2000 Reviews

November 13, 2009

[And these are actually alphabetical! Wow!]

Adrenaline Drive
Directed by Shinobu Yaguchi
Starring : Hikari Ishida, Masanosu Ando, Jovi Jova, Kazue Tsunogae Kirinia Mano,
        Yu Tokui, Kouichi Ueda and Yutaka Matsushige.
grade: A-

        Severely funny meditation on matters of chance and circumstance, celebration of conflict or full on live action cartoon? ‘Adrenaline Drive’, one of the most down-to-earth and massively funny films I’ve seen in a long time, fits all three of these descriptions. At heart, it’s a base film about lovers on the lam with money in tow, ducking the mob at every turn and graciously embracing each other’s company. But in it’s own right, ‘Adrenaline Drive’ may be the most ecstatic and tirelessly alive film I’ve seen all year. From it’s opening sequence where Ishida goes the wrong way, wusses out in front of his boss and then accidentally taps the bumper of a Yakuza gangster (setting off a wildly comic sequence where the gangster plays traffic cop to the scared Ishida and his boss), this is a film that’s set out to be a particular kind of funny; not the funny that would be accompanied by a laugh track, but rather the kind of farcical caricature of colorful characters and devilishly satisfying occurrences that made movies like ‘The Big Lebowski’ and ‘Being John Malkovich’ work so damn well. This is a romantic comedy slathered on top of a slapstick rich, quasi silent film meshed deeply with the comic timing and careful attention to reaction that Scorcese built in ‘After Hours’. This is a hoot of a film. Essentially, it’s only flaw is that it goes on too long, creating an ending that feels less gratifying than it’s preceding genius would allow. It runs out of steam – as does the audience. Here’s another call for comedies that stick to a one hundred minute maximum running time. I love almost everything about the offbeat ‘Adrenaline Drive’. This is, without a doubt, the best of the Shooting Gallery Film Series.


The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle
Directed by Des McAnuff
Starring : Rocky, Bullwinkle, Piper Perabo, Robert DeNiro, Jason Alexander, Rene Russo
         and Randy Quaid.
grade: C

        In most spots of our most recent cartoon-crossover-updating-megabucks-kids-scheme, the writing more than qualifies to meet the gargantuan standard set by the now defunct sixties TV cult fave. There’s a bold, fully animated introduction, puns aplenty, that if presented in a blind taste test, could easily stupefy kids unfamiliar with the original. The rest of the film follows as good entertainment, picking up the reigns dropped by the far superior ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” twelve years ago in it’s inclusion of animated characters that share the plot, the screen and the action with live-action human actors. At this point, I’d like to drop the demeanor and pass on the absolutely flamboyantest flaw of all : the inclusion of desperately untalented Perabo as an (no, really) FBI agent that enjoyed watching Rocky and Bullwinkle as a child. I may remind you, that ‘Rocky and Bullwinkle’ was canceled in 1964 (I know this only because the movie actually states it in the beginning). She’s, like, seventeen! Why is she an FBI agent and why, oh, why would she possibly remember a show that ended nearly two decades preceding her birth. Reruns? Thin, at best, cover for an obvious necessity the screenwriters were unable or unwilling to replace or, you know, make fly. The lackluster premise only makes for an overstuffed second half that appears to be yanked directly out of family day at “screenwriting for beginners”. No outline could account for the absolutely demeaning way the film closes.

        So why the forgiving rating? Yeah, it did make me chuckle more than once. I admit, as a father, it was a hoot to watch my daughter transfer her generation gap into the seat next to me and suck in those lush, corny images. And yeah, “dad jokes” (terminate with extreme lameness) make me feel an odd sense of belonging in a world that’s still not really ready to accept maturity in this young-looking shell I cart around inside my clothes. Maybe it was the calm, gentle motion of the old-fashioned excitement at watching A-list actors have fun with minimal hamming. Maybe it was the idea that the film closed itself off at the start for a private “entertainment” existence instead of being simply a collection of lowbrow jokes trying to appear “smart” or “sharp”. And, to be fair, I only came up with the first paragraph after much deliberation. Last night I was ready to give it three-and-a-half stars, then three…

        ….wits return! Huzzah!


Almost Famous
Written and Directed by Cameron Crowe
Starring : Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson, Jason Lee, Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk,
        Noah Taylor and Frances McDormand (with Phillip Seymour Hoffman).
grade: A

About a month ago I saw Martin Scorcese’s ‘The Last Waltz’, perhaps the best concert film of all time. And while it thrashed about, rockers doing their thing with such beauty and posture – like watching ballet dancers or sculptors create something wondrous from nothing at all – it also brought forth a burning question, that is: How does a band come to look so in tune with the passion of their moment and what is it about rock n’ roll that incites the camaraderie and coolness they radiate? My own experience wasn’t of much help. The film was echoing into a cavern as I’d been to maybe four or five rock shows in my short life and wasn’t really a receptive host as to what the electric makeup that fuses music and stardom could possibly be. And then came an answer.

Full of cinematic rarities and booming with loud music, ‘Almost Famous’ clears the question of fame and rock n’ roll right up. The beaming conclusion to my pondering is that it’s the backstage fits of anguish – the fighting, the overload of sex and drugs, the raucous ego battles – that fuel the need to reach a therapeutic coitus with the music. And it shows us all of these things in thrillingly authentic spotlight-cast images as up-and-coming ace reporter William (Patrick Fugit) follows the fictional band Stillwater (made up of pieces of Billy Crudup, Jason Lee, Noah Taylor) on a tour that will make or break them. All the while consorting with one of a plethora of idols William has, Lester Bangs (enacted marvelously by the talented mr. Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who gives him advice on the finer points of retaining artistic integrity as if he were dolling out Buddhist dogma. And the band-aids (a term substituted for groupie with a wonderful explanation) that keep everything together, the lady fans who travel with the band – proved performers Anna Paquin and Fairuza Balk in the background and the focal point, Penny Lane (played with a first time verve of astute experience by Kate Hudson).

Where ensemble pieces like ‘Boogie Nights’ or ‘Dazed and Confused’, also set in the 1970’s, rely on music and elaborate set-pieces to brim over into an observational montage of sorts; ‘Almost Famous’ finds its note in compiling itself, in an extemely likeable manner, out of page markers – which clearly distinguishes it as a memoir from frame one. As in his past films (‘Say Anything’, ‘Singles’ and ‘Jerry Maguire’), Cameron Crowe lets the music drip over the sides of these defining moments he clearly feels closest to (for instance the magical moment after the band recoups from disquieting arguments and wearily sing along to ‘Tiny Dancer’. This is a scene that brings down the house – and tears to my eyes. Crowe excels at this).

A master at romantic comedies, the toughest thing to nail well onscreen Crowe climbs a more difficult hurdle here: He makes a personal memoir into a comedy of the universal brand. He manages to (so I’ve read) do justice to a time in his life that clearly shaped him – and still create fanciful entertainment with a mammoth scope and a broad reach. This is a film that will be beloved, I’m certain, by a good majority of its viewers. And the unlikely chance of finding such a magnificent young actor to play oneself just compounds the rarity of such a motion picture. Crowe’s young reflection, Patrick Fugit, is outstanding. Finally, a character who champions the uncool while researching the cool and an actor who can play dim enough to pull off that introverted sense of awakening while also balancing the necessity to keep himself a secret and his emotions masked – because as a rock writer among the band, he is “the enemy”. And while his bonding with Russell (indelibly realized by the brilliant Billy Crudup) may seem a breach of his integrity – its wonderful how he manages to turn that around and create, just like the rock stars on-stage, something new out of it: honesty (the kind we barter with in the real world, not the word thrown around in churches and schools). Just like Crowe the filmmaker, William (AKA Crowe) the rock journalist fully understands his surroundings and what makes them cool. Delineating and dissecting them comes naturally – but it’s creating something new that makes them what they are.

‘Almost Famous’ comes at a wonderful time for me and for film. This, seemingly the driest year for quality onscreen in a long while, has spawned only four movies I’d call truly worthy (with a couple lagging respectfully behind). Each of them are personal and memorable stories of characters who walk the road of life as ordinary men – but have fashioned extraordinary attitudes and ways of observing life from their passions (in ‘Wonder Boys’ it is writing; in ‘High Fidelity’ it is pop music; in ‘The Virgin Suicides’ it is girls; and here, in ‘Almost Famous’, it is fame, music, writing and girls). Looking at enough movies forged in deep-seated mediocrity, I wonder if every year I find favor among the four films listed above – or if it’s all a big coincidental-looking conspiracy. ‘Almost Famous’ is an engaging, lose-yourself-from-frame-one, funny, moving pop masterpiece. It’s a diamond ring among the glass ones in 2000 – and it’s easily one of the best films of the year. And I’m curious, since watching a film this good makes me examine whether I am too subjective a critic, is that a bad thing or a good thing? ‘Almost Famous’ answers a question – and produces one; shuts one door and opens another; takes nothing and creates something.


American Psycho
Directed and Co-Written by Mary Harron
Starring Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Reese Witherspoon, Samantha Mathis,
        Chloë Sevigny, Justin Theroux, Josh Lucas, Guinevere Turner,  Matt Ross (I), William Sage
        and Cara Seymour.
grade: C+

Let’s examine the title, shall we? For a film called ‘American Psycho’, the opening near-animated droplets of blood falling past the frame let us know – along with the peppy, almost whimsical musical piece playing – that we are not watching a film that follows it’s title. Neither a poor departure or a brilliant adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s astounding novel – ‘American Psycho’, from first frame to last, works almost exclusively as a comedy. In terms of utter clarification – the film only seems to work when it’s a comedy. It’s easily evident in the few scenes that try to capture the claustrophobic feeling of being stuck in protagonist Patrick Bateman’s head that there’s simply no room for both tones. As a thriller or commentary on the children of the eighties, it seems hopelessly futile in making us believe in anything but laughing.

What’s really astounding about the film, though, is the way it handles itself almost entirely in it’s delivery. The lines are flat but all of the actors seem to know how to bend them to neatly encircle the shallow and pseudo-emotional vibes coming off of their characters. The real accomplishment, plainly visible throughout, has got to be Christian Bale’s entirely dazzling performance. All goofball charm and self-assured smiles – he plays up the contrast necessary to pit the “boy-next-door” (as he’s constantly called) charm against the atrocities he commits to fuel his blood lust.  It’s the kind of acting that screams to be labeled an adaptation of a character – a risky but successful one – which earns an actor an innumerable amount of respect. So wonderful to watch.

It realizes the immensity of the book in a very intimate way. It’s easily a nice, compact story that’s being told onscreen. Some simple examples to illustrate : the 10-15 page monologues that Patrick will use as his praise outlet for such musical talents as Huey Lewis, Genesis and Whitney Houston have been shortened and placed over scenes – as opposed to being just bookends, stuck hither and thither. Also used to frame the story almost completely around the disappearance of a rather important executive that Bateman kills, Paul Allen (Leto); Detective Kimball’s part is seemingly enlarged (to three appearances) and, in fact, Willem DeFoe (who plays Kimball) is given second billing. All sorts of re-arrangements are done – but nothing has been added. The scenes in the film, sometimes beautifully detailed, are all lifted from the text. The unfortunate thing is the way the film collapses on itself.

Little things like leaving too much air into scenes that are meant to be taut and using amateur-ish exposition to explain things that weigh on understanding a scene that’s missing it’s counterpart (from the novel) – these things hurt the film. But it’s biggest loss is in the way the film begins to lose sight of it’s main character. As Patrick proceeds into a descent, the film begins to contradict itself by making his panic attacks seem all too much like attacks of conscience – which, judging by the whole spectrum of the film – are not what they are meant to be. There should not be a definite feeling of finality in his ridiculous voice-overs – they should be ambiguous and trail off. They seem to – but they don’t. Since there is only voice-over dialogue in the beginning and the end of the film (which is odd for this film, which is told in the first person and craves either all or none in the voice over category), we get the sense that we’re missing the chatter that’s going on in his head. It’s as if we’ve been given a taste of it in the opening – and are expected to fill it in as we go along. I would’ve enjoyed the film more, had the voice-over been utterly rampant – like director’s commentary on a DVD – rather than the flimsy use here. Director’s are so scared to use the technique these days for fear of being criticized. In this case – for a film that needs to be told from the inside out- we feel like we’re missing something big.

But beyond it’s difficulties in being such an elementary adaptation – the film is very, very funny. Bale’s delivery never gets old and in so many scenes – it’s just downright funny to hear him talk, no matter what he’s saying. That’s not only a difficult feat, but a rewarding one for the audience. And all in all, what’s most pleasant about watching ‘American Psycho’ is the journey back into that world I enjoyed being a part when reading the book.

Never an utterly brilliant film – ‘American Psycho’ is apt and a very nice kind of sophomoric slump for Mary Harron, whose awesome ‘I Shot Andy Warhol’ demonstrated her as the kind of director that’s good at telling stories of odd people with violence in their lives. The violence in ‘American Psycho’ is cartoonish and the film is funny. Had it been 97 minutes of pure, unadulterated comedy with not a single reference to the chilling, self-depreciating nature of the book – it would have been a perfect film. As it is, ‘American Psycho’ has realized both it’s triumphs and it’s flaws – both beautifully.


Animal Factory
Directed by Steve Buscemi
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Edward Furlong, Seymour Cassel, Mickey Rourke, John Heard,
        Edward Bunker, Tom Arnold, Steve Buscemi and Larry Fesenden.
grade: B

As clearly as prison movies show us a world we are not directly familiar with, they also tend to run together content wise. The specifics reoccur. There’s always a guy who can get you stuff, has special privileges through relationships with guards and carries an important reputation. There’s always an uneasy, almost physically visible tension in the air after a murder, moments that divide the colony of inmates down the center. There are always guards that would rather associate with inmates than other guards because, like them, they know the work-a-day system exists on both sides of the law and on both sides, the effect is dampening. There are always the young bucks, the new recruits and wet behind the ears psuedo-criminals who either make or break their fragile state based on how they adapt to hardened prison life. And evidently, there is always the chance for escape that, for some, only hits them on the head after many years of watching everyday life get more and more routine until it wears a rut in their very soul.

In ‘Animal Factory’, most of this near cliché collection of prison movie traits applies. Earl (Willem Dafoe) is the older, more experienced prisoner who seems to have the entire staff in his pocket and roams freely about the penitentiary as if it were a closed off society, free in its own right. (I define this character with the oxymoron “free prisoner”.) He takes young Ron (Edward Furlong), serving time for a drug charge, under his wing almost immediately upon meeting him. As Earl uses his seniority to protect and nurture Ron, the relationship begins to effect both of them: Earl now has a ray of hope which triggers a spark of desire to breathe free air; Ron, a chance to keep from being tortured and raped. As friendship transcends into a sort of parental order, each character begins to give freely to the other. Eventually, their relationship boils over into an escape plan.

Edward Bunker’s (who peeps his head into the frame a few times) yarn is full of insider type observations – but this seems to be more intensely developed in the supporting characters and the setting rather than in constructing the main characters. The sketches of prison life include racial tension, the system’s failure to comprehend the goings-on on the inside, the father-son relationship that develops out of need and the seemingly concentrated power play that goes on when humans are caged and crowded like animals. Though nearly all of ‘Animal Factory’s material is less than fresh in this era of motion pictures, Bunker’s skill at fictionalizing Earl and Ron makes the film entirely compelling. These are characters that certainly seem to exist in a world apart from the harsh, cold realities of prison life making the idealism poured into the story through them a surprisingly welcome hallucination.

It helps that Dafoe and Furlong are so convincing together. They have a natural chemistry that speaks of father and son on the outside, but as equally misunderstood-yet-kindred hearts on the inside. The assorted cast of colorful prison inhabitants come in handy as a base for these characters to build from in their plight to stay alive, stay strong and seek a way out. Their escape comes in a beautifully realized fashion only after each has proved there is no simple way to get out through the system. So many prison films show unjustly imprisoned men (a far-fetched scheme to begin with) or a set-up that obviously caters only to staging a thrilling escape. In ‘Animal Factory’, like in ‘Grid’lockd’, we get a sense that the characters are through placing their faith in the courts, the parole hearings, the appeal trials, the lawyers and even their friends on the outside. Their need for escape is based on a realization they’ve come to that anything outside of their solid, fathomable prison lives has expressed no use for them – and will not be coming to pull them out eventually. This sets up an immediate irony in why they would want to escape in the first place; these two particular characters seem contented and even successful in prison. (“Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven”, Earl remarks at one point.). The film vibrantly excuses this line of thinking as it challenges them with a steady flow of random, gory acts of violence that play like thunder in a storm – each Ka-boom! seems to strike closer and closer to Earl and Ron. One day down the road, probably sooner than later, death will come to them. Why should it be on the inside, where they have their pride to think about? Why should escape simply be to a new opportunity – when it could be, dare I say, a promotion to a bigger pond where even more ground exists for them to rule.

Buscemi is a good director. His film is never somber. He understands that prison is an institution that challenges all of its convicts differently. The bright, often flamboyantly alive cast (Mickey Rourke as a drag queen in particular fits this definition) shows up Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, a desolate, crumbling stone fortress that often appears to be caving in on it’s own populace. Like he did in ‘Trees Lounge’ (his first feature), Buscemi displays great talent at understanding and portraying people whose lives often disappoint them but nevertheless, are theirs and theirs alone. To the outside world, the prisoners are seen as the derogatory “inmates”, but on the inside, they are seen as “convicts”. They may be locked-up, but they are still prideful; they may be herded animals, but among the masses, they are still individuals.

‘Animal Factory’ may have no trouble existing in widely treaded territory but at it’s core, I think it is less a prison movie than a faction of cinema choosing to explore a relationship which grows out of circumstance. (Earl’s reasoning for taking Ron under his wing is never really explained nor implied, it comes off as random and satisfyingly good-natured). Edward Bunker would probably disagree and argue that his story, certainly peppered with intimate touches, is something deeper and more telling than most prison movies. Buscemi knows better than this. He gives Earl’s and Ron’s relationship his full attention, making the film both compelling and deeply fulfilling in it’s own way. It is almost fatally ironic that ‘Animal Factory’ is set in place most of us know little about except through the movies. Prison on celluloid has begun to feel so familiar, I often wonder if perhaps I’ve become somehow cinematically desensitized to prison life. In some strange way, all recent prison movies I’ve seen (this one included) seem to send me a message that jail ain’t that bad. ‘Animal Factory’ just about turns this obviously wrongheaded notion around to make it work for it.


Autumn in New York
Directed by Joan Chen
Starring : Richard Gere, Winona Ryder, Anthony LaPaglia, et al.
grade: D

Just as maybe I suspected (and it’s just disheartening to be right) ‘Autumn in New York’ is unsurprising, outrageous and old-fashioned – but in a bad way. Gere plays his usual womanizing self to Ryder’s mismatched “now-i’m-naive-now-i’m not” dying young girl who has become entangled in his web of – of God knows what, love, I suppose the movie wants us to swallow. It makes it very clear (after a brief opening stint with a nice, low-key autumnish texture) that it’s sole purpose is to jerk tears and, uh, break the age taboos. Unfortunately everything it sets out to do is rendered nil by the remarkably bad and inappropriately off-key tone. It’s as if everything were transferred from some distant, mellow place that we can’t possibly imagine being affiliated with this film – and created onscreen, unfolding as we discover, “Hey! Wait a minute! This film feels more like television than actual celluloid!”. The transfer doesn’t take and we begin to have to think really hard : “Is this
purposefully this fucking detached or is there something I’m missing?”. In the end – where familiar plotlines and characters can’t drive you out of your mind – the film’s expert laziness will strike you down. Little else annoys me more than hoping to be surprised and getting just what I expected : One of the worst films of the year : A cookie-cutter love story sans a pulse. Seriously, I think it’s actually worse than ‘Return to Me’, if that’s humanly possible.


The Beach
Directed by Danny Boyle
Leonardo DiCaprio, Virginie Ledoyen, Guillaume Canet, Tilda Swinton and Robert Carlyle.
grade: C-

[ I wholeheartedly apologize for this review – 9/1/02 ]

The monsoon, the envoirnmental protests and the tabloids did not stick around to consummate their firm, destructive grip on ‘The Beach’. They left before their wanton devastation could break the spirits of this production. And the damn film got made. It will end up stuck in the DTS theater(s) of every multiplex and will be there for weeks. And I will have to hear the groans of everyone around me when I call this film “utterly superfluous”. Oh, here goes Ben again – he doesn’t like anything that isn’t “artsy” and “accepted”. Back off, okay. Just back off.

From the opening sequence where the philosophy-heavy narration (after the fact or continuous?) booms from the cerebrum of Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio), an American traveler in Thailand looking for something “dangerous”, I knew this was going to be laughable. How can I take seriously a film in which everything every occurence surrounding the central character is so hastily thrown together? The filmmakers want me to bite into the moral of this story by making this experience as real as possible – yet I have to suspend my disbelief with a crane. (As in : yeah – you go drink that snake’s blood – as a development of your character’s “You only live once” attitude, of course. But, of course.)

As we mosey on down to the island paradise our hero is to discover (after he picks up a pair of French travelers – Etienne, a giggly stork, spouting gallons of sterotypical French movie character dialogue and – Francoise, the female half, the counterbalance for males who aren’t into looking at DiCaprio’s pecs, played coquettishly – yeah, that’s the word, by Virginie Ledoyen), the film becomes inherantly Anti-American. The constant barrage of naive and selfish things Richard does is almost too much to bear (the least of which is create a copy of a map – then explain his reasoning, which probably didn’t even make sense to the writer – except as a plot device to shove the action along later on in the story. And yes, it’s that obvious and that blatant). This turn in the “film” seems a
blatant jab at the conduct unbecoming of Americans who travel. Since the character of Richard is written in the novel as a Brit (original idea : Ewan MacGregor, nixed for our heartthrob), making him American is technique meant to make the character more “universal” (at least that’s what Boyle told Premiere Magazine). So, I suppose universally, Americans are seen as the poster children for stupidity. I guess we deserve it.

It’s also interesting if you take a step back, from a critical standpoint, to see how much easier it is to forgive DiCaprio for being a fool – and being implausible – than nearly any other actor. Get my drift – degrading the audience by hurling such a fragile script into our focal points becomes significantly easier to get away with. Either way Boyle and Hodge intended for the final product on celluloid – they’re right. Casting Leonardo DiCaprio – I’m cliched to say – means the film will never become bold or reach fever pitch, but rather, a tameness will cast it’s spell as we know nothing bad could ever befall our anti-hero. Also, in this case, the character seems more reflexive of Leo’s persona – meaning, he’s boyish and irritating – like we all perceive Leanordo to be. It doesn’t have to be that way. DiCaprio is an apt actor (see : ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?’, ‘This Boy’s Life’).

The Scottish director of great films like ‘Shallow Grave’ and ‘Trainspotting’ manages to make a film that’s even worse than ‘A Life Less Ordinary’, his gun-toting angels saga that steals from just about everybody (especially Bergman). Now that’s a feat!

Of the million things in this film that I didn’t buy or find the least bit interesting – I guess the most irritating would have to be that the film scurries so haphazardly to be both independent and intellectually inspiring at the same time and by doing so, it falls so hard into the Hollywood familiarity machine, that I can’t even enjoy the scenery without the steady interruption of “the movie” banging away at the serenity of fake palm trees and “Listerine blue” water. And beyond that, I have to wonder who’s dumb idea it was to quite shamelessly advertise iMac, Excite.com and Gameboy in a film about people who are shuffling off the coils of modern society. Finally, I’m just a little bit appalled that Richard, who is supposed to undergo this great transformation and learn so much
about himself, is so one-dimensional and spouts lines that are so souring, we can’t even salvage anything around him. He’s like that monsoon, destroying everything in it’s path until nothing is pretty anymore – except itself. ‘The Beach’ is a walking contradiction (and a reclining snore), flamboyantly exhibiting it’s abominable faults as if to say – “Whatever we do, we’ll make at our money back thanks to compulsive young teenage girls and their fat pocketbooks. We don’t even have to try.”

[original post-script, which ran in the Temple Column:

And I tried, dear readers, not to rapidly descend into a pitfall of anti-Leo sentiment – but this movie brought out the worst in me. I kept reassuring myself that this was a critical review and that it was well-written and that nobody would think I was simply some monogomous Independent film viewer who is anti-Leo, anti-’Titanic’ and anti-anything connected with Hollywood wiseass.  And I remembered that you are all judging me no matter what I do. And I remembered that I hate Kevin Smith. And I relaxed.]


Best in Show
Written and Directed by Christopher Guest
Starring : Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean,
Michael Hitchcock, Jennifer Coolidge, Cindy Cummings, Parker Posey, John Michael Huggins
        and Fred Willard.
grade: B-

Strange how the art house mentality of Christopher Guest went like lightning to his head creating some sort of creative block responsible for how tireless ‘Best in Show’ retreads the territory – and the jokes – he immortalized in ‘Waiting for Guffman’. The old adage “funny is funny” firmly in place, the latest offering from Spinal Tap himself seems somewhat inappropriately bland in spots. Certainly enough exceptions exist to make ‘Best in Show’ heartily worthwhile – especially for Guest virgins. Eugene Levy has written an exceptional part for himself, though his wife (played marvelously by Catherine O’Hara), a former slut, is written as a repetitious joke that grows stale from its first utterance. Guest himself plays a backwoods bait shop owner on his way to the Mayflower Philadelphia dog show – ventriloquist act in tow – to show his slobbering mutt that commentator Fred Willard remarks not once but twice, as craving only the Sherlock Holmes hat and pipe to complete its cutesy dog ensemble. Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock have a dog that is as spoiled as they, unable to perform without a stuffed toy and seemingly disturbed by its owners’ snootiness and experimental sex acts (the dog is seeing a psychiatrist after a brush with Posey in the “Congress of the Cow” position). There’s the awkward lesbians (Coolidge, Cummings) who have the dog who has won more than once – a poodle that looks as you’d expect the most horrifyingly ornate poodle to
look – expecting to bestow another “best in show” prize on its owners. Finally, there’s Michael McKean is the straight man (no pun intended) to the inventive Jan Michael Huggins, who constantly upstages his shiatzu in the flamboyance category.

I’m not altogether sure what prompted the need for modern comedies – even one as artistically frozen as this one – to come with their own hook, their own originality and their own sense of self style. I reflected for a moment after this viewing on just how strange it was that I was disaffected by a film like this, one that I’d have gone mad over years ago. Not to short change Guest’s 1997 film, but I think ‘Waiting for Guffman’ and ‘Best in Show’ are interchangeable. I’m glad the former came first because it’s a more desperately arcane, yet hilariously universal comedy; but it’s a sad thing when a film like this can only be called a companion piece and can only be judged by its release date. Had this come first, perhaps it would have been read as the cult sensation ‘Guffman’ enjoyed.
As it is, ‘Best in Show’ comes in at a definite second.


The Big Kahuna
Directed by John Swanbeck
Starring Peter Facinelli, Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito
grade: B

This began a lightning-quick dismissal : “this film is about communication, it’s a  little below average and I resent the use of that Baz Luhrmann creation about the sunscreen over the ending shots and titles”. It evolved into reflection : “remember in ‘In  the Company of Men’ how Howard was the most important character and maybe Phil  (DeVito) is the most important character. Maybe his brooding adds up to something more than just referee to the Larry (Spacey) vs. Bob (Facinelli) throat squeezing match. Maybe Phil, I thought, (aping the Grinch) means a little bit more”. And it came out a beautiful soliloquy when I realized, as my mother’s eyes were tearing over my imminent marriage, that Phil had an inside – and it was more than what we could see in even the most blatant
of his hint-dropping. And Larry’s tell was his anger, giving way to the chasm of weakness that he could only hide by being a walking contradiction, not to mention an intimidating blowhard. And dammit, Bob was the bad guy. Not because Bob liked God and couldn’t get the scriptures off of his lips and go at it productively – but because he was lying to himself. And we hate characters like that in the movies – because as an audience, we can
bloody well see right through them, can’t we?”

And truth be told, the film is a tad too talky for it’s own good. And sure, ‘The Big Kahuna’ can be a cinematic submarine, going below the surface to hear the “salesman-as-a-metaphor-for-life” pitch and promptly resurfacing to hit us with the “salesman-are-blunt-so-the-cards-are-suddenly-on-the-table” pitch; essentially alternating it’s tone to make sure it covers all it’s bases (sorta insulting – but forgivable). But what’s really wrong with it is that it’s doesn’t see how easy it’s job is : it’s there to show us characters that are deceptive. And the ace up it’s sleeve is that it’s got good characters to perform such a deed. It’s got the quiet religious do-gooder, happily married and wet behind the ears. It’s got the raging motormouth who knows every story, every line and every angle like it were a set of verbal weapons he’d memorized in order to protect his insecurities. And finally, it’s got the (maybe terminally) exhausted salesman, who just wants to spin a peaceful note if he can and wonders why won’t everyone just let him go his own way – but secretly wonders why they aren’t more worried.

Why complicate such a perfect combination with cheap devices and literary fixations? Why not just present it as it is and let it unfold over ninety minutes?

And what a cast to kick this tongue-beater into high gear. They’re all good, but as is the norm with Spacey, he easily steals the show – without chewing the scenery (see ‘Hurlyburly’, ‘Swimming with Sharks’ and even ‘American Beauty’). What a marvel. And it’s just that way he wraps his mouth around the stagey words and phrases that makes him propel that might so beautifully. DeVito is good at looking like the sad puppy dog and dispensing wisdom, while Facinelli is good at looking overzealous and listening to pearls of wisdom.

Two weeks ago, I remember overhearing these two TV critics talking to each other while I was waiting for a movie to start at the Ritz. I had no idea what film they were discussing, but the guy was going to recommend it only if you were a fan of “acting” and the girl was changing “the end is powerful” to “the end is moving”.

And now it dawns on me that they could only be talking about ‘The Big Kahuna’. The end is bittersweet and the sunscreen song isn’t that out-of-place, it sets the mood nicely for that mystifying walk to the car when your sorting through the themes you just digested. It’s not moving. The acting is great, but it’s also a really well-written screenplay based on, I’m sure, a fantastic play. It’s not all the genius of pseudo-Mamet material – but
it goes deeper than that. It’s a bungled attempt at tackling the faded male ego. It’s not comparable to ‘Death of a Salesman’. Not by a long shot. But it’s noble.


The Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Janet Jackson, Larry Miller
grade: D+

Big Momma’s House
Starring: Starring : Martin Lawrence, Paul Giamatti and Nia Long.
grade: D-

Martin Lawrence, essentially re-making ‘Blue Streak’ – a film I’d describe with the word  brain dead – doesn’t earn such a lofty compliment with the entirely uninspired ‘Big Momma’s House’. Both films follow the exploits of tiny, unfunny Martin Lawrence in cognito, with the most banal of set-ups, attempting to squeeze jokes out of every corner – and failing miserably.

What makes ‘Big Momma’s House’ particularly pungent (besides Giamatti’s streak of appearing in good films – which he breaks here), is the thirty minute first act that builds invisible ploy upon translucent plot point in order to complete its objective : Get Lawrence in the foam rubber Momma suit. Once he gets in there, the movie only seems more funny. The unfortunate thing is that the real Big Momma is kinda interesting – but she leaves in an early scene and doesn’t return until the end of the movie. Point made, right? If Martin Lawrence’s Big Momma can’t be more funny than the actual Big Momma – who isn’t all that funny, but occasionally does something witty – do we even have a movie? No, we don’t. We have an egotist who needs to go back to stand-up – or the crack he
crawled out of.

What makes ‘Nutty Professor II : The Klumps’, a film which features skinny, dwindling comic Eddie Murphy inside a series of large, fat person (several of which are female) suits, somewhat inspired, is that the jokes are, for the most part, on. Nevermind that the sequel to the very, very funny (often not at the expense of itself) ‘The Nutty Professor’ is a lot less funny and a lot more retread than anything else; it still beats ‘Big Momma’s
House’ in any laugh-a-thon you could enter it in, with its hands tied behind its back. Seeing Murphy as the Klumps, the way he wraps his voices around their mumbly, grumpy, always hungry personas is – at the very least – a cheap laugh. Lawrence doesn’t even afford us that. His Big Momma rarely does anything remotely funny. It took so much set-up to get Lawrence, an undercover FBI agent, into the fat suit – once he’s there, the dynamite is
wet – everything seems muted. Not that the script was well-built to begin with – the jokes could appear in three or four minutes of any film and have the same level of comedic power. Lawrence, as always, is content to elongate a short, sketch-worthy gag into just under ninety minutes. He would’ve worked well on Saturday Night Live.

‘Nutty Professor II : The Klumps’ has its problems, too. Most of the film isn’t really all that entertaining, the characters doing the same thing over and over and over. Great scenes often include Murphy as the oldest Klump, the grandmother – being overtly bawdy and unnecessarily sexual. Even this gets rather old after awhile.

What I like about the film, in particular, is that there still remains a well-directed, exceedingly fascinating scene where Murphy plays all of his relatives at a dinner table – and manages to hit high notes with each one. He interacts so well with himself, proving he has these characters down, that I figured a film whose subtitle was ‘The Klumps’ would have more scenes of the whole family duking it out – and just plain razzing each other. The film is dry – and Sherman has become far too sympathetic in this installment which, itself is a little light on story continuity and plausibility (and certainly too labored in a sequence lampooning ‘Star Wars’, ‘2001 : A Space Odyssey’ and ‘Armageddon’ that is a miserable failure). ‘The Nutty Professor II : The Klumps’ turns out to be some strange concoction of Howard Hawks formula of “three great scenes and no bad scenes” that turns out to be one really good scene that’s an extended version of one from the first film – and a ton of flat, really off-key “story” scenes. This is a film that could’ve benefited wonderfully from indulgence. That’s rare. And kinda scary.

On the other hand – how many movies can you see comedian Larry Miller get raped by a hamster only to say : “Look Mommy, there’s the hamster’s bitch!”.


Billy Elliot
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Written by Lee Hall
Starring : Jamie Bell, Julie Walters and Gary Lewis.
grade: D+

Q: Ben, what would happen if someone melded the two predominant stylistic genres England seems preoccupied with selling to us Yanks in the film market; that is, the “mad-till-you’re-red-in-the-face” films (borrowed from Ireland) and the “britcoms” (the result of ‘The Full Monty’s popularity)?

A: See above title of film.

…..because without stabilizing it’s main character amidst a setting of a 1980’s Thatcheresque coal strike, we never even have the notion to feel for Billy’s (Bell) newfound search and destroy mission for an identity. Seems every character in the movie that’s not Billy Elliot is entertaining, ranging from his instructor (Walters), her daughter, his overbearing father, his Union obsessed brother, his gay friend, the guy who runs the boxing club, some of the extras in the bottom left hand of the frame – it goes on and on. Some inspired moments which embody the phrase “parts greater than the whole” include an opening shot of Billy jumping in and out of the frame to T-Rex and an extremely gratifying (but not deserved) closing act in which his father (Lewis) and brother acknowledge his gift, cry and gush all over the place. On second thought, replace “gratifying” with “outwardly manipulative”. And
to a certain reviewer who called Jamie Bell’s performance “electric” – shame on you – he dances and then stammers, saying “I dunno” in a monotone that made my ears pop and my tongue droop back into my throat.

If only Great Britain could produce a film it doesn’t intend to hoodwink us into baring our emotions.


Black and White
Written and Directed by James Toback
Starring Mike Tyson, Robert Downey Jr., Brooke Shields, Jared Leto, Power, Raekmon,
Claudia Shiffer, Elijah Wood, Gaby Hoffman, Bijou Phillips, Allan Houston, Ben Stiller,
Scott Caan, Marla Maples, Joe Pantaliano, Stacy Edwards, William Lee Scott and Kim
Matulova.
grade: C

‘Black and White’ has one scene in particular, among others, that makes it’s purpose worth putting on a pedestal. Mike Tyson (yes, that’s right) is staring out of the window, having “a moment” and Robert Downey, Jr. approaches him and begins flirting with him. After repeatedly trying to get Downey, Jr. to leave him alone, Tyson snaps into a rage. Then, as a condolence prize, Downey Jr.’s wife-for-show (a documentary filmmaker played by Brooke Shields), steps up and attempts to cool Tyson down by – doing exactly what Downey, Jr. was doing – flirting with him. And Tyson – who stood his ground and repelled her earlier (as he cites his rape charge – seemingly fearful of women) – accepts her flirtation with the willingness and excitement of real attraction. It’s a
pivotal scene – and Tyson really is a pivotal character in ‘Black and White’. Sure, he just wanted to be alone and contemplate himself, but get him fired up – and he’ll turn on a dime. As human nature goes, Tyson only is what he is – all he can do is mask his exterior. As the film progresses, we see Tyson the romantic, Tyson the philosopher and Tyson the rage-filled little boy. All personas come out to play. And yet, we all see Tyson simply as the guy who did two years in prison for rape and the guy who bit off the ear of another fighter.

And it’s this very misconception that is played up to full volume in Toback’s film which, though admittably flawed,  observes and satirizes a culture swap that’s been begging to be exploited for years – namely : white disdain for white heritage and Caucasian thrill with black culture.

James Toback, who made the dreadful ‘Two Girls and a Guy’ two years ago, redeems himself in his writing. The direction, though it pulls some really nice themes and images from it’s characters, is unrestrained. The film can either be a hypnotic parody or a melodrama charged with excess. Frequently it is both. Since I know Toback’s style and method – which seem to cull constant go-nowhere yammering – I was less turned off by his process and it’s results. What I found somewhat irritating was the way he excises all realism and tirelessly tries to hide it behind the satire. Rather than take the up-front route, where the film is clearly a piece of entertainment – and a sly dig at the nuances of youth and it’s obsession with cross-culture identity – Toback slaps too much depth and
importance on a story involving Ben Stiller as a weasel of a cop using Dean (Allan Houston), a basketball player, as a scapegoat for Stiller’s own crimes (and making himself out to be Saul from the bible – ha!).

My interest (and the film’s asset) involves some very familiar white kids (Elijah Wood, Bijou Phillips, Gaby Hoffman, Kim Matulova and Scott Caan) being trailed by Shields, wielding her camera, as she desperately tries to infiltrate them in order to get underneath their culture. Turns out it’s a rebellious phase for most of them – and that as dangerous as it was – it boiled down to a bunch of white kids proud to be called the  homies of some gangsters.

The film opens with a shot of three young kids stumbling upon a mixed race threesome in progress in Central Park. The scenes where the white kids (listed above) are walking through New York City, explaining the mesh of their lifestyle to Shields – though not as literal as the opening menage-a-trois – are just as candid and intriguing. I can see exactly what Toback is doing with the rest of the film’s space – and I understand it’s relevance – but the focal point needs to rest on one of the protagonists, one of the plot’s strands. When it doesn’t – though I was enjoying the loose flowing narrative and the nice tone to each of the observations and explanations – the film ends up being little more than unfocused and incomplete.

There’s some great jump-cut editing at work here – and all the scenes that use parallel action benefit highly from it. Sometimes scenes feel choreographed, sometimes they seem improvised – sometimes there are pretentious crane shots – other times some nifty hand-held work or crafty framing (like the scene where Stiller first approaches Houston to ask him to shave points – he looks about a body shorter). The film has a whole lot of elements at work, but most of all it’s a jumping off point.

There’s so much material here – to wade through it all and draw conclusions seems impossible. There are some nice themes at work involving intimidation, cultural inspiration and the beautifully tailored presence of Mike Tyson as a symbol for the strange part role models play in our society. On other end – all the characters end up in a fairly straightforward confrontation with their consciences and become involved in that “moral decision making time” montage as the film descends into a gangster’s melodrama right quick.

The film might have made a better series on PBS – a set of docu-dramas exploring all the nooks and crannies of hip hop culture and it’s connection to black culture (and the very arrogance of white culture). All the film radiates is one slithery grub in the absolutely necessary and interesting can of worms it has opened.


Boiler Room
Directed by Ben Younger
Starring Giovanni Ribisi, Nicky Katt, Ron Rifkin, Vin Diesel, Nia Long, Scott Caan,
        Thomas Everett Scott and Ben Affleck.
grade: C-

All the teensters telling me they saw this and “It wasn’t half bad” and it’s “Independent”. They’re coming up to me in droves. People on whose opinion I can rarely rest more than a feather upon. Folks with nothing much at stake when they embrace their own perceptions. People who think it’s time to budge and just find some fucking underdog to champion.

        No.

‘Boiler Room’, despite it’s excessive big-ball dangling (and it’s got a pair, believe me), can’t seem to make it’s half-baked excess of morality plays, gambling parallels and class warfare ascend into the air. No wonder – – it’s got those huge balls to contend with. For a film that starts out promising,  it bites deeply into that irritating old standard of “Start-the-movie-here-BACKTRACK-continue-and-finish-uneventfully”. I remember it being done in
‘Fight Club’ with zazz, ping and flying colors. In ‘Boiler Room’, it seems such an obvious attempt to strangle we, the audience, with another narrative ploy cooked up by a director whose ambition was well-intentioned, but whose staging was frequently flat. This is a film that, though it’s entertaing and well-acted (even Affleck handles his ‘Glengarry Glen Ross'” speeches with some verve), can’t seem to put away the imminent mess of a conclusion and just dangle for awhile. The pendulum is always swinging over our heads (a little too close when it mixes signals and juggles romance, fatherly disappointment, loyalty, interior moral warfare and looking cool, all at the same time – and drops the balls).

Now that I’ve said my peace, there are some moments in ‘Boiler Room’ that work well enough to earn the film my ear. Ribisi point blank holds the movie. Those who said he was the actor to watch were right, he’s a capable and likeable protagonist. Nicky Katt, too; especially his explanation of how the market works (before he becomes embittered and jealous and, fearful of audience rejection, Younger buries the character) Katt echoes Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gecko (of ‘Wall Street’, which the characters watch and speak the lines from at one point) better than any of his co-actors, all good: Vin Diesel (‘The Iron Giant’ voice) booms his wealth smoothly, Nia Long
protrudes her silky balance and Thomas Everett Scott tackles the brokerage as if Hitler, atop a stage in Nuremburg. It’s really the acting and occasionally interesting script that saves the film from being utterly bone dry.

Those I’ve decided not to name, but have seen the film and wear it’s praises high on their lips had it wrong. The film isn’t an independent film or some sort of cutting edge innovation. ‘Boiler Room’ is what it is.


Boys and Girls
Starring : Claire Forlani, Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Jason Biggs.
grade: C

Believe me, that C is as close as a film like this one is likely to get to an A. As much as a contrived, hopelessly convenient and wishy washy film like this can, it is sorta charming. And maybe in the wake of too dark (‘Here on Earth’) and too dumb (‘Down to You’); its refreshing to see a conservative, almost entirely talky teen beat flick. Sure, all they’re talking about isn’t fresh or interesting, but its the structural design – the idea that, not only is this a film about attractive people being friends instead of screwing their brains out, but its not all that concerned with covering its bases. Often very, very slow, ‘Boys and Girls’ is the kind of teenage movie (yeah, I keep saying that, it takes place in college) that teenagers deserve: maybe not smart, but just nearly rooted in the fantasy these movies should take a long, hard swig of. Claire Forlani and Freddie Prinze, Jr. (who, for once, embarrasses himself less) have some chemistry and, well, even Jason Biggs, who is a completely unnecessary character, eventually comes around to be somewhat interesting. I’ll go on and on and eventually get to my disdain that ‘Boys and Girls’ is set at Berkeley, exactly where ‘The Graduate’ immortalized itself; but my final point is perhaps the one you should take with you: if you must watch a teenie bopper flick, watch this one – being uneventful and less syrupy is its biggest asset.


