Capsules for 2005

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Capsule reviews for movies released in the U.S. in 2005. Includes all the movies of 2005 I've seen that I did not write a full review for.

3-Iron (2004; released in U.S. in 2005)
Director: Kim Ki-duk
Rating: 8/10
Beautifully-crafted yet somewhat feeling like a stunt, Kim Ki-duk's 3-Iron presents the kind of fable that rarely sees time in the cinema these days -- one of literal spiritual transcendence. Informed by Eastern spiritual ideas, the movie follows the story of a skillful transient who methodically breaks into different people's homes to live there for a day, affecting their presence as he lets them affect his. On one such occasion he finds a beaten woman lurking in the home and they soon form a connection. The cute part about all this is that neither of them talk -- the execution of their silent, intuitive communication is deftly handled, but it becomes cumbersome when they are placed in the presence of other people. Nevertheless, the movie isn't meant to be taken literally -- it's an exploration of love, redemption, and, yes, transcendence. 3-Iron is cleanly photographed and visually conscious, as well as economically sequenced and edited. It's a lovely little movie that nonetheless feels slight even with its metaphysical subject, perhaps because of how deliberately it delivers its concept. (added 12/31/2005)

6ixtynin9 (1999; released in U.S. in 2005)
Director: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Rating: 8/10
This is an Eastern film (Thai, to be exact) strongly influenced by Western works. Other reviews have made comparisons to Tarantino and Boyle, but I was reminded of the Coen Brothers mainly because of the combinations of dread, black humor, deliberate pace, depictions of inept gangsters, and certain cinematic formalities. It's one of those crime-gone-wrong movies with its protagonist, an initially uninvolved woman, caught in the middle. Recently laid-off Tum (Lalita Panyopas) finds a box of cold hard cash dropped off on her doorstep, thanks to the defective number on her door that flips from "6" to "9." The next thing you know, a series of mishaps begins turning her apartment into a corpse storage room; meanwhile, Tum actually plans to abscond with the goods as quickly and quietly as she can. The movie is stylish, funny, and fun to watch (and quite morbid at times), and even offers relevant insight into the conditions created by the Thai economy. This is the trickle-down theory's nightmare opposite scenario, where tough times are pounced upon by corruption and the lure of money compromises even the most innocent citizens' sense of morality. (added 4/20/2006)

Beauty Shop
Director: Bille Woodruff
Rating: 6/10
While writing a recent review for a movie, I used the term "photocopying" to help describe it, and I think the word works for Beauty Shop as well, albeit in a slightly different way. Here, the analogy is in direct regard to degredation -- if you make a copy of something, then make a copy of the copy, that last copy is going to be degraded in quality. Beauty Shop, being third in line in the Barbershop franchise, is that copy of a copy, taking the most outwardly memorable characteristics of Barbershop (the uproarious discussions held in the shop, the ups and downs of running a business, racially-oriented comedy and commentary) and replaying them again, with less genuine verve. The notion of a plot has barely survived the photocopying -- this movie now coasts by on easy jokes and a string of amusing but casual events. The idea of a free-flowing snapshot of a mostly feminine community isn't a bad one, really -- to be honest, it's this plus the ever-watchable Queen Latifah that give the movie its appeal. But Beauty Shop isn't really trying harder to be anything more -- it's only as memorable as it sets itself up to be. It's not a bad time at the movies, but it isn't something to consider going out of the way for, either. (added 3/29/2005)

Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Rating: 8/10
Black could be considered an Indian Miracle Worker, and if it were left at that, then there might not be too much to say about it. But, rather smartly, Bollywood director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, in a production without musical numbers, makes the tale of a tough teacher, Mr. Sahai (veteran Amitabh Bachchan), trying to get through to his blind/deaf pupil, Michelle (Ayesha Kapoor as a child, Rani Mukherjee as an adult), only half the story. As if trying to defy the "happily ever after" notion, the second half goes on to explore Michelle's struggles at a university, where her disabilities hinder her learning despite her determination. And pushing her until she succeeds is Mr. Sahai, who starts to exhibit the symptoms of a disability of his own. Bhansali exercises his usual eye for visuals, and the look here is lush and alive, while the story, true to Bollywood form, is shameless in its heartstring manipulations. But it's the details that make the whole thing work, from the performances of Bachchan and Mukherjee to its deadly honest observations that Michelle's disabilities would create obstacles -- intellectual and emotional -- that would reach far beyond her loss of sight and hearing. The inspirational moments of Black are almost desperate as we know the sadness behind Michelle's life will never truly go away; thus, the movie is not only an ode to great teachers and the students who treasure them, but also an acknowledgement that life is a constant endeavor to create spots of light in an otherwise dark world. (added 10/8/2008)

