A History Of Violence
(Alliance Atlantis, 2005) D: David Cronenberg, w/ Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello. Rating: NNNN
Underneath the gruesome gro- tesquerie he's famous for, David Cronenberg has always been a philosophical filmmaker, using monsters and mayhem as metaphors to explore questions of identity, desire, fear and the shape of society.
But A History Of Violence puts away the horror show to deal more directly with those questions, and Cronenberg veils his disturbing vision behind what seems to be an almost conventional naturalistic thriller.
Tom Stall kills a pair of thugs who try to rob his small-town diner. News coverage of the event draws the unwelcome attention of big-city mobsters, and Stall reveals an ongoing talent for violence that devastates his happy family and calls into question his very identity.
As Stall, Viggo Mortensen is perfect. Every nuance of thought and feeling shows; he's charming without selling himself, and his shyness reads as moral rectitude. This makes it doubly shocking when his capacity for killing emerges and everything, even the way he holds his hands, changes. He's matched by an outstanding supporting cast, led by Ed Harris and William Hurt, playing very frightening hoods.
The film looks as natural and unforced as the acting, and Cronenberg's drily witty commentary and the making-of doc give us a good look at the actor-director relationship from both sides.
EXTRAS Director commentary, making-of doc, deleted scene with commentary, U.S. and international versions comparison, Cronenberg at Cannes doc. Wide-screen. English, French soundtracks. English, Spanish subtitles.
(Miramax, 2001) D: Tsui Hark, w/ Zhang Ziyi, Sammo Hung. Rating: NNN
Tsui hark is without doubt the most creative filmmaker in Hong Kong. His first feature, The Butterfly Murders (1979), mixed an Agatha Christie whodunit with an outdated kung fu sub-genre, the booby-trapped mansion. In the original Zu: Warriors Of The Magic Mountain (1983), he revitalized the long-dead sword-and-sorcery flick and brought in George Lucas's crew to do the effects - the first use of sophisticated special effects in Hong Kong cinema.
His 1991 Once Upon A Time In China both re-envisioned the kung fu movie and rethought the genre's central character, Wong Fei-hung. (It's a great film, well worth a hunt through a Chinese video store for the full 128-minute version.)
Hark was writer/producer on three of the five films that built John Woo's international reputation: The Killer and A Better Tomorrow I and II. He's directed 38 features since Butterfly Murders, written 33 and produced 51.
Crouching Tiger and a lot of other films would never have happened if Hark hadn't got there first.
That said, Zu Warriors isn't up there with his best. It's a perfectly enjoyable sword-and-sorcery fantasy with non-stop action and wall-to-wall CGI at the service of Hark's untrammelled imagination. It's also a much better transfer than the version titled The Legend Of Zu that's been available in Chinese video stores for some time.
But it lacks the warmth and humanity that make Once Upon A Time In China and Peking Opera Blues great films and that were so evident in Warriors Of The Magic Mountain. This problem may be a inherent in a story whose characters are gods who left their humanity behind centuries ago.
Along with the 104-minute Cantonese version, Zu Warriors includes the 80-minute dubbed version that Westernizes the narration and dialogue and gives us Zhang Ziyi as a viewpoint character. It's a technically good job but completely loses the spirit of the film.
Zu Warriors is a very Chinese story, as Hark points out in the making-of interviews. It's so far over the top, it makes Crouching Tiger look like a Dogme 95 project. If you're new to the genre, check out the special features and the first five minutes of the U.S. version before you settle into the flick.
EXTRAS Making-of doc. Wide-screen. Cantonese, English soundtracks. English, Spanish subtitles.
Howl's Moving Castle
(Disney, 2005) D: Hayao Miyazaki, w/ Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer. Rating: NNN
With very few exceptions, hayao Miyazaki has chosen young girls as the protagonists of his animated fantasies. Here, he runs a remarkable switch that brings depth and sadness to a basically cheerful fantasy. A 19-year-old girl, trapped in a drab life, is cursed by a witch. This event sends her in search of a wizard, a heartless young man who is slowly turning into a monster.
The layers of meaning are beautifully expressed in a world that's part 19th-century steam age and part pure magic. In aerial sequences that are pure delight, Miyazaki sends his characters flying by means of sorcery and graceful, fanciful airplanes . The titular moving (lurching) castle provides a dandy metaphor for the characters' conflicts.
Character actors steal the show, as usual in animated features, and the English voicing is flawless. Lauren Bacall brings silky menace to the old witch, and Billy Crystal gets the best lines as a fire demon.
There aren't a lot of extras. Get Miyazaki's Spirited Away (his best film) if you want a good how-to. But the disc-two retelling of the movie via storyboard sketches is worthwhile.
EXTRAS Disc one: Dubbing-of doc and interview, Miyazaki visits Pixar short. Wide-screen. Japanese, English, French soundtracks. English subtitles. Disc two: Storyboards. Wide-screen. English, Japanese soundtracks. English subtitles.
The Prize Winner Of Defiance, Ohio
(DreamWorks, 2005) D: Jane Anderson, w/ Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson. Rating: NNN
What sounds like an exercise in retro cheeze - 50s mom raises 10 kids by winning jingle-writing contests - is actually a fine comedy/drama thanks to first-rate writing, lighting and cutting and solid naturalistic acting by stars Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson.
It's Moore's show, and she navigates the cheer and resilience the role calls for in a way that avoids sugar and lets us appreciate the literate and creative woman behind the harried housewife. Harrelson gets plenty of good moments as the resentful alcoholic husband, but the film is faithfully based on a memoir, so there's no big third-act payoff for either of them.
Director Jane Anderson keeps things sprightly and conveys necessary period detail by using Moore as onscreen narrator and spicing the contest sequences with clever animation based on 50s ads.
Moore's and Anderson's separate commentaries, both focused on the real-life Evelyn Ryan, provide a pleasant and very informative approach to their respective arts.
EXTRAS Director commentary, Moore commentary, photo gallery. Wide-screen. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, March 21
(Sony, 2005) Philip Seymour Hoffman deserves his best-actor Oscar win for his portrayal of the groundbreaking writer.
The Squid And The Whale
(Sony 2005) Insightful domestic drama.
The Ten Commandments, 50th Anniversary Edition
(Paramount, 1923, 1956) Outstanding Biblical epic. The sound version, the silent version and tons of extras.
(Paramount, 1953) Billy Wilder's hard-nosed prison-camp drama, with a great performance from William Holden.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb