumbered, which is always. They take on every gang whose path they cross because they HAVE to, or in the case of Ajax, because he wants to. To Ajax, not fighting is equivalent to “turning faggot”. That his “demise” comes courtesy of a *gasp* FEMALE is beautiful irony. It should come as no surprise that James Remar went on to be typecast for years as a foul-tempered bad guy.

The gangs are very eclectic, (there’s even a nod to the infamous Droogs, say AMEN!), ranging from the Turnbull AC’s (not sure what AC is the acronym for), to the baseball bat-toting Baseball Furies to the all-female Lizzies (the chicks are PACKED..the chicks are PACKED…),to the preppy big-necked overall-wearing rollerbladers (who knew the art of brawling on rollerskates could look so effortless? Most of us fall down just standing on rollerskates…) to my personal favorite – The Orphans. Hapless losers with a Capital “L” plastered on all their gang-wannabe foreheads, these rag-tag doofuses are so low on the gang food chain that they didn’t even hear about the major gang event in the Bronx, they have no stylin gang “colors”, and worst of all, they’re CUCKOLDED by the neighborhood tart, Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh). Mercy relentlessly baits and berates the Orphans after they decide to peacefully let the Warriors just “boogie on through” their turf. When the Warriors refuse to take off their leather vests (DAMN…I was so hoping they would…*droooool*..), the Orphans lamely attempt and fail miserably at blocking our boys from passing through. A single Molotov cocktail sends the Orphans packing. I think a flaming Pina Colada would have sent these dorks running. David Schwimmer (obviously in his salad-days) plays the whiny-assed, pathetic Orphans leader (back when David had a “slow” eye). Fortunately David put this whiny-assed character behind him so he could grow as an actor and eventually play eternally whiny-assed, pathetic Ross on Friends. For 1 million an episode no less. Schwimmer was able to pay for corrective eye surgery with his new-found wealth and is now branching out into directing, which apparently is a birthright of all sitcom actors. Bleccch. OK, the leader of the Orphans really isn’t David Schwimmer, it’s some lesser known chain-snatchin-mariachi-motherfucker-Schwimmer-lookalike named Paul Greco who happens to have a gimpy eye. I just needed to vent on Schwimmer because he’s so bloody annoying. I occasionally go off on tangents, in case noone has noticed.

The final gang showdown takes place on Coney Island, when the exhausted Warriors finally arrive home at the crack of dawn (with skanky Mercy in tow...she somehow manages to get Swan under a romantic spell..) and the realization hits them, as it does the audience “We fought all night to get back HERE?” Yeah, tell me about it. Coney freakin Island. Paradise it ain’t. However, the Grammercy Riffs finally decide to get off their lazy duffs and exact some medieval revenge on the pussified Luther. And our Warriors? Well, their destination may not be paradise, but the journey they take us on and the adventures they encounter to get us there, provide for some wickedly entertaining and enjoyable movie viewing. The movie may look dated now, but The Warriors and New York City will always rule. Dig that.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Question of the Week

A couple of weeks ago, I was paging through a back issue of Sight & Sound, and I was reading the article on Lost in Translation; in a sidebar to that article, the author linked Lost in Translation to Tsai Ming-liang's What Time Is It There?. Something in my mind clicked; even though the films are outwardly very different, it struck me what a proper match the two films really are in terms of theme and mood. That article has inspired the new "Question of the Week."

Name two films which are at least outwardly different, but on further reflection have a connection which would lead you to call the films "companion pieces." Why? Suggestions include style, subject matter, theme, or mood.

Feel free to answer as many times as you want. Given the nature of this question, films can be used multiple times. As always, this question is open to all blog members and readers.

Note to All: The Milk Plus Canon Poll will continue in a few weeks with years 1985-89. Start thinking of your list now.

The Mother. Definitely not Mother's Day viewing. If any of you were thinking of taking your dear, sweet Mum to a late movie, do yourselves both a favour: skip this one.

I saw it during last year's TIFF, mainly because I wanted to watch Daniel Craig (who played Connor Rooney in Road to Perdition and, earlier, George Dyer in Love is the Devil).

I lay the problems with the film squarely at the keyboard of scriptwriter Hanif Kureishi. Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette) is capable of writing with charm, humour, and wit, but somehow failed to apply any of the above to this film.

[Plot Spoilers follow]

Anne Reid plays May, a sixty-ish grandmother. Following the sudden death of her husband, she moves to London to stay with her son and daughter, in their respective households. The son has implausibly bratty children, is mortgaged to the hilt, and given a shortcut characterization as Yuppie Scum. The daughter has Issues with her mother, and problems of her own, one of which is an affair with Darren (played by Craig), a married man who won't leave his wife and handicapped child.

You might well ask: for heaven's sake, what kind of selfish git with a handicapped child has an affair? Well, the same kind of selfish git who then has another affair with his lover's mother. Yeah, right. Get this man a spot on Geraldo.

