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Home / Articles / Archive / Film & TV /  S.W.A.T. Flies
Film & TV

S.W.A.T. Flies

Familiar devices still make for a fun cinematic ride.

By Greg Beacham
Posted // June 11,2007 -

After a terrific year for powerful documentaries—think Spellbound, Capturing the Friedmans, The Fog of War—the Slamdance Film Festival is expanding its doc roster substantially. “It really had to do with the documentary film submissions that we received,” says Nubia Flores, Slamdance’s director of programming. “There was a significant increase in the past two years. It’s obvious that there’s a trend going on, and we wanted our annual programming to reflect that.”


The seven documentaries in competition will get their festival premieres in Park City, then move to the new Madstone Trolley Square in Salt Lake City for second and third screenings, with one of its four screens devoted to late afternoon and early evening showings of the Slamdance docs. These screenings will include festival-favorite Q& sessions with filmmakers.


Flores is expecting big crowds at Madstone. “Last year our biggest-selling film, the Ramones documentary End of the Century, absolutely broke Slamdance box office records—it sold out all four screenings.”


The feature documentaries screening in competition at Slamdance, all but one of them world premieres, are:


Arakimentari, Travis Klose’s portrait of “Japan’s most notorious photographer,” Nobuyoshi Araki, whose nudes and geishas have had a tremendous impact on the depiction of women in Japanese culture. “The erotic and death always lie side by side in his photography,” one of his models declaims; he’s “a little bit like a dirty uncle” giggles another. How outré is he? He counts Bjrk among his fans. (www.arakimentari.com)


Bruce Haack: The King of Techno, from director Philip Anagnos, is a celebration of the trippy whimsy of the synth pioneer. His electric, eclectic music—Haack wrote science fiction nursery rhymes for kids and esoteric space-age pop for hippies — has inspired a new generation of artists, and the film features such names as Money Mark and Anubian Lights, as well as a special appearance by—who else?—Mister Rogers. (www.haackmovie.com)


Big City Dick: Richard Peterson’s First Movie, from the trio of Scott Milam, Ken Harder, Todd Pottinger. “More Rain Man than Rain Man,” Petersen is a savant street musician with strange celebrity obsessions—from Johnny Mathis to Jeff Bridges—who has struggled all his life for a successful career in music. And then his discovery, by the Stone Temple Pilots, begins another fascinating odyssey. (www.bigcitydick.com)


Factor 8: The Arkansas Prison Blood Scandal, Kelly Duda’s investigation of a public-health controversy that has received virtually no news coverage in the United States. Through interviews with prisoners and prison officials, Duda uncovers a shocking open secret: For years, the Arkansas Department of Corrections harvested diseased plasma from inmates—so-called “blood cows”—and sold it for the production of blood-clotting agents, infecting as many as 1 million people worldwide with AIDS and Hepatitis C. (www.factor8movie.com)


Monster Road, from director Brett Ingram, a profile of cult animator Bruce Bickford. Though Bickford is legendary for the darkly enchanting clay animations he created for Frank Zappa in the 1970s, there’s four decades worth of work in portfolio that’s gone mostly unseen until now. (www.brighteyepictures.com)


Plagues & Pleasures: A Life at the Salton Sea, a nostalgic requiem for a lost future from directors Chris Metzler & Jeff Springer. Now abandoned, the Southern California desert resort at the Salton Sea, touted as the next Palm Springs, was the premier working-class vacationer’s destination. (www.deadtilapia.com)


The Watershed, a personal film from director Mary Trunk, in which she lays bare the dissolution of her “perfect” family. From a blissful early childhood on Long Island through moves to Southern California and Florida, Trunk relates the downward spiral she witnessed, along with her six younger siblings, through their parents’ divorce and alcoholism and the family’s newfound poverty. (www.thewatershedproject.com)

SLAMDANCE IN SALT LAKE, Madstone Trolley Square, 552 S. 600 East, 322-3200 , Jan. 17-22

Film Slamdance documentaries march down the mountain fornlocal showings. Grand Slam 1CD3D2FB-2BF4-55D0-F1FC5329B20DC04E 2007-06-11 16:07:30.0 1 1 0 2004-01-15 00:00:00.0 3 0

Now I like whimsical picaresque meanderings as much as the next guy, but ... oh wait. No, I don’t.


Some of you fine and gentle readers likely still believe that Forrest Gump was a charming and fanciful tale of personal triumph. Others see it as more akin to a celebration of borderline retardation as the key to riding out the tides of war and turmoil—30 years of American history filtered through Robert Fulghum. It was a glossy, technically magnificent package for the most simplistic of anti-intellectual homilies.


In Big Fish, director Tim Burton doesn’t play the “holy fool” card with nearly the syrupy abandon employed by Robert Zemeckis in Gump. But the nonstop parade of episodic magic still offers mostly the shiny wrapper to a hollow box. It’s relentlessly engaging to the eye to mask the fact that it doesn’t have much rattling around in its head.


It starts, at least, with the suggestion that it’s going to have plenty of heart. William Bloom (Billy Crudup), a young international reporter, learns that his father Edward (Albert Finney) is terminally ill, and returns home to Alabama to help out his mother, Sandra, (Jessica Lange) with Edward’s last days. But William also needs to help himself: He has plenty of unresolved paternal issues, stemming from Edward’s long traveling-salesman absences from William’s childhood and his penchant for hiding himself behind tall tales.


As the son tries to find the man behind his father’s most colorful yarns, we see those adventures played out before us. Young Edward (Ewan McGregor) confronts a giant (Matthew McGrory) who is plaguing his hometown. He leaves Alabama to make his mark in the world, joining the circus and doing heroic deeds during the Korean War. And he goes to extraordinary lengths to woo the young Sandra (Alison Lohman) he knows is his destiny.


Burton employs an A-list collection of tech talent to bring Edward’s exotic whoppers to life—production designer Dennis Gassner (several Coen brothers films including The Hudsucker Proxy and O Brother, Where Art Thou?); cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (A River Runs Through It) and costume designer Colleen Atwood (Chicago, Burton’s Edward Scissorhands). They fashion a magnificently-realized world of creepy backwoods bogs, singing conjoined twins and mermaids perfectly matched to the twinkle that now seems permanently affixed to Ewan McGregor’s eye.


It’s all quite a lot to take in one gulp, but Burton isn’t about to let up—not when the punch line is that the spinning of elaborate narratives is an end in itself. The tension between Edward and William could have been played for real emotional payoff, the kind of stuff that caused Field of Dreams to leave lumps in the throats of grown men. But John August’s script for Big Fish warps Daniel Wallace’s story of a son trying to dig into the dad he really doesn’t understand, turning it into a mash note to what a wonderful place the world is when guys start their conversations with, “Did I ever tell you the one about the time when I ...?”


