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In this episode: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon | All the Pretty Horses | Proof of Life | Quick Takes! (Short reviews of Red Planet, Unbreakable, Billy Elliot, The Legend of Drunken Master, and The Broken Hearts Club.)
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (Wu Hu Zang Long)

A gorgeous, romantic, textured, yet kick-ass combo movie from Ang Lee. Ang Lee! Yes! The guy who brought us movies of stifled emotion and slow burn. The Ice Storm was his last opus, and I say opus because I mean it. This guy's films are musical. The Ice Storm was a beautiful, poetic drama, filled, of course, with stifled emotion and slow burn. Loved it. And I also liked Sense and Sensibility. Even the name implies stifled etc. and slow etc.

Crouching Tiger, Hopping Lemur is a surprise. First, Ang Lee, who I think originally came from Taiwan, is directing again in his native language. Second, while this movie has Ang's usual bit of stifled emotion and slow burn, it also has highly kinetic moments of dazzling chopsocky-type action. However, leave it to Ang to create action sequences that add grace, style, and beauty to the usual whoosh whoosh whoosh of a Hong Kong action sequence. The actors fight with alarming speed, but also leap and dash and run up walls and over ponds and through the air, quiet as a dream. It's magnificent stuff. Ang worked with Yuen Wo Ping, who choreographed the fight sequences for The Matrix, and Yuen takes the floating/flying concept farther here. (Mr. John Aquino, who was with me at this movie, saw Keanu Reeves in line for concessions. He probably ordered Nibs or something.) It's aback-taking to realize the same style of fighting can work both in a sci-fi film and an epic romance.

You might imagine the whole Crouching Tiger, Humming Bird is a little schizophrenic, what with languid scenes of stifled emotion and slow burn abutting scenes of quicker-than-the-eye tussle. What ties everything together is the grace Ang creates, in both types of scenes. That floating and flying I mentioned, that's the element of grace that allows the whiplash fighting to fit so smoothly into the whole of the film. Very original.

What is strongest about Crouching Tiger, Galooping Bison is the tragic romances at its center. Without those, this would just be another fight flick. Once again in an Ang Lee film, honor and loyalty frustrate true love, making a complete mess of the people involved. The first set of frustrated lovers in Crouching Tiger, Filibustered Ox is Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) and Yui Hsui Lien (Michelle Yeoh). Michelle first made my eyes go BOING when I saw her with Jackie Chan in Supercop (she was credited as Michelle Khan). Watching a woman match Jackie stunt-for-stunt was a revelation. Her role in Tomorrow Never Dies was a waste. And so watching her in Crouching Tiger, Flummoxed Emu was a new revelation because, damn, this woman can also act. She is intense and subtle, but boy can you feel the stifled emotion coming from her! Wow. I enjoyed watching her very much. Chow Yun Fat may be less brilliant in his acting, but he's still extremely good. He and Michelle do a good slow burn pas de deux.

The second set of frustrated lovers is Jen (Zhang Zi Yi) and Lo (Chang Chen). Jen and Lo are the young version of Li and Yui. Jen is a plucky, impressively agile young woman, played well by Zhang. Lo is a ruffian, a desert bandit who's softer than his violent image. Chang, who gets to fight less than the others, makes up for this with raw charm. The love story between these two is quite storybook, but still moving. You can't help but enjoy watching these two fall in love amongst the most spectacular scenery in the entire movie: desert canyons and dunes, rocky, sparse tundra, and dramatic green and gray mountains. If Li and Yui's love is defined by honor, than Jen and Lo's love is defined by passion. It's a nice balance.

The beauty of the movie flows over you. Sometimes the audience was a little giggly at the cultural differences and some of the floaty fighting, but they didn't giggle out of malice. They giggled out of enjoyment, and applauded loudly when the movie was over. The movie is a mesmerizing spectacle, a satisfying romance, and a whompin' fight flick. I can't but be amazed that this combination works so well here. You shouldn't be surprised that Crouching Tiger, Prancing Marmoset is winning best picture awards already.

 

 

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ALL THE PRETTY HORSES

Cormac McCarthy's book played like a movie in my head while I was reading it, but that didn't mean I was thinking how great it would be to see it on the screen. The stark, nearly punctuationless, nearly emotionless writing allowed the drama and feeling come straight from the story and the characters and the situations themselves. Moreso than other books, my brain was an active participant in creating the emotion. How on earth can something like that be put to film?

