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Volume 3, Number 3

This Week's Reviews:  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Gift, Snatch, The Pledge.

This Week's Omissions:  NONE.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

(Dir: Ang Lee, Starring Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Cheng Peipei, Sihung Lung, Li Fa Feng, Gao Xi'an, Hai Yan, Wang Deming, Li Li, Su Ying Huang, and Jin Ting Zhang)



When critics began weighing in on 2000 with top ten lists and organizational awards, I was rather surprised at the strong showing of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I really could not disagree -- I had still not yet seen the film. But I was still, nevertheless, appalled that an adventure film had swept the admiration of cinema lovers -- how could there be anything with fight sequences that could compare to Requiem for a Dream or Traffic?

Truth be told, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is far more than just an adventure film. It is a mystical treasure trove of magical moments frozen on twenty-four frames per second celluloid. Ang Lee has created one of the most fantastic and mesmerizing uses of the camera and has done something with an aesthetic meaning that transcends far beyond the simplicity of an action film.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon begins in China's Qing Dynasty with renowned warrior Li Mu Bai (Yun-Fat) telling his longtime confidant, Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh) the nearest thing to a love he's ever had, that he has made the decision to settle down and live the rest of his life in retirement. But first, he feels that he must take care of his fondest possession, the sword he's had most of his life called the Green Destiny.

The issuant of the beloved weapon is Sir Te, a long time friend of Li Mu Bai's. But when Lien arrives at Te's home with the sword, she is soon fighting for its possession as a thief sneaks in and grabs the Green Destiny. The thief is believed by all to be Jade Fox (Peipei), Bai's archenemy and the murderer of his mentor. Little does he and Lien know that the thief is actually the young apprentice of Jade Fox, Jen Yu (Ziyi), who was able to get into Te's home since she was already a guest in the household, standing as one of the richest daughters in the kingdom.

Jen Yu has become a highly established warrior over the years, grasping the combat secrets far above what Jade Fox knows. Her abilities are comparable to Bai and Lien, but her youthful recklessness makes her abilities pale. Making matters worse is the fact that she has her own undeniable love, the gruff posse leader Lo (Chen), who she cannot have as long as she is under the power of her family -- they that have already given her to another aristocrat for marriage.

Using the most impressive wirework ever, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon defies nearly every law of gravity in its creation of one of the most beautiful stories ever brought to the screen. Wireman Yuen Wo-Ping, who last brought his expertise to The Matrix, does some of the all-time great-choreographed fight scenes in film history. I know that some love that Kung Fu sequence from The Matrix, but, for my money, every single fight in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon makes that fight seem rather simple. Wo-Ping, by far, outdoes himself.

Director Ang Lee has long been one of the finest filmmakers around. His works have always had a certain deepness that Hollywood has forgotten how to make. His 1997 masterpiece The Ice Storm perfectly latched on to the suburban life in America circa. 1970. The elegance of such a picturesque story made that film one of 1997's finest moments -- up there with L.A. Confidential and The Sweet Hereafter.

Lee's masterful direction of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon makes it one of the most breathtaking achievements in motion pictures this year. I would have never expected something so beautiful in the genre from the director of Eat Drink Man Woman. Not that I would not expect him to make it beautiful, but that it is hard to believe that he would have such grace at directing an adventure. His last film, the Civil War drama Ride with the Devil, was one of 1999's biggest disappointments but was still respectable in the visuals department (it's the screenplay, by the usually talented James Schamus, that bogs the film down). Considering his terrific filmography, including the costume drama Sense and Sensibility and the comedy The Wedding Banquet, Lee seems to have the ability to touch on nearly any genre. He could arguably be called the Taiwanese Stanley Kubrick.

The performances are all terrific, even when they are not sweating it out in a fight. Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh have long been considered fine artists in action films, but most of their works have been of a much less classical sense. Normally I would expect to see Chow Yun-Fat holding a loaded gun instead or a sword. Nevertheless, they are perfect in their roles, creating a sense of hostile love in a ballet of sword fighting.

But, no matter how much I liked the two leads, for me this was all the film of Zhang Ziyi. Unquestionably beautiful, Ziyi captures the grace of both a pampered heir and a master swordswoman. I have already heard reports that she is just as good, if not better in her next film, the latest work from Chinese genius Yimou Zhang titled The Road Home. I can promise that I'll surely be intent on seeing it when it makes its American release on 25 May.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Lo happens to be Chinese for "Little Tiger," Jen is "Little Dragon") is in Ancient Mandarin, the language used at that time in Chinese history. None of the actor's knew this language -- Yun-Fat and Yeoh did not even know modern Mandarin -- but they certainly do the best with what they have. Yes, for you Xenophobes, the film is in subtitles. Don't worry you'll forget all about them, you'll be too intrigued by those people in the trees.


