Review: The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift

June 27, 2006

The law of diminishing returns strikes hard in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the third and least entry in Universal’s hotrod franchise. The film marks another step down for once-promising director Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow), whose Annapolis was a major disappointment earlier in the year. Antsy adolescents are the only real potential audience, and even they will find the imminent computer-game version more fun. But it’s hard to argue with the decision to add to a series that has earned almost a half-billion dollars so far.

Discarding the characters from the first two films, Tokyo Drift opens at a high school for overage students, where a jock challenges Sean Boswell (Lucas Black), a “trailer-trash” grease monkey with a chip on his shoulder, to an illegal race in a housing development. Caught after an ensuing accident, Sean is given a choice: jail or a trip to his father (Brian Goodman), a Navy major stationed in Tokyo.

After a brief bit of culture clash, Sean falls in with the same sort of people that bedeviled Paul Walker’s character in the earlier films: petty crooks, con artists, and wannabe racers who operate out of NASCAR-worthy garages. Sean befriends Twinkie (a game Bow Wow), falls for Yakuza-raised orphan Neela (lifeless newcomer Nathalie Kelley), earns the enmity of gangster scion D.K. (Brian Tee), and goes to work as an enforcer for Han (Sung Kang).

When it’s not prowling through multi-level nightclubs or ogling half-naked groupies, Tokyo Drift occasionally offers some startling glimpses of the city, clad in neon but still cold and isolated. But it isn’t long before the cocky, insolent Sean has insulted half the cast, including a Yakuza boss played by the “Street Fighter” himself, Sonny Chiba. Fortunately for Sean, battles in this version of Tokyo are decided by car races emphasizing “drifting,” which is essentially controlled skidding. Allegedly developed by Japanese youngsters driving on mountain roads, drifting is a stunt that loses its appeal almost immediately, no matter how many parking garages, waterfront piers and narrow alleys the filmmakers employ.

Over-edited to the point of incoherence, the races provide some excitement the film otherwise lacks. One major problem is Sean, a distinctly unlikable character acted in a sort of sullen stupor by Black. (In fact, for a piece of escapist fluff, it’s hard to imagine a more unsympathetic group of characters.) Another disadvantage is a plot that plays out with all the originality of a board game. Perhaps the most glaring drawback to Tokyo Drift is the filmmakers’ cynical belief that their audiences don’t deserve any better.

Cast and credits

Cast: Lucas Black, Bow Wow, Nathalie Kelley, Brian Tee, Sung Kang, Leonardo Nam, Brian Goodman, JJ Sonny Chiba, Zachery Bryan, Nikki Griffin, Jason Tobin, Keiko Kitagawa, Lynda Boyd, Vincent Laresca.

Credits: Directed by Justin Lin. Written by Chris Morgan. Produced by Neal H. Moritz. Executive producers: Clayton Townsend, Ryan Kavanaugh, Lynwood Spinks. Director of photography: Stephen F. Windon. Production designer: Ida Random. Edited by Fred Raskin, Kelly Matsumoto. Costume designer: Sanja Milkovic Hays. Visual effects supervisor: Michael J. Wassel. Executive music producer: Kathy Nelson. Music by Brian Tyler. Co-producer: Amanda Cohen. A Universal Pictures presentation, in association with Relativity Media, of a Neal H. Moritz production.

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Review: The Lake House

June 15, 2006

Based on a 2000 South Korean film called Il Mare, The Lake House is a slowly paced, melancholy romance between two lonely, guarded people–a tough enough sell at any point, but especially difficult in a summer market geared towards blockbusters. The story's time travel elements never quite make sense, but subtle performances and directing give this film an unexpected edge.

The title edifice, a glass box on stilts, sits on a photogenic corner of Lake Michigan. Alex Wyler (Keanu Reeves) grew up in the house, which was built by his father Simon (Christopher Plummer), an architectural genius incapable of sustaining personal relationships. Alex is now managing the construction of a drab townhouse development, although he dreams of starting his own architecture firm with his brother Henry (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). In the meantime, he is slowly restoring the house, which had been neglected for years.

So Alex is startled to receive letters from the house's previous resident, Dr. Kate Forster (Sandra Bullock). She has just moved to Chicago to begin work in a hospital, abandoning an unsatisfying affair with Morgan (Dylan Walsh), a lawyer. Alex and Kate slowly realize that they are communicating over a two-year gap in time. They use their letters first to learn about each other, then to fall in love.