Surprisingly - despite the script's second-rate dramatics the rest of the time - the scene in the film when the affair starts is actually quite good. With those few tentative words and moments of hesitation, it captures that blend of vulnerability, uncertainty, courage and yearning at the start of a new sexual relationship. Loneliness may partially lie behind May's crush on Darren; for his part, he seems to (initially, anyway) accept her invitation out of kindness.

If the film had explored things from there, without complicating the plot with duped daughters, etc., it may have been really worth making, and viewing. As it was, up to the point when Kureishi gave up and inserted Arbitrary Plot Turn #8, it was merely semi-watchable.

To quote The Guardian: [Reid and Craig] are two first-rate performers who submit to their pairing with professionalism and dedication. They deserved a better film than this.

They aren't the only ones.



From the Tribeca Film Festival: The Last Life in the Universe

If a movie about an introverted obsessive-compulsive who comes out of his shell after he meets a special girl sounds not only a mite corny but a bit worn as well, The Last Life in the Universe is blessed with the gifts to briefly reinvigorate a hackneyed concept. Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang takes this dangerously Hollywood romantic situation, variably drains it of narrative and lets the film-which starts off as icy and distanced as possible-thaw both its audience and its tired premise with a gentle charm.

It also helps that Asano Tadanobu, the most handsome and prolific young Japanese actor working today, who seems to be making his rounds in the best films every year, plays the introvert in question. His embodiment of Kenji, a Japanese librarian questionably etching outa meaningful existence in Bangkok, takes politely reserved reticence to whole new levels and is key to making Ratanaruang’s admittedly eye-rolling setup work. The inner warmth of his character certainly helps ease the coldness of the film’s opening moments, which seem to take a visual cue of modern monochromatic desolation from Michael Mann’s Heat. Kenji’s existence is so minor that it is not until he witnesses the death of the sister of Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak) twenty minutes in that the movie even announces its title. Perhaps what makes The Last Life in the Universe so lovely despite its dramatic roots is the air of complete offhandedness that pervades the film. The death of Noi’s prositute sister comes out of nowhere and is quickly followed by an even more unexpected event. After settling into the rhythms of Kenji’s meticulous, low-key lifestyle his brother suddenly shows up with a yakuza friend; the yakuza kills the brother, Kenji kills the yakuza, and then proceeds to clean the house and he (and the film) continue on as if nothing happened.

It is these momentary flights of unexpected fancy and sometimes out of place creativity that invest Kenji’s slowly blossoming relationship with Noi with an important air of the spontaneous and unreal among the film’s mellow mixture of despondence and melancholy romanticism. As Kenji meagerly asks stay in Noi’s country house (as his is starting to smell of death) their relationship gradually develops in spite of their ability to only communicate in bursts of English or halting Japanese, the possibility is evoked that some, all, or none of this slowly liberating experience is just a languid dream of Kenji’s. This evocation is emphasized by master cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s precise use of muted colors. The cold unrealness of Kenji’s grey-blue monochromatic city life surprisingly does not distinctly transform once he and Noi move to the country. On the contrary, the colors are indeed warmer, the world around them more textured, but everything still has a muted air about it, very stilled and lethargic. Far from heavyhanded, this downplayed charge in surroundings only increases the dreamy oddness of Noi and Kenji’s relationship, framed within the confines of an extroverted prostitute growing accustomed to Kenji’s affectionate quirks.

One of the most glorious moments in the film is a sudden burst of unexpected magic when Kenji’s compulsion requires him to clean Noi’s mess-of-a-house. Ratanaruang stages a seamless, lovely scene where Noi exuberantly frisks through the house as the various detritus surrounding the place swirls around her in a slow, backwards motion, finally floating back to its proper places around the house. Along with Tadanobu’s performance and moments like these-though usually less lyrical but nevertheless surprising (a most unexpected tattoo, a cameo by director Takeshi Miike)-one is gradually warmed over to Ratanaruang’s combination of pat narrative, visual artfullnes and sudden peculiarities. The film is not helped by the beautiful but non-entity actress who plays Kenji’s sole human interaction, and without Ratanaruang’s diversions-what could have been, what might have happened-The Last Life in the Universe sometimes approaches a very pretty, measured cliché. Luckily this film is able to stand away from its less distinguishable Asian brethren that think capturing both the ennui of youth as well as its wistful romantic possibilities is a unique idea. It may not be the most original film, but paradoxically enough it is also unusual and often moves in unforeseen ways. Even if its various inspirations are not consistent through and through, the film’s placid visual allure is enough to thaw a much more hackneyed tragic-comedy than this, and the film ends on a note of such lovely melancholy as to perhaps discount even the most egregious of the film’s flaws.