The adaptation’s biggest stumble is evident in the film’s climax, which takes a miraculous deathbed occurrence and literalizes it in a way that robs it of its conventional power. Is it the kind of big kicker that’s going to choke up a heaping hunk of the audience? You bet it is. It’s also the perfect summation of Burton’s approach to Big Fish: He’s going to build a brick house of shimmering fantasia, cementing it together with gooey wonderment by the trowelful.


Big Fish isn’t anything close to a bad film. It’s skillfully made, performed with satisfying gusto and shows itself at least remotely concerned with showing its audience something new and different. Yet it can’t help being a huge disappointment watching Tim Burton—one of the few American filmmakers who has always seemed to make his movies first and foremost for himself—charge so resolutely into the task of making a movie intended to be a feel-good crowd-pleaser. Sure, it’s nice to have idiosyncratic storytellers like Edward Bloom in the world. It’s even nicer having idiosyncratic storytellers like Tim Burton—at least when he’s not Gumping up the works with Hallmark card sentiment.

BIG FISH, **.5, Ewan McGregor, Billy Crudup, Albert Finney, Rated PG-13

Film Tim Burton lays the Southern-fried fancy on thick innBig Fish. Forced Gump 1CD3D491-2BF4-55D0-F1F2402DC7AE5E47 2007-06-11 16:07:30.0 1 1 8D9A2982-1372-FCBB-832FDF825FA8241A 0 2004-01-08 00:00:00.0 0 0
Maryann Johanson

These kids today. I mean, when I was in high school, kids got picked on. There were weirdos no one wanted to hang out with, freaks everyone made fun of. There was taunting, teasing and ostracizing galore. Almost everyone, at some point, was on both the giving and the receiving end. And surely there were as many guns around in the 1980s, when I was in high school, as there are fewer than 20 years later. So what’s so different that kids are suddenly killing each other over things we shrugged off when I was a kid?


I don’t have the answer—I’m not sure anyone really knows why. But this reality—kids killing kids over bullying—is explored in the grim, sharply caustic Zero Day. Almost a flip side of Gus Van Sant’s similarly themed Elephant—which unravels during a single day on which a school shooting occurs—Ben Coccio’s film takes opposite tacks in almost all possible ways. It’s strictly about the perpetrators, where Elephant focuses on the victims, and Coccio makes no pretense to moody artsiness. Both films are concerned with the shocking blossoming from the everyday, but Coccio isn’t concerned with setting up innocent lambs for the slaughter, like Van Sant seems to be. He’s interested in the wolves, and what drives them.


But while it’s entirely about giving voice to the cold-blooded killers, it offers nothing by way of excuse, which is its great strength. In fact, the lack of any kind of explanation for their crime may leave some viewers wondering what the point of the endeavor is, if it can’t shed some light on the inexplicable. Others will find a dispassionate, clear-eyed mirror held up to the inexplicable—a necessary beginning to the search for answers.


Ben Coccio’s chilling mockumentary-style film takes the form of the video diaries of a self-styled “Army of Two” as they plan a Columbine-style massacre at their high school. Andre (Andre Keuck) and Cal (Calvin Robertson) are terrifyingly calm and rational in their monologues to the camera, or as they lead the viewer on a tour of preparations that begin the summer before their senior year. They know they will not be graduating. They’re consciously speaking to the future, a future in which their rampage, ending in their suicides, has already happened. “It’s gonna be unreal,” says Cal, “it’s gonna be beautiful.”


But there’s not a lot of glee in what we see. Instead, the boys are desperate not to be seen as stupid. They’re gonna be smart about it; they’ve studied Columbine and other school shootings and won’t make the same mistakes others have made, going about their plan in a methodical, paramilitary way. They’re not crazy—in fact, there’s a sense of the inevitable about the whole thing, like it is simply a fact of life today for teenagers that someone is destined to shoot up every school, and in this case, clearly it’s meant to be Andre and Cal. Of course, that’s not the case ... unless the kids really do feel this way, and then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.


The power of Zero Day is in its banality: the presentation of the video camera to Andre by his beaming parents on his 18th birthday, so unaware of what he intends to use the camera for; Cal getting his braces off and his mother so happy with his beautiful teeth, the payoff on an investment in a future that will never happen. These are normal kids, normal families. No one wears horns or black hats. The catalog of Cal and Andre’s grievances, the annoyances fueling their hatred, are so petty as to be the stuff of everyday life for teenagers: how the popular football jock gets away with drinking and driving, how Andre is labeled a “faggot,” how everyone is an “asshole.” It’s ordinary stuff, however depressing and unfortunate.


So why are these two kids driven to homicide? “Fuck the reasons,” they say. “There are none.” And that’s the scariest aspect of it all.

ZERO DAY, ***, Andre Keuck, Calvin Robertson, Not Rated

Film The mockumentary tale of two would-be school shooters offers no easy answers in Zero Day. Shot for Shot 1CD3D57B-2BF4-55D0-F1F603C3ED18FBBE 2007-06-11 16:07:31.0 1 1 0 2004-01-08 00:00:00.0 0 0

Cold Mountain may ultimately be a thoroughly conventional epic wartime romance, but chew on this: It may be the most revolutionary thoroughly conventional epic wartime romance ever made.


That ain’t doublespeak, and it ain’t no cop-out, neither. In its way, Cold Mountain has the same sweeping literary weeper aspirations as The English Patient—writer/director Anthony Minghella’s previous foray into historical tragedy—and the same Oscar-grubbing pedigree.


But there’s something twitchy and unexpected going on beneath the gorgeous surface of this movie, something you don’t generally find in a film that wants to yank regally at your tear ducts. In short, it may be the first film of its kind where A. the lovers are clearly and intentionally the least interesting thing about the story, and B. it has the nerve to suggest that the lovers don’t really even belong together.


All that, of course, before it succumbs to a payoff it really hasn’t earned. The more compelling material comes earlier, set up (in flashback) by a whirlwind 1860 courtship in the titular small North Carolina town. Inman (Jude Law) is a taciturn fellow who avoids the zealous warmongering of his secession-minded friends; Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) is a relatively recent arrival, the refined, city-bred daughter of the new minister (Donald Sutherland). A few conversations and a stolen kiss between the two are quickly followed by the call to arms, with promises to return and to wait, respectively.


