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Review: Three. . . Extremes

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Pick any three random movies you saw recently. Odds are good that one was impressive, another passed the time without leaving much of an impression, and the third had you mentally drafting an invoice billing its makers for 1.8 wasted hours. And so it invariably goes with international omnibus projects, of which this pan-Asian horror triptych is an entirely typical example: clunker, coaster, keeper.
    The Good. Given that he makes six or seven films per year, you’d think Japanese shock specialist Takashi Miike would hit pay dirt more often than he does, if only by accident. In fact, Box, the ethereal, gorgeously expressionistic tale of a successful author haunted by memories of her disastrous childhood as a contortionist in her father’s circus act, comes as close as he’s yet managed to recapturing the formal mastery and psychological acuity of his sole masterpiece, 1999’s Audition. Borrowing a few key visual tropes from Kiyoshi Kurosawa (whose absence from this lineup is inexplicable), Miike steers what initally looks like generic J-horror into deeply ambiguous, magnificently discomfiting new corners.
    The Bad. Okay, I’m officially sick of South Korean sensation Park Chan-wook. In part, that’s because I’ve already seen his latest feature, Lady Vengeance (due in the U.S. next year), which grafts the flamboyant stylistic bravado of Oldboy to a thoroughly repugnant and reactionary worldview. But that film’s empty amalgam of slick and savage was foreshadowed in Cut, in which a Park-like director arrives home to find his pianist wife trussed up with wires attached to all ten fingers, which an unknown madman threatens to amputate, one by one, unless our hero kills an abducted child. If wanton cruelty via Rube Goldberg devices is your thing, Saw II is currently playing in every nearby multiplex.
    The Almost Unbelievably Grotesque. But speaking of ugly, Fruit Chan’s Dumplings, whittled down from feature length, finds a Hong Kong woman of a certain age so terrified by her fading beauty that she’s prepared to take queasily extreme measures to preserve the suppleness of her skin. Shot by ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the film at least avoids the deliberately grotty look of Chan’s previous exercise in cheerful nausea, Public Toilet. Unfortunately, it has little else going for it beyond the truly disgusting revelation of the title food’s secret ingredient, plus some of the most gorge-heaving sound effects on record. But if you’re a sucker for I-can’t-believe-I’m-actually-seeing-this, that element, combined with the excellence of Miike’s contribution, justify the ticket price. — Mike D’Angelo

