PICKS OF THE WEEK
Tuya's Marriage (A)
China/Mongolia; Wang Qua'nan, 2008, MPI Home Video
Tuya's Marriage, a moving, splendid movie from China, introduces to us a fine new writer-director, Wang Qua'nan, and an extraordinary actress -- Yu Nan, who plays the title role with perfect control and quiet power. It also immerses us in a country -- Mongolia -- and a culture that, during the course of the film, become more and more strangely familiar, even as the story veers off into realms of eccentricity and even madness.
Qua'nan sets the movie among the Mongol herdsmen on the steppe. Its main character is Yu's Tuya, a staunch and determined wife and mother who's taken over the family after the injury to her husband, Bater (played by Mongol nonprofessional Bater), caring for him and her two small children, including the boy Zhaya (Zhaya) and getting forced into ever more desperate measures.
It's not the sort of story you may initially expect: not a stirring celebration of simple people amid vast, primitive landscapes like the documentaries of Robert Flaherty, Zacharias Kunuk's Inuit epic The Fast Runner, or Nikita Mikhalkov's beautiful tale of Mongol life, Close to Eden. Though the movie itself is visually magnificent, with writer-director Wang setting its characters amid vast plains under a sky that seems endless, that's not what you may remember most strongly afterwards. What stays indelibly with you is the character of Tuya as played by the mesmerizing Yu Nan: Tuya's unusual beauty and fortitude as thrown into relief by the flood of tribulations which descend upon her and her family.
Those troubles begin some time before the start of the movie's action when Bater, while trying to dig a well to bring them precious water for their sheep herd, suffers a grievous injury that leaves him incapable of work. Once a champion athlete, Bater now is housebound and sedentary, forced to remain mostly inactive and helpless, while the stoic and uncomplaining Tuya herds the sheep and takes care of their home, with Zhaya as her principal helper. But, when matters worsen, Tuya decides on a drastic remedy. She will not stop caring for Bater, but she will divorce and remarry -- as long as her new husband lives with and helps support her entire family, Bater included.
A tall order. But Tuya is a knockout, even swathed in animal skins and furs, and she isn't ignorant of the effects of her charms. Soon the suitors begin arriving, including a moneyed young yokel who barely speaks and, most promisingly, Bater's brother, who struck it rich in the oil-drilling business and now reveals a lifelong love for Tuya.
There are others as well, most poignantly Sen'ge, an endlessly optimistic but somewhat accident-prone neighbor, who also adores Tuya. What happens to the suits of all of the above three however is again not what we expect. It's by turns funny, disturbing, melancholy and wonderfully unpredictable.
All of the actors seem perfect. Their performances convince, move and grip the emotions -- but none quite as much as calm, earthy Tuya. Movies often excel at portraying bad people -- and there are some wicked ones here, including one that surprises us. But Tuya seems almost sublimely good, a truly selfless person, and also tough, competent and nobody's victim.
It is Tuya's life and culture that tend to trap her, and that's what filmmaker Wang is adept at bringing out. His style is clear and beautifully articulated; each scene seems utterly natural, faultlessly developed and resolved. In this land where people are so bound by the elements and their culture, the hardness of their land and lot in life, Tuya's devotion to her family begins to seem truly heroic -- and no sentimentality or forced emotion mars it.
Tuya's Marriage won the top prize, the Golden Bear, at the Berlin Film Festival and two other major awards (Best Actress and the Jury Prize) in Chicago. It's a wonderful new film from a major new world actress and filmmaker, a brilliant pair who seem as ideally matched as China's earlier auteur-actress couple, Zhang Yimou and Gong Li. As you watch Tuya's Marriage, you worry about Tuya, care about her. But, of course, the laws of cinema and audiences restrain us. We cannot save her. (In Mandarin Chinese, with English subtitles.)