Four years later, a wounded Inman decides that continuing to be cannon fodder for the inevitable Southern defeat makes little sense, so he flees his hospital bed and begins a long walk home as a deserter. Back in Cold Mountain, meanwhile, a desperate Ada has taken in earthy Ruby Thewes (Renee Zellweger) to help her manage the farm, changing nearly as much as Inman has over the same span.


Minghella shifts back and forth between their parallel stories, with neither Ada nor Inman able to walk a step without tripping over a colorful supporting character. Inman winds up on the run with a lusty, defrocked preacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman); enjoys the hospitality of a suspicious character (Giovanni Ribisi) and his sirenlike womenfolk; crosses a river with a mercenary ferrywoman (Jena Malone); heals with the help of a goat-herding hermit woman (Eileen Atkins); and stays the night with a widowed single mother (Natalie Portman). Ada, the poor deprived soul, must be content with the company of Ruby, Ruby’s ne’er-do-well father (Brendan Gleeson) and his traveling musician companions (including the White Stripes’ Jack White).


The Odyssey-styled odyssey makes for slightly fractured storytelling, but in the process Minghella brings to life a blasted landscape with little place for nobility or honor. With the characteristic confidence he showed in adapting The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley, Minghella takes the difficult source material and bends it effectively to suit the needs of his medium. No contemporary filmmaker understands better when to be respectful of his text and when to throw the text out.


But he’s still got the dilemma of his war-torn lovers’ apparent lack of connection—and he works out the problem brilliantly. Minghella punches up the notion of Ada and Inman each using the golden-tinged memory of the other as one pure thing to cling to in a world of chaos. They’re not in love, Cold Mountain dares to suggest, and what’s more, in their heart of hearts they know it. Clutching the idea of a potential love is simply the only way they know not to give up.


Of course, the fact that Ada and Inman are narrative tools can’t get around the fact that they’re still the center of the story, despite their relative blandness. Kidman never quite convinces as Southern belle turned flinty homesteader, while Law thousand-yard-stares into the middle distance, taking one for the team by turning off his personal charisma. They cede the film to the likes of Zellweger—whose chewy performance is as entertaining as it is wrong in nearly every possible way for the no-nonsense Ruby—yet Minghella ultimately can’t resist playing the fate of his two protagonists for all the operatic whoop-de-do he can muster.


Cold Mountain crane-shoots itself in the foot by playing to the crowd, when the more revelatory subtext is that in the film’s crazy world, Ada and Inman understand as well as anyone that their love story doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.


COLD MOUNTAIN, *** , Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger, Rated R

Film Superficial wartime romance proves both good and bad in Cold Mountain. Gone With the Whim 1CD3D666-2BF4-55D0-F1FEBC41AD53D87B 2007-06-11 16:07:31.0 1 1 8D9A2982-1372-FCBB-832FDF825FA8241A 0 2003-12-25 00:00:00.0 0 0
Greg Beacham

On one of my first trips to New York, somebody bashed in the window to my car in the 15 minutes it took me to walk a few blocks in search of the Empire State Building. Broad daylight, middle of a busy street, somebody smashes the window—and then doesn’t take anything. Not my bags full of clothes, not my CDs out in plain sight (guess they didn’t like the Miami Sound Machine or Mister Mister). Just bashes my window. Damnedest thing.


I haven’t taken any polls of similar rubes, but I have a feeling my Gotham debut is much closer to the norm of 1980s New York than the magical mystery tour enjoyed by the Irish family illegally migrating to Manhattan in In America, director Jim Sheridan’s impossibly romanticized film ? clef about his own move. For starters, the family is somehow able to drive through Times Square at night without encountering any traffic on their first trip to midtown. They find an apartment in a crappy building, but it’s a two-bedroom loft with big gorgeous windows and a skylight, which enables some beautifully lit shots of this hardscrabble clan’s gracious emigrating. It looks like Martha Stewart’s prison cell.


Fresh-faced daughters Christy and Ariel (Sarah and Emma Bolger) go trick-or-treating in their nasty building, where they meet a screaming, ill painter named Mateo (Djimon Hounsou). He’s just the sort of stares-somberly-so-he-must-be-noble black man who tends to pop up in the lives of white movie characters just long enough to teach them a valuable lesson and stuff before either meeting an untimely end or turning out to be a ghost caddy.


In short, it takes a tremendous leap over the high hurdles of logic to truly enjoy the undeniable storytelling charisma of In America. Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father) wrote the screenplay with his daughters, Naomi and Kirsten, and the film is stacked with the careful details and wistful dialogue that’s supposed to obscure the mawkish manipulation on which everything is based. Sure, there’s genuine emotion at work here as well: The family moves in part to escape the memory of the accidental death of Frankie, the girls’ older brother. But for every touching moment, there are two or three off-kilter, unconvincing episodes that either yank much too hard on the heartstrings or hammer home an obvious lesson about cherishing the small moments of life, or appreciating your family before they’re killed, or loving the simple joys of air conditioning.


Samantha Morton (Minority Report) cut her hair again to play Sarah, the mother. Her gentle, winning performance is the least affected element on screen—at least until she becomes pregnant with a child that gives pause to her husband, Johnny (Paddy Considine, also good), an actor moonlighting as a taxi driver. The couple has a fantastic, nearly wordless scene early on in which Johnny risks the family’s money to win a doll at a street fair. The couple’s interplay seems grown-up, interesting and less sneaky than other aspects of In America. We find ourselves wanting more.


Instead, we get more wish-upon-a-star melodrama surrounding the daughters, who were traumatized by their brother’s death in different ways. Christy, our narrator, watches footage of her brother on a video camera that’s at least 10 technological years ahead of the film’s ostensible early-’80s time frame. It’s a laughably lazy mistake in what’s supposed to be a piece of verité, but Sheridan apparently felt the poignancy was something he couldn’t pass up, even if it meant sacrificing credibility.


But Sheridan has a much harder sell than he realizes, and he doesn’t make it. What he clearly sees as a raw, personal film has the unmistakable sheen of Hollywood on it; it’s a gritty story filtered through the filmmaking process until only manipulation is left. Manhattan was irresistible to this family. Too bad real emotion was so repellent.