My first fears were slightly alleviated when I found out Gus Van Sant was supposed to direct. Then when he backed out and Billy Bob Thornton stepped in, I was fairly okay with that, too. So now all I can say is, WHEW! Without a doubt, the book had to be turned into a movie to be made into a movie, if you get my drift, but at least the movie Billy Bob made is a good one, capturing the basics of the book. He's helped along by some great performances.

Matt Damon is very good as John Grady Cole. Even better is Henry Thomas as John's friend, Lacey. Henry was smart to take a break from acting after E.T., because now he can have a nice build back to legitimacy. This is a good step, and his acting is very good indeed. Lucas Black, the kid from Sling Blade, is here as Jimmy Blevins. This is a spunky, spot-on performance that in fact overshadows both Matt and Henry. Besides getting the accent perfect (his doesn't waver like Matt's does sometimes), Lucas is 100% natural on screen.

Penelope Cruz is Alejandra, the Mexican woman John falls in love with. She's a sultry combination of rebellious rich chick and lovestruck girl. Thanks to poor website info, I can't be sure about this, but I think Alejandra's aunt is played by Miriam Colon. She holds the screen with her unwavering gaze and her authoritative delivery. Very nice.

Skip this paragraph if you want because it talks a tiny bit about the plot. It was mentioned after the film that it didn't make much sense for John to go back to retrieve the horses he, Lacey, and Jimmy "lost." After thinking I agreed with that assessment, I then realized that even if I hadn't read the book, it made perfect sense for John to do so. He originally went back for Alejandra and didn't decide to risk his life for the horses until after he realized he and she could never be together. Love and the destruction of love make men do stupid things, so all this was perfectly justified in the movie. So there.

I got to see this so early because Marcy invited me to the premiere, for which I thank her tremendously. The only other honest-to-goodness premiere I've ever been to was for Booty Call. You can imagine how embarrassing it was to tell that to people (sorry Darren!). So I'm glad I got to trump that with this one. Now I can say I saw the movie with Billy Bob, Henry, Lucas, Robert Patrick (who was in the film), Bruce Willis (who was not in the film but was there anyway), Kristin Scott Thomas (not), Dwight Yoakam (not), Martin Landau (not), and Peter Falk (not, but who would have been good as Mexican Guard #4).

After the movie, which was at the Bruin in Westwood, there was a party set up in a parking lot. Oh, but it was nice! You couldn't tell it was a parking lot. There was very tasty Mexican food, Mexican Cokes at the bar (those who know me well know why this is important), and lots of Hollywood schmoozing. I myself got to schmooze with an older gentleman who, it turns out, is a casting agent. Ahem! Love me!

The movie was very good, the party was very good, and so, hey, can I help but give this movie a very good review?

 

 

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PROOF OF LIFE

Wow! Three movies in one weekend! I'm back, baby! [NOTE: Don't count on it.] I had no desire to see this movie because it just looked pedestrian and dull, and the title made it sound like just another Mars movie (see below for a Mars movie review). But it was showing at The Village, and I'm a sucker for seeing anything in that awesome movie theater.

I was surprised! Proof of Life was not a great film, and it wasn't really a shocker or completely original, but the concept was cool, and the plot moved along nicely. The international kidnapping thing was interesting. The movie was directed by some guy named Taylor Hackford. Who? Right. Well, he directed The Devil's Advocate, which could have been bad news, since that movie blew, as I like to say, wicked big chunks. But I liked what Taylor did with this movie. Plenty of action, plenty of momentum, plenty of engaging moments. Yes, I have to say I enjoyed it.

Russell Crowe was very good. Like Lucas Black, he has a very natural screen presence. Meg Ryan? Well, she didn't bug me nearly as much as she usually does. She was fine, and was very good sometimes. David Morse, as Meg's kidnapped Husband, was good, too.

Proof of Life is diverting enough that I'd suggest you check it out if you have time. Renting it for the TV would not be a great idea. Though the story would still come across, you'd just miss out on the beautiful scenery and photography of that scenery, which could have more easily been said "You'd miss out on the beautiful cinematography."

 

 

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QUICK TAKES!
Okay, I have a big backlog of movies that I didn't do reviews for, so let me give you my very basic impression of these here. Ready? You may now place the special glasses on your face.
 


