TRURO, Mass.—It occurs to me—as I sit here imbibing my second margarita of the early evening, staring out from my deck at the sun setting pink and lilac over the waters of Cape Cod Bay, the only sounds the gentle lapping of the surf and the soft tinkle of my ice cubes—that those of you stuck in cities during these dog days with nothing to watch except the latest serial killer picture (Gandhi II: back to kill serial killers!), or the shark-infested double bill of Open Water and the Republican convention, will appreciate a roundup of the summer's more exotic indie and foreign films. Some I've reviewed already; some I avoided for fear of bellicose e-mail. (Sorry, Garden State fans.) Some were elbowed aside by the latest multiplex crapathon. ( Alien vs. Predator at midnight? Cowabunga!) All deserve at least a fraction of the attention given to dreadlocked Klingons hunting slimy vagina dentatas.
But first, a movie that's opening this week:
If you regarded Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) as the blood wedding of martial arts and art-house pictures, welcome to Zhang Yimou's Hero (Miramax), which makes that highbrow Ang Lee/James Schamus concoction look like sleazy grind-house chopsocky. Apart from the superkinetic fighting, Hero is a series of exquisite tableaux vivants accompanied by a sad singing cello: orderly, ceremonial—I am tempted to write, "Japanese." It opens with a dose of symmetry, as thousands of Chinese extras in ancient military garb pay tribute to Jet Li (as "Nameless") as he mounts the steps of the Qin dynasty palace: He has reportedly slain three of the king's would-be assassins and is now allowed within 10 paces of the justly paranoid ruler (Chen Dao Ming). In the course of the film, Nameless recounts how he slew (or engineered the slaying of) each of the king's enemies; the king surmises there's something Nameless isn't telling him and offers his own version of events; and then we see what really happened. And thereby hangs a tale—or, rather, interlocking tales, the moral something other than the one we'd envisioned.
The austerity of Hero makes you realize how cluttered other action movies are. It takes its visual cues from the credo of the king's enemy, Broken Sword (Tony Leung): that calligraphy and swordsmanship follow the same principle of higher unity. Presumably, so does carnal swordsmanship, which might be why Broken Sword's great love, Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), has stuck around despite her fury at him for having punked out on the couple's last big assassination attempt. Nowadays, Broken Sword would rather write than fight: He solemnly executes sand paintings—under the approving guise of his comely protégé, Moon (Crouching Tiger's Zhang Ziyi)—while warriors Nameless and Flying Snow use their swords to bat off hundreds of incoming arrows.
The incoming-arrows thing is one of Zhang's specialty numbers: He gives us a flying-arrow's-eye view as the projectiles (looking like a swarm of insects) descend on Broken Sword and Flying Snow's calligraphy school. The old master exhorts his pupils to keep painting rather than dive under their desks, explaining, "Their arrows can never obliterate our culture." I kept waiting for someone to say, "True, but they can puncture our vital organs"—but then, Buddhists always have taken the longer view. In any case, you are advised not to bring a smartass Westerner's eye to the proceedings. The heroism of Hero revolves around self-sacrifice, not the fashionable vengeance of our own action genre. It seeks a higher unity.
Jet Li's pockmarked homeliness is well used here: Nameless is not a romantic lead, but a lonely, lumpish avenger capable of lightning moves. He isn't a compelling central figure, nor was he meant to be: The Cantonese title of the film is Broken Sword. The emotional core of Hero is the tug of war between Leung and Cheung. Our Maggie is just as gorgeous as ever but now, at 40, is developing some real acting chops, and her silken pirouettes give her fight scenes an angry-whirlybird lyricism. It's Leung's movie, though. If you don't know this guy, you will when Miramax releases Infernal Affairs—the most galvanic, emotionally exhausting Hong Kong police thriller I've ever seen (and slated to be remade by Martin Scorsese with Leonardo DiCaprio—presumably in Cheung's role—and Matt Damon). Cheung has a volcanic stillness that makes even calligraphy an event.
