Jet Li in HeroHERO

Does any moviegoer really care what Zhang Yimou's Chinese martial-arts epic Hero is actually about? You get to see adversaries battling one another while running on water! You get to see a woman warding off a bow-and-arrow onslaught using only her dressing gown! You get to see a guy splitting raindrops in half with a sword, for Pete's sake!

To call Hero visually resplendent is to call Tennessee Williams a little melancholy; the film doesn't need its subtitles, because with images like these, the story couldn't possibly matter less. (For those who crave the knowledge, Hero is a Rashomon-like look at the assassination of three Chinese warriors, with a bit of Chinese national history thrown into the mix.) Yimou and cinematographer Christopher Doyle have engineered a work of astonishing dexterity and style, and they create action-flick set-pieces (within a deceptively ruminative frame) that are really worth talking about; you leave the theatre wanting to jabber incessantly about the ravishing beauty and excitement of the thing, even if the whys and wherefores of the work elude you. The film has certainly been influenced by the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - it even includes that amazing ass-kicker Zhang Ziyi among its performers - but Hero's martial-arts sequences, perhaps surprisingly, owe more to The Matrix; with its color-coded gorgeousness and too-cool-for-gravity visuals, Yimou's work is like a highlights reel of both movies' best action scenes. (Leave it to Quentin Tarantino, who rates a "Presented by ... " mention in Hero's trailer, to be alone in knowing that; the movie, a 2003 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film, had been gathering dust on the Miramax shelves until Tarantino recognized its potential box-office merit.) I wish that the scenes that didn't exhibit visual wizardry weren't quite so stiff; there are several romantic angles to the film, and none of them is emotionally satisfying. All in all, though, Yimou, Doyle, and their high-flying performers have managed to out-blockbuster the Hollywood blockbusters with Hero; you can have mindless fun at it without feeling mindless yourself.


Jon Heder in Napoleon DynamiteNAPOLEON DYNAMITE

Watching Napoleon Dynamite is like watching the world - the world in suburban Idaho, at least - through a fishbowl. Everything's a little slow, and disproportionate, and, for 90 minutes at least, kinda fascinating - I can't exactly disagree with the critics who call it smug and condescending, but it's certainly different, and it elicits sneaky, unexpected laughs. The titular hero (Jon Heder), an arrested-developed teen of the highest order, tosses off his lines with such desolate hostility that he can make the interjection "Sweet!" sound like a cry for help, and his Internet-obsessed brother (Aaron Ruell) responds with fey, weary indifference; their barely-concealed loathing of each other makes large portions of this aimless indie comedy work. I couldn't begin to imagine what director/co-writer Jared Hess is trying to say with this movie - most likely that "Losers are funny because they're losers," which helps explain a lot of the critical resentment toward the film - but within the shapeless patchwork of Napoleon Dynamite are a great many quotable lines and a few fearless comic performances; it's one of the few movies I've seen where I can honestly say I laughed a lot more than I probably should have.


Dax Shepard, Seth Green, and Matthew Lillard in Without a PaddleWITHOUT A PADDLE

Matthew Lillard and Seth Green are such naturally endearing performers that even a third-rate comic trifle like Without a Paddle isn't enough to defeat them. (Hell, Lillard even manages to rescue a few moments in the new Wicker Park, a movie so staggeringly incoherent that, for review purposes, it'll take me a week to form a basic sentence about it.) A slob-comedy Deliverance for Dummies, Without a Paddle puts Lillard, Green, and poker-faced Dax Shepard through a woodland treasure hunt from hell, and though the plotting and jokes are barely adequate, this trio actually convinces as lifelong friends; their repartee - much of it seemingly improvised - has an enjoyable, easygoing crudeness. (They're 30-year-olds for whom lighting farts would still be the zenith in humor.) Much as I'd love Lillard to give another heroic SLC Punk! performance, or Green to match his inspired work in Can't Hardly Wait, I'll happily take them even in a stupid-but-sweet endeavor such as this; everyone knows there aren't enough good movies to house all the good actors in Hollywood, but performers such as Lillard and Green manage to make even the swill go down with relatively little discomfort.



As thrillers go, there can be little doubt that Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid is far crummier than Suspect Zero or even The Exorcist: The Beginning, but on some level I think I preferred it; at least Anacondas isn't dishonest about its shlockiness. A continuation of the big-snake saga from 1997, Anacondas' storyline is almost delightfully square - seriously, haven't we waited too long for the return of the search-for-the-fountain-of-youth plot? - and you can have a pretty agreeable time trying to figure out the order in which the sub-par actors are going to get picked off. But the film's presentation is still groaningly poor, and is it me, or are CGI effects actually getting worse as time passes? In this age when every hack with a laptop seems to have access to these "miraculous" effects, the reptiles in Anacondas aren't for a moment believable, or scary, or even suggestive, yet you might find yourself rooting for these creatures anyway; the sooner they make appetizers out of the cast, the sooner you can go home.

You ache for Suspect Zero and The Exorcist: The Beginning to end, too, but their unremitting seriousness makes the experience of viewing these movies more grueling than Anacondas ever gets; the serial-killer opus Suspect Zero is like the opening credits to Seven stretched out over 100 minutes, and the Exorcist prequel plays like a continuous loop of the original Exorcist's first 15 minutes - where it's all religious omens and sand and you're just waiting for Linda Blair to spin her damned head around already. To try to explain the convoluted plotting of either film is an exercise in futility. Let it just be said that the most enjoyment you'll get out of Suspect Zero is in watching a hambone Ben Kingsley and a strenuously over-worked Aaron Eckhart match each other tic for tic, and as for The Beginning, you'll be in horror heaven if the mere image of an upside-down crucifix gives you the heebie-jeebies - the sight is repeated ad nauseum. Suspect Zero and The Beginning are barely movies in the first place; they're all touches and motifs, a series of empty-headed symbols that portend unspeakable evil even though nothing remotely frightening ever comes from them. Anacondas is a piece of crap, but Suspect Zero and The Beginning are pieces of crap served with a straight face, which no sentient viewer should have trouble laughing off the screen.

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