Rumble in the Bronx

72/100
Rumble in the Bronx

A little less than halfway through Rumble in the Bronx, Jackie Chan is cornered between a car and a high fence on the top level of a five-story parking garage, with a gang of vengeful punks eager to beat the hell out of him. After a few moments of seeming defeat, Jackie leaps onto one of the automobiles, takes a few running steps, and makes an unaided leap into the air and across the street far below, making a perfect crash landing on a balcony on the next building over. As anyone who’s been paying attention knows, Jackie does his own stunts, and this crazy trick, coming at the tail-end of an extended, expertly choreographed chase scene, is no exception. It makes you want to scream and applaud madly and hell, I’m not ashamed to say that I did.

Now, I’m no stranger to Jackie Chan, and as Jackie Chan movies go, Rumble in the Bronx is really nothing special. (My first recommendations to friends are usually Drunken Master 2, a great martial-arts showcase, and Police Story, a cool cop movie with outrageous stunts that was actually released on video in the U.S. as Jackie Chan’s Police Force.) What’s unusual is that New Line Cinema had the confidence to pick Rumble up for U.S. distribution, slapping a new (digitally mixed) soundtrack on it and trucking it out to a theater near you. Not only is it getting released, but New Line is slathering on the full marketing blitz, touring Jackie around the U.S. and getting worshipful coverage from CNN, MTV, and the Letterman show, among others. The question, of course, remains: can Jackie Chan beat the hype? My guess — almost certainly.

Jackie is Keong, a tourist spending some time in Vancouver, um, I mean New York City, to help out his uncle, who is selling the family’s south Bronx grocery store and taking a honeymoon with his very American sweetheart. Jackie agrees to stay on for a week to help the store’s new owner (Anita Mui) adjust to the neighborhood, and winds up embroiled in a grudge match with the local street gang. To complicate matters, it turns out that the young handicapped boy whom Jackie befriends is not only the sister of a gang moll (Francoise Yip), but also unwittingly involved in the mob’s search for some missing diamonds. The ensuing pandemonium makes good use of pinball machines, a metal crutch, a dozen different ways to clobber someone with a ski, a sports car, a really big monkey wrench, and a hovercraft.

It’s impossible to describe in mere words the full freewheeling scope of all the leaping, kicking, spinning, pushing, pulling, and punching included in this film, but you’ll have to trust me when I tell you it works like a charm. Actual cinematic razzle-dazzle has never been a particular strength of Jackie’s often uneven films (though the editing is always good, because it has to be), but Rumble is a solid, good-looking picture. Especially striking is another scene where Jackie’s got his back against the wall, helpless as his adversaries pummel him with liquor bottles that tumble through the air and shatter in tantalizing, low-key slo-mo. It’s enough to make you forget, until things get really silly, that this is a Hong Kong movie shot in Canada and dubbed into English. On a big screen with digital sound, it sure packs a wallop.

Jackie’s supporting players are terrific. Mui is smart and ambitious, but comically vulnerable under stress, the perfect candidate for Chan’s protection. Yip is the other side of the (admittedly stereotypical) female coin, a gorgeous biker/exotic dancer who’s eventually captured as a hostage but never treated with the run-of-the-mill sadism that characterizes so many action pictures. It’s egalitarian enough that the kid (whose name I didn’t catch) is in a wheelchair through much of the movie, but it’s even better that the kid gloves are off. As a fully formed member of the cast, he’s fair game for the bad guys, who toss him around like a rag doll and even beat him up a little.

Jackie himself is beyond reproach. This charming superstar is aging gracefully, and when he practices his technique on a martial arts dummy in his uncle’s living room, it’s a tantalizing portent of fast times to come. His technique involves sheer stunning athleticism, a healthy and occasionally self-deprecating ego, an eye for the outrageously theatrical, and a sense of his relationship with the audience that recalls Buster Keaton’s. Just as his “Great Stone Face” moniker belied Keaton’s true emotional range, Jackie Chan’s “chop-socky” reputation denies the tremendous pleasure of his dance-like choreography and violent physicality. The cathartic, edge-of-your-seat rush that comes with seeing a Jackie Chan film in a movie theater is one of this generation’s great cinematic pleasures.

But are audiences likely to embrace the occasionally goofy humor or sentimentality of a Hong Kong film? Rumble does have something of a fairy-tale quality, with the action stopping dead at one point so Jackie can lecture the gang members (a la Martin Scorsese’s video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad”) on their bad attitudes, but it’s refreshing to see a movie that’s so honest in its motives. And after the royal ass-kicking that Chan deals to all comers, it sure seems that he’s earned the right to spend about 20 seconds of screen time preaching the gospel. After all, it beats Steven Segal’s newfound environmental awareness, or the postmodern posturing of another Batman movie. (The real irony may be that this movie, so careful with its ultimate moral message that irresponsible violence is bad, is rated R.)

