Opens Fri., Sept. 17, at Varsity
Several bravura fight sequences, captured thrillingly by cinematographer Vichien Ruangvichayakul, are reason enough to see Thai director Thanit Jitnukul's stirring account of Siamese villagers fighting their Burmese oppressors in the 18th century. What begins as a straightforward history lesson—how the Kingdom of Siam became modern-day Thailand—quickly evolves into a vibrant, often visceral story of love during wartime and perseverance in the face of mind-blowing brutality. Like a Shakespearean tragedy, Rajan assembles a sizable cast, then leaves no man (or woman) standing; the emotional focus is on conflicted warrior Nai In (Winai Kraibutr) and his pregnant wife, E Sa (Bongkod Kongmalai), but roughly a dozen secondary characters, including an aging military leader and an ageless monk, emerge with crystal clarity.
It's easy to see why Oliver Stone lent his name to the American distribution of Rajan: Like Platoon, it takes a raw, unflinching view of combat, employing a low-traveling camera for a literally down-to-earth perspective on each skirmish. And though the film incorporates considerable gore (decapitations, lost limbs, and worse), the violence is artfully rendered and never gratuitous, and there's no smug moral awaiting viewers at the end. Rajan simply expresses with unusual power the adage that war makes beasts of men, and no one truly emerges the victor. (NR) NEAL SCHINDLER
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
Opens Fri., Sept. 17, at Neptune and others
Eight years ago, Mamoru Oshii's animated film Ghost in the Shell opened in the United States and was widely acclaimed as the finest anime ever made for adults. Fans have been waiting impatiently ever since for Oshii to return to the animation table. Except for the real fans, the hard-core fans, who knew that Oshii's film was only a cinematic riff on themes and characters originally created by Masamune Shirow (not his real name), already one of the kings of Japanese comic art when he came up with Ghost in magazine form back in 1991, and who continued to draw more episodes into the late '90s, while Kenji Kamiyama (animator of the noir thriller Jin-Roh) has busied himself with two seasons' worth of half-hour television films based on the same material.
Oshii's sequel ignores all this activity and returns to plot elements already present in the earliest installments. The story centers on sex androids which have begun to turn on their human users, with gruesome results. Batou, the quartz-eyed cyborg from Dr. Aramaki's Security Section 9, is assigned to discover why—and to do it without the energetic and remarkably decorative assistance of his ex-commander, Major Kusinagi, who disappeared into the information net at the end of the first film, having fused with another cyber-entity known as the Puppetmaster. . . .
Now that all the amateurs have left the room, I have two points to make of particular interest to the true believers among us. First, Major Kusinagi barely figures in Ghost 2, and she is bitterly missed; her interactions with Batou in the earlier film gave a welcome touch of humanity to the endless philosophical dialogues about what really constitutes life, as opposed to artificial intelligence, etc., etc., etc. The dialogues continue in Ghost 2, and get even denser, and Batou's new semihuman sidekick, Togusa, just isn't a pretty enough interlocutor to make up for the disappearance of the Major.
Second point: By the end of Ghost 2, you will almost not mind the Major's absence, because Oshii and his visual collaborators have come up with such a rapturously gorgeous environment for the story that when the recycled Kierkegaard gets too thick, you can just let your ears go to sleep while your eyes trip out. CGI has never looked so good. (PG-13) Roger Downey
Opens Fri., Sept. 17, at Meridian and Metro
If John Sayles had remade The Manchurian Candidate instead of Jonathan Demme, he'd have had the integrity to make the U.S. government turn out to be Al Qaeda's ally, as the Bush regime effectively is in real life. Though it's far lighter in tone—half comedy, half noir—Silver City presents a more forthright allegory about Bush's America, in which the orgy of corruption reaches throughout society, from Halliburton-esque puppeteers to corporate-whore candidates to a supine mainstream press. Who can stop the bad guys? A tiny, hardy band of rebels descended from the Secaucus Seven.
Sayles hired Chris Cooper as the Bush doppelgänger, wittily named Dickie Pilager, because he'd heard Cooper did a wicked Bush impression, and his Shrubbish verbal pratfall comedy unquestionably outdoes Will Ferrell's and Dana Carvey's. In the opening shots, dim Dickie is filming a campaign spot, fly-fishing on a lovely Colorado lake his bosses plan to poison with industrial waste once he's elected. He reels in a corpse, so his Karl Rove–like minder, Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss), hires a private detective to find out who might be competing with the Pilagers in the dirty-tricks department.
