A Single Girl

70/100

The shot I remember best from A Single Girl is of Virginie Ledoyen’s face in profile, nearly filling the screen as she changes her clothes. The camera watches from across the room as Ledoyen pulls off her shirt, but then cuts respectfully to the close shot, granting her modesty but never looking away. The movie has a confidence in this lovely face, a conviction that sometimes, it’s enough for us to simply watch. Continue reading

Breaking the Waves

720_breaking.jpgBreaking the Waves, a powerful fable from Danish director Lars von Trier (Zentropa, The Kingdom) is as daunting as it is satisfying. The satisfaction comes from von Trier’s audacious and ever-deepening sense for filmmaking — Breaking the Waves is his most ambitious and skillfully drawn narrative so far, and it offers the pleasure of undertaking an uncertain journey, unsure of where it might all end. That’s also what’s daunting. Breaking the Waves is epic in scope, careering wildly from warm and fleshy love story to grim tragedy to something else entirely over the course of its 158 minutes. It’s a film that demands your rapt attention bit by bit, plumbing ever-deeper corners of the soul and plunging at one point into the abyss. Finally, once it’s over, it will return day by day to haunt its audiences. This is seriously nervy filmmaking.

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Bound

29/100

Jennifer Tilly and Joe Pantoliano in <em>Bound</em>

Bound is a thriller with a lesbian twist, starring Jennifer Tilly (Bullets Over Broadway) and Gina Gershon (Showgirls) as illicit lovers who conspire to swindle the mob out of $2 million.

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Trainspotting

91/100
Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting

In the very first shot of Trainspotting, a good-looking Scot with close-cropped hair and his gawkier sidekick are running like hell through the streets of Edinburgh, a pair of security guards in close pursuit and Iggy Pop’s percussive “Lust For Life” pumping on the soundtrack. The imagery and sound are absolutely perfect, characterizing the film’s headlong, nihilistic style in its very first moments of action. In voiceover, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) is taking a sidelong gander at his options for clean living. “Choose life,” he drawls almost playfully in a thick Scottish brogue. “Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers.” Continue reading

Showgirls

22/100

Joe “Woman Trouble” Eszterhas reteams with ace stylist Paul Verhoeven, who should know better, to create this bumbling epic of a skin flick. The bulk of the movie is pretty dopey, albeit kind of entertaining. But the World According to Eszterhas, as revealed in an unbearably hostile, stridently righteous final reel, is so smelly and distasteful that Showgirls is, finally, truly and thoroughly repellent.

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Heat

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At precisely the halfway point of Heat, Michael Mann’s 171-minute epic of a crime drama, cop Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) tucks in behind criminal mastermind Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) on the highway, pulls him over with flashing lights, and asks him if he wants to go get a cup of coffee.

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Mission: Impossible

78/100

The mere title sequence of Mission: Impossible, this summer’s second big blockbuster, is more thrilling than all of Twister. The titles were designed by Kyle Cooper of R/Greenberg Associates (he created the knockout opener for David Fincher’s Se7en), and they’re made up of ridiculously quick cuts, flashing lights, big noise and sharp graphics. In about 30 seconds, they capture the very ephemeral essence of a weekly television program as well as the in-your-face aesthetic of Action ’96, and suggest the concept of continuing franchise even more succinctly than the film’s final scene.

They announce a picture that knows enough about style that it’s absorbing to watch even when nothing much is going on. Framed in director Brian De Palma’s stubbornly widescreen viewfinder (it’s like nobody ever told him about the “TV-safe” area), each shot is an almost abstract delight. Tom Cruise looks great, whether he’s peering over the screen of his laptop, or doing the James Bond thing on the top of a hurtling, cg-rendered train. The settings, which range from old-world ornate to a cold high-tech style that recalls Kubrick, are exquisitely rendered. And while the movie never really revs up the headlong rush that I was hoping for, it’s a pretty good nailbiter, with a handful of clever set pieces culminating in a nicely realized special effects showcase that knows when to quit — a rarity in this age of double and triple “surprise” endings.

Tom Cruise is Ethan Hunt, a member of the elite “IMF” team led by Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) to infiltrate delicate situations and extract important information. At the beginning of the movie, one mission goes terribly awry when the force is ambushed and everyone but Ethan is apparently killed. The target of this ambush is a computer disc containing a list of IMF agents worldwide. When Ethan hooks up with a senior agent in Prague, he learns that since he is the only survivor of the raid, he’s suspected of being the mole working inside the organization, trying to get at the data. Ethan figures out immediately that the only way to clear his name is to escape his superiors and deliver the real bad guy … mission? Impossible.