Red Planet

Oh, for fuck's sake. And I say that with the utmost confidence in the disdain it represents. What the hell? Is it so hard to come up with something INTERESTING or ORIGINAL to do on Mars? It's a friggin' OTHER PLANET, for crying out loud! Does the plot have to be so transparent? Oh, yeah, how shocking that the mission's robot goes bad and kills people. HOW SHOCKING! And what's with cramming the movie full with so many of these ridiculous plot points? Destroyed base? Killer algae bugs? Major spaceship failure? All that was missing was the scene where Val Kilmer gets terminal athlete's foot (type suitius spaceus pedoyuckus). So much goes wrong on this mission it's hard to keep a straight face. Could you imagine seeing this and Mission to Mars together in a double feature? GACK! Or how about Red Planet, Mission to Mars, and Pitch Black? Alert the Chinese! We may have a new torture for them to use against traffic violators!

Hey, Antony Hoffman, whose movie sucks? YOURS DOES!
 


Unbreakable

I hate to relegate this movie to a short paragraph because I liked it better than most other people seemed to. But that's the cruelty of life for you. You see, I think maybe the parable aspect of this movie is more important then the literalality of it (there's one of those made-up words, Greg!). Yes, there are two very specific points that can be made proving that Bruce really is—SKIP THIS IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN IT YET—some kind of superhero. That'd be the weight-lifting thing, and his actually seeing stuff when he touches people. Too bad those proofs of superlife are there, because if it had been something where that crackpot Samuel got Bruce to believe in his special abilities even though they weren't really there, that would have been cool. The power of suggestion and all that. The movie flittered away from my mind after seeing it, holding little weight. Still I liked it, slow pacing and all. Nowhere near as good as The Sixth Sense, but still interesting.
 


Requiem for a Dream

I already reviewed it, but I wanted to make sure you all knew how good it is. SEE IT! But don't take my word for it. I was at a party and Marcia Gay Harden—late of Space Cowboys, Meet Joe Black, and Miller's Crossing, and happy new winner of the New York Film Critics Circle Best Supporting Actress award for her work in Pollock—was there. She liked Requiem, too. And if an award-winning actress likes something, you'd better go see it!
 


Billy Elliot

A very sweet, touching movie. Well acted (oh, okay, the dad and the brother were iffy), well shot, well directed. Jamie Bell, as Billy, was excellent. That's a hard role for a kid to pull off, but Jamie did it.

Thought Time: It's amazing how much validity a grubby English setting always imparts to movies. I mean, Trainspotting would have been just silly set in America, but the English setting made it work. (Conversely, I doubt Dude, Where's My Car? would have the same comic punch were it set in Upper Broadbent Upon Tyne, UK.) With Billy Elliot, nary a person would believe a scrappy kid like him would encounter such an adventure in the U.S. His dream would have been over-accepted by doting parents or snuffed out of him through, oh, I don't know, consumerism. But all this happening in a small English coal-mining town? Oh, yeah. No problem.

Good movie!
 


The Legend of Drunken Master

You could perhaps call this Crouching Tiger, Drunken Master, but it's missing that Ang Lee grace that gives any Crouching Tiger its crouch. Drunken Master is fun. Cute. Good action. Amusing melodrama. In fact, I guess this is just what you'd expect from this kind of Jackie Chan vehicle. And does that make this movie boring? Nope! Damn fun. There's so much fighting in this one, they should have those breasty half-naked women walking around with Round cards. Ding ding!
 


The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy

So I guess this has been called a gay man's Sex In the City. I see. Well, actually, I don't. Sex In the City is a lot more clever.

Briefly? The movie was funny and cute, but not very weighty. I have to give it credit for pulling a few non-stereotypical rabbits out of its hat. It's less preachy and more funny than other gay movies I've seen, but it still has a sort of desperate quality, the kind that seems to beg the audience to love and accept gay life, please please please. But I'm being too harsh. The movie was honestly funny. Just ignore the heavy LESSONS TO BE LEARNED stick that it swings at you near the end and enjoy the movie as a fun romp. Yes, a romp. Can you believe I just used the word "romp" in a review?
 

 

—Steve

12/21/00

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©2000 Steven Lekowicz except
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon photos © Sony Pictures Classics
All the Pretty Horses photo ©2000 Miramax
Proof of Life photo ©2000 Warner Bros.