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What is
this, 1993? Out of five films today, two were new high-profile flicks featuring
Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan. Major flashbacks there. Crammed into my all too
familiar theater seat, I almost got the same rush I once felt while hunkered
onto an uncomfortable slab of wood at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA
where I saw scads of Hong Kong flicks flickering away a dozen years ago. Before
the city’s mighty industry stagnated; before Thailand and South Korea stepped
up as the hot spots of Asian genre cinema. Like old times. Almost.

Before I
get that far, however, there’s an intriguing film about a gun named Wendy, a
musical in which Kate Winslet is hot as a pistol and an over-sweetened look at
life and death from Australia.

Dear Wendy
Thomas Vinterberg]

Dear WendyLook out!
It’s more America hate from that wacky Dane Lars von Trier! That’s how some
will look at Dear Wendy, Trier’s collaboration with director Thomas
Vinterberg, in which the pair savagely satirize and dissect America’s
fascination with guns. I’m still not sure if it works, but I enjoyed Dear
tremendously, and I think it’s certainly more successful than

screenwriter, Trier’s primary instrument is a loser named Dick, played with a
wistful intensity by Undertow‘s Jamie Bell. Refusing to
work in the mines with his dad, he takes up work at their mining town’s grocery
store. But when Dick finds that the toy gun in his possession is actually real,
he undergoes a dramatic personality shift. With co-worker Stevie (Mark Webber),
Dick forms the Dandies, a group of like-minded washouts who realize a shared
passion for guns, outlandish garb and secret rituals.

But the
Dandies are no bunch of hooligans. They’re pacifists, in fact, and while
packing heat bestows a rich confidence, they refuse to disclose their
possessions to the public. Instead they research gunshot wounds and traditional
warrior practices in between intense bouts of target practice. Trouble brews,
however, when Sebastian, a young black man with a gun violence conviction, is
introduced into the mix.

takes endless criticism for making films about America without ever having
visited the country. But America has certainly visited everywhere else, and
like Dogville
and Manderlay,
is valuable for what it says about perceptions of America. Residents
of the film’s small township are afraid of gangs that don’t seem to exist; the
young black man is both the most violent gang member and the most noble; and
the police are unwilling to listen to reason once the first shot is fired.

those stereotypical exterior views of America, Dear Wendy ridicules our
culture of fear and racism both at home and abroad. Was that Trier and
Vinterberg’s intent? Hard to say, but it’s the effect nonetheless. At the same
time, the film lures viewers into the very American fantasy that a gun bestows
confidence, power and peace. Vinterberg’s total ease with direction helps; he
creates an oddly enticing fable where acting like a dandy seems infinitely
preferable to becoming just another townie.

the imagined tensions of the town come to a boil and are unleashed in a miasma
of violence. What else can happen when everyone is carrying a gun? Suddenly, Dear
has all the precision of a military exercise; bullet wounds are
detailed in close-up (a la Three Kings) and firing trajectories
are calmly inked on the screen in overlay. The American gun fantasy is torn and
disregarded, as is nearly every convention of the action movie and other
associated gun mythology. Lars von Trier doesn’t hate America; he just hates
Michael Bay. Who can blame him?

Look Both Ways
Sarah Watt]

Look Both Ways.Apparently
this lightweight romantic dramedy is something of a minor big deal in
Australia, but if I’d known I was sitting down to a long form Jewel video I
might have seen something else. Once the truth had dawned, I was just too
sapped to get up and move.

Look Both Ways is the debut feature from Sarah
Watt, a filmmaker with quite a resume in shorts. It follows the lives of four
people as they intersect at a train accident: lonely artist; cancer-stricken
photographer; callous columnist; unhappily pregnant nurse. The structure is less
more Amorres
as Watt intertwines concerns about illness and health,
parenthood and responsibility.

the severity of the topics, Watt’s effort tends to be fairly lighthearted. Most
of the levity is courtesy a series of roughly animated interludes, in which the
paranoid fears of the artist Meryl come to life. The performances are natural and
free, notably Justine Clarke (as Meryl) and William McInnes as a man just diagnosed
with a potentially life-threatening cancer.

But Watt
skips out on a lot of the grunt work of storytelling, relying on multiple pop
music montages to carry her over the rough spots. I lost count after three,
which is already two too many. And a far too pat ending makes a mockery of the
professed fears and personalities of most of Watt’s participants.

Even so,
I talked to a lot of people who walked out of the theatre happy. I felt prodded
and manipulated — like I’d been watching a recent Wayne Wang movie — and not
at all like I’d watched people really examining their hopes and fears. I
attended the screening with a friend who programs a first-run art house in
Boston, and he admitted that the 30-ish stroller set was going to make the
eventual distributor of Look Both Ways rich. He’s probably
right, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If only the same people would
also go see Caché.

I’m posting this on Sunday night, I should also mention that Look
Both Ways
took home the Discovery Award for 2005. Previous winners have
included Rhinocerous Eyes, George Washington and Omagh.
While Watt has an undeniable ease with actors, her readiness to duck out to pop
montage scuttles my trust in her, and I think the film’s prize owes more to
it’s easily digested nature than a true stamp of quality.)

Romance and Cigarettes
John Turturro]

Romance and CigarettesI’m going
to throw out a scene description, and either you’ll race to see John Turturro’s
latest or run screaming in the opposite direction. Here goes: Susan Sarandon
and a tarted-up Kate Winslet duke it out in a lingerie shop while Christopher
Walken dances, James Gandolfini sings and Mandy Moore plays backup.