Cecil B. Demented
Directed by John Waters
Starring : Stephen Dorff, Melanie Griffith, Alicia Witt, Adrian Grenier, Patricia Hearst,
        Ricki Lake, Mink Stole and Kevin Nealon.
grade: C

John Waters in the nineties (or oughts in this case). Lighter, less raunchy than the Waters of the seventies and eighties.  His films have become little more than the proper injection of kitsch into an otherwise drained market. Does Waters view this exercise in camp as his duty? Certainly. Falling short in an obvious and ironic way, ‘Cecil B. Demented’ (a former Waters nickname, in fact), follows the title character, played by Stephen Dorff,  on a vicious tirade against bad cinema (like ‘Patch Adams : The Director’s Cut’) – by making a renegade film, complete with a kidnapped leading actress (Griffith, perfect in a movie this silly). The rub is that if such a character were to exist, he would most certainly be howling for John Waters’ blood. Not because ‘Cecil B. Demented’ is “bad
cinema” according to Cecil, but because Waters is so damn tame compared to his former self. Cecil would probably decapitate Waters’ entire fan club on the grounds that they’d sold out. Put em’ out of their misery.

Yeah, the film has some laughs and sure, the first couple of times Cecil & his gang of ruffians (a colorful bunch of stereotypes bearing tattoos coinciding with their tasks on Cecil’s set) attack unsuspecting filmgoers committing cinema crimes, it is satisfying – but ‘Cecil B. Demented’ quickly devolves into a solid joke fired upon the audience until tolerance numbness ensues.

It’s hard even to think of the film as a shame. Waters pours none of the pop goofiness into ‘Cecil B. Demented’ that made ‘Serial Mom’ and ‘Pecker’ watchable. Instead, he drowns the audience’s projected fun in toxic levels of the mean spirited and sometimes blurry message he’s trying to purport. When I think of Waters thin mustache and his intelligent, comic banter – especially his past riffs on some of America’s worst fears – I gotta wonder why he’d pick now to get, uh, bitter. How sad.


The Cell
Directed by Tarsem Singh
Starring : Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D’Onfrio, Marianne Jean-Baptiste
    and Dylan Baker
grade: D+

Here is a real, self-contained world, helplessly drained of vitality; filling in place of  interest is a gallery of used-up character sketches and half-cooked narrative undertones. A nice epiphany hinted towards late in the film could easily have done justice to the ripples child abuse transposes into waves of pure nihilism, but is brushed away in favor of some strange repeating scenario of sadistic euthanasia. Lopez, Vaughn and especially D’Onfrio (can we get this guy a different role, please?) are all lost in the vast psychotropic visuals Tarsem Singh has no doubt labored hours to make properly symbolic. The sad fact is that they are often a host for his cynical inclusion of unpleasantness for unpleasantness’ sake.


Chicken Run
Directed by Nick Park and Peter Lord.
Voice Talents of : Mel Gibson, Julia Sawalha, Jane Horrocks, Lynn Ferguson,
        Imelda Staunton, Miranda Richardson and Timothy Spall (God bless him!).
grade: B

As was my hurriedly disappointed opinion on the leaking balloon that was ‘A Bug’s Life’ in the shadow of it’s predecessor ‘Toy Story’; so follows ‘Chicken Run’, a film of varied competence, if occasionally dull and ordinary in the shadow of it’s own old man, namely, ‘Wallace and Gromit’. (Admittably both metaphors are apples to oranges, especially this most recent comparison. It’s hard to imagine any film living up to the creative/innovative first in the dabblement of a brave new art form….even if claymation isn’t really new at all).

What really shows in ‘Chicken Run’ is the painstaking effort to cover the seams in translating British humor into a ridged American script without losing it’s appeal (hence, the accents remain and the plot revolves around the “outsider” aka “the American”). And, for the most part, the sweat of talent and genius shimmers all around those little clay-pot figurines. Their voices and jokes are all sweet. The characters they stand for are likable. The villains are nasty and spell a wicked and obtrusively beaming message out in big letters across the screen : “Animals have feelings, too” (I like how you can still get a Burger King Kid’s Club Meal with chicken nuggets and a ‘Chicken Run’ toy. The half-assed attempt to cover-up an obvious contradiction? The nuggets are shaped like the
airplane the chickens build in the film.)

Maybe the toughest hurdle ‘Chicken Run’ rockets over is being workable and complete as a feature in the hands of a short-film maker. Imagining ‘Wallace and Gromit’, who are truly wondrous characters, stretched thin as taffy into feature length characters, is beyond comprehension. The funny thing was, in those shorts, I could feel more development and push than in all of ‘Chicken Run”s ninety minutes. This isn’t a constant “one-is-better-than-the-other”, but it serves my point that ‘Chicken Run’ feels slightly labored as a feature – – and could easily have roused brilliance as a short. On the other hand, it tries so hard and so nearly succeeds that I almost want to forgive and forget and drool for the next Park/Lord feature – – in hopes that it will have improved upon it’s weak points.

To wit : ‘Chicken Run’ is a commercial film. I like the idea that it’s strives for artsiness and still has a merchandising campaign. It was like ‘Toy Story 2′.

Kudos to all voice talents as well – – who, whether deliberate or not, lent their screen personas each, to a dangerously cool twist on modern cartoon characters. Particularly Mel Gibson, the all-American, all rich and powerful Catholic father voices a swingin’ playboy circus chicken (against type) who inspires his fellow hens to their (echoing ‘Braveheart’) “freedom” by exuding his Gibson charm in this scalawag of a character.


The Contender
Written and Directed by Rod Lurie
Starring: Joan Allen, Gary Oldman, Jeff Bridges, Sam Elliot, Christian Slater, William Petersen
        and Saul Rubinek.
grade: C-

It’s really very sad how the overtly – often unconscionably – ambitious ‘The Contender’ says in such a flat and unfinished manner everything it has say (which amounts to, “Sexism is wrong. Leaders shouldn’t throw mud. Politics is about the people, not the press. Blah, blah, blah”). It’s like ‘Any Given Sunday’ if it were shorter and about politics, instead of football. The main point to be made in ‘The Contender’ is that “basic fairness” should be both universal and, in fact, more widely appreciated among our Washington area leaders (not that its naming any names with countless references – both stated and unstated – about Clinton). That the film is willing to compulsively ignore (and fumble a gold mine ending – stay with me to the spoiler alert) a more controlled, focused
method to its madness is all the more limiting. It’s got the unstable documentary feel of ‘West Wing’ lurching into the grandstanding manipulation of ‘Braveheart’. It’s a quiet film ominously lurking inside of a loud, boisterous finger pointing epic.

It’s hard for writer-director Rod Lurie to imagine a smooth, quieted presidential arena. In his first film, ‘Deterrence’, released earlier this year, he pitted the President (trapped inside of a snowed-in diner) against a nuclear arms crisis. In ‘The Contender’, his president Jackson Evans (Bridges) has chosen female Senator Laine Hanson (Allen) to fill in for his deceased VP. Her opposition in attaining such a rank is moral majority leader Sheldon Runyon (executive producer Oldman), whose support of Senator Hathaway (Petersen) has him playing dirty pool in order to strike down Mrs. Hanson’s character: he plays on the tabloid mentality of America by dredging up a
drunken orgy she was allegedly the center of in her college days. Meanwhile, she refuses to acknowledge the accusations because “…its not okay for them to be made”. And somewhere in there, Christian Slater is fumbling about – sharing shark steak sandwiches with the president and comparing definitions of “objectivity” with Runyon – all the while being coddled by both sides because, well, they remind him of what they were like at his age. In essence, Lurie has no trouble brewing controversy out in left field with the opponents playing a chess game with a whole menagerie of implausibly welded elements (a dead VP, a deeply specific drunken orgy, a female VP, etc.); but he would like to believe that people in power in Washington, D.C. would take someone under their
wing so fondly, just because they are the mirror image of sed leaders in their youth? What a contradictory delusion!

To it’s credit, all but one of the actors are astonishing. Joan Allen is consistently one of the best actresses in the business today and gives a performance worthy of any of her former work (particularly that of Pat Nixon in ‘Nixon’, a very different end of the spectrum as far as characters go). Especially nice to see Gary Oldman at it again, adding another naturalistic baddie to his already overstuffed gallery of malevolent swine. The thrill of watching him play these characters never fades and ‘The Contender’ proves no exception. Sam Elliot, Christian Slater and Saul Rubinek are all as good as they usually are, also going with the flow of Allen and Oldman and providing, more or less, riffs on their usual turns. As President Evans, though, Bridges is thoroughly disappointing. It’s still shocking to me how he continually plays roles where he should have at least half a pulse and walks through them as if stoned. Q: It worked in ‘The Big Lebowski, though, right? A: Yup. Because he
was stoned.

And on to the famous spoiler alert (stop reading if you care to preserve the element of, uh, surprise). Why in the name of all that is holy does Lurie force us to sit through that final chat between President Evans and Senator Hanson where she tells all and all turns out to be nothing. By making the incident in question something that never really happened, sure, Lurie gives birth to a line of thinking that says “If it’s an accusation thrown into the press, it doesn’t matter if it’s real” (and to show how one should react, he gives Hanson the stickler’s position that doesn’t move based on preservation of privacy). Fine. Then why in the hell give the movie a happy ending?! As in ‘Deterrence’, which had a really snappy, disturbing “happy” ending – Lurie seems to want to give us a
taste of pessimism, but instead, he gives President Evans a chance in a corn ball, ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washinton’-esque speech to single out Oldman (and his co-conspirators) as those responsible;
concluding things on a patriotic note and forever vindicating himself and Mrs. Hanson. Isn’t that tying the strings up a little too ideologically? Are we really meant to believe that this speech alone, since it’s powered by “greatness” (a word tossed about a little too haphazardly), will change everything from its mixed-up confusion “Senator Hanson was involved in an orgy” to “Senator Hanson is a woman with hard-core beliefs and should be made VP – and we’ll prove against all odds that it’s not because she’s a woman!” It all sounds like Jeff Bridges’ lame brain performance: a little half baked.


Coyote Ugly
Directed by David McNalley
Starring : Piper Perabo, Adam Garcia, Maria Bello, John Goodman, Tyra Banks,
        Melanie Lynskey, Adam Alexi-Malle, Izabella Miko and Bridget Moynahan
grade: D

I think a booming answer to a not-so-age-old question lies in the dilapidated ruins of a failed  attempt at feather exploitation (an oxymoron, you’d assume) called ‘Coyote Ugly’ (a dumbass title with an even more dumbass explanation, you’d assume). Yeah, on one level, I was embarrassed to be watching a sequence where John Goodman stumbles into a bar and sees his daughter dancing the risque, vertical mambo with a pitcher of water down her shirt upon sed bar (Paul Schrader’s ‘Hardcore’, it ain’t). This isn’t even softcore. Before I venture into ethical battleground, let me ponder on why the producers would throw away a rather obvious chance to show off young women in the buff and collect the greenbacks by the millions. As the story of a budding songwriter who moves to the most cliche-ridden bad neighborhood in all of New York, we see the echoes of Christina
Aguilera and Brittany Spears in this character’s plight to make money, stay true to herself and, you know, dance half-naked where people are supposed to be consuming beverages. (Then it hits you – those pop stars I’ve named have only just turned 18! They couldn’ve have been doing such things! They were in grade school! Or were they?)’Coyote Ugly’ is a tease-a-minute example of just how low the bar has fallen in the fledgling remains of where sexuality and pop music have begun erasing the dividing line betwixt themselves. And nicely, it lowers the bar in the cinema world as well; instead of examining the reverance of youth, innocence and their bodies, the screenwriters have sold their souls to Bruckheimer & Co., who jack up the tunes in this, their most hollowed out and viscerally  bad money-making scheme yet. Playing the lead is Piper Perabo – the worst new actress since
Natasha Gregson Wagner. The insecurity and wifty line readings (the dialogue itself is claws on a damn chalkboard) of Miss Perabo (don’t miss her equally flat performance in ‘The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle’, itself a head-scratcher) stand among a series of dopey, uninteresting events that lead to her big conflict: Stage fright. Oh, the irony! Somebody get me a bucket! While it tackles the lofty themes of accepting the impossible on your own terms (‘M : I – 2’ covered that for me, thank you very much) it slowly morphs into that mid-80’s love story mixed with triumph mixed with goopy girl bonding mixed with God knows what (a scene where turnpike worker Goodman asks his  fellow turnpike greasers to light up the station for his little girl could easily be gut wrenching if it were to take place on the WB – in this film, though it pretty much goes with the flow, it is wholly gut churning).

Two friends of mine, smitten with the idea that a bar brings the love together and warms the loins, told me of their just-hatched plan to open a bar upon completion of financial wealth and, well, whatever else they needed to do before they committed that bar. I could see right away what had happened. Filling in gaping chasm the movie had left in their souls, they wished to account for those two hours of their lives by giving something back to the world. When I graciously told them I  had understood and that I wish I could’ve given back something myself, as I felt robbed myself, they just shot puzzled glances towards my headstrong countenance. When I finally realized they had actually liked this clunking, sunken log of a film, it was hours later and they had both gone; probably
each realizing that my catatonic state could never be explained and longing to see the film again, they should return for another viewing. I was glad they had gone. “Open your bar”, I said to no one. “I’m not drinking there”.


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Directed by Ang Lee.
Written by : James Schamus, Wang Hui Ling, Tsai Kuo Jung
(based upon the novel by Wang Du Lu)
Starring : Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen.
grade: A-

Imagine the concept of an “Audience Award”. Essentially, it seems to be the summation of how well received a film is, how much of a crowd pleaser it turns out to be. Merit pending, this award is reserved for the entertaining ones – the films you take with you because you had a good time, not necessarily because of intellectual prowess. (The strange irony is that most recepients of this award tend to be quite intelligent as well, which is further proof that a real “entertainment” needs a brain as well as a hook). ‘Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, which won the aformentioned award at the Toronto Film Festival this year, embodies the high essence of this prestigious prize. Like ‘Princess Mononoke’ last year, I expect to see titles like  ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ being
mentioned in spades as the reviews pour in. This is the kind of film that engages every inch of your being, thrusting you into another world and allowing you to stagger back into reality later as if you were in an amnesia-induced trance. This is is the kind of film that heightens the jolt of slowness real life can present once we’ve turned off our cinematic lobes. This is the kind of film we watch with a smile, having a wonderfully child-like thrill at the hands of master filmmakers who too remember a time when skilled films of that sort were more prevalent.

Taking place hundreds of years ago, thousands – it is never clear – ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ concerns the plight of two love-starved warriors. Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat), the saddened, interior warrior who turns in his sword after meditating himself into a quiet place among the regrets of his years of training at the Wudan school of martial arts. There is also Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), a master fighter who also seems to share the lovelorn sense of isolation among the remains of her lifelong dedication and defiance of cultural traditions such as marriage and children. As they long for each other, a disciple (Ziyi) of the dreaded Jade Fox (of whom Lien and Bai owe a debt of vengeance from former murders) returns to the Governor’s compound, stealing a sacred
sword and barely escaping through the fingers of Yu Shu Lien. The quest begins as your standard saber retrieval/villain demolition, but gives rise to plot strands left and right as the story blossoms like a tree, branches outstretched to reveal many, many characterizations.

All brilliant fight scenes aside, the film is most alive because of how free it feels while telling a story. The film seems to have great fun handing us new characters and new plotlines to interweave into the main theme. The Asian storytelling method jolts us awake with a blend of ancient legend and here-and-now superhero jive. Characters fly, soar, bounce and fight with incredible ease and heart-stopping speed. Everyone in the film looks to be having a grand old time playing likeable, vibrant heroes – (especially Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun Fat, whose performances deserve recognition on general principle).

The balletic nature of the hand-to-hand combat which ensues constantly in the film is something of a charm. The first time these characters start shooting their fists of fury and feet of fire at each other, top speed in tow, I sat upright with awe. The wonderful way the story keeps throwing curveballs, short cuts and roundabout narrative edges synthesizes with the careful concentration choreographer Yeun Wo Ping pays to making the action look dazzlingly new and exciting. The result is a film that appears never to have anything beyond entertainment on its mind until we catch out breath and see just how literary and universal the many roles and narrative offshoots have become.

The film looks magnificent. Peter Pau’s cinematography flawlessly captures some of the hidden places of the earth: a barren desert (echoing the Westerns of John Ford), swaying trees of a dreamy watercolor green, the bustle of Peking and finally, the creme de la creme, a magnificent palace with a thousand steps leading up to a mile-wide overlook sampling both clouds and waterfalls in it’s gaze. The music (by Tan Dun), which complements ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ nicely (here’s where a lesser film would’ve digressed into the traditional sub-par elements of a martial arts film), is rapid drums and sweeping Cello solos performed by Yo-Yo Ma. The look and sound of  the film careens into our consciousness with the power of a piercing blow and the serenity of a silent mist. It’s what Takeshi Kitano films (‘Sonatine’, ‘Fireworks’, ‘Kikujiro’) would be if they had subtlety and transition.

And a final note about its popularity. This film is being marketed to the action crowd as well as the art-house crowd. Beyond these simple, ridged parameters, this is a film that deserves to hit the mark and be seen by more than just those who have the map to the remote avante garde theaters. This is a film for populus rex, ye who stop at the movie palaces we call multiplexes every weekend with distraction on your minds. But it will take work. Everyone will have to participate in destroying the American mindset that dictates an anti-subtitle sentiment (as director Ang Lee said, “Doing a martial-arts movie in English would be like John Wayne speaking Chinese in a Western”.)


Croupier
Directed by Mike Hodges
Starring : Clive Owen, Alex Kingston, et al.
grade: C+

I can picture the ribald conversation Mike Hodges had with his friends several years ago : “Guys, you know what – I love the guy, but Kubrick really did far too little with the bassy voice-over in A Clockwork Orange” (can you imagine a statement so ludicrous?), “Perhaps I should lift it and use it for my own purposes. Whatever story is popular these days – we’ll just apply it to that. I’d really like to see more of that badass voice-over, wouldn’t you?” And believe it or not, as sickly as that type of thinking is – Croupier, besides being a surprise hit with audiences and critics, is a really sly and dark little film. Even though it’s an independent feature released by a fledgling company supported by the likes of both Billy Bob Thornton and Monica Lewinsky (which should obviously have swelled it’s existence quite a bit), it’s still nothing more than a very small, sometimes gimmicky addition to the tally of films released this year. It’s magnetic – at times contrived – constantly both surprising and disappointing at the same time. At crunch time, what it really came down to was whether or not I could handle the idea of a film about a man addicted to his job, constantly weighing the odds of everyday occurence, leading a double life and most of all, a man as cool as our main character. As things go, I could take most of it in stride. Dark, for the most part, this film is decidedly of the British self-satisfaction brand of filmmaking (reminding us curiously of Trainspotting). And for all it’s pompous delivery, Croupier is extremely effective at making we, the audience, into a bunch of people betting on ourselves. In essence, as it’s transforming me (like a drug – you know how much I dig this) into this cold, calculating guy; it’s buying our appreciation of it. It’s an apparition some of the time, but it’s willingly showing us one thing and creating another. I think that it’s important to note this – Croupier is a magic trick : it’s full of it’s own b.s. It’s a paper tiger. This is a film about a gambler who swears he’s not a gambler, and it’s gambling with it’s more familiar tactics for the greater good to show us that it’s not a gambler at all, it’s just willing to do what it can to showcase what it knows it has : a beautifully written character and plenty of corridors for him to stick his nose into. That’s smart, in a dumb sorta way. The best reason for anyone to see Croupier is Clive Owen’s chillingly assured performance as Jack, a croupier whose job seems to be his life and vice versa. As new character after new character is introduced, we yearn for more action in the casino. Jack’s dealing is dead-on while nearly everyone he comes into contact with is either weak on interest or spelling in plain letters their motive. All the allusions we could deduce the filmmakers would make about Jack’s career do weigh the film down a bit. I love the idea that, like Hard Eight, a film could be about someone who goes to a carefree job in a casino while lives are made and broken left and right – – – Croupier often comes down with that very potent formula on it’s side. It’s the times when it burns up it’s own fuel doing the
calculations that seem to rob us of truly savoring the final product.


Cyberworld 3-D
Directed by Colin Davies and Elaine Despins
Featuring the voices of : Jenna Elfman, Dave Foley and Matt Frewer.
grade: B 

Cyberworld 3-D is a composium of digital themed vignettes, some former digital creations made three-dimensional (the dance scene from Antz and ‘Homer³’ from the Simpsons Halloween episode where Homer goes into the third dimension), others wild-eyed fantasy set pieces anchored with music and snap out visual shocks and pleasures. The unfortunate thing holding a visionary collection like this down is a rather stale presentation – as many of the IMAX films are guilty of – that treats the viewers far below their intelligence level, setting the bar as if we were all open-mouthed (which we were) children, experiencing this ‘cinema of attractions’ for the first time.  I’m usually taken either way, whether I’m patronized because I chose to peek into a not yet stable cinematic experiment – or not. The visuals, as the producers know, are more than enough to hold an audience’s undivided attention. This one is set inside a computer, making the various episodes into programs Phig, the host (voiced by Jenna Elfman) opens to our waiting eyes. More invigorating, but perhaps not as sound as Fantasia 2000, the other IMAX presentation I had the fortune to see this year, Cyberworld 3-D, as the credits point out, was culled from a variety of sources – which excited me. While I (and my daughter – take your kids, people) was digging the excitement of the whole ordeal, I couldn’t help thinking that it felt like a compilation of so many dedicated artists of the computer age. How nice to be rewarded with the knowledge that I was right. Nice to include many consciousness’ in this strange and wondrous new world. Though hardly a new stitch (just once, I’d like to admire something beyond the eye popping technique – say, the plot?) in this magnificent technology – Cyberworld 3-D takes new steps in visualizing the beauty we can tap in this celluloid reserve. It’s especially telling that we are shown exactly how the IMAX system works – and then it soars right into our frontal lobes, making us forget there was even a system to begin with. If we can take that triumph deep into the world of narrative film – we can begin to register movies as potent narcotics with the DEA and open detox centers for flick junkies. Oh, how long will you make us wait, oh cinema Lord?


Dancer in the Dark
Written and Directed by Lars Von Trier
Starring : Bjork, Catherine Denueve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Vladan Kostic,
        Cara Seymour, Slobhan Fallon, Udo Kier, Joel Grey, Stellan Skarsgard and Jean-Marc Barr.
grade: A-

Not as profound as perhaps it should be, given that its thematic moodiness weighs a ton and a half, Dancer in the Dark survives and in fact, thrives brilliantly based upon director Lars Von Trier’s now patent able verite, shaki-cam cinematography and subsequently top drawer improvisational direction (my personal nominee for ‘Best Director of the year’ at this point). Now Trier has tackled two films of deeply disturbing and outstanding circumstances where strong women overcome men – some of help, some of hinder – in their ability to hide their handicap under a lovable mask of innocent and soaring spirit. This film is not nearly the life affirming experience Breaking the Waves is (probably because for all the hooks in this film, it would be tough to top such a visceral and vibrantly told love story). Dancer in the Dark is quite engaging and often, an honest and brilliant reflection on the healing powers of musical fantasy. The mixture of martyrdom and musical is often revoltingly exciting entertainment. Bjork is the key to a transcendent, experimental introduction of musical interludes among extremely dark and draining occurrences. It becomes electric to witness the staging of elaborate, digitally shot singing and dancing set pieces which seamlessly bridge Selma’s gap between fantasy, reality and nothing at all. Though she doesn’t fit the profile of Martyr to a T – she’s more of a victim of circumstance – Trier is content to at least envision (if all but create) her as one. She’s got that Joan of Arc gaze, but its because she’s blind, not because she hears voices. In a way, this deception is fitting for a story as melodramatic as this one. The script pours on emotional extremes that we dare don’t question. Strange then, that a film this expertly crafted would make such key mistakes as prematurely – and, in fact, without transition – visually impairing Selma. In one scene she can see enough to do this, that and the other thing and then “Slam-bang!”, she’s wrecking machines and following the train tracks home, feeling everything out the whole way there. Then there’s the scene late in the film where Trier, for whatever reason, decides to test the audience by making Selma selfish on a key point. He’s skilled enough at resetting the wounded moment and completing the film on a powerful note – but why test us at all, I wondered? Why take an obviously sympathetic and well constructed character and leave her dancing a forced darkness that has nothing to do with blindness – either literal or figurative. The performances are especially strong. Stormare, Morse, Deneuve, Seymour and Fallon all react appropriately to Trier’s style. Morse especially, after years of being the stock bad guy, he gets to play this living, breathing demon, a character so full of self-inflicted wounds, he can’t help but to hurt others. Stormare imagines a wonderfully low-key stylization – that almost broke my heart – of the pathetic lout who has fallen hopelessly in love with Selma. These characters are all so real and so alive, you’ll wonder how you’re going to get along without them as you leave their world (a melodramatic thought for a melodramatic film). Trier even has Selma well in mind when he starts the movie in a gently changing paint show (meant to evoke the blurring effect of going blind) and gradually weaves that image inside of Selma with the help of Bjork’s ecstatically passionate showing (my personal nominee for ‘Best Actress of the year’ at this point). Dancer in the Dark is lacking, but it’s also great entertainment (which it apes from the musicals) and a great tragic epic (which it apes from – where else? – Trier); hard to knock out of your general recall, but is almost too light to be the film you champion among your film cronies for months.


Deterrence
Directed by Rod Lurie
Starring : Kevin Pollack, Timothy Hutton, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Sean Astin.
grade: B

There’s a double-edged sword flinging about the world of Deterrence. Writer-Director (and former film critic) Lurie wants Political-Thriller-Update-Of-Bush-VS-Hussein-and-Fail-Safe-Too mechanics. He wants it by any means necessary. This, on the good side, means he’s willing to write a screenplay brimming with intelligent dialogue and direct it as if it were shades below Mamet if he were directing His Girl Friday. He’s hired Kevin Pollack, who more than lives up to the challenge of carrying the film; Timothy Hutton – how long were we to wait before he played a pushy Presidential advisor, I’d like to know?; and Sheryl Lee Ralph, enacting the balanced peace loving position with the charisma and vigor of a good Angela Bassett performance. He’s concocted a plot that’s disturbing, fascinating and a little bit clever, too. And Lurie even plans to follow this film with The Contender, in which attorney Gary Oldman plans to unravel Senator Joan Allen’s blurry sexual past (I was thinking at the end of Deterrence about just what kind of magic would occur if Lurie were to be directing proven, searingly brilliant actors – the Gods smile). The other edge of the sword, unfortunately, has an all too shallow and wretched appearance. Lurie has chose to include the kind oversimplified emotional reaction (a husband and wife who just happen to be playing chess in a diner while their son is at home in a nuclear targeted New York) that movies like Fail-Safe could elicit with their subject matter alone. He uses thin, overplayed parallels to chess. He begins complex issues (at one point Pollack is refused negotiation because he is Jewish) and just allows them to fade away without properly completing them. He also happens to have a weakness for using one character to stand for a particular demographic, most irritatingly embodied by Sean Astin’s ignorant and unsightly soliloquy regarding the deaths of stereotypical people he doesn’t know. It’s not only cheap, but it’s detrimental to what is still such a damn fine film.I like Lurie’s style. His use of pacing to tell a story is impeccable and the majesty of his work is that it’s not only a piece of entertainment, but it’s smart enough to appeal to the voting crowd, the paranoid crowd, the CNN crowd – whatever you envision. It’s got universal tinges, like the weaknesses I pointed out, as well as near masterstrokes in cinematic storytelling. Deterrence isn’t just a friggin’ potboiler, it’s a four alarm fire.


Dinosaur
Directed by Ralph Zondag and Eric Leighton
Voices : D.B. Sweeney, Ossie Davis, Julianna Margulies, Joan Plowright, Della Reese,
        Samuel E. Wright and Alfre Woodard
grade: D

And they were going to banish ‘Toy Story 2’ to the backlot of straight-to-video hell!?

         Disney, the last pure and simple enterprise, has finally bought into those twin  deficiencies : cookie-cutter formulas and the ‘We-can-release-whatever-dribble-we- want-we’re-beloved-by-children-everywhere’ ideal. ‘Dinosaur’ is a blast of real  lifelessness in almost every way. The film feels as if it were written with the Cliffs Notes  from about a dozen other Disney movies. It’s the usual “we’ve got a long journey ahead  of us, with at least one death and the main character will have a bunch of colorful  sidekicks and end up falling in love, defeating the bad guy and emerging triumphant”  line. Funny, when they spun that storyline in ‘Tarzan’, and gave it oomph! in about a  billion other pieces of the film, it worked beautifully. Here, amidst muddled live-action
backgrounds (which alternate with digitally created ones for a truly mystifying and  distracting effect), the extremely boring and predictably “Disney” archetypal characters sloth around as digital creations, desperately trying to find a valley to reproduce – or die in.

         Disney’s main character is a fun-loving, good-hearted ‘saur named Aladar. He’s as boring as Hercules in the 1996 Disney animated film of the same name. He and the rest of the ‘herd’, for the most part, are part of a species of dinosaurs that, frankly, look  like the head of a penis. Not one of them is visually stated enough to be recognizable to  any kid, including myself, from our past experiences paging through galleries of  Prehistoria. Either it’s really, really important that they look this obtuse (for what reason, I haven’t the foggiest), or Disney really is arrogant enough to assume that these characters are kid friendly enough to enter as colloquialisms through a generation of  movie and TV latched kids. “Look Mommy, an Aladar©!”

         Finally, there is a tad bit of good news. Early in the film there is a scene that is worth seeing if you know someone with a good bootleg. Aladar lives with some monkeys because his egg was dropped on an island across the ocean from the one he was born to (by greedy Pterodactyls – in a scene you could see on any copy of ‘Tarzan’ – both in the extended preview for ‘Dinosaur’ and in ‘Tarzan’, since it’s lifted almost exactly from
that source). The monkeys have just finished courting and are hanging out by a beautiful tree, when the evening takes on this haunting shade of pink. Aladar and the monkeys watch what looks like raining fire on the opposite island. Then appears a shot of a mushroom cloud, as if subliminally placed there – disturbing and sharp. Then the island Aladar is on is bombarded with meteors. This is interesting on the grounds that it so clearly takes the hypothesis that Dinosaurs were wiped out by giant meteorites – and runs with it. Nice to see that surrounding all the cloudy, unoriginal stuff there is still a ray of good decision-making struggling to break free over there with the boys at the big mouse factory.

         My daughter enjoyed ‘Dinosaur’ well enough. It wasn’t the active enjoyment I’ve seen displayed at the breadth of ‘Star Wars Episode 1 : The Phantom Menace’ or, say ‘Stuart Little’; but it was enough that she could sit through what felt like an eternity, but panned out to be a little over eighty minutes. As the titles came up, I realized she had been sitting there in awe of what had transpired, mostly because it had to do with dinosaurs – which she has begun to really admire. I also realized that she has a long way to go before she can be depressed at how disappointing a movie can be when you remember how much you’d have enjoyed it as a child. Thank God for that.


Dr. Seuss’s ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring : Jim Carrey, Jeffrey Tambor, Clint Howard and Christine Baranski.
grade: B-

        Strangely enough, though conflicted on more than one instance throughout the duration, I did not walk away from ‘The Grinch’ (as I’ll casually call it to save time) with the feeling that Theodore Geisel would be rolling in his grave, steam pouring out of his ears and a barrage of profanity emanating in rhyme from his rotted jaw. He was an intelligent man and would’ve certainly seen past the obvious dose of cynicism packed into the first two acts of this film (a Dr. Suess no-no, I’m afraid) to the clever way Universal executives bypassed ethical suicide by giving the characters a shuffling – shall we say, a swapping – of roles.
        At the very front of the charm lurking inside a nightmarish set full of characters that look like Hieronymous Bosch rejects practicing a vile critique of modern Christmas preparation – is the indispensable Jim Carrey, a physical comedian not quite like any in history who is constantly being compared to actors of days gone by (anyone considered in his league is always either hopelessly more dignified or much less talented). On the off chance you don’t expect his Grinchy ramblings to bowl you over – and bowl you over they will – invite yourself to view another of his films before seeing this one. The makeup almost renders the comedian indistinguishable as he pitter-patters and stomps his way through the film, spewing what – oddly enough – sounds like a series of one-liners from a Grinch bit he may have once done when working as a starving comedian in Canada. But I
doubt it. Nevertheless, most of his lines and certainly all of his mannerisms seem like they benefit from the metaphorical significance of being plastered inside such an elaborate costume. Can’t imagine he took much direction for this role (or any one of his other goofy, comedic stunt flicks), locked away inside green foam rubber and hairy, itchy fur – blocked from the world to create his own goofball genius. In ‘The Grinch’, he sounds an awful lot like Richard Nixon, moves about like an animated cartoon character (but not the one in the 1966 version of this story) and comes off as perhaps the only character in the film obnoxious and alive enough to register with young people. Which brings me to my gripe – and its transcendence.
        It is not enough that the story had to be re-envisioned (The Grinch’s childhood consisted of emotional abuse from all sides by – you guessed it – the Who’s), but what Seuss’s re-writers have done is turn the story on its head, making the Grinch into the main sympathy grabber and turned the Who’s into greedy, protocol obsessed vermin whose look ranges from cute and cuddly (Cindy Lou Who is adorable, wherever you’re from) to upsetting and disturbing. What this does, throughout most of the film, is irk the audience into an alienation effect, thereby making this, a very familiar story, seem quite foreign to us. By the end, the objective, wherein the Grinch will realize the true meaning of Christmas, turns from a typical revenge play (which the original one bypassed with abstraction and by making everyone into the purest form of Seuss’s characterizations) into a film where everyone
shakes hands. It turns out to be refreshing, but with much duress. The film is so unbelievably entertaining when Carrey is free styling, but tends to lose its verve whenever it focuses itself too directly on the Who’s, the message or, indeed, the Christmas spirit. This is certainly not what Dr. Seuss could have envisioned.
        But, on the other hand, stinking the Hollywood stench in a good way is something most directors don’t really know how to do. In ‘The Grinch’, Ron Howard manages an overall product that, while flawed, has a workability about it – and a synthesis of imagination and meaning – that almost makes it forgivable. The look of the film is nicely overdone. The acting, even by the underwritten Who’s, is always over-the-top and gratuitous. Howard captures the tone of the anti-Hollywood dark horse favorite as a kids movie without ever coming within a mile of the magic of Seuss’s vision or even his language (some of which has been added anew and sounds painfully off
key next to the original text, even in Anthony Hopkins’ voice). As always, Howard’s visions are clean, big eyed kids visions, calling to mind his face – which is so kid like, we almost forget that he’s in his fifties and balding.
        ‘The Grinch’ is maybe not the grand masterpiece Howard envisioned or the art drawn carriage Carrey was riding on for a couple of years there – but it certainly defies the expectation that a live action Suess is an impossibility. Seuss himself had said his stories were not made for Hollywood and Hollywood was not made for his stories – and he’s right. What happens in ‘The Grinch’ is something entirely different, and it is promising. It is not perfect, but it is not sacrilegious either. Now, who will be carving the roast beast while I, myself, sit on this here fence?


Dr. T & the Women
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Anne Krapp
Starring : Richard Gere, Helen Hunt, Farah Fawcett, Kate Hudson, Tara Reid, Laura Dern,
        Liv Tyler and Shelly Long.
grade: B

        I’ll spare you my brief and less than humble tirade against the projects Robert Altman has followed in his golden years (not necessarily bad ones but, let’s face it, he made ‘M*A*S*H’ and ‘Nashville’ at one point in his life). After an incessant self-imposed torture session over how good ‘Cookie’s Fortune’ turned out to be and how much I wished I’d made the trek to see it on the big screen, it just became assumed among me, myself and I that whatever Altman made – be it sub-‘Pret A Porter’ or, you know, as good as ‘Short Cuts’ – I’d be seeing it in the theater. And right quick. So, you’ll spare me your criticizing eye when I wrinkled my brow at the realization that this written-in-stone agreement I’d made with my inner self would cause me to end up alone in a theater
full of empty seats, seeing a film starring Richard Gere (who’s done enough damage this year, don’t’cha think?) and a string of hot-button female actresses who encircle his existence. So thank the good Lord or whatever you prefer to believe in that it didn’t burrow itself under the fence and run away towards the land of mediocrity as so many films this year have done.
        ‘Dr. T & the Women’, visually, is less interested in what it can achieve using the Altman-esque cinematography. Yeah, the zooms and medium pans are in place, but they don’t really define the picture as much as, say, ‘The Gingerbread Man’, a film that would have been completely lost without the boost of photographic interpretation presented by our legendary director. No, ‘Dr. T & the Women’s most attractive ingredient is the fabulously blunt and surprising screenplay which presents an ironic tale of seeming role reversal that essentially would require very little actual presence of the director. His skill with ensemble casts comes in handy, but this is really the writer’s flick more than anything.
        As an almost entirely literary-minded work, one could easily see the film being based upon a riveting novel (it’s not). As it unfolds to reveal a series of strange and cerebral breakdowns, so many of its implausible aspects begin to take shape as a vote for whimsy among a seemingly pedestrian narrative path. Would it be possible to define three separate acts? Sure, but it wouldn’t be simple or clean-cut; and its hardly the point. I love films that defy proven mathamatical processes for entertainment and still end up as diverting as anything labored into the restraints of  introduction, conflict, resolution and conclusion. These elements are only present in an all-encompassing, loopy manner. They end up giving way to a wonderfully impulsive chimera – a moment that slyly asks us to “please, stick with us”. As much as the film craves these aspects of fantasy in its own purposefully awkward, diabolical manner; it manages to put them to work in a very detached – but again, quite
intentional – way when it comes to the film’s exploration of reality. The characters are all quite alive and entertaining; bubbly and interesting; caring and complacent. They experience love and hate essentially through Dr. T – and he nearly loses his mind trying to keep that sweet, almost plastic Southern kindness.
        Amen to whomever first enjoyed pondering Richard Gere in this part – he was born to play it. As he grapples with how much he loves his image and layer after layer sheds, unbeknownest to these women (whom I took as being only slightly, but consciously decieved by Dr. T – as I envision all women to be, somewhere in the depths of their soul, decieved by their gynecoligist). Gere, from all of his experience playing betrayal experts and two-timing womanizers knows how to wring that utterly kind but sweetly flirtatious demeanor. If one only examines the events of the film and his place among all of these women, one has no trouble seeing him as a keystone – but a keystone that is aware of his place and is constantly, in tiny ways, manipulating it – for better or worse. The first person I would have thought of, having read this role on paper, would have been Richard Gere. He lives up to it in one of his very best performances.
        The women of the film’s title are all appropriately flawed and loveable. Dr. T’s wife, Kate (Fawcett), stricken with Hestia syndrome, or too much love (a forgiveably simple irony I’m willing to live with) reverts to a child-like mentality. In her best scene, she waltzes around a crowded mall, stripping her clothing, eventually dancing nude in a fountain. Kate Hudson and Tara Reid play the good doctor’s daughters and could easily be real life sisters. Hudson, soon to be married, awaits the arrival of her maid of honor (Tyler). Reid is a tour guide at a JFK conspiracy awareness exhibit. Dr. T’s drunken sister (Dern) has moved herself and three young children into his house. And in the film’s best moments, Dr. T begins dating a golf pro played by the ravishing and mysterious Helen Hunt (almost immediately after his wife is sent to a mental hospital; whether it was a progressive disease is
left unsatisfyingly unclear) .
        I felt strange after viewing ‘Dr. T & the Women’, a very non-partisan film. It was refreshing to see a film so idealistic and yet, so unorganized and unconcerned with point-by-point arguments. As a free-flowing display of troupe acting to the tune of Altman-light, I was wholeheartedly pleased to see all the strings coming together, coming and going, and crossing each other to get tangled in their own web of the sexes. On one hand, so much of it seems to be surface-heavy contrivances hell-bent on appearing more unconventional  (for what reason, I’ll never know, this has all the makings of an audience pleaser). On the other hand, its an erratic mesh of great acting and smart narrative rulebreaking for the greater good. I have reservations about saying this, but if ‘Dr. T & the Women’ had been completely beyond my reach – as a male filmgoer – I think it would have been even better.
I enjoyed it about as much as I think I was meant to. The end result of increased indulgence would have been something disturbing and controversial. ‘Dr. T & the Women’ is neither – but it isn’t stolid either – it’s obtuse and should really be more popular than it is with American audiences.


Down To You
Directed by
Starring : Freddie Prinze Jr., Julia Stiles
grade: D

        “[about Al, Freddie Prinze Jr.’s character] We have a sickening amount of things in common. I like when he sits with his mouth agape like a dumbass, completely pulling off that churlish teen beat look and wondering to himself, ‘Is she really fooling anybody with those belly shirts, her knowledge of art – for instance, I love it when she tells me about how the brush technique brings out the ambiance in a painting. I don’t know what in the hell it means, but it sure sounds intelligent.’ And my character’s name is Imogen – and my Mom got it out of a name book, isn’t that creative?And boy, his dad is a TV cooking guy who used to be the Fonz and my parents, well, they’re not around, but I sure am well-off and so is he and, well, we love each other to tingles and especially when we’re trying to make sure we look utterly universal to everybody, even thought that’s really not the point
we’re clearly trying to make – since we’re just about as fantasy laden as any couple you might, uh, see in the movies – because you’re there to be entertained or some fucking thing and, well, since we’re surrounded by young versions of ourselves that talk to our present selves, strange screen wipes and, well, some pretty corking fades to black if you ask me – I guess our relationship sure is worth putting in the movie theaters that are already littered with teenagers having sex way too young, having pregnancy tests come up negative (like that ever happens, some close calls – you know what I mean, girls?) and making friends with porn actors and people who dress up like Jim Morrison. Come to think of it, isn’t that sorta like every other teen beat movie you see nowadays – with the two or three wacky characters operating alongside, as emotional and sympathetic punching bags to some
greedy, good-looking but utterly selfish protagonists that do a bad imitation of how vivid college romance is and never, ever study unless it’s a plot convenience and do all sorts of really idiotic things that no real couple does and say things like “Morning Breath is a killer” just to appeal to kids who say – ‘Hey, I woke up with morning breath once, this movie really spoke to me’. And don’t you just love it when movies have meaningless, generic titles like this one and only justify them in the closing moments when the title is splashed on a book one of the main characters had the indecency to slander by painting the front cover to mimic the cover of the movie box. And Fuck! I was in ‘Hamlet’, for Christ Sakes – I know I wasn’t any damn good in it – but, this [‘Down to You’] just kills my credibility and, oh, God! There’s a scene where I admit to sleeping with Jim Morrison and – Oh
No! – It’s worse, I slept with Freddie Prinze, Jr. more than once during the course of a ninety minute film. I’ve sold my soul – and I’m not even that old, and – I’ve got to take my name off of it…..What do you mean it’s already too late? It can’t be too late and – NO! – I’m a teen idle?! Anybody got a large bottle of shampoo? [yeah, there’s actually a scene in the film where a character is rushed to the emergency room after swallowing some shampoo – that’s how bad – oh God!]”
                                 -Julia Stiles, 2000, brummagem conversation with publicist


Drowning Mona
Directed by Nick Gomez
Starring : Danny DeVito, Casey Affleck, William Fichtner, Bette Midler, Jamie Lee Curtis
        and Neve Campbell.
grade: C+

        How to make this right – how to make this right – hmmmm? I think, first of all, I’d lose the stars – at least a couple of them : DeVito is utterly wasted in this role and Neve Campell won’t be missed. I’d take what is a mediocre approach and give it a full dose of low-key narrative interruption. I might make everything slower and less flashy, I might even lose the music and make the black comedy – of which most of this movie benefits, but not nearly as much as a black comedy should – really, really dark. ‘Drowning Mona’ might even work, if properly tinkered with, as a nice spoof of quiet, disturbing independent films.
        Everyone has a great time standing around looking disaffected after Mona Dearly (Midler), the most hated denizen of a crummy little burg in upstate New York, plummets to her death. Everyone is a suspect and everyone has their own little connection to the murder that they, like the townies they are, bungle covering up.
        Maybe the most welcome infusion of interest in ‘Drowning Mona’, besides realizing that Casey Affleck walked off with the talent in that family – is the fact that it’s constantly flashing back to episodes that happened in the recent past. Some of them are played for goofy comic lightness, others as plot twists – still others are almost ‘Rashomon’-esque (don’t tell anyone I associated that movie and this movie) in a way, as they present this ridiculous dialogue that starts out disputing who killed a dog and ends with Mona smashing up a car – or was it?. And finally, when all is said and done, there’s your typical climactic confessional confrontation, a let-down of an ending in which all of the characters inhabit the frame and fire off accusations, etc. Luckily the rest of the movie is full of a great brand of mean spiritedness. All in all, Gomez brings the tightness – the script is properly structured and clever (if a little dull in spots) and the cast is nearly a hoot.


