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AFI Fest 2004 presented by Audi
by Michael Dequina

all movies are graded out of four stars (****)

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Beyond the Sea one-sheet The Sea Inside one-sheet Beyond the Sea (PG-13) * 1/2
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The Sea Inside (Mar Adentro) (PG-13) * 1/2
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There was once a man who wanted nothing more than to move the world through song and dance, and that man's name is... Kevin Spacey. What, you thought Beyond the Sea was about Bobby Darin, the singer/songwriter/actor who made the titular tune a standard? Far from it, never mind that director/star/co-scripter (with Lewis Colick) Spacey rudimentarily hits key events in Darin's life, such as his rise to teen idoldom via "Splish Splash"; his career prime as a popular nightclub attraction and Oscar-nominated actor; his fairy tale-gone-bad marriage to young starlet Sandra Dee (here played by an underused Kate Bosworth); his untimely death at age 37. What this is instead is The Very Special Bobby Darin Tribute episode of The Kevin Spacey Variety Hour, as Spacey is quite clearly more concerned with showcasing his own, heretofore largely unexploited musical abilities. To that end, he has clearly succeeded. Spacey's slick, swingin' voice and style (which makes one wonder just how much better he would have been in Chicago than the vocally-challenged Richard Gere) definitely does justice to Darin's signature songs and sound; and he gamely hoofs it up in some admittedly imaginative production numbers, particularly the title song, which Darin croons to woo Dee.

But the film is supposed to be about Darin and not Spacey, and as the biography it's intended to be, Beyond the Sea is a failure. The mess of a script, credited to Spacey and Lewis Colick (though early prints and awards consideration DVD's featured no writing credit whatsoever--all too appropriately so), bears the obvious scars of incessant rewrites from the get-go: the opening passages introduce a cumbersome and needlessly convoluted film-within-a-film-within-a-film framing device that is abandoned almost as soon as it is established, begging the question, "What was the point of that?" That question pops up many times over during the film, as its screenplay appears to have been committeed to the point of sterile shallowness. While various important moments in his life are enacted, never once do we really get a sense of who the man was except that he was arrogant and a hell of an entertainer. That can perhaps apply to Spacey himself, as he shows he has considerable musical chops of his own, yet somehow has the hubris to turn a film ostensibly about someone else's life into a celebration of himself.

If one is to indulge Spacey's whim, one is better off skipping the film and picking up Beyond the Sea's soundtrack, from Rhino/Atco records. The album features Spacey covers of 18 Darin tracks, from standards such as the title tune and "Mack the Knife" to bubblegum hits such as "Splish Splash" to his far less successful forays into socially-conscious folk tunes, such as "Simple Song of Freedom." As he previously displayed in his version of "That Old Black Magic" on the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil soundtrack, Spacey is clearly most in his vocal element when tackling the more jazzy, swingy songs, but he acquits himself well on the less loungey selections; the moving closer "The Curtain Falls" is especially impressive. If one learns anything from Beyond the Sea, it's that Spacey longs to sing on a large scale (a lesson further reinforced by his current nationwide promo concert tour); support that worthy ambition by picking up his CD, and discourage him from making onanistic vanity projects by not buying a ticket to his film.

If nothing else, Mar Adentro director/co-writer (with Mateo Gil) Alejandro Amenábar and star Javier Bardem cannot be accused of strongly imposing their own personalities onto the real life story of Ramón Sampedro, a quadriplegic who fought a nearly-30-year battle with the Spanish government for the right to end his own life. What they are guilty of, however, is coming up with a treacly, single-minded TV-movie that too rigidly and heavy-handedly supports its protagonist's cause--all the more disappointing considering this is from the guy who gave us the psychologically nuanced horror of Abre los Ojos and The Others. Bardem wears a ton of age make-up and a skull cap Ramón, who despite being old, bald, wrinkly, confined to a bed, and suicidal manages to romantically bewitch a pair of fetching women: Rosa (Lola Dueñas), a poor single mom; and more importantly, Julia (Belén Rueda), the disease-stricken (and married!) lawyer who takes on his case. With the Julia character--and a luminous talent like Rueda--Amenábar and Gil have a potentially affecting romantic and dramatic hook, but ultimately Rueda's terrific performance is wasted on what turns out to be just another of the film's many tools to reinforce the righteousness of Ramón and his cause. Bardem has been receiving a great deal of awards attention for his work here, but I cannot help but think this is another awards-baiting case where playing disability is being equated with excellence. Bardem tackles the juicy acting challenge of playing someone paralyzed from the neck down by... simply pasting an obnoxiously smug, serial killer-creepy grin on his mug. If that's so great, then why the hell wasn't Denise Richards given serious Oscar consideration for her similarly smiley work in Starship Troopers?