I'd be over the moon about Hero if Zhang's action scenes were as good as Ang Lee's in Crouching Tiger. The problem isn't the fighting (or the expert wire work) but Zhang's emphasis on quick close-ups over fluid acrobatics. Individual images are very beautiful, especially the Matrix-like moment in which Nameless and his sword surge through a forest of suspended raindrops, as well as the dying vision of a slain young woman as swirling leaves turn from yellow to blood red. But Zhang always seems to cut to something else before a shot delivers its payload. If his fight scenes don't fully intoxicate, though, his color and compositional rigor compensate for much. See Hero on the biggest screen you can find, and sit close enough for all that spiraling silk to tickle your nostril hairs.
More choppy swordplay: It's no mystery why Takeshi "Beat" Kitano, the director and star of The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (Miramax), enchants formalist critics like the Village Voice's J. Hoberman, who calls him a "blue-collar everyman turned hardboiled absurdist." Kitano works in lowbrow genres using formula plots, but he always finds a way to fracture (and frustrate) our view of his characters and their violent deeds. Kitano has an extremely peculiar, disjunctive style, in which the flow of action is forever being aborted, jerking us out of our revenge-genre-induced hypnosis. I'm tempted to call him a "Brechtian," except that I discern no political intent in his jolting non sequiturs. They might even be the upshot of ineptitude—that is, ineptitude worn with mulish pride, as a badge of originality. A former comedian, Kitano is best regarded as a deadpan jokester, a mutant crossbreed of Sam Peckinpah (via Akira Kurosawa) and Jim Jarmusch.
Obviously, I don't find Kitano's films very satisfying, not even his alleged masterpieces Sonatine (1993) and Hana-bi (Fireworks, 1997). But Zatoichi is a rollicking burlesque, a slapstick carnival of gore that owes less to the long series of mostly so-so blind-swordsman pictures starring Shintarô Katsu than to Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Clint Eastwood's Italian and American follow-ups. Kitano's blind masseuse with the slashing blade concealed in his cane looks like a peroxided Moe Howard, and you laugh the same way in anticipation of what he's going to do to the clueless 19th-century gangsters who think he's an easy target.
One instant he's immobile, his eyes closed, a faint smile on his cocked head; the next his blade is out, and the screen is filled with bejeweled splatter—fat drops of blood like rubies. There's enough arterial spray for 10 movies, but it erupts in an absurdist vacuum, and the staccato editing renders it abstract. Imagine a porno flick in which naked people gaze longingly at each other—and then there's a quick cum shot. Kitano delivers, all right, but on his own perverse terms; he even throws away the climax. What saves Zatoichi is that it ends—for no clear reason—with a foot-stomping ensemble dance number that is both delightful and unhinging: It sends you home with spasmodic giggles, convinced this Japanese imp has discovered a new path to your unconscious.
The summer's surprise art-house phenom is the weird, Mormon-made comedy Napoleon Dynamite, which I half-celebrated here. Many people seem taken, as well, with Garden State (Fox Searchlight), in which the egoistically named Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff), an overmedicated TV actor, returns for his mother's funeral to his New Jersey hometown, where, with the help of a free spirit (Natalie Portman), he stands up to his dad (who has been prescribing all those meds) and learns to, you know, feel. Braff, who also wrote and directed the film, deserves credit for reminding us that Portman isn't the monotonic zombie of the latest George Lucas Star Wars cycle: Outside Lucas' synthetic universe, the force is strong in this babe. The movie's first third is engaging in its mix of tones. (I loved it when two old friends, now working as gravediggers, invite Andrew to a party—"right after we, uh, bury your mom.") But once the healing stuff kicked in, I began to dread Braff's actorish emotional dilemmas and his big teeth. The nadir is when the three main characters (the great Peter Sarsgaard is unprecedentedly lifeless as one of those gravediggers) affirm their existence by standing and screaming astride an abyss. A literal abyss. Say this for actors: Too self-centered to be embarrassed, they can be existential heroes of a (moronic) sort. A slight but much more charming self-made vehicle is Valeria Bruni Tedeschi's It's Easier for a Camel (New Yorker Films), in which Tedeschi plays a poor little rich girl in a world in which you have to be insane to live with inherited wealth and feel not even a twinge of guilt for the unearned privilege. Brimming with flashbacks, nightmare family meals, and surreal fantasies (including an animated sequence in which our heroine tries to stuff the titular humpback through the eye of a large needle), this is the perfect film for fortunate sons and those with the misfortune to have them as leaders.