Actually, scratch
‘tarted up’ as a description of Kate Winslet. Make that absolutely filthy. Holy bible, the things that come out
of this girl’s mouth. For anyone who thinks the woman is gorgeous, this is the
movie. It’s almost Winslet porn.

Apparently Turturro got his wires crossed while trying to summon the spirits of
John Waters and the Coen Brothers from two decades past. The result is this
musical where most of the singing is lip-synched over studio originals and most
of the plot is scattered like leaves in fall. Kitty (Sarandon) and Nick
(Gandolfini) are married, but she’s just found out about his affair with Tula
(Winslet). That puts Tony Soprano in the doghouse, and…well, there’s really no
point in trying to describe it.

movie is a mess. Utterly and without remorse. But it’s an exuberant, dirty,
funny and frequently enjoyable mess. I could never recommend it in good faith,
except to all the people who would love seeing Walken stab someone while
dancing, or who would never get over the sight of Bobby Cannavale doing his
trashy lounge singer act while Mandy Moore waits for him to just get over it
and have sex with her already. I might give the nod to those who get off on
those tiny bits of physical and verbal performance that indelibly set a
character apart from any other. If that’s you, go in faith.

you don’t get off that easy. Romance and Cigarettes is more than
just a flighty, freakish musical. All the ground laid early on comes back to
provide the basis for questions about devotion and marriage. It’s a more
seamless transition than you’d guess, though the final mix is far from smooth.
But like everything else in this most unpredictable flick, it’s charming and
tender for an audience willing to look beyond appearances.)

Kong/China; Wilson Yip]

SPLIf Duelist
harkened back to the wild days of 1997 Hong Kong, this cop drama steps
even further back to the classic action films found earlier in the decade. Veteran
investigator Chan (Simon Yam) attempts to topple the a criminal empire led by
Wong Po, played with venom by Sammo Hung. Stymied in his efforts, Chan prepares
to retire as a brash young officer (Donnie Yen) prepares to take command of his
unit. A string of violent events unites the two officers in their determination
to take down Wong Po.

SPL is far more dark, even nihilistic,
than we’re used to seeing in a Hong Kong cop flick. Life is disregarded with
shocking ease and Sammo plays the callous Wong Po to the hilt. His right hand
man, an assassin clad in stylish white, is played by the badass newcomer Jing
Wu who tears up the screen with knives and fists.

despite the dynamite work of Yen, Wu and Sammo, SPL frequently limps back
to the formula of routine cop drama. While there’s energy onscreen, a parade of
familiar emotional notes crowds out many of the small, interesting character
points. I was ready to pack it in more than once. I felt as if I’d seen all of SPL‘s
tricks in variant form and that the movie wouldn’t have much else to offer.

But there
were some big reasons to stick around: Donnie Yen’s battles with Jing Wu and
Sammo. All are like finding cyanide in your drink: fast, brutal and not at all
what is expected. Donnie Yen fights like a coked badger and Sammo proves that
power and skill can kick age’s ass any time. Their second fight is a gigantic
set piece showdown that essentially takes place on a custom-built stage. That
good? Yeah. Good enough to make an audience look past the threadbare setup?
What else did you come to a Donnie/Sammo showdown for?

The Myth
Stanley Tong]

The MythSomeone
finally sat down and had a talk with Jackie Chan. Thanks to the discussion, he
and Supercop
director Stanley Tong have made the Torque of Asian action
films. Actually, it’s more like Armour of God III, but who’s gonna
argue? The Myth isn’t a good movie, but it’s frequently a very
entertaining bad one, full of all the stuff that we used to enjoy in a Jackie
Chan film.

Jackie takes
on two roles, one modern and the other lodged firmly in the height of the Qin
Dynasty. The modern guy is Jack, a scholar and archaeologist who’s a dead
ringer for Chan’s Armour of God character. The ancient Chan is General Meng-yi, a
fierce warrior assigned to protect the Emperor’s beautiful new concubine. At
first, Jack is merely dreaming of his ancient life, but eventually the two
collide in reality.

All the
ingredients that once made Jackie a James Bond rival are here: epic
globe-trotting, huge fight set pieces and inventive choreography. The
also re-asserts Jackie’s ability to act, at least when the
dialogue is in Cantonese. Unfortunately, there’s a significant amount of
English dialogue in the film, and Jackie still looks as if he’s concentrating
more on the language than his character.

Much of
the action, especially in the second half of the film, is too heavily digital.
Horses are meant to be real, although when a steed’s digital hindquarters
kicked a flaming There’s some cool
anti-gravity fighting, but nothing to top the crazy wind tunnel sequence from Armour
of God II
. But there’s also a lot of material that recalls the best
Chan films, where the camera is set far enough back that you can really see
what’s happening. Just like Sammo does in SPL, Jackie proves that age hasn’t
yet fully asserted itself. Chan’s choreography rocked a few moves I’ve never
seen. That’s reason enough to see The Myth in all its absurd glory.

The end
is in sight, but tomorrow is an incredibly packed day. I’m daunted by the
second film, which is Matthew Barney’s latest artistic opus Drawing
Restraint 9
, created with the full participation of Bjork. I’ll also
hopefully catch Tsotsi on the recommendation of our own Smilin’ Jack Ruby, and
Takashi Miike’s The Great Yokai War. As the last fully packed day of films,
that’s not a bad way to go.

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