Knife in the Water (A)
Poland; Roman Polanski, 1962, Criterion
Roman Polanski's great youthful thriller finds three people on a boat in the water, with a knife aboard. The trio includes a nasty young hitchhiker and a malaise-ridden bourgeois couple who are going sailing, played by Leon Niemczyk, Jolanta Umecka and Zygmunt Malanowicz. It's a sunny day; the sexy wife wears a skimpy bikini; the hitchhiker plays with the knife; the tension keeps mounting and mounting. Polanski's high visual gifts and flair for dark moods and rising tension were already in full play here. A world-wide art house hit, this film, co-scripted by Jerzy Skolimowski (Walkover) is a classic of brooding menace and erotic threat. (In Polish, with English subtitles.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Agatha Christie Mystery Lover's Collection (B-)
U.K.; various directors, 1982-2004, Acorn Media
When I was 12, Agatha Christie was my favorite writer, succeeding Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle. I'm not alone: Her books outsell every other author in recorded history, world-wide, save only Will Shakespeare and the writers of the Bible. I still enjoy a good Christie occasionally. Why? She's a nonpareil mystery plotter with a flair for English country manor settings, old-style ensembles, murder in drawing rooms, boudoirs and gardens, guilty erotic secrets, least likely suspects and wonderful eccentric sleuths.
Four of those famous Christie detectives are on view here, in spotless English television re-creations -- British TV was made for Monty Python, Mike Leigh and good literary adaptations. The unfoolable quartet: that dashingly romantic and witty couple Tommy and Tuppence; that sly old, mild-eyed spinster Miss Jane Marple (the marvelous Geraldine McEwan) and, of course, the natty Belgian inspector with the waxed mustaches and the little gray cells, Hercule Poirot (David Suchet, who may be less brilliant than Peter Ustinov, but comes closer to Christie's descriptions.)
The set, a sampler for the bigger exclusive Poirot, Marple and Tommy-and-Tuppence Acorn boxes available, gives us five of Christie's best mysteries, done with both warm respect and high spirits. Addictive, consummately clever, still charming and fun. And you probably won't outguess Agatha.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles (B-)
Ross Devenish, 1990
David Suchet stars as as Poirot. The film is adapted from Christie's first novel, with murder at a manor and Col. Hastings (Hugh Fraser) as Poirot's early Watson, it is one of her more prototypical tales and plots.
The Secret Adversary (B)
Tony Wharmby, 1982
Those witty Roaring '20s lovebird/sleuths Tommy and Tuppence (and that smashing Lillie, Francesca Annis) play at pre-007 spy intrigue.
The Affair of the Pink Pearl (B)
Tony Wharmby, 1983
Drawn from one of the Tommy-and-Tuppence "Partners in Crime" shorts: the lovers open a detective agency, cast swine before pearls.
The Body in the Library (B-)
Andy Wilson, 2004 Geraldine McEwan plays Marple in one of her best cases: the blond body in the library that unwraps a multitude of sins. With Simon Callow, in a delightful inspectorial turn.
The Pale Horse (C)
Charles Beeson, 1996
This is a disappointing version of Christie's spooky '60s tale of clerical murder and (possibly) witchcraft. With Colin Buchanan.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (C+)
U.S.; Eric Brevig, 2008, New Line
Once again, we plunge with author Jules Verne and his intrepid fictional explorers into the mysterious bowels of the earth, finding in plentiful supply Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit-hole tumbles, roller-coaster thrill rides and King Kong dino-creatures running and flying amok.
The visual effects rule here, along with Brendan Fraser (the ideal star-hero for this kind of movie, playing the hero/scientist role James Mason inherited from Clifton Webb) and Verne himself, whose wild 19th-century imagination remains more transcendent (almost) than the real thing. The script is silly; Fraser's hot-to-trot Trevor Anderson is accompanied by a juvenile, his son (Josh Hutcherson) and a Swedish bombshell (Anita Briem) -- two characters who almost make you long for the 1959 Henry Levin movie's two-three punch of Pat Boone and Arlene Dahl. But those CGI coups are really something. And Fraser reacts to them with panache.