And that’s why this movie is so much fun. The storyline is stubbornly implausible, but it’s not dumb — in fact, I can’t recall a stops-out action picture so precisely calculated, performed, and timed since Andrew Davis’s The Fugitive. (On second thought, Luc Besson’s The Professional is pretty damned good.) The three acts are defined by their attendant action sequences. In the first, we see Ethan’s friends gunned down and blown up one by one. In the second, we watch spellbound as Ethan and new pals Luther (Ving Rhames, Marcellus from Pulp Fiction) and Krieger (Jean Reno, from The Professional/Leon) infiltrate CIA headquarters in Virginia to hack the main computer system (yes, it’s utterly ridiculous — and totally cool). And at the end of the third, loose ends culminate in the aforementioned train sequence, which is eye-popping and almost convincing. (Is it my imagination, or is Tom Cruise completely computer generated in one of these shots?) The major bummer is that if you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve already seen too much of the climax for it to be as much of a kick as it should be.

Cruise himself certainly has screen presence, and his sculpted good looks are complementary to the film’s vacuum-packed visuals. As Claire, Phelps’ wife and Cruise’s ostensible love interest — and the only other member of Ethan’s ill-fated mission who manages to survive — Emmanuelle Beart (Manon of the SpringNelly and Monsieur Arnaud) is sleek and gorgeous, even though her presence is barely felt (DePalma told USA Today that what must have been an important opening scene exploring the relationship between Claire, Ethan, and Phelps was cut after test screenings). Reno and Rhames are more than welcome here, although they’re not really full-blown characters — rather, they’re exploited as cinematic shorthand, spirits from other movies. And most delightful is Vanessa Redgrave, playing the cultured villain, a charmer among charmers who nevertheless falls under Ethan’s spell. (Unfortunately, Cruise can be most irritating when he’s trying hard to be charming, and in his scenes with Redgrave, his exaggerated mannerisms made me want to yell “Cut!”)

The director loads the film with his own imagery, which is characteristically derivative but distinctive in a post-Hitchcock way. As DePalma films go, this one is relatively satisfying, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it lacks the bizarre circumstances that distinguish much of his work. There’s a great scene about two-thirds of the way through, where we’re invited inside Ethan’s head as he works out the puzzle facing him, even as the fellow he’s talking to spins an elaborate lie. It’s not a flashback, and it’s not “reality.” Disorienting stuff for mass consumption, maybe, but audiences should be smart enough to keep up, or at least to wait until everything becomes clear. Does it all make sense? Well, not quite. For instance, in the showdown between Ethan and the real villain, you have to wonder why the baddie, who’s pointing a gun right at Tom’s lovely chest, doesn’t just shoot him dead to get the chief obstacle out of the way. But don’t fret over it, or the ludicrous scenes involving computer hardware, or even Cruise’s picture-perfect disguises, which apparently involve some magical substance not of this earth. Like the ad man says, “expect the impossible.” Indeed.

It’s perhaps disconcerting that the productions Hollywood lavishes the most attention on, that it’s most proud of, are the ones that are, like this one, pretty much devoid of realistic human feeling and sensitivity. But for me at least, it’s heartening when a movie recognizes itself. Mission: Impossible has a heaping helping of well crafted action, a twisting, involving storyline, strong enough performances, and few pretensions. The most pressing question facing Ethan Hunt is who’s going to try to kill him next — there’s no time for him to ruminate on the meaning of it all, or to bed down with his co-star. And that seems to suit him, and this movie, just fine.

Dellamorte Dellamore

82/100

Francesco Dellamorte has a bit of a problem. He’s the live-in watchman at Buffalora Cemetery in northern Italy, where the corpses are crawling back out of their graves after spending a mere week or so in the ground. As you can imagine, that’s something of a nuisance, but if he reports it to the authorities, he’s certain of one thing — they’ll shut down the cemetery to investigate, and Francesco will be out of a job. Since he can’t have that happening, he keeps a loaded pistol with him, which he carries to the door whenever he answers a knock. It’s usually just one of them coming back, and a single bullet blown solidly through the head — where have you gone, George Romero? — takes a zombie down easily enough. For a misanthrope like Francesco, it’s a pretty good gig.

Surrounded by death, and with only the clumsy and deformed Gnaghi for company, Francesco’s life is pretty stable until he falls for a mourning widow. Anna Falchi plays the object of his desire (known in the credits as “She”), whom he seduces in the Buffalora Ossuary (where the bones of the dead are deposited); the two indulge their strange affections on her poor husband’s grave. Naturally, the old man comes back. The woman dies in her spouse’s ensuing fit of jealous violence, and Francesco is stricken with despair. Naturally, She comes back again. And again.

That’s only the surface of the remarkable Dellamorte Dellamore. You might expect even a stylish horror director to milk these situations for all they’re worth, but Michele Soavi knows that zombie hijinks have been done to death by such precocious directors as Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. Accordingly, the movie never stops moving, twisting and turning its way to an oddly existential climax. The scenario, written for the screen by Gianni Romoli from a comic book scenario by Tiziano Sclavi, concentrates on the human characters rather than the zombies, and gives as much play to turmoil of the spirit as it does to the carnage that spills from the body. The world of Francesco Dellamorte runs parallel to George Romero’s zombie apocalypse. Like Romero’s trilogy, and quite unlike many of its imitators, Dellamorte Dellamore is a zombie movie with character.

I have to wonder what American audiences are expecting on the way into this picture, given that the normally staid October Films has created a mild cheeseball of an ad campaign to push the film into U.S. theaters. “Zombies, Guns and Sex, OH MY!” reads the tagline, stripped across poster art that may lead audiences to believe that Cemetery Man is actually a cheap horror flick from the 50s or 60s. I find it hard to believe that this campaign will actually attract a discriminating audience, but stranger things have happened, and we’ll just have to see. Rest assured that Cemetery Man/Dellamorte Dellamore is a confident, creepy little horror film with a winning sense of humor, a sure feel for outrageous imagery, and a healthy mean streak.

As played by Rupert Everett (Ready to Wear), Francesco is a misfit and a nihilist. (The main character in the Dylan Dog comic book series originated by Sclavi is based on Everett, and his casting here is something of a coup.) He’s also a remarkable Everyman who commands our attention and our sympathy as he slouches toward the inevitable. Francois Hadji Lazaro’s Gnaghi is by turns irritating and pathetic. (You may have seen Lazaro as the meanest-looking cyclops in City of Lost Children.) By the time he develops a decidedly unhealthy crush on the mayor’s daughter (and the mayor’s daughter’s disembodied head), Lazaro has invited viewers to inhabit his character, and the results are unsettling. The relationship is consummated at the end of the film, but these two are shown early on to be classic codependents. Along those lines, the movie exhibits a well-developed sense of humor that goes a long way toward eliciting the viewer’s sympathy. The characters aren’t very pleasant, but you start to identify with them in spite of yourself. By the time the movie is over, their predicament almost seems to take on mythic proportions.

Herein seems to lie the problem for many American critics, who have been less than impressed with what may be a vigorous political allegory. I guess I’m a little slow, but I didn’t understand right away that the Italian citizens who are zombified — a disquietingly fascist troupe of boy scouts, Buffalora’s highest ranking incompetent bureaucrat — may represent the dead archetypes of Italian society come back to haunt the living. Instead, I fell for the grisly comedy and the sharp cinematic style, which references such influential pictures as Vertigo and Once Upon a Time in the West (on which Soavi’s progenitor Dario Argento received a story credit). And while that bastion of genre reporting, Cinefantastique, had decidedly unkind words for the film’s alleged misogyny, I read it instead as a look inside poor Dellamorte’s head. Francesco, as noted above, is an equal opportunity curmudgeon, and if She is treated as the most maddening of all the characters, it’s because she is the object of Francesco’s most maddening obsessions. At the same time, I think these critics complain a little too much. Stephen Holden, writing in The New York Times, criticized the film’s decision to make Francesco impotent — missing the important joke, which is that he’s really not impotent at all, despite the rumor around town (you have to wonder if Holden left partway through).

The cemetery itself is a triumph of production design, an inhabited world with curious nooks and crannies (the Ossuary, Gnaghi’s cellar in the watchman’s house). It’s also a representation of Francesco’s state of mind, and the essence of the movie rests in the ways he discovers to break away from it. Gory and playful, darkly humorous and flippantly bleak, Soavi’s film is a joyride through a sullen state of mind. After Francesco takes his revenge on the world outside, and sets himself to escaping from the life he’s made, Dellamorte Dellamore finally offers up its own definition of madness.