East is East
Directed by Damien O’Donnell
Starring Om Puri, Linda Bassett, Jordan Routledge, Jimi Mistry, Emil Marwa, Chris Bisson,
        Raji James and Archie Panjabi
grade: C-

[10/4/02: though the review rarely suggests, I’ve come to really hate films like this one, and the grade reflects my true feelings sometimes better than the below prose]

Sometimes funny, sometimes upsetting, a clear opinion you’re just not getting. ‘East is East’ is not a film I’d go see again. Glowing, review, right? I would recommend it. Glowing contradiction, right?
         It’s a film that easily shows us it’s message in the first fifteen minutes and then struggles to decide (practically every other minute) whether it wants to milk comedy or just plain shock out of it. On one hand, it’s a really low-rent “mad-till-you’re-red-in-the-face” flick, and on the other hand, it’s a really nice, clever British comedy. But it’s really neither – but it’s not really a bad film.
         But to be at all serious about it being a comedy is an impossibility. Maybe I’m not as hardcore or alligator-skinned as I once was, but a comedy isn’t supposed to show the father beating up his wife and kids unless it clearly delves into satire? The film never delves below the laughs it gets out of specific scenes – pure laughs – laughs that are intentional and not subtle in the least. And then, after you giggle, Om Puri hits Linda
Bassett in the face while saying ‘bastard’ and ‘bleedin’ over and over and over again.
         Not exactly a kind or extremely noteworthy experience, but, if you can take it upon yourself to separate the “dad’s-way-or-no-way” plot from the “goofy-mixed-kids-coming-of-age-in-the-goofy-seventies” plot – – it’s rewarding enough to actually take the time to see.
         Certainly not “hilarious” (The Wall Street Journal) or “funny and ribald” (Janet Maslin, The New York Times). More like “somewhat disturbing and nearly upsetting” and “contains some joking in it’s duration”. Putting it lightly. That’s my job. Right? (Yeah, nice review Ben. You say nothing – it’s a 291 word tangent that tells us : “Go see the movie, it’s not great, but it’s not awful”).
         You’re welcome.


The Emperor and the Assassin
Directed by Chen Kaige
Zhang Fengyi, Gong Li, Li Xue Jian.
grade: B+

         Steeped heavily in the tradition of dramatic Chinese films, Chen Kaige’s ‘The Emperor and the Assassin’ is a beautifully staged political chess game, wonderfully realized as a historical epic – made even morepowerful because it’s – not to put too fine a point on it – real. Much like Kaige’s masterpiece ‘Farewell My Concubine’ – a film about historical turmoil and sexual jealousy – ‘The Emperor and the Assassin’ has extremely strong characters and carries a self-confidence that most films (foreign or national) don’t even attempt. Of course, this can work – and it cannot. See, for example, Kaige’s  1997 film, ‘Temptress Moon’, the coming-of-age romance set on an opium ranch – so confident that it will overcome us with lush imagery and a slow, subtle love story – it fails miserably – only overcoming us with exhaustion. In essence, the door swings both ways.
         I am in love with Gong Li. And she really is a marvelous actress. From the christening when I first glimpsed her bright, shining face in 1990’s ‘Ju Dou’ to 1998’s poignant and beautiful ‘Chinese Box’, her performances have always put a spell on me. Here, as Lady Zhao, she plays sort of a human ‘weapon’ – both the king’s wife and the assassin’s sympathizer – constantly being pulled from one side to the other and weighing the results in her actions and her loyalties. And as usual, her masterfully irresistible presence just blows us away. She’s the Chinese mold of, if she’ll permit me, Greta Garbo. Utter beauty and hypnotic talent.
         The assassin, Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi), is also, in his own way, hypnotic. The introduction of his talent (that is, to kill – quickly, thoroughly and brutally) comes with swift resonance as he lays waste to a family of swordmakers, indebted to a money lender. It is here that we learn of his great career and it is here when he takes on the role of the classic Japanese samurai (yes, I’m aware that I just jumped cultures – I’ll return, fear not) – on a quest of redemption : sad and scruffy, yet attentive to the humanity around him. And when he crosses paths with Lady Zhao, involved in a plot between she and the emperor of Pan – one that crisscrosses in a marvelous way – he is the stunning vision of a Kurosawa warrior – enacted as it were, in the history of China. It’s an interesting Japanese cinematic technique employed by a Chinese filmmaker – to paint the warrior and hero as the loner, on his path to enlightenment – like, for instance in ‘Kagemusha’.
         And finally, the king of Qin, Ying Zheng – nicely introduced on the battlefield, fighting alongside his men to capture his turf. And fight he does – as a clever and down-to-earth king, attentive to his needs, exacting, and without ultimate recoil – the vicious “at-all-costs” leader. As he yo-yo’s his strengths and weaknesses and ultimately, faces the assassin – we see the true Renaissance man – cunning and resourceful, yet greedy and without remorse. A nice evocation by Li Xue Jian- who posesses a valuable range.
         Though the film really is spectacular and calls comparison to American war epics – here is a film that also loses so much to an American audience, ignorant to the history of China and lost in the translation of behavior. And I’m not singling it out – most Chinese films are inherantly Asian in tone – and therefore difficult to decipher meticulously by the American eye. Why is it that in so many Chinese films the characters break into laughter in such a farcical manner? My bet is that it’s something – like the bluntness of Spanish people or the slang of Americans – that doesn’t make sense to those of us who haven’t had the privelidge to witness Chinese life – and the specifications of their cultural upbringing, behavior and diction – in the past.
         And as much as the film is made quite universal – it’s unlike, for example, the films of Zhang Yimou (‘Ju Dou’, ‘To Live’) in that it’s less a fable than a history lesson, less a human drama than a retelling of larger, more complex events using dramatic structure and narrative design. It’s merely a challenging and moving collection of great scenes, quiet decisions and heartbreaking realizations. It’s the kind of film that one can admire – but one is realistic enough to step back from and to acknowledge – much like Gibson’s ‘Braveheart’ – that we’re watching a sensationalized and abridged account of the past. And we take that for what it is – and it’s both wonderful and slightly souring


Erin Brockovich
Directed by Steven Soderburgh
Starring Julia Roberts, Albert Finney and Aaron Eckart.
grade: B+

    ‘Erin Brockovich’ easily fits the mold of two types of films : a) the type of film that expects to be taken seriously as a drama and comes off as more entertaining than you had expected (examples : ‘Copland’, ‘The Negotiator’,
 etc.); b) the type of film story, whether it moves you or whether it’s true, that is somewhat of an open-and-shut case for skilled writers and the directors – who can only avoid conformity and familiarity by taking extensive artistic risks. And who better to shape a studio film than Steven Soderburgh, director of the anti-studio “studio” flick ‘Out of Sight’ – that proved you can create a cops and robbers/romance entry, in the multiplex, and still provide a really hip and satisfying experience for the audience. And casting is a big  issue as well – one that ‘Erin Brockovitch’ deftly handles, using the charms and personality already established by megastar Julia Roberts and, some expert and really, really likeable supporting turns by Albert Finney and Aaron Eckart.
     And what I really dug about this independent-citizen-against-the-big-bad-corporation” film was the way it’s populated with such interesting characters that we really enjoy watching – as they spar with each other verbally and come up with funny – and challenging results. It’s not a huge distraction to watch the film sink  itself with this very tactic – bringing us a startling amount of repetition, until you’re sure that every scene is going to end with Julia Roberts cursing and getting what she wants because she’s so intimidating and, gee – she’s a girl (and she’s wearing skanky clothes – give her what she wants, dammit!). But the idea of a motorcycle riding neighbor who works when he has to and wants to watch three kids all day – without the reward of Julia’s affection – is, while lofty, exciting to watch on film. And the ever teetering moral attacks a law partner has as he juggles the overbearing Brockovich and a case he would rather not add to his workload are something to behold (though I doubt any actor besides Albert Finney could have made it so darn enticing) In short – flaws are flaws, but characters who keep us distracted from obvious glitches are miraculous and rare.
    And I’m cynical and I believe that extensive embellishment and padding must have worked it’s way into the somewhat “too perfect” story – but it’s back to that whole idea of entertainment.
     There’s other beautiful stretches in the film. The performances are  top-notch, especially Roberts, who fires from out of nowhere with a gutsy, passionate and just plain winning turn. There’s a nice dissolve from
 her smiling to an open desert, peaked at the 33 1/3 line of the frame by a blue sky. A very noble and appropriate parallel being drawn here – Roberts face, the crowning jewel of all of her roles, is as wide open as a landscape
 and is just as complex and crowded with expression as the majesty of textured endlessness that is a desert plain. Watching her create this role as a mother and an enthusiastic chaser of the penultimate lost cause keeps us interested  – even when we know the writers are stacking her deck with needless wisecracks, most of which are great, a few of whose inclusion seems obsessive. Less is more.
    Of course when Brockovitch is defending the victims of a small town who have been left with innumerable and unfathomable suffering in the wake of a well-poisoning cover-up by a huge corporation – they take on more of an
emotional impact than the cardboard residents of the town in ‘A Civil Action’, a very similar film. But not much more. We need more scenes of the residents existing, hurting and pondering – without Julia Roberts’ presence.
For a well-rounded film, one that would have moved me to tears (and one that would have been three hours plus, no doubt) – this would have been the route to take. More is more.
    And though Soderburgh lends so much less of his time-fragmenting, color-saturated, dialogue-jumpcuts than he has in his past films – it remains, mostly, of his mark. And sure, I could have easily done without
those obvious plot-pushing moments (like the one where Brockovich’s son offers to bring her breakfast after she explains a dying client to him). But, you know – for a scenes like the muted bluetone shot of one of the frustrated victims throwing rocks in his backyard while Thomas Newman’s haunting piano tapping glazes over us – I’d be able to deal with a few of those “usual” movie moments.
    As it is, ‘Erin Brockovitch’ doesn’t feel too long – but hasn’t entirely convinced us of anything by it’s end. And how could that be in a film about such a thorough and hard-working character? But, again, however misfired some elements are – ‘Erin Brockovitch’ is a highly watchable and decidedly well-acted piece of cinematic candy. 


Eye of the Beholder
Written and Directed by Stephan Elliot
Starring : Ewan MacGregor, Ashley Judd, Patrick Bergin, k.d. lang, Jason Priestley
        and Genevieve Bujold.
grade: D+

        What starts out deliciously myopic turns so quickly into a suspense yarn totally immersed in itself (to the point where it becomes its own set of mirrors – reflecting an already worn image to cast an ugly, mediocre rehash). ‘Eye of the Beholder’ manages a repetitive nature that grates the nerves until you’re sure you can’t stand it anymore, then shifts gears into a dynamo plea for act breaks way too late in the game. It is essentially a two act film holding steadily to the ideals of a third act – one that’s so far fetched and self-absorbed in includes a hammy, cable-TV-ish Jason Priestley drawing a hilariously obvious parallel between the life of ultra sympathetic serial killer Joanna Eris (Judd) and sharks (Duh, because they only have a ten minute memory and swim forever, thereby removing remorse and stability. Got it.). As the equal parts ‘Laura’ obsession side of the film crashes into the
black widow obsessed side (after over an hour of hammering into our heads the fact that Stephen (MacGregor) is smitten and Joanna is mourning her dead father by killing men and stealing their money) – ‘Eye of the Beholder’ takes shape and becomes exactly what it shouldn’t : a Brian DePalma-esque (below the belt, I know) whodunit, complete with “did she know the whole time” and “is she really who he thinks she is” questions. The idiotic play to deepen both characters is so forcefully wasteful – and empty – we wonder if writer director Elliot has any concept whatsoever of how originality is born. While he’s busy deepening a tone of forever restless and unfinished loss – one that almost works throughout the first act (if only it weren’t so useless and repetitive, this could’ve been a great throwaway experimental piece) – his film slips into an ambiguity that is neither fun nor
artsy. In fact, its the kind of confusing you don’t even bother to sort out – for fear you’ll pull the slipknot and realize your suspicions : that for all the complicated stuff on the outside, there really is absolutely nothing below the three inch mark in this film. (And finally, that k.d. land performance – as the field operative secretary who cares, that should be a landmark as well: Worst performance by a lesbian singer songwriter with no distinguishable first or middle name).


Fantasia 2000
Directed by James Algar and Gaetan Brizzi.
playing at very selected IMAX theaters – remember, it’s Disney we’re talking about.
grade: B

(adjusted to B+ upon second viewing)

    Though it’s got some really wonderful sequences – it doesn’t work as a whole film for the same reason most compilation – or – films-within-a-film movies don’t work : the weak links are constantly breaking the chain and you have to constantly decide – did I like the film – did I like a sequence – it’s maddening. I will say this for it : good job hiding away – London turned out to be closer than New York.
    I love the Donald Duck/Noah’s Ark sequence set to “Pomp & Circumstance”. Very moving, great imagery – wonderful. And the Al Hirschfeld-influenced (or should we say – directly responsible for) sequence with “Rhapsody in Blue” was very innovative and very striking. Both remind us that familiarmusical themes, used with new images, can still have a life of their own (i.e. : “Pomp & Circumstance” is entirely a song we associate with Graduation ceremonies and the film ‘A Clockwork Orange’).
    Some segments were forgettable. The green woman meant to symbolize the earth, which was borderline anime, wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. The piece that features whales is introduced telling us that the song accompanying it was originally a song to go with pine trees (of all things). And though they try to justify it, the song doesn’t really go with the images on the screen in a gentle, easy manner.
    Finally, the one I held my breath for, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, which I saw in all it’s glory when I was young and ‘Fantasia’ was re-released – looks awful. Blown up and not really cleaned up for the IMAX screens, it carries such a dirty look about it – it’s nearly hard to enjoy. A nice word to describe it would be “splotchy”.
    And the IMAX – though an innovative and somewhat curious idea in the cinema – doesn’t gel too well with these cartoons. It was neat, yeah – but it lacked a spectacular feel that most IMAX movies give you. I felt as if I were abusing the privilege of watching a film on such a large screen – and therefore I felt the subject matter (which lacked a bit in itself anyway), not fit for it’s forum. And that’s just sad.


The Filth and the Fury
Directed by Julien Temple
Starring : The Sex Pistols (Paul Cook, Steve Jones, Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten and Glen Matlock)
grade: B+
        Probably a rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth-type faux pas of a cliché to say that ‘The Filth and the Fury’ is made in the grand style of it’s subject’s own creation : punk rock. Probably also pretty bold and ordinary to state that the documentary is so damn good simply because it’s not flamboyant or full of attention getting ploys; but merely consists of a good, hearty dose of facts and creativity (part of this complete breakfast!). Inclusions include : Laurence Olivier’s ‘Richard III’ – tweaked and pivotally inserted as if a tampon into the vagina of “traditional” England; the Sex Pistols animated!?; the surviving band members interviewed in likely mockery of such tv docs as ‘Rockumentary’ and ‘Behind the Music’ (that is, they are interviewed in the dark, as if unwilling to show us their ugly mugs in any other time or space than that which is immortalized by the NEVER-BEFORE-SEEN! concert
footage which is literally spit towards we, the audience); and finally, the whole thing smacks of a cut-and-paste (not to mention cheap) construction that’s downright effective all over. It’s electrifying. It’s exciting. It’s rousing. It’s obnoxious entertainment about obnoxious entertainers. Reminded me of  ‘Waco : The Rules of Engagement’ and ‘Hands on a Hardbody’, films that prove technology and expensive equipment is a crutch when making art. A thrilling subject comes first, then anarchy.


Final Destination
Directed by James Wong
Starring : Devon Sawa, Ali Larter, Kerr Smith and Tony Todd.
grade: C

        Allow me to correct a humming notion for everyone right away : This is, in fact, not the ride you want to take; despite Ebert’s relentlessly catchy soundbite displayed all over the the box, the poster and the ads (I can’t wait to read his review when I finish writing this one, I’m already chuckling). And to be clear, Yes! This is a film made by ‘X-Files’ hangers-on and; Yes! It resembles an episode of the television show in it’s creepy, pseudo-supernatural tones. But, rest assured, tone is the only thing on ‘Final Destination’s mind. This is a film that makes me wish I’d saved my all-powerful “cinematic repetition” speech – but I blew that load in my ‘Cecil B. Demented’ review,
so it’ll be short and sweet : ‘Final Destination’ is the same bleeding scene, altered slightly and woven into a singular and quasimodo story, six times in a row. The death scenes, save for one that’s a terrific scare, clock in a pulse rate in and around that of ‘The Bone Collector’ (and we all remember my fondness for that dusty yawner). Excluding leads Devon Sawa and Ali Larter (who names these people, huh?), the cast consists of teen character actors plucked from their respective WB soap operas and asked to scream and curse. It’s a film that lends more of it’s energy into carousing youth appeal than carmelizing (to borrow a word from the film) it’s otherwise episodic and stringy structure. What I was hoping for after being wowed by the looming and expert way Sawa’s
premonitions are registered, cast and visualized in the opening act, was a film that haunted and mystified his character and myself. Instead, it’s a movie where he whips out a map, aggressively, while trying to cheat – uh, death. It’s a realistic tone in a far-fetched film and, though I can probably name on two fingers the recent films that have benefited from such a mismatch, ‘Final Destination’ sure as hell is not one of them. Despite ‘X-Files’ tendencies streaming out of it’s many half-explained goodies – and an unconventional ending it simply does not earn – this is a film that lacks the gusto and the evidence to get off the ground. Remake it, please.


The Five Senses
Written and Directed by Jeremy Podeswa
Starring : Mary Louise-Parker, Phillipe Voltere, Gabrielle Rose, Marco Leonardi,
        Pascale Bussieres, Richard Clarkin, Brendan Fletcher, Nadia Litz, Daniel Maclvor,
        Molly Parker and Tara Rosling.
grade: C

“The senses are elemental,
and in connecting us to the world,
they connect us with others”
– Jeremy Podeswa, writer/producer/director.

        What starts out too obvious and simple, even for a movie about deception, easily shifts into a really dry, really pompous, really Canadian (dare I say, really Egoyanesque) film expecting us to incorporate the five senses into Podeswa’s outrageous parallel, purported and drawn with the most thinly etched momentum and basic cinematic tricks – and forced into an itty bitty living space of about ninety-six minutes. For those who complain about the length of interweaving ensemble pieces where the characters’ connections to each other can be either personal or obtuse – but in the end, find the conclusion that we are all kin – like, for instance the films of Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson; perhaps they will see ‘The Five Senses’ as a reductive, wholly scant expectation of character development without the actuality of it.
        The performances are all quite good, however. Not good enough to recommend the film, but good. Why they’d want to lend their skill to such a sinister, irritatingly surprise less piece of mediocre filmmaking, I’ll never know – but here goes. There is the trite story of the gay man looking to find love after years of relationships that mean nothing to him. There is his best friend (Parker) who is at a similar crossroads, inconsequentially enough while hosting a fling she met in Italy – a man who does not speak English. There is her neighbor, a girl who is sexually frustrated and has just dropped out of school. One day, the girl loses her mother’s client’s daughter in the park and a massive manhunt to find the child begins (or more importantly, to learn to forgive – give me a break!). And there is the other neighbor, a man who is mourning the loss of his hearing, slowly trying to capture every last aural majesty before conceding to deafness altogether. (And as they say in the ‘Magnolia’ trailer,
“…this will all make sense in the end” – of course, it really doesn’t make any damn sense in ‘The Five Senses’).
        Podeswa seems to be masking the fact that he has absolutely nothing in the “sense” category, which the film is meant to thrive upon. As he tries to leave subtle touches here or there, they end up being big, loud billboards of clues to a puzzle that really isn’t much of a puzzle at all – it’s more of a suspenseless ride, a character study where we understand who the characters are and the changes they need – in the first fifteen minutes. Our minds tune out everything after that. It isn’t that these are necessarily boring characters – but what they are accomplishing feels almost too neorealist to make a difference. In Egoyan’s films (which Podeswa seems to be aping, if he doesn’t mind the blunt accusation), everything seems to come together more effectively because he is more willing to let it come apart on its own. Egoyan has faith that his characters can, in their own unspoken way,
complete the cycle and bring about their own epiphanies. Egoyan has a knack for handling voyeurism in a way that doesn’t seem outward and pretentious. Podeswa makes voyeurism part of his ridiculous sense game – and then he doesn’t. Podeswa tries his hand at incorporating it into “touch”, but fails.  Most of all, Podeswa seems to be unsure of the whole thing, unable to accept that he is the God, the creator, the controller of it all and that part of that power means letting go and allowing the confidence to flow, allowing the characters to find themselves. Everything in ‘The Five Senses’ is way too polished and far too clear.
        Finally, while the film straddles an eerie atmosphere (most Canadian films I’ve seen do), it also manages some sort of light, flaky exterior – which is where the actors rescue the film from utter tragedy. Mary Louise-Parker, who gives the best performance in the film, finds such a wonderful confidence in her character – a character who is afraid of conflict and confrontation – that she almost creates a weird irony out of Podeswa’s amateur direction. It turns out to be somewhat entertaining, sometimes, to hear the dialogue exchanges of actors carrying the burden of diverting the audience’s gaze from how undercooked and pedestrian the storyline is. The greater irony is that in his relative bungling, Podeswa has given flight to characters which the actors make interesting – and thereby
removed his grasp as supreme dictator over the film’s world and, inadvertently –  the whole thing almost works. Without him.

“Your actors are elemental,
and in connecting us with your empty world,
they connect with each other”
– Ben Trout, critic/critic/critic.


Frequency
Directed by Gregory Hoblit
Starring : Dennis Quaid, Jim Caveziel, Noah Emmerich, Andre Braugher, et al.
grade: B

        Interesting to note the way ‘Frequency’ was received by critics and audience members: as a post ‘Sixth Sense’ grabber that thrives on the fact that we, the audience, are guessing every moment before it happens. Of course, anyone who did a minute amount of research would see that good ol’ Gregory Hoblit has been making these types of films – one them quite popular, leading to the public recognition (not to mention an Oscar nomination) of a major star – for years. The third film I’ve seen by him, ‘Frequency’ takes the nod from both ‘Primal Fear’ and ‘Fallen’, each of which contain nods to Hoblit’s obsession with the unknown as their hooks; and each of which contain surprise endings.
       And the best thing I can say about ‘Frequency’ is that this type of filmmaking is never more entertaining or alive than here. Whereas ‘Primal Fear’ was far too long and, like ‘The Sixth Sense’, seemed only to be serving its ring-a-ding ending and ‘Fallen’ was too silly and often, not very interesting – ‘Frequency’ is always utilizing its hook and its characters, all of whom are very interesting and very likable. “The hook”, as I called it, comes from down-on-his-luck cop Jim Caveziel, who stumbles upon his dead father’s long dormant ham radio one evening while hanging out with his boyhood friend and neighbor (Emmerich). Goaded into setting it up, he reaches a
stranger from the past on the radio, through a strange combination of the elements, set up nicely (in true audience-alienating fashion) in an opening sequence that implies that these atmospheric elements contribute to making time travel possible – if only on radio frequencies. The stranger turns out to be none other than his father (played by Dennis Quaid with a silly New York accent that should’ve been exised), a firefighter who would be killed days after this strange encounter with future-son (as he would no doubt be called) in a terrible warehouse fire. Like in the ‘Back to the Future’ films, the characters disturb fate – in this instance by saving the father’s life – and place other characters in different places, changing their respective paths of life. The whole thing descends into a bland murder mystery that, in a textbook example, is made interesting by how it is told (i.e., through a
science-fiction filter that allows time travel, fate shifting and suspension of disbelief).
        There was never closure to Quaid and Caveziel’s relationship. Pre-emptive deaths in films often give way to extenuating circumstances. This film is smart enough to give its characters the brain power to expect their special set-up (the radio communication) to end at some time, and Hoblit knows they must do much more than a simple, one dimensional familial healing. The film gives them much more to do, though often, their mission diverts into a predictable cinema cop yarn instead of treading the interesting plot depth that is already there. The timeless quality of both worlds, the one inhabited by the Quaid character in the 1960’s and the one inhabited by the Caveziel character in the year 2000 are nice parallels.
    In all of Hoblit’s films, the characters are asked to hold onto something they are not sure they believe in themselves. In his previous outings, both Richard Gere and Denzel Washington were given this task – but their parts were not written well enough that we could enjoy their suppressed mindset, one they will inevitably have to explain to others and deal with the obligatory “have you gone mad, man?” look. In ‘Frequency’, there are scenes like this – but they are much more finely honed and mean more in the film’s world. A scene where Quaid begs a cop buddy (Braugher) to watch the World Series, which Caveziel has told Quaid about in detail, is electrifying because Hoblit has properly tweaked the relationship between the characters so that they harbor the slightest bit of doubt and resentment in each other as aquaintences – before the obvious thing occurs. In ‘Fallen’, a scene like this is played between Washington and actress Embeth Davidtz. Washington doesn’t know her and she doesn’t know him (same thing between Gere and actor Edward Norton in ‘Primal Fear’), so the only thing that shines through a scene this prime for dramatic tension is the hostility. In ‘Frequency’, hostility is kept to a minimum and the characters seem less choked, breathing easier and more freely exploring the possibility of the world they find themselves in. It is more fun for us, too.
       Once more, allow me to address “the hook”, which is an element appearing more and more frequently in films. In ‘Frequency’, a film that practically wears this “hook” on its sleeve (along with some not-so-subtle themes copped from the game of baseball, an already overused metaphor in film), Hoblit often transcends all the fun we would likely have if this film were released in an ideal world. A seemingly meaningless scene in 2000 where Emmerich complains about losing “Yahoo!” stock is later supplemented when Caveziel speaks to the 1960’s Emmerich and tells him to go write down the world “Yahoo” and memorize it. Later, to complete the circle, we come back to 2000 to see Emmerich rich and sporting the word “Yahoo” on his liscence plate.
        In fact, “the hook” is played with so nicely, we don’t even notice – or don’t even think about – the seams in a sequence where Caveziel drops his glass in 2000 while Quaid is avoiding the death he should have had in the 1960’s. A celebration commemorating the day when Quaid has died is changed in everyone’s minds (but Caveziel’s) into a commonplace get together – right there, on the spot. When he asks about his dad, they tell him “Of course, your dad died of lung cancer ten years ago”. Caveziel rearranged fate – but death still got to Quaid. A nice commentary on the dangers of tobacco mixes well with a mind-bending scene that could easily have acted as the film’s trailer (note to executives!) How wonderful to see a sequence where the past is changing and people’s memory is changing – and still have the inevitable be – only of different circumstances. Fate gets us all, right?
(Where was this brilliant execution in ‘Final Destination’?)
       I liked ‘Frequency’ on almost every level. Caveziel makes such a grizzled cop, such a curious young man and such a passionately downtrodden introvert, he manages to carry the movie. I could’ve done without the constant police noodling, which often turns the film from sci-fi thriller into detective story. Its not perfect – and Hoblit still needs someone to write his dialogue for him (some of what comes out of the mouths of these characters is borderline laughable) – but ‘Frequency’ performs a balancing act using its “hook” wisely and intelligently. In a world full of films hoping to duplicate the success of ‘The Sixth Sense’, ‘Frequency’ is a welcome contribution still sporting the old school style of its director, who was seeing dead people long before Haley Joel Osment.


Ghost Dog : The Way of the Samurai
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Starring Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Isaach de Bankole, Henry Silva, Cliff Gorman,
    Victor Argo, Tricia Vessey and Camille Winbush
grade: B-

    Someday there’s going to be a word, like Kubrickian or Wellesian…or, dare I say, Scorcesian – – for Jim Jarmusch. Jarmuschian? Sounds like an instrument or a high-priced  meal. But there’s no mistaking the style and the inspiration Jarmusch gives off. The last true independent filmmaker who never sold out. Thing is, he never made a better film than his first : ‘Stranger than Paradise’, 1984. And every one he makes is discernibly his,
and, beautifully original in it’s own detached New York flavor. But they’re all so aimless. So lost in the realm of near-perfect. It’s all so sad. ‘Ghost Dog’ is no exception.
    What I love about ‘Ghost Dog’, first, is the nice mix of the comic scrutiny and Eastern adaptation. We believe that Ghost Dog lives by the rules he reads in his samurai book – and we are pleased with the humorous friction that ensues as he meshes with the rest of the world. There’s great scenes in this film. When Louie (John Tormey) first sits down with his bosses to discuss Ghost Dog, whom he’s been using as a hit man, secretly, for
years – – that’s the old Jarmusch comedy coming alive. Watching Victor Argo chase a pigeon around a room – not once, but twice – is also great fun. And the playful way that Jarmusch makes all of his gangsters into cartoon addicts, unable to tear themselves away from violent cartoons (for instance : both ‘Felix the Cat’ and ‘Itchy & Scratchy’ are included), as scenes begin. All of these sweet touches – only workable in a Jarmusch film
– are wondrous to behold.
    Now, the bad news. Jarmusch = tangent. And as a result, the film is constantly creating a meandering interim for itself, utterly capsizing it’s momentum. And this is my complaint with most of Jarmusch’s films (though it works beautifully in ‘Dead Man’, the slowest great film in years). It’s got a good – even great – score by RZA, pumping beats and bass over the events in the film. But even the energy of that doesn’t allow the film to elide
over the slow spots quick enough to keep a functional pace.
    And beyond this, I’m half and half on the character of Ghost Dog. So much of the character is internally structured to remain a mystery – and keeps itself well-hidden behind Whitaker’s eyes. Even the casually placed pearls of wisdom – appearing as full text on the screen – can’t seem to flesh out Ghost Dog. To make a long story short (with no pun intended), we feel like we’ve seen a lot less than we actually have. Jarmusch has all the dimensions he needs – but he keeps them hidden from us. I can see some audiences praising that technique, citing that it holds with the character’s conviction of being so stealthy and solitary. Of course, this kind of trickery is all well and good in theory – but simply falters on the screen. We’ve enjoyed spending a couple of hours with this dark, modern mythical character. And even though he carries with us, briefly, outside of the theater, it’s his actions and his methods, not his persona, which linger. He’s as fragile as the cartoon characters the gangsters are so obsessed with.
    The constant dissolves and slowly escalating cinematography – shot by the legendary Robby Muller (‘Dead Man’, ‘Breaking the Waves’) – are a nice way to pad a film that’s good for what it is, but never succeeds in creating what appears to be it’s goal  : a character study about a fictional character that we care about and want to see immortalized. With a stronger focal point – such a goal would be easily attainable.
    But if you can’t make the audience love or hate the title character – all else dries up.


Girl on the Bridge
Directed by Patrice Leconte
Starring : Vanessa Paradis and Daniel Auteuil.
grade: B+

        This is beauty. Luminous black and white images, both trendy and unconventional – that still knocked me over. A stunningly detached love story that somehow becomes intimate in it’s own right. The story of a shifty cassanova (Auteuil) who convinces a girl (Paradis) not to jump off of a bridge by, well, accompanying her on the way down (only to pop the questions : Will you be the target in my knife throwing act?). And boy howdy, how this resurrection of the French New Wave style encircles the metaphor knife throwing affords it, constructs doom-ridden and clever characters inside of it and manages to be one of the most entertaining films of the year to boot. Leconte’s pacing is dead on. He opens the film with a near fifteen minute Q & A session to flesh out Paradis’s character in a literal sense. This done, he can bend the rays of light as the film proceeds, showing us a very different Paradis – and thus concocting Auteuil inside her myth. But even moreso, he manages to alleviate our need to find our own version of Auteuil – because he’s got that up his sleeve, too. He’s showing us double-edged swords of his characters : the hungry lover and the selfish professional. It’s such a sharp piece of filmmaking, I almost wish it possessed the substance that comes with the turf (which classic films of the movement, such as ‘The 400 Blows’ and ‘Breathless’ managed to do very nicely). It’s a wonderful film – even settling an Angelo Badalamenti song into the knife-throwing (is there a bleeding synonym for this?) acts that in any other film might be overkill. Nothing could possibly be overdone in ‘The Girl on the Bridge’; glitz is just so nearly everything.


Girlfight
Written and Directed by Karyn Kusama
Starring : Michele Rodriguez, Jaime Tirelli, Santiago Douglas and Paul Calderon.
grade: C

        The bullying and often cold performance by Michele Rodriguez, who has trouble convincing us of her transformation (but not of her transference) is just one of many problems surrounding this familiar tale of anger-cum-triumph in the projects. ‘Girlfight’ comes complete with transparent symbolism, especially  annoying when steaming from the nearly entertaining glide-on-the-fumes turn the film takes mid second act. A reoccurring ring kept sounding in my head: Am I too take a leap of faith and care blindly about these characters in hopes they will become worthy of my warmth and prowess – or should I demand significantly more and call out director Kusama as the amateur she is, organizing this fiasco confidently (perhaps its saving grace is the electrifying boxing bouts), but flubbing anything remotely intimate or emotional (all of which come off laughable and insincere)? Though it keeps the interest, its still somewhat dull as intellectual fodder and comes off as your
quintessential indie flick (shall I synonomize this with “Sundance winner”?): well aimed but hopelessly wrong-headed. This should quite obviously be a rambunctious and rousing film experience and is, sadly, sound asleep at the wheel.


Gladiator
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielson, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed
 and Derek Jacobi.
grade: C

(adjusted to B- upon second viewing; further adjusted to B upon third viewing)

         ‘Gladiator’ plays almost exactly like a television mini-series with a pregnant budget. It has some great, nerve-rackingly ‘look-death-in-the-face-and-be-brave’ effective battle scenes – granted – but it also has about four times as many dry, completely melodramatic high expository (in place of high drama) scenes. It’s desperately trying to play history lesson but stands as nothing more than a hurriedly written narrative that leaves room for Summer thrills to the tune of bloody gladiator battles. Fine by me. Just don’t make it  two and a half hours. And to the countless critics applying ‘A’s and ‘four star ratings’ to it – claiming it was fun – it was not fun. It was a chore, as opposed to a pleasure, to sit through. It’s dry writing, poor pacing and self-obsessed (suspiciously similar to both ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Rob Roy’) plotline is a damn good argument to rethink a long running time if the material doesn’t perfectly cater to it.
         Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix are great. Crowe plays a fearless and brutish guy, intelligent and strong – a good mixture between his role as gut spiller Jeffrey Wigand in ‘The Insider’ and gut puncher Bud White in ‘L.A. Confidential’. Phoenix plays a fruity Roman emperor nicely (think ‘Caligula’-light as you thought ‘Spartacus’-light)  – he’s a squirmy worm of a bad guy with way too much power and far too many wild-eyed whims.
         But mostly, ‘Gladiator’ is a computer-generated world with airholes all over it. It starts out with a thundering battle sequence (earthy and bloody), then falls asleep for about forty-five minutes, then winds up again in fierceness, then a nap, then some more battle, then another nap, then a fight, etc…..And it goes on in this uneven cycle it’s entire duration – which I was so bored with, I almost couldn’t enjoy the pleasure of watching
Crowe dodge tigers, lead shaking slaves to decimate beautifully-costumed attackers and shift through oddball pagan dream-sequences (that look like new-age car commercials for a retirement home, but are cool-looking nonetheless).
         Finally, I hate that feeling when you have to turn to everyone in your party who is questioning you, the movie critic : “So did you like it?”. And you have to break their hearts and savor integrity over sentimental ass-kissing. But at the very least, I can sleep at night – you know?


Gone in Sixty Seconds
Directed by Dominic Sena
Starring : Nicolas Cage, Giovanni Ribisi, Delroy Lindo, Robert Duvall, Scott Caan,
        Timothy Olphant, Christopher Eccleston and Angelina Jolie.
grade: C

        Let me register my extreme disappointment, one I knew I’d harbor, at a film made in the digital age’s apparent inability to measure up to a film made with trick shots and photographic hoax editing. The films I’m speaking of are, respectively, ‘Gone in Sixty Seconds’ (2000), all glitz and too little chasin’; and ‘Gone in Sixty Seconds’ (1974), well-crafted adrenaline-pumping car chases and specimen-worthy wooden acting. How could a film that contains so many actors (why they all signed on, besides the paycheck it probably landed them, is beyond me), be such a strange turn-off? It starts out pumping with a great credit sequence and a half-baked plot setup I thought would drop me off at the nearest camp exit. Unfortunately, what results is some high-tech scheming that takes nearly three quarters of the screen time and some great car thievery and high speed pursuit that occupies the last quarter. Nic Cage, though somewhat electric and in his “Bruckheimer-summer-thrill” groove, never seems to make us want to love Memphis (his unexplained first name) and thus, why in the hell would we care if his brother buys the farm at the hands of the evil furniture lover (is this a trend, remember Gibson’s rocking chair fetish in ‘The Patriot’) played by Eccleston, there to wield his accent and chew the scenery. Loud, and too full of stagey drama, ‘Gone in Sixty Seconds’ is not the good kind of Bruckheimer film – it’s the risky kind. And in this case, what we needed for the risk to be a success was the following :

        a) More pointless reasons for speed-edited driving vistas
        b) The actors from the original, cared for in ‘Cape Fear’ or ‘Get Carter’ (upcoming) status
        c) Even more music, can borrow from ‘Me, Myself & Irene’, which seems to have footed
                well over half it’s budget in buying up the rights to pop songs.
        d) More excess, less attention to it’s hackneyed script
        e) Another director. Sena, who made the haunting and disturbing ‘Kalifornia’, is worth more to
                us than this.

                                                            thank me later, guys.


Groove
Written and Directed by Gregory Harrison
Starring : Hamish Linklater, Lola Glaudini, Denny Kirkwood, Rachel True, Vincent Riverside,
        Steve Van Wormer and DJ John Digweed.
grade: C

    My major quarrel with ‘Groove’ is the simple fact that there aren’t enough ravers raving for a film about ravers raving. Rarely electrifying, writer-director Harrison seems far more concerned with exploring the episodic misadventures of a group of rotating John Hughes-ish stock characters, each with less of interest to say than the last. The film seems dead-set on setting the record straight with everyone everywhere that ravers are fun loving people who have it right when they say that drugs like ecstasy and LSD are much less dangerous than marijuana and alcohol. That’s a point that’s probably worth making, I just wish it hadn’t been made as a constant expository rant on each of the characters lips. Lines of dialogue from so-called sympathetic cops like “Keep your ravers inside or all the love in the world won’t stop me from busting your ass” don’t exactly support the cause either. I’m not picky about cheaply produced films, but let’s face it – ‘Dazed and Confused’ and ‘American Graffiti’ were both dirt cheap productions and came out looking high-rent to say the least. ‘Groove’ seems to be aiming much lower, probably closer to a teenie-bopper element than to the independent feature it’s been marketed and screened as. And while hell-bent on aggrandizing the rave culture, the film offers so little in the way of interesting and informative content, it feels like a dream full of strangers – you can’t believe a film could possibly be this detached and still be operating from the hip of a real-life phenomenon. Harrison would have better employed a group of characters with brains, a tighter documentary-like style and some actors that had an ounce of talent.
    Music slays, though.


Gun Shy
Starring: Liam Neeson, Oliver Platt, Sandra Bullock, Jose Zuniga and Mitch Pileggi.
grade: C

        As good as a film that bases the majority of its subplot on a bad flatulence joke. Neeson’s comic styling saves the film for the most part and Platt, always the ham, isn’t altogether terrible to watch. Wish I could say the same about the ill feeling Bullock’s charm-a-minute ass doctoress gave me. As a romance, as a comedy, as a twisty police thriller, as a character study – ‘Gun Shy’ fails miserably. As a kooky mesh of all of them it just nearly succeeds, but decides rather to create an ending that not only defies the limits of disbelief suspension, but actually manages to undermine the idiotic inter workings that preceded it. Greatish moment, however : Platt arrives home full of rage and dispenses it by cleaning his Better Homes and Gardens evoking kitchen. Moment that made me want to wretch : earth shattering turning point when Neeson’s counselor says the line : “Nothing hinders therapy like bad gas”. Not entirely forgettable, certainly not surprisingly better than originally reviewed by the “F” tapping critics of America. Appropriately rated – don’t bother unless cable presents your comatose body with no choice – i.e. – it won’t kill you.


Hamlet
Directed by Michael Almereyda
Starring : Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Venora, Julia Stiles, Liev Schreiber,
        Bill Murray, Steve Zahn and Sam Shephard.
grade: C

    To resist or submit, that is the question. Whether tis nobler in the mind to wantonly give in when a filmmaker so obviously chooses tired material that he knows at least somebody is still applauding (conservative moviemaking at it’s finest), or to constantly question whether or not it’s the fault of the bard (which it most certainly is NOT)  that ‘Hamlet’ is such a flaming train wreck of a movie – – without the excitement of such a train wreck, of course.
        I remember reading about this project last year (smirking, of course).  It couldn’t have lived up to my expectations any more than if I had seen it then – – – or before the other two adaptations released in the last decade (and hells bells! another ‘Hamlet’ lies on the horizon with Campbell Scott adapting, directing and starring). Those expectations, I’m sure you can guess, were highly skeptical and certainly negative.
        Almereyda’s ‘Hamlet’ is a distracted mess of crisp and potent images which do in fact evoke the tone of the story but alternately, what goes on in those images tends to sell the film short. It seems so heavy with the longing to find as many clever and interesting little updating methods (the use of phones, fax machines, ‘To Be or Not to Be’ is delivered in a Blockbuster – talk about distracting), it has forgotten that ‘Hamlet’ is supposed to be a grand entertainment of (if not literal then figurative) epic proportions. Never does it come up with a reason that ‘Hamlet’ should be set in the New York City circa 2000 (the obvious choice would be to show the play’s themes of power and revenge to be timeless), instead squandering itself on the much less rewarding obsession with
style. It’s nearly the same problem that plagued Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’ – a much better film. Everything is staged in this odd little way that’s neither intimate nor sweeping. It all seems to be running it’s course in a dry, unrehearsed method so that we’re constantly seeing a film sucked of it’s flavor. A Bard nut, it pains me to see one of his plays, yet again, trampled by eager filmmakers excited to see it sprout wings and become something new. Give it a chance to rest first, you know?
        The acting is excellent (save Stiles – can anyone tell me who died and made her worthy of this verse?); especially from Hawke, who makes a wonderfully brooding Hamlet. Of course, one can’t ignore the supporting players :  Bill Murray as Polonious (a hilarious and very, very good turn), Agent Dale Cooper, er Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius and, finally, the haunting presence of Sam Shepard. Some inspired casting and the near perfect evocation of the “mouse trap” sequence (this time it’s a film that Hamlet has made which looks like something off of the late ‘Liquid Television’) also dot this mangled vision with rays of positive energy.
        While the film omits certain things (Osric and the Gravedigger for instance), at two hours it’s paced as if it were doing a full text adaptation. Not only does it drag it’s feet constantly, it becomes the very last thing it should have – anticlimactic. By the final sequence (which is less than impressive in itself), we are so tired of watching these characters look dangerously out of place that it’s meaning becomes completely lost and we’re not longer excited it by the words. In order for suspense (or even appreciation) to grow out of a scene where, for example, the outcome is already known, some level of freshness is required. Look not here.
        For all it’s glitzy modernizing – – – ‘Hamlet’ emerges as nothing more than a re-run you’ll feel you’ve seen too many times that gives you very little pleasure outside knowing it was once first run.