Bride & Prejudice one-sheet Bride & Prejudice (PG-13) ***
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Indian film goddess Aishwarya Rai's first English language film, the Jane Austen-meets-Bollywood musical comedy Bride & Prejudice, seems designed for the express purpose of capturing Tinseltown's attention--and on that end, the film is undoubtedly a success. As someone who has long praised Rai's Bollywood work for the last few years, it is gratifying to see her make the transition from East to West with amazing ease. Showing off her charisma, chops, and charm as headstrong and outspoken Lalita, of one five daughters borne of the marriage-minded Bakshi family in the Indian town of Amritsar, Rai shows that there's no language more universal than simple star quality.

As a whole film, however, this take on Austen's Pride and Prejudice is less effective, but it's not for lack of ambition on the part of director Gurinder Chadha, whose recent effort was another East-meets-West entertainer, the global sleeper success Bend It Like Beckham. Translating Austen's weighty and very British tome and all of its various characters and entanglements to a multi-national cast and setting, not to mention to the music- and dance-filled Indian film language, is no small task--and one that Chadha proves to be unable to totally pull off. Chadha's familiarity with Bollywood conventions is readily apparent, following the formula so closely that those unfamiliar may be a bit confused with some touches, such as the inclusion of an "item number," which is a narrative-unrelated dance number centering on a name star cameo appearance (in this case, Ashanti, who does surprisingly well with her Hindi pronunciation). But familiarity doesn't exactly equal finesse, and the Bollywood bread-and-butter of song sequences generally fall flat in Chadha's less experienced hands. The only song picturization that strikes a memorable chord is Lalita and her sisters' infectious pajama-clad romp "No Life Without Wife," but it succeeds despite Chadha's unimaginative staging and the rather rote choreography (which plagues every number, all the more disappointing given Rai's justly-celebrated dancing abilities) due to Anu Malik's catchy melody, Farhan and Zoya Akhtar's tongue-in-cheek lyrics, and--above else--the exuberance of its performers.

The best way, then, to look at Bride & Prejudice is less as an Austen adaptation or a Bollywood musical than as its own uniquely cheeky yet affectionate homage to the source novel and Indian popular filmmaking. Surprisingly, Chadha and co-scripter Paul Mayeda Berges do stay close to Austen's narrative blueprint, whose most primarily track centers on the clashing prides and prejudices, both class-related and cultural, of Elizabeth Bennet stand-in Lalita and the wealthy Will Darcy (Martin Henderson), here an American businessman. As the various plot threads go about their byzantine business and Lalita and her family indulge in the occasional song and dance, Chadha's mind is wisely and primarily focused on her strong suit of light comedy. Rai is appealingly feisty, particularly during Lalita's verbal sparring sessions with Darcy; and all of the gifted Indian supporting players playing her family and friends get their moments to shine--most of all Nitin Chandra Ganatra, who nearly steals the show outright as Mr. Kohli, Lalita's obnoxious Indian-born, American-raised suitor who is not nearly as slick nor hip as he thinks he is.

