New film releases
this week in Prague
Capsule Reviews by Jason Pirodsky
Though sure to disappoint die-hard fans of the series, Len Wiseman´s wildly implausible Live Free or Die Hard nevertheless entertains on a grand scale. It´s a perfect popcorn movie, filled with nonstop action and relentless suspense, a massively overblown throwback to Speed and other early-90´s action flicks that they haven´t been making in recent years. And yet, it isn´t really a Die Hard film: the hallmark of the series had been John McClane as an everyman hero, thrown into strained-but-still-somewhat-believable terrorist plots; here he “kills a helicopter with a car” and takes on an F16 with a tractor trailer as an elevated highway collapses around him. But Bruce Willis deserves a lot of credit, refusing to bow to the ridiculousness of the movie that surrounds him and playing McClane with the same dogged persistence as before. It´s his and Wiseman´s insistence that we should be taking this thing seriously that saves the film from becoming another Last Action Hero.
A crew of cyber-terrorists lead by Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) is systematically shutting down vital US electronic networks, starting with the traffic system, moving to the stock market, and then to utilities, in what´s referred to as a “fire sale”. Enter John McClane, pulled off duty watching over his daughter´s dates and sent to pick up Matt Farrell (Justin Long), a notorious hacker with potential ties to the baddies. And ties he does have: as soon as McClane arrives, bullets rain upon Farrell´s apartment in an attempt by the villains to rid themselves of unnecessary components. Enter action that rarely lets up for the remainder of the film, as fire sale unfolds, machine gun wielding terrorists descend upon McClane and Farrell, and our hero embarks on an improbable mission across the east coast to stop them himself; he´s not trapped in an isolated area this time, nor forced to go it alone, he just does it unassisted because he can. Full of plot holes, inconsistencies, and ridiculously overblown action sequences; but it moves at such a quick pace that we don´t have time to criticize until after it´s over. Mindless entertainment, yes, but high-powered and effective nonetheless. Director Wiseman displays a startling flair for suspense amidst the nonstop action, a trait that was sorely missing from his sleep-inducing Underworld films. Olyphant is smarmy but bland as the main villain, though Maggie Q is excellent as his chief henchwoman; third act fades, however, as their anticlimactic plan is fully revealed. Long is OK as the hacker tag-along, though occasionally nails-on-chalkboard annoying (see his car hijacking scene), and Mary Elizabeth Winstead is good but underused as McClane´s daughter and third-act hostage. But Willis is the glue that holds everything together, giving us a credible character against an overblown backdrop; we feel with a surprising resonance every punch he throws, every hit he takes, even when he´s leaping from a falling truck onto the back of an F16 before sliding down crumbling highway. An otherwise non-Die Hard movie thrives simply because of Willis as McClane.
Major complaint: in a departure from the previous films, violence and language has been toned down to receive a PG-13 rating.
Week of 18.5.2007
A murky, muddled, self-indulgent action flick, Marcus Nispel´s Pathfinder is an unofficial remake of a true classic, the 1987 Norwegian film by the same. And just like the director´s last film, a remake of the splatter classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the movie sacrifices the script – plot, characters, dialogue and all – for expressive visuals, giving us a nicely produced but entirely hollow film that passes as mindless entertainment but feels entirely unnecessary and somewhat insulting, showing no respect for the original film it´s taking away from. And yet, the film does provide some fun on a Conan the Barbarian – nah, make that Conan the Destroyer – level, but Nispel takes things much too seriously, draining out most of the fun along with the color, and directing with the feverish artistic flair of a music video. It´s all style, and no coherency – action scenes are so frantic and briskly edited that one often has little idea of what, exactly, is going on. Random bloodshed is all well and good, but sometimes it´s nice to know who´s getting their head chopped off, and who´s doing the chopping.
Visually stunning if emotionally overwrought period piece is slow-moving at first but eventually achieves the grandeur of a Shakespearian tragedy. 10th Century China, the inner workings of the royal family: the Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) is slowly poisoning his wife, the Empress (Gong Li), who in turn is sleeping with stepson, Crown Prince Wai (Lie Ye). Two other brothers add further complications: Prince Jai (Jay Chou), torn between mother and father, and youngest Prince Yu (Qin Junjie), stewing with jealousy for his brother. This is a kind of attempt by the director to bring the carefully structured storytelling of his earlier classics with the melodrama and martial arts of his more recent films. While it isn´t entirely successful – the film certainly doesn´t reach the height of Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou or To Live – I did enjoy it more than Hero or House of Flying Daggers. It´s absolutely gorgeous to look at, with outstanding use of color and fluid, lingering cinematography that perfectly matches the flow of the story. I fear, however, that the film is destined to please no one; it does suffer in comparison to the director´s previous work with Gong Li, and fans of Hero are likely to be entirely disappointed by the slow story and near-complete lack of martial arts. Still, a beautiful film well worth seeing in spite of its perceived flaws.