Breakfast on Pluto
Director: Neil Jordan
Rating: 5/10
Can it be possible that this particular brand of gay movie character is starting to get old? Perhaps it's still too early to make that statement, but despite Cillian Murphy's comfortable, immersive performance as a '70's Irish transvestite who calls himself "Kitten" (his pretty boy looks and bright blue eyes serve him well here), I couldn't help but feel that I've already seen this character, and always portrayed in this similar manner -- fey, fanciful, indefatigable. He dresses up his world in bright colors, most likely to shield himself from the real world's coldness and disdain for fairy tales and magic. This kind of character can be done up in appealing ways, but here he's stuck in an old-fashioned story about finding a place to belong by searching for the mother who abandoned him, which leads him on an episodic Odyssey-like journey through London in turbulent times. Despite a bopping soundtrack and some wacky touches, Neil Jordan places emphasis on the grittiness of the atmosphere -- Kitten does have fantasies, but, save for a couple of memorable bits, they must be mostly in his head, away from the viewing audience. I kept thinking Pedro Almodóvar could've had a field day with this. At over two hours, this movie really could've used more consistent, imaginative spice and splash. (added 12/1/2005)

Broken Flowers
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Rating: 7/10
Broken Flowers is an experiment to find out if Bill Murray can spin gold given a minimal script in which his character, a forlorn, aging Don Juan, drops in on four very different former lovers after not having seen them each for 20 years. The reason? He got an anonymous letter from someone who claims he fathered her now 19-year-old son, who might be out looking for him. The movie both works and it doesn't. Sapping its strength is the feeling that it's too aware of its own let's-see-what-happens approach; it feels self-conscious, and that takes away from any genuineness it may try to communicate through its characters. For instance, the four women are written into such extreme corners of personality that they still feel pretty gimmicky despite game efforts by the actresses (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton) to breathe life into them. Propping the film up, though, is Murray, here given only a bareboned subset of his emotional range to work with and still able to create a being of identifiable depth. He doesn't say much, but you know what he's thinking and feeling. But alas, although I'll be the first to call Murray's forays into these regretful, lonely characters charming and thoughtful, Broken Flowers feels like the last one I want to see for a while. Here's hoping, after Murray's current self-imposed hiatus from acting, he comes back as someone more upbeat. Smile for us again, Bill. (added 8/4/2005)

Director: Michael Haneke
Rating: 7/10
Caché begins with a long still shot of the outside of a French apartment. After the shot is held for minutes, we realize we've been watching a videotape anonymously delivered to the successful couple who lives in the apartment, and, as they see what we see, they wonder in trepidation, naturally, what the meaning of this is. It's a great premise for a thriller, so it's kind of a letdown when Caché eventually reveals itself to be a critique of the complacency of the French middle class toward their involvement in recent atrocious world events. Unnerved by the videos (there are several delivered), Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) finds himself suspecting someone from his past, which dredges up his buried guilty conscience, which we are then invited to scold. In this way, the movie makes an error in judgment by creating a situation in which we easily sympathize with Georges's domestic terror before it sees fit to wag a finger at him. Or, if the given audience is a French audience, is that finger wagging at them? It leaves a bad taste, but Caché is never less than enthralling, grabbing its audience through sheer force of technique and buoyed by the performances of Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, who plays his wife. In the end, the criticism it puts forth is understandable, but the path in getting to its point is questionable. (added 12/31/2005)

Café Lumière (2003; released in U.S. in 2005)
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Rating: 8/10
If the inevitability of tradition-altering change is one of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu's major themes, then Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien takes it further to darker corners. His Café Lumière was produced to celebrate the centennial of Ozu's birth, and rather than go the trivial route of aping Ozu's style and storytelling, he uses the techniques he's honed to create his own take on the state of Japan's ever increasing modernity. This is very much a Hou film -- observant, little-to-no camera movements, plotless -- but with his eye now trained on Japan instead of his home country, he illuminates perhaps the worst of what Ozu feared. The protagonist, if you can call her that, is Yoko (Yo Hitoto), a young woman with little connection to her past traditions, her parents, or to anyone else around her (she does have one friend whom she occasionally crosses paths with). To watch her go about her business is to watch a life isolated, independent but barely possessing perspective on her relationships with others and on general regional history. Hou pays a few obligatory style references to Ozu, which include straight shots of doorways, "tatami shots," and trains, but otherwise plays the movie as if it were a dissertation, an approach which I would maintain was the correct one, but perhaps only really accessible to viewers who have also studied in this field, so to speak. But this is Hou's usual modus operandi, which I find professor-like, insisting you do your part to keep up with class rather than compromising to make sure general audiences "get it." (added 9/21/2006)