Hanging Up
Directed by Diane Keaton
Written by Nora and Delia Ephron
Starring : Meg Ryan, Walter Matthau, Lisa Kudrow, Diane Keaton, Cloris Leachman
        and Alan Arkin.
grade: B-
 

Here’s a surprise. A movie celebrating women that doesn’t feel the need to slight men or hit them below the belt. What works so well in arbitrary flashbacks and out-of-context moments is the absolute punch the actors are willing to doll out. Meg Ryan (as Eve), in particular, is unrecognizable (unless you’ve seen her act in films like ‘Flesh & Bone’ and ‘Hurlyburly’). She’s terrific at holding a working neuroticism that floods her everyday activities innumerably (she’s been in four car accidents within the same year due to her scatter-brained state). Matthau, whom I had originally shook my head in sorrow at – when finding out this was his last film – holds us beautifully with a counter comedic performance as an obsessed old man, who has lost his wife (Leachman) and his mind. And as an unexpected swan song, I believe he would have been proud that his last work as an actor included a line about the size of “John Wayne’s pecker”. What really knocked me out about ‘Hanging Up’ was how little it resembled something Nora Ephron might attach her name to. Its dark – but not melodramatic (okay, it’s a little melodramatic). It’s fraternal – without the gooey stuff (all right, there’s a little gooey stuff). And ‘Hanging Up’, a title which refers to relationships consummated and nurtured primarily by phone, doesn’t insult us when it comes across a chance encounter which sets the mood for redemptive satisfaction. After a fender bender causing extensive grill and headlight damage – that was Eve’s fault – a doctor has his mother take care of the bill that Eve wants to settle apart form Insurance companies. The mother, being a
saintly individual, makes herself available as Eve’s shoulder to cry on. Beautiful, arcane moment. The film simply asks us to suspend disbelief ever so briefly while we make the connection between the extraordinary and what appears onscreen (although rarely, it is drama standing for reality). Finally, ‘Hanging Up’ is a revelation in a world of cynical films I feel no need to defend when branded with the offensive “chick flick” stamp: a free-thinking, often funny – somewhat profound mediation on necessity to flood the air, face to face, with truth and criticism.


Here on Earth
Directed by
Starring :  Leelee Sobieski, Chris Klein, Josh Hartnett, Bruce Greenwood and Michael Rooker.
grade: D-

Okay, you’re a snotty wealthmonger, valedictorian of your nose-in-the-air preparatory school. You’ve just received the consolation prize for Daddy’s graduation absence: a BMW that shimmers in its own way (how can a grey car shimmer, you might ask?). Why not sneak out against the wishes of your headmaster and go joyriding to a working-class diner and pick fights with “pubbies”, a term lovingly applied to those attending public school (wanna look at me when you say that, pal?) After racing with the leader of the “pubbie” pack, you get into a violent car wreck that, instead of wounding or killing anyone involved, simply results in an explosion which burns a family-owned diner to the ground. You are sentenced to spend your summer (the international reaction: “Aww man, you mean my whole summer?”) rebuilding the diner and wooing a local girl who happens to be the longtime girlfriend of the “pubbie” (it gets easier to wield this term every time) you were racing with. Not just that, but she’s got a secret. And there’s gratuitous slow-motion, non-stop whispering – even the eventual scantily photographed sex scene. And all this is meant to be taken at full face value, not skipping a single beat, just plugging headlong into a lugubrious void where this rigamarole can be justified in the most obvious and irritating of ways. Watching pugnacious teenagers rival each other for a girl – a terrible, really just sickeningly bad performance by Leelee Sobieski (Kubrick would’ve smacked the taste out of her mouth if he had lived to see this, I’m sure) – may seem entertaining at first; but as it drones into the same exact tone rolled over and over and over again, keeping these caricatures of real people in broodville for the majority of its screen time; it loses the edginess necessary to capture our aggressive natural need to see people swing at each other. Eventually, it drones into an egregious blueprint for how teenagers function when their hormones and emotions collide and what not. Yikes – overananalyzing a teen soapdish – how could I sink so low? This genre used to be my bete noire – now I embrace the general rot among teen superficiality with excitement. Bad movies have become tolerable to me. They’re just fuel to the fire, baby.


High Fidelity
directed by Stephen Frears
Starring John Cusack, Jack Black, Todd Luiso, Iben Hjejle and Tim Robbins
grade: A

High Fidelity, the most mature film John Cusack has made since Say Anything – is nothing shy of brilliant. It’s the only film in recent memory that took the direct
address it was using – and made it go somewhere new, constantly – instead of simply stopping the movie before it reached the level it was aiming for. Funny, funny
material. Better than the book – which was confusing, but a really entertaining read – ‘High Fidelity’ is introspective, lived-in and full of life (especially the countless
and flawless details it’s renders in it’s backgrounds – never have material possessions seemed so sacred and useful) . Jack Black and his counterpart Todd Luiso
make splendid background jive for Cusack to bounce his misery off of – while the cause of his disdain – the lovely and all-encompassing Laura is played with brilliant
American style by the dutch actress Iben Hjejle. This is a film that’s important and deep and worthy of praise beyond it’s simple parameters of entertainment. ‘High
Fidelity’ even manages to squeeze a number of great cameos (Bruce Springsteen, Natasha Gregson-Wagner, Tim Robbins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor and
Sara Gilbert) – into workable walk-ons instead of show-stopping icons. A film that grabs hold – begs a second viewing and charms you into nearly wanting to be this
lovable loser. It’s the mirror of us all – in my case – a valentine to my dear older brother, who basically is Rob Gordon (or was – anyway – eek!)


Highlander: Endgame
Directed by
Starring: Christopher Lambert, Adrian Paul and Bruce Payne.
grade: F

By failing to explain the whole concept of “The Highlander” (as I’ve never seen the original), Highlander: Endgame makes no sense until about half way through when, by context alone, I harnessed my intellect and figured out just what in the hell was going on. By then, I was still overwhelmed with anger at how dismal and derivative the special effects, storyline, acting, execution, cinematography and dialogue were. Bonus points taken away when Bruce Payne hits the screen as a guy who rivals Mike Soscia (when he contracted radiation poisoning) on ‘The Simpsons’ for slowest speaking voice of all time. The grating exacted on my nerves was unbearable and with no redeeming qualities, the only thing even slowing Highlander: Endgame from being the worst film of the year was that it didn’t make me feel genuinely bad like watching The Next Best Thing did. Watching Highlander: Endgame didn’t make me feel much of anything – – – except pity for all involved.


Hollow Man
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Starring : Kevin Bacon, Elisabeth Shue, Josh Brolin, et al.
grade: D+

        Hollow Man is the kind of unforgivable waste of a viable premise that makes a ripping good trailer. It’s a film where the special effects seem to be the only
ploy for the paper doll characters to interact. This is a movie where nothing much surprises you – even when there’s a surprising moment – because none of it has
come from any original source. A touch of Deep Blue Sea here, a dash of *insert bad Paul Verhoeven film here* – I even felt a slight borrowment from that chinsy
(but not nearly as unlikeable) Chevy Chase drama Memoirs of an Invisible Man. The only slight pressure coming from this lifeless, would-be scare flick emerges in
it’s second act where it’s pitch black cynicism and light inventiveness nearly meld for a wired, engrossing effect. This section collapses into a rancid collection of
uninteresting chase scenes (looking desperately familiar to Alien an one point) including one of my most hated of all clichés – the dead guy who keeps on getting up
when you’re not looking (which could be ironic in a film about invisibility – but falls very flat when the disappearing guy routine is played over and over again in the
same key). As much as Verhoeven has attempted to make his films seem like they are crafted to be utterly mindless (solo triumph : the tongue-in-cheek Starship
Troopers),  let’s face a simple and unnecessary fact : his films are utterly mindless. Where his cast should be sporting along, dodging the “labored lab scientists” bit for a more lived-in compatibility with each other – these actors are bouncing off each other like opposing magnetic forces. Bacon, whose character I liked, seems to be the only one enjoying the bad-natured spirit of his situation (he’s undermined by the script which gives him so little to do in the course of his ordeal – which seems more like an opportunity to hear him whine than actual cabin fever). Shue is clearly there to shuffle the cleavage factor into an obviously dry visual wasteland of repeat images (the special effects, cool at first, dissipate into effete rehashes, shown to us over and over again without anything to give them meaning), while poor Josh Brolin is left holding the thankless role of “competitor” to Bacon in his research, his results and even Shue, whom they both obsesses over; one can only wonder why (besides the obvious reasons) – all she can seem to muster as far as speech goes are snappy invisibility parallels regarding her former relationship with Bacon. Why the film never wants to fully delve into the darkness of Bacon’s situation – or completely explain the background of the project or it’s necessity, is beyond me. Whatever larger purpose it may have wished to convey is lost in it’s petty attempts to cater to recent cinematic trends of “backing off” and “watering down”. William Devane (who was born to say lines like “Bad enough to wake up a few generals!”), comes in as a supporting player in all of three scenes. It’s something worth noting because the film manages to completely waste a chance at giving him scenery to chew on. Instead, it makes it’s intentions as plain as day – and it’s achievements as invisible as the film’s main character. It may want us to believe it’s got a whole mess of wild-eyed ideas reproducing at an alarming speed – but it’s got nothing but copies, cop-outs and kaputs. (Yikes! Am I becoming clever?)


The House of Mirth
Directed by Terence Davies
Starring: Gillian Anderson, Eric Stoltz, Dan Ackroyd, Anthony LaPaglia, Laura Linney,
        Jodhi May, Eleanor Bron, Terry Kinney, and Elizabeth McGovern
grade: A-

Terence Davies’ view of the world of Edith Wharton is at once complicated – and dizzyingly clear. From frame one, we easily identify the qualities becoming of
casting Gillian Anderson, previously well known as a force of logic and understatement on the television series ‘The X-Files’, to play the heroine independent defined:
Lily Bart. As folly after folly dots her journey through that pratfall of a tightrope that is pseudo-artistocratic New York (circa 1905), it is just the spectrum of anti
suppression that Anderson radiates which makes The House of Mirth such a pleasure. Wharton made details her weapons, supposed intentions into ringing bells and wrong steps, she rendered unable to reconcile. By comparison, Martin Scorcese was willing to bring the world of Wharton to life by putting miraculous, meticulous detail first – and crushing blows to come second and be, if you’ll forgive the phrase, “padded” by the paintings, furniture and costumes in the frame. In his The Age of Innocence, the unscathed position of Archer (Day-Lewis) is questioned and his value depleted – but so much of it is interior. In The House of Mirth, the same is true, with the details gleefully ingrained, as if they had already been created in our heads prior to our viewing – and had lost importance. Very little is entirely interior and emoting – though we’ve learned it was a little employed trait in this time period – is very much plentiful and vibrant. Lily’s transformation is a full figured, near flawless one. The film becomes less a deconstruction of high society ideals, for a time, and embodies a fish and hook scenario: Lily misses the hook by inches for a time, only to later chomp down hard upon it and find herself pulled from the pond and tossed back in – re circulated for later persecution. Davies’ wisely directs his cast (and it is a beautifully directed feature film) with a mountainous percolation, almost an erratic implication; everyone in The House of Mirth demonstrates intensity with the near rhythmic occurrence of a metronome. From the economically devious nature of Tanner (Dan Ackroyd, surprising the bejeezus out of me, enacting a solid period snap) to the insecure, free flowing masked romanticism of Seldon (Eric Stoltz, perhaps the equivalent of a soul mate to Anderson, evident in any scene they share) onwards to the business savvy goodness of Rosedale (LaPaglia, ditching the “heavy” in his persona and trading it for a strangely warm turn in such a chilly film), Lily Bart has her work cut out for her, bites down hard on her tongue and chooses door number four: acceptance of the attention and flamboyance of independence rather than the ultimate doom for many turn of the century heroines: marriage. Here, of course, is where it gets tricky. What makes The House of Mirth so electrifying and literate – not to mention wrenching – is how Davies blurs the line in Lily’s times of toil: Is she falling from grace with dignity or is she engineering a calculated downfall as an alternative to dashing back to the wealth mongers, tail firmly fixed between her legs? A challenging and risky question to pose, one which removes none of the serrated, foreboding edge from the source material, instead pummeling the audience with an anti parallel interpretation which leaves the period in the period and darkens our chances to find a ray of light. (In other words, no fair walking out of the theater whispering about how “things haven’t changed”. This doesn’t appear to be within miles of the filmmakers’ intentions). The view of a male centered world squeezing the pulse of personal honor and feminine celebration isn’t meant to be perceived as a commentary: Departing from Wharton’s finger pointing by both celebrating and damning Lily works beautifully.  A pleasure to watch, too, as The House of Mirth finds clever dialogue being wielded skillfully by an immaculate ensemble cast. The evocation of early twentieth century New York, as previously stated, is so impeccable and all encompassing it earns the high compliment of dulling its own presence. We aren’t meant to be impressed by the set decoration (we are) because it has a lived-in quality that doesn’t let it upstage the sharp, vivacious acting going on. Lest I forget the female performances. In addition to Gillian Anderson’s deservedly lauded turn, Laura Linney is a catty and boisterous villainess; Jodhi May and Eleanor Bron as Grace and Aunt Julia, respectably, play Bart’s only familial tie with the controlling helplessness aided by tear and scowl. Bron is particularly good at upending a conversation with a cold, fiendish stare.The House of Mirth is engaging to the point where both long, favoring smiles and chilled, trance like shocks climbed aboard my viewing experience as baggage only serving to enhance the grand genius of such a film. Davies is as assured in the time period as any director attempting Henry James, Jane Austen or E.M. Forster, for example. This film, unlike several of the adaptations of those authors’ works – is complex and rewarding enough to fulfill my film writing duties and entertaining enough to garner a second viewing. One of 2000’s true treasures.


Into the Deep 3-D
Directed by
grade: B

Though scant, Into the Deep 3-D plays like a fishbowl in the middle of a chaotic day at work: If you stare at it long enough, it tends to relax your body. It’s a
tease though, as this film seems made for the younger viewers more than anything – its only about forty minutes long – and even they may be put off by how
scientifically sound the film appears to be despite its root in the cinema of attractions. Perhaps this is the first thrill ride you’ll take at the IMAX that feels less
invigorating than calming. Kate Nelligan’s voice guides us through a kelp ridden ocean landscape brimming with sting rays, crabs, fish, sharks, octopuses and moray eels. In short, its a brief introduction to the marine life off the coast of California that is maybe the most interesting science class film reel you’ll ever see. A thematic touchdown on the evolution of life, it’s food chain necessity and, eventually, the synthesis of symmetry and harmony that comes from the “unchanged for epochs” sea. Its certainly not as exciting as, say, Microcosmos – but then that film wasn’t on a gigantic screen, was it? Very little of the film actually moves beyond the range of microscope-like animal discussion. Occasionally, we emerge from the deep into the coastal cliffs of Big Sur to give the film proximity – not nearly enough to draw a parallel between the land mammals called humans and the mysterious creatures under the sea. It certainly is miles from the point, but to not include the irony here would be a crime: Into the Deep 3-D is shallow. Its a Discovery Channel introduction piece masquerading as a IMAX thrill ride that comes off as just entertaining enough to hold us in a state of perpetual awe until the final credits close.


Jesus’ Son
Directed by Alison Maclean
Starring : Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, Jack Black, Denis Leary, Dennis Hopper, Holly Hunter and Will Patton
grade: A-

I remember seeing a film that Alison Maclean made once (I reviewed it on the imdb for all interested). I remember it being excessively disturbing, so much that
when showed at the tail end of class, it haunted me long into the rest of the day. It was showed me by the assistant director, Kimi Takesue (who’s biggest statement
of the film involved the cookies they’d used to achieve a certain lighting effect – what a waste of a “story time” experience), who was teaching my filmmaking class
and saying the word Tungsten far too often. In one respect all this back story has nothing to do with the triumph that is Jesus’ Son – because the film is so far and
away on it’s own turf. On the other hand, it made me good and sure that I could connect with the film besides a passing screening. To get right down to it – I’ve spent
over a year waiting to envision even the minutest of details Miss Takesue had shared with us, picturing the film and it’s organs, spewing precious juices. It’s a film
that’s been on my mind for quite some time and…..

        …..part of it’s genius is that it defies any perception I may have concocted on my own. And that’s always a really cool thing.

        Literally powered by the robust and exciting performance by Billy Crudup (expect no better this calendar year), Jesus’ Son is the very picture of “heart” (for
lack of a better word) within the context of a junkie romance. It’s much more though. It’s a random film, full of back-and-forth movement within time. It’s a
dangerously subtle movie at times, outward and dismal at others. It’s seventies’ midwest drug culture painted as the perpetual sunday afternoon : hazy, ambient and
full of the main character’s resourcefulness. This is a film about junkies in love that feels more like a film about a man’s search for his own meaning. Something about
that shift in particular, the transcendence of self-discovery in the face of life’s little pleasures (sex and drugs) that make it an entirely fresh and open cinematic
experience. I mean, how utterly magical to see a film taking place about the same time as Another Day in Paradise and copping an attitude that makes it seem as if
no one has ever made a junkie-lovers-road-movie before. And Crudup is astonishing. He does that rare thing in cinema that I spend my days dreaming about : he transplants his character into my head, giving me that giddy thrill of a rush that, for several hours after the film ends, I am the mythic character of Fuckhead. I know everyone is dead sick of hearing about my little walks in the city following a feature, but you know – there’s something worth noting about that child-like demeanor, my eyes bright and wide with the passion of life and carefree steps of someone devoid of attachments, appointments or prospects. Billy Crudup gives us the out-and-out embodiment of such an individual. It’s pure joy to watch him. Lest I forget the supporting brood, there’s Samantha Morton, who proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that her Academy Award nominated performance in Sweet and Lowdown was no fluke (stupid cliched word!) and that with a voice, she’s still a powerful presence as Fuckhead’s main squeeze. Denis Leary, ragtag and nearly unrecognizable, loads the film with a pained junkie that sees his wife sky surfing from a hot air balloon and steals copper wire from his own home to sell for scrap. There’s Jack Black, who is dead-on as an energetic and drugged out hospital orderly (as Jack Black, of course). Dennis Hopper, who in one scene, evokes the memory of the late William S. Burroughs with a painful soliloquy about bullet holes and life. This is a film, like Bringing Out the Dead, that separates it’s acts with characters on the fringe of oddity. If I had one complaint about the film, and I do, it would be the way it seems to lose it’s steam mid third act or so, as Crudup connects with a crippled widower (Holly Hunter). Seems as Crudup emerges from rehab and begins to find semblance and order, the film becomes ordinary all of the sudden.* But, even with that slight trigger – it’s worth it to hear a line Crudup utters just after a stage freeze. I’ll spare you a spoiler alert and allow you to hear it for yourself. Jesus’ Son is an accomplishment that, mark my words, will make ripples.

*  – [If we’ll all remember, this was my major complaint the first time I saw Being John Malkovich. We’ll all remember that I recanted shortly after, as well before seeing the film a total of five times. And yes, I plan to see Jesus’ Son a second time ASAP.]


Joe Gould’s Secret
Directed by Stanley Tucci
Starring Stanley Tucci, Ian Holm, Hope Davis, Susan Sarandon, Patricia Clarkson and Steve Martin.
grade: D+

At one point in Joe Gould’s Secret, Alice Neel (Sarandon) says that “there are levels of  discomfort”. I could feel that every second. Not only is this an uneven film – but it leaves  the audience out in the cold, constantly. It doesn’t seem to grasp that in deifying Joe Gould, a Bohemian writer (of the infamous “Oral history of the world”) who also happens to be a bum; it’s doing exactly what main character Joe Mitchell (Tucci) is doing : trying to become part of the movement, if only long enough to write a piece about it for the New Yorker. Course, the Bohemians aren’t really that interesting when you begin to infiltrate them. As Mitchell gets closer and closer to Joe Gould and his assorted bunch of writers, misfits and other artsy geniuses (some self-proclaimed), the movie gets more and more dull – and more and more distracted by it’s own fascination by it’s subject. This is one of those odd times when there is a great subject and it could be interesting – but the film is so utterly stupified by what it’s like to be Joe Gould – at every turn, mind you – it begins practicing to be him by showcasing its own misunderstood flavor of complete and utter obscurity. In doing so, it leaves us standing somewhere in the back of the crowd, just out of view of what’s interesting. I felt like I had purchased a ticket to a night club and spent the evening waiting behind a door – peeking through the keyhole, but unable to enter. I have no idea where in the heck the second half of Joe Gould’s Secret was going. I have a good idea of where it intended to go, but as I became more and more dissatisfied with it’s methods – I became uninterested and nearly went mad trying to decipher the crappy-crap-crap (thought I’d regress a tad) that was transpiring up on the big white screen. The mortal sin occured : I got bored. In it’s favor – I admire Stanley Tucci’s performance. A nice, humble guy – played by an actor who is totally at home in 1950’s New York – that stumbles on a wild, baboon of a man, namely Gould.  Ian Holm, going totally over the top and constantly wrangling the sentiment right out from under our brow – does little more than overacting. I found myself so annoyed with his presence – I wished the title would change and suddenly the film would be about something else (It might have been – I lost track). But, by the same token, I don’t exactly wish it had been about something else – I wish it had not been told in such a dry, poorly-paced manner. I had to excercise some real restraint in not shutting my eyes and catching some ‘zzz’s or simply gathering my belongings and shuffling my angry feet out the theater door. (And regarding his secret – let’s just say he’s transparent from frame one and leave it at that – how’s that for restraint!). All of the good things in the film – and there are some (the montages are especially effective – or at least would be in another film) – are totally and completely marred by it’s aimlessness. Whereas it has a beginning, middle and end – that’s all it has. For the painful majority of it’s duration, and anything that’s not an exact plot point anchoring the what’s left of the film’s froggy structure – it’s going it’s own way and it’s just thumbing it’s nose at us all the way. It wants as little to do with us as Joe Gould does with anyone he sees on the street. And I, in turn, want nothing to do with it.


Judy Berlin
Directed by Eric Mendelsohn
Starring : Barbara Barrie, Bob Dishy, Edie Falco, Aaron Harnick, Madeline Kahn, Julie Kavner, Anne Meara and Novella Nelson.
grade: B

One of the things I love about films that take place in the suburbs, anywhere, is that the director has inevitably grown up there and knows the nuances and
quirks that the rest of us are ignorant to. He’s prodding us with the key to a sardine can and rolling back the cover just slowly enough for us to see the world through
his eyes – or at least the ones he grew up with. He knows the houses are just so far apart as to be safe for the neighbors – but close enough for everyone to know
everyone else’s business. He knows the trees that hang over the streets, the cars parked on those streets and most of all, he knows the unseen balance that hangs in
the wind during every moment of every day in the suburbia. In Judy Berlin, a Long Island suburb’s residents are gradually re-entering a school year. The mellow offset of returning to routine has some of them wandering around saying good-bye to those in participation, has some fleeing and has some finding the old wounds they left when they shuffled off the routine three months ago. To further complicate the forced organization of the back to school jive, an eclipse shadows everything with a darkness that’s as eerie as a horror movie at times. Judy Berlin is clearly crafted by a director who knows the value of the window, it’s observational and aesthetic power and the overall result of cinematic alchemy.Everything encased in this film feels like the magic of seeing a moment in time through a window and being able to appreciate it for it’s human qualities as well as what it means in the face of the myseteries of life. The film is constantly eliciting these gigantic smiles that we cinephiles desperately seek. It’s editing is marvelously timed and concocted, it’s atmosphere wonderfully offbeat and low-key at the same time and the score, which at first may sound a bit too much like Rushmore, seems to have a different flavor as the film proceeds and it begins to complement the images almost as if they were filmed to go with it (and not the other way around). Coincidentally enough that I would find a comparison in Rushmore. Judy Berlin is reminiscent of that film and either of Todd Solondz’s opuses in it’s sure-footed march to the vision of it’s director, clearly set to create the neighborhood out of a palette of his own experience.  This is the very zen balance of the heavily stylized Indie pic and the filmed theater (read : character + actor driven) idie pic. Haunting, occasionally too meandering for any film’s good – Judy Berlin is often a great film even when it’s not great entertainment. The acting is extraordinary from everyone, particularly Madeline Kahn (whose last performance this is), who plays a housewife suffering from the aging process – and maybe from Alzheimer’s disease. And the film’s marketing tool – Edie Falco (of that TV show that nobody’s heard of and never gets any Emmy nominations) – is magnificent. Her first encounter with David Gold (Harnick), an aspiring filmmaker (can an independent film exist without this character), is such a weed of hilarity in this dramatic bluster of a garden, that it’s inverted itself for a few moments. It’s a colorful scene in a purposefully colorless (it’s in black and white – hint, hint!) film. And finally, a neck-breaking nod to director of photography Jeffrey Seckendorf, whose wonderful and lasting cinematography is the hidden charm in Judy Berlin. For all it’s brilliant writing and assured filmmaking – the look of the film is maybe the most important – and beautiful- part of it. The landscapes of this sordid little burg, which include train stations, public schools – even a historical village – and especially the dazzlingly filmed eclipse sequences – are breathtaking. This is a film where all the elements come together to combine a piece of art that’s worthy of it’s praise and deserves a much broader audience.


Keeping the Faith
Directed by Edward Norton
Starring : Edward Norton, Ben Stiller, Jenna Elfman, Anne Bancroft, Milos Forman,
        Eli Wallach and Ron Rifkin.
grade: C

Keeping the Faith is an inverted oddball of a movie. It’s a corny routine that fumbles its message inside an impossibly dull love story. Strangely enough, it’s too
deep when it should be light; inappropriately peppy and screwball in the face of it’s rare, reverent epiphanies. It’s about thirty minutes too long and, at it’s worst
possible moments, it fizzles our interest. What’s really obtuse about Keeping the Faith is it’s heart, firmly in the right place; and it’s actors, deftly in tune with its
intentions; all of them playing too hard for the occasion. It’s a hoax of vanity : attractive actors hook us in with hip, funny antics, then drag us through unimaginably flat
scenes you’d only find in a movie. I really almost feel like recommending it based on what it should be and the promise it shows in it’s opening scenes, showcasing a
risk rarely taken with a first directorial effort (namely, the meshing of two, count em’, two religions into taboo zones and flat-out comedy, without apology).
Simultaneously, it bears those indolent first timer drives: the bland editing and photography, a narrative spun in retrospect only to catch up to itself at the halfway
point, slow motion, freeze frames and voice-over, all used haphazardly, and other transparent gestures of art house flare, misappropriating obvious cinematic
amateurism and redundancy. Granted, Norton is an amazing actor and well complemented by his terrific cast : Stiller, who would be a hoot in the silent cinema;
Elfman, who surprised the Dharma out of me; and Forman, Wallach and Bancroft, the geriatrics in our romantic comedy (yes, my bleeding pet peeve), who work
because they’re restrained whilst delivering their respective speeches without resorting to goofiness or grandstanding. Keeping the Faith lost my interest, yes, and it’s lackluster ending certainly didn’t recapture it (stay attentive for a key scene littered with errors in continuity – always fun to snicker and gawk at), but it’s a marginal jumping off point for Norton, whose decadence doesn’t pay off here – but could easily come in handy beyond the complications and compromises of romantic comedies. Talk about tackling a challenge your first time out. He gets my sympathy vote, but not my recommendation.


The Kid
Directed by Jon Turteltaub
Starring : Bruce Willis, Emily Mortimer, Spencer Breslin and Lily Tomlin
grade: C+

So utterly forgettable that I can’t even remember what I would have said about it had I bothered to review it when I saw it. The flights of fancy that take Willis back to his childhood seem to come some time after you’ve finished watching the movie and are driving home – – – and the kid hired to be his little shadow, Spencer Breslin, is just about the most irritating piece of pug-child I’d ever hoped to have to watch. The film’s saving graces are Willis’s great one-liners through the first act and Emily Mortimer’s saint like tolerance of his existence. But then again, tolerance really shouldn’t be poking its head into a film’s quality, now should it?

[Still not sure exactly what I had hoped to accomplish with the inclusion of “driving home”. I watched this thing in my bedroom. Then went to sleep. No car involved.]


Le Buche
Co-written and Directed by Daniele Thompson
Starring: Sabine Azema, Emmanuelle Beart, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Claude Rich, Francoise Fabian, Christopher Thompson, Jean-Pierre Darroussin.
grade: C+

A harmless, but not particularly enticing French film that observes three sisters (is that this year’s theme, or what?) who are affected by divorce so much, it
ripples into their very lives with almost no subtlety whatever. Director Daniele Thompson ( who wrote The Dinner Game, which I openly – for whatever reason – refused to see) is known for his venemous characters and dry wit, and here he inserts a great deal of both – and a couple of wrenching monologues – but never seems to reach a pitch of reverence that lifts La Buche (English title : Seasons’ Beatings) out of it’s revolving door soapbox groove. Only Beart is memorable as a wife on the verge of being left by her husband. Using the former sexpot charm she employs in Roman (her husband) Polanski’s films, she manages to trick us into loving her as she deploys the bombs of preparation, an effort to snake him before he snakes her. Claude Rich delivers a wonderful speech (to himself) about a Christmas in WWII Poland as he crossed the border that all but stops the movie dead in it’s tracks, but as he later meets his ex-wife for drinks and proceeds to drink heavily, Thompson strips him of his kindness by giving him a devilish (but dimwitted) late-comeback to the ex-wife’s incessant gloating over her former affairs : “Bitch”. That sums up my feelings about most of the film : Just as it reaches it’s climax, Thompson inserts the dagger and turns up the chill.


The Legend of Bagger Vance
Directed by Robert Redford
Starring: Matt Damon, Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jack Lemmon, et al.
grade: B

The title character of The Legend of Bagger Vance refers to a mystical caddie, one who seems to appear and disappear into thin air. In this story, a withered
golf champion named Junuh (Damon) – on whom The Great War has taken a vast toll – has sunken into a life of liquor and solitude. Propositioned by his former love
Adelle (Theron), he declines to play in a huge tournament in which he’d be representing his hometown of Savannah. It isn’t until an encounter with Bagger (Smith)
that he decides to play in the tournament, which will become a journey not only to reinstate his golf career – but to rediscover his broken former self and to find a
level-headed way of life through the pleasures and concentration of the game. These are lofty themes to unfold in a film that, while serene and sincere, often plays like
nearly every other pressure cooker sports competition the screen has offered to us. In fact, what saves the film most of the time is the distinct correlation between
Junuh’s manner of living/system of beliefs and the rules and strategies of golf. When the metaphoric link of life does deviate from golf, it turns it’s focus on Junuh’s wartime recollections and concluded romance in attempt to apply this parallel further. This only happens a few times, but it really weakens itself by piling too much baggage upon one allegory. Luckily, when existence and golf are freely flowing into one another’s deepest pools, the film is a magnificent reflection on how we live our lives and indeed, the need to question our existence and how we cultivate it as we grow older. Eventually, this transformation gives way to the film’s most valuable seal, the most simply put parallel with life: “You can’t win this game, you can only play”. (Would spoil it if I were to offer my own interpretation – feel free to inquire.) The film is passionate at heart but, like Junuh, isn’t always sure how to express this emotion in order to maximize its meaning. Luckily, Redford has no trouble finding the right note for the film. The tone is marvelously sculpted, as are the characters, each the very picture of varied nobility and human beauty. Damon’s reinvention and eventual redemption are cast in as dreamlike a glow as the fading “legend” that is Bagger Vance (enacted with auspicious grace by Will Smith). The magic of Damon’s charm and his effect on the golf sequences produce an almost childlike joviality, a determined and concentrated elation that is at once consuming and inspiring. Damon gives one of his best performances, exhibiting a definite lift from Redford, of whose likable, boyish qualities Damon often evokes. Whomever put it to the studio that Redford and Damon could work out together made an intelligent choice. First a haunted country club drunk and later enlightened, Damon is able to competently play both the jester and the king echoing the earlier films of Redford. Despite the performers, this film only gradually realizes itself as it progresses, a good thing for a movie with such an uneven pace. Too often, the film seems to be one compelling scene straddling the dead time before another begins. Like an old man, it needs to rest between it’s allocations of wisdom. It never manages to keep from sinking into repetitive (which stems from the style of the novel on which it is based) and predictable (it is still a sports movie) territory which, though unfortunate, certainly doesn’t swallow up all it’s merit. This is still a highly watchable, very enjoyable couple of hours in a darkened theater. I’ve seen plenty of films like this one: films that are just charming enough to flurry along with good-looking actors, a sweet score and plenty of interest, to nearly convince us that they are not flawed. Never the very picture of brilliance, but often dogmatic and wispy, The Legend of Bagger Vance is based upon a novel by Steven Pressfield – one you’d find in the “inspirational” section of your local bookstore. Though I’ve not read it, the film plays like an self-helpish novel: informal, often carefully making a point more than once as if to reinforce its importance. It is also full of examples and applications meant to keep the film relative and accessible. The attempt to fit such an approach  into a ridged narrative structure is admirable and, for the most part, successful. The film doesn’t always work – but it gets the valuable messages across and, in the process, finds its own voice despite some distraction.


Little Nicky
Co-Written and Directed by Steven Brill
Starring: Adam Sandler, Harvey Keitel, Patricia Arquette, Rhys Ifans, Tommy “Tiny” Lister, Jr., Kevin Nealon, Jon Lovitz, Rodney Dangerfield, Quentin Tarantino
        and Reese Whitherspoon.
grade: D+

Reminds me of that moment when the popularity of the “I Didn’t Do It” Boy (aka Bart Simpson) runs out and, desperately, he emits the phrase “Wuzza Wuzzel”. Little Nicky is prime “Wuzza Wuzzel”. As the audience watching and creating the failure of the “I Didn’t Do It” Boy said, “That’s what passes for entertainment these days? Wuzza Wuzzel?”. I’m afraid so. On the box, it says that Little Nicky earned over $40 million. In my heart, though, I know will earn a helluva a lot more – realistically – than that alarmingly unappalling Sandler Films Inc. gross in the theater (that is, when it hits video on April 24th). These films, which have almost no half-life yet seem to last forever and a day, don’t annoy me as much as the specific draws which pull us in. Consider that people see the film because Adam Sandler plays the devil’s son. Then consider the actual enactment (which is one of the most annoying film characters I’ve seen to date), a performance of such lazy, repetitive tootling, I expect even Sandler himself chucked the premise and kept the paycheck after dreaming it up. (Like Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, Little Nicky is an idea for a five minute sketch, painfully stretched into a 84 minute film at YOUR expense). Then consider the paycheck. Consider while you’re at it, the premise: Devil’s son must capture his two older, much larger, much meaner brothers in a magic flask before his father deteriorates in hell (you see, by leaving hell in the first place, the brothers have frozen some eternally burning wall causing this leper-like condition in old scratch). The problem is that he is too nice a guy and that, all he really wants to do, is save his father. This is a film about paternal protection that is using the old “magic flask” routine. You can’t fool me! I know the old “magic flask” routine! (Now return with me to reality) Though the intermittent funny line uttered by the random Saturday Night Live cast member may cause a chuckle, Little Nicky is perhaps Sandler’s worst gimmick yet. Keep giving him your money and keep watching this filth. I’ll be over here not considered a loser by the paramount of normal people in this world.

[Dude, Trout, calm down: These are only movies.]


Love & Basketball
Written and Directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood
Starring: Omar Epps, Sanaa Lathan, Dennis Haysbert, Alfre Woodard, Harry J. Lennix, et al.
grade: B

Movies about people under pressure that use sports as the catalyst aren’t necessarily new territory. In fact, most of the things that happen in Love & Basketball aren’t really all that fresh. Seems the importance shifted from how the pressure would affect what, at first, seems like a backburner priority and later, would become a way of life – the only sure shot among a series of occurences laced with both good and bad luck (the priority being love). The way it amore is placed on a pedestal in Love & Basketball‘s second half is quite honestly admirable. It is a likely balance, since it remains the only interesting thing happening in the film for the last hour. And teetering on the other side of the scale is a first half that shows us a set-up that is often worth exploring – it occasionally dips into a good romantic edge – and is sometimes a little too indicative of how dark the path is for teenagers who embark on a sports career. Point of fact: I no longer care to see films about how hard it is for young people trying to ride into college on a basketball scholarship, even if you remove them from poverty and desperate situations. And yes, its just a little odd to me that these families live side by side when one household operates from income based on a bank manager’s salary and the other operates from income based on a professional basketball player’s salary. But details always deserve a little break in a good love story – and this film is no exception. The best part about Love & Basketball, a film I’m quite content to have been surprised by, is the characters Prince-Blythewood has written. Quincy and Monica are so likeable and so much fun to watch fall in love with each other, the simple and almost redundant basketball parallels just melt away. How wonderful to see in the year 2000 – a romance that is able to stand up to the banal action driving it and overshadow it, redeeming the audience and leaving us satisfied. Lathan is so charming and Epps so cocky – and the two of them so sweet together – it’s worth watching for their chemistry alone. Entertaining to say the least, but I’ve got very little else to say about it. I forgot nearly everything but the romance the next day. Maybe the last thing we needed in this world was another film about lovers and sports – but on the other hand, as long as they keep creating intesting fantasy romances, who cares?


Love’s Labour’s Lost
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Starring : Kenneth Branagh, Allesandro Nivola, Matthew Lillard, Adrian Lester, Alicia Silverstone, Natasha McElone, Timothy Spall, Nathan Lane
        and Geraldine McEwan.
grade: B+

Here comes the grandiose statement from he who practically held his hands in front of his face in efforts to shield himself from disappointment: Topsy Turvy. If
anything is evoked from the beautifully whimsical, expertly staged and marvelously acted Love’s Labour’s Lost, it’s Mike Leigh’s delightful celebration of the art of
the musical stylings of Gilbert and Sullivan. Imagine the thrill of sitting in the darkened theater, gigantic smile affixed to my pale little face. Laughs and girly giggles
gurgling from my throat as I imagined the minds of the elderly folk seated in the theater, obviously getting far less out of this slice of pie than myself. Same exact
feeling shivering when I saw Topsy Turvy last February 7th. Branaugh sets the play in WWII. He pumps it full of wonderful 40’s and 50’s musical tunes (much better than in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, but the same idea). He, as always, celebrates the beauty of the stage with mannered and overstated lighting, near-silent era acting and a collection of actors who seem to have baccalaureates in comic timing (I’m not kidding – Nathan Lane is as you’ve never seen him before). But most of all, Branaugh celebrates the joy of a musical and primes the film with good-looking actors (the biggest surprises : Alicia Silverstone and Matthew Lillard can act! Wonderfully!) But above all, what Love’s Labour’s Lost reminded me of, was that besides the brooding dramatic Branaugh of Hamlet and Henry V, therein still lies that comic genius who splattered Much Ado About Nothing into our collective consciousness seven years ago. For all my love and admiration and getting happy in the seats of the movie house – it marks the ying to a yang that’s been raging on too long and almost created a brooding, shell-like exterior to a man who was once married to Emma Thompson. A man that, while brilliant in it, didn’t really need to do a film called The Gingerbread Man and definitely could’ve done without Wild Wild West. It’s a celebration of the American musical and also, the return of a Shakespearean titan. This is a film that will be on my top ten list at the end of the year.

[Talk about name dropping; And how embarrassing is stating the date you saw Topsy Turvy? What was that about?]


Madadayo
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Starring : Tatsuo Matsumura, Kyoko Kagawa, Hisashi Igawa, George Tokoro, Masayuki Yui, Akira Terao, Asei Kobayashi and Takeshi Kusaka.
grade: A-

There is nothing that is not irresistible about the films of Akira Kurosawa. Every one a new journey into the world of visual storytelling, a new homage to myth and honor, each a grand banquet  of cinema – each one great. Madadayo is a wonderful film with its own personal speed and tone – now fast and absolutely perfect, later slow and meandering – this is a film, like most of the master’s works, that is meant to evoke both a sense of intimate serenity and also, like the broad stroke of a painter, a wider appreciation for life as an institution, it’s unfolding rays poetic and warm in the glow of Kurosawa’s painterly creations. Madadayo could easily pass for a film conceived and shot in the mid-40’s. This is one of those observations that you bestow in the face of almost inconceivable precision (the technical prowess of stage lighting, solid use of color and intrinsic framing) that leads Kurosawa’s films into such a well rounded beauty. A film about students paying tribute to their professor, over many years, is one of those tiny stories that are easily nailed by films made abroad. Following here, Madadayo is a deeply personal film that pays tribute to Kurosawa’s longtime favorite professor, Eizo Uchida. The title is a phrase meaning “not yet !” in answer to student’s inquires of “Mahda-kai” (meaning “not yet ?”); all this a whimsical pondering to whether the professor is ready for the next life. The professor is played with a childlike wisdom by actor Tatsuo Matsumura. There are scenes where he drops pearls of genius from his mouth, other scenes where he breaks like a dish over the loss of his beloved cat – – – even a moment where he hides under a blanket for fear of thunder. This is a man full of the honesty and chaste like ability of people we know and love in our worlds. Kurosawa honors him by creating such a magical character out of reality and likening him to such a canny diagesis. Everything in this film is worth experiencing, from the near still moments of seeming docudrama to the poignant dream sequence that closes the film in a place that no director alive could have hoped to transcend his career into as he fades away. And could I justify the mixture of the unkempt and the tight; the fantasy and the homage; the tragic and the comic? Could I put Kurosawa’s film into such rigid genre terms and expect that explanation and critique to stand? No. It’s all sophistry. There’s never a solid way to put one’s finger on a work of this magnitude and bring it into the funnel, honing its terms and themes into a great metonymnical simplification that will give the film any real meaning to the reader. I couldn’t possibly be so shallow and even if I were to think for days of a sentence or phrase that could complete the void left in my state as a filmgoer and a critic, I couldn’t. When I left the theater, the rain was falling hard and the temperature had fallen drastically. I was warm inside and I didn’t feel a drop.