The net effect? The packed house I sat with seemed more than ready for a dose of charm and naive sentiment, especially if it’s wrapped around breathless action scenes that deliver like a half-dozen Segal flicks distilled and concentrated in one 90-minute package. For at least a brief moment, as far as American audiences are concerned, this little Chinese guy may be the Man Who Saved Action Cinema (Drunken Master 2 and Crime Story are waiting in the wings). My advice? Enjoy it while you can — that is, while Hollywood needs Jackie more than Jackie needs Hollywood. One of these days, through the miracle of digital effects, Hollywood is going to figure out a way to have Jean Claude Van Damme or Arnold Schwarzenegger waterski in their bare feet, effortlessly, and God help us then.

Angels and Insects

46/100
Kristen Scott Thomas in ANGELS AND INSECTS

Near the beginning of Angels and Insects, our romantic protagonist courts the object of his very sexual affections in odd fashion. That scene, which involves a veritable swarm of butterflies and moths crawling across the woman’s clothing and skin, is a good indicator of the film’s ambitions. Putting a Victorian estate under the microscope, Angels and Insects postulates that this family unit, with sons, daughters and servants all tending slavishly to the needs of a bloated matriarch, is something less sophisticated and more distasteful than your average backyard ant farm.

William Adamson (Mark Rylance) is an outsider among the blueblooded Alabasters, the family whose patriarch, Sir Harald (Jeremy Kemp), rescued the young naturalist from a disastrous shipwreck. He is allowed to live with the Alabasters as Harald’s assistant, and swiftly falls under the spell of the oldest daughter, Eugenia (Patsy Kensit). This courtship among the insects is the film’s most direct metaphor, and its most satisfying conceit. As William confesses his love to Eugenia, he looses upon her what first seem to be the world’s loveliest butterflies. But soon, Eugenia is beset by the unsightly male counterparts to the beautiful females, which crawl across her body, drawn by female pheromones.

The trauma of that experience isn’t enough to derail the romance, which unfolds to the chagrin of Eugenia’s brother, Edgar (Douglas Henshall), who considers William an unfit suitor. Edgar’s sneering insults grow more and more provocative, but William resists his verbal exhortations to physical battle and marries Eugenia. His assimilation into the family is thus made literal, and Harald seems rather fond of the young man — but Edgar won’t let up, spouting continually about how little William knows of the world, and the significance of his improper breeding.

This socio-scientific Darwinism is as much a key to Angels and Insects as are the butterfly and ant-farm metaphors (when Eugenia proves herself to be less than an ideal lover, William bides his time with a detailed study of an ant colony on the estate). For the first hour or so, I was sitting on the edge of my seat, gamely tracking all of the asides, double entendres, and allegorical declamations. Philip Haas’s screenplay tries to cram all the thematic concerns of its source material (the novella Morpho Eugenia, by retro-Victorian scribe A.S. Byatt) into the two-hour space of a feature film, but it’s a little much.

Those concerns spill over from the story and dialogue into the film’s visual grammar, as well. While the overall production design is sumptuous and striking, the movie’s infatuation with its own color sceme grows tiring. For instance, when Kensit turns up in one of her show-stopping gowns, an unlikely peacock blue fringed in blood red, the effect is an imperfect distillation of the Peter Greenaway Effect — decidely garish in appearance, but relatively graceless in execution. More effective for my money is the less specific sense of dread that infuses the proceedings, especially in the scenes leading up to the marriage of the unlikely lovers.

So maybe it’s because the film wore me out in its first section that I found the second half fairly tedious. It’s mostly a waiting game. We know that Kristin Scott Thomas (she plays Matty Crampton, the family tutor) gets billing above Kensit, so her role will soon become prominent. The ad campaign has assured us that there’s a “startling” revelation in the final reels, but the punch is telegraphed across most of the movie. And, of course, we know that something’s got to give — and it does.

That having been said, the movie does have its pleasures. The performances are decidedly less mannered than we’ve come to expect from costume drama, and Rylance and Henshall make deliciously credible intellectual adversaries. I’ll even go out on a limb for Kensit, whose vaguely unsettling concupiscent charms have never before been put to such perfect use. The cinematography is lush and surprising, and the atmosphere is boldly creepy.

The opening credits sequence, which flash back to Adamson and a troupe of Amazonian dancers frolicking in the firelight, is more honestly sexual than anything that follows, and we get the sense that he was never happier than he was among the natives (as if to underscore the point, the titular letters spelling out Angels cross the screen in front of the dancers). This sequence, beautifully edited by the director’s wife, Belinda Haas, helps us understand the libidinous freedom that Adamson craves, even as he takes a luscious wife in an ostensible paradise. While the inhabitants of a less seething Victorian tableaux might negotiate apparently charmed paths to a satisfying but unlikely happy ending, we are made to grow more and more certain that the only resolution to the Victorian dilemma postulated by Angels and Insects is escape.