Leftist Dreyfuss has as much fun as Cooper does being vile and rightist. Nobody could get more mileage out of hissing, "No handouts for homos!" Danny Huston has less brio as Danny O'Brien, the disgraced ex–crusading journalist on their trail. He's pretty much there to lead us through the serpentine conspiracy plot and introduce us to way the hell too many characters. We meet Danny's old boss (Tim Roth) and lost love (Mario Bello), who's sold out to a daily paper, and her slimy tobacco-lobbyist fiancé (ever-typecast baddie Billy Zane); Dickie's monster senator father (Michael Murphy) and pothead sexpot sister (Daryl Hannah); a hydrophobic talk-radio star (Miguel Ferrer); a Pilager-funding media magnate (Kris Kristofferson); plus about two dozen more characters.
Despite the dissipating effects of Silver City's overpopulation, the convoluted mystery is about a quarter as satisfying as Lone Star, which isn't bad. The stars working for peanuts to demolish Dubya are delightful, especially bad-gal Hannah and Dreyfuss. But the bodies that bubble up from the lake at the end are supposed to pack the punch of the ones in Deliverance. They don't. (R) TIM APPELO
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Opens Fri., Sept. 17, at Metro and others
Joe Sullivan (Jude Law), aka Sky Captain, may be the first ace aviator to be caught in his office knocking back a quick jigger of milk of magnesia. Sky Captain is full of such nice, deft touches, and it needs every one of them to humanize the vast scale of its entirely computer-generated surroundings and to distract the audience from noticing that the World of Tomorrow has a pink-cheeked population of roughly six.
Kerry Conran, the writer-director- godhead of this whole world, is clearly one of filmmaking's pure spirits. His head is an encyclopedia of images from the '30s, the '40s, and a little beyond: King Kong and Little Nemo; the animated Superman and Metropolis; the Bauhaus and The Bickersons; Nikola Tesla and Ayn Rand; the Hindenburg and the 1939 World's Fair; Lost Horizon, The War of the Worlds, and The Wizard of Oz—especially Oz, whose philosophy that things are not what they seem is the cornerstone of Sky Captain. (There's also detritus from Psycho, The Iron Giant, and all those Star Wars dogfights down steep Louise Nevelson canyons.)
You'll catch nearly every one of Conran's favorite things here, approached with reverence and occasional dollops of drollness but without a shred of irony. We're meant to be stunned by his set pieces: the Hindenburg docking at the top of the Empire State Building; a sky platform in the midst of clouds where P-40 pilots can pop in for a spot of gas and a bit of racy banter; giganto robots who clomp through Manhattan, nearly squishing the city's only inhabitant, star reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), her blond hair very long, her lipstick nearly black.
The towering vistas almost smother this whiz-bang plot; it has something to do with secret vials, disappearing scientists, and the mad, mad, mad, mad mind of an unseen Dr. Totenkopf (dead head, we get it), who may or may not want to end the world. After Polly starts tracking the story, it's only seconds before the robots are upon her, and the only person to call is old boyfriend Sky Captain. Let the bantering begin.
You don't need the movie's publicity machine to tell you that these actors had no one to play against, just blue screens and little white dots. Good as the tiny cast is at fighting things that aren't there or twisting away from imaginary 3-ton metal boots, they feel hermetically sealed from one another. It's even lonelier out in the audience, where you have to squint at the screen, fighting the (deliberate) diffusion, losing whole bits of action in the dimness, until about halfway through, when squinting get old and a nice nap seems better.
For Conran, after they finished shooting pesky actors, the real fun began at the computer screen, with Conran's delirious imagination in free fall. As for the action: Once we see that the characters can escape anything unscathed, even Angelina Jolie, the eye-patched commander of an all-girl amphibious squadron, the fun is pretty much over.
Law and Paltrow get the film's style effortlessly, and heaven knows they look dashing enough, between her fedora and his aviator cap and goggles, but something has blunted their sexual chemistry. Maybe it's that Paltrow is such an exceptionally convincing nag, even from the back seat of his plane in the middle of a dogfight ("I know this street, turn left, LEFT!"), that it's like having a really cranky sorority girl on your tail all the time. How sexy is that?
Polly's character is presumably softened because she drops her camera all the time. I suppose that's better than poor Sky Cap's right-hand man, the trusty techie Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), whose entire characterization comes from chewing three sticks of bubble gum at once. As for bringing dear, dead Laurence Olivier back for a posthumous digital cameo, the moment is pure L. Frank Baum. Which raises the question about this reverent, brilliantly rendered homage: What was so wrong with the originals that they needed anyone's computerized reprocessing? (PG) Sheila Benson