Me, Myself & Irene
Written and Directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly
Starring : Jim Carrey, Renee Zelwegger, Robert Forster and Chris Cooper.
grade: C-

I know what my mom’s going to say. She’s going to accuse me of not being able to take it easy, of reading into things too much and of not honoring the all-important “Summer Movie” code – they’re made to entertain, not for merit (apparently, that’s what the fall season is for – or something like that). So much for that crap. Me, Myself & Irene has me wondering why in the hell the Farrelly Bros. are so popular in the first place? Alright – they come up with some decent premises (always with the road movies – but combined with bowling amish folk or, in this case, a cop with a split personality, both sides of which are smitten with the same pair of blue eyes). I’m one who found Dumb & Dumber to be just that and There’s Something About Mary – no there’s not. Both marginally funny films, each of which didn’t exactly do much more for me than a couple of belly laughs here and there, wincing at the dull execution of the premise – that Straight-to-Video script knocked up a notch by it’s willingness not to fold when something is utterly tasteless or too disgusting to bear. If it’s over-the-top, perverse or taboo – they simply show it and move on. And that’s how they make their money (I leave out Kingpin only because it’s a brilliant fluke). This is perhaps their most banal and foul attempt at making such low-rent films. Sprinkled throughout are important things : Jim Carrey’s wonderfully physical performance, colorfully cartoonish and full of both the likeability we discovered he’s capable of (in his “vanguard” pictures, as I like to call them, The Truman Show and Man on the Moon) and the flat-out insanity he’s always been known for; the few and far between inspired jokes (he has three kids that his ex-wife mothered with a highly educated African-American midget, his bad personality talks like Clint Eastwood on downers; and finally, some toilet humor that manages to transcend sharp wit – – weird and lofty claim, right?). On the whole, though, Me, Myself & Irene is a really bad, really slow-moving film. It’s signature “musical-montage-road-movie” framework is painfully transparent. It’s got about four times the pop songs it needs (even if there is a great XTC song, that, for some reason ended up in there). Most of the characters are recycled from their other films (some even three and four times removed by this time, particularly the Albino waiter). And finally, something you’d probably not expected to hear me say, The Farrelly’s disdain for the police is becoming something of a boring set of sight gags and jokes. Who are they trying to impress with their constant barrage of bumbling cops? It’s strange to think a couple of guys who can be as funny as Kingpin end up resorting to a plot about a dirty cop dogging the EPA about some “golf course thing” that’s never clearly explained. It’s also odd to think that this film could be as formulaic as a sitcom, with all the freedoms of television obliterated and still come up with so many jokes I had to sit and decide whether I wanted to laugh at or not – bad ones that I’ve seen used over and over and over. In the end, all I could think of was how much this movie was supposed to be entertaining – and how utterly insulted I felt watching it. I wanted so bad to just sit back, relax and laugh…but I would’ve fallen asleep, so I had to be alert. One more reason that there is no such thing as a “Summer Movie” made just for entertainment’s sake. Me, Myself & Irene is an STV movie with marketing bucks. Period.


Meet the Parents
Directed by Jay Roach
Starring : Ben Stiller, Robert DeNiro, Teri Polo, Blythe Danner, James Rebhorn and Owen Wilson.
grade: C

Let me forego any play for a summary as you have no doubt pieced it together correctly from Universal and Dreamworks’ startlingly effective marketing
barrage. Meet the Parents is perhaps the driest comedy to be splashed on us in a long time – and I do not mean that in a good way. Ben Stiller, playing the high
priest of embarrassingly out-of-his-league schleps, has no trouble bypassing a needless sympathetic nod for some coy, overtly indulgent slapstick parading. The way
he manages to mix with DeNiro, and turn out an oddly connecting pair – but for all the wrong reasons – is quite simply put, miraculous. And anyway, it is DeNiro
that holds Meet the Parents together. Though he has done comedy, even dark comedy before; it turns out that this unlikely and thoroughly sinister character that he
manages to arrive at before the film closes does the trick and makes the film somewhat more than simply unpleasant (a term that just kept ringing and ringing in my
ears as I sat there, stunned at this film’s popularity). Strange, too, that both Blythe Danner and especially Teri Polo are so ineffective since this a film that is primarily
about the nightmarish ritual every future husband faces when confronted with the realization that he’ll have to become kin to total strangers, namely, his fiancee’s
parents. One would have chosen better female leads or at the very least, give them something to work with. Not sure the virtuoso ending – which almost has
absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the film – is necessary. If I were faced with a covert, militaristic Robert DeNiro doing a scene that utterly apologetic, a last
grab for our attention, if you will – and, on top of it, I had to be married to Teri Polo for the rest of my life – I’d bolt like lightning. But then, Ben Stiller’s never played anyone particularly bright.


Mifune
Directed by Soren K. Jacobsen
Starring Anders W. Berthelsen, Iben Hjejle, Jesper Asholt and Emil Tarding
grade: B+

I’ll admit that I’m truly intrigued by the Dogme method of filmmaking (Those of us not familiar as such – go here – I’m done explaining it). In Mifune, the whole concept of Dogme comes around full circle as we begin to see the parameters of it’s strictness constrict – and produce genuine results. The editing suggests such things as parallel action, constant shift in setting and even match action (suggesting further that a scene was shot from several angles in several takes, a tactic that isn’t nearly as obvious in the other three Dogme films). Mifune gives us what I think Lars Von Trier and his associates were aiming at in the first place : evolution. The rules of the style, though strict and considered by some to be contradictory, are getting more and more liberating. The film also seems to be a Danish filmmakers’ lament : challenging the elemental and thematic charms (and downfalls) of the American romantic odyssey. Mifune knows, like Hollywood, that for a successful and involving romance, the audience must believe they could fall for the protagonist of the opposite sex. Consider films like last year’s Notting Hill – a Hollywood romance that bustles along much like Mifune, building a pleasing romance, one that we’re all satisfied by, before abruptly tossing a gigantic, bitter monkey-wrench into the gears to the tune of female aggression. In Notting Hill, it destroyed the flow, and, in essence, what was left of the picture. In Mifune, since the film feels so utterly real in every aspect (thanks due to the Dogme certificate), a savage run-in with fate falls easily into place – texturing, rather than decimating the film. Mifune is rich with familiar themes (‘hooker with a heart of gold’) and characters (‘the long-lost invalid sibling’). But while these oft-explored Americanisms seem somehow trite when overflowing our market – they seem fresh and new in Dogme’s realm. I think the enactor of what many thought was a silly phase has made it’s point and
can be taken much more seriously. I thought Festen (Dogme #1) and Idioterne (Dogme #2) were both sensational uses of such a palette – the former, (The Celebration in English), a beautiful realization of actors/script using experimental images; and the latter, The Idiots in English, reinvented the thrill of improvisation and culls some truly comical and utterly, heartbreakingly moving scenes in it’s breadth. (The only American entry – Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy, though disturbing and real, is so uneven it falls apart before it ever gets going. It’s too much like Korine’s Gummo to be a departure into Dogme. Instead, it’s just a departure. A displeasing one at that.) But Mifune (Dogme #3), the best of the series, does a number of great things within it’s fence. The film takes on a romantic comedy the way it should be taken – with more than just a hint of tragic consequence along the way. How often is it that you see the male protagonist in a romantic comedy marry a woman in the opening sequence that he’ll later divorce when faced with love. Usually, even in the most crestfallen of European entries,
forbidden love is played up as lust and cast aside, preferring to show the dark reality of the chains of marriage vows in society. To me – this marks an even more amoral and cynical view of life. Perhaps that’s why Mifune strikes so close to the mark. It’s the kind of film where the moral issues are seen as simple formalities that have nothing to do with reality. I’ve seen this rarely – but wonderfully – executed in modern films (such as Lars Von Trier’s very Dogme-ish Breaking the Waves; Leaving Las Vegas, directed by Mike Figgis whose current project is improvisational and shot on DV; and The Boxer, which is kind of the odd man out, but one whose major strength is that the lovers decide that the romantically devistating reasons presented as “accepted” by society aren’t going to stand in their way). Mifune is the most akin to Breaking the Waves. It’s another marvelously haunting, tragically real Danish Love Story. And tragedy, my friends, is not another way of saying that the protagonists die at the end of the film. Tragedy is a theme and, in the best of films, it’s almost as if it were so strong – it becomes a character of it’s own. This is one of those films. Another striking aspect in Mifune has to be the savage and breathtaking lighting in the creepy farmhouse that most of the film takes place in (though Copenhagen is intercut occasionally and seen as a cold, utterly unforgiving place where nothing good and lasting seems to take place). Using only natural light (as specified in the rules), the film manages to, in nearly every scene, capture that light and make it into a most productive and comfortable entity. The framing is great. The camerawork is great. There’s shots that stick with you. In a film where no tripod is present and everything is done guerilla-style, memorable images are a feat. All four of the Dogme films I’ve seen have managed to pull this off. And the film is nearly a genre film. Though, on the website, director Soren K.
Jacobsen only confesses to having broken one rule (creating “a kind of lighting arrangement”) – isn’t creating a romantic comedy breaking a rule? Hardly. This film is
not a romantic comedy. It certainly could fall in that category, among many, many others. Perhaps that’s the idea with such a rule – instead of begging a reason to avoid genre entries – maybe Trier and fellow creators were hoping to spawn a collection of films that defied one single genre. Two more notes. The character of Rud, played to awe by Jesper Asholt, could easily have been – had the actor been playing himself playing Rud – a character in Idioterne. Something to think about : are we dealing with a style that influences itself? Consider this : the sequences where the nicely gradual relationship between Bjarke and Rud is cultivated – are videotaped by Emil Tarding in almost the same introspective light the Dogme films seem to radiate. Is the style permeating itself into it’s films? When Bjarke
is using a videocamera, are the filmmakers mirroring themselves, stating their position as equal among the actors and the props? How wonderful a creation. Someone said to me the other day that he was already tired of watching Dogme films (though I can’t see why, he’s picked the worst possibly time to choose that route).
With Mifune, Dogme shows it’s full power and it’s true nature and creates one of the best films in recent years for it’s trouble.


Mission: Impossible 2
Directed by John Woo
Starring Tom Cruise, Thandie Newton, Dougray Scott, Ving Rhames, Brendan Gleeson and Anthony Hopkins.
grade: C+

Part of the fun of Mission : Impossible (the original film) was the way it’s screenwriters David Koepp and Robert Towne (who wrote the sequel) chose to make a
film about the interworkings of a fictional spy organization and made it more believable than any James Bond film made in the last ten years. It also managed to incorporate three magical action setpieces into a story and hand them to us without drawing attention to them as their own entities. It was an underrated film and it’s no wonder I saw it twice in the same two day period. In it’s sequel, the action scenes remain – but they’re twisting in the wind, left out in the cold by a useless, oafish storyline about a deadly virus, it’s cure and an ex-agent (Scott) that wants to cash in on the virus by unleashing it on Sydney and then selling the cure to those affected. (suck in the sarcasm) Oh, but Robert Towne wrote it – he wrote Chinatown. (back to reality) So? I like Thandie Newton. She’s sexy, sensual – she’s the Emmanuelle Beart character from the first film – until Tom Cruise sleeps with her (a plot point wisely excised from the original). Here he develops, not to put to fine a point on it, a personal attachment to a character he has to use – and will later have to save. This is all too familiar and all too insulting. In the first film, when he was just an agent practicing his need to get off on the thrill of the mission. In Mission : Impossible 2, Cruise is simply a hero trying to rescue the girl because he’s in love with her. Duty goes out the window. And so does that sense of satisfaction we get from not having to be perplexed when Cruise does such things as blushes and grits his teeth when she’s forced to sleep with his arch-nemesis, etc. I liked it better when he enjoyed what he did – not who he did. And nobody gets screwed more than John Woo. His balletic visions of two-gun, slow-mo shoot-em-ups (just how many dashes can you use in a sentence, Ben?), car and motorcycle tumble acts and acrobatic kung-fu are so wondrous and made me smile so hard, I wished and wished another film like Face/Off – that’s dumb at face value and knows it – could come along to take hold of these majestic head rushes, weaving them among a story worth hearing. And Tom Cruise, an actor I’ve learned to like very much in the last seven years (the cinematic triplex of The Firm, Jerry Maguire and Eyes Wide Shut), is also left at bay by this yawner. He’s good at the remarks, quirky and intelligent – and he’s given nearly none to spew in the film’s entire one hundred twenty-six minute duration. And for God’s sake, am I the only one who thinks Brendan Gleeson should have been the villain and not characterized as the dummy simply because he’s a little overweight and has that baby face? It may be very good at using it’s sources, but Mission : Impossible 2 is really meant to be nothing more than fun. Less than a year after the new low point was set in the 007 series, nothing could resemble a low-rent Bond flick more than this botched spy thriller. Trouble is, the standards are all screwy. Mission : Impossible 2 should never have to be categorized in the realm of Bond and 007 should never suck enough to have to be slapped on the wrist at all. In a world where both of these things are true, the resemblance of sed motion picture to another franchise and that other franchise being utterly worthless as of this moment : I only wish poor John Woo didn’t have to take the fall in the crossfire. (Was Robert Towne a big fan of Face/Off or what? Nearly every character in the film, at some time or other, sheds a latex mask and turns out to be someone else.) When, oh when is this summer going to produce some watchable films?


Mission to Mars
Directed by Brian DePalma
Written by Lowell Cannon, Jim Thomas and Graham Yost.
Starring: Gary Sinise, Connie Nielsen, Don Cheadle, Tim Robbins, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Jerry O’Connell
grade: D-

Let me tell you something funny (and sorta ironic): When writing reviews, one usually finds the hardest of critiques to get around to writing to be that which one
liked a great deal. It’s human nature. You don’t want to betray the film and what it meant to you because hey, you want people to know that you connected with it.
But what it really comes down to is articulating your personal analysis of an extreme. This is something I normally encounter with “great” films because there simply
exists a larger volume of quality films than of crap. On the other hand, I’ve put off writing this review for a couple of days because I was worried I’d miss pointing out some of the god awfulness of it’s existence. So – – – “If I miss anybody, it’s only because I’m tired…” – – – (Jim Kelly, Enter the Dragon) Satisfying science fiction films are nearly as rare as satisfying horror films (coincidentally they’re frequently lumped together in your local video store). In the last few years, I can only remember the underrated terror of Event Horizon; the poetic use of special effects in Contact and the inspired and, in fact, awe aspiring visualization of future-noir in Dark City. On the more rancid side, springing to mind are the misfired camp of Lost in Space; the paper thin illusion of complexity that was Cube; and let’s not forget last year’s trilogy of bad sci-fi films : the sandpaper dry The Thirteenth Floor, the pompously un-suspenseful The Astronaut’s Wife and the silly, if extraordinarily exciting The Matrix. In the past, films have had to transcend cross genre motifs to achieve success : Star Wars is a marvel of storytelling, 2001 is an epic poem that’s more about evolving life than space travel – And let’s stop there, at 2001, the film my older brother said would have to see it’s maker dead before Mission to Mars could be released. But not for plagiarism (as he was inferring), because I would imagine Kubrick would have rolled into his grave had he ever been forced to watch a film as bad as Mission to Mars. Let’s be clear right from the get-go that the half a star I gave it was out of charity. As a human being, just like sending flowers to the grave of an enemy, I felt somehow compelled to bestow something upon Mission to Mars. It was just bad enough that it needed a hug. I’d like to laundry list it’s faults and other assorted offenses. I’ll try not to leave any out (see quote above) : clichedom in all major categories, but especially in
the opening sequence where Don Cheadle says good-bye to his son – and it’s the most insincere thing I’ve ever seen. That brings us to the performances. If you
wanted to see a film full of sluggish acting, A-list actors humiliating themselves and up-and-coming stars putting a nice black mark on their repertoire – welcome to
Mission to Mars. Next, the pacing. The film starts out moving at light speed, ignoring all the important points (such as take-off and clueing the audience in on things
we (ahem!) need to know to make sense of what’s occurring onscreen). Then, at about the forty-five minute point – the movie stops dead in it’s tracks. It’s made no
sense in anything it’s done so far, so when a major character suddenly bites the bullet (and they devote twenty minutes of screen time to it), the momentum comes to
a halt like a buick hitting a telephone pole. It’s impossible for me to believe that anyone involved did this film for anything more than the almighty dollar just like it’s
impossible for me to believe that the film takes place anytime in the future, since everyone seems to be talking as if they were in a B-rated TV movie (if that’s
possible) where everything is of the “Make Rocket Go Now!” variety of technical jargon. That, and the utterly absurd establishment that the film is taking place years
from now : the car with an interior motor that’s suspiciously quiet. Right. How very clever. My largest gripe (SPOILER ALERT!) is the lackluster ending – – and when I say lackluster, remember how difficult it would be for any ending to actually fail to live up to such a crappy, for lack of a better word, beginning and end. Believe me – there is nothing in the first two thirds of Mission to Mars that would suggest an ending exposing the evolution of man. None of the characters in this film deserve to know the secrets of life. We’re not talking about a hokey “surprise” ending here. We’re talking about an ending to another movie that mysteriously contains the same characters and which miraculously picks up where ‘Mission to Mars’ left off – – only it makes zero sense. Perhaps it should have taken a note from Contact, which failed to present us with a concept creation of the alien being featured in that film. The alien in Mission to Mars is not only unnecessary and less than visually stimulating, but it seems so content at playing along with these losers, especially Sinise (who for some reason thinks we’re not going to laugh at the predictable way he ends up leaving Mars). I actually found myself holding my laughter in order to hear more of the ridiculous lines spouted in Mission to Mars. I didn’t want to have to rewind. I might accidentally go to far and have to watch the scene where Jerry O’Connell constructs his perfect woman’s DNA strand using M & M’s. Or any of the scenes where Armin Mueller-Stahl uses his accent as collateral for any acting he might need to do. Or, if you’re really in the market for stuff not to have to see, ever; leave the room right before Don Cheadle appears in the garden tent, bearded and half crazed (a seeming parallel to Robinson Crusoe, which he discussed (insincerely, you’ll remember) with his son) wielding the sharp end of a hatchet. The worst part of that scene? That he doesn’t kill and eat the entire crew before starving, himself and therefore ending the film before it gets too –

Fuck it. It gets too ridiculous before the opening credits finish rolling. Brian DePalma is officially a hack.


The Next Best Thing
Directed by John Schlesinger
Starring : Rupert Everett, Madonna and Benjamin Bratt.
grade: F

This is an inexplicably bad film. If you can get past the first thirty minutes – which offensively allow Rupert Everett to exploit himself and put on display the
ridiculously stereotypical way Hollywood chooses to show off its gay characters (I’d be very surprised if the writer even knew a single homosexual), then you’ll find
yourself in Madonna’s exploitation territory where, not so much because she parents the child in maybe two, three scenes – but because it just seems wrong for her
to have to make yet another statement about single and odd family situations and how they’re just fine (which they are – but the ludicrous idea that single mothers
and gay men are going to start cropping up as parents all over the place seems, to me, a tad labored. Maybe I’m wrong). And if you’ve made it through that – and
I’m not talking about a film that’s laughably bad, this one’s point blank hard to watch – you’re ready for round three, where Robert (Everett) will hire a lawyer and
attempt to sue Madonna into giving up the little boy that, let’s face it, Robert raised and Abbey (Madonna) simply holding onto for spite. All this because she wants
to marry Benajamin Bratt (complete with a scene where you think he’s going to break up with here but, “Surprise! Surprise! He just wants to tell her he’s in love with
her!). Some particulars.  Robert seems to me to be the gay supporting character (clearly meant to be the comic relief in most films), jarringly pushed to center stage
and made to blossom into a fake, absolutely unbelievable character in a set of circumstances that becomes more and more absurd as it compounds. I also wondered
to myself if that screenwriter was really so bitter and cynical that he not only decided to attack this outrageous premise (and decided to turn it into a rebel yell for
custody battles), but also wrote a script where practically nothing new happens. So much of the content of the movie is a variation on every scene preceding it. It’s a
loop. A loop of boredom. Finally, and this is more of a personal note than anything, the film flirts with the idea that Abbey and Robert have some sort of romance pending,  like that closing shot of In & Out where “It’s okay to be gay – but heterosexuals are the truly happy ones” (which is kind of appalling in itself), The Next Best Thing flirts with the idea that following a drunken sexual encounter, Robert and Abbey will (ahem) be lovers. At that time the film takes its cue to include the meddling old people characters I loathe in romantic comedies. And it just spits in my already slap stinging face. I’d like to spit back, but I wouldn’t know who to begin with.


The Ninth Gate
Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Emmanuelle Seigner, Lena Olin.
grade: A-

The Ninth Gate, a Polanski film all around, begins with Johnny Depp playing Dean Corso, a sleazy book dealer who rips off his naive clients and makes oodles of money and a sour reputation – which he always has a sarcastic word or two to defend. You have my attention. It’s a movie that starts out fascinating, becomes out-and-out comical and ends on a slightly creep, lightly dusted note of…..of…..I don’t know what. I jotted in my notes that The Ninth Gate is not a film about Corso and it’s not a film about the Satanic text he searches for. It’s really not a film about his client, Boris Balkan (a superbly funny turn by Frank Langella), who wants to – ahem – conjure up Satan. It’s not really a film about the mysterious girl (Seigner) that continually comes to Corso like a hallucination – in his aid, though somewhat ambiguously. I’m not sure I could tell you what it’s primarily about. I’m not even sure it matters. The Ninth Gate is a film that’s not really all that silly – but is hilarious. It leaves no doubt that it was crafted to be that way and it begs no apology for itself. It’s quite aware that you’re judging it and it’s laughing at you. It’s like a nude woman walking through a crowd – never self conscious – and proud, oh so proud of what’s it possesses. The film authentically holds it’s own pace and mood. I can see where some might find it slow – boring even. It’s utter Polanski from start to finish. His films have evolved into a series of really odd stories – told in really normal and face value ways – and observed through the muddy eyes of expectation. It’s Polanski. We expect it to be….something. And whether or not it’s what we expect – it’s always quite defiant and really quite jarringly….normal. And that’s what I love about this film and the rest of Polanski’s recent repertoire – his films constantly surprise us by being less than we expect from his wild following and reputation. Strange stories told in a very straightforward manner. And
usually with a humor all their own. It’s also enjoying itself. The schmaltzy and wonderfully playful score – that’s evil – but 50’s television evil, not real evil. The dog that seems clearly embarrassed by Corso, who washes his face in a fountain. The catfight, yes catfight, between Lena Olin and Frank Langella. Yes, catfight.  And that great line, spoken by Barbara Jefford : “Besides…my orgy days are over.” Oh, that’s just perfect. All these great, funny, perfect touches. And in the end, when the inevitable spice of the occult must present itself – it’s funny, not scary. And it’s meant to be. My question is : Why is this film so heavily criticized? It’s a comedy. It’s funny in the way Stanley Kubrick’s films are. The oddity of reality occurs to us as we’re watching something outlandish – and we have to laugh. And it’s a good, strong, hearty laugh. And we mean it. It’s the kind of laugh you look forward to savoring. Depp is perfect casting. He’s so overdue to play a down-and-out character, repeatedly ousted. He’s the perpetual vision of the guy who gets soaked by the passing car – stops to be ridiculed – and continues on, tailed placed firmly between his legs. But since he thinks he’s a badass book dealer knowitall – it’s really, really funny. It’s a stretch – and that’s why it’s great. And how could I forget Darius Khondji – the cinematographer behind Se7en and The Beach – who manages to re-define the coolness in watching Johnny Depp smoke a cigarette. And in a film where there’s alot of book examining, that Khondji finds such a goldmine in showing up his craft – the beautiful presentation of celluloid – is a feat in itself.
The Ninth Gate is a film that doesn’t take itself seriously – it’s a comedy that doesn’t take the audience seriously. And it knows it.


Not One Less
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Starring Wei Minzhi, Zhang Huike, Tian Zhenda, Gao Enman and Zhang Yichang
grade: B

I have a lot of good things to say about legendary director Zhang Yimou’s latest cinematic offering. Before that – to balance the scales – allow me to showcase my biases. I love Zhang Yimou. I think he’s one of the best filmmakers working in the world today. To Live, made in 1994, is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. His quieter, but still wonderfully constructed family trilogy – Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern and The Story of Qui Ju are necessary treasures which are gloriously written. His first film, Red Sorghum boasts, literally, some of the best imagery put on film in the last twenty years. And finally, Shanghai Triad, which I discounted at first – is a brilliant period piece and one of the most suspenseful films ever to travel the language gap. In short – I went into Not One Less with the director’s entire repertoire on my mind, expecting nothing short of absolute majesty – and, given that silly buildup, was not disappointed. Not One Less is a very different kind of film for Yimou. For one, much of it is hand-held. It straddles the fine line between narrative and the very evocation of direct cinema. It’s also a different type of film because it’s a message film – one that’s never obtrusive nor preachy. It certainly doesn’t feel like a message film – but the epilogue makes it one. And it’s not a bad thing. And it’s whimsical. It’s a real-life story, but it’s light around the edges – keeping it afloat when the really intense subject matter comes to pass. My original take on the film was that it fit the mold for an American ‘at-all-costs’ picture. I quickly refuted that type of thinking. Not One Less is genre-less. Like his last film, Yimou creates with the palette of life and defies what is on the surface – giving us a film that builds and builds with energy and beauty – and never seems to land in familiar film territory. It seems to make its own place in it’s own world. And it’s simply delightful. The movie opens with Wei Minzhi, 13, being summoned as a substitute teacher to a class of 28 while the regular teacher (Gao Enman) visits his ailing mother for one month. He instructs her not to let a single student quit the class (down 12 kids from the beginning of the school year already). What ensues is a power struggle – a stubborn journey of retrieval – and ultimate respect which defies Wei Minzhi’s age. She inevitably loses a student – a sharp but wicked young man, Zhang Huike – to a debt he must work to pay off for his own ailing mother. When Minzhi ventures to the big city to drag him back with her – the film gambles and wins on whether or not it can portray the hopelessness that overwhelms Wei Minzhi – and an appropriate vindication of sorts. It’s the kind of perfection you grill over in your head, smiling to yourself and hoping everyone in the theater has picked up on the same thing you have. Finally, when the persistent Wei Minzhi begins spending money to make things right – the movie breaks free. It becomes a wonderful excursion of self-discovery for her – and breaks down beautifully to : childhood innocence embodied, struck, discarded and regained. With strife comes results – as simple as that. Not One Less – using non-professional actors, raw compassion and a wondrous bout of dedication – is simplicity defined and easily one of the best films of the year.


Nurse Betty
Directed by Neil LaBute
Starring : Renee Zelwegger, Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock, Aaron Eckart, Greg Kinnear, Crispin Glover and Pruitt Taylor Vince.
grade: C+

Nurse Betty is a strange kind of inherently American film. The bending vortex of narrative curves it contains handle themselves as a road movie would – but
they also caress the great American fantasy driven cleverness that film scripts often have trouble handling in the delicate nature necessary. This film is no different.
The film concerns a waitress, Betty (Zelwegger), whose husband (the brilliant chameleon Aaron Eckart) is killed by two hit men who take to the road convinced
Betty was in on her husband’s dirty deeds. It doesn’t help her case that she’s fled to Hollywood to find her knight in shining armor (a TV doctor played with oozing
pretension by Greg Kinnear). It’s playful – if exaggerated and overblown – twist, is that she has had a psychological breakdown and is genuinely convinced that the
TV world is real and that her husband is alive and well (she’s just leaving him for the doctor, you see). It’s not really the premise that sours the movie as much as the writer’s vain and stringy attempts to counterbalance it. Freeman and Rock (the stand-up comedian who, as an actor, is little more than a coprolaliac with a wooden face) provide the reality meant to be inter cut with Betty’s odyssey, giving the audience a sense of hope that all will be resolved in our real world  – rather than Betty’s fantasy world (what an anticlimactic premonition, don’t you think?). Luckily, this phase is delayed as long as possible and the lovable, Dorothy-like Betty (who, by the way, is brought to life beautifully by Renee Zelwegger) is allowed to frolic about in her haze of bliss – often comical, rarely misfired – while the film ponders how it will grab the strings with it’s free hand and tie them together before all interest in the screenwriter’s narrow attempts to weave the hit men into this fable is lost. Gradually, the film draws its subjects nearer and nearer to each other and, as the twists bend into a soft, unstable mess – the film’s final act appears in a disjointed and backward place: neither fantasy or reality. The film becomes a series of situations you’d only see in the movies (particularly an unveiled secret coming late in the film that’s neither shocking nor interesting – perhaps that will dispel the rumor that there’s a necessity for such a secret to ensure popularity and success in every dang movie that’s released). If anything is salvageable from the film as a whole, it is painstakingly well directed. LaBute (whose Your Friends and Neighbors and In the Company of Men, benefited from his writing more than anything) is particularly adroit at grabbing performances out of his actors that can transcend some of the hopelessly inert and sour dialogue choices. For example, even though the subplot involving the hit men feels like were ripped straight from a high school kid’s most amateurish Tarantino-notebook script doodling; LaBute seems to have instructed Freeman to carry on as if he were less a philosophizing hit man – as we’ve digested in American films for years – than an aging professional, eager to do the things people do when they retire, no matter what he did for a living. LaBute wisely steers the film away from a reaction to modern confusion of television and reality (you know, a “message movie”, whatever that is) making the weight of the film, that is, Betty’s plight, seem less like a symbolic journey and much more like a present-day fairy tale. I can just barely imagine the storybook pictures of her in her nurse’s uniform, stumbling through a fictional hospital in search of doctor who, “if he were any more handsome, it would be a crime”. Nurse Betty takes it’s share of wrong turns and manages to come off as little more than another mediocre addition to the already mammoth list of films bearing that particuarly brand of quality this year; but at the very least, it’s a diversion that’s, in it’s own ever confusing and often funny way, light and feathery. Though the surface appears to be a complicated, bustling chaos – it’s not. More, in this case, is most certainly less. Something can always be said for entertainment that forges simplicity out of complication.


Onegin
Directed by Martha Fiennes
Starring : Ralph Fiennes, Liv Tyler, Martin Donovan, et al.
grade: C-

The nagging bother of a film like Onegin (pronounced in the film as Un-YAY-ghin) is that it translates in the art market much the way Arnold Schwarzenegger or Adam Sandler films do : It’s merely a vehicle (in this case, a vehicle in which to display the indispensible Ralph Fiennes in yet another set of bad wigs, ornate duds
and verbose lines of dialogue). Hard to swallow a film that feels less like its own entity and more like a blueprint to be fed to first-time Masterpiece Theater directors
on how to film duels, exploit embittered sexual repression, beef up on scoffing, stage elaborate dinners…the list goes on and on. And believe it or not, Liv Tyler
doesn’t embarass herself in the least – it’s Martin Donovan that’s a shameful wreck. His Russian soldier get-up (complete with overwraught hat, pointy sideburns and
overdecorated jacket) looks so atrocious on him and his acting is so far-fetched, that by the time his character is introduced (mid-third act or so) and we’re
wondering just how many Merchant-Ivory tones can be stacked on top each other before the pile comes toppling down, the film begins to embody little more than
my introduction quip : a one-trick pony showcasing a great actor who, apparently, has little else on his acting repertoire than favors for his director sister who, by the
way, has put together a complete waste of time (even for Liv Tyler, who should on her knees thanking the Good Lord she’s not cast in some sort of
Armageddon 2 or More Empire Records. Complete with Cookie’s Fortune and Stealing Beauty, she’s fast becoming something of a reputable actress.
Complete with The Avengers and Onegin, Ralph is slowly sliding downhill.)


The Original Kings of Comedy
A document engineered by Spike Lee
With : D.L. Hughely, Cedric the Entertainer, Steve Harvey and Bernie Mac.
grade: C

God, where in the hell did the heyday of stand-up concert films disappear to? The breathless gasps of delight as the end credits finally relieved you from comic
fantasy land in the hands of Eddie Murphy (Delirious and Raw are personal treasures of mine), Red Foxx, Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby.  You’ll briefly calculate
that I’ve only named black comics – and given the one-track thematic preoccupation of The Original Kings of Comedy, Spike Lee’s newest chance to show white
people what they’re missing in being white (I know that’s just not fair being that I love his movies and all, but – damn, nigga – you know?); I’m really not to blame for
the racial long division. First of all – when you make a stand-up concert film, try not to intercut boring sequences of backstage tomfoolery that goes nowhere and
wreaks havoc on your mufukin’ momentum. Second of all – crowd reaction shots are well and good, but not when the crowd upstages your comedians (as in one
brief sequence when I was practically shushing Steve Harvey in order to correctly understand the mishmash of jibberjabber from this knuckle head in the front row).
And finally, putting your best comedian at the bottom of the order is smart – granted – but don’t make the first ninety minutes too got-dam agonizing; I can’t even tell
you if Cedric the Entertainer was funny – I was dozing moments into his act. And yeah, the last comedian, Bernie Mac (think a black W.C. Fields, child hating and
nearly unintelligible) was almost a hoot (course God knows why he chose to throw in a deeply ancient joke about a stuttering child); but it’s the principle of the
matter. If you’ve got three comedians, all connected to sitcoms (and breathing the episodic, watery styling of such a medium), and you’re so hell-bent with urgency to
get them on the big screen – please do my good friends the American filmgoers a personal favor – make these comics grossly more than merely intermittently funny.
When a mufuka wanna laugh, a mufuka wanna laugh! Seriously, now.

[Editor’s Note to the cinematographer : When you’ve got a cool name like Malik Hassan Sayeed, dropping the Hassan is a childish cop-out – as is doing the
photography for a fucking concert.]


Orphans
Written and Directed by Peter Mullan
Starring : Douglas Henshall, Gary Lewis, Stephan McCole, Rosemary Stevenson and Frank Gallagher.
grade: C+

As is the norm for actors-turned-directors, they project the majority of roles they’ve played into the fantasy of their dream pictures – which sometimes works
(Nil By Mouth, prime example), but often does not (How many times can I put you down for watching The Postman). Peter Mullan, whose work I’m not at all familiar with (but I’m aware includes at least one film with Ken Loach, a magnificent director of the “London downer”), matches exactly whom I’d picture him to be: a gruff, thick-accented working class stiff, not unlike the Platonic form for any of the characters in Loach’s films. But familiarizing myself with all of these swirling thespians and auteurs brings little to boil outside the point of similarity : far too many of the films that hail from England, Scotland and Ireland look and feel the same. Orphans certainly looks the same, and with it’s droll, mismatched score (and tirelessly definitive of depression, one thing this film needs much less of) and preoccupation with the central character in the film, a dead mother – it certainly comes close enough to measuring against every other “hard luck in a row home near the land of the Catholic guilt trip” film I’ve been privy to view. On the other hand, though the mother’s death seems only a shallow ploy to disguise an often clever riff on Scorcese’s After Hours, Orphans keeps the hits coming at a decent pace, slowed only when the film decides to be about something. It’s at it’s very best when it’s coming up with outlandish and disastrously painful situations to thrust it’s three protagonists into. They are, as follows: a divorcee (Henshall), stabbed in an opening sequence and bleeding throughout the rest of the film; a college boy (Lewis) hell-bent on avenging sed stabbing; a crippled girl (Stevenson) who, confined to a wheelchair and let loose by her guardian, ends up helplessly celebrating a surprise birthday party with a family she’s not at all familiar with; and finally, sed guardian (McCole), who has resolved to spend the night with his mother’s coffin in the neighborhood church. The blunt of it is that they are all siblings – or, as the title would suggest in the wake of their recent loss – orphans. The film will indelibly hammer the idea that these grown-up kids are projecting their aggression on the world or acting as if they don’t have a mom. But don’t be fooled. The best scenes in the film are the ingenious ones that you’d likely find in a Todd Solondz film : the college boy’s crony (Gallagher) threatening a cheapskate only to find the cheapskate masturbating; an obnoxious bartender who is fond of locking his customers in his storage room gets his just desserts; and finally, the hilarious image of a man so stuck on preserving the memory of his mother, that he insists on bearing the coffin on his back sans the pallbearers. Perhaps it’s that final ridiculous request, to carry a overtly grand load on one’s back, that provides the only viable connection between the strange and dark episodes that befall four grief-stricken siblings the night before their mum’s funeral. In the morning, just like in the rest of the film – one thing’s got nothing to do with the other.


The Patriot
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Starring : Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Joely Richardson, Chris Cooper.
grade: B

Alright, I admit that I’m finally in the mood for an overlong, overstated event epic. And kudos to Robert Rodat for finding the niche he belongs in : anti-war
films that even the dumbest of nature’s filmgoers can swallow. ‘The Patriot’, though guilty of nearly every cinematic cliche in the book, is still an entertaining and
rousing picture full of big, bold characters we long to see, but have all but died out. I’m speaking of course of the rebel rousers; the big tough revenge seekers and
the bruisers who swallow their pride, roll up their sleeves and kick ass. Just slightly moreso than when Emmerich had Will Smith doing it to aliens, The Patriot keeps
us on the edge of our seats with good old-fashioned bloodshed, romance and string music. This is a noble failure that, minus the gore, could easily have passed for
any of the cut-and-dried war epics of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Really, how many times can we watch one army outwit the other army (that’s been winning all along, mind you), by simply having more men hidden somewhere? How many times can we hear the word “beseech”? How many times can we watch Mel Gibson hack to pieces another man for doing him some sort of unforgiveable wrong? The proof: Emmerich hides the men, Rodat cooks up goofball dialogue and Gibson has his eyes blinking from fatherhood to bloody revenge constantly. This is film with no surprises that managed to hold my attention even in the wake of it’s utterly detached pace. I’m all for films like this. I’m thinking to myself, : “This is what the summer crowd deserves – mindless entertainment; a good, long story; and a buff leading man that fulfills the fatherly compassionate side and the male brutality side of a familiar character. There’s a billion things that could’ve been done to The Patriot to make it a quality film – one that’s fit for packaging in the fall and divying Oscars to – but why bother? This is, even more than ID4, methinks, the summer movie for the ages: An epic with no brain, all the right visual cues and gumption to spare.


Pay it Forward
Directed by Mimi Leder
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment, Jay Mohr, James Caveziel, Jon Bon Jovi and Angie Dickinson
grade: C-

Most of Pay it Forward is a rather noxious insult. It is an insult to the audience because, though structurally sound, it never strays from the straight and narrow
path to a crescendo of petty manipulation. It is an insult to its actors as all three lead players are better than their dialogue, their characters and, as a result, their
performances (which suffer greatly from having to strain every scene for an peak that is just unattainable). It is an insult as a screenplay because it is repetitive,
distracted and simply too dry and far-fetched to pass this subject off to us as plausible (or even remotely interesting). And it is an insult to the industry because it
seems to have little else occupying its mind than a play for duplication of past success; (with many examples: Thomas Newman’s score either is or sounds
dangerously close to his score for American Beauty, Kevin Spacey has most of the same emotionally crippled ground to forage in here as in Beauty and Osment,
who seems to have been instructed to act is if still seeing dead people should have been much more naturalistic.) Trevor (Osment) gives birth to a line of thinking dictating that one person does a life affirming good deed for three people who in turn pay the favor forward to three more and so on. This is a fabulous idea – with reservations. Several people are rewarded with this system, some in need and others, like Jay Mohr, certainly not in need (he’s a reporter whose car is wrecked in a hopeless hostage negotiation scene brimming an intensity that is just out of place here). The whole film revolves around whether or not this notion will come off without a hitch and whether Trevor’s mom (Hunt) will end up in love with Trevor’s teacher (Spacey) and whether she’ll stay on the wagon and whether his father (Bon Jovi) will return and whether the homeless guy (Caveziel) he helps will stay off of dope and just how in the hell Angie Dickinson is supposed to fit into this puzzle. These six plot points should hold you over – and suggest just how crowded and unfocused Leder’s film is. The film isn’t guilty of leaving strands resting inconclusive as the credits roll (thank God) but it never makes any of them really worth holding a focal point. This, I think is why it comes off so bland and unable to illicit emotion. Pessimism doesn’t necessarily spoil the sweetness of Trevor’s deeds, though heaven help us, this is a deeply cynical film. The world these people live in isn’t necessarily Shangri-La, but the film has a really clean-cut air to it that thrashes at the hands of all the strife hidden throughout. Everything feels a little too convenient. There’s little room for anything to go undefined, unspecified or unaffecting. When we finally get the gist of Hunt’s relationship with Trevor’s natural father or when the specifics of Spacey’s character defining scars are revealed, we can’t help but wonder if all Pay it Forward really consists of is the nature of its subject; namely, surprises. The whole “good deed” concept is based on observing, even watching out for people to make sure they’re doing okay – and if we observe an opportunity to lend them a hand, we should take it. The whole idea is as surprising to the do-gooder as it is to the do-goodee. The film behaves that way, too. Every single bit of blatant foreshadowing is presented in this method that seems inherently veiled; to be lifted out of its obscurity and defined by the film in “Surprise! It’s exactly what you expected!” method. Its really somewhat patronizing to watch a film that tells us we’re going to be surprised and then seems to over react when we’re not in the least bit startled by it. Pay it Forward takes place in Las Vegas, a town that’s been put on film too many times to recount. I can’t remember it ever looking so low-key. This is valuable in making us believe that in a town so reliant on bad luck to sustain itself, there is always the chance that somewhere within can exist a type of good luck that is more of a leap of faith than a “Hail Mary” bet. There’s really nothing the film can do with a trait like this – except squander it. I can’t remember a single instance when the film makes reference to the gambling industry or even hints at drawing such a parallel. This is a town that is all about luck. This is a movie that is all about good fortune. ‘Spose its yet another case of “never the twain shall meet”. And, though I really was in an unpleasant sort of state viewing such a riotously mediocre tear jerker (let’s call a spade a spade, folks) – somewhere nestled in the nooks and crannies of Pay it Forward is a nice, domesticated shot at the horrors of alcoholism. Leave it to a film about good deeds to succeed on only one front – a front that is far from center stage. Nevertheless, Hunt works as a woman in recovery, nearly on the outs with her son and longing to have the courage to see things straight. I kept thinking to myself, “Why can’t this film be about alcoholism and just grace the screen with a subplot about good deeds?” In a perfect world – a utopia (as the film suggests) – films could know their limits. Pay it Forward, a film supposedly about making the world a better place, seems pretty well satisfied with dystopia.


The Perfect Storm
Directed by Wolfgang Peterson
Starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, Diane Lane, William Fichtner, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Christopher MacDonald.
current grade: C+
(review reflects: B+)

How this film ever came to be the most thrilling and deeply haunting film I’ve seen on the big screen this summer is a mystery even to myself. Somewhere in the
grumpy and obnoxious depths of my critical mind, I mustered the courage to ignore the scattered melodrama and thin character developement within. I sped past all
the exposition; all the establishment; all the boring kissy stuff. Like Twister, The Perfect Storm is a realistic film that still contains a whole bunch of formalities that
you’d only find in a film (lame dialogue, “too perfect” conditions, situations and symbolism). So why am I so forgiving? Why have I chose to allow this film to win me
over, despite such shortcomings? Why have I traded blindness for summer bliss? I’ve pinpointed it. The Perfect Storm is the complete and utter transcendence of a story that has no physical middle in real life (so the writer and the filmmakers have to invent it). It becomes exactly the piece of sensationalist fiction that it should. This is a film where no single moment is allowed to abate the excitement. This is a film I have to restrain myself to keep from cheering at, a film that exhausts me entirely and leaves me feeling as if I’ve witnessed the greatest adventure ever attempted on the high seas (underline ever). And maybe the magician’s trick (ie: the special effects) seems a shallow and dishonest one. It’s not. After years of abiding empty special effects fireworks shows (Independence Day comes to mind right quick), The Perfect Storm, which may seem empty in it’s stunning lack of character appreciation, still manages to make these cardboard cutouts interact and create a sort of humanism that may not be entirely tolerable, but works well enough to guide us into the action. I could be bold here and draw comparisons to Hemingway and Conrad – I’ll spare you (or not – I could almost feel the burn of Conrad’s “Typhoon” in Mark Wahlberg’s evocation of an amateur at sea or Conrad’s “The Nigger of the Narcissus” in the camraderie that comes apart in the grueling work on the sea). Most of all, The Perfect Storm captures the two worlds (land and ocean) with a great deal of respect for their method of operation. Sure these men risk their lives. Peterson gives us men who want nothing more than to live with their hearts beating – until they beat out of their chest and into the salty water. Sure their families don’t understand. Peterson gives us the foreign detachment of all the landlovers with the added comfort that comes with how unbelievably short-lived their appearance is onscreen. This film is about the boat and the sea. Period. It understands the rush, but doesn’t need to show us that it does. It’s the self-assured direction Peterson displayed in Das Boot and In the Line of Fire. He finds the swell of the story and plays it up to exponential proportions. In ‘Boot’ it was rushed claustrophobia; in Fire it was “beat-the-clock” to redemption. In The Perfect Storm, it’s  “How big can we make these waves and how many different ways can these guys try to beat them?” And that’s enough to keep me in cinematic orgasms.