IN AMERICA, **, Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton, Djimon Hounsou, Rated R

Film Jim Sheridan gives New York immigrant life a gooey romanticism in In America. Lack of the Irish 1CD3D760-2BF4-55D0-F1F877CFCFA818E2 2007-06-11 16:07:31.0 1 1 0 2003-12-25 00:00:00.0 0 0
Maryann Johanson

Here’s the thing: Calendar Girls will invariably be compared to The Full Monty. It’s charming English-type people getting naked for a good cause, so how could it not be? Not to put down The Full Monty, which is a lovely little film, or men—some of my best friends are male, after all—but there’s a world of difference between Monty and Girls, and that difference is the one between how male and female nudity are depicted onscreen.


I mean, you’d think, with the way that men (some men, anyway) go on about their dangly bits, that they’d be only too happy to drop trou up on the big screen with only the slightest provocation. But it never works out that way, of course, because then all the bravado and the big words may be discovered to be, ahem, not so big after all. But boobs? Damn, even when we gals are fully dressed, everyone can plainly see what we do or don’t have, so geez, what’s the big deal about showing ’em?


That seems to be the general consensus around the male-dominated film industry, at least: Protect the pride and dignity of guys, but let the gals go nekkid cuz their secrets are out in the open anyway. You couldn’t make a film in which women baring their breasts was the grand finale—like the guys not having to go the full monty till the very end, not that we got a glimpse of anything—cuz where’s the big revelation in knockers? We see ’em all the time.


And that’s what makes Calendar Girls such a great little film. Going the full monty—the full betsy? the full breasty?—is a moment of triumph for the gals, naturally, but that’s only the beginning. Yorkshire lasses Annie Clarke (Julie Walters) and Chris Harper (Helen Mirren) concoct their nudist scheme after Annie’s husband dies of cancer, and they want to raise money in his name for the hospital that treated him. Typically, their Women’s Institute—a conservative, Rotary Club kind of organization—does an annual calendar: bridges of Yorkshire or churches of Yorkshire, which raises a few hundred pounds. Chris’s radical idea: photograph members of the local chapter doing traditionally twee WI things, like gardening or baking buns, only they’re doing it in the buff.


Daring as it may be, from a Hollywood perspective, to craft a flick around, you know, older women getting naked—which is just absurd anyway, because Helen Mirren and Julie Walters are timeless goddesses—it still wouldn’t do to have the film culminate in the throwing away of bras. The women here, Annie and Chris and 10 other adventurous ladies, do grab a sense of freedom and bravery from taking it all off and participating in the, it must be noted, very tasteful and not at all salacious photo shoot, which results in a very tasteful and not at all salacious calendar, available for sale in the lobby.


But women—if we’re going to be honest about these things, and this is an honest film—are far too practical to let a simple decision about getting in the altogether in public be dragged out for the length of a two-hour film. It’s everything that comes after the running naked and the photo shoot that’s the really interesting gal-pal stuff: the fame and the recognition and the hounding by the press and Chris’s near desertion of her husband (Ciarán Hinds) while Annie still mourns for hers that tests the friendship of these best of friends.


It’s all more bittersweet and tangier than you’d expect, saturated with a bracing Yorkshire humor and walking that fine line between open sentimentality and genuine feeling. It’s a chick flick about real chicks: strong, interesting women full of personality and driven by authentic spirit. Forget about the “victory” of public nudity—this is a film about the victory of maintaining a friendship through the roughest of times, through fame and grief. Calendar Girls takes back the derogatory moniker that gets slapped on films about phony women and wears it like a badge of female honor. Though it may have nothing upon which to pin it except bare skin.

Film Older women in the buff for charity is just the start of adventure in Calendar Girls. The Full Monthly 1CD3D879-2BF4-55D0-F1F2EE2CD75AB81E 2007-06-11 16:07:31.0 1 1 0 2004-01-01 00:00:00.0 0 0
Greg Beacham

Is pomposity a plague? Does it spread and grow stronger, like syphilis or the hook from Outkast’s “The Way You Move”? Can a massive gathering of pseudo-anarchic poseurs in the Black Rock Desert actually generate a palpable mass of self-importance big enough to block out the sun, or at least envelop Reno in a fog of junior-college philosophizing?


We should find out in the next few years. Burning Man, that previously mentioned annual meet-and-greet in western Nevada, seems to grow in size and scope every year. As you probably already know, it has expanded from a fun little festival of hedonism and New Age nonsense into what fans call “an annual alternative-cultural gathering of legendary repute.”


The festival is the subject of an independently produced documentary called Confessions of a Burning Man, which is winding its way through sympathetic theaters. Though directors Paul Barnett and Unsu Lee came up with an intriguing strategy to document the 2001 event through the lives of four first-time Burning Manners, a truly agonizing amount of pomposity is packed into this atmospheric, sometimes incoherent picture. The film ends up being as much about the pompousness as it is about the festival, but unfortunately, nobody seems to be in on the joke but the audience. It’s unintentional comedy on a grand scale; too often in this hustle-and-bustle world, we forget to be grateful for the simple pleasures in life, such as people who take themselves way, way too seriously.


Basically, this is The Real Cancun painted on a sprawling canvas of thirtysomething nouveau hippies, social workers, unsuccessful artists and straight-up exhibitionists. From the moment we see the typographical error in its opening titles, Confessions of a Burning Man identifies itself as a labor of sloppy, unapologetic love, and that’s what makes the goofiness even more appealing. Barnett and Lee shoot montages that would make up the coolest Enya video ever, but the images have been seen in the saturated media coverage of the event. The draw here is the characters, who rarely disappoint.


One of our main players is Anna Getty, who can’t wait to “get to go into the desert and just, like, be raw and vomit everywhere.” She seems a bit conflicted. We also meet a hip-hop aficionado from a tough San Francisco neighborhood who’s usually talking about himself, except when he’s babbling incoherently about the media’s evil influence (if he really wanted to be cutting-edge, he should have railed against the newspaper and radio station that are created as part of the Burning Man city).


The film is filled with the kind of people who open a profound spiritual connection by singing along to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, as one woman does. And if you’re a native Westerner, you’ll know everything you need to know when somebody expounds on the primal beauty of the desert while pronouncing the name of the state being invaded as “Nevahhhhhda.” Larry Harvey, the deified founder of the feast, drops by to rail against Costco. You’ll also be struck by the sheer size of Burning Man; how many people have to gather together before the rest of us are the ones with the alternative lifestyle?


Perhaps I missed something here. My preview DVD’s sound levels were distorted enough that I missed a few sections of commentary that might have tied everything together. And I’m not trying to be a hater: Vishnu bless the people who take Burning Man so seriously. They’re profoundly convinced they’re doing something transcendental, something that emanates from the basis of human existence—and they’ll tell you so until your head bleeds from the pencil you used to puncture your eardrums.