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The Gift

(Dir: Sam Raimi, Starring Cate Blanchett, Keanu Reeves, Greg Kinnear, Hilary Swank, Giovanni Ribisi, Katie Holmes, J.K. Simmons, Gary Cole, Kim Dickens, Chelcie Ross, Michael Jeter, Rosemary Harris, Lynnsee Provence, Hunter McGilvray, David Brannen, John Beasley, and Stuart Greer)



Annie Wilson has a gift: she can see the future. She's nothing new to film, there have been many psychics in cinema, ranging from The Eyes of Laura Mars to The Dead Zone, but few have been quite like her. Annie does it as a mode of economic gain -- not in the grand, get-rich-quick scheme fashion, but in a state that allows her to raise her children.

And she's had this ability all her life -- she and her grandmother (the still wonderful Rosemary Harris) used to read each other during Annie's childhood (which, inadvertently I guess, brings to mind Scatman Crothers' talks with his grandmother in The Shining) -- and does not mind giving her visions to others. But she foresees something horrible and cannot come to telling those involved. It isn't until the small Georgia town's local socialite (read: slut) goes missing that she must let her ability come to help those working on such mysterious and gruesome terms.

Of course, the law does not want her help, but the father of the missing Jessica King (Holmes) sees her as his last hope to finding his daughter. Annie does see her, dead and floating in a creek. She leads the police to the home of Donnie Barksdale (Reeves).

For those involved, Annie's accusation of Donnie as the Jessica's murderer seems a little too timely. It had been only a couple days earlier that she began a report to the police that he had broken into her home and harassed her with her tarot cards. The police, nevertheless, waved off her report -- Donnie's one of those good ol' boys.

Annie has been reading for Donnie's wife Valerie (Swank) for some time and has long told her that she needed to leave the abusive gent. When Donnie catches wind of this, Annie is soon taunted with phone calls, visits, and scary conversations with her children (one of whom runs into Donnie and is told to burn Annie since she is a witch). Needless to say, things don't necessarily look good for a modern day Nostradamus with personal reasons to want a person convicted when brought to the witness stand.

Nearly ever facet of the story to The Gift is by the book -- I'll admit it and I'd think that screenwriters Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson (who have not worked together since Carl Franklin's terrific One False Move in 1992) would be willing to admit that this is a genre piece. We've seen two-thirds of this film countless times in other thrillers, but it is that other one-third that makes The Gift a worthwhile entry into the genre. Without a confident director like Sam Raimi and an adept cast, this film would have certainly fallen to the wayside, but those talented people keep this from being another The Lawnmower Man.

Sam Raimi has been in the business of movies for almost twenty-five years but has only been a Hollywood name for five of them. The Gift is, perhaps, a return to his roots, back when his only big fan base were Fangoria subscribers with bad acne and even worse hair. I'll be the first person to state that The Evil Dead films never really worked well with me. Their tongue-in-cheek approach was welcomed but not necessarily appreciated. They are respectable in their intent, but far from my cup pf tea.

That is, very simply, the reason that I was so astounded when I absolutely loved his 1998 film A Simple Plan (featuring a terrific performance from Billy Bob Thornton). I never would have expected something so intense and beautiful out of the guy behind Army of Darkness. His next film, 1999's For Love the Game, suffered from being too personal and left anyone not named Sam Raimi uninterested. I would not go so far as to say that The Gift is a directorial achievement the size of A Simple Plan, but it is certainly a huge boost from For Love the Game.

Raimi can work certain moments for much more than other people would get. He has a style that reminds me of David Lynch on his more serene days -- very subtle, but still very quirky. There are times in The Gift that Raimi knows the exact establishing moments to go for, like a terrific fight between Giovanni Ribisi (as a slightly retarded client of Annie's) and Reeves. It is pure schlock, but without a doubt the best kind.

However, the real reason that this film works is all in one performance. Cate Blanchett has grown so much over the years since her first major role in 1997's Oscar & Lucinda. I seriously think that we have an actress on our hands (though they may be borrowed hands -- Blanchett is an Aussie) that has the potential to be remembered as one of the truly great actresses of our lifetimes. Giving astounding performances in films like Elizabeth, An Ideal Husband, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, Blanchett has already worked up a proof of acting prowess comparable to some of the lost legends of the 1950's. Stepping on feet as I may, Blanchett could easily standup beside names like Lana Turner and Lauren Bacall. She's not to the point of being a latter-day Katherine Hepburn yet, but give her time.