Review: The Passenger
  A basic plot outline of The Passenger might make Robert Ludlum buffs wet with anticipation: A journalist in a war-torn African country (Jack Nicholson) switches identities with a mysterious dead man, only to learn that the man was a gun runner. With some disgruntled clients hot on his tail, our hero flees across Europe and shacks up with a hot young female student (Maria Schneider), while simultaneously hiding from his philandering wife and a business associate. Sounds like rip-roaring fun, right? Bzzt. The Passenger, now being re-released in a new restored print, was made in 1975 by director Michelangelo Antonioni, who relished turning potential potboilers into angst-filled, deliberately paced meditations on the human condition.
   Antonioni isn’t really interested in an escape narrative. He’s more concerned with the existential despair of a man who chooses to subsume his identity into that of another. Forget the gun-runners. Nicholson’s character throughout The Passenger is running from an abstraction — a sense of his own lack, perhaps, or the madness of the world around him, or just the scorching desert sun and heat. That might sound like a bunch of pretentious twaddle, but Antonioni is one of those rare filmmakers with the ability to express the seemingly inexpressible. Indeed, psychological anguish has seeped into the very aesthetic of this film — from the surreal architecture of Barcelona to the desolation of the North African desert. It’s the kind of textured, mesmerizing, and complex film almost nobody makes anymore, and it’s a joy to behold. — Bilge Ebiri
Review: New York Doll
The New York Dolls are legendary for their punk-pop prowess and for spawning David Johansen’s solo career as Buster Poindexter (and as the trollish cabbie from Scrooged), but I’d never seen the band’s bass player, Arthur “Killer” Kane. Given his formidable nickname, I was surprised when a man resembling Buffalo Bill — recovering alky drawl, thinning yellow mane, frumpy nose — took the screen.
   Now working with the elderly at the Mormon Family History Library, the man who laid pounding basslines for the gender-bending glam legends lives on non-rock-star wages and has a non-rock-star sex life. Despite his monotonous routine and serious player-hating of copycat bands like Poison and Twisted Sister, Kane hangs onto his dream that the Dolls may one day reunite. When Morrissey, former president of the Dolls’ fan club, is named curator of the 2004 Meltdown Festival in London, Killer’s dream comes true.
    That June, Kane joined the other Dolls for a comeback show, his first gig in over thirty years. Out of his humble religious isolation and back in the rocker game, the Killer becomes truly happy. Director George B. Whitely narrates: “What began as a film about Arthur’s personal journey and his pursuit of a lifetime dream to reunite with his bandmates ultimately became a complete story with an unexpected and poignant conclusion.” After the Dolls’ reunion performance, fans surrounded Kane and asked him if he would continue touring. “No, I have to work at the library,” he sweetly replied. “It’s understaffed.” — David Diehl
Review: Saw II
Having successfully avoided last year’s Saw, I was unhappy to find myself dispatched from the Nerve office to a screening of its sequel. Seemingly edited with a paper shredder, Saw II follows a band of victims around a grimy house, where a fiendishly clever killer tortures them with a fiendishly clever series of fiendishly clever traps. They’ve been doped up with nerve gas, see, and they’ll die if they don’t get the antidote, so there’s a lot of, Hey, look in that case! The antidote! I’ll just stick my hand in and — Arrg! A fiendishly clever trap! And of course, there was a (spoiler alert) surprise twist ending!
    For a moment, I felt horrified that I had paid to waste ninety minutes I could’ve spent masturbating, but then I remembered it was a press screening. Upon returning from the theater, I remembered (quick cuts, flashbacks) that I had spent four dollars getting there and back on the subway. Horrifying. — Peter “Downtrodden Intern” Smith
Review: The Legend of Zorro
Seven whole years ago, The Mask of Zorro resurrected Antonio Banderas’s faltering career and introduced the world to Catherine Zeta-Jones. Today, Zeta-Jones is an Oscar-winning A-lister and Banderas has become Hollywood’s go-to Hispanic action hero (see also: Once Upon a Time in Mexico, the Spy Kids series, etc.) So who on Earth needs this belated sequel? The studio? Action-hungry moviegoers? An insurance company?
   Believe it or not, The Legend of Zorro is more passionate than one might expect. For starters, it has serious political axes to grind. The setting is California, circa its 1850 entry into the Union: Mexicans are rejoicing at the fact that they can now be considered Americans (oh, the irony), drawling rednecks spouting Bible verses are incensed, and Zorro has become the quintessential all-American hero.
   In a way, such earnest contemporary resonance isn’t entirely out of place in a Zorro flick. Despite the wisecracksr, goofy slapstick, and that fey costume, there’s something uniquely intense about this hero. When he cuts out his trademark Z on a character’s chest, he hisses, “So the devil knows who sent you!” Is there any other action hero out there who can pull off such heartfelt fury? Legend may not live up to the swashbuckling flair of its original, but it fights hard to get us to care, making up for its shortcomings with a healthy dose of genuine passion. — Bilge Ebiri
Date DVD: Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941
If your date is a complete fucking idiot, he or she might be happy watching Will Ferrell debase himself in Bewitched this weekend, but you’ll barely be able to stand it. House of Wax, is, of course, bad, but not nearly exploitative enough to be bad in an enjoyable way. Still, there’s hope: if you and your date are unapologetic film geeks, well, this week is heaven.
    If your date is slapstick fan or a snooty Cahiers du Cinema snob, The Legendary Jerry Lewis Collection will thrill. And if you’re too hip for the Jerry-est-auteur school, you’ll do well with Gus Van Sant’s Last Days. The intermittently interesting Kurt Cobain sanctification has at least one audacious free-form scene (a long, dolly shot of a rehearsal room) that makes up for the mumbling dullness surrounding it. And serious cineasts will have nothing but open-mouthed awe for Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941.
    This seven-disc set of 155 films and film samples is one of the most important DVD sets ever produced. It’s not just that it gathers films by Man Ray, Paul Strand, Marcel Duchamp and Sergei Eistenstein that you can’t find anywhere else; the set allows the stuffy idea of the “avant-garde” to breathe. You’ll find Joseph Cornell’s odd collage films, Busby Berkeley’s insane dance compositions, documentary pieces by Walker Evans and others, fun animations, Elizabeth Woodman Wright’s home movies, an entire disc celebrating the whirligig energy of New York City, and many other surprises too. The best feature, of course, is that the set isn’t set up and narrated as a classroom course. The extras are solid, but this set is meant to be savored, not studied. — Logan Hill

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