If the film has a huge failing, it's Henderson as Darcy. His casting falls perfectly in line with his apparent occupation in Hollywood as the go-to charisma void used expressly by filmmakers to further amplify the already-obvious star qualities of his leading lady (see also: Naomi Watts and The Ring), but Rai is such a silver screen natural that she deserves an equally formidable leading man. (Where were, say, Ewan McGregor or Hugh Jackman when we needed them? There's an idea--have them sing and let Rai dance...) But it speaks of the power of Rai, and the fleet-footed appeal of the whole of Bride & Prejudice that not even he can put a damper on the frothy, feel-good fun.

The Chorus one-sheet The Chorus (Les Choristes) (PG-13) ***
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If one weren't already convinced that something was rotten in the state of Miramax, then their release strategy for Les Choristes would be the clincher. France's official entry into the Foreign Language Film competition of this year's Academy Awards is exactly the type of effortless crowd-pleaser that Harvey Weinstein's marketing muscle would push to great critical, popular, and--perhaps most importantly in Weinstein Land--across-the-board awards category success beyond the expected Foreign Language Film nod, along the lines of previous 'Max word-of-mouth darlings Il Postino, La Vita È Bella, and Amélie. However, all the ailing studio can muster is a one-week awards-qualifying run set for December.

While I wouldn't put Christophe Barratier's film in the same category as those films, it deserves to find an appreciative audience of its own during its formal, if still quite limited, release. Don't let the precious-sounding premise put you off: understanding teacher (Gérard Jugnot) with buried musical aspirations uses the power of song to win over the unruly pupils at his all-boys boarding school in 1949. Indeed the film goes through its share of formulaic paces, such as the presence of a hardass headmaster (François Berléand) who disapproves of the teacher's untraditional methods, as well as the presence of one especially troublemaking student who stirs the pot. But everything old feels, if not new again, at least sweet and charming, due to Jugnot's grounding work, surprisingly non-cloying work from the pre-teen cast members, stirring music by Bruno Coulais, and Barratier's gentle and often understated touch.

House of Flying Daggers one-sheet House of Flying Daggers (PG-13) ****
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Since my first viewing of it way back in the first week of September, Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers has gotten under my skin and lingered there like no other film this year, and subsequent viewings (at this writing, two more and counting) have proven that visceral reaction to be no fluke. The film, quite honestly and in no hyperbolic sense whatsoever, leaves me at a loss for words--save one: masterpiece.

I'm not one to usually use that word, particularly considering how it's tossed out so often as to dilute its power and meaning. But even as a longtime follower of Zhang's work and an admirer of his previous foray into martial arts-driven period pieces, the 2002 Oscar nominee Hero, Daggers leaves me awestruck (no doubt reflected by this thusfar incredibly inarticulate ramble I call a review), and not simply on the level of spectacle--though there's plenty of that to savor. It takes no more than fifteen minutes before Zhang offers a staggering showstopper of a set piece. Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind showgirl suspected of being a member of the rebel faction of the film's title, is put to the test by military captain Leo (Andy Lau) with the "Echo Game," a stunning dance/acrobatics/martial arts display that is one of those sights that truly deserves the overused "must be seen to be believed" designation.

Zhang has said that he considered the already-excellent Hero as a mere warm-up for this film, and watching Daggers one can see how he addresses issues some had with the earlier film while not only retaining but amplifying its strongest assets. Hero's cast read as the current China/Hong Kong film A-List, and with that came a number of characters and plot threads, told over and back again in various, often contradictory ways. Daggers holds close to an easily-followed story revolving around a core of three characters, two in particular: Mei and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a military captain who poses as a rebel so she can lead him--and, hence, the imperial army--to the secret stronghold of the House of Flying Daggers. The bulk of the film follows the pair's perilous journey through the forest, in which they are, to quote the literal translation of the original Mandarin title, "ambushed from ten sides"--both the military and the rebels, but above all else, their burgeoning feelings for each other.