[So, Tom, I guess you were right to make fun of me when I referenced Conrad in this review. Very right.]


Pitch Black
Written and directed by David Twohy
Starring: Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Keith David, Cole Hauser, et al.
grade: C

What exactly is the sum of equal parts when we mix the methodical stratagem of limited resources from Alien, the outnumbered militaristic hunter-becomes-the-hunted-and-so-forth notion of Aliens and the value of one life versus another as time runs out on a group of moral reprehensibles from Alien
3? You get this heavily familiar yet visually interesting (hey, that’s a first for a science fiction film!) “fight the bad aliens until the last man dies” dreck. While a watery action picture posing as an visually independent pissing contest between beefcake Vin Diesel and some hammerhead sharks with wings (also posing – as unbeatable wraiths) may sound like a fitting – even good – idea for David Twohy, who co-wrote The Fugitive and many other Hollywood scripts – it’s not. It becomes rather obvious that you’re peddling through the la-la land of a hack when every time the characters open their mouths, you want the aliens to win with an intense ferocity. You know the time is nigh when arbitrary plot rules are governed by these terrible characters, each posing as another rung on the sci-fi stereotype moussaka.
I found myself even distracted as the action was happening – how come everything has to come apart? How come we can’t have a film where the stranded
human diversity factor can add up and inspire teamwork instead of the inevitable “destroy the crew from within” plot line. The strife among these thinly cast space
raiders seems forced. And why, all of the sudden, do space ship flicks have to have at least one futuristic drug addict? (Supernova, I’m looking in your direction as well). Pitch Black is not an entirely mortal wound – Diesel’s overacting is really quite a blast to watch and though it seems his character is only semi-interesting, he’s
always doing something nifty with his eyes or voice to make it more enticing for us to watch him risk his life (although personally, I think he should have followed his
initial plan and decimated the crew when the ship first crash-lands; anyway, that’s me, the nihilist). I also wasn’t necessarily offended by a great deal of the look of the
film: some interesting costume choices, several sharp filters to delineate between three different suns and, finally, a single image of the creatures, as seen through night
goggles, emerging from a crater that resembled something of a volcano – a Renaissance painting, if you will, depicting a demonic reckoning a la intergalactic, airborne
carnivores. Nevertheless, Pitch Black is so utterly reminiscent of about a dozen other movies – and that’s really most of what shows onscreen. All of the touches meant to stake it apart as a separate claim from the films it is imitating are in vain. Pitch Black is shot in the dark – that misses.


Play It To the Bone
Written and Directed by Ron Shelton
Starring : Antonio Banderas, Woody Harrelson, Lolita Davidovitch, Tom Sizemore, Lucy Liu and Robert Wagner.
grade: C

Play it to the Bone – the experimental film? Huh. Odd nowadays to even see a 2 act film get made, much less a Ron Shelton
“It’s-my-patriotic-duty-to-show-what-goes-on-behind-the-scenes-in-the-sports-world-and-just-maybe-sqeeze-several-metaphors-for-life-into-the-running-time-
while-i’m-at-it” pictures. Nevertheless, he manages to fire off maybe his first overlong and over trite motion picture. Play it to the Bone takes place in about twenty-four hours. Only about one of those hours is really electrifying. Shelton shares with us two characters that are good friends – and professional boxers – and tracks them from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, chronicling every inch of their mindless psycho babble while they compete for the attention of the Grace, their driver (a very bubbly, down-to-earth Lolita Davidovitch – the best performance in the film). To touch up the focus – they’re Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas (terrific together, incidentally) and they’re on their way to fight each other for fifty large and a shot and a “title shot” at the middleweight championship. They’ve also both been rejected by Grace. The film is experimental because it’s clear that Shelton is aiming to explore the alchemy of camaraderie when it’s exploited within a profession like boxing. He’s interested in building a friendship and then testing it late in the film – which he does. And the boxing sequences (which involve hallucination and celebrity cameos, not necessarily in that order) are great, however predictable. Play it to the Bone has got a clear point, but too often clouds it with too much conversation and too much inclusion of over-the-top, unnecessary character acting (Lucy Liu as the nymphet given the responsibility of funding the car trip when Grace’s credit card maxes out; Tom Sizemore as a Boxing promoter with no volume switch; and Robert Wagner as a Hotel Manager/ Investor/One Dimensional Male Chauvinist). But it’s not a terrible film. Banderas and Harrelson take it to the notch it needs to occupy in order to pass for entertainment, and Shelton, operating just outside of his usual range of charm, seems obviously distracted by the glitter associated with boxing when he realizes that avoiding such oddities and details would make for a tighter, much more noteworthy picture. Eventually, though, what it comes down to – and what made both Bull Durham*and Tin Cup so much damn fun to watch – is that Shelton has abandoned one of his real talents : the love story. I know a director shouldn’t make the same movie over and over and over again but when sed auteur has the god-given talent to make a likable romantic comedy – he should use it like he’ll be dead tomorrow. Regarding friendship, Shelton is only inches from a winning film.

**[Yeah, I’ve never seen Bull Durham…]

Quills
Directed by Philip Kaufman
Written by Doug Wright (based upon his play)
Starring : Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix and Michael Caine.
grade: B

Love impurity? So did the Marquis De Sade. He loved it so much that later in life, he would spread it (via the written word) using any means necessary :
verbally, written in blood on his clothing, etched in wine on his linens or smeared on prison walls using only his own excrement. Sounds exciting? It’s absolutely
riveting – to a point. The problem with Quills, an exceedingly eloquent and wonderfully polished character study (or assassination?), isn’t the performances – which, save the dull,out-of-place Caine, are uncommonly strong – but the execution of the damn movie as a whole. The very idea that a movie about the Marquis De Sade, the infamous well-spoken purveyor of literary eroticism, could exist today as an pagemarking plea for free speech as powerful if not more than The People Vs. Larry Flynt and contain such a minute and closeted scope, is preposterous. Everything about the movie is ravishing from the sets to the script  to the way it plots its points as contemporary in this eighteenth century parallel universe as if the Marquis could be some high school teenager, rich in libido and still burning with the passion of youth (Note : Quills is filmed theater, but that aspect of it is clever enough to transcend itself all the way up until its ironic ending, which is mostly the fault of  casting agents who put Michael Caine in charge of affecting intensity in the face of an obviously need for subtlety). Rush is the ideal choice to play the Marquis, as he can take over-the-top hamming and channel it into a wonderful concentration of his combined energies, make it spell out one thing (above all, this is an accomplished writer who loves to write) and retreat into an emotional cavern so dark, we the audience almost pity this creature as we watch his horrid influence wreak havoc on those fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to cross his path. Perhaps beyond the predictable tour-de-force Rush performance, it is the younger thespians (Phoenix and Winslet) who steal the movie, playing a priest and a chambermaid who have a kind of ‘Remains of the Day’ brand of suppressed love for each other. Phoenix, whom I’m convinced is an actor whose range matches that of most top actors working today (picture these vast chasms of dimension : vampish teen in To Die For, scapegoat extraordinarre in Return to Paradise and the seething, sadistic, incestual emperor in Gladiator), is wonderful as a man of God content to see the Marquis purge his soul of filth by writing, while defending his position as an authority figure against Caine on one hand and pledging his love to Winslet in that Jane Austen ultra interior kind of way on the other. His complexities are matched by Winslet as a chambermaid smitten with the Marquis’ art (and to a degree, the man himself) as fervently as she is curiously pursuing Phoenix – while all the while harboring a deep sexuality she can’t express in an appropriate manner among any of the small dangers lurking in these characters’ place of business (which, by the way, is a mental institution). If at all I seemed skeptical about this pleasantly theater-like if under utilized breadth Quills possesses, it melts away as you watch what is as engrossing a colonial era film as any handed to us in recent years on Oscar platters (namely, Shakespeare in Love and Restoration, movies that could easily get off at the same mirth-soaked financial extremity of a train station where all the inhabitants divert themselves with obsessions we love to think could go gleefully hand in bloody hand with this brand of period interpretation). As with any of Shakespeare’s plays, the most fun Quills has to offer is the way its dialogue is so perfect, so devoid of ambiguity and so unbelievably….bawdy – we relish every last word (and we thank God actors exist who can wrap their tongues around the Marquis’s words as well as Branagh or Olivier could the Bard’s).
The Marquis De Sade was in love with his prose. But most of all, he was in love with himself, and with the lust he surrounded his aura with and built his reputation upon. This man was the groundbreaking shock journalist of his time and Phillip Kaufman’s film, though limited in resources and ambition, is as potent as the Marquis’ language. Quills is a Penthouse letter in three acts, forged with a feather pen and written in the very lifeblood of subversion.


Reindeer Games
directed by John Frankenheimer
Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, Gary Sinise and James Frain.
grade: D

As usual, I don’t know why I do this to myself. Obviously, I knew going into Reindeer Games that I hate Ben Affleck. He’s a self-obsessed, single performance actor. Obviously, I was skeptical – who wouldn’t be. But there’s a tendency to review our reason for seeing a film as we’re witnessing our own mistakes, like watching a plane crash from the inside – as the film is going down, so to speak. What with the constant yammering of pointless and dry dialogue exuded onscreen, I had plenty of time to consider how I got to the point where I was ready to give up one-hundred five minutes of my time to see what could possibly happen when Frankenheimer paired with Affleck, Sinise and Theron. And I came to the conclusion that Frankenheimer has a long name and I like to say it. And ending up in that theater because his last movie (the stylishly Euro-centric ‘Ronin’) had some promising car chases is as ludicrous as deciding to see a film because the director has a playfully long and textured last name that resembles a movie monster dragged through the German dictionary. Reindeer Games is simple. It concerns a guy who’s cellmate (Frain) is murdered on one of his last days in prison. This guy, played by almighty Affleck, decides to pretend to be him in order to gain access to his cellmate’s pen pal – a pre-packaged girlfriend (Theron), as it were. Of course, then he runs into the inevitable problems you face when pretending to be someone else – the girl who is the positive end of your pretense has a brother (Sinise) who thinks you’re the cellmate and violently demands help on the robbery of a former casino you – or, more accurately – the cellmate was employed within. Then, of course, there’s the sorting out period, where you decide what you’re going to do about it, if anything – which in this film consists more of large, muscular guys that say really dim things and beat up on Affleck. This sort of interested me, only I wished I was administering the beatings and that the writer could join Affleck on the receiving end as well. Either way – it takes forty-five minutes for a short-lived chase scene to emerge. Then it takes ninety minutes for the heist to hit the screen – and when it does, it’s so unimaginative, you’d swear Frankenheimer had someone else direct Ronin – or this. Then there’s the explosions you saw in the preview. Let’s just be frank and say they deal with the ending and work so well as a metaphor for this film – I could almost feel their heat in my personal reflection of how relieved I was that this monstrosity was ending. It’s dubbed in it’s acting – the characters seem to be on a different plane than the story, especially when speaking (if you can imagine how annoying that was). Theron’s raw sexuality and little girl lost charms (not to mention the person underneath the mask) are all well and good – in another movie. In Reindeer Games, her character called for someone a little less beautiful, a little less perfect and a little less made-up. Sinise seems more like an pissy high school jock when he rants (for what seems like an eternity) about his crappy life as a trucker. And finally, turning back to our golden boy – Mr. Ben Affleck – he constantly feels the need to shift gears between being the sympathetic everyman who just wants to do good and the resourceful ex-con who can use his evil powers for good – but only as they serve the plot. And I can’t stand his flat and arrogant delivery anyway. The film is constantly overstating. I can’t stress that enough. The story is simple – and we get it – but our hapless writer is more intrigued by bashing points of the plot into our cerebrum with a ballpeen hammer, until we’re trying to figure out another, more interesting way to interpret them (to no avail). And for an action vehicle – the editing is bland at best. And that ring-a-ding ending – if implausible was a physical action, I’d have done it all over the floor.
Finally, I ask myself the sane question – should I waste time analyzing a film where I’m meant to “leave my brain at the door” and “have some fun”. It wouldn’t have been necessary had I been able to do either of those things. But, as it were – Reindeer Games would have made a sensational idea for a pulp novel – one that could have easily been conceived by Affleck, no doubt, in prison, while doing time for either Forces of Nature, Dogma or 200 Cigarettes.  And so my analysis can rest on the simple statement that as either a twisty noir thriller or an action extravaganza, Reindeer Games doesn’t deserve the vanity or excuse of self-mockery (as has been suggested by some of my fellow critics), it simply needs to be decried and avoided – and mocked outright.

[Classical Temple “call-attention-to-yourself” Column piece; Also, you’ll notice I fully sacrificed objectivity in any form.]


Remember the Titans
Directed by Boaz Yakin
Written by Gregory Allen Howard
Starring : Denzel Washington, Will Patton, Hayden Panettiere, Wood Harris and Ryan Hurst.
grade: C+

“History is written by the winners”, reads the bold stamp of a tag line for Remember the Titans, the latest Bruckheimer audience pleaser that has, exceeding my expectations, taken quite well to being transposed into a tame PG-rated, Disney tagged kids movie of sorts. I think it’s that catch phrase, which echoes the old saying about schoolbooks containing embellished material due to their writers being the winners of war, that spells out the kind of ridged sentiment that is emptied into this football movie, soaking up most of its vitality and leaving diluted social commentary in almost every pocket of the story. First time writer Gregory Allen Howard likens the game of football to race relations nearly every chance he gets, stratagem constantly preparing – often at the expense of momentum – for a provocative payoff where the white folks go from ignorant to enlightened in four quarters and a touchdown. Often a thin, manipulative take on the initial unrest that ensues in the 1970’s when a Virginia high school is integrated, Howard’s script is full of the kind of scenes you’d expect to see in an inspirational sports cinema hymn. Luckily, director Yakin is able to salvage most of the joy of sports, resolution and epiphany, often fusing the film’s James Horner-ish string music, it’s period
soundtrack and the inspirational singing of the characters into something fired-up and sometimes passionate. Yakin tries his damnedest to keep the characters
bobbing up for air and strengthening a dangerously cut-and-dried  piece of fact based folklore. Denzel Washington and Will Patton play black and white coaches
forced to share the burden of sustaining a winning team. Washington gives one of his predictably commanding, stubborn, forceful performances, easily carrying the
film (for once, I’d like to see him play a quiet role or, perhaps one that’s less motivated by outright injustice). Patton is interesting – usually in the background as a
character actor (Armageddon, Jesus’ Son), he excels at being piggish, but tender. Yakin makes the coaches the real focal point that the film can grasp onto –
militaristic machines hell-bent on victory at any cost. The players themselves are good – if trite and molded. The team captains of the Titans are white and black – first hateful of each other, later lifelong friends (are you seeing already how faded the plausibility becomes with such rigorous sculpting?) I feel like my strings are being tugged, but Yakin still manages to make it glorious to watch the friendship of Gerry (Hurst) and Julius (Harris) bloom and operate. Sure, it leads the film countless places that it should be doing its best to shy away from – but it is engaging. There seemed to be very little football in Remember the Titans. Oftentimes, the game scenes (purposefully staged like battles) had such a forced method to their madness, their conclusions weren’t even the least bit interesting. The big coaches’ pep talk on the sidelines, amped up sound effects of bodies crashing into one another and definite, pulsing rhythm are constant and recycled cues that the Titans were going to emerge on top – or at least hurt somebody. And when, finally, near the close of the film, race and football become physically mixed (as the referees are paid off to fix “the big game”), the movie has been so front loaded with preconceived movie quips about prejudice – its a cynch where the whole thing will end up. As much as I disliked elements of the film, there is one scene that underscores where I think Howard was really aiming in this piece. At a football camp in Gettysburg, Washington awakens his players for a little 3 a.m. run that leads them into the dawn, descending upon a Civil War graveyard, where Washington gives a thankfully low-key summation on the whole race issue – the integration side of it – and its roots. Its the kind of genuine, near moving sequence that a film like this sorely needs to expand on and flood itself with. Herein exists a movie that doesn’t really tackle a single one of its issues with any kind of honest-to-goodness vigor or comprehension, but it manages to pull of that “sports movie spirit” in its strong characters and apt direction. I remembered the genius Yakin inspired in Fresh, his first film that drew a seamless parallel between the inner city and chess. If you must see a rousing, metaphor driven film that’s intelligent and provocative, I beg you, rent that one. Remember the Titans is solid entertainment but dim brain food.


Requiem For a Dream
Co-Written and Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jared Leto, Ellen Burstyn, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans, Christopher McDonald,  Keith David, Sean Gullette, and Dylan Baker.
grade: B+

An alternately reverent and unsettling modern masterpiece, Requiem For a Dream may be the most physically and emotionally demanding film to be released
in theaters since Saving Private Ryan. Its rare, as a filmgoer and sometimes critic, that I’ll actually begin tumbling around in my own brain due to the imagery
onscreen. I almost wanted the images in Requiem For a Dream to stop until I realized, after the film had ended, just how intoxicating they were. A numbing
sensation not unlike that felt at the close of The Sweet Hereafter, I almost felt like a junkie. This is a strong message and I suppose, to articulate, I felt like a junkie
who had seen the light. Aronofsky makes a wonderfully artistic case against drugs, while slamming his audience with a dark and dismal all encompassing world
which purports to transform all four of its protagonists into their means’ end, the result of their toil, the light at the end of the tunnel – the proverbial sixty watt bulb in
the face of indescribable horror. Of course purport to is all the film does – none of its characters breath even a sigh of hope, which, I think is another of Aronofsky’s
nifty tricks. Requiem For a Dream is as much a warning as it is a piece of celluloid. There is no moment in the film that feels like any other anti drug film you’ll see.
Like a horror movie, originality wins the day because something impromptu, something never imagined – something like having your arm lopped off because it has
decayed – is absolutely terrifying. Leto, Connelly, Wayans and Burstyn all do the subject justice. From denial to euphoria to absolute terror, Requiem For a Dream not only establishes Aronofsky as a major filmmaker, but it shows him up as a major director as well. Leto, especially, exorcises his past acting demons to give us a fresh perspective: he is little but a dreamer. The question posed: Is he a dreamer because the circle of drugs makes him a dreamer or is the dream a circle of drugs? And eventually, the cyclical motion comes around to whack us on the head like a full force beating. Aronofsky, in the final ten minutes, puts on film a sequence of collision editing that is so well timed, so mechanically engineered and so charged with momentum that, to look away is impossible – even though all of your being is screaming to shut those eyes tight and ever open them again. Aronofsky’s film, unlike any film I’ve seen, responsibly dolls out a message to us in steaming portions while his rapid fire technique (the projector as a gun, firing 24 frames per second) clamps our frontal lobes and both thrills and terrifies us at the same time. It feeds us a potent upper and a harsh downer – and in doing so, cleanses us through the fire. But make no mistake: this film isn’t bullying us into buying what its selling. While its as much a message movie as it is a narrative, it is also as much offensive as it is admirable. And let’s face it, that’s the very point here. To synthesize shock value and a good, honest directive into something that never feels forced or pushy – now that’s an achievement.


Return to Me
Directed by Bonnie Hunt
Starring : David Duchovny, Minnie Driver, David Alan Grier, Bonnie Hunt, James Belushi, Robert Loggia and Carroll O’Connor.
grade: D+

What Return to Me needs is a good, solid dose of tastelessness. A nudge into a place where nothing is sacred. And less of Bonnie Hunt’s relatives in the credits. And Carroll O’Connor (aka Archie Bunker) yelling and bitchin’ and being politically incorrect. And less arguing about male singers. And less dogs. And……Return to Me, to put it short and sweet – was just one of those romantic comedies that turns you off so completely in between the actual romance that you can’t seem to jump back into the wooing as quickly and completely as you’d like to. Admittably, Duchovny and Driver have a spunky chemistry, one the casting agents and the actors themselves can easily be proud of. But the gallery of supporting characters, particularly those walking plot devices called senior citizens, are not charming. In fact – they get downright irritating. And it doesn’t help that Bonnie Hunt goes a completely different direction from herself. As an actress – she’s playing the same character we know and dig from Jerry Maguire – the advice friend – she who consults the female lead on the aspects of romance that made her marriage successful. (Of course, all we really see of her marriage is that it spawned a cursing, beer-drinking father (James Belushi – we’re through, you can go back to your hole and we’ll call you when we need you) and more kids than you can fit in a camera frame – or would care to.) But, as a director, Hunt misfires everything. Her
scenes have so much dead air and wasted space in them. Hire an editor! Romantic comedies with this little to say – should be limited to ninety minutes. Instead, we’re stretched out for near two hours of utter disarray. Watching the old men play matchmaker gets old after about three minutes – in IQ. Here, it’s as if our consciousness has been tipped off ahead of time – a premonition of how annoying they’d be – and from the first moments, we’re tired of their antics. I’ve no aversion to classic formulas. Or romantic comedies. The best ones in the last three years have had the formula, the chemistry and the will to be different in their own right – to excise all that’s not important (of course, I’m referring to : One Fine Day, Fools Rush In and Notting Hill) and come up with a product that you can stand by.    Return to Me, despite it’s success in the chemistry department – fails so miserably that even when I got up to go to the bathroom – I already knew what had taken
place while I was gone. And never mind about the plot regarding a heart transplant, a dead wife and a coincidence.

[Alright, I’ll bite. How about those first twenty minutes when Duchovny’s wife dies (a wife whom he didn’t click with) and the surgeons play ‘exposition bingo’ and tell us exactly why we’ve just witnessed a cut from Duchovny and his wife dancing to Duchovny running next to a gurney, coated in blood? And then the super-tear-jerking moment when Duchovny collapses by the door, coated in tears. The next time we see him – he’s ordering people around and generally miserable. Surprise me next time, people! Have Duchovny operate on her using ordinary stuff you’d find in a bar a la Playing God. Or have him hypothesizing about aliens that may have killed her a la The X Files. Or have him kill her a la Kalifornia.]


Revelations : Paradise Lost 2
Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
grade: B

In Paradise Lost : The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky examined the arrest and conviction of three teens, content to dress in black, for the murder of three eight and nine year old boys. The murder was deemed “satanic” and “ritualistic”, the details of which are exceptionally gory. The film never takes sides, rather, it presents the victims and the accused as part of a pseudo-Salem Witch Trial – the suggestion by the accused being that they were condemned simply because they were different – and were considered outcasts. It also goes so far as to show us the trial – which the filmmakers, even before the film is finished, become indirectly involved in. (Jon Mark Byers, a father of one of the victims – and main subject of Revelations, gives the directors a knife as a gift – – a knife that happens to have human blood on it.) Finally, after ‘Pardise Lost’ was finished – it became wildly successful and critically acclaimed (rightly so – It is an amazing document and a powerfully observant film). The second film begins with the filmmakers profiling the aftermath – the subsequent appeals, the ravings and suspicious happenings that followed Byers, a support group titled “Free the Memphis Three” and the generally tense atmosphere that exists in Memphis,  Arkansas in the wake of what is tragedy, spectacle and hysteria all rolled into one. ‘Revelations’ is something of a different kind of documentary film. It’s objectivity remains – but what’s onscreen seems to melt away any form of impartial being. Everyone seems to have an agenda, some hidden and some in very plain sight, especially Byers – who fits in the frame nicely – and knows it.. While there is suspicion that he’s the culprit in the murders – he’s also the pagemarker for botched policework. He changes his story time and time again, on camera. The film startlingly reveals all of the odd situations that have surrounded his life between when Paradise Lost ended and Revelations began. In essence, the filmmakers have picked up the reigns, but they are in a very different condition. The public outcry is an interesting touch as well. There’s a great moment when one of the “Free the Memphis Three” supporters asks Byers why he was nice to him off-camera and became mean when the tape started rolling. Byers, uses a confusion as his tactic (even too blatantly impossible for me to decipher – and I have the rewind button!), spilling words as if randomly. Even he has no idea what he’s doing. The man is on five different kinds of prescription drugs. But he makes a great subject, constantly showboating for the camera (-and incriminating himself?!). Watch for the scene that nearly dips into hilarity when he erects mock-gravestones for the convicted murderers and proceeds to pour lighter fluid on a huge area, light a gigantic fire and ritualistically curse them and dance around like a lunatic. P. Greg coined it, saying – “He would have made a great talk show host”. The film is also an interesting combination of itself. In a couple of it’s moments, it profiles what it’s effect on the outcome of the case has been. The  judge states that he would not have allowed them to film the trial if he had it to do over again. In that way – the film seems to be an attempt at vindication. On the other hand, it looks at it’s effect in a seemingly positive light – the way it’s brought universal attention to a case that seems to spark anger in the hearts of so many. In it’s own way, it’s both an apology and a additional fuel to the flames it lit during it’s release in 1996. It’s a complexity in itself – a potent piece of art that begs to be deciphered on the spot – but lingers with layer upon layer of meaning. And how beautifully structured (and bizarre) are it’s closing moments when Jon Mark Byers lip-synchs to a recording he had made of himself singing “Amazing Grace” – while the film presents it’s closing epilogues, over black, in between the images. It’s as if the literal translation of “read between the lines” has pedagogically lured the double talk from Byers. The impact of this instruction easily recalls the closing moments of Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line – when David tells Errol – “I’m the one who knows” – just so nearly confessing – but staying a cryptic ghost. And since Revelations is such a powerful film and since the first film was so widely received and seen by so many people – it is my belief that the second film will be greeted with the same warmth and consideration. And perhaps something will be solved. But, as the film remains objective – it’s not a case of who killed who or who’s innocent, etc. – it’s a case of evidence and mystery yet unraveled and yet uncovered. And it makes for a damn compelling two and a quarter hours.

[“…excuse my French, but I stomped his ass right on the spot…if you ever get within arm’s reach of this arm right here – you’a paid fer son of a bitch. You got my word on it.”]
-cronie to Jon Mark Byers, Revelations : Paradise Lost 2.


RKO 281
Directed by Benjmain Ross
Starring Liev Shreiber, John Malkovich, James Cromwell, Melanie Griffith, Roy Sheider and Brenda Blethyn
grade: D+

Nearly all of the HBO films I’ve seen (and I hate to say this, as they are so proud of their “cutting edge” movie studio) are, simply put, dry. With one notable exception (…And the Band Played On), they never seem to be able to transcend their presence on a little screen  – – as little more than a one-dimensional teleplay adaptation – – a dry 1:33:1 run of normalcy, cleverly trapped in it’s doing. And RKO 281 is no different, and what’s worse,  suffering from a larger sin : pointlessness. Why make a film like this one? The simple idea being to dramatize the real-life events satisfied by the thrilling and extradordinary 1997 documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane; The film suffers from a nonstop staginess of these events. Though I can see an attempt to make the film in the style of Welles’ Citizen Kane, it’s an attempt that seems somewhat irreverent in light of it’s interpretation of sed events. Everything seems to be easily sculpted into exact amounts – as if the filmmakers are making the film based less on Battle Over Citizen Kane than on Citizen Kane itself – – which is irritating. The way it constantly tries to show us just how close the events following Hearst’s campaign against the film – – and the film – – are alike, seems to be a begging attempt at garnering a “Wow! That really did happen!” response. From the shock of real life vs. filmed life, in this instance – it’s time to move on; This kind of strain leads to a whole stack of forced ironies – things that may not have been quite so cookie-cutter perfect in real life, but, with a little embellishment – are perfect for the film’s purposes. Case in point : the repetitious scenes that play over and over of RKO President George Shaeffer (Sheider) pulling at his hair as Welles breaks the rules – only to be impressed by the result of Welles innovation; And the performances all seem to drip of overacting. Especially Liev Shreiber, who needs to stop and make a speech (or at least interrupt the flow of the film long enough to catch his breath) in order to get Welles’ voice right. All the rest of the time, he appears to look like him only in medium and long shots – the close-ups reveal only the stuttering, insecure Shreiber we remember from The Daytrippers and The Hurricane. Watching him play Welles’while John Malkovich sputters about trying to shuffle off the familiar ring of himself, in order to play Herman Mankowitz – is pitiful. Only James Cromwell, who decides not to chew the scenery and simply play the distant, short-tempered Hearst as a fading old man (slowly realizing that Welles is right – whether he as the right to say it or not) succeeds in his realization of the figure Charles Foster Kane was so tragically – and beautifully – modeled after; Finally, the scenes that are worth seeing are those three in which RKO 281 gives us Welles making Citizen Kane. It’s electrifying to watch him dig up a floor in order to get a camera lower – or risk an actress’s safety in order to shoot a scene the way he wanted to. The obsession of Welles, which is what RKO 281 is aiming for – but never comes within miles of – is all that’s left to explore, anyway; All else has been stated before – documented in folklore – – and in Battle Over Citizen Kane.


Romeo Must Die
Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak
Starring : Jet Li, Alliyah, Delroy Lindo, Isaiah Washington,  DMX, D.B. Woodside, Russell Wong and Henry O.
grade: D+

The kind of film, I warn you, you’ve not been granted the grace to swallow, whoever you are. Romeo Must Die has a whole stinkin’ lot to do with the
amateur-music-video genre and very little to offer in the way of martial arts. Even the sequences where Jet Li (Jackie Chan-lite, light defined as fucking boring) kicks
the crap out of assorted moral degenerates appear plucked from a computer screen where a young boy has just figured out how to do the
super-deluxe-power-up-kick on a chinsy, simple video game. Points awarded for Alliyah, who’s promising, attractive and (note to casting agents) gives off the romantic comedy vibes strongly. For all the turf war and brotherly betrayal you have to wade through to see what happens when Jet Li’s foot breaks somebody’s
spine – it just looks as you’d expect it to look – and you paid to see it. Damn.

[I’m almost positive I didn’t pay to see this, so, here’s to fraud!”]


Rugrats in Paris
Directed by Serg Bergqvist, Paul Demeyer
Featuring the voices of :Christine Cavanaugh, Cheryl Chase, Melanie Chartoff, E. G Daily, Susan Sarandon, John Lithgow, Debbie Reynolds, Jack Riley,
    Kath Soucie and Joe Alaskey
grade: B

I’ve always stood back in amazement at how the Rugrats kids are captured in all their youth: Misunderstanding adult phrases, masterminding brilliant schemes and above all, presenting an almost creepy vision of how children react to their surroundings. In Rugrats in Paris, we learn that Chuckie’s mom has died and his
less-than-cool dad is in search of a wife – and more importantly, a mom – for his little boy. Inadvertently, this timing is shifted to downtown Paris where Tommy’s
father Stu, a toy maker, has been called back (along with the whole gang) to fix a Reptar he designed for a swanky opera that will unleash the giant T-Rex-modeled
creature as a lonely, King Kong type, like Chuckie’s Dad, helplessly turning away anyone he tries to get close to. Well, he’s a big green dinosaur, what did he expect? The parallels aren’t subtle – and a kid-o-centric movie has no trouble getting away with such trite simplicity. The bar, usually set way below standard live
action films, is always in danger of being raised by animation. Someday, animated movies will elicit as high a regard as anything that’s shot with a camera. Until then, Rugrats in Paris, not necessarily a freshly plotted film (but certainly sharply written) stands just above its predecessor, The Rugrats Movie, another fine Thanksgiving treat where the kids coped with the arrival of Tommy’s new brother, Dillon (Dil for short. Their last name is pickles – get it?). This time around there was a higher level of confidence that a more universal audience would absorb the film and therefore the jokes and gags are centered at a creamier middle, a more seamlessly attainable level. For instance, its a cinch that young kids will love the exploits of these kids, who appear older than they are and wise beyond their years when they impersonate Marlon Brando – a film young Anjelica has seen without her parent’s permission. But to a universal audience, the implication that a second Rugrats film – meant to be a deeper companion piece to the first, as was the case with the aforementioned Godfather series – is taken in clever stride. Its funny to watch the kids play out specific lines of dialogue and mesh Rugrats in Paris opening scene with the nuances of the famous intro to The Godfather. So, already established as a smart ride, Rugrats in Paris is just the sort of film we need in the feast or famine kids market. Looking over the plethora of child oriented flicks I’ve seen this year, this is just the sort of middle ground for dollar conscious parents and eager young girls and boys to meet on: not quite grasping the highbrow magic of Chicken Run or Fantasia 2000 – but certainly staring down at the influx of parental eye rolling that are Dinosaur or The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle. Rugrats in Paris makes a concerted effort to be a film for the masses, gathering both young and old extremes into its charming wake. How nice to see generosity in any film, live or drawn – am I right?


Rules of Engagement
Directed by William Friedkin
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Guy Pearce, Phillip Baker Hall, Nicky Katt, et al.
grade: C-

If a Bruckheimer movie without the novelty of Bruckheimer’s name ever did exist – Rules of Engagement is that movie. From start to finish, this is a by-the-numbers routine complete with a misunderstood past that will come back to haunt the protagonist, a fiery battle where we are invited to dissect the protagonist’s actions and decide for ourselves whether or not he was right (oh, I’m sorry, did I say “decide for ourselves” – no, the film makes it very clear that it’s black or white) and finally, the drunken lawyer who uncovers a tiny piece of evidence no one had ever thought to look for and exposes that evidence in a court of law like a wolf tearing into the opposing side. And even if you’re thinking – well, it’s Sammy and Tommy L. on the front – stop thinking that. The parts written for these two hot-headed titans are so muted and wishy washy, its embarrassing to watch them try to bring life to it and, you know, fail miserably. Essentially, the film exists as a director’s picture. Friedkin, obviously attempting to ignore the limitations of the script, stages a thundering and wondrously patriotic battle sequence early in the film (in Yemen, not Vietnam). The editing suggests – but does not explicitly show – that perhaps in battle, split decisions exist in a realm indecipherable to everyone examing the aftermath in calm, relaxed settings. Tough to grant the film a pat on the back for a theme it doesn’t really develop to the fullest – but at the very least, the suggestion is there. The courtroom sequence is nicely staged, too. Of course, you’ve seen one courtroom sequence, you’ve seen them all – and this one is dangerously close to aping A Few Good Men (sans the great acting and intelligent dialogue, Rules of Engagement is content merely to fit us with military hurly-burly and “sustained”, “overruled” and “I’m not going to warn you again” quips). Friedkin may not have had much to work with, but his courtroom is dark and dull – and though it allows for grandstanding – it feels more like a courtroom than a set because of where he places his camera and how he chooses to frame everyone practicing law. Rules of Engagement’ is a dry, almost entirely non-partisan film when it comes to political flare. Coincidentally, as things flare up and burn out in the middle east (on a regular basis, it seems), the film doesn’t seem to have taken the leap to understand why things flare up or why Americans are stationed there. It boils the whole thing down to a terrorist recording that says things about how the duty of every Muslim is to kill Americans. Never mind how deep and complex the whole scrap in the Gulf is. As with everything in this film, the only real points of interest are bare essentials meant to stand for abstract concepts. The apprehension of sed concepts would have resulted in a more interesting and efficient film. As an audience member, we are laymen – or, what do they call them – civilians. Thanks for the nod, boys.


Saving Grace
Directed by Nigel Cole
Starring : Brenda Blethyn, Craig Ferguson, Martin Clunes, Tcheky Karyo and Jamie Foreman.
grade: C-

Saving Grace, lightest of the recent wave of Britcoms aimed at artful American filmgoers, desperate to label European imports with words like ‘original’ and
‘smart’. These films are fast becoming thin riffs on a formula, right down to the characters, the music and the pace. Saving Grace is funny, nevertheless, it has
difficulty dispensing with these elements (oddball characters you’d expect, catchy score, usual songs, unnecessarily wide cinematography, act breaks that practically
appear on the screen). In the face of that, it’s also got old people getting high – lots of them. And naked old people too – oops, that’s conventional. Sorry. Brenda Blethyn is her usual brilliant self, utilizing all those old lady charms (and giving maybe her tamest performance to date) to grow marijuana as a world class gardener, save her house and on the way, get into misadventures that are sometimes funny – occasionally dim – always attentive to good, old-fashioned Brit stereotypes. She meshes well with her gardener, an avid doper played by Craig Ferguson (of The Drew Carey Show fame) – who (‘Surprise!’, ‘Surprise!’) has a girlfriend (Foreman) who doesn’t approve and is pregnant. There’s miscrients of all shapes and verbal wonderment hanging around the small English town – which, by the way – is bumpkinland to the grand climax when Blethyn wanders into London to rouse a dealer (Tcheky Karyo) to launch her dope. The whole thing really, really smacks
of a carefully plotted film – that’s purposefully engineered to export to us bloomin’ Yanks. There’s a problem with the particular ending to this film – but one worth addressing with all of it’s kind. Any urgency or panic characters exhibit is squashed before it even registers in our frontal lobes. These films have a way of working themselves out that’s become 100% predictable, always satisfying and in full opposition to comic suspense. (The inkhole that is this film’s particular ending doesn’t exactly suffice as part of the grain of this film. It’s less capricious than it is just plain weak.) And for a film like this, it’s the comedy that’s most important. The laughs are, for the most part, solid and well deserved. A film that features a gigantic clowd of marijuana smoke drifting through a town, akin to John Carpenter’s The Fog, can more than make up for any of the whimsical stuff that’s starting to seem a lot less whimsical with every soundbite which reads : “This year’s The Full Monty“.


Scream 3
Directed by Wes Craven
Starring: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courtney Cox-Arquette, Patrick Dempsey, Parker Posey, Jenny McCarthy, Liev Schrieber and Lance Henrikson.
grade: C-

Yeah, the third act of this “trilogy” shoots itself in the foot – repeatedly – before stumbling around in search of something to riddle its other hoof with. Kevin Williamson’s tired series gets down to the most ludicrous and idiotic its been to date. The unfortunate thing about Scream 3 is that at every right turn – there’s a wrong exit. It’s full of extensive set-ups for clever execution (forgive the pun) of sometimes very specific knock-off humor and it never ceases to roll itself back to its okay-enough-already-with-the-Sidney-and-her -mom-and-the-Woodsboro-murders bit. The same dry chase scenes. The same over-amped soundtrack. And certainly the same visceral violence that, as it gets bloodier and bloodier, seems to get less and less horror movie and more and more in the realm of “makeup showcase” (example: a character emerges from an office with a pair of scissors through his raw and oozing head, but its just a maeup test; moments later, a character is brutally murdered and all I can think of is how much it looks like makeup). At the very least, setting the last forty minutes in a horror movie mogul’s mansion is a nice touch (it comes complete with hidden passages, hokey horror movie mogul keepsakes and props – a basement full of zombies, aliens and coffins – and lit candles and torches all over the place). The other definite unpleasantness is how bored we are, as an audience, with these characters. Not only are they mediocre actors (with names like Campbell, Arquette and Cox-Arquette), but for the love of God, give their characters something to keep them interesting (drugs, perhaps?). I was wishing I had taken some notes through the first film – which was interesting when it came out, now I feel its pretty much completely to blame for the state of what’s playing at the cineplex; or the second film – which, in retrospect, had a great opening sequence that should have been used for a higher purpose. I was so bored with “the old gang”, I was quickly dismissing the admittedly lackluster “new gang” (Henrikson is utterly wasted, Posey doesn’t completely un-embarrass herself and Dempsey needs a new career). Of course, the bigger picture still contains the phrase “Why bother” in gigantic, neon letters. As the film proceeded – very uneventfully – I think I was still trying to answer that phrase’s call to order from the last time it was presented – by some random teen thriller no doubt green-lighted due to ‘Scream’s success. You’ll pardon me if I’m not more than a helluva lot more embarrassed to have seen Scream 3 than any other teen horror film out there. I feel like I’m supporting a cause that, at the same time, I’m decrying. On the other hand, what am I talking about with this “cause” nonsense – This is the year 2000. By definition, movies are supposed to fall leagues below expectation.


Shanghai Noon
Directed by Tom Dey
Starring Jackie Chan, Owen C. Wilson and Lucy Liu.
grade: B-

I guess you might admire me for having the courage to go see this film – let alone the bravado it takes to write a review about this, a Jackie Chan vehicle. You’d
be part right. I’m not going to write much. My parents dragged me to it. Not kicking and screaming, mind you – I’ve learned my lesson from such films as, well, to hit
the highest mark, Braveheart, which I vehemently did notwant to see when it came out. When they’re paying, I’ve learned, you can always relax and enjoy. If it
sucks- it’s just another opportunity to savor the verbal onslaught of radical invective you’ll fire into it’s belly only hours after it ends. And this one is a blast. Perhaps an even better comic team that Chan and Tucker, Wilson and the kung-fu goofball go flying into the west with a simple story and mouths loaded with well-written and timed jokes. The springboard of ease (that is, the story) allows for a film that not only doesn’t take itself seriously, but also aims to transcend some of the politically correct notions that would further have remained extinct in a lesser film. My wonderment abounds when I think of the stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans, Jackie Chan marrying one after a long night of dope-smoking with the elders of a tribe. I’m taken aback by the ruthless casual sex, killing and boozing that you can imagine would easily have been left out of a kiddy Western. It’s Jackie Chan in his world, the one that is created in the vehicles he used to star in by himself. In short : it’s not watered down like Rush Hour was. Shanghai Noon’ turns out to be the most fun I’ve had at the movies this summer (I guess we can easily discount Gladiator, M:I-2, Dinosaur and Small Time Crooks). It’s a no-brainer in the old sense of the new Jackie Chan ideal: We hire a brilliant comic actor with brilliant comic timing (Wilson), give Chan enough time to do some kick-a-ma-rang kung-fu action (with his already brilliant timing intact) and we cast Lucy Liu, who is just plain gorgeous and, oh yeah, we give it a snappy title. And it’s all as wonderful as it’s pitch must’ve been. It’s idiotic, light fun. It’s the summer movie that we just plain f’n needed.


The Skulls
Directed by Rob Cohen
Written by John Pogue
Starring : Joshua Jackson, Paul Walker, Hill Harper, Leslie Bibb, Steve Harris, William L. Petersen and Craig T. Nelson
grade: D-

Think I’ll save my energy on this one. That episode of The Simpsons that was supposedly satirizing the (free or stone) masons – the stonecutters episode- was
more plausible than The Skulls, a film about an elite secret society that is so utterly preposterous, even the general story arc is a flat, straight line that rarely rises
above a whisper. Billed as a dark and dirty thriller – more slight and draining than most films I’ve seen this year – the secret society in the film behaves more like a
suit-wearing fraternity who replaces beer with scotch and slutty frat girls with paid hookers (or dance partners, as the gravely moral Joshua Jackson stumbles
through the film and manages to keep his feet on the proverbial middleground – leaving no chances for entertaining redemptions or suspenseful traps). This film is so
concerned with keeping everything mannered and set – from frame one – it never becomes exciting. Even when footage of Jackson’s friend being killed accidentally is
viewed compulsively, it plays more like a version of the Rodney King video where everybody is so sure they can prove it was staged – or that later on in the tape,
he’ll get up and shake hands with his attackers. Jackson and friends sit around watching a digital recording of the murder (The Skulls somehow have access to the
most current digital security technology – as do the police – and they stockpile their stash of recordings in a hidden room within the school library) until they can see
slight movement after the attacker, Jackson’s soulmate of sorts leaves (he is played with such a starch coyness by Paul Walker, I had to keep flushing my mouth out
with liquid to remove the sourness). Then comes the moment that truly defines this dreck: Christopher MacDonald as a heavy, a member of the group (though he’s
controlled by the  menacing  – get ready for this – Craig T. Nelson) is seen on the tape, snapping the neck of Jackson’s close friend (of course there’s sound, as
well). This is one of those films where unintentional comedy is so irreversable, even a twist (no pun intended) you were hoping would occur can’t save the film. In
one hundred and four long minutes, not only does the mood go from weighty to WB soap opera, the film manages to entirely skirt its chances to be both a thriller
and a veil-lifting commentary. The dreadful acting only stands to finish this clunker off. Since everything is off, why the one star, you’d ask? I guess the idea is that,
while a terrible film can have a possibily executable premise (and this one does), its never too far off that something here could occur to me to be, well, forgiveable.
And certainly, any film featuring a real live duel deserves at least a third of my attention. We’ll call this the biggest accidental goldmine of collected teen crap ripe for a
spoof yet. (Gosh, I hope someone reads this and takes that final comment to heart).