Blanchett does so much with the role of Annie that it is almost saddening that a performance so strong has been used on such a simple film. No matter how much I praise the directorial style of Sam Raimi, the real reason that this film works in any fashion is that its lead performer is on top of her game. Blanchett will not get an Academy Award nomination for this performance, but I sincerely think that she deserves it.

Blanchett, along with the other fine actors (including the increasingly talented Kinnear and the ravishing Holmes), make this much more than the film it could have been. I was splendidly happy for the first half of the film as I thought of the many great performances I was witness to -- by the film's latter half, however, even I'll admit the miraculous façade of fine actors had worn off and the story was weighing its course. For my money, it's Blanchett that keeps it from suffering too much.


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(Dir: Guy Ritchie, Starring Jason Statham, Stephen Graham, Alan Ford, Dennis Farina, Vinnie Jones, Brad Pitt, Rade Serbedzija, Mike Reid, Robbie Gee, Lennie James, Benicio Del Toro, Jason Flemyng, Ade, William Beck, Adam Fogerty, Mickey Dee, and Michael Taheny)



Guy Ritchie certainly has a style, even if it may not be the one that I'd like to see. His muddled exploitations of the auteur theory continually proves that stylized cinema (i.e. the masterworks of names like Darren Aronofsky, David Cronenberg, and Quentin Tarantino) has its own hacks.

Two years ago, many people were overjoyed with his debut, the somewhat auspicious Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, but I had the chance to be one of the few denouncers. Truthfully, I did not hate the film -- even praising some of its actors and comedic setups -- but I did have a huge problem with the film's direction. Ritchie seems to have a fine grasp on what he can to with a camera, but does not seem to grasp when he should do it. I'm all for some flashy cinematography (for heaven's sake, my choice for the best film last year was Requiem for a Dream), but I truly yearn for it to have a purpose to the story or at least some moments of peace and refreshment.

Ritchie seems too intent on playing around with the photography and editing that he has no earthly idea how innocuous it becomes. I liked that there was something original about Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, but I cannot even think of sitting through it again.

With his latest effort, Snatch, he does even more to lose all respect from me. Pitting completely unlikable characters in situations that could only be considered preposterous and contrived, the film works on every level to be as bad as it possibly can be. I cannot think of many films that have made me this uncomfortable for its duration quite like the way I felt watching Snatch. It's not fun, it's not enjoyable, hell, it's not even worth buying on video for the free blank tape. I would be grateful to regain the 105 minutes of my life that was wasted in this piece of dreck.

There are moments in Snatch that lean on offensive before becoming all-out repulsive. Admittedly, the violence that made me feel tortured in The Way of the Gun, Highlander: Endgame, and Hollow Man was not near as bad in Snatch as in the others. My criticism is that it made violence so ridiculously "cool" for the masses. As over the top they may be, most of the violent scenes verge on a lack of proper storytelling skills. And, then again, they did not even know how to make the tongue-in-cheek violence funny, giving away some of the jokes three minutes before they happen.

The only saving graces of this film are its actors, many of whom give performance far above what the film deserves. I happen to like the soccer player turned actor Vinnie Jones and think that his demeanor in any action film can help in ten-fold. Perhaps that's the reason that I have this little place, albeit a guilty little place, that likes Gone in Sixty Seconds. Just looking at him brings back memories of Richard Kiel as Jaws in Moonraker and The Spy Who Loved Me (and, for those sentimentally masochistic readers, Eegah).

And there's even some winsome fun from Dennis Farina and Rade Serbedzija (who, as of now, always makes me harken back to Eyes Wide Shut with every film appearance), both of whom have long proven themselves as fine actors with a poor ability to be stuck in bad films (ahem, The Old Feeling and Reindeer Games -- The Saint and Mission: Impossible 2).

Brad Pitt even presses himself a little more as an actor. Admittedly, I detested his gypsy-come-lately character, but did respect his choice to play a character so out of touch from the pretty-boy stature that he could very well use for the rest of his career (though the trailers for his next film, The Mexican, are making me worry a bit).