Note: film is playing only in a Mandarin version with Czech subtitles in Prague cinemas.
TIP: Catch an advance screening of Steven Soderbergh´s star-studded Ocean´s Thirteen on Thursday 21.6, at Palace Cinema Slovanský Dům´s ‘Black Box´. The film opens wide in Prague on July 5th.
A passable but largely disappointing addition to the franchise, Chris Miller and Raman Hui´s Shrek the Third coasts along for 80 minutes based on the strength of its characters (and their voice actors) and little else. Boasting still-impressive animation (likely the most advanced in the series), film picks up where Shrek 2 left off, with Shrek (Mike Myers) and Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) married and struggling with royal life in the land of Far, Far Away. After King Harold dies and leaves Shrek next in line to the throne, the reluctant Ogre sets out to find nephew Artie, next-in-line after him; all the while worrying about fatherhood after Fiona´s unexpected pregnancy. Meanwhile, the devious Prince Charming plans an attack. Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) are back for comedic support, entirely superfluous to the plot this time around.
While the original film gave us a fresh spin on the damsel-in-distress storyline, this one feels cliché all the way through. Plot lacks any real conflict until the final third; do kids really want to see a meditation on Shrek´s internal power struggle and impending fatherhood? As this is a family film, we also know exactly where things are headed; there´s little doubt that Shrek will end up a happy father, with a trip to the Far, Far Away Abortion Clinic likely out of the question. Still, main characters are lovable and voice cast is mostly excellent, though Justin Timberlake fails to leave any kind of impression as Artie; it doesn´t help that his bland character lacks any kind of depth outside of a none-too-subtle King Arthur reference. Murphy and Banderas steal the show once again, though they have considerably less to do than in the previous films. Fresh and inventive storytelling has now become disappointingly generic and routine; a major departure for the series. Kids should still be entertained, but little is left for adults; though it´s never outright boring, it´s a long hour and a half that feels like a Saturday morning cartoon stretched to feature length. Strip away the beloved characters and we´re left with any number of the generic, forgettable computer-animated kiddie flicks to come out in recent years.
Note: film is mostly playing in a Czech-dubbed version; catch it in English (with Czech subtitles) at Palace Cinemas Slovanský Dům or Village Cinemas Anděl.
Also opening: Olivier Dahan´s La Môme (showtimes | IMDb), a French biopic about famed singer Édith Piaf. Marion Cotillard stars as Piaf, along with Sylvie Testud and Gérard Depardieu, among others. Modestly acclaimed pic is playing in French with Czech subtitles on Prague screens.
Week of 7.6.2007
A hilarious and highly entertaining follow-up to Shaun of the Dead, action-comedy Hot Fuzz re-teams writer-director Edgar Wright with writer-star Simon Pegg and very nearly tops its predecessor. Simultaneously a perfect send-up and loving parody of buddy-cop action films like Bad Boys II and Point Break (both of which are prominently featured), pic hits all the right notes right up to the action-filled climax. Cast is superb, especially Pegg as our wooden hero; he and director Wright also deserve a lot of credit for their script, which is right on target. Keep an eye out for numerous cameos (my favorite: Cate Blanchett) throughout.
Pegg is Sergeant Nicholas Angel, who is taken off the city beat because he´s ‘too good´ and assigned to the peaceful village of Sandford. Here he meets new partner Danny (Nick Frost), and his father, Inspector Frank Butterman (Jim Broadbent), who´s in charge of the local police force. Things seem too peaceful at first, with Danny longing for action and the duo´s biggest case involving a missing swan. But ghastly murder after ghastly murder (with some grandiose, over-the-top bloodletting) soon reveals there´s something rotten in Sandford. Despite the local´s claim that the beheadings, impalements, and stabbings are ‘just accidents´, Nicholas and Danny begin an investigation, with an eye on supermarket tycoon Simon Skinner (Timothy Dalton). To some, the build-up may seem a bit slow, but things are carefully metered out with delicious wit and laugh-out-loud moments, punctuated by the inventive deaths; when things really get going by the end, however, they don´t let up for a second. And yet, the enigmatic, high-octane climax, despite the excitement, is where the film almost lost me; the bloodless gunplay pays appropriate homage to the John Woo action school but pales in comparison to the earlier bloodletting, resulting in a less-than-perfectly-satisfying conclusion. Just shy of a comedic masterpiece but wonderfully entertaining nevertheless.