Small Time Crooks
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Woody Allen, Tracey Ullman, Hugh Grant, Jon Lovitz, Michael Rappaport, Tony Darrow and Issac Mizrahi.
grade: C-

Small Time Crooks is Woody Allen light, unfortunately directed by Woody Allen (usually something that’s Woody Allen light refers to another director aping
Woody’s style). Instead of infusing a clever humor matched with the usual neurotic realism-transcending-tragicomedy of his films (which I only compare because this
one resembles them visually and structurally more than say, Sweet and Lowdown or Everyone Says I Love You), Allen has hatched a set of devious and
unpleasant characters – not simply because they’re uneducated and constantly threatening each other – but because Allen has forgotten how much fun it is to watch
his corn ball directing. More than most filmmakers working today, you can see the directorial decisions he’s made upon the screen very clearly in most of his films. It
acts as his signature and is more recognizable stamp than people would give him credit for. Here, all we can see is a muddled gang of idiots shooting jokes at one
another – some funny, most punny – none of them building a higher purpose with the characters or their motives. None of them, in the least, enjoyable to watch. They
all seem so thin and uninteresting. By 1995, It was about time Woody Allen started experimenting – and he knew it. Like Celebrity, he’s trying an extreme variation on his usual style. In that film, he cast Kenneth Branagh as himself to disastrous results – and revealed a colder, heavier plot hiding behind the one at the start of the film. In Small Time Crooks – very simply put – he plays an unintelligent version of himself and attempts to dissect those elitist members of high society (the place he clearly inhabits in real life). If this is a self-mockery, it comes off nearly as pompous as the social commentary on celebrities in Celebrity. It’s a comment on high society and how maybe none of them fit in as much as none of the majority of us fit in. It’s all strangely boring. And I know I’m reading far too deeply into the film – but after a few hours, it started to tug at my mind….what in God’s name had I just witnessed? Why do I feel like someone had been, in a very elementary way, saying that “Rich people bad – poor people good”? What I liked about the film (for the most part) was the inclusion of Jon Lovitz, Michael Rappaport and Tony Darrow as Allen’s cohorts in a robbery that takes up about one third of the film (not nearly enough). These comic actors who fit within the shooting range of both the appeal and the interest of the film, work beautifully. Later in the film, Allen will employ Hugh Grant as a snooty art dealer. It’s a disaster. We watch Grant in this upper crust setting, fitting in with all the materials that surround him – and he bounces off the screen. He’s dead on – but his placement is somehow lost in whatever Allen is trying to capture in this film. When Tracey Ullman approaches Grant for lessons in high culture, it was like every other scene in Mighty Aphrodite when Woody Allen was romancing Mira Sorvino – except not funny in the least. The pieces are there : but they’re made of replicas and counterfeits. And in the end, essence or no essence, the bottom line to end all bottom lines is that Small Time Crooks is nothing more than small time funny.


Snow Day
Directed by Chris Koch
Written by Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi
Starring : Mark Weber, Zena Grey, Emmanuelle Chrique, Shuyler Fish, Chris Elliot, Chevy Chase, Pam Grier and Iggy Pop.

Snow Day‘s first act, though depleted of suspense by a needless introduction, has more idyllic qualities than any other live-action kid-oriented movie I’ve seen
this year. There’s little Natalie (Grey) who dreams of seeing her town coated in snow. She will enjoy the title event, as will all the kids in this Syracuse town, but
Natalie seems to love the very idea that snow can change appearance as well as fate. Admittedly, it is kind a flight of fancy – but one I was willing to entertain.
Unfortunately, the film also follows the not-so-entertaining teeny romance follies of her brother Hal (Weber) who has a crush on – surprise! surprise! – the school
bombshell (Chrique). But really, the film only exists as a twenty-four hour free for all where kids do things they could never do in their real, snow less lives. It’s
almost as if the snow brings a psychosis in which everybody daydreams together (though maybe that’s a little too zen for a film like this). Koch and writers McRobb
and Viscardi understand the joy and magic in such a story and play up the great elements – Chevy Chase hoping to get higher ratings in order to wear pants on the
air, Chris Elliot as an evil snow plow guy whose only friend is a bird and the quick appearance by Iggy Pop as an Al Martino worshipping DJ at an ice skating rink.
Throughout the course of the day, fate is played with – both for the better and for the worse. Natalie has more than a few light, comical moments worth noting but
Hal has no trouble making a predictable decision in the third act. The kids have no trouble banding together for an easy combat mission with the snow plow guy and
Chevy Chase, well, the snow has a way of restoring dignity. As much as a film sans surprises can, ‘Snow Day’ had a wonderful echo of the nostalgic turn of one’s
own youth felt in movies like The Sandlot or King of the Hill. It’s filtered and often hard to reach, but it is there. Sort of. Sure, this film is pure marketing (that Nickelodeon stamp screams with the fantasy killing sound of money being accrued) but ‘Snow Day’ is also pleasing entertainment even if it is occasionally dim and deja vu-ey. When the year is over and the SAG strike commences, perhaps what will remain are fewer teen comedies with logistical commonalties. For now, Snow Day comes the closest to stomping them out with vigor as ‘Boys and Girls’ did with lethargy – and ends slightly more respectfully.


Southpaw
A documentary film by Liam McGrath
grade: D

Call me insensitive, but I thought the qualification for being documentary material was being someone outstanding, weird, worthy of honor or, in some way,
challenging or interesting. The old operative : “They don’t make documentaries about just anybody, kid.” Not, as it seems, in the case of Southpaw, where director
McGrath has picked one of the most ordinary and boring of people, Francis Barrett, rather camera-deterrent to boot – to have his boxing career (which consists
mostly of losses, badly filmed) tracked as he rises from a traveller camp in Galway to the Olympics (but all he wants to do is show up the travellers and Ireland, etc.
– aw, isn’t that just so sickly sweet, you could die?). His trainer, a seemingly dim barber named Chick (who constantly repeats the same phrase : “Hit hard and hit
often” – you think so, pal?), continually exhibits this nearly eerie sense of vicarious giddiness that’s not only hard to imagine being under the thumb of, but to watch, is
downright irritating. And it doesn’t stop there. The travellers are noted at the beginning of the film as being a group of people who are living on welfare in order to work as little as possible, existing in perpetual poverty as the folks in town spit on them and treat them as subordinates. The film and all it’s inhabitants, Barrett included, act as if this persecution should be stopped and that they should be treated with the same respect as, uh, people who work for a living. Maybe, in some strangely perverse way, the film is trying to show that this kid raised among laziness stepped up to the plate, ambitious and hungry, and earned his title as the Amateur Boxing champion of Ireland, or whatever he eventually wins at the end of the film. Course, for that point to work, you’d have to ignore his constant bantering about how the travellers are good people and that he’s just glad to have received so much publicity in order to show them up for the good, light-hearted folk they are. Right. Finally, the film is consistent in showing the smallest amount of boxing footage as possible. Which, to tell you the truth, was just fine with me. I’m sick to death of watching boxing sequences, anyway – they’re all watered down swill imagining they were as good as a millisecond of of the matches in Raging Bull – but in Southpaw, we’re continually seeing screen titles that tell us how much of a match has elapsed and who’s in the lead. At one point, there’s even a slow-motion shot of Barrett boxing, as if the running time needed just one more moment of cinematic molasses. At seventy-seven minutes, Southpaw feels longer than most
three-hour movies I’ve seen in the last couple of years. And as if all of this wasn’t enough, the first thing explained in the film is the title. It’s something to do with jabbing once and then backing away – which has absolutely nothing to do with a film about a boxer that keeps at it, no matter how many times he loses. Imagine if they’d fudged the results and let the bastard win a couple. At least then I wouldn’t be watching a film where a boxer crawls his way up from the laziness of his lifestyle to lose a bunch of fights and mumble into the camera about how he fought badly. Not only does this miss as entertainment, it’s isn’t the least bit inspiring. Except that if I ever see a traveller, I’ll think – they could be working on their boxing careers, all of em’ – if only they weren’t so happy living in trailers with no electricity and no running water. Maybe I missed the point. But I doubt it.


Such a Long Journey
Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson
Starring : Roshan Seth, Soni Razdan and Om Puri
grade: B-

Occasionally oceans more than a neighborhood drama, sometimes nothing more than a shameless tear-jerker – Such a Long Journey succeeds itself in a
majority of scenes by pushing the subtle nuances of a world we’ve never seen and keeping the universality heartily low-key. Even when we’re crying, despite
ourselves, this is a film brimming with the dignity of it’s main character, Gustad Noble, played with integrity and beauty by Roshan Seth in one of the most inspired
and outstanding performances of the year. Set in the mid-1970’s, about the time when Pakistan was invading India, Such a Long Journey maps out the plight of Gustad to keep his family going strong (he has a son that doesn’t want to attend his father’s choice in colleges, a wife that’s entranced by the oblong medicinal advice of an elderly neighbor and a daughter that’s come down with a case of malaria); his loyalties to an old friend (who is scamming a freedom fighting effort at Gustad’s risk); and the various community colorfuls including a stuttering invalid that lives below Gustad, a spunky, philosophical painter that replaces urine stains on a wall with paintings from the various faiths and finally; the henchman of Gustad’s old friend, a burly man played by Om Puri (whom you’ll recall from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, of all places). This is a film that populates itself with characters who are willing to define themselves – which works beautifully in a film that is conservative, but doesn’t lack flair. It’s usual, but delightful. And of the Shooting Gallery Film Series entries I’ve seen, it’s the most confident in it’s editing, cinematography and it’s writing. Seldom rough-edged and consistently entertaining, Such a Long Journey is the kind of film you expect to be surprised by – – – and sorta are.


Supernova
Directed by Thomas Lee
Starring: James Spader, Angela Bassett, Lou Diamond Phillips, Robin Tunney, Wilson Cruz, Peter Facinelli and Robert Forster.
grade: C-

Supernova is one of those science fiction films that has plenty of visuals where the space ship is flying by twinkling stars and bursting, colorful planets. Also, it’s
one of those science fiction films that’s plotted from the ashes of dozens of other films in its genre, stealing a plot point here and an ending there. From the beginning,
where it meanders – truly just wanders for a good twenty-five minutes, not accruing much of a segway into mindless dribble about medics rescuing a deceitful
treasure hunter who has found an alien force that will one by one transfix and destroy the crew – while the treasure hunter protects it, of course. This isn’t much to go
on – and Supernova, though it looks striking, is rather dull. Comprised of far too many diagonal shots (I wondered if everyone on board had a neck injury or if the
director was high on this random inclusion of cool lensing), it begs us to picture a future that takes place inside a blueberry. Lee paints nearly all of his film in blue
and, while most of the technical aspects of the ship are so fantasy laden (read: animated looking; this is where I make a a really bad analogy akin to a live action
Titan A.E.), it’s difficult to swallow these people even keeping oxygen inside their Star Trek-ish vessel. The casting choices are somewhat interesting. There’s stiff, almost-warm-every-once-in -awhile Angela Bassett; James Spader, who plays a former drug addict with the monotone necessary to put speed addicts to sleep; Facinelli – who, strangely manages to give the exact same performance he did in The Big Kakuna (that’s almost an achievement – a negative one, anyway – don’t you think?); strong-armed Lou Diamond Phillips; sensitive Wilson Cruz; Robert Forster, who shares about six minutes of screen time with the cast and Robin Tunney, whose breasts are clearly the main focus of her character – an obvious rating booster (the PG-13 Supernova has been released on video in its R version) meant to score video rents. This may not be a very good or worthwhile film – Lord knows its lacking in all the major corridors that illicit money to be drawn from a wallet and paid to the purveyors of cinema – but its world and the characters who mingle in it are somewhat distracting. I’m not recommending it – not by a long shot. A major element of the film should have something to do with at least one supernova (you know, hence the title). But Supernova is too smart for that. Why link the title to anything in the film? This is the detachment that’s all over this space wreck.


The Third Miracle
Directed by Agnieszka Holland
Ed Harris, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Anne Heche.
grade: C+

To sidestep even as I begin – there’s a council to decide if someone is worthy to be a saint. The council relies on three miracles and a comprehensive understanding that the person was good. The film dissection process, it struck me, is just as illogical as this – I look at a film and decide if there are enough good scenes for the film to stand as a whole. Whether or not the film adds up can depend on many factors – but first and foremost, there needs to be enough evidence to support a film’s mere existence. If not – I come in with my cavalry of eloquence and deny the film’s status as good. They’re both strange and neither is very accurate. (Or I just throw all the rules to the wind and say – this is a bad film – or, I know there are flaws, but I’m going to trade my objectivity for the privelidge to call this worthwhile.)
 But all continues as it must – and as it has for the longest time. And it strikes me as odd that I’d make this type of parallel while watching The Third Miracle, a film that is certainly grand in scenes – but never really adds up – and I was kind of torn between reccomending it or shooting it down. And the conclusion I came to had to be done outside the process where I take a step back from theory and observation and simply say: The Third Miracle wasn’t anything really special to me – and didn’t do anything I hadn’t seen before. I decided to evaluate beyond the simple stylings of criticism. I had to throw those rules to the wind as I described. Because the feeling wasn’t there. Back to center, my main problem is that the film is a dry run of a story regarding Father Frank Shore’s (Harris) struggle with his faith while investigating modern miracles; a council deciding the worthiness of one Helen O’Regan for sainthood, and finally, the denial of these miracles that ensues. So, while you’ve got these compelling elements being squandered – the most exciting thing in the film is a romantic encounter that Frank has with O’Regan’s daughter, Roxanne (Heche). Which, being only a small aspect of his struggle with faith – is luckily played up far more than it should be (I suspect the producers knew what they had). Sure, I was irritated that it became such a ravenous focal point – and it’s not as if we haven’t seen a priest breaking his vows before – but the romance is so tender and bleached with real passion – you crave it even though you know the film is, at some point, going to have to go back to it’s boring little plot. The film’s time shifts are done nicely, too. A grainy video image stands for the past and these three mini-sagas are each particularly haunting in their own ways: one, Helen’s childhood where bombs drop on a small town but never actually hit; another about an inquest Frank made seven years prior to the film’s present; and finally, the miracle that triggers all – a bleeding statue at a Catholic school in Frank’s native Chicago – another of those really convenient actions happening in a setting that a main character just happens to inhabit. The film has it’s irritable little discrepancies. There’s a coincidence late in the film regarding the angry-old-priest character (pitted against Harris, meant – yes, at 45 – to be the snide-young-priest character) being involved in one of the events firsthand. The priests in this film all seem to be defined merely by their clothing – not a single one of them resembles any priest I’ve ever met. They’re more like lawyers and detectives on costume day. Every line in the film seems to be there merely to act as a soundbite for a trailer yet to be constructed. The specific lines of dialogue constantly sound like they’re meant to sum up the film’s theme. I can’t tell you how much it irritates me to watch a film where it drops you into this foreign world of people you don’t associate with on a regular basis – and leaves out the interesting facts of their world. Only once do we get a Catholic investigating fact – regarding how to fake a bleeding statue – and when we get it, the film immediately shifts back into it’s further momentum of convention. And why must a film about these heavy issues evolve into a courtroom drama – a heated head-to-head of players battling for an extremely clear-cut right and wrong? The performances aren’t anything to brag about either. We’ve seen this Ed Harris character before – he’s pissed off, but his sensitive side keeps knocking – and like a fool, the angry Harris keeps answering the door and letting the sensitive one ruin that alluring volcanic decay. He’s an actor who needs to let go and simply be a vicious bear – which is why his performances as control-obsessed leaders (The Truman Show, State of Grace, Glengarry Glen Ross) always stick in the mind so well. Armin-Mueller Stahl gives another of his overbearing performances where he lets the accent lift him above all the other characters. Watch out for Stahl folks – he’s armed with that accent – and he’s not afraid to undermine you with it. Finally, I must praise Heche – whom I don’t feel to be an overrated actress. It is she who carries the love story. Sure it swirls like smoke in a burning car wreck of a film, but the flirting and the amour are as they should be – personal, intimate and complicated. Heche is a joy to watch as a woman bittered by jealousy over her mother’s love for God – and bowled over by a Priest’s contempt of God. Finally, as I’m usually lambasting a film for existing in a multiplex, let me revisit that theme. The Third Miracle belongs in the multiplexes. It’s just that awkward and oppressive that it may be lost on the select audiences and be a goldmine for the masses. It would have made a great straight-to-cable film, much more watchable as a throw-away on the small screen. Which is where it may find it’s own miracle after all – an audience willing to forgive the formula and lap up what’s left over.


Thomas and the Magic Railroad
Directed by
Starring : Peter Fonda, Alec Baldwin and Mara Wilson.
grade: C

The fanciful world created in Thomas and the Magic Railroad is one that you have to work for. It’s extremely well-etched and certainly thought out in a way that will appeal to kids who imagine a world larger than the one they inhabit. Trains have two visual standings : they are the cuddly working engines with faces – who talk and move their eyes about – and they are physical trains, identical to any other train you’ve seen. This kind of dimensional doppleganger works with the world as well as with the people in it. The plot isn’t driven too far from what is necessary to satisfy the animated crowd. Everything is almost too simple to be happening in a place that resembles our world in the least. There is a touch of magic and a touch of alienation and when they mix, the film seems to take on an oddly sustained state of double-edged bliss : so light that children can delight in it easily and completely, but almost too light to be of any intellectual or distracted use to viewers. It’s fun to watch Baldwin and Fonda play such morally-centered, one-dimensional characters. Each has done their share of turns playing amoral, complex characters and in this context, it works almost as well as George Carlin does on the television show this film derives from. No fun however, is the fact that casting agents continue to include Mara Wilson on their lists. Admittedly, this film probably wasn’t a pinnacle of strong direction (everything seems to be pulling at the scenes every moment and the setting, models and special effects clearly stop at a television level of competence), but Wilson isn’t much of an actress anyway. This could be a great segway into my gripe about the lack of good child actors and our quick embrace of any of them who are attractive, but I’ll spare you this time. Thomas and the Magic Railroad isn’t necessarily deep or intelligent – but it has an element of childhood fun that I just couldn’t turn off, no matter how far the movie fell into a pit of mediocrity. I was interested in what was happening and by the end, I wasn’t conflicted about how much of my life I’d given up to watch this film. I’d sit on the fence, but Thomas and the Magic Railroad was good – not great – but worth entertaining and certainly worth a viewing by children for its straightforward and easily attainable morality lesson. Harmless.


Three Strikes
Written and Directed by DJ Pooh.
Starring : Brian Hooks, N’Bushe Wright, Faizon Love, E40, Starletta DuPois, George Wallace, David Alan Grier, Dean Norris, Barima McKnight
    and Meagan Good.
grade: D

Yet another vain and unfunny attempt to render the casual daily routines of the hood into a comedic, ah hell, a Friday follow-up. It starts out all wrong with
sympathetic voice-over about how an anti-hero stressing out over his third strike (“Two turns in the joint are alright – in 1993, the third one got you twenty-five
years”. “For $200, Alex, “‘What is the ‘Three Strikes’ law?'”. “You are correct!”). Rob (Brian Hooks), our protagonist (must the black community have to look up to
a man able to use the word ‘pussy’ forty times in a sentence, even speculating on some sort of “pussy pot pie”; a native dish, I suppose) gets himself near danger time
and time again – the police hot on his trail – he drags his ass through the hood spewing familiar dialectical jokes, even more familiar bathroom jokes and a plot point
involving a fat girl that was point blank stolen from the aforementioned film titled from a day of the week. Three Strikes even ends in a complete state of cop-out:
the whole premise based on this idea that Rob is inches from danger and, in the end (notice how I don’t even bother with a bleeding spoiler alert?), the judge simply
calls his vast quantity of crimes (even in 84 minutes, he does enough wrong to put him away for two lifetimes) a broken parole and not a third strike. Geez, why
couldn’t they have let that out of the bag in the opening moments, saved me the trouble of being bored with this piece of cinema veri-garbage. Saving grace earning
the one star? David Alan Grier. The comedian manages to be funny even in the face of unconscionable chagrin. Any funny man able to overcome those odds has
performed a feat. Any film this bad should have been banished straight-to-video.


The Tigger Movie
Directed by Jun Falkenstein
Voice talents : Jim Cummings, Nikita Hopkins, Ken Sansom, John Fiedler, Peter Cullan, Andre Stojka, Kath Soucie, Tom Attenborough and John Hurt.
grade: B

The best part about being a Tiggr (no, this is not a misspelling), according to Tigger, is that he is the only one. And in The Tigger Movie, he challenges his own credo. He decides there must be another on the earth like him – as we all do at some time. Ah, the universal element of kids movies. Though The Tigger Movie runs it’s course with a familiar, cookie-cutter produced children’s movie plot – it’s interesting contextually to note the enchanting approach that is done of the forest – to find out where this Tiggr comes from -which leads us to a pivotal scene (yes – that’s right – A Pivotal scene!) in the film in which Pooh, Eeyore and Piglet go searching for other Tiggrs and find only frogs and bees – other creatures that have stripes and “bounce” (the major trait that creates a Tiggr). Maybe they have found the origin of this mythical Children’s creature concocted by A.A. Milne. Maybe they have found other gentle creatures sharing their space with neither the boisterousness nor the good-spirited personable quality that makes a Tiggr. As they find – among themselves – they like having him around. And they find – that maybe all the creatures come from somewhere beyond the capacity of their understanding. Oh, bother. It’s not really quite kosher to scold a movie like this one, an animated vehicle for youngsters, for being simple, preachy and very, very obvious. Not all animated movies can be as high-minded and independent of commonplace elements as Toy Story 2 or The Iron Giant. Rather, the most grand quality of this film lies in it’s portrayal of the relationship between Tigger and Roo (the marsupial pouch dweller of Kanga – the resident mom to the bunch). Roo sees Tigger as a substitute for both a brother and a father – in many ways. In other ways, there is no substitute for Roo’s father – as it is never mentioned and is seemingly unimportant. All he, or any of them for that matter, need in guidance or nurturing, comes directly from Kanga – who acts as both mother and father. Roo and Tigger are both childlike (Tigger reminds me of an animated Kramer from ‘Seinfeld’ in this film).  In this case, as Roo perfects a particularly tricky “bounce”, he becomes a Tigger – without losing his own identity. It’s almost as if any creature in the forest can be a Tigger – as long as they can mimic him on all levels (which all the characters do at one point – dressing up, but not filling the part nearly to the letter as would be necessary). So, whereas the frogs and the bees can be thought to be Tiggers – maybe Tiggerdom is a state of mind. Finally, it’s mesmerizing simply to view the creations that spark from those classic stories – and their classic illustrations. Tigger’s manner of speech, a combination of a child’s mispronunciation and a poet’s purposeful alliteration – is such a wonder to listen to. It’s like a beatnik with the flow of Shakespearean verse – all rolled into one (boy, does that sound a bit lofty – at times it lives up to that very description!). The beautiful backgrounds are always constant like a fantasy existing in a painting. For me, they’ve always been very evocative of the seasons and of the general air projected by the animals occupying the woodland. Here, the foreground acts as motion – while the background stands perpetual. There’s something nostalgic about this (as it evokes older, more pleasant cartoons of my youth) and something very artistic about it. It seems less of a cheaper, easier way out – than a statement about the very nature of the place they live, and it’s sheltered and enduring place in their lives.


Time Code
Written and Directed by Mike Figgis
starring Saffron Burrows, Salma Hayek, Stellan Skarsgård, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Xander Berkeley, Golden Brooks, Holly Hunter, Kyle MacLachlan,
    (Laurie Metcalf), Alessandro Nivola, Julian Sands and Steven Weber.
grade: B+

En Masse – Time Code is a good idea. In it’s entirety – at least following Alex’s (Stellan Skarsgård) unveiling of the film’s real atmosphere (I’m talking self mockery here!) – the film acts as it’s own propaganda : the type of film that almost begs a second viewing out of curiosity and fascination rather than admiration and impression. But, again, it was a good thing. Not only is Time Code immensely entertaining to watch, but it’s gimmick, the four-screen simultaneous presentation, is in fact, the major reason the film holds our attention so well. Though not discussed outright by director Figgis, my take on Time Code is that it exists as a film for the generation that holds the remote control out to be it’s editor. In a medium where cuts, dissolves and music dictate our emotions as fervently as trauma and joy – – Figgis gives the audience a free-hand decision, one that’s neither infuriating nor entirely pleasing, and asks us to indulge him. Having shot the film in it’s entirety, not using any cuts – it’s a toss-up whether he’s merely throwing the ball into our court, begging us to manipulate his raw footage randomly, on our own; or he’s simply so moved by his own creation in it’s own state that the conception has now transcended the final product in such a way that we’re not really editing (or DECIDING) at all – we’re simply downloading a fourfold soap opera into our consciousness. Whatever the case (and Figgis believes it is the latter) may be – Time Code is detached. But, oh, how intriguing it is to watch these relationships develop – from the objective audience seat we are inhabiting. And there’s the rub in the perfect plan. In essence, while giving us a hand in our own viewing – the plan both works – since I did enjoy being able to choose which frame I examined at any give time; but it backfires as well – because those good old American viewing and perceiving sensibilities come into focus just long enough to render all the material on the screen so completely un-affecting – we’re blown into a strange tizzy of utter dismay at the disempowering effect the film presents us with, while all the time marvelling at beholding four spaces in time as they unfold (even if they are fabricated). And above all – the fate lies in the acting – which is good, but raised into far too many generic characters. It’s not really that this affects what is, truthfully, a somewhat generic narrative – but it shows a major flaw in the machine – the actors who easily
could’ve erased some of the absurdities of Figgis’s story and re-created them as something obscure and addictive. But, in a “here’s-a-revolutionary-breakthrough-concept-let’s-run-with-it” situation, I think my purpose as a critic is rendered somewhat into two parts, as it were. On one hand : the film is really brilliant, conceptually, and a huge payoff for the technique, which is manipulated with restraint and precision to form a satisfying aesthetic – especially what Figgis does with the credits, both opening and closing. (That’s your Three and One Half Stars). On the other hand : the recycled melodrama (that I loathed in Mr. Jones and One Night Stand) of Figgis, something that is often unintentionally funny is in bold opposition to the style. (your Two and One Half Stars)
A Ben Trout soundbite : “If you’re going to do something special, have a good story or you’re doing something less than special”. (your Three Stars)

[I totally fucking disown this review.]


Titan A.E.
Directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman
Featuring the voice talents of : Matt Damon, Bill Pullman, Drew Barrymore, Janeane Garofalo, John Leguizamo and Nathan Lane.
grade: B-

God, how long till the summer is over and I can stop overusing words like ‘familiarity’ and ‘cookie cutter’ because I don’t know how to justify mediocrity by
breaking things down to their simplest form. In the case of Don Bluth’s film, ‘Titan A.E.’, all these things apply – but like ‘The Perfect Storm’, the protocol low-rent
story/dialogue transcends some higher expectation of mine – the visual feast I’ve been dying to swallow (and outside of ‘The Perfect Storm’ – I’ve gone mad famished
hungry, let me tell you). In this film, it’s every scene for itself, begging you to look it’s way as it tries to top the last one in aesthetic beauty and futuristic interpretation.
This is the world of junked-out space heaps, vast and surprising vistas, fast and dangerous alien foes and wonderfully imaginitive terrain encircling all. As a film where Matt Damon is one of the last humans and bears the map to the Titan, a ship that can save the human species (a little too close for comfort to ‘Waterworld’ for my taste) – ‘Titan A.E.’ falls well below the mark. Everything about it smacks of Bluth’s other films. Neither the haunting meditation on personal loss that ‘The Land Before Time’ was or the boldly entertaining romp that ‘An American Tale’ was, this film manages to construct itself from the dusty remains of those films’ scripts – and take the next step in technology, pushing ahead into eye candy the likes of which cineastes crave (Remember the orgasm I had over ‘Princess Mononoke’ – same kind of worship over the visuals, none of the same appreciation for narrative). As there’s little else to say about a film that I know is a standing cliche, but carries all of the powers of swift, solid entertainment I crave in a popcorn flick, I’ll leave you with these three pieces of information :

    1. I can’t wait until the summer is over, as far as the cinema goes.
    2. The new theater we tried out, Village Mall Cinemas in Horsham, is exactly the
        second-run dump that I miss from ‘Fox East Boscovs’ in Reading and the ‘AMC’ in Exton.
    3. Their popcorn gave me a headache even two gin & tonics couldn’t cure.

        Little else on my mind eighty minutes after the film is over. Forgettable entertainment, unforgettable visuals.


28 Days
Directed by Betty Thomas
Starring : Sandra Bullock, Viggo Mortensen, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, et al.
grade: C-

“Oh boy, Rehab!”

I wondered to myself while watching this filth, “Should I really be enjoying this, should I really feel entertained by this, shouldn’t I be taking this seriously?”. The
answer is clearly yes, yes and no. And those are just the wrong answers to arrive at. A film that is content to blame an addiction on the sins of the mother – never
uncovering the gap Gwen (Bullock) would’ve had to bridge in order to become an addict (and once more, how shameless is a film that shows the childhood in
flashbacks but just plum leaves out ages 10-29, you know, the ones where she became a damn addict). But to more deeply explain just how out of touch this film is
with itself, it breaks a huge rule by almost always telling us (rather than showing us) the effects of drug & alcohol abuse. And beyond that, Gwen is so vividly painted
as a deep, hard core addict yet she emerges twenty-eight days later, able to continue her life easily. We never feel – not once – that she could be tempted back into
the drug hazy world she inhabited for (as the film tells us) fifteen years. That just couldn’t be unless this were a Hollywood film, the leading actress was the executive
producer and, well, if it weren’t meant to be bankable. Truth be told, Bullock does some acting in this film (sandwiched between projects in which she is or is in love with undercover agents – think of the subconscious flair exhibited by her choice in roles here). She brings a delightfully off key note to her usual cutesy gallivanting that brings her just far enough away from being Sandra Bullock to be grungy drug/alcohol freelancer Gwen – but just close enough to the cutesiness that we can’t help but see an actress exorcising the demons of an admittedly ridiculous career. Turns out it is utterly wasted, as are turns by Viggo Mortensen and Steve Buscemi, particularly the latter who, combined with ‘Animal Factory’, has pulled off two memorable turns this year with less than ten minutes of screen time between them. (Makes you remember just how prolific an actor he is.) Betty Thomas has no trouble creating an entertainment – as she did in The Brady Bunch Movie and Private Parts (films I admire) – but here, she’s way off target. For subjects like rehabilitation and addiction, there should be no need to populate the film with scenery chewing flamboyants like the ?-accented homosexual who always seems to arrive with the most inappropriate of lines anytime the movie seems to be getting within a mile of being reverent or disquieting. By the time Gwen is discharged, the film seems to be built around how large the contrast between her quick fix-it job/ happy-go-lucky smile and how pathetic the other patients’ reoccurring admittance to the clinic is. This is more than a little jolting. I was curious just how a director could allow this to happen and then I remembered – nobody wants to see an actress men fantasize about blow her big chance to get sober and made-up again. Then I breathed a sigh of relief that this abhorrence was over. One final note: Is there room for the existence of 28 Days and Requiem for a Dream in the same world? Certainly not. I hate to get bogged down in a pissing contest between an obviously flashy three act throwaway and a hard-hitting artistic anti addiction statement; but I couldn’t help but recall Requiem for a Dream while watching 28 Days. I kept wondering when 28 Days was going to grow some balls and step up to the plate and give a wider audience something they could take with them. As it is, all they’re likely to remember is that Gwen was triumphant in the face of an alarming addiction that she probably overcame and who cares what else. In ‘Requiem for a Dream’, the characters clearly remain addicted at the end of the film. Lack of closure left all of them in my brain and I can’t shake them. 28 Days is Hollywood drama at its best, skirting the issue for a happy ending.


U-571
Written and Directed by Jonathan Mostow
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Harvey Keitel, Bill Paxton, Jon Bon Jovi, Jake Weber and Tom Guiry
grade: C-

Though it takes forty-five or so minutes of expository garbage to really sink it’s claws into our attention, U-571 works so terrifically once the momentum builds that
I almost wanted to deny the existence of it’s previous fault. The suspense boils to an alarming degree and all the actors are really good at yelling, bouncing echoes off
of a claustrophobic hunk of metal under the sea. This is the kind of film DTS sound was made for :  it’s hidden component of blazen nerve-jangling : that 8-channel
surround sound, amped up and overused (well). When the film stops being watered down pseudo-Das Boot and starts to take on it’s own form,  it becomes a
pleasing thrill ride, one that’s worth taking in the theater and one that’s totally and completely a pro-American low-rent period piece: An action movie trapped in a
story that couldn’t possibly interest me.  In short, it uses the money and the tactics well. You’ll want to shake the hand of the editor when it’s over – and snub the
under-directing auteur, who clearly wanted to tell a story in the space where there should be loud explosions and chaotic action.


Unbreakable
Written, Produced and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring : Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Spencer Treat Clark and Robin Wright Penn.
grade: B+

(lowered to C+ upon second viewing)

If he keeps making films, the figurehead of Shyamalan’s career should be Unbreakable. This is the kind of film that weaves a reverent, spooky tone into a
more realistic world – the kind that craves a preamble like the aforementioned ghost story to offset just how deep and enticing Shyamalan’s imagination is willing to
bend the medium of film. This is the product of tinkering, a film about the supernatural that is engrossing – but feels vulnerable and relevant at the same time as it is
confidant and fanciful. His characters, left at a magnificent twofold set of crossroads, teem with the ability to surprise us and keep us interested in just what is
controlling their personal navigation skills as they pick up from a disturbing yet uplifting event in their lives. It’s Shyamalan’s style, one that after two films we can
almost reach out and pinpoint, that makes a film like Unbreakable so riveting and a film like The Sixth Sense so outwardly creepy. (all right, the former has
some goofy moments as well – paint cans and “We don’t point guns at friends!” come to mind; but the The Sixth Sense may be the most widely forgiven
use of a gimmick as a film rather than the other way around. It treads the thin line between being the king in what Elijah (Jackson) calls a “mediocre
world”. In the film world, The Sixth Sense is just that subordinate when viewed next to its sister film, Unbreakable.) A prophet and a strongman (if you go by their biblical counterparts), Elijah and David (Willis) are each the kinds of film characters long absent from the genre – whatever you the viewer perceives the genre to be – driven, extra human and eloquent. Bruce Willis, sullen and withdrawn, a very menacing – almost darkly foreboding brooder, wears the mask of a slowly mixing awe and bewilderment just as well as he did in The Sixth Sense. As a child looking up to him, Spencer Treat Clark (as David’s son, John)  is a wonderful addition to Willis’s growing army of child actors, responsible for tons of work thanks to his loving and worthy chemistry. The man is becoming an actor with each and every film he puts between he and the action hero career of yesteryear. And as he unfolds his mysterious new discovery, with the help of a very bold and startlingly obsessive Jackson, David becomes the kind of mythical journeyman Shyamalan seems to write so well. In Unbreakable, it works because both David and the audience know he’s on a quest, in search of something. In other words, he doesn’t turn out to be dead the whole time – he just looks it. Unbreakable is the kind of cinematic achievement directors get with the freedom to do such things as shoot in sequence, choose their own crew and location, and market their own skill as part entertainer, part artist. The tone, pace and skilled final product are the payoff. I was ready, willing and able to comment on where the film goes, using the ever handy spoiler alert, but I think I want to see the film again before relinquishing details to those who have seen it – and not have those details be sharp. Yes, this is an apology. I would love to share my absolute joy with where Unbreakable lands itself, the territory and the similarity to another film I’m quite passionate about seeing a second time. I think I’ve probably said too much as it is… (“The kids call me Mr. Glass.”)


The Virgin Suicides
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring : Kirsten Dunst, James Woods, Josh Hartnett, Kathleen Turner, Hanna Hall, Chelse Swain, A.J. Cook and Leslie Hayman.
grade: A

The real genius in The Virgin Suicides has got to be the delicate and attentive emphasis it places on point-of-view parlayed from adult reflection back to the good ol’ days: Youth. How beautiful are scenes where things appear mythical, surreally passionate and desperately remembered. How powerfully remembered is the balance between the haunted disbelief surrounding the title actions and the chummy-transcending-coming-of -age sense of nostalgia the movie vibrates. This is a film that respects the near-fictionalized memories of young people and the importance of such reminders, while creating, dare I say it, a Psycho-esque twist of narrative (when the main focus changes so drastically, it’s jarring), elevating the film above any light handling or amateur visions the audience might have had for it. Here is a masterful and wonderful film about people growing up, barriers we all remember and the greatish moments when we peeked around the corners of those barriers – if only for a moment. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Coppola (the younger) has created this world as if it were a series of paintings. Here lies : the suburban wonderland of sprinklers, poking sunshine rays and soft, silky-green blades of grass; the cluttered homes, studded with iconography – from fashion and records to Catholic memorabilia; the aquamarines interrupted by stark browns and yellows to make a ‘seventies’ feel that is equal parts the cover of a Catholic Sunday School workbook and the unequivocal massage of images personal to each of our perceptions of the decade, whether we lived it or saw it on the television or movie screen years later. And the beauty held on high is made all the more digestible by Dunst, in a performance that is astounding. Here is the actress of Interview with a Vampire, whom I specifically remember branding the ‘no talent’ red letter upon. As I hinted at after seeing Dick, she does have some talent. In The Virgin Suicides, we see an abundance of girlish sexuality being radiated like the rays of the sun, burning and blinding everyone she comes in contact with (even a knife salesman, who gives her a free ten minute demonstration when she lies out on the lawn in her bathing suit). As Lux (great name), she  protrudes that flirt so effortlessly, we become her victim. She hypnotizes us with her eyes. We’re there, back in high school, lusting after her (and her kind – the sexy supervixen) again.
And the superbly (comical?) turns by Josh Hartnett and James Woods, as Lux’s admirer and father, respectively; deserve recognition as well. They both bring an amazing charm blazing around Lux like victims at her innocence-cum-maturity sacrificial bonfire. They both wonder why they’re caught in her tractor beam – but not enough to want to be left outside of it. As Trip Fontaine, Hartnett, especially, was born to wear that badass wardrobe, strut around in a haze and strike his head on the tunes of Todd Rundgren. There is a scene where Lux kisses him that’s so brutally meshing fantasy and memory, it’s a giddy thrill for us. That’s the power of this film : it remembers things “…the way [it wants] to, not necessarily the way they happened.” (Bill Pullman, Lost Highway). And of course, the bump in the road – the boldly wooden Kathleen Turner, a performance as menacing as her character in Body Heat (without the nudity). Imagine a full transformation, complete with the over-protective mom (turned up at full volume) hatred for rock music, boys and logic in general. Never would you suspect that Turner could be such a wonderful backside to her chameleon-esque usual self. A brave and wondrous show. (And come to think of it, picture her in Serial Mom, but not in a satire-ish way, and more churchy. Now you’ve got it). Every touch seems to magical. And back to the two things I want to stress before I finish the orgasm here: The Virgin Suicides is all about nostalgia and remembering things in a way that’s pleasing in terms of personal ego, evolution and simple existentialism. It’s these four boys, obsessed to the gills with four sisters whose lives have the lock and key – and whose aura radiates into the annals of sexual growth in the collective consciousness of those men who came in contact with them. And I love that absolutely pitch-perfect, image-soaking score by Air. (And particular Kudos to Coppola for not making a movie with a superiority complex that makes the seventies look really enticing to everyone who didn’t live it and thumbs it’s nose down at us. This film is universal.)


Waking the Dead
Directed by Keith Gordon
Starring : Billy Crudup, Jennifer Connelly, Hal Holbrook, Molly Parker, Janet McTeer, Paul Hipp and Sandra Oh.
grade: B

This is a haunting, extremely absorbing and undeniably affecting experience. Its a take on madness that views obsession and closure as one. Its an exploration
of the potent disturbance that time squeezes us with. Its a gambling session with an ambitious political frontrunner choosing ambiguity and distraction over following a
lifelong dream. And its Billy Crudup, perhaps the best up and coming actor working today (Without Limits, Jesus’ Son),  reinventing psychological breakdown and
fervent passion as if no one had ever expressed such feelings onscreen. Waking the Dead doesn’t always work. Crudup’s relationship with Connelly is certainly meant to be more interesting after she passes away, but the film pushes too hard on obscuring their relationship while she is are alive, leaving Crudup to fill in the attached emotional gaps left by the film’s strangely detached flashbacks. Its not really as glaring an error as you’d expect; Crudup is certainly up to the task and performs it without skipping a beat (no one I’d rather see lose his mind – an exasperating and beautiful thing to watch – an achievement, if you will). Connelly is sufficiently angelic as his Catholic do-gooder girlfriend, killed in a politically motivated car bombing. Its a testament to these actors that when he envisions her “ghost” after she dies, time stops and the passion immediately locks us in. Even what’s missing can’t tear us away from how fascinating and reverent the film makes their sudden, disquieting reunions. And that’s the extent. This is a film that is pleasing to watch for its effect, but not entirely pleasing to experience as a piece of cinema. Keith Gordon, whose Mother Night also overcame some vibrant miscalculations (for instance, being unearthly slow), directs his films with the better part of his heart and a seeming lack of his mind. The incorrect balance isn’t at all jarring or really that distancing, its a wonderful mixture to stir into a film. And I do enjoy watching his films. I almost wish while watching them that Gordon would keep his head focused and create a film that’s not interested in the payoff – which he is so skilled at delivering – but I have to stop myself because, everything would topple and the sometimes corny and speech-heavy dialogue might overtake the often brilliant and moving excess of raw, driving human consciousness and experience. There is also a level in this film that’s worth addressing in a very admirable fashion. The film does not outwardly distiguish or close the door on whether Jennifer Connelly’s character is living or dead and Billy Crudup must survive not knowing the difference – or the reality of it – either. The mere fact that the film suggests a giant of a thematic element like this is beautiful. What a concept. The way it handles it, with a haunted hum that grows louder and more refined as the film proceeds, is quite simply the perfect way to handle it. Would I like to have seen the whole film surround itself with this very delicate – and perhaps to some, proposterous, idea – in a very selfish way, I would. I also hate to think everyone could connect with this – because of the perhaps too convenient way the story hands the circumstance to us – but, nevertheless, because of the kind of director Gordon is, the film does invite us to pool our own general associations and past links with this type of feeling and this type of pain and pleasure. Its often the kind of film we would feel strongly about and feel close to because these are wonderful moments to feel in real life – and exciting moments to witness in the movies. More and more in films, old-fashioned styles fuse with new orders to create one side of an extreme – or another. In this case, an old-fashioned, constantly straight-forward love story (even though told in idiot-proof flashback and flash-forward mode), is melded with a new order of visualization and aesthetic sculpting. The haunting score by Tomandandy, the interior urban tightness and snow-soft dreaminess of Tom Richmond’s cinematography, the bold and astonishing performance by Billy Crudup and the emotionally heavy (but not heavy handed) direction of Keith Gordon do what old-fashioned films did not do: they tell a story in and out of focus, unsure of its own reality and often so concentrated, it becomes blurry. All of this is almost enough to make this film into the magic it deserves. As it stumbles, I was sort of hurt that I had to ignore what was both creating and killing the movie, but that dualistic cog is enough to make this machine properly overpowering.