But actors cannot save what is an otherwise useless and listless duration of time. Guy Ritchie could very well be a great guy, but his skills as a director are less than enthusing. I'd like to think that it is merely the sophomore slump, but I can only note that his freshman attempt was nothing special. Is there such a thing as the junior enlightenment?


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The Pledge

(Dir: Sean Penn, Starring Jack Nicholson, Robnin Wright Penn, Aaron Eckhart, Tom Noonan, Sam Shepard, Lois Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Dale Dickey, Brittany Tiplady, Eileen Ryan, Michael O'Keefe, Gordon May, Costas Mandylor, Peter Madsen, Helen Mirren, Benicio Del Toro, Mickey Rourke, and Harry Dean Stanton)



As the only critic in the world that truly loved Sean Penn's The Crossing Guard, it makes me incredibly happy to report that his third foray into directing is just as intense, just as unnervingly incredible as his previous work. While other critics muse that it is great to see him find himself as a confident and competent director, I can instead have joy in saying that his ongoing work is just as great as before.

The Pledge is one of those films that will haunt you for the hours that follow it. For the mild-mannered film viewer, it may seem like a journey threw the muck of reality, where entertainment is nonexistent and enjoyability is the last thing that comes to mind. I have no doubt that those seeing this film in between shots of Miss Congeniality and Sugar and Spice will hate this film with an intense vengeance. But that's not true for those of us that like to be tested by a film that does not play down to the audience. We are the perfect people for Penn's film -- it is exactly what we want when we ask for an American journey through the styles of Takeshi Kitano and Ingmar Bergman.

Jack Nicholson turns in that devilish smile of his with a character that hasn't anything to smile about. I mean, I love Jack when he plays characters like Melvin in As Good As It Gets, Garrett in Terms of Endearment, and the Joker in Batman, but it is characters like The Crossing Guard's Freddy, Blood & Wine's Alex, and The Pledge's Jerry that take us back to the characters that made him such an important actor in the first place -- Randal in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Robert in Five Easy Pieces, and Jake in Chinatown. Now working on his fifth decade in the business, few actors can play road weary like him -- it's just a shame when he strays from playing those characters.

Nicholson gives a tour de force performance in The Pledge, probably his best in twenty years. He does everything that the character calls for and makes it a performance that he could very well be remembered for. Don't expect him to take another Academy Award for this film -- voters will probably hate seeing him so depressed after As Good As It Gets -- but do expect his critical notability factor to increase ten-fold.

Jerry Black is an aging Reno detective, looking at his final days on the force. While the rest of the department enjoys his retirement party, Jerry and hotshot officer Stan Krolak (Eckhart) are at a crime scene. A seven-year-old girl has been raped and murdered, with a witness seeing a Native American drive away in a truck from the murder site. The suspect is apprehended and it is quickly noted that he has a prior rape charge and a deep mental incapacity. Stan convinces the malleable man that he is guilty and gets a confession on tape before he grabs a deputy's gun and shoots himself.

For everyone involved, the case is open and shut -- priors, a witness, and a confession, couldn't be easier. But the case does not bode well with Black, who remembers working on a case with similarities some years earlier. Making matters worse, he promised the victim's mother that he would, on his mortal soul, apprehend the killer. After he finds two other murders with similar specs -- same hair, same clothing, same age, same lacerations -- Jerry finds a small town in the middle of a road where the murderer might next grab his victim if he remains in the same form as before. Retired and possessing a purpose to life, he buys a gas station in the town and waits, hoping to catch the killer that only he believes is still alive.

Before long he finds a family to cling to -- an abused bar maid and her young daughter. Part of him loves them as a husband/father figure; part of him sees the child as bait for the man he seeks.

In the hands of someone else, this would have been a by-the-books thriller, but that is not the type of film that Sean Penn could ever think of producing. There are so many small, subtle, slight marks that Penn hits at just the right angle. This is not the story of a serial killer and the investigation to find him, The Pledge is about the inner demons that can strike the soul and eat through it. Kiss the Girls and The Bone Collector could take note of exactly what is done with The Pledge.

It saddens me that this film has been pushed into such an early in the year release that will undoubtedly cause it to be forgotten come end-of-year-awards time. Penn deserves credit, Nicholson deserves credit, screenwriters Jerry and Mary Olsen-Kromolowski, from a novel by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, deserve credit. It joys me to have a great film this early in the year (like February's Wonder Boys last year and March's Fargo in 1996, though The Pledge is not half the film of those two), but saddens me that this film, especially considering its less than happy intentions, will not bode well like the other two did -- it certainly deserves to.


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Reviews by:
David Perry