But that doesn’t make Confessions of a Burning Man good cinema. When they finally light that big wooden guy in the middle of the playa, it’s a miracle that the crowd’s mental flatulence doesn’t turn into a big blue ball of flame, streaking across the cold desert sky.

Film The conceit of Confessions of a Burning Man provides unintentional comedy. Bonfires of Inanity 1CD3D992-2BF4-55D0-F1F122A575466B72 2007-06-11 16:07:32.0 1 1 0 2004-01-01 00:00:00.0 2 0

There’s no point even pretending that a review of The Return of the King is a review of just one film. And there’s no point even pretending that it should be.


Somewhere out there, undoubtedly, is a poor, deprived soul who will wander into a showing of The Return of the King utterly unfamiliar with the two Lord of the Rings episodes that came before, just as there was undoubtedly someone who plopped down in a seat for The Phantom Menace a Star Wars virgin. But just as most critical assessments of George Lucas’ Episode I were based on anticipation and an existing mythology, most opinions on The Return of the King are going to be less about its stand-alone narrative than about the film as summation, as part of a larger whole. After nine hours—not counting Special Edition footage—this has become a single, monumental cinematic experience.


On any number of small levels, The Return of the King probably isn’t quite the movie either of its predecessors was. It’s a ganglier, less focused narrative than The Fellowship of the Ring, and lacks some of the grim grandeur of The Two Towers. Yet The Return of the King still transcends its visual effects in a way most blockbusters can only dream. As it comes in for a landing, Peter Jackson’s trilogy throbs with the sense that it all means something.


There’s still a long way to go before that landing as we pick up where The Two Towers left off. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and company may have won a battle at Helm’s Deep, but the evil armies of Lord Sauron are still powerful enough to threaten the city of Minas Tirith in the land of Gondor. Middle Earth’s last, best hope remains the mission of Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) to cast the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom, but their guide Smeagol/Gollum (Andy Serkis) still has plans for regaining custody of his “precious.”


The Two Towers set such a high bar for astonishing technical prowess that it might have taken Jackson creating actual artificial life to match it. The titanic battles of Minas Tirith and Pelennor Fields may echo Towers’ jaw-dropping Helm’s Deep sequences, but take the warfare to a different level by expanding the canvas. Warriors of Rohan on horseback plow through orc armies, before being swept aside themselves by the tusks of massive pachyderms; Nazgul demons sweep over the fields on winged beasts wreaking havoc. Add the ongoing work of art that is Gollum—still a character more real than anything ever played by Tara Reid—and The Return of the King continues to dazzle as pure fantasy.


It’s also considerably more than that, which is a lesson George Lucas seems to have a hard time learning. The lasting achievement of Jackson in adapting Tolkien’s tales—along with co-scripters Frances Walsh and Philippa Boyens—has been taking what could have been an archetypal battle of Good vs. Evil and giving it genuine emotional weight. While the visions of corrupting power begun with Frodo and Smeagol continue in the character of Denethor (John Noble)—the cowering steward of Gondor who fears loss of his authority to the titular returning king Aragorn—Jackson also builds on the relationships that give even more power to those who unite in good will. As ripe as the pairing of Frodo and Sam has been for homoerotic speculation, their commitment to one another creates the film’s most resonant individual moments. Though the romantic triangle of Aragorn, Arwen (Liv Tyler) and Eowyn (Miranda Otto) remains the trilogy’s chief distraction, the grace notes of fellowship acknowledged—like the playful body-count one-upmanship of Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom)—are hard to shake.


Eventually, this too must come to an end, and some critics have already groused about the extended coda that keeps the film going for 20 minutes past the true climax. That’s still a hell of a lot less time than Tolkien’s post-war postscripts take up on the page, and while it’s a bit stylistically jarring to keep anticipating the credits every four minutes, it also feels fitting and earned for the story to ease to a peaceful close. But perhaps by that point, anything would have felt right. The Return of the King—imperfections and all—encapsulates an improbably glorious achievement.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING, ***.5, Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, Rated PG-13

Film The Return of the King gives an epic spectacle the conclusion it deserves. Full Cycle 1CD3DA9C-2BF4-55D0-F1F361921587BDDD 2007-06-11 16:07:32.0 1 1 8D9A2982-1372-FCBB-832FDF825FA8241A 0 2003-12-18 00:00:00.0 0 0
Greg Beacham

The Farrelly brothers have gone all soft and gooey in Stuck on You, their new comedy about conjoined twins and the women who love them. That’s no surprise, however: Though their disgustingly inventive comedies are known primarily for their advances in the genre of gross-out humor, these guys are actually old-fashioned sentimentalists hiding behind that vat of bodily fluids.


For better or worse, their latest films aspire to more than that base-level chuckle. They have as much freedom to indulge their every whim as the Coen brothers, and in their own mainstream way, they’ve proven to be just as defiant of expectations. Their screenplays are all about love in its most bizarre permutations. They cast their friends in important speaking parts. They score their films to eclectically uncommercial soundtracks—and they love to spotlight people with disabilities. A cynic would say Peter and Bobby Farrelly are laughing at the misfits and fringe players who regularly pop up in their films, but one viewing of Stuck on You should be enough to convince anyone that the brothers see genuine, unpretentious nobility in their films’ characters.


While the rest of Hollywood attributed the success of Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary to a handful of disgusting gags and then tried to replicate them in a long series of increasingly incoherent comedies, the Farrelly brothers have become stingy with the scatology and lavish with the love. They’ve realized ugly doesn’t age well; Stuck on You has nothing in it that would even qualify as gross. Instead, it’s a pretty, sappy poem celebrating brotherly love and tolerance. It’s quick-witted, impressively inventive and profoundly good-natured—and it all comes from what might be the Farrelly brothers’ weirdest setup since Kingpin.


Walt (Greg Kinnear) and Bob (Matt Damon) Tenor share a liver. They’re attached by a 9-inch section of skin and tissue at their midsection, but they haven’t let it slow them down. They play every sport, they have a love life and they make a good living as short-order cooks at their own restaurant. They even find time for amateur theater: Walt plays Truman Capote in a one-man show on their native Martha’s Vineyard, while Bob hides behind him and has panic attacks.


Any operation to separate them would be risky, since Bob has most of the liver. It’s also risky to poke around the science of this setup, since all conjoined twins are identical. Details. When Walt decides he must move to Hollywood to try to be a real actor, Bob goes with him, helps make friends with a cheerful would-be starlet (Eva Mendes) and eventually helps Walt land a job on a forensic crime TV series opposite Cher (playing herself as a screaming harpy with a heart of gold).