Kit Kittredge -- An American Girl (B)
U.S.; Patricia Rozema, 2008, New Line
For a movie based on an American Girl franchise doll, this is pretty good: a kind of poor man's To Kill a Mockingbird, with lovable Kit (Abigail Breslin) as a smart, sprightly li'l detective in the Depression. With Joan Cusack, Stanley Tucci and Julia Ormond. Directed by the estimable Patricia Rozema (I've Heard The Mermaids Singing).
Hell Ride (D+)
U. S.; Larry Bishop, 2008, Weinstein Company
Remember the good old days of The Savage Seven, Hell's Angels on Wheels and Chrome and Hot Leather? Remember that pungent, '60s-'70s movie era of cool dudes on Harley Davidsons, sultry dolls in double D-cup bras and wild rides set to "Wild Angels"-style fuzz-tone riffs? In Hell Ride -- thanks to executive producer Quentin Tarantino -- writer-director-star (and one time cycle-movie regular), Larry Bishop wants to bring it all back. Occasionally he does.
But not enough. Laced with copious amounts of sadistic violence, happily gratuitous sex, frequent female nudity, grotesque bloodshed, nonstop foul language and oddly sweet nostalgia, this Sergio Leone and Roger Corman-conscious saga of a feud between longtime rival biker gangs 666 (the bad, devilish guys) and The Victors (the sort-of good guys) has a deliberately clichéd plot that still weighs it down. The fierce threesome from The Victors, Pistolero (Bishop), The Gent (Michael Madsen) and Comanche (Eric Balfour), battle brutal 666er Billy Wings (Vinnie Jones) and his Wild-ish Bunch through a series of bashes and bloodlettings that rage all over the scorching California land and roadscapes. You've seen most of it before, and that's the idea.
Bishop, the son of the late comedian and Sinatra Clan-member Joey Bishop, actually appeared in Savage Seven and Hot Leather, as well as Wild in the Streets and other mini-budget blasts, and he remembers the swaggering acting mode and flashy low-rent cinematographic style and content of those old drive-in movie specials, right down to the last swish pan and rack-focus. And Bishop has been able to talk some hard-bitten, stylish veterans of that era -- notably Easy Rider's mean-eyed maestro Dennis Hopper (as Eddie "Scratch" Zero of The Victors) and Boxcar Bertha's stoic David Carradine (as the Deuce of the 666ers), as well as Tarantino mainstay Madsen (the murderous Mr. Blonde of Reservoir Dogs, as the tuxedo-clad gunslinger, The Gent) --into doing their stuff here. Their performances are the highlights of the movie -- which could use more of all of them.
Unfortunately, Bishop has also used to his filmmaker's prerogative here to put himself in a few too many sex and foreplay scenes with beautiful and naked fellow cast members like Cassandra Hepburn (as Lana) and Leonor Varela (as Nada); that's the kind of self-indulgent fleshpit Vincent Gallo stumbled into in his disastrous road movie The Brown Bunny. But, if your dad belonged to the Clan, and you've got Dennis Hopper on a hog and Michael Madsen in a tux, you can be forgiven a little horniness and hubris.
Mars Attacks! (C+)
U.S.; Tim Burton, 1996, Warner
Tim Burton plays at being Ed Wood Jr. in this deliberately cheesy '50s-style sci-fi invasion movies, but he's got too big a budget to make it work. It's the only movie I can think of based on chewing gum cards, but can "Dubble Bubble Adventures" with Jennifer Love Hewitt really be all that far behind? The all-star cast includes Jack Nicholson as the president, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Annette Bening, Sarah Jessica Parker and Martin Short. By the way, there's a great Astounding Science Fiction "little green men from Mars" story by Fredric Brown, called "Martians, Go Home!" that Burton should have used instead.