JCVD (2008 - Malbrouk El Mechri) - I've never been a Jean-Claude Van Damme fan. He seemed less smarmy than Seagal, but I just didn't see the appeal nor did any of his films look very promising. I've only seen one in its entirety - the truly awful "Maximum Risk" - but he certainly couldn't be the only one faulted there.
So I approached "JCVD" with a bit of skepticism, but also curiosity. A number of friends gave it solid praise and not just because they were fans of his. Turns out that not only does he indeed give a performance you would have no way of expecting, but the film itself is pretty enjoyable. It's good as a crime thriller (though the baddest of the bad guys was kind of boring since he was just SO VERY bad) and as a meta-film touching on our expectations of celebrities to match their film personas and how that effects the celebrities themselves. And Van Damme is darn impressive, especially in that long 6-7 minute single take with his confessions to the camera. The washed out palette of the film got somewhat tiring though - I thought that was an unnecessary choice.
Moon Child (2003 - Takahisa Zeze) - As a huge generalization, I've found that many Asian films are willing to experiment with changing their tones numerous times - and not just subtle shifts, but gargantuan changes in pace and feel. The first half hour of "Moon Child" - Takahisu Zeze's 2003 tale of family bonds wrapped inside a vampire story - jumps between thriller, comedic action, farce and melodrama. It's not always pretty or smooth, but it's entertaining (especially the Matrix-like dodging of bullets and close-range guns-pointed-at-each-other's heads standoffs) and at its best during these schizophrenic stages. It sticks with a more melodramatic approach for much of the rest of the film and, though it conveys some solid messages about the divisive nature of cultures pitted against one another and how families shouldn't be limited from spanning across those same cultures, it's never quite as fun as that opening portion.
When The Last Sword Is Drawn (2003 - Yojiro Takita) - "How could I forget him? Kanichiro Yoshimura. The man I hated most...". With that line near the beginning of the film, we flash back to the days when the Shogun fell and two men were comrades in the "Wolves Of Mibu". A fine setup to "When The Last Sword Is Drawn" - the Japanese Academy Awards Best Picture winner of 2004.
Unfortunately, the film just doesn't make the most of it. It bounces back and forth between the past and the stories of two men - the old man Saito and a doctor. They both separately flashback to Yoshimura's life in his village and with the Shinsengumi (the masterless samurai who are trying to defend the waning power of the Shogun). It has all the earmarks of a fine human story with swordplay (like the previous Academy Award winner from 2003 - "Twilight Samurai"), but never achieves much more than simply going from point A to point B. This is not a bad film mind you, but it struck me as having two major failings...
The first was its method of building its characters. Unlike the more subtle "Twilight Samurai" where a character slowly comes to the fore through consistent actions and small moments, director Takita tries to give each person their traits through specific scenes or incidents. It felt more like I was being briefed on the characters through a dossier as opposed to slowly getting to know them. Perhaps that's the intent given the structure of the film, but it failed to really pull me into these people's lives.
The second is the melodramatic nature of most of Yoshimura's family scenes. Melodrama itself is not the issue since it's just another filmic device that can be used effectively, but here the film seems to lean on it heavily in order to generate emotion for the audience when it should be coming naturally from the scene. If you can't generate some honest lumps in the throat from your audience without resorting to swelling strings and over-emoted line readings (I've said it before, just yelling something doesn't convey real emotion) then you haven't succeeded in getting the viewer invested in the characters.
It's a shame because the story holds a great deal of promise. Honour and betrayal are central themes that weave through not only the downfall of the Shogun (and the samurai who decide to switch sides and fight for the Emperor), but also in how the village treats Yoshimura and his family after he decides to leave. Without thought to his reasons, he is labelled a traitor and his family is forced to move as well. Due to this "betrayal" of his own clan, Yoshimura steadfastly refuses to leave the Shinsengumi - even when all hope is essentially lost. Saito recalls being impressed with Yoshimura and that "he was a true samurai", but he has his own issues with dealing with a man of such conviction and compassion. They each have different philosophies - Saito claims that "I'm only alive because no one will kill me", but Yoshimura states "I kill because I don't want to die". I wanted to see more of this relationship and how they each began to understand one another, but it never fleshed itself out. That made the film even more disappointing...
Intolerable Cruelty (2003 - Joel and Ethan Coen) - I hadn't seen the film since its theatrical run 6 years ago, so I'd pretty much been in agreement with all those who had ranked it near the bottom of the Coen Brothers works. After a re-watch, it hasn't really climbed higher in my list, but it sure closed the gap. I found I really enjoyed the plot, the timing and the performances (Clooney is broad, but it worked for me). My favourite exchange of the movie (between divorce lawyers Miles and Freddy):
Miles (George Clooney): Are you familiar with Kirschner?
Freddy (Richard Jenkins): Kirschner does not apply.
Miles: Bring this to trial and we'll see if Kirschner applies.
Rex Rexroth (Edward Hermann): What's Kirschner?
Miles: Please. Let me handle this.
Freddy: Kirschner was in Kentucky.
Miles: Kirschner was in Kentucky?
Freddy: Kirschner was in Kentucky!
Miles: Alright Freddy, forget Kirschner! What's your bottom line?
Freddy: Primary residence, 30% of the remaining assets.
Miles: What, are you nuts?! Have you forgotten Kirschner?!
Maybe I just didn't have many expectations this time around and therefore just enjoyed its flow (I hope this happens if I ever re-watch "Burn After Reading"). Maybe I was as spellbound by Catherine Zeta-Jones as Clooney's character was (cinematographer Roger Deakins makes her glow in just about every scene). Or maybe I just really liked these opening credits...