The film is attached to Damon and Kinnear, who get no scenes off in an otherwise laid-back story. They fit together well, nimbly exploiting the countless opportunities for physical comedy in the fairly exhaustive script. Damon still treads gingerly in comedy, but neither actor is required to be terribly goofy. Kinnear seems to be having great fun, flipping his blond bangs out of the way in a broader role than Damon has. His two scenes with Meryl Streep, including the climactic musical number, are practically crude genius.


Stuck on You is a good movie that probably won’t appeal to the teenagers who buy the tickets that make big-ticket comedies into hits, as evidenced by its lackluster box-office performance on opening weekend. Though it makes no advances in the genre, it’s juvenile in the best possible sense: free of the cynicism and self-conscious cleverness that makes being an adult so much less fun than it should be. And there’s no need to add fluid.


STUCK ON YOU, ***, Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Eva Mendes, Rated PG-13

Film Bodily fluids give way to heart in the Farrelly brothers’ Stuck on You. Gross Deficit 1CD3DBA5-2BF4-55D0-F1FDEEF32A954BE4 2007-06-11 16:07:32.0 1 1 0 2003-12-18 00:00:00.0 1 0

When is a summer action blockbuster not a summer action blockbuster? When the studio yanks it from its summer release slot because it isn’t entirely sure what to do with something this weird, this wild, this stylistically original in its unabashed pursuit of old-fashioned fun.


Originally slotted to open back in June, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is in many ways the prototype for a summer Hollywood film. There’s plenty of action; there are a couple of recognizable stars; there’s a hero, a villain and special effects out the wazoo. But writer/director Kerry Conran didn’t want his film to look like every other disposable shlocktacular, and that is both his blessing and his curse. A slick, sepia-toned love letter to vintage 1930s serial adventures, Sky Captain plays like a kid movie wrapped in the skin of an experimental art film. It looks like what might happen if Guy Maddin ever decided to make a superhero flick.


And that unlikely combo is what makes it both such a simple pleasure and such a hard sell. Sky Captain opens in 1939 New York City with a dirigible flight, a frightened scientist and two mysterious vials. Intrepid reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) has the chance to pull all the pieces together, but before she can get to the bottom of things, there are giant robots marching through Manhattan on an unknown mission. Enter “Sky Captain” Joe Sullivan (Jude Law), a swaggering flyboy who leads his own private airborne army—and who, incidentally, is an ex-flame of Polly’s. Determined to discover the robots’ purpose, Polly and Joe begin a quest that leads from Nepal to the middle of the ocean, centering on a German scientist with an apocalyptic vision.


If I had you at “giant robots marching through Manhattan,” then you’ve probably come to the right place. Conran throws elements from 1950s science fiction, Flash Gordon and Doc Savage together into a genre blender, crafting a humdinger of an adventure in the process. Sky Captain battles bad guys while weaving through skyscraper canyons; machine sentries challenge an amphibious assault on the bad guy’s lair; and yes, there are giant robots. And they shoot lasers out of their eyes. Good God, why are you not standing in line to buy a ticket right now?


The thing is that those robots are just part of Conran’s grand plan for a period rave-up played almost entirely against blue screens. Paltrow, Law and company perform with computer-generated menaces, computer-generated cityscapes and computer-generated landscapes. Conran integrates the elements of his story almost seamlessly, ably assisted by director of photography Eric Adkins and a production design by Conran’s brother Kevin, but it takes a while to get your bearings in this world of glossy exteriors and stylized color palettes. Audiences burned by two Star Wars films full of wooden actors in CGI situations may look at the trailer and wonder whether this is just an artsy-fartsier version of what George Lucas has tried to put over on them.


But honest to goodness, this thing is fun. It clips along at a brisk pace, keeping its story simple and the action beats regular, with Edward Shearmur’s sweeping fanfare score adding even more adrenaline to its pulse. Giovanni Ribisi adds solid comic relief as Joe’s gadget-head sidekick Dex, and Angelina Jolie vamps her way through her small role as a British soldier. There’s a deadly Mysterious Woman (Bai Ling) as a nemesis, and lots of clever dialogue. And by the way, have I mentioned the giant robots that shoot lasers out of their eyes? Just checking.


That’s not to say it’s a perfect piece of cinematic cotton candy. While Paltrow holds up her end of the romantic bantering, Law never looks entirely comfortable, playing Joe without the easygoing, slightly vulnerable twinkle that made Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones so indelible. And though the revelation of the evil mastermind involves the masterful use of a legendary actor, the resolution feels abrupt and vaguely unsatisfying.


Paramount Pictures, meanwhile, is hoping for a satisfying resolution to its attempts to sell Sky Captain to America’s multiplex-goers. Messing with the blockbuster formula is risky business. Here’s hoping people are willing to take a chance on finding the gleefully exciting summer movie lurking beneath Sky Captain’s sepia-toned skin.


SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW *** Jude Law Gwyneth Paltrow Giovanni Ribisi Rated PG-13

Film Vintage adventures turn into stylized fun in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Sweetened Serial 1CD3DD5B-2BF4-55D0-F1FCE43B7426686A 2007-06-11 16:07:33.0 1 1 8D9A2982-1372-FCBB-832FDF825FA8241A 0 2004-09-16 00:00:00.0 0 0

Holly Ornstein Carter knows it sounds like she’s encouraging people to take their medicine. She also believes that as medicine goes, it doesn’t get more engaging or compelling than the kind of movies Global Film Initiative champions.


Launched two years ago by chairperson Susan Weeks Coulter and Noah Cowan—since departed to co-direct the Toronto Film Festival—Global Film Initiative took as its mission the promoting of cross-cultural understanding through cinema. But Carter—Cowan’s successor as executive director—wants to dispel the notion that an educational film experience is a dry film experience. “We’re going to keep working really hard to make people realize [this program] is a lot more fun than wasting your $10 on a horrific Hollywood blockbuster,” says Carter.


The program that will be coming to several Utah venues over the space of 10 days showcases 10 films from countries that rarely get distribution in the United States, even in art house theaters. Djamshed Usmonov’s Angel on the Right deals with a released detainee from a Russian jail returning to his home in Tajikistan; Wretched Lives is set in the economically ravaged Philippines of the early 1990s Joseph Estrada regime.


