Things I caught on video or in a rerelease...
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If you have an film you want me to review - just ASK
last update 21.Jun.04

back to the top EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE
Si Han and Hu Jun
dir Zhang Yuan scr Wang Xiaobo, Zhang Yuan with Si Han, Hu Jun, Vicki Zhao
release US 24.Jul.98, UK 21.Jun.04 dvd 98/China 1h30 3.5/5
There's an artful, intriguing pace to this complex and dark Chinese drama examining issues of sexuality in a repressive society. It does feel rather dated, but at the same time there's a deeply thoughtful approach to the theme that makes the film quite moving. Basically the plot covers one long night in the life of a young gay man (Si Han) who's held by a cop (Hu Jun) in a detention office while he's urged to confess his life story. You can tell from the beginning that this cop is a bundle of homophobic angst ("I will cure you!") masking his own confused sexuality. Meanwhile, the detainee is a free spirit, just looking for a shred of understanding ("It's not despicable, it's love"). As the evening progresses the tension between the two becomes nearly unbearable, wavering from compassion to hatred to self-loathing and back.
  It's all a little dull, in that nothing much happens; it feels like a stage play with two characters in a single room, but the way the story delicately unfolds keeps us gripped. It's also widened out with a few telling flashbacks that encompass almost every conceivable aspect of China's underground gay culture from silly transvestites to brutal gay bashers. These cutaways also blend in mythology and fantasy to get us into the characters' heads. But it's pretty much just dialog--a cleverly written and played stand-off between two men who are living at the polar ends of society but aren't really that far apart. Along the way the filmmakers build up palpable tension and subtly include a couple of sexy sequences as well. But they're so honest about what this life is like that the film deserves to be seen. [15 themes, language, violence] 21.Jun.04
back to the top KING OF THE ANTS
baldwin, wendt and mckenna
dir Stuart Gordon scr Charles Higson
with Chris McKenna, Kari Wuhrer, Daniel Baldwin, George Wendt, Timm Sharp, Ron Livingston, Vernon Wells, Lionel Mark Smith, Carlie Westerman, Shuko Akune, Steve Heller, Ian Patrick Williams
release UK 12.Apr.04 dvd; US 27.Apr.04 dvd 04/US 1h38 3 out of 5 stars
This pulp thriller starts out as a gentle comedy then grows increasingly sinister until it erupts into full-on horror. The subsequent tone shifts are a bit harder to take, but it still has an uncanny ability to keeps us hooked. Sean (McKenna) is a young guy willing to do almost anything to make a living, so he jumps when a stranger (Wendt) and his shady boss (Baldwin) hire him to watch an L.A. accountant (Sex and the City's Livingston). Then he barely hesitates before agreeing to murder him. But things only get more complicated when Sean and the boss start a ruthless standoff. Sean ends up being tortured in a desert shed (where his tormenters call him an ant), and then a full-on revenge plot is enacted. With a romantic interlude that's almost more disturbing than the violence.
  Sean's gradual progression from housepainter to killer is nicely played out in a funny, warm style that draws us in for the kill, literally, and keeps us believing in the characters when things get even nastier. Where the film goes off the rails is in the horror/soft porn fantasy sequences that make us giggle rather than shudder. The performances are solid, with McKenna holding the film together extremely well, and Baldwin channelling his brother Alec in an extremely eerie way. And as the darkly creepy love interest, Wuhrer gets a few strong scenes too.
  It's a film that works well in its small scenes, but strains to connect them. The twisting emotions and gut-wrenching grisliness are as vivid as the romantic and dramatic sequences. But the snaky overall plot starts to drag erratically, especially after some cheesy low-budget shots and a descent into brutality so vicious that it's both stomach-churning and strangely familiar. Director Gordon lifts familiar elements from thriller, comedy, porn and horror films with abandon. It's in the mix that he comes up with something truly deranged! Especially when he hits a vein of resonance in Sean's emotional struggle with guilt and redemption. Of course, this is abandoned for the fiery, somewhat anticlimactic finale, but it's surprisingly powerful while it lasts. [18 themes, language, violence, gore, nudity, sex] 29.Mar.04
back to the top MASKED AND ANONYMOUS
cheech marin with dylan
dir Larry Charles scr Bob Dylan, Larry Charles
with Bob Dylan, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, Luke Wilson, Angela Bassett, Mickey Rourke, Val Kilmer, Bruce Dern, Giovanni Ribisi, Ed Harris, Christian Slater, Chris Penn, Steven Bauer, Richard Sarafian
release US 25.Jul.03, UK 10.May.04 dvd BBC Films 03/US 1h46 3.5/5
Even though it feels like an inside joke, this political satire is outrageous enough that it deserves attention. It certainly should've had a UK cinema release, although now it lives up to a throwaway gag in the film about Dylan's waning musical popularity in Britain!
  Set in a kind of alternate reality, the US, Canada and Mexico have merged into one nation under a tyrant dictator (Sarafian) whose oppressive government regime has led to a civil war. To reunite the people, the government hires a smooth-talking promoter (Goodman) and a frantic TV producer (Lange) to put on a "benefit" concert. They turn to the political prisoner Jack Fate (Dylan) to headline the show, but the concert forces Jack to face up to his own lurid past. All while a sneaky journalist (Bridges) swirls around the circus-like rehearsal hall.