How the two overcome their temporal barrier is never as interesting as how they ended up in such unhappy states. Alex's hesitant efforts to reach out to his unyielding father carry the weight of years of pain. Similarly, Kate's guilt over rejecting Morgan has no real cure. Credit is due to the two stars, who share very little time on screen. In one of their scenes, as Kate describes how her father unwittingly destroyed her dreams, the two display some of the best acting of their careers.

Credit should also go to director Alejandro Agresti, an Argentine transplanted to the Netherlands who is best known here for Valentin (2002). Agresti manages to keep a mood of loss and sorrow more nuanced and polished than Il Mare. Similarly, David Auburn's spare script maintains its tone of death and second chances even as characters are left dangling and the plot is veering into the absurd. (While I'm throwing credit around, didn't anyone at Warners notice that this plot was essentially lifted from Jack Finney's short story–and subsequent 1998 Hallmark film–The Love Letter?)

The Lake House isn't a total success. Some of the performers are too broad, notably a struggling Ebon Moss-Bachrach, while Shohreh Aghdashloo has little to do except perfect her Melina Mercouri rasp. Rachel Portman's exquisite score is compromised by intrusive pop chestnuts like Carole King's "It's Too Late." References to Jane Austen's Persuasion (as well as to a dozen or so film romances) seem miscalculated. Still, as the seasons pass and time twists around on itself, the film builds a powerful, if somber, emotional spell.

Cast and credits

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Dylan Walsh, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Lynn Collins, Willeke Van Ammelrooy, Christopher Plummer.

Credits: Directed by Alejandro Agresti. Screenplay by David Auburn. Based on the motion picture Il Mare, produced by Sidus. Produced by Doug Davison, Roy Lee. Executive producers: Mary McLaglen, Erwin Stoff, Dana Goldberg, Bruce Berman. Director of photography: Alar Kivilo. Production designer: Nathan Crowley. Edited by Lynzee Klingman, Alejandro Brodersohn. Music by Rachel Portman. Costume designer: Deena Appel. Co-producer: Sonny Mallhi. A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, of a Vertigo Entertainment production.


Review: Wordplay

June 14, 2006

Whether or not you enjoy word puzzles, it's hard to resist Wordplay, an eager-to-please documentary about crosswords and the people behind them. Like Spellbound, the film revels in its geekiness, and while its subject isn't as instantly gratifying, it does build up both charm and a certain amount of suspense.

The 28th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held in a Marriott in Stamford, Connecticut, provides a framework of sorts for the film, but most of the opening is devoted to Will Shortz, for the past thirteen years the puzzle editor at The New York Times and more recently a fixture on National Public Radio. Shortz's progress from college unknown to the national dean of crossword puzzles is a surprisingly engrossing tale, in part because of his easygoing, self-deprecating humor.

We also meet puzzle constructors like Merl Reagle, who notes while driving down a street how easy it is to change a doughnut franchise from "Dunkin'" to "unkind," or "Noah's Ark" to "No! A shark!" Reagle builds from scratch an intricately punning crossword that is solved in turn by a half-dozen or so public figures.

These celebrities, who range from former President Bill Clinton to the Indigo Girls to Yankees ace Mike Mussina, will be the draw for many viewers, and it's gratifying to see how devoted and articulate they are. Clinton takes special delight in a remarkable election-day crossword in which either "Clinton" or "Bob Dole" could have been the correct answer for one clue.

Director Patrick Creadon also focuses on a handful of tournament stars, including the disarming Ellen Ripstein, seen baton-twirling in Central Park, and the talented pianist Jon Delfin, a seven-time tournament champion. Creadon occasionally uses split screens to approximate the process of solving a puzzle, but filling in boxes will never be as exciting as other contests. That said, the tournament itself, in which hundreds of competitors race to complete seven puzzles, is more tense than you'd expect. The final, a battle between rookie Tyler Hinman and two old-timers, actually gets a play-by-play commentary from Reagle and NPR's Neal Conan.

Even if you don't decorate your walls with oversized crosswords, as some participants here do, Wordplay shows just how rewarding puzzles can be. It also packs in higher IQ's and quicker wits than any other movie you're likely to encounter this summer.

Cast and Crew

Featuring: Will Shortz, Merl Reagle, Tyler Hinman, Trip Payne, Al Sanders, Ellen Ripstein, Jon Delfin, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, Amy Ray, Emily Saliers, Daniel Okrent, Mike Mussina, Bob Dole, William Jefferson Clinton, Neal Conan.

Credits: Directed by Patrick Creadon. Written by Patrick Creadon, Christine O'Malley. Produced by Christine O'Malley. Director of photography: Patrick Creadon. Additional camera: Skip Blumberg, Alex Kobbs, Matt Beals. Edited by Doug Blush. Music by Peter Golub. Associate producers: Michael Creadon, Patrick Walsh. An O'Malley Creadon Productions presentation in association with Grinder Films.


Review: Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man

June 7, 2006

Touted as the next Dylan when he signed a recording contract with Columbia Records back in 1967, Leonard Cohen at the time was already recognized as a poet and novelist. After releasing Songs of Love and Hate and other albums, his career took a nosedive in the 1980s. Since then he has periodically staged comebacks, with the 1988 album I'm Your Man generating the most interest. By 1995, Cohen was ensconced in an ashram on Mount Baldy outside Los Angeles, practicing Zen as a means to better understanding his identity.

In 2005, the Canadian Consulate helped stage a tribute to Cohen in Sydney, Australia. This work documents that concert, and offers as well interviews with the performers and with Cohen himself. Director Lian Lunson also had access to a wide selection of archival footage and photographs. Most concert films follow familiar formulas, and Leonard Cohen… is no exception. Songs are captured by two or three cameras stationed far away from the stage and usually above eye level. Back-up musicians are ignored, or used as brief cutaways. It's a method that makes it difficult to become engaged with the performers, unless like Bono they project enough personality to fill an arena. In what's also become a genre trope, Lunson cuts away from performances for explanatory comments from Cohen and others, a strategy that distracts attention from the songs and the musicians. The movie edits out all of the songs' instrumental passages, which indicates how much importance Cohen attaches to them.

Most of the dozen or so songs in the film are delivered in intensely passionate styles, often at odds with Cohen's own interpretations. The overwrought Antony and the eccentric Martha Wainwright are both overshadowed by a heartbreakingly simple and concise Linda Thompson. Nick Cave gets two of Cohen's most famous songs, "I'm Your Man" and "Suzanne," while Rufus Wainwright performs three, either alone or in tandem with his family. Teddy Thompson (Linda's son) is quietly effective in "Tonight Will Be Fine." Lunson saves the big guns for the close, a music video of Cohen singing "Tower of Song," backed by U2.

Throughout his career, Cohen has fully participated in his own mythmaking, a trait made even more apparent by Lunson's frankly adulatory stance. Typically, Cohen reveals little in his interviews. Banalities like the fact that stories "sent shivers down my spine" intertwine with denials that he ever sought or deserved success. Cynics may find a motive for the tribute and the film in Cohen's recent legal problems. Last year he sued his former lover and long-time manager Kelly Lynch for $21.5 million, claiming that she looted his pension fund after he retreated to the monastery. Cohen won a $5 million award, but collecting it will be another matter.

Cast and credits

Featuring: Leonard Cohen, Martha Wainwright, Beth Orton, Jarvis Cocker, Rufus Wainwright, Nick Cave, Perla Batalla, Julie Christensen, Antony, Linda Thompson, Teddy Thompson, Kate McGarrigle, Anna McGarrigle, the Handsome Family, U2 (Bono, the Edge, Larry Mullen, Jr., Adam Clayton), Joan Wasser.

Credits: Directed by Lian Lunson. Produced by Lian Lunson, Mel Gibson, Bruce Davey. Executive producers: Kevin Beggs, Sarah Greenberg, Erik Nelson, Tim Palen, Sandra Stern. Camera: Geoff Hall (Sydney, Australia), John Pirozzi (New York City). Super 8 photography: Lian Lunson, Brit Marling. Edited by Mike Cahill. Music by Leonard Cohen. Music producer and curator of the "Came So Far for Beauty" concert: Hal Willner. A Lionsgate and Sundance Channel presentation of a Lionsgate, Icon Productions, and Horse Pictures production.