While the art house audience willing to attend films of this kind might not seem to be the people most in need of this kind of education, Carter notes that one of GFI’s primary goals is bringing students into the equation. Four of the films—including the Palestinian drama Ticket to Jerusalem and the Brazilian silent film Margarette’s Feast—come complete with teaching guides, and it is anticipated that local high school classes from Horizonte School and others will make field trips to watch the films. “Feature films are an easier way to expose people to these new cultures or new ideas,” Carter says. “[Ticket to Jerusalem] is like getting on a plane to the Gaza Strip—it becomes so sensual that it’s a real experience, rather than just an intellectual experience.”


Carter adds that there’s something particularly valuable about the students’ viewing being in a theater, rather than on a videotape. “If we’re gonna turn people on [to world cinema], it’s likely the first time they’ll ever see a film like this, and we don’t want it to be the last. We want it to be in 35mm, on a big screen, with big sound.”


The education connection is part of what made Salt Lake City an attractive place to bring this program, which is reaching only 14 cities nationwide. Geralyn Dreyfous—executive director of the Salt Lake City Film Center, which is partnering on the presentation—notes that they partnered last year with the Utah Education Association on a pilot program for educational film outreach, and have already brought visiting filmmakers to local high schools. “The combination of our strength in this [education] community and a generation that’s grown up with the Sundance Film Festival,” says Dreyfous, makes this a better market than many people might expect for such an eclectic program.


Still, Carter realizes that she needs to combat that medicine-y taste that comes with discussing world cinema in an educational context. “When I look at our program guide, the photos look really dour,” Carter says with a laugh. “The people are either down and depressed, or screaming. But there are some films with very beautiful, sweet, happy moments. ... None of them are pedantic films about a place. All are incredibly rich stories told in another place.”


And, Carter believes, there may never have been a more important time in the country’s history for us to be informed about other places. “Our means are modest,” Carter says, “but we’ve managed to get these films seen by 15,000 people this year who never would have seen them. At least a few Americans are beginning to realize that we’re going blind—that we came up short in realizing there are a whole lot of people out there we know nothing about. We need to turn on the lights as quickly as we can.”


Carter is hoping that one of the best ways to turn on those lights is to get people, for at least a couple of hours, to sit in the dark.


Global Lens: New Cinema from the developing world. Broadway Centre Cinemas Sept. 10-16 Full schedule: www.slfilmcenter.org 746-7000

Film Global Film Initiative uses movies as a classroom in world cultures. Screen Test 1CD3DF7D-2BF4-55D0-F1F8CF493FBB6174 2007-06-11 16:07:33.0 1 1 8D9A2982-1372-FCBB-832FDF825FA8241A 0 2004-09-09 00:00:00.0 2 0

The name above the title—it has been the quest of would-be stars and starlets since images started spinning through projectors at 24 frames per second. With it come fame, fortune and the ability to cherry-pick your projects, as Reese Witherspoon learned when Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama became hits, turning her into cinema’s latest smiling sweetheart. And it could turn out to be the worst thing that ever happened to her as an actress.


Witherspoon promised to be an electrifying screen presence from an early age, anchoring the coming-of-age drama The Man in the Moon at the age of 14. She played edgy in the contemporary fairy tale Freeway, and shone as the brutally ambitious Tracy Flick in the brilliant Election. In the past, she has demonstrated all the skills to make for an ideal Becky Sharp in an adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, but something terrible may have happened on the way to Reese Witherspoon becoming a movie star. Playing a role that practically demands ambiguity of motivation, Witherspoon falls victim to the A-lister’s age-old curse—she seems afraid to let herself be unlikable on screen.


Not that the flaws in her performance are the only problem with this soggy adaptation. Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) directs this version of the tale of Becky Sharp, an orphan making her way through early 19th-century English society. After first landing a position as governess for a crumbling noble family, Becky becomes the favorite of wealthy Mathilda Crawley (Eileen Atkins), leading to her marriage to her patron’s nephew Rawdon (James Purefoy). Meanwhile, as Becky’s fortunes rise, those of her best friend Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai) fall, as debt brings her family down and threatens her match with merchant’s son George Osborne (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers).


Thackeray’s book is one of those massive tomes best suited to a TV mini-series treatment—there was one as recently as 1999—so it would be a challenge for any filmmaker to distill the epic content to 135 minutes. Still, Nair’s Vanity Fair plays particularly like it was made from a period-piece paint-by-numbers kit: the production design is appropriately sumptuous; Mychael Danna’s music blares its pedigree; actors deliver their lines with arched eyebrows and perfectly enunciated King’s English. There’s no momentum in the snippets of scenes culled from the source material. Atkins’ wily performance provides a burst of life—she similarly energized Cold Mountain in minimal screen time—but she’s out of the story far too soon, after which you can safely take a nap.


There are plenty of viewers who’d consider anything with carriages and powdered wigs snooze-worthy, but Vanity Fair should be much more compelling than that. Thackeray’s work addresses a pivotal moment in English society, when the rise of the bourgeoisie set the walls of inherited class privilege to crumbling. This is a tale of desperate scheming either to rise in status or preserve a status that appears precarious, yet too many of the actors behave as though their driving emotion is aloof indifference rather than social hunger.


And the chief culprit here, sadly, is Reese Witherspoon. From the first moment we see Becky Sharp, bargaining as a child with a nobleman (Gabriel Byrne) over the price for a portrait of her mother, she is a creature for whom sentimentality should never get in the way of a savvy economic maneuver. Yet the child actress who plays the young Becky seems to grasp that sensibility more fully than Witherspoon, whose line readings and facial expressions always seem designed to inspire sympathy for Becky, or admiration for her go-getter spirit. That’s the movie star’s approach to the material—not an absurd interpretation, but by far the least interesting, and certainly the least likely to threaten her long-term viability as a spunky romantic leading lady for whom we’ll cheer.


It would be easier to think that Witherspoon had just been miscast—like, say, Rhys Ifans, fumbling through the role of Amelia’s stolid admirer—but if nothing else, Election shows she has the chops for the part. Call it grossly sexist that Russell Crowe can be a star and still play characters with a dark side, while Julia Roberts spends 15 years currying Q-rating favor, but them’s the breaks. Some day soon, Reese may have to decide whether she’s an actress or a movie star. We who cherish the memory of Tracy Flick hope she makes the right call.


VANITY FAIR ** Reese Witherspoon, James Purefoy, Romola Garai Rated PG-13

Film Reese Witherspoon takes a step backward in the limp period drama of Vanity Fair. The Lame Above the Title 1CD3E450-2BF4-55D0-F1FA0957ABDA854B 2007-06-11 16:07:35.0 1 1 8D9A2982-1372-FCBB-832FDF825FA8241A 0 2004-09-02 00:00:00.0 1 0
Maryann Johanson water—not because there wasn’t enough to go around, but because American engineering firm Bechtel had taken over the country’s privatized water infrastructure. That included—and here’s the insidious part—rainwater. A multibillion-dollar corporation was telling poor people that they were forbidden to collect rainwater, that they must buy water—at hideously jacked-up prices, of course—from Bechtel.