  This is an extremely clever film, packed with telling details and lots of colourful, well-played bit actors. Many only appear for single speeches (Ribisi, Kilmer, Harris, Dern), while others pop up now and then (Slater and Penn) or lurk menacingly (Rourke, Bauer) or intriguingly (Wilson, Bassett) in the background. It's a complete and utter shambles, making little real sense and laying on the politics far too thickly. But it's also profoundly compelling and full of brilliant ideas, filmed in a stylised, Coens-meet-Burton way that catches our attention, and underscored with solid emotional resonance.
  Dylan is an offhanded, scruffy presence at the centre--we can't take our eyes off him. His musical performances are energetic and his observations as astute as ever. In many ways the whole film is like a Dylan song--politically outspoken and yet, as someone observes, "not precise, completely open to interpretation". For all its sermonising, the film lets us make up our own minds. Intriguing and impenetrable, absurd and unfocussed, satirical and warm--but so packed with important themes that it can't be ignored! [12 themes, language, violence] 18.May.04
back to the top NORMAL
wilkinson and lange
dir-scr Jane Anderson
with Jessica Lange, Tom Wilkinson, Hayden Panettiere, Joe Sikora, Clancy Brown, Randall Arney, Mary Seibel, Richard Bull
release US 21.Jan.03 Sundance, UK 14.May.04 dvd HBO 03/US 1h54 4.5/5
Jane Anderson adapts her play Looking for Normal into this deeply involving, beautifully made film, which was deservedly nominated for six Emmys and three Golden Globes, as well as producer, writer and director guild awards! Set in the rural Midwest, it's the story of Roy and Irma (Wilkinson and Lange), a deeply normal family with a tomboy teen daughter (Panettiere) at home and a musician son (Sikora) in the big city. So it's understandable that the entire town is stunned when, just after their 25th anniversary, Roy announces that he's always felt he was a woman in the wrong body ... and he needs to treat his condition by having a sex change operation. Naturally, everyone reacts very strongly, from Roy's family to his boss (Brown) and his pastor (Arney).
  Besides her strong visual sense, Anderson's remarkable achievement here is to treat such a sensational subject with such a steady hand. This is low-key, introspective filmmaking that's full of witty touches, never remotely dull and emotionally riveting! And it helps that she has such a stunning cast: Wilkinson plays Roy in a startlingly matter-of-fact way. We identify intimately with each person's outrage, but as we watch Roy genuinely trying to find a solution to a lifelong issue, he's the one we identify with most of all. Meanwhile Lange is, as always, simply miraculous in a complex role that never comes close to hitting a false note. Her interaction with the superb Panettiere and Sikora, as well as a very tricky relationship with Brown, are just as unnervingly powerful as her evocative scenes with Wilkinson. Anderson knows that just putting a camera on her two stars is all that's required to make this story work--what a rare thing for a playwright whose main tools are words! The result is one of the most honest, thorough and thoughtful examinations of a hot potato issue you will ever see, complete with perhaps the best family Thanksgiving sequence ever put on film. Don't miss it. [15 themes, language, some violence] 12.May.04
back to the top THE RETURN
dir Dermot Boyd scr Kate O'Riordan
with Julie Walters, Neil Dudgeon, Ger Ryan, Glen Barry, Alan Barry, Eileen Colgan, Pauline McLynn, Nick Dunning, Lise-Ann McLaughlin, Cathy White, Philip O'Sullivan, Frankie McCafferty
release UK 22.Mar.04 dvd 03/Ireland 1h37 3/5
If you're going to make a star-vehicle TV movie you can do a lot worse than getting Julie Walters in the lead role. No matter how contrived the script is, you know you have a rock-solid character audiences will go anywhere with! Walters plays Lizzie Hunt, just freed from prison after 10 years for killing her husband in a drunken rage. She's prohibited from visiting her 17-year-old son (Glen Barry), which is fine with him since he never wants to see her again. Her father (Alan Barry) is nursing her terminally ill mum (Colgan). Her best pal (Ryan) offers her a job in her cafe. And her former illicit flame (Dudgeon), who happens to be a now-divorced detective, not only rekindles their romance but begins to probe into the past and the chance that Lizzie might be innocent.
  O'Riordan's script isn't content with examining the personal drama of Lizzie's life, which Walters plays beautifully in scenes that are harrowing, provocative and sometimes hilarious. She perfectly conveys the haunted qualities of an imperfect woman trying to start over, to recapture the joy of life and to reconnect with her son and her home community. And the supporting cast is good too. But the writer also packs in a romantic subplot as well as a convoluted murder mystery in which there are suspects and motives all over the place--from the bitter and twisted former assistant (McLynn) to the shady-dealing brother (Dunning), plus shadowy hints of homosexuality. It's filmed in that straightforward television style--workmanlike and rather obvious, slightly corny and very melodramatic, with few moments of light relief. It only barely deals with the whole reconciliation/forgiveness theme, and the ending is extremely abrupt, as if once we find out what really happened the truth sets everyone free! That said, the story is thoroughly gripping. And the strong cast has the power to really move us. [12 themes, violence, language] 15.May.04
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2004 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall