House of Flying DaggersHOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS

Like many of us, one of my favorite movie memories will forever remain the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door of her black-and-white world to reveal the dazzling hues of Munchkinland; the impression that left on me as a child - the colors seemed more vibrant than any you'd encounter in real life - was so profound that, seeing the movie again as an adult, the scene still gets me a little misty-eyed.

It's not often, as adults, that we get to experience that feeling of giggly wonder at the cineplex; even state-of-the-art effects in movies such as Spider-Man 2, or even a computer-animated work such as The Incredibles, produce more appreciation than actual amazement. (We're usually just happy when CGI doesn't suck.) The recent works of Chinese director Zhang Yimou, though, are something else entirely. With the late-summer hit Hero and the new House of Flying Daggers, Zhang has created a pair of works so ravishingly beautiful and - during the action set pieces - edge-of-your-seat exciting that viewing them makes you feel a bit like Dorothy taking that first step out of Kansas. You're floored by Zhang's exquisite control of color and space, and when the film's warriors prepare for battle, you suck in your breath, preparing for the visual and aural amazements the director has in store for you. (He doesn't disappoint.) Flying Daggers, like Hero and Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is a big, thrilling, romantic blockbuster - Titanic for the art-house crowd - and completely accessible to audiences just out for a good time; it's like the most intoxicating action flick Hollywood never created.

Set during the rule of the Tang dynasty in A.D. 859, Flying Daggers features a relatively simple plot enriched by gratifyingly complex romantic entanglements, as Mei (Ziyi Zhang), a blind member of the assassination squad The Flying Daggers, fights alongside, and occasionally with, her Robin Hood-esque ally Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), whom she doesn't realize is actually a spy sent to infiltrate her organization. The two begin a flirtation, and then things get really complicated. With Kaneshiro and the gorgeous, naturalistic Ziyi Zhang in the leads, the film's romantic angle doesn't feel the least bit tacked-on or superfluous - Flying Daggers actually earns the romantic subplots that sink so many action films (see Elektra below) - and proves unusually moving. Yet, fine as these interludes are, they can't hope to compete with Flying Daggers' visual and aural dexterity. A sequence of Mei and Jin evading capture in a bamboo forest has some of the most staggeringly effective sound effects the movies have provided in ages, and while the battles have a gravity-defying kick we've come to expect from works of this nature, they're performed and staged by Zhang with a ferocity that's unusually startling. (He also employs his effects symbolically, as a scene of two warriors facing each other to the death literally lasts from autumn to winter, with the seasons subtly changing while the death match presses on.) Hero, terrific though it was, felt a little stilted when the action slowed down. House of Flying Daggers, though, is an almost complete success, in which nearly everything about the production is deserving of the passion Zhang Yimou brings to it.


Jennifer Garner in ElektraELEKTRA

The relentless mopey-ness of the comic-book genre continues with Elektra, Hollywood's latest attempt to prove that being a superhero, despite what you've heard, isn't all daisies and lollipops. Returning to the role she played in Daredevil, Jennifer Garner portrays the titular heroine, a hired killer whose powers are maddeningly unclear; Elektra is adept in the martial arts and skilled with knives, but she also, apparently, has the power to move at super-sonic speed, see events before they actually occur, and even change the future, though she's annoyingly obtuse about when to actually use those powers. (Elektra's sense of hearing, too, might need a polish; characters are surprisingly successful at sneaking up on her.) Garner in ass-kicking mode is always a hoot, but Elektra is criminally short on kinetic action scenes, and the ones we are given are saddled with lame CGI that wouldn't have passed muster five years ago. The majority of the film is spent with Garner looking doleful as she works through her personal demons and forces a hesitant friendship with a mysterious father and daughter (Goran Visnjic and Kirsten Prout); it's like an action movie made for Lifetime television. With uninspired staging by director Rob Bowman and flat dialogue throughout, Elektra is a dreary slog, and the only humor in the film comes from the jokes you're making about it; one sequence of Garner unpacking her toiletries is scored and edited like an action scene for anal-retentives, and a mid-film Elektra-training-for-combat scene is so campily "hot" that it could pass for gym-rat porn. The film almost makes you nostalgic for Daredevil. Almost.


Laura Linney and Liam Neeson in KinseyKINSEY

Patience, it seems, isn't always a virtue. While in the Chicago area this past Thanksgiving, I was fortunate enough to catch writer-director Bill Condon's Kinsey, the gloriously rich, funny, and touching biopic on notorious sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. I was looking forward to raving about the film in print, but held off on writing a review until the movie actually made it to our area. Well, Kinsey finally did arrive, and now that I have proper time and space to devote to its merits, it barely matters: The film stayed for a week, and promptly left a theater near you. Damn it.

In the hopes that Kinsey returns to the area before its video and DVD release, let me reiterate that Condon's movie is one of the absolute finest achievements of 2004, a work that ranks at the very top of the year's almost embarrassing glut of biopics. {Maybe its competition contributed to the film's meager box-office take; after movies dedicated to the accomplishments of Howard Hughes, Ray Charles, J.M. Barrie, and Bobby Darin - and with works centering on Che Guevara (The Motorcycle Diaries), Ramon Sampedro (The Sea Inside), Paul Rusesabagina (Hotel Rwanda), and Samuel Byck (The Assassination of Richard Nixon) still to come - perhaps audiences were wary of yet another history lesson.} Kinsey made a rather predictable op-ed splash upon its debut in early November, yet what's truly shocking about the film isn't its subject matter, or the refreshing honesty of its conversation. It's how much fun the movie is. Bill Condon's Gods & Monsters was marvelous, but there he had benefit of the Frankenstein legend and opportunities for some pointed Hollywood satire; the film had more built-in entertainment value than biopics usually offer. Yet Kinsey is every bit as enjoyable as Condon's 1998 Oscar winner, a playful, witty meditation on barrier-bashing and megalomania, beautifully structured and nimbly directed. Liam Neeson, in a thrillingly outsized performance, and Laura Linney, whose sincerity and exquisite comic timing have rarely been put to better use, have understandably earned most of the film's plaudits, and mention must also be made of Peter Sarsgaard, with his unwavering intensity; John Lithgow, theatrically pathetic as Kinsey's rueful father; and Lynn Redgrave, who shows up for less than five minutes and leaves half the audience sobbing. Kinsey is a tremendous achievement in any regard; as far as traditional Hollywood biopics are concerned, it should stand as the exemplar.

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