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Sunday, November 17

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House of Flying Daggers
4 of 5 stars
Directed by Zhang Yimou.
Starring Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Dandan Song.

Only a few months after Miramax's long-delayed release of Hero comes Zhang Yimou's new film, House of Flying Daggers. Once again drawing inspiration from wuxia (martial arts novels), this time Yimou tells a story set in the days of the Tang Dynasty's decline. A group known as the House of Flying Daggers is a rebel army that "steals from the rich and gives to the poor." A local captain named Jin (Takeshi Kaneshero) and his partner Leo (Andy Lau) investigate the possibility that a member of the Flying Daggers is one of the dancers at the Peony Pavillion. Identifying Mei (Zhang Ziyi) as the rebel, they arrest her, but concoct a plan they hope will lead them back to the Flying Daggers' new leader. Jin poses as a lone warrior named Wind and stages a daring "escape," but as they flee, with Leo and other policemen in pursuit, Jin begins to fall for her.

House of Flying Daggers opens by setting up a playful, comic tone reminiscent of the Errol Flynn and Tyrone Powers action films of the early 20th century like Robin Hood and Zorro -- and even Gilbert and Sullivan to some extent. The silliness prepares the audience for the huge amounts of suspension of disbelief required later in the film when the comedy disappears as the chase takes a dark turn. Much of the action is utterly impossible, such as the CG-assisted boomeranging knives Mei and her fellow Daggers throw with superhuman precision, but it shouldn't be harder to swallow than, say, any of Legolas' equally ridiculous stunts in the Lord of the Rings flicks.

Vibrant, colorful and bedded by some enchantingly gorgeous music, the astonishing first two acts of this pulp fiction-fueled film showcase a number of fantastic action set pieces, only to lose steam in its final act when House divorces its central characters from the events involving the Flying Daggers. The American title may be better than the film's Japanese title, Lovers, but it gives a false impression of the film's focus. This shift in focus mid-way through wouldn't be a problem, though, if the story of the House of Flying Daggers weren't the more interesting of the film's two stories.

House of Flying Daggers is playing at the River East 21, Pipers Alley, and the Century 12/CinéArts 6 in Evanston.

Million Dollar Baby
5 of 5 stars
Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Starring Hilary Swank, Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman.

I went into Million Dollar Baby knowing next to nothing about it. I knew both Roger Ebert and Jonathan Rosenbaum had given it very positive reviews, that it starred Hilary Swank looking like a man (as always), and that it was directed by Clint Eastwood, which means very little to me considering I've seen only one of the movies he's directed. While I thought Unforgiven was very good, it was by no means the revelation it has been made out to be. What I've read of his other movies -- Mystic River, Space Cowboys and Bridges of Madison County among them -- interests me almost not at all. So, basically, I didn't expect much from this one.

As the film started, I quickly got a hell of a lot more than I expected. It is a much smaller film than I expected, and a much deeper, authentic one as well. Paul Haggis' dark and witty script, based on stories from Rope Burns by F.X. Toole, is funny at all the right moments (often bleakly so) and reveals admirably well-rounded characters who very easily could have been transformed into walking, talking issues by a more heavy-handed director, or fallen into lame stereotypes with a lesser cast. It's an especially good thing, then, that the cast is in top form. Hilary Swank stars as Maggie Fitzgerald, a wanna-be boxer from Bumf--k, Egypt, who, as Morgan Freeman's narration describes her, "grew up knowing one thing: she was trash." (This line is beautifully placed over a sequence of Fitzgerald pocketing leftovers from her waitressing job for her own dinner.) Freeman, for his part, is an ex-prize fighter whose career as such came to an abrupt halt years before in an incident trainer, manager and "cut man" Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) blames himself for.

I wouldn't say Million Dollar Baby is perfect, although it is very nearly so. As Jonathan Rosenbaum pointed out in his capsule review, Freeman's narration and how it is used to frame the story makes for a few strained moments. But, just as often, it economically pushes the narrative forward (as narration should but rarely does), explaining things that would be too awkward to relate through expository dialogue. A subplot revolving around "Danger" (Jay Baruchel), a mentally handicapped hang-about at Frankie's gym, seems a bit extraneous, though undeniably crowd-pleasing (myself included in that crowd). And in a handful of scenes Tom Stern's usually stark, moody lighting sometimes comes off as a little more dramatic than sensible, detracting, however slightly, from the inherent grittiness of the story.

In hindsight, I should have seen something coming, but Million Dollar Baby got me with its stunning sucker punch while I was looking the other way. Nothing prepared me for the movie's jaw-dropping turning point, which I still can't shake from my mind. It pains me to not write about this amazing film in more detail, but to do so would be a disservice to those who plan to see it. And you absolutely should because Million Dollar Baby is one of the best films of the year.

Million Dollar Baby is playing at River East 21. I might have to rethink my instincts about Clint's movies. But Mystic River still looks incredibly uninteresting.

Infernal Affairs
4 of 5 stars
Directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak.
Starring Tony Leung, Andy Lau, Eric Tsang, Kelly Chen and Sammi Cheng.

Andrew Lau (A Man Called Hero, Storm Riders) manages to transcend, for the most part, the cheesiness of his earlier films with this smart, tense and crisply shot story of a Triad mole in the Hong Kong police force (House of Flying Daggers' Andy Lau; no relation to the director) working to uncover the identity of an undercover cop within the inner circle of his true boss (Hero's Tony Leung). Infernal Affairs is reminiscent of the best parts of Michael Mann's flashy but brain dead crime dramas Heat and Collateral -- perhaps a little too much to give it as much credit as those critics who have hailed Internal Affairs as signalling "a new era in Hong Kong filmmaking" (Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times). But this exciting and well-plotted genre exercise does one thing that Mann's films don't: it actually makes sense.

Infernal Affairs opens on Friday, December 24, at the Music Box. It is also available on DVD from Amazon, Blockbuster and all the usual suspects. The DVD features a (weaker) alternate ending as well as one of the most hideous cover designs I've ever seen, even ignoring the fact that the woman in the center isn't a character in the movie. Martin Scorsese is remaking the film as The Departed for 2006 with Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon as the leads. Why do I have the feeling that the only thing that will be better about the remake is the title?

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About the Author(s)

Gordon McAlpin writes his movie reviews with a red light-up Spy Kids pen, which he thinks is the coolest thing ever, even though he didn't like the movie that much.

If you feel the need to get in touch with him directly, do so at .

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