Van Helsing

It's official now: Kate Beckinsale is a goddamn jinx. Her participation in a film from here on out will be taken as a sign that the project will likely be goat shit. I've never been overly fond of her anyway, but with "Van Helsing" having so little to engage the imagination or intellect, I was able to concentrate on how truly awful she is. Affecting the goofiest Carpathian accent this side of Svengooli and sporting makeup from the Tammy Faye Baker Collection, she poisons her every scene with faux solemnity and unintentional mirth. Which is a shame, since Stephen Sommers's films tend to take their cues from their leading players. What should be a fun monster mash, then, instead is sunk by the characters's gravity (not to mention their stupidity).

Of course, I can't say that Beckinsale's the only one to blame here (though I sure enjoy trying). Hugh Jackman can be a spry comic actor -- ask anyone who's seen "The Boy from Oz" -- but he can also be so serious as to suck the air out of a room. Guess which end of the spectrum he ends up on here. I shouldn't be too hard on him, though; he's just doing his job. The miscalculation lies with Sommers, who's responsible for penning this misbegotten mess. As written, the title character is a joyless, grim fugitive from justice who would probably tear his cheeks apart if he tried to smile -- Captain Prozac, Vampire Hunter. He's the kind of unlikeable hero you end up rooting for just because everyone else in the film is even more dour. Hard to believe that this leaden thing came from the same guy who gave us the nimbly overstuffed "Mummy" flicks. Those films were silly and cheerfully contrived. This one leaves silly and cheerful at home in favor of lots and lots of gray. (Apparently the sun never ever shines in Transylvania. The local weatherman's job must be a cakewalk.)

So yes, it's contrived. But then, aren't most summer films? Shouldn't I just lay back and forget about plot and take in the spectacle. Um, no. First off, the complete incoherency of the screenplay makes friggin' "Hellboy" look like a model of construction. It's like watching a series of random scenes that just happen to feature the same actors strung together in some cruel mockery of order. (Just try and count how many scenes clumsily attempt to provide exposition for what's supposed to be happening.) And second, the big action scenes we do get display such contempt for anyone in the audience who can rub two brain cells together that it's a wonder we all don't gather up torches and go hunting for Sommers in retaliation for inflicting this distended Frankenstein upon an unsuspecting world. The opening duel with Mr. Hyde might have been alright... if it hadn't shown Hyde as a giant, thus making the first (and hopefully only) film to ever rip off "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen". Van Helsing's first battle with the three Brides of Dracula might have been exciting... if the suspense wasn't negated by the fact that Van Helsing drops his super-crossbow so many times that one disengages with the action onscreen and begins to wonder if the weapon isn't coated in pig fat. The chase with the horse-drawn coach might have been worthwhile... if the film hadn't out-and-out cheated in coming up with a ruse so dumb that swallowing it would require unhinging your jaw like a snake. And so on and so on. (I haven't even touched upon the brazen middle-finger idiocy that is the subplot with Beckinsale and her brother. It's toxic.)

And for a film so intent on sacrificing everything on the altar of spectacle, the visuals themselves ain't that hot. The color scheme is drab and monochromatic, which I suppose matches the characterization but still. The cinematography is competent but uninspired -- Sommers has never been much of a stylist, and his lack of flair seriously damages this one. 'Cause when you're bound and determined to shoot your film using only three colors, you better damn well at least have some fancy camera moves to keep me interested. As for the FX work... well, you'd think $140 million could buy some better stuff. For every effect that does work (I admit, the Frankenstein monster was pretty impressive, and not just because Sommers went with the articulate-patchwork-man approach), there's two that don't... like the damn werewolves. If I never see another CGI werewolf again, I'll be a happy guy. Let's face it -- even the glorified throw rug that was used during Oz's time of the month on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" looks superior to your average CGI wolf. It's just too difficult to render all that hair convincingly in a real-world environment. The CGI-aided transformation scenes, on the other hand, aren't bad... except that they're "borrowed" from Neil Jordan's "The Company of Wolves". And the vampire babies just look chintzy. (And, um, what the hell? Vampire babies? Since when can vampires procreate? They're friggin' dead. That's what the pointy teeth are for -- making more vampires.)

So here it is: the opening salvo in what looks to be the worst summer-movie season in recent memory. It's artificial, it's noisy, it's big and stupid and bloated like anything (140 minutes! what the fuck!). I guess that makes it a perfect figurehead for a season which will also hand down "Catwoman" and "White Girls" and "The Day After Tomorrow" and "The Stepford Wives" and God knows what else. Before I wrap this up, I guess I should say something nice, so... um... well, the opening sequence was cute. And like I said, I liked the handling of the Frankenstein character. And... er... it's not as bad as the last Kate Beckinsale film I saw (the unspeakable "Underworld"... which, come to think of it, also had vampires and werewolves hanging out together... coincidence? I think not!). Any more than that, I can't give. Give this bastard a wide berth.