movies: January 2005 Archives

The House of Flying Daggers

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Braved a light snow tonight (or last night, technically) to catch a late showing of House of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou's followup to Hero, or at least American audiences' followup. I'm still absorbing and reflecting, so this will probably be short.

Critics who whined about the "complicated, obscure plot" of Hero will be happy to know that there is certainly a simpler plot at work in HFD. The movie's no less visually sumptuous, but struck me as a little less caught up with the iconography of color, season, etc. than Hero. But (again) that may just be me as an American, and that's also not to say that this isn't visually stunning.

I found myself, towards the end, hearing echoes of Romeo and Juliet in the plot, although there are some crucial differences. Nevertheless, characterization comes with small, incidental details, in a way that leaves the characters feeling almost archetypal in the same way that Shakespeare's work functions for us. The movie's set as a period piece, but it's not really "historical." It's focused on the love story, but it does so with broad, sweeping gestures that don't really bring the characters close.

If I had one qualm here, it's that, as I thought about it, it seemed like there were parts of the movie (early ones) that, upon reflection, were designed for the viewer rather than for narrative consistency. Coming out here as quickly as it has on the tail of Hero (I haven't even watched the DVD of it that I got for Christmas yet), it's hard to avoid comparison. For me, HFD was a notch below Hero, even as it maintained the high standards for visual production that Hero displayed. Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhang Ziyi are very charismatic, but their characters were a little less so for me than those in Hero.

All of which is to say that I'd still rate HFD very highly. I didn't regret paying full price for it for a second. If I have more to share about it, I'll return to this post, but for the moment, that's all.

La Vie Aquatique

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Before I left for the frozen tundra, I had occasion to see The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. It's gotten mixed reviews, not the least reason for which, I think, is that it's a pretty subtle movie, far more subtle than Wes Anderson's rep. And so, alot of people are going to go see it, and just not get it. And that was the case in the audience with whom I saw it--no one really knew when they were supposed to laugh, and there's nothing quite so painful as watching a movie as dryly funny as LASZ with people expecting something different. I thought it was hilarious, but then, that kind of humor is right up my alley.

So here's the deal on the Life Aquatic. If, like me, you grew up watching shows like Wild Kingdom, then the flat, affect-less, documentary style of Zissou will seem familiar. The movie makes a big deal out of being eleven years old at several points, and that's really Zissou's target audience. He doesn't know a lot about science, he's not much of a leader, and he's been performing for so long that he doesn't have a lot of personality outside of the role that he adopts in his films. For adults, Zissou is a pain in the ass, but for eleven year olds, wow. Eleven year olds don't need the packaging that adults do.

So the movie begins as kind of a pomo critique of that documentary style, a style far more suited to the pre-Internet days and suited for kids old enough to be curious but young enough to suspend cynicism. And eventually, we come to see Zissou as someone who's trapped by the niche that he's created for himself, a niche that doesn't really allow him genuine relationships with his peers, his wife, his crew. When his best friend dies, he embarks on an Ahab-like quest, but even then, it's documented ceaselessly and pretty flat. The humor in the movie is incredibly deadpan, and once you realize this, it's equally ceaseless. From the exercises they do, to their uniforms, to the layout of the ship, to the dolphins, it's hilarious.

I won't spoil, bc I do recommend seeing it. I will say this, though. At one point, towards the end, Cate Blanchett's character says, seemingly out of nowhere, that "In twelve years, he'll be 11 1/2" in reference to her unborn child. This happens at a weird moment, but as I thought about it, I think the message there is that there needs to be space in the world for 11-year olds, and that Zissou's career, which caters to this audience, is thus worthwhile and worth continuing.

I'll also note that there's one tight focus on Bill Murray's face that's perfect. It's the scene that the entire movie leads up to, and I'm sorry to say that I think most of the audience around me missed it. You'll know it when you see it. That one shot, though, is the soul of the movie.

I'll note finally that Willem Dafoe is high-larious in this movie. High larious.

That's all.



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This page is a archive of entries in the movies category from January 2005.

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