Twelve Monkeys

87/100

I’ve just about herniated my brain in the days since I saw Twelve Monkeys. Like most other stories that dabble in time travel, it presents a cracking conundrum having to do with the relationship of history to the future and the feasibility of someone traveling back to the past in an attempt to influence the formation of their own present. But unlike those other stories, Twelve Monkeys is the creation of auteur Terry Gilliam, the irrepressible fantasist in charge of the similarly temporal shenanigans of Time Bandits, the urban pain and redemption of The Fisher King, and the lobotomized despair of his great suffocating masterpiece, Brazil. Continue reading

City of Lost Children

55/100

The best poster art of 1995 is unquestionably the composite still featured on ads for The City of Lost Children, showing a muscular redheaded man purposefully rowing a boat across a sea peppered with floating mines. At the bow of the vessel, a younger girl, perhaps 10 years old, looks back over her shoulder almost balefully. They’re en route to what looks like a cross between a mist-shrouded palace and an oil rig, matte painted in silhouette against the moonrise. It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but this one teases, offering glimpses of a story that exists in the imagination, and is not necessarily dependent on the “reality” established by the film it’s meant to promote.

That picture isn’t taken directly from the film, but it may as well be. Its evocative power is indicative of the real strengths of the filmmaking duo of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. These two headstrong fantasists cut their teeth on music videos and television commercials before settling in to make the much-admired Delicatessen (1991), a black European comedy about cannibalism. Accordingly, American audiences had their first real exposure to Jeunet and Caro when art houses nationwide were blitzed with that film’s trailer—a set piece drawn straight from the movie itself, and involving the apparent rhythms of lovemaking in an apartment building from hell and its impact on everyday life in adjacent rooms. To this day, even movie fans who never saw the actual movie still harbor vivid memories of seeing the brilliantly entertaining trailer to Delicatessen.

That mastery of imagery and montage is what keeps Jeunet and Caro’s newest film from being a mere clutter of dazzling images. The City of Lost Children is something of a fable set in a city in either the future or an alternate reality. The movie has to do with a scientist named Krank (Daniel Emilfork), who is aging prematurely because he lacks the ability to dream. Fighting to reverse the aging process, he sends his blind minions out to kidnap the city’s most potent dreamers—the children—and bring them back so he can invade the children’s dreams and make them his own. Circus strongman One (Ron Perlman, the beefy guy from the posters) gets involved when his adopted brother, little Denree (Joseph Lucien), is abducted by the Cyclops, who see the world through one electronic eye and do Krank’s bidding. Events turn, and One teams up with the orphan Miette (Judith Vittet) on a mission to invade Krank’s laboratory and rescue his beloved brother. The other characters in the laboratory include Krank’s assistant, Miss Bismuth (Mireille Mosse), a disembodied talking brain floating in a fish tank (given witty, world-weary voice by Jean-Louis Trintignant), and a battalion of clones (all of them played by Dominique Pinon).

The actors are more than up to the challenge of breathing life into the concept. Perlman, a busy actor whose credits include The Name of the Rose, Romeo is Bleeding, and last year’s Cronos, is entirely credible as the simple strong man driven to his quest by love for a child. Daniel Emilfork’s Krank is a bizarre yet pathetic creation, and our distate for his persona is mitigated by our understanding of his desperation (after all, we’re the ones who paid money to visit someone else’s dream for an hour or two). And whether it’s Vittet playing an orphan who’s become wise and jaded beyond her years, or Lucien as the toddler who’s mostly unfazed by the pyrotechnics that have the other kids screaming, the children here defy the Hollywood standard of cinematic children who are by turns cutesy pies or obnoxious hams. Since the children are the film’s center, the metaphorical imaginative core of a society that has perhaps forgotten the value of its dreams, it’s reassuring that the actors give unmannered performances that put the histrionic antics of celebrity brats like Macauley Culkin in proper perspective.

Aided and abetted by Jean-Paul Gaultier’s costuming, Caro’s art direction ensures that this city truly is something to behold, although our visit is fragmented so that we have little opportunity to get a sense for a whole environment. For the most part, Caro and Jeunet create their nightmare world by stacking their most striking visuals on top of one another in a shot-by-shot montage that amplifies the chaos. But the real show-stoppers are the sequences that stretch the film’s tightly constrained sense of location while staying within the episodic format (the best involves a spider’s web, a shipwreck, and a healthy sense of wonder), though even that doesn’t shake the constant feeling that we’re watching master craftsmen at work, not peeking into another universe.

