TIFF Report: I Heart Huckabees, The Machinist, House of Flying Daggers Reviews

Reviews of David O. Russell’s philosophical comedy, Brad Anderson’s psychological thriller, and Zhang Yimou’s martial arts epic.
I Heart Huckabees - David O. Russell
Jason Schwartzman and Mark Wahlberg in David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees

I’m afraid that any review I do of I Heart Huckabees is going to echo Todd’s word for word. Needless to say, I loved the film, and it was the perfect film to catch first thing in the morning. After all, it’s got Jason Schwartzman hiring a couple of existential detectives to help him figure out the meaning of life while simultaneously trying to prevent an upstart salesman played by Jude Law from taking over his environmental activist group. At the same time, he falls in with a bitter firefighter played by Mark Wahlberg (who should be getting all kinds of nominations for his performance) who is concerned about the world’s petroleum issues and is increasingly falling under the sway of a nihilistic outlook being preached by the detective’s French rival.

Did you get all that?

Yes, the film is very quirky and offbeat, which means it’ll probably be a commercial flop. But David O. Russell (who also directed Three Kings, which you should see ASAP) uses them to address the “Big Questions.” Why am I here? What purpose does my life have? Is there any meaning at all in the universe? And he does so in a manner that is largely engaging, entertaining, and even hilarious (thanks to the excellent performances of the entire cast).

There are moments when the quirkiness goes a little over the top — a mother/child scene involving Jude Law, Jason Schwartzman, and Law’s breast might be the most disturbing thing I see during the entire festival — but more often than not, I Heart Huckabees remains a a wonderfully entertaining film that those looking for something a bit more challenging and unique at the box office — think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — should definitely seek out. Or, if you don’t live in a big city, pray that it comes somewhere close to your hometown.

The Machinist
Christian Bale in Brad Anderson’s The Machinist

Much of the early buzz surrounding The Machinist dealt with Christian Bale’s performance. The man lost 60 pounds (nearly a third of his body weight) in order to portray the emaciated Trevor Reznick, the titular machinist who hasn’t slept in nearly a year and who begins growing increasingly paranoid that his co-workers are out to get him. Unfortunately, his performance (and gaunt frame) is about the only captivating thing in the entire film, and even that loses its impact by the film’s final act.

The main problem with the film isn’t the premise, which is very intriguing and sets up some great possibilities. The problem is in the execution, which feels incredibly derivative and cliched. There’s plenty of moody atmosphere, a hooker with a heart of gold, some disturbing messages, a couple of haunting visions, mysterious individuals who disappear without a trace at the least opportune moments, etc. — but none of them add up to anything interesting. And while there are rabbit trails and red herrings — that’s to be expected in a noir-ish thriller — they shouldn’t make more sense and seem more convincing than the movie’s “big” twist, the moment when all of the cards are laid out on the table, and the audience’s jaw hits the ground because they simply didn’t see *that* coming. Sure, some loose ends are tied up and minor questions are answered, but the entire premise on which the film is sold, and which is yanked out from under your feet, is left frustratingly wide open.

However, you do see it coming with The Machinist, and unlike After the Day Before (which mines some similar thematic material), the trappings of the film simply weren’t enough to keep me engaged. Sure, I figured out After the Day Before’s twist well in advance, but I was enthralled enough by the film to want to see how it all played out. The opposite took place with The Machinist. When all was said and done, I left the theatre fairly underwhelmed.

House of Flying Daggers - Zhang Yimou
Zhang Ziyi in Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers

After 4 hours of sleep following the The Machinist screening, it was off to get tickets and stand in line for House of Flying Daggers. This was easily one of my most anticipated films — I love wuxia, I love Zhang Yimou’s work, and I loved Hero. But while both House and Hero are both wuxia films set in ancient China that feature astounding action sequences — and Zhang Ziyi — the two movies couldn’t be more different.

Unlike Hero, which was essentially an art film with a politically ambiguous plot that explored the meanings of heroism, honor, and sacrifice, House is Zhang’s most commercial and mainstream film to date. There’s some intrigue, a little romance, a healthy dollop of tragedy, and plenty of great action sequences (so great, in fact, that the crowd started cheering on several occasions).

Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) are two deputies during the Tang Dynasty, at a time when the emperor’s power is waning. A number of rebel gangs have appeared in the country, the most powerful and beloved by the people being “The House of Flying Daggers” (so named for their trademark weapons). Word gets around that one of the gang’s members might be working at the Peony Pavilion, a new brothel in town. Jin goes undercover and finds Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a talented dancer and singer who also happens to be blind. When he tries to rape her in a drunken stupor, Leo arrests him, setting up a scenario in which Jin escapes with Mei, hoping she’ll lead him to the gang’s new leader. The two escape and are pursued by the army. Love blooms, double-crosses take place, and soon, it’s difficult to tell where anyone’s allegiances lie.

Despite being a very commercial film (something Zhang has talked about in interviews), especially when compared to the stoic Hero, House is every bit as lavish and gorgeous as Hero, if not moreso. Special accolades should go to costume designer Emi Wada and to cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding (the movie’s forest sequences are absolutely spectacular). And of course, this being a wuxia movie, there needs to be some solid action, which comes in the form of Ching Siu-Ting’s choreography. Although the movie’s final battle (and overall ending) does drag on a bit too much and end the film on an uneven note, the early sequences are amazing. In one memorable sequence, Leo tests Mei’s skills with a game in which he throws small beans at various drums arranged around the room, and she has to strike each one with her silken sleeves. Ching’s action, when combined with Zhang Ziyi’s graceful movements and Zhang Yimou’s graceful camerawork, make for a very exciting scene. Ching also throws in a couple of treats for action fans, just for fun (just wait until you see the arrow ricochet shot, which had us cheering up a storm).

I suppose it’s impossible not to bring up Hero, especially considering Zhang Yimou’s last film is only now reaching North America. Overall, I’d have to say I prefer Hero. It just feels like a much deeper and more solid movie all-around. However, there is no doubt that, in spots, House of Flying Daggers meets and even exceeds Zhang’s previous wuxia film. Thankfully, Sony Pictures has committed to releasing the film in December (something Miramax could learn a lesson or two from), which means you won’t have to wait 2 years or so to decide for yourselves.

This entry was originally published on ScreenAnarchy on .