Stale rom-com gives us layers of lackluster romance and broad comedy during an overlong 100 minutes, managing only to be offensive or embarrassing when it isn´t downright boring. Meddling mother Diane Keaton places an online advert to find Mr. Right for daughter Mandy Moore, screening candidates and conspiring to stage a romance with her man of choice. But will Moore choose Mom´s pick (a creepy Tom Everett Scott) or the warm-hearted musician who thinks mother may not know best? I wonder Moore is beautiful but bland, playing an underwritten character that does her no favors; costars Lauren Graham and (especially) Piper Perabo are completely wasted as her sisters, while Stephen Collins and Gabriel Macht are good as father-son love interests. Yet it´s Keaton who sinks it all, in a screeching, ditzy performance that could be generously described as nails-on-a-chalkboard; film only briefly comes alive during her unfortunately brief bout with laryngitis. But a once beloved, Oscar-winning actress gifted upon us by Coppola and Woody Allen has now been reduced to broad, stereotypical Dumb Dora roles that younger and less talented performers likely wouldn´t touch. Shame.
Week of 1.6.2007
A potentially intriguing premise is completely and irrevocably mishandled in director Mennan Yapo´s Premonition, a misguided thriller that often seems at odds with itself. Sandra Bullock stars as Linda Hanson, a housewife with two children living a conventional existence until a police officer arrives at her doorstep, informing her that husband Jim (Julian McMahon) has been killed in a car accident. The next day, however, she wakes up and discovers Jim alive and well; passing it off as a bad dream, she continues her daily routine. But the following morning hubby is dead again; Linda soon realizes (with unlikely precision) that she is living the days of the week out of order. Can she change the future? Does she want to?
Paul Verhoeven is back in grand fashion with Black Book, a wonderful film that combines the Dutch roots of his gritty early work with a refined Hollywood style. Carice van Houten (in a star-making, tour-de-force performance) stars as Rachel Stein, a young Jewish girl hiding out in a rural farmhouse during German occupation of The Netherlands in WWII. After her cover is blown, she attempts to flee the country; a Nazi ambush leaves her the sole survivor, and soon she finds herself working alongside Dutch resistance fighters. But this is only the beginning of her story, which Verhoeven paints in an array of colors, showing us a sympathetic Nazi and atrocities committed after German forces have been expelled. Entire cast is excellent, production flawless. A memorable, magnetic, exhilarating near-masterpiece that effortlessly plays with our emotions, continually surprising us at every turn. But it´s only depressing to think that we may have lost one of our great talents to the Hollywood machine for years, to Hollow Man, Starship Troopers, and (shudder) Showgirls. Also see Bertrand Tavernier´s unfortunately overlooked Safe Conduct, a similar true-story epic about French filmmakers fighting for the resistance during WWII.
Note: film is playing only in a Dutch/German version with Czech subtitles in Prague cinemas.
Also opening: Jiří Vejdělek´s comedy ROMing (showtimes | IMDb ), starring Bolek Polívka and Marián Labuda. The Czech/Slovak/Romanian co-production doesn´t have an English-subtitled print making the rounds (yet).
Week of 25.5.2007
Picking up where the previous installment left off, At World’s End starts off with our ragtag pirate heroes, now led by Geoffrey Rush´s resurrected Captain Barbossa, recruiting the help of Pirate Lord Sao Feng (Chow-Yun Fat) to save the lovable Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), digested by the Kraken and now residing in the limbo known as Davy Jones´ Locker. There´s also the matter of Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), who aims to wipe out all pirates on the seas with the forced assistance of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and his Flying Dutchman. And the nine Pirate Lords who aim to stop them, and their nine ‘Pieces of Eight´, and the mysterious Calypso that might save them. Oh, and the usual back-and-forth romance between Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightly), which is thankfully brought to some kind of conclusion after meandering through the previous films. And numerous, needless backstabbings and side-changings, entirely unnecessary as we already know all of these characters, who´s good and who´s bad and which side they´ll end up on.
Depp steals the show here, as he did in the previous films, but he almost seems toned down, his screen time reduced – so many characters, and so many plotlines, few of which focus on Sparrow. Keith Richards shows up and sticks around in a forced cameo as his father, displaying little of the charisma that originally inspired Depp´s character. Rest of the cast is fine, tech credits are excellent all around, and there are some inspired bits – was that an homage to the finale of Zabriskie Point towards the end? – just not enough. The extended action during the climax, however, is effectively rousing (though it tends to drag on). All in all, there´s enough money and talent and affinity for the production here to produce a moderately satisfying installment to the series. But it´s still something of a misfire, a mild mediocrity that entirely fails to justify its epic three-hour running time.
Week of 17.5.2007
You may be more forgiving if Joel Schumacher’s The Number 23 was only the 23rd variation of this (now) ridiculous sub-genre of twisty psychological thrillers you’ve seen; me, I’ve unwittingly taken in this same film no less than 46 times. Basic plot dates back to at least Jagged Edge (1985), the genre given new life and a supernatural spin with The Sixth Sense (1999), before being so successfully lampooned by Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation (2002), and now five years later and twenty out of date I’ve seen two of these in a matter of weeks (previously: Perfect Stranger). Enough! Each variation presents some kind of interesting premise, which is either a) used as a red herring, or b) left ignored and unexplored, as the recklessly weighty plot inevitably takes over and leaves little room for anything else.