That last statement sounds a bit corny, and taken at face value the arguments that Daggers's storyline is somewhat trite, particularly compared to the epic historical basis of Hero, do hold water. But if that film was more of an unusually cerebral work from Zhang, then Daggers is more in line with his deeply felt, from-the-heart and -gut style; as such, it's a much more natural and effective melding of his distinctive filmmaking voice and the wuxia genre. But also leave it to Zhang to hide a multitude of simmering emotional layers beneath such a seemingly simple surface. In Zhang and co-writers Li Feng and Wang Bin's scenario, events, actions, motivations, even lines of dialogue are hardly ever what they seem, and as such it takes a second viewing to truly unearth the brilliance of their and their gifted actors' work. For all the reversals and revelations, the script remains remarkably airtight; and the performances reveal themselves to be convincingly, impressively operating on multiple levels of meaning.

This is not to say that Daggers doesn't dazzle on a first viewing. As an action spectacle, Zhang far from disappoints, taking the impressive standard he set in Hero to an even more elevated one. All of the fight sequences, often incorporating swords, arrows and--yes--flying daggers are stunningly choreographed and staged (by Tony Ching Siu-Tung, who also worked on Hero), but more importantly, coherently shot and edited; there's none of that disorienting, vertigo-inducing, quick-cut incoherence that has become inexplicably in vogue in many American action films. But not only are the set pieces genuinely exciting, they're simply a beauty to listen to and behold. Aside from the aforementioned "echo game," the most talked-about sequence is destined to be a jaw-dropping nailbiter set in a bamboo forest, where Mei and Jin attempt to evade spear-throwing attackers from above. The sound design (by Tao Jing) in this sequence is remarkable (the gentle "whistle" of air passing through the bamboo spears' hollow cores becomes a sinister cry of danger); and it is also an especially striking example of Zhao Xiaoding's astonishing cinematography, which adapts Christopher Doyle's justly-celebrated expressionistic color scheme in Hero to a more organic reality. Whereas Doyle's bold palette served as a surreal color coding of sorts, Zhao's vibrant hues emerge from more natural sources: the inescapable green of a dense bamboo forest; the golden yellow of a flowery meadow; the stark, sterile white of a snow-blanketed field; the halting red of freshly-drawn blood.

Similarly, the outsize, almost operatic emotions of the piece are given intense, intimate realism by Shigeru Umebayashi's aching, sweeping musical score and, above else, the actors. Any dismissals of Zhang Ziyi as simply a gorgeous, charismatic, athletic presence should be put to rest by her work here. The fighting skills and ferocity she so memorably displayed in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are very much showcased in Daggers, but added on top of that is a gentle, vulnerable soulfulness. She's matched in every respect by the ardent Kaneshiro, and the two share a potent erotic and romantic chemistry; their scenes together smolder with a passionate yet playful electricity. Given his far less abundant screen time, Lau's role is perhaps the trickiest, but he carries off the demands of his part with deceptive ease.

The same can be said for Zhang Yimou. The job of directing martial arts movies is often too easy to discount (especially given how other, secondary directorial hands play a major role in assembling the finished piece), but House of Flying Daggers is such a transcendent film--not simply as an entry into its action-minded genre, but as a dramatic piece--hopefully he will be given his due recognition for creating such a powerful work of art.

Ong-Bak one-sheet Ong-Bak (R) ***
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Tony Jaa is a charismatic action superstar in the making, and his amazing Muay Thai moves are without a doubt the reason to watch this Thai import--and no doubt its entire raison d'être, as the plot is typical thin chopsocky nonsense about a bumpkin from the country (Jaa) who comes to the city to find and retrieve his village's precious statue. So it's a bit baffling that director Prachya Pinkaew lets nearly half of the film pass by before Jaa's character actually starts fighting. There are some cool stunts, such as an extended foot chase that has Jaa making some great flying leaps--even one through barbed wire--without the aid of wires, but no amount of slo-mo instant replays (which Pinkaew severely overuses) are a proper substitute for the thrill that comes with good, old-fashioned, martial arts brawling. But once Jaa gets going, Pinkaew and the film get going, delivering on all the creatively-staged and -choreographed, knees-'n-elbows Muay Thai mayhem one buys the ticket to see, and it's all elevated to a higher, fresher level by Jaa's astonishing athleticism.

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