Director: Paul Haggis
Rating: 9/10
Crash is this year's entry in the Magnolia genre, and although I usually say that dismissively, this time the device of following a generally random selection of people through mostly unhappy circumstances as their lives intersect works effectively to create a wounded portrait of Los Angeles. This is mainly because it has the cajones to directly tackle everyone's least favorite unsavory subject: racism. And, thank its ambitious heart, Crash covers it from as many angles and through as many levels as possible, from direct bigotry to insidious imprinting, from stereotype justification to ethnic self-loathing. This long-reaching ambition may also be considered its primary weakness as well -- the movie stretches hard to touch all bases, weaving a quilt of ironic coincidences that challenge one's ability to suspend disbelief. But I'm glad that it tries -- the worst thing about racism is the defensive way people react to it, avoiding confrontation with the subject as if merely conducting one's self to not outwardly or obviously exhibit racism makes it go away within you. It doesn't, and Crash communicates this loudly and clearly. Not only that, its commentary on racism complements its equally compelling commentary on isolationism in L.A. The two aspects of the city go hand-in-hand, and although the picture painted here isn't flattering and is a bit too exaggerated, it has just enough truth in it to be thought-provoking in a powerful, constructive way. (At least one minor gripe: Asians kind of get the short shaft here in terms of representation. A bit of a shame.) (added 6/13/2005)

Dark Water
Director: Walter Salles
Rating: 7/10
As was mentioned in my short review of Hideo Nakata's Dark Water, the material seems to have been remade twice for American audiences -- first as Nakata's own The Ring Two, and now as Walter Salles's direct remake, Dark Water. Maybe that's a misleading thing to say; after all, The Ring Two's overlapping thematic material is really a loose (and weak) re-interpretation of Dark Water's themes. With Salles's film, the themes are directly the same, and are given a new approach. The result is a pleasant surprise, mainly because Salles displays confidence in setting the atmosphere -- he's not concerned with scaring the audience with cheap tricks. Instead, he repeatedly suggests dread from the environment, from the characters' tensions. In a bit of a twist, his American movie actually makes Nakata's original Japanese version feel "stunty," particularly when you compare climaxes. And while Nakata concentrated on the act of abandonment and its consequences, Salles looks at how people's neglect, self-centeredness, and general mistrust of other people create the situations from which abandonment can occur. It's a surprisingly faithful adaptation, but as such it suffers from the same weaknesses as Nakata's movie -- the already thin story feels a bit stretched for a full-length feature, and the re-used elements (single mother, endangered child, kid ghost) feel too familiar now. But also like Nakata's film, it has an identifiable human component that makes its sense of isolation seem disturbingly real. (added 7/7/2005)

Director: Andrzej Bartkowiak
Rating: 6/10
I'm wholly surprised that I don't hate this movie. I was fully expecting to, since video game movies have been uniformly poor, and Doom isn't really a concept that should be able to sustain a whole movie (in fact, so many games are borne from the movies that to film them becomes an exercise in redundancy; Resident Evil is George A. Romero stuff, Doom is James Cameron... but I digress). But Bartkowiak and company actually tried to give the movie deliberate pacing and enough story detail to actually create a moral dilemma somewhere along the way -- no small feat, when you consider one of the more attractive characteristics of the first-person-shooter genre is the indiscriminateness with which you blast things. The movie has its share of problems, from its general cliches to one that I'm guessing will bug fans of the game -- the deviation from the game's plot about the demons coming from hell itself. But it also has intact its sense of wink-wink pluck for the gamers, including a fun FPS section near the end and an actual setup for, well, a versus play situation. In fact, that last bit was a good idea not paid enough attention to, as the movie gives way to a scenario more at home in a Mortal Kombat movie, but for the most part, Doom isn't half bad because you sense the filmmakers approached a limited concept with the right amount of fun and dedication in mind. (added 10/20/2005)

Downfall (2004; released in U.S. in 2005)
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Rating: 7/10
Downfall is a realistic depiction of the last days of Adolf Hitler and the disintegration of his regime, based mainly on the accounts of his secretary at the time, Traudl Junge. It makes the very clear decision of playing it straight, so much so that it feels like a re-enactment. This at once says everything and nothing -- it's richly attentive to details so there's a lot to observe, but the focus on the various events of the last days doesn't give much room for anything other than the fascination of coming in at the end just to watch things finish falling apart. The characters are well played, and we get a sense of the humanity (i.e., the quality of being human, and not necessarily being humane) of the major ones, most notably Hitler (Bruno Ganz), whose steady loss of control illustrates how power, as intoxicating and deluding as it is, is a relative illusion, only as potent as the particular situation allows it to be. A great many minor characters shuffle in and out, and you get the sense the movie is making busywork just trying to keep track of everybody. It feels something like a self-running large event, where all the participants are working hard to cover all the bases while the whole thing lacks a guiding vision. Like other movies of this kind, the subject matter itself is the fallback support, which is good enough for its purposes, though it could've benefited from a more steered momentum. (added 11/3/2005)