The other film that has captured the audience's imagination is Maria Full of Grace (Fine Line), directed by Josh Marston, a trim but harrowing little socially conscious melodrama about a 16-year-old Colombian girl driven (by the usual exploitive sweatshop capitalists, a parasitic fatherless family, and impregnation by a loser boyfriend) to take work as a mule—i.e., someone who swallows threescore balloons of cocaine and then hops on a plane to New York, where she must hang out with nasty dealers waiting impatiently for her to move her bowels. The plotting is predictable and the fate of several characters well-telegraphed. What makes Maria worth seeing is Marston's gift with actors, among them Patricia Rae as the sister of another mule and Orlando Tobon as an avuncular Lower East Side Colombian fixer-upper—a good don. The whole movie, of course, is a setting for its jewel, Catalina Sandino Moreno as Maria: With her clear, round eyes, long dark hair, and radiant transparency, she brings to mind two of the loveliest ingénues of the last quarter-century—Meg Tilly and Jennifer Connelly. You don't catch her acting, only behaving with eponymous grace under horrific pressure. There is something holy, even, about her big swallowing scene: Moreno conjures up visions of all the poor girls since the beginning of time who've had to swallow—and keep swallowing—as a means to break free of societies engineered to keep them down.
For those in the mood for more explicit dystopian fantasies: Code 46 (MGM) is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind remade as a futurist and humorless sci-fi parable in which individual passion is crushed—via memory erasure—by an omniscient state. A code 46 is triggered when two genetic twins attempt to procreate. In this case, those twins are psychic private investigator Tim Robbins and Shanghai lab worker Samantha Morton (as Maria Gonzales—another smuggler named Maria full of grace). Like all of director Michael Winterbottom's films, this is an admirable ("Admirable!"), intelligent ("Intelligent!") piece of work that doesn't quite cross the blood-brain barrier and eat into your mind. It's about unruly passion, but it's icy and cerebral, and Robbins has become a disappointingly tentative actor, playing emotionally straitjacketed men in a self-imposed straitjacket.
For the antithesis of that performance, you can still catch The Door in the Floor (Focus Features), based on the first third of John Irving's very bad novel about a monstrously egotistical author of children's books, his grief-haunted wife, and the prep-school boy who becomes the writer's assistant and his wife's lover. The movie has one of those appalling turns so dear to Irving and other writers: an account of the death of someone's children that's withheld until the climax so that it functions as a kind of art-film striptease. But Jeff Bridges is so great as the author that he could be playing John Irving: the vampire artist who thrives by exploiting, toying with, humiliating, and sucking the life out of others. Bridges has evolved into a miraculous actor: one who signals wildness through the intensity of his containment.
Time for another margarita: how hard it is to balance the requisite sweetness of a cocktail with the distinctive prickly bitterness of the desert agave. Before I try to spin that into a metaphor, I'll leave you to check out these reviews of some good indie pictures still in theaters: Before Sunset; Metallica: Some Kind of Monster; Bright Young Things; We Don't Live Here Anymore; The Hunting of the President and Outfoxed; and, of course, Fahrenheit 9/11. Not a bad summer crop. And I'm loving being 250 miles from the nearest theater showing The Brown Bunny.