But when they work, oh boy, do they work. Jeunet and Caro have a keen sense of their characters, from the lead roles all the way down to the bit parts, and the crucial dream sequences are marvelously surreal, right down to the accompanying sound mix. (It’s fitting that Sony is releasing this one just before Christmas, because Santa figures in a couple of the dreams, for better or for worse.) Angelo Badalamenti’s music is surprisingly effective throughout, and Miette’s final nightmare is nothing short of breathtaking. The film contains a remarkable number of digital-effects shots, and indeed, is surprisingly reliant on technical wizardry, whether it’s allowing Pinon to play six different parts on-screen at the same time, or enabling show-stopping close-ups of Fleakins, the bug who offers up a flea’s-eye view of the world before shooting characters up with a strange poison. The rich, shadowy cinematography, which is a key part of the weirdness at work here, is by Darius Khondji, who shot Delicatessen but also, probably more famously, this year’s Hollywood hit, Se7en.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, there’s a story that needs to be told, and the one here is just a little humdrum. For all its whacked-out creativity, The City of Lost Children is a bit short on ideas for what to do with itself. The dream thievery is reduced to a child-in-peril excuse to get our obligatory hero into the laboratory, and Krank’s invasion of dreams isn’t even fully distinguished from what we might expect from a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel. And at the climax, we’re treated to a pretty rote escape-from-the-madman routine that ends in a big explosion a la any number of American action movies. Would that a movie this wondrous weren’t simultaneously so formulaic.

I’d hate to discourage any fan of the surreal from buying a ticket, since it’s a truly impressive piece of work. Still, something very important is missing. It’s all well and good to break out all the wide-angle lenses, run amok with the set design, and frighten a few children, but I do wish there was a little more light at the end of the tunnel. It seems that Jeunet and Caro are very satisfied with what they have wrought, but it’s hard to experience the film on a very personal level, because we’re never given the sense that anything real is at stake, or that there’s anything in the rather unpleasant world presented to us that’s really worth fighting for. For all their formidable skills, Jeunet & Caro need to balance all of the nightmare and grimace with just a little bit of hope and magic. I’m rooting for them to deliver the goods next time—but I’m not sure they have it in them.

To Die For

45/100

Nicole Kidman and Matt Dillon in <em>To Die For</em>

To Die For is an ambitious little flick about the seductive lure of stardom, the suggestive power of Nicole Kidman’s lips, and the promise of liberation held by a teenage flunky with a handgun who’s willing to lose everything for your love. The movie is ambitious, and sounds terrific on paper, but director Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) can’t pull everything together to make any impact at all. It’s enough to make you wonder what he’s doing with this script in the first place.

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Leaving Las Vegas

80/100

In Leaving Las Vegas, Nicolas Cage plays Benjamin, an alcoholic who’s lost his family and his job and moves to Las Vegas to quite deliberately drink himself to death over the course of four weeks’ time. While he’s there, he meets a hooker named Sera, played by Elisabeth Shue, who’s cast adrift, so to speak, when her boyfriend and pimp (Julian Sands) is finally murdered by the thugs he owes money to. Since these two are just about the neediest people on the planet, they immediately fall into a codependent relationship. Ben agrees to vacate his room at the $29-a-night Whole Year Inn (in an unusual moment of lucidity, Ben reads the sign as “the hole you’re in”) and move in with Sera on one condition — she can never ask him to stop drinking.

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Strange Days

81/100

There’s a lot of sex in Strange Days. A lot of sex, and a lot of violence. Director Kathryn Bigelow and her screenwriter cronies James Cameron and Jay Cocks understand well that the sleekest new technology is immediately turned to the seediest purposes. Their protagonist, L.A. ex-cop Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), understands it too, and he’s the consummate salesperson for virtual sleaze, circa 1999. When Nero watches a potential client “jack in” — a contraband silver rig on top of the mark’s head wires the contents of a mini CD recorded with the full sensory experience of another person directly into his brain — he sports the sharp grin of a guy who loves the junk he’s dealing as much as the junkies do. After the client’s spent a few quality moments feeling himself up through his business suit, Nero cuts off his feed. “You were just an 18-year-old girl taking a shower,” he tells the client. And, of course, there’s more where that came from. Continue reading

Se7en

95/100

Se7en

David Fincher, whose brilliant career as a director of music videos encompassed such highs and lows as Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and Rick Springfield’s “Bop ‘Til You Drop,” has helmed an almost overly stylish thriller about the evil that men do and the myriad ways to punish them. And this thriller is so unlikely on its surface that when the machine kicks into high gear and the characters really start to matter to us, its impact seems all-encompassing and lingers for days after viewing.

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