The Dukes of Hazzard
Director: Jay Chandrasekhar
Rating: 1/10
Resembling the tv show as much as a lump of coal resembles Christmas toys, The Dukes of Hazzard movie feels like what would happen if a bunch of jokers watched ten minutes of an episode, then decided that was all they needed to see to go and make a film version. It's as if they based it on the assumption that the show was nothing but obnoxious hillbilllies with cars, and, sure, maybe The Dukes don't deserve anything approaching venerability, but come on -- is it too much to ask that some people do some homework? Because the movie isn't anything more than a bunch of redneck stereotypes played for laughs -- it's what people living in southern California think is funny about the stereotypical southern country that exists in their heads. All the characters are stripped of whatever made them people in the show, then are instead made the embodiments of yokel stock characters. And the whole thing takes place in that non-commital zone between playing it straight and playing it as a farce, which causes it to fail in both ways. Bo and Luke Duke were better off when they were replaced by two other unknown cousins for a season than they are being played by Seann William Scott and Johnny Knoxville, who use the roles to thinly layer a southern hick schtick over their usual goofball personas. When they were John Schneider and Tom Wopat, the cousins were charming and would actually use their heads to figure things out. They could legitimately be sung as "the good ol' boys, never meanin' no harm"; as Scott and Knoxville, they're just, well, jackasses. (added 8/4/2005)

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Director: Alex Gibney
Rating: 8/10
It's the story of the rise and collapse of Enron in one neat, brisk package. The tale turns out to be an expose on how greed, pride, and self-preservation instincts goad ambitious people to the outer capacities of deception and immoral behavior. It also shows how screwy our economic system is as the featured corporate personalities keep finding new ways to literally create money out of thin air. There is, perhaps, some comfort to be had as justice eventually catches up with these racketeers, but the disturbing implications uncovered during the journey tend to stick with you more. The documentary is constructed for easy consumption (the rather banal use of pop music is a low point, signifying a tendency to pander) and simple summarizing, which means the depth of information provided is always just enough to make its points, but at least it has chosen a subject that is useful to serve up in this fashion. One can also detect a certain amount of glee in putting this information out. Boys club enterprising isn't likely to ever go away, and Enron is all too glad to illuminate the depravities of this particular modern incarnation. (added 12/23/2005)

Everything is Illuminated
Director: Liev Schreiber
Rating: 8/10
Everything is Illuminated is an admirably ambitious directorial debut by actor Liev Schreiber, not because of a large scope but more correctly because of its small one. This is a movie about characters learning about their pasts that concentrates on those characters while enhancing the world around them in ways that are cinematically unique and interesting. In looks and pace, it has the earmarks of your self-conscious quirky indie, yet because of the way it stays true to its narrative flow, it's manages to be both winning and charming. The events feel natural, stated at just the right level, not calling noisily to itself for increased dramatic effect or irony; its visuals are neatly composed but always to serve the mood. It makes the entire enterprise feel humble; if it's loud anywhere, it's in its humor, which is a mix of absurd juxtapositions and the odd trio-ing of a group of characters (Elijah Wood, Eugene Hutz, and Boris Leskin) with goofy, extreme personality elements. But this gives way to a sobering lesson in heritage, one that understands each new generation's outer tendency to disregard it and the buried curiosity and willingness to embrace it. Here it lapses into some unexpected heavyhandedness, but it's mostly forgivable in light of the work's overall confidence and humaneness. (added 9/15/2005)

The Family Stone
Director: Thomas Bezucha
Rating: 7/10
Dysfunctional family Christmas comedies aren't going to become scarce anytime soon, but this one features a nice ensemble in a story about family prejudice dynamics. Craig T. Nelson and Diane Keaton are the parents of a grown-up brood of five, and although Keaton's character seems to pride herself on being liberally unencumbered of stereotypical parental hang-ups -- she swears loosely and goes as far as to humorously declare that she wished all her sons turned out gay, as one of them had -- she easily joins in on the family's ugly ganging up on one son's fish-out-of-water fiancee. It's one part of an overall scenario about how much business family members should have in advising one another on relationships, as well as how innately irresistable that urge to interfere is. Here it seems the movie is saying it's no one else's business, no matter how right they actually may be; but by the story's midpoint, its ambitions have weakened considerably. After having set up a situation for some potentially sharp observations, the movie settles for sleighing slowly downhill towards a tidy wrap-up and feel-good sentimentality. This is par for this kind of holiday heartwarmer, and for its purposes it has enough material to work and get its intended job done, but in many ways it also feels like a missed opportunity for more cutting comedic insight. (added 12/15/2005)

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2005

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