You don’t hear about situations like this from major American media because they, too, are owned by multibillion-dollar corporations with priorities other than your state of informed-ness in mind: namely, money. The dominance of “the corporation” as the all-pervasive driving force of our economy—and even our culture—is the terrifying subject of this, Jennifer Abbott, Mark Achbar and Joel Bakan’s bitter but frequently funky and mesmerizing documentary.


The Bolivia water story is here, among a litany of corporate waste, abuse and outright crime—things typically dismissed as mere “business decisions” but now held up by this triumphantly muckracking film as symptoms of a very particular disease. The idea, taken from Bakan’s book of the same name, is this: If corporations want to be treated as “persons,” the legal mechanism by which they endure and thrive, then let’s treat them as persons. Let’s, the filmmakers suggest, evaluate “the corporation” on a psychiatric level. It’s a wickedly audacious undertaking, and the diagnosis even more so: Corporations are prototypical psychopaths.


“Manufactured consent,” “perception management,” “the science of exploitation”—these and other scarily Orwellian terms get tossed around like so many PR talking points by The Corporation, which retains its calm, rational demeanor while coolly building its case, letting the actions of corporations speak for themselves: Factory farming. Union busting. Agent Orange. The manipulation of consumers. The insidiousness of branding. The money they make off war and general political and societal turmoil.


If The Corporation feels perhaps a tad overlong, at nearly two and a half hours, how does one determine which instance of corporate malfeasance is more despicable: the “brutality” of terminator seeds, which subvert nature by cutting off the DNA that allows a crop plant to reproduce; or Monsanto intimidating Fox News with the threat of lawsuits (and Fox letting itself be intimidated) when journalists dared to tell the awful truth about its bovine growth hormone rBGH? Which is worse: that toy companies play upon children’s “developmental vulnerabilities” in marketing to them, or that the increasingly transnational nature of corporations lessens the influence any one government could have over them? As cultural critic Noam Chomsky points out, if corporations are people, they are people with no moral conscience.


While The Corporation is keeping its cool, you slowly stew in your seat, having been dimly aware—as the kind of person who goes to documentaries in the first place—of what was going on, but still stunned by the smack in the face this film is. When the film is funny, it’s in that way that makes you want to curl up in bed and cry. It’s hard not to be dispirited, hard not to feel paralyzed when the omnipresence of global corporations with fingers in so many pots seems to make it impossible to be a thoughtful consumer.


There are suggestions for strategies, though, to remedy this mess. There’s Ray Anderson—CEO of Interface, the world’s largest commercial carpet manufacturer—one of the very few corporate heroes here. He calls himself, shockingly, a “plunderer,” an intergenerational tyrant handing an environmentally ravaged planet to our grandchildren. But he’s trying to change that, attempting to reduce the negative impact of his own corporation. He may even succeed. He’s part of the rallying cry that The Corporation encompasses, the beginning of a battle many of us didn’t even know was looming. This powerful film is persuasive in convincing us that it must be won at all costs.


THE CORPORATION *** Documentary Not Rated

Film A documentary peeks inside the head of The Corporation and finds some scary stuff. Psychopaths, Inc. 1CD3E5A7-2BF4-55D0-F1F00687C7E6BA36 2007-06-11 16:07:35.0 1 1 0 2004-09-02 00:00:00.0 0 0

For nearly two years now, director Zhang Yimou’s Hero has been languishing on a shelf in the Miramax Pictures vault, waiting for an American release date. This doesn’t make it particularly unique; Miramax tends to acquire movies the way the New York Yankees acquire former All-Stars, not so much to play them as to make sure no one else has them. But it’s a damned fortunate thing that films don’t age on a shelf the way, say, this newspaper will—the colors slowly dulling with each passing day. It would have been an almost unbearable artistic loss. Calling Hero “colorful” would be like calling Seattle “damp.”


It’s nothing new for Zhang to make vivid thematic use of color—it was a distinctive quality in his early 1990s films like Raise the Red Lantern and To Live, before he took a more naturalistic turn with Not One Less and Happy Times—but Hero makes it look like he’d previously been doodling with crayons. If you watched it with the sound turned down and no subtitles, it might still leave you gasping.


There is a narrative accompanying all the gorgeousness, a sweeping legend with more than a touch of Rashomon. A warrior who calls himself Nameless (Jet Li) comes to the palace of the King of Quin (Daoming Chen) in pre-Imperial China. The King—a would-be Chinese Agamemnon looking to unite the various kingdoms—has been plagued by the constant threat of assassination; Nameless arrives claiming to have slain the deadly assassins Long Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), bringing their famed weapons as proof. But as the stories of Nameless’ battles unfold, the King begins to question his accounts—and his motivations.


It’s a telling indication of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s lasting box office impact that despite the release delays, the sub-titled Hero is getting a multiplex release. Ang Lee’s 2001 hit will be American viewers’ most familiar reference point for the “wuxia” style of Hero, with its physics-defying wire-assisted stunt work and epic battles. There’s a troubled warrior romance between Broken Sword and Flying Snow reminiscent of Crouching Tiger’s Master Li/Shu Lien pairing, a shared cast member in Zhang Ziyi and even a battle involving walking on water.


The shorthand reference is in some ways inevitable, and those whose response to Crouching Tiger largely involved the thrill of discovery might not be wowed by Hero’s version of acrobatic violence, even when one of the battles is a geek-boy’s dream showdown between Jet Li and Donnie Yen. It’s also a bit less satisfying in its emotional center, with Chow Yun-Fat’s stoic performance superior to his counterpart in Tony Leung Chiu-Wai.


But oh what a thing of beauty it is to behold. Zhang Yimou treats his scenes like individual works of art, the central hues so richly evocative that you’d consider hanging them on your living-room wall. Zhang Ziyi and Maggie Cheung duel in a forest clearing, their red garments playing against the shimmering golden leaves swirling around them. An encounter in a temple is played in a blue so deep the characters seem to be underwater. Scores of black-clad soldiers march beneath blood-red banners. Individual shot compositions in Hero—photographed by the gifted Christopher Doyle—are as magnificent as anything you’ve seen on a screen in a long time.


None of which is to suggest that Hero is merely a serene, pretty work. As a period action

 
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