The Way of the Gun
Written and Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
Starring : Benicio Del Toro, Ryan Phillipe, Juliette Lewis, James Caan, Nicky Katt and Taye Diggs.
grade: C-

I’m betting that a week or so down the road, someone is going to tell me all the inside workings and special payoffs that they were able to grasp from The Way
of the Gun. And I’m betting that I’ll hear the better story from them than was actually put on screen. And I’m betting that no matter how much water they add to the
genre films reminiscent of The Usual Suspects (which McQuarrie himself wrote) and Pulp Fiction, they won’t seem more than a few tinges of originality in the face
of blatantly overused material. McQuarrie seems content to disturb the balance of crime dramas by over-loading the film with plot strands, characters and double-crosses, but he has failed to make any of it exciting. He has no trouble creating precise, intelligent characters, but he’s more interested in having them survive (or not survive) gunfights than anything else. (SPOILER ALERT) In fact, I’d have been very moved to see a crime drama whose main goal was to show that crime doesn’t pay by pitting some intelligent kidnappers against a rich, forceful crime syndicate and, in the end, having the realistic side win (namely, the crime syndicate). McQuarrie almost seems to want to do this, as he ends his film this way, but he never really lets these characters speak for themselves. Everyone in the film, though talky and sharp, seem to have less to do with an actual narrative than with a sick ploy McQuarrie is purporting to challenge himself: Can I heap all of this complicated structure together and still have it come out as clear and electrifying as The Usual Suspects? And the answer is a resounding no, simply because McQuarrie is not the director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil, X-Men) is. While Singer had no trouble taking enough plot for five films and making the confusion seem necessary and the conclusion seem lucid; McQuarrie seems to enjoy the confusion much more than the conclusion, which, honestly, is a non-balletic shoot-out so loud and dull, you’ll wish this slightly-higher-than-cable movie would just end already. Some poor casting choices don’t help. Though Del Toro and Phillipe are intact – and even fun to watch – Lewis is a horrible choice for their kidnapping victim. The movie is so preoccupied with making the kidnapping seem different than any other cinema kidnapping, it makes Lewis’s character, who is surrogate mother to the crime syndicate head’s child, seem an obsure reference in an otherwise straightforward gallery of characters. It doesn’t help that Caan is played off as a mumbly old man whose experience alone makes him worthy to win this little game of McQuarrie’s. And finally, if Katt and Diggs were written any more detached, I was really going to wonder if they were just wandering over to the set from another film to shoot the breeze while the camera was rolling (there’s even a dim subplot where the crime syndicate head’s wife is seeing Diggs, which, upon first inspection seemed to be just another branch on this front-loaded tree of plot elements; but upon closer inspection, it is one of the many nuances in the film actually are familiar). Finally, to add spite to this clunker, there are some scenes near the opening of the film that are nice because they are confidantly told in a visual – rather than verbal manner. I couldn’t help wondering if McQuarrie were going to be as haphazard to include so many elements that don’t gel or work together, why not experiment by making this film dialogue-less? Another of my brilliant, however useless suggestions to those in charge of churning out films. If McQuarrie really wanted to wow us, he’d have made a film that had zero criminals in it – but read just as gracefully as The Usual Suspects.


What Lies Beneath
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Starring : Michelle Pfeiffer, Harrison Ford, Amber Valletta, Diana Scarwid, Miranda Otto, Joe Morton and James Remar
grade: C+

Michelle Pfeiffer curls up in the bathtub. It’s an image that’s not only central to the star vehicle that What Lies Beneath defies for the majority of it’s spindling; but it’s also the kind of horror-rich setting that an audience deserves. You know there is something magical present when a filmmaker can pay homage to another filmmaker, occasionally borrowing a little too transparently, but more often than not, painting with a palette of love – rather than a palette of grand larceny. It’s true that What Lies Beneath bears a similarity to Stir of Echoes that is often a little too close for comfort – but it also understands the concept of cinematic ambience: the white noise of a surrounding pattern of themes and visuals that can correctly render a film’s necessary push; it’s drive; it’s intention. Besides, for all the plot it appears to have in common with that film, it’s really not about anything worth noting to begin with. Forgiven. Zemeckis wisely keeps his two actors as busy as possible with a plot that’s nuances are never subtle and whose open-and-shut twists are merely window dressing meant to allow for spine-tingling chicanery. There are some classic jumps, motions meant to give the audience a heart-beating, skin-tightening rush. There are occasionally too many blatant pans of the camera into unknown places in order to boost the suspense of what may lie in sed unknown (in the worst moments, it’s not what we think). What I like about the film is easily bogged down by the density of it’s obvious audience-pleasing aspects. I can’t even begin to tell you how irritating it is to have a subplot meant to throw you off of the film’s main sequence and have that subplot surface as an ambiguous cloud, forgotten in the mix. The teasing sensation of the film’s closing twenty minutes, while the momentum is borrowed from Vertigo, it isn’t always piano-wire tight. For the most part, it’s a series of predictable and numbing thrusts of the ever popular “Is that character dead or just unconscious?”. The main excitement, I’m afraid to say, comes from watching the leads (megastars Pfeiffer and Ford) parade about, shuffling off their former personas to have a bit of fun. While it’s not a good idea for me to give away things, since this film is based on the idea that it’s secretive (it’s not, anyone who’s seen the trailer knows every little thing about it – Oops!); I’m going to do it anyway. It’s an honor to watch Harrison Ford play a bad guy who is
trying to kill his wife (which he tried to convince us he’d never do seven years ago in the brilliant The Fugitive). And Pfeiffer, for all the crap she makes that I’ll never see, manages to come alive enough to spark the all-beauty-and-some-brains heroine reminiscent of any of Hitchcock’s films – or any of the great thrillers for that matter. While What Lies Beneath may be a bathtub too shallow for any real fright – it’s just deep enough to pass for a cheap thrill – – – which is precisely what Zemeckis was firing for, I’m certain.


What Planet Are You From?
Directed by Mike Nichols
Starring : Gary Shandling, Annette Bening, John Goodman, Ben Kingsley, Greg Kinnear and Linda Fiorentino.
grade: C

Immensely surprised, says I, at what is the prime example of a ass-on-couch “rental film”. A premise that can only be backed by sharp one-liners and shiny big
supporting casts – like this one about an alien that poses as a human to procreate and thereby, take over the planet – What Planet Are You From? suffers only from
a terminal sense of sitcom-itis. We know where it’s going, we can feel the familiarity of where it’s prodding. Then why was I so pleasantly surprised? Maybe it was
the presence of Garry Shandling, doing little else but being Garry Shandling (am I the only one who misses Larry Sanders on HBO?). Perhaps it’s the scene where
Annette Bening (playing her character from Mars Attacks! up for all it’s worth) sings “High Hopes” with child. Or maybe it was the carefree vibes the film gives off –
everyone seems to be having fun goofing around with Mike Nichols – and it shows. It’s a solid comedy and great entertainment. Can I imagine having seen it in the
theater and felt the same response? Frankly, no.


Whatever it Takes
Directed by David Raynr
Written by Mark Schwan
Starring : Shane West, James Franco, Jodi Lyn O’Keefe, Marla Sokoloff and Julia Sweeney
grade: C

“Occasionally charming” is a waning description I’d fancy retiring. Watching teen comedies – or any teen-inflicted, teen-enhanced or teen-marketed entertainment has begun to rob me of the very ability to deliniate; to see these films as separate entities rather than a clumping pile of regurgitated distractors. This one isn’t really all that menacing. A two-fold (and very loosely lifted) version of Cyrano de Bergerac that features the jock, longing to “nail and bail” (on) the nice girl next door, while the accordion-playing introvert casts his ambitious gaze on the school sexpot. If it weren’t for how self-conscious it seemed to be about marking current moments (an effort to date itself perhaps) such as the labored Titanic gag, single mom as a prom date and the oh-so-obvious knocks at Beverly Hills 90210, I might be able to overlook the actuality of how simplistic and implausible the very fabric of these characters seems to be (this is yet another movie that takes place in and around a school that none of the students ever seem to attend as students and all of them look at least ten years older than they should). Laughing occasionally – and remarking that this isn’t really all that bad – certainly doesn’t excuse films like this. Teen films really ought to be backed by at least one brain cell – no matter how dim they are (Perhaps this explains an industry that feels it appropriate to ellide on the immoral sense that big breasts and sex talk among youth is inherently marketable). Nevertheless, I didn’t believe for a second that any of these actors could ever exist in any high school anywhere. I am fully aware how far from the point that is. Maybe that’s the difference between this and the much more tolerable Boys and Girls: at the very least, that film was content to set its dry story at a college, where I could almost buy that these twentysomethings were interacting in a semi-natural envoirnment. But then, maybe comparing teen movies is like comparing diseases: whether they’re getting better or worse – they still suck on general principle.


The Whole Nine Yards
Directed by Jonathan Lynn.
Starring : Bruce Willis, Matthew Perry, Amanda Peet, Michael Clarke Duncan, Rosanna Arquette, Kevin Pollack and Natasha Henstridge.
grade: C

Though mashed into a whole spectrum of low-key elements that don’t always make a viewer want to jump on board a sinking ship (like jokes you’d rather die that
give in to laughing at) in hopes that it will pull off a turnaround, I assure you, The Whole Nine Yards brings it all on home…eventually. You’re right. Matthew Perry’s
soul is about as thin as cheesecloth (we’re all quite bored with his paycheck and it’s rare connection to the antics and repetitious existence he inhabits on Friends).
What ends up saving this relentlessly twisty and often hysterically farcical film is the way Perry turns his former deal with the devil on a dime and becomes a buddy
team with Bruce Willis to…..and get this……positive results! The two of them together are nearly brilliant. Hard to swallow most of the stuff coming down the tubes
through the first chopping half of this one but, on the whole, it takes the notches of the sitcom belt and wraps them tightly around a worthwhile exercise in goofball
stunts. The Whole Nine Yards is a mild diversion that, for no other reason, affords one the opportunity to see the following items: a) Amanda Peet topless; b)
Michael Clarke Duncan in a role completely opposite to the one he tackled in The Green Mile; c) Rosanna Arquette dangling a flaky French accent; and finally, d)
a bad, bad film that winds up being just charming enough not to completely suck.

[Note to self : this film constantly reminded me, in the way it was shot, edited and directed, of any of the following eighties memories : What About Bob?, Stakeout and The ‘Burbs. I heavily recommend that you leave the video store with one of these films in tow, particularly the last one, as it’s consistently one of my favorites year after year.]


The Wind Will Carry Us
Written, Directed and Edited by Abbas Kiarostami
Starring : Behzad Dourani, the inhabitants of Siah Dareh.
grade: B

Not nearly the equal of Kiarostami’s Kokek Trilogy (if only because those films are about goodness and this one is about the reverance of death), The Wind
Will Carry Us actually manages to have even less occur between its opening sequence and closing shot than the usual spectrum of everyday humdrum events the
Iranian master director includes in his features. This is the story of an engineer from Tehran, his associates (whom we never see) and their quest to capture photos of
the mourning ritual performed in a small town called Siah Dareh. The one-hundred year old woman whose funeral they expect to photograph has not yet died – the
engineer learns from a local boy called Farzad – and now two days waiting to capture this event has turned into just over two weeks. The calming effect of Kiarostami’s sparing photography (more picturesque than I remember it being in his previous films) and lack of music apply here. The difference here is that all of the hidden charms of such airy, narrativeless filmmaking aren’t as readily accessible when we leave the theater – perhaps in part due to the film’s haunting closing shot, one that really doesn’t seem as weighty as the film that preceeds it. It almost seems as if the obssession with reality, no matter how uneventful, has given way to a need Kiarostami feels to define things one last time, as if his audience is no longer the quiet circle of highbrow critics but a universal crowd of filmgoers unfamiliar with the connection their brains often make with the films they inhale. The film contains outside elements such as comedy and irony – things we rarely see in his films. These foreign elements don’t quite have the fit of eloquence his usual preoccupation with innate goodness does – but as he removes our expectations, replacing them with a wonderful reflection on the inevitability and unexplained power of death (as he did with suicide in The Taste of Cherry) – he finds a new world in his filmmaking. The role of the filmmaker, usually important, is nearly nil here. The engineer, who must keep driving to a cemetary,  the highest point of the town (to get reception on his cell phone), finds his own role challenged as the time he spends talking to his colleagues in Tehran about rushing death while standing on hallowed ground becomes a sythesized opposition – causing a reflection of a magnitude that shocks even him. We aren’t necessarily afforded the complete insertion of nature’s wild unpredicability – and the death that can linger in the face of eagerness – which gives way to the quiet epiphany Kiarostami usually commands, but in The Wind Will Carry Us, we can feel him breaking new territory, gradating his craft with it. If I am right and this is the middle of a grand uphill slope, his next film, should it have themes of death and loss, should be a masterwork.


Winter Sleepers
Directed by Tom Tykwer
Starring Ulrich Matthes, Heino Ferch, Floriane Daniel, Marie-Lou Sellem and Josef Bierbichler with Agathe Taffertshofer, Laura Tonke, Sofia Dirscherl,
    Werner Schnitzer and Sebastian Schipper.
grade: C

If visionary legend-in-the-making Tom Tykwer were to have erected a tombstone for this wintery wallop of mediocrity, it would read: Winter Sleepers, Cause of Death: Ambition. Beyond the irritating fact that Winter Sleepers received an American release only due to the success of Tykwer’s mindblowing Run Lola Run lies the question I’d love to ask the director himself : Why release this film at all? If anything – hide it. Bury it deep in the snow where no one can find it (or leave it to the blood-sucking ebay pirates to capitalize on, like they’ve been doing since Run Lola Run was released last August). Full of unfinished experiments with most of the same themes found in Run Lola Run, the familiar thread that inevitably chokes Winter Sleepers is that it’s all too common film territory – especially in America. A film with five main characters that coincidentally cross paths isn’t exactly a fresh or new idea. And it’s obvious target, a bleak wintery tone, is best embodied as “Watered Down Egoyan” (a diluted version of any of Atom Egoyan’s works). This tone should be a traumatic bout with unavoidable hibernation seeping into all aspects of life, not the silly, soapish boy-is-it-cold-out-here tone. And though all of the characters are interesting and show much promise as they bang around in the perverbial “small world” – – they’re given no real foundation to build from, making all of their arguments and subplots feel like a great pause in the overplayed big picture Tykwer is painting. Particularly the lightish debates of Marco (Heino Ferch) and Rebecca (Floriane Daniel), two wholly single note characters offered to us by the film. When they do the classic love-hate seesaw volley of words, their presence against the background of much stronger, deeper things feels so utterly wasteful and useless. It would be like watching The Sweet Hereafter and every time the tragedy in that film was discussed, it was abruptly interruped by two people arguing about the weather and talking about something they saw on television last night.  Another really sandpaper-rough example: When Marco is in the hospital and he says to Rebecca, the nurse (of a dead little girl lying in a bed between them), “She looks unreal somehow”. In that statement he gives off such an unaffected round of psuedo-comfort while also summing up the whole melee that is the characters : they all seem so utterly unreal. And some other really gruff touches. First of all, I’d like to quicky dispense with the cliche of underscoring or even defining a character as “wierd” simply by giving him the hobby of photography. If you do it professionally – you’re interesting. If you do it in your free time – you’re a pervert. Then, there’s the near-hilarious (very unintentionally so) set of sequences when Theo (Josef Bierbichler) becomes obsessed with the scar on the photographer, Rene’s (Ulrich Matthes) head. In the most side-splitting moment, Theo tries to make the wavy likeness of the scar in his eggs a la Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Tykwer was naive to have thought we’d miss drawing such a ridiculous-sounding parallel. Nothing is beneath me. In it’s favor, Winter Sleepers looks beautiful. Shot in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, it’s wintery landscapes and intimately creative interiors glow up on the screen, making us even more wary of it’s overall narrative emptiness. The opening sequence, in particular, rivals the energy and sharp observational editing of Run Lola Run. The movie is consistently striking throughout, but never manages to ape the terrific style of the other film.  There were some nice twists in it – as there always are in films that don’t quite capture your fancy, but exist in their own right as their own thing. It’s just a pity that it feels like a step backward, watching it in April of 2000 – when really it’s 1997 production makes Run Lola Run a step forward. And a big step forward in every way – especially in tightness. At over two hours, not only does Winter Sleepers feel overstuffed, it makes us yearn for the director’s proved conciseness : the mark of nary a few auteurs that can make every frame work for them. And what really drives the nail in is the potential that literally oozes from the screen. And alongside that envious mixture lies the type of film that makes you wish you knew others in the theater – because it begs that need to vindicate your disdain as you stand before it, completely bungling of material that we’ve seen done with expert spins before.  And you want to make comments, but you can’t. Internalized rage is the worst kind. At the very least, your disappointment will be cooled by the wonderful soundtrack. But not much.


Wonder Boys
Directed by Curtis Hanson
Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Robert Downey, Jr., Frances McDormand, Katie Holmes.
grade: A

What makes Wonder Boys great – as opposed to just good – is that it’s honest and lived in. The gray-speckled, joint-puffing literature professor Grady Tripp (Douglas) opens the film distracted from his pupils’ criticism of one of his students works, James Leer (Maguire). His voice-over narration discusses an incident that occurred that morning – without showing it to us and without making it any kind of focal point in the scene. His wife has left him. And we can tell by the cynical edge and Grady’s preoccupation that he’s conflicted by it – and that it’s probably his fault. And there’s dozens of moments like this in the film – where it’s cast divulges information to us in the way all of us do in real life – by giving off telltale signs on the inside – and by appearing unwounded on the outside. As these signs begin to stack up, everyone’s stance comes into focus. Grady wrote  a well-respected book about seven years ago and is feared a wash up. His editor Crabtree (Downey, Jr., playing yet another role that’s too parallel to the one in his life to be “just a coincidence”) has come to town for an annual college event, but, more specifically, to check up on Grady’s progress. Grady has been seeing the wife (McDormand) of the head Chancellor of the English department at the college. He’s renting a room to Hannah, one of his students (Holmes), who just happens to be in love with him – or, more specifically, the myth of him. And finally, another of his students that just happens along this annual college event, James Leer – who may be both suicidal and a great writer. To further prove my point about the lived-in quality of the film – let’s go back to something the narrator in Magnolia said: “…if that was in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it”. Wonder Boys entire existence topples the meaning of such a oddball and coy reference. It’s all believable – in as much as it’s substance is the stuff that could easily be made implausible. Director Curtis Hanson turns the intensity down so low that even in scenes like the one where James Leer shoots a dog that’s attacking Grady (and all the jokes surrounding the dog’s concealment in a trunk) seem to be on a pleasant note of realism in so much as they defy the very notion of cliche. And again, there are dozens of moments like this that exist in a place that is not routine for the cinema and does not call attention to itself as a plot point or something thrown in to add to our entertainment. Always nice to see a film that’s actually real, as opposed to simply being non-conventional. And there’s a difference. Real refers to actuality, representation of life and at least enough of the general essence of being to strike us as something that could have happened. Non-conventional is simply another way to say that a film didn’t do what we thought it would do and doesn’t do what most other films do. So, off on a tangent – I admire the non-conventional road the film takes because it’s real.But wait – there’s room for the one thing we all yearn to experience in life – Passion (nicely situated between the honest moments). Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet” blares over a scene where Michael Douglas returns to his home. A simple scene. All the dialogue still there – almost conveniently placed between the song lyrics. Almost. And as he staggers through his house, observing James and Hannah asleep – which he has not been – and talking to Crabtree, the whole flurry of attention comes to Grady as if he has been majestically lifted beyond his exhaustion to experience the pure bliss of the people around him – osmotically. And is his mind on his conversation – or the situation he’s caught up in? Probably not. He’s shifted from being high on drugs – to being high on life – and he’s a writer. And what’s spectacular here is the mere fact that this scene is still going with the grain of the film, but riding on the contrast. As vigor has been left out of most of the movie (purposefully) and when it’s introduced, if only once and only for a moment – it’s breathtaking. What a technique. The casting is flawless as these characters begin to move and interact in this completely unpretended world. Douglas is not the ideal choice to play a teacher that’s skillfully teetering on the fine line between inspiring and being inspired. But Douglas is perfection in the role. While he’s out there showing his students the depth of literature, the preciousness of stories in life and the value of text – he ends up in the most comical and absurd of circumstances and grabs from his own situation the enlightenment he needs. Isn’t it something to watch a teacher being taught? Isn’t it something to watch Douglas, weighed down in the same roles for years, come out of his shell and enter the soul of Grady Tripp? It is something indeed. Something wonderful. James Leer is also teetering between galvanizing others and the need to be galvanized. Lasse Hallstrom, who directed Tobey Maguire in The Cider House Rules, put it best, and for my purposes – ideally, when he said “I wouldn’t say that [Tobey] understates, he refuses to overstate. He just states”. Wow. He just states. Face value, full-blown interpretation of what’s there with nothing left unsaid – here’s an actor who deserves recognition. He’s always kind of quiet and kind of bland – but three different types of bland (in the films I’ve seen him in – The Ice Storm, Pleasantville and The Cider House Rules – we’ll discount that bit part in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and three different, very well conceived adaptations of his roles. And I don’t mean bland in a bad way. At all. As simply as I can – this guy has mastered his craft. At 24. Finally, again, my hat must go off to Curtis Hanson (writing his own ticket after L.A. Confidential). In what could have easily been flubbed into another “teacher/pupil education of the heart gobble-de-gook fest”, Hanson brings the film in at an astounding level of proficiency. I completely and utterly applaud this film, it’s intentions and it’s unique presentation. So early in it’s duration it was leaving it’s impression on me and when it was over, I was really happy to have been within it. And for a film this eventful – it’s the mood I took with me more than the chain of consequences and the overall singular happenings in the film. Perhaps I was in need of illumination.


Wonderland
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Starring : Gina McKee, Shirley Henderson, Molly Parker, Ian Hart, John Sim, Stuart Townshend, Kika Markham, Enzo Cilenti, Jack Shepard
    and Sarah Jane-Potts.
grade: B

In some ways, Wonderland is a sly picture. It infuses, though sparsely, the digital age’s intrusive verite ramblings – life at 24 frames per second – with enough
cultivation executed in the cutting room plus just a hint of sparkle (the boundlessly up-front score, occasional fast motion and obnoxiously bright title cards). In its
own way, save for a touch of dryness in its segway, the film really appears to be a cineaste’s wonderland. Goldmine pickins’ like sisterly frolicking (even if it is
hopelessly one-sided and sorta anti male in it’s display) and the dismalness of urban London, certainly warrant what I call “Dogme-knock-off-photography” (taking
the current minimalist film movement and adjusting it to fit the maker’s needs : here grainy, now obsessed with multi-colored lights, now too dark to make out the
figures, now natural light, now fudged lighting techniques, etc.). My personal feeling leaves this film somewhere in-between or subordinate to films that capture the
surrealness of reality better and with a more admirable vigor (Nil By Mouth springs hastily to mind, Raining Stones and Ladybird, Ladybird on its heels). I’ve
dubbed Wonderland Eastenders-dark. It does manage to transcend and justify it’s extremely soapy first impression, accounted for the most part to a flawless
ensemble cast, none of which surprise me in the least : films like this always have terrific actors demonstrating naturalistic acting in spades. And in the end, I’m
wondering why Wonderland has even undertaken the fanfare of a theatrical release. No more entertaining or less entertaining than dozens of similar films – some
which probably appeared on British television long before arriving at the cineplex, Wonderland is stuck in the most boring kind of limbo imaginable : It isn’t
necessarily unique or ordinary.


X-Men
Directed by Bryan Singer
Starring : Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellan, Anna Paquin, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Famke Jannsen and Bruce Davison.
grade: B

The first half-hour of X-Men is absolutely riveting. This introduction of sorts is a serene, almost dead halted collection of moments that set up the X-Men
universe, a future world in America where mutated strength is as feared as racial difference is today. The senate is bogged with a battle over whether these mutants
should have to register themselves with the government, (like sex offenders, you may think). Marie/Rogue (Paquin) has just discovered her power to steal another
person’s energy simply by touching them, with dire consequences. Logan/Wolverine is exploiting his power, a bullying extrahuman strength coupled with razor sharp
claws that protrude from his hands at will. And brave Professor X (who runs a school where mutants can hone their ability), confined to a wheelchair with the most
powerful quirk of all – the ability to read minds – confronts Magneto in a hallway, politely musing about the tiffs of humankind and mutantkind. Only it is Patrick
Stewart and Ian McKellan playing X and Magneto, respectively; so the scene is a breathtaking head-on of intellectual titans. And as Rogue and Logan descend
upon Professor X’s school for mutants and Magneto quietly plans a war, all of this occurs with a slight-of-hand hush, the kind of moviemaking that unfolds in
arthouses with deep, meaningful issues exploding on the screen and not a hint of the $75 million dollar budget in sight. This of course, doesn’t last. The action scenes in X-Men are terrific, and all of them have the kind of ring that a natural born director – not an action stand-in auteur – brings to the screen. Bryan Singer, director of the great The Usual Suspects and the mediocre-to-bad Apt Pupil, manages a kind of spry gentility in the comic book to big screen world of summer movies. He allows these characters the kind of human defined emotions that most high dramas are built upon. So why bother with the action at all? Because these are super-heroes. And apparently, they have to save the world (hence the labored, almost irritatingly reversible third act battle sequence on Ellis Island). Myself, a comic book dimwit, would have preferred a one-hundred and four minute talking film – short on action and excessive on the themes this brand creates. Luckily, Singer knows he’s under contract to live up to – or at least come close to meeting – the high standards of X-Men readers the world over. The special effects in X-Men are of what I call a Star Wars quality, in that they interweave into the fantasy world created as if they were real – not simply special effects on display. The fascinating world Singer allows us to behold – while littered with gross throwbacks to 20th Century Fox’s marketable instruction (no doubt) – is still a realistic fantasy world, one that transcends that obvious contradiction in terms. I was tuned to every minute of X-Men because it was done with love. The kind of film fans expect comes only from a fan – but one deft at direction – and Singer was the right choice. Though not a fan, I am still in awe of how concise and exciting Singer has turned this francise into on the big screen. At one point in the film, Bruce Davison’s character, an anti-mutant crusader, is turned mutant by Magneto. Only in a film where everything is confidant, its world structurally sound and its characters flowing evenly, step by step with the tone, could such a delicious ironic commentary arise and work. X-Men, though sometimes dipping into an explosion-happy groove, is quite possibly the most highbrow superhero movie I’ve seen since the original Superman.


Yi Yi
Written and Directed by Edward Yang
Starring : Nianzhen Wu, Elaine Jin, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang and Issey Ogata
grade: B+

I guess it isn’t necessarily pertinent – or unheard of – that foreign films, particularly Asian films, are, by nature, bewilderingly good by percentage. I can’t recall
ever having seen a blatantly bad film to come out of an Asian country. This little – or should I say big – very, very big import – comes from Taiwan and attacks its
everyday life setting with an anti-ephiphany, quasi-Magnolia strategy of quiet observation in the way a collection of photographs, each with a vivid, attached
memory would look if assembled onscreen. In this film, a man’s business becomes unstable as his family life comes into focus. Though his only true love was willfully
sacrificed years earlier for selfish reasons, NJ has the opportunity to see her once again. His wife is at a religious temple, hoping to find the strength to cope with her
mother’s imminent passing. His 8 year old son has recently discovered a channel for his mischief: photography. His teenage daughter is involved with the neighbor’s
boyfriend. The man’s brother-in-law has married due to pregnancy and holds onto his own true love – and more than a few debts. The brother-in-law’s wife holds
fickle favor with him. Their lives don’t so much converge, as much as they just unfold. Before your eyes. Gently. Subtly. Often times, the smallest pearls of wisdom
don’t so much have to be dug out as they just roll out. A big step from most lauded American familial epics that broadside us with loud, colorful moments of clarity
(not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that – if that’s who you are). What struck me so nicely about the simplistic progression of the three-hour Yi Yi was that about 2/3 of the way into it, I was so desperate for more. The satisfying thing about the length of this intimate epic is that it paces itself in such a way that leaves you craving it and experiencing its magic while it still contains a good chunk of wondrous duration. By the time it is over, there have been more than a few conventional sections that don’t always gel – mixing with a character arc that is so foreign and so unheard of, it sings alone in the film (beautifully, I might add). The end result of Yang’s near masterpiece is a quiet, almost completely relaxed feeling that centers us in the matters of the universe. It is Kurosawa without the poetry, in the best way possible.


You Can Count on Me
Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonegran
Starring: Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, Rory Culkin and Kenneth Lonegran.
grade: B+

(upgraded to an A- on second viewing and, subsequently, to an A on third approach)

Naturalistic comedy comes out of almost entirely playwright infused writing style; actors Ruffalo and Linney create long lasting, memorably quirky characters.
Found myself confronted with the opportunity to laugh out loud and get mushy inside – a peppier but less profound riff on the “long lost sibling comes of age late in
the game” theme explored in Ulee’s Gold (for example). Often there are moments when things seem too neat, too coincidental and even too easy to swallow.
Perhaps this is a given, due in part to a majority of the film seemingly left oozing over the edges, as if the characters are not meant to find any kind of real perfection
or answers – just paths to experiment with. The real kicker comes when it decides to frame its hero – an eight year old boy trapped in a late twenties immature man –
as so human, he’s willing to come up with philosophical trappings on a bench that reduce his kind hearted but wild at heart sister to the tears we long to see him cry
again (in an earlier scene he breaks down and as an audience, we revisit just how wrenching and beautiful it is to see a man cry from his very gut). Eventually, my single reservation tied to all of these little things lies in the fact that the strongest scenes in You Can Count On Me are still the ones where Ruffalo is being more of a friend/brother to Culkin than an Uncle – and in a film where as much moral hub-bub is suggested as immoral justification is pondered – it seems that one should at least leave the theater moved by the plight of how easily the shift in consciousness was if the characters only looked around and had separate epiphanies. It still irks me; but I guess I sorta have to deal with the fact that this kind of depth is impossible to nail. Lonegran frames his film with a complicity (there are over 200 scenes) that requires his characters to make observations, which, in the long run makes for a better film – but not necessarily for a better transition from literary conciseness to “after the movie” realization. In short – Lonegran sacrifices the big “Oh, now I get it” for a more realistic indecisiveness that simply gives way to how awesomely he has sculpted these characters and how beautifully he as directed them (complete with “every word counts” precision of Mamet). And a funny, funny film to boot – the laughs, like in Almost Famous, come from delight and a deeper resonance and intimacy we are invited to experience within the world of the film. When these characters make us laugh, we almost get the sense that they are laughing with us, or at least that Lonegran full well intended such a jolly reaction to come out of their often candid, affirming humor. And let’s hear it for Matthew Broderick, Linney’s vicious boss – playing yet another role where he is required to cheat on his wife and be a generally unpleasant prick. This is a fine film, one worth a second viewing.


 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

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2001 Reviews

November 13, 2009

2001 appears to have gone missing for the moment. The way data goes missing when it hits my hands absolutely floors me. It reminds me of when I used to fail – over and over and over again – at setting the VCR timer to tape various programs.

2002 Reviews

November 13, 2009

The Middle Passage
Written by Claude Chonville and Patrick Chamoiseau; (Narration written by Walter Mosley)
Directed by Guy Deslauriers
Narrator: Djimon Hinsou
grade: C-

One might find it hard to believe that anyone would pine for the incisive point-of-view found in Amistad, a film which luckily supplanted its white guilt/obliged emotional response with stunning courtroom antics. As I watched The Middle Passage overdraw from its seemingly endless reservoir of bland, similar imagery (made all the more muddled by a streaky slow motion used over and over and over again), I yearned for the stability of Amistad, a film whose pace could be called meandering at best. The Middle Passage, a borderline documentary film originally made in France in 1999, appears to have been redressed by HBO Films as a narrative, with the inner voice of the so-called protagonist written by prominent black author Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress) and read by the already established slave persona of Djimon Hinsou (from Amistad).  What the film fails to grasp in its loopy corridors is the feeling for these strong, virtually helpless people that make them more than the mere animals slave traders fashioned them. The idea of a dialogue less film is very intriguing unless that film features narration read to sound more like a children’s book basking in the poetics of horror, occasionally shifting gears to mix with some loose attempt to give voice to a character who may or may not be thinking these things.

(3/1)


Monsoon Wedding
Written by Sabrina Dhawan
Directed by Mira Nair
Starring: Naseerudin Shah, Lillete Dubey, Shefali Shetty, Vijay Raaz, Tilotama Shome,
        Vasundhara Das, Parvin Dabas and Kulbhushan Kharbanda.
grade: B-

Made to feel so good with so few offending critical gripes, I almost can’t remember what I really liked about this film. I think because it feels like a celebration of the chaos of marriage preparation, but is aimed at American audiences, but takes place in India and therefore, transcends the subject’s specificity and makes it something we can’t help but immerse ourselves into – that might have something to do with it. One of those damn relative movies where everything the relatives do feels relative to my relatives and I go, “Hey, it’s all relatively relative after all to be related and relate to the relations whose relativeness causes the relativist, me, to realize that its all relatively relative in a relatable way”.

(3/16)


The Laramie Project
Written by Moises Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project
Directed by Moises Kaufman
Starring: Dylan Baker, Tom Bower, Clancy Brown, Steve Buscemi, Nestor Carbonell,
    Kathleen Chalfant, Jeremy Davies, Clea Duvall, Peter Fonda, Ben Foster, Janeane Garofalo,
    Bill Irwin, Joshua Jackson, Terry Kinney, Laura Linney, Amy Madigan, Camryn Manheim,
    Margo Martindale, Christina Ricci, Lois Smith, Frances Sternhagen and Mark Weber.
grade: B-

Don’t you just really hate it when movies have that hot button subject matter that requires you to feel one way or another about it and, in doing so, to construct such a perspective on the matter that you have no choice but to grab each of your friends by the arm and really,  just…share the passion? Me too. Here, taking a sorely needed opportunity to address the attitude of small town folk towards those different from them (namely homosexuals), The Laramie Project misses another opportunity to do so without resorting to grandstanding, preachiness or the sudden, uncontrollable casting of an entire fleet of well-known indie actors to do their own little version of that “arm grabbin’ passion sharing” I mentioned earlier. A more terrific tribute to Matthew Shepard could not have been erected; every character in the film is (save a select few) motivated by a need to celebrate his spirit and his plight. But the larger picture reveals a genuine push to out hate crimes and their instigators. Director Moises Kaufman uses this real life reflexivity concept: theater students from NY, like the ones who wrote the film, go to Laramie, WY to interview townspeople and key players. Unfortunately, by re-envisioning it, Kaufman completely overlooks a marvelous chance to give to the varied tone of opinions surrounding this crime a clear focus bearing any real gravity whatsoever. There doesn’t seem to be any beneficial reason why The Laramie Project is staged this way, (unless you’re willing to take a major leap by believing it is a connection to minor character Jeremy Davies’ enthusiasm for acting). Ironic that the material turns out to be so strong, which only makes us wish more and more that we were watching rough footage of interviews with real people who had real thoughts and real words to really tell us (if someone would tell me the kindliest Catholic Priest in the world was played by the actual man, I’d think about cutting it some slack). It would be harsh to intimate that The Laramie Project feels doctored for dramatic purposes, but it would also be short-sighted to believe otherwise.

(3/23)

Ice Age
Directed by Chris Wedge
Featuring the voices of: Ray Romano, Denis Leary, Jack Black, Gorin Vjisnic, et al.
grade: C+

I’m still half considering writing this very review, posting it and then, a week later, amending and (or) scrapping the damn thing, deciding that this very film is one “deliver the lost child to its people against a backdrop of animals herding one way or another” film too many. But I should calm down. Truth be told, I could easily have sprung that very criticism on a dozen other films in the last couple of years. Time to just sit back and thaw out, let the chips fall where they may, accept the fact that every single animated film released is going to be a rescue mission – for good (The Toy Story films) or very, very bad (Shrek). No, Ice Age actually works for me much the way Heartbreakers (of all films) worked for me: minutes into it, I am ready, set and ignoring the story line in favor of the rarely funny, but otherwise entertaining dialogue that breezes us through an otherwise proverbially fatigued tale (I’ve got one! Baby’s Day Out by way of The Jungle Book staged in a diorama with human characters lifted from that episode of Scooby Doo with the frozen Caveman). The characters are surprisingly interesting and well-written (with the exception of Leary’s Diego, who seems to flutter back and forth between two singular motives – friendly compassion and scheming malevolence – finding almost zero middle ground and sometimes, zapping back and forth between the two with such slight gradation, they seem like the same emotion). For once, I thoroughly enjoy John Leguizamo (and of course, he’d be animated). His Sid the sloth is one of those main characters who is at once witty and lovable, without resorting to an overflow of either, performing a rare balancing act wherein nearly anything he does is pleasantly satisfying. Romano carries himself in a strangely dry manner (read: bland, not the type of humor employed by nearly every British actor on the planet), a remote offshoot from his TV persona that works wonderfully. The film itself has its share of the perpetually goopy and the strangely offbeat (I defy an audience member not be at least a little impressed by the contribution of the little squirrel chasing his nut and causing, among other things, an ideal distraction), and, rarely, the inspired (the scene with the birds who desperately want to protect three melons struck me as particularly hilarious).  Trouble is, neither of them really fit in the story, which seems to wish it were doing something else. I kept wishing that Ice Age would pursue a more aimless existence, but, alas, it turns out to be almost crucially episodic to the point where the obligatory moments start to feel more and more rhythmic (in short, I could have timed just when each major plot point was going to occur and probably only have been off by a minute or two in each instance). I found it so hard to bear ill will against this film. I suspect I’ll find it equally frustrating attempting to remember most of what happened in its scant eighty-one minutes by the end of the week.

(3/27)


Panic Room
Directed by David Fincher
Written by David Koepp
Starring: Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam.
grade: B-

This is going to sound curt – and probably a little bit caustic, but, Panic Room shares its best attributes with Jan De Bont’s 1999 film, The Haunting, the absolute definition of a movie whose art direction is allowed to drown out its very narrative. I present for your scrutiny yet another film where setting and atmosphere repeatedly upstage a long string of variations on a gimmick I will also submit works better in parts than as a whole. This gimmick, of course, is how many different ways this blithely introduced room of sheer and utter panic, introduced in the film’s opening act (it’s the penultimate presaging moment), can offset discord in David Koepp’s ho-hum home invasion caper. The intrinsic problem likely to occur in the very risky business of resting an entire film on a singular device being used to distract us from the simplicity of the story is this: sooner or later, your resolution must be addressed and, for at least a few moments, bullshitting your way through a tale using style alone becomes impossible (of course, Koepp doesn’t have a clue how to end the film, anyway – which we’ll put aside for the moment). The contrast director Fincher wants to play with comes too quickly and never reaches the pitch we’d hope for. He’s got a massive space for the baddies, a tiny space for the not so helpless women and a constant push-and-pull of quick entrances and tip toe departures. What he does manage, yet again, is to reveal the beauty in darkness. Fincher finds yet another palette for bending the murky light inside his artsy compositions. He’s the god of the kind of universal surrealism we’re all painfully familiar with; his films are like a scary room with no light switch that we have no choice but to walk through. Fincher’s repertoire reads like that of a horror director trapped in the cinema of pop culture. Which brings us to the cast. Surely the criminals are solid; Whitaker properly mature and cautious, Leto (in another slam-bang performance) amusingly off the handle and Dwight “in danger of being typecast” Yoakam, playing the rabid psychopath every movie villain trio must include. On the victim side of the thick steel doors, Foster could have been more convincing, but, on second thought, maybe not (Koepp doesn’t seem all that concerned with giving her a functional arc, probably assuming that the events of the film take place in one night’s time and how many characters could change in just a few hours anyway? Of course, that’s no help whatsoever). The challenge for Foster probably isn’t as much in creating a character as much as to evoke a standard we can easily recognize and readily accept. I sound a bit dissatisfied with the film – and I am. But for all of its stock failures, it certainly isn’t a boring film or an otherwise offensively inadequate one either. Neither a crushing disappointment or a wild success, Panic Room only seems worse than it is. Fincher’s best entry, The Game, is essentially as much of a trick as this film. The difference is, Panic Room never seems to be after anything more than shocks and thrills. While The Game is a full on engagement, this film feels like a mere simulation. (When the film “ends”, leave the theater after the fade to black – don’t stick around for the superfluous afterthought standing in for the film’s final shot).

(3/30)


E.T. The Extra Terrestrial: The Twentieth Anniversary Edition
Written by Melissa Mathison
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring: Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Drew Barrymore, Robert MacNaughton, Peter Coyote,
        C. Thomas Howell, Sean Frye, K.C. Martel and the voice of Debra Winger.

I thought it seemed a peculiar time to re-release Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, the ultimate amalgam of touchy-feely friendship and science fiction wonder. After all, I’m not sure I can even remember a film being re-issued that was even released before my birth (though I just remembered that the second two Star Wars films make valid exceptions). Interestingly enough, I noted, after the gradual descent the cinema marketplace of family films has taken, devolving into fast-fast-fast and simple-minded (alternately and combined), a slow-to-start, incredibly heavy and, resolutely intelligent film like E.T. The Extra Terrestrial feels like it came from another planet altogether. It’s a sad thing when I have to call such a towering achievement dated due to the current state of its old neighborhood (that is, the mulitplex). The audience, ahem, that I saw it with, brought their kids (as did I) and they seemed decidedly less than content (as did mine) almost to a point where I secretly wished that the film was moving like the more modern junk food cinema, desperately hoping to secure for myself some much anticipated peace and quiet in order to reflect on just how E.T. The Extra Terrestrial was affecting me in my adult years. Eventually, I was able to block distractions out (except the nagging one next to me, whom I took to the restroom, nearly missing the Halloween set-up wherein E.T.’s glow-stick red finger touches Michael’s head, fake knife affixed, repeatedly uttering “Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!”). I think my one and only keen – if roundabout – observation encapsulates the necessary plea here: Spielberg so competently grafts the domesticity of this suburban world with E.T.’s twin plights (namely, to get home and to avoid being government-napped) that it almost becomes silly not to believe that, a) Elliot’s mom wouldn’t ask certain questions (namely, why does every room in the house look as if a curious alien has romped and ransacked); b) that government agents could be thwarted by five kids with not so state of the art bicycles and, finally; c) that E.T. wouldn’t eventually, in the end, be saved by his fellow E.T.’s. Spielberg directs the film with such clarity and empathy in every scene, that even the smallest of tikes should have no trouble hoisting their (admittedly) shocked disbelief, and feeling the wonderment with the rest of us. And that final note leaves the film in such a rare place. It truly is one of the very few films of its kind; fantasy masterpieces we go out of our way to avoid finding fault in; cinema we become so engaged in, we vote not to bring hostility to the table and, in exchange, we consent to baring our emotions outright. And for everyone (I’m reasonably sure I’m not even close to being alone here), there is a different moment that brings our respectable, personal houses down. For myself, it’s when E.T. turns out to be alive in the government issued freezer-burn sarcophagus. For my wife, it’s that final farewell, when the spaceship returns to take E.T. back home. For you, it may be something entirely different. Go see it again, if for no other reason, in case someone you know (or maybe not) asks you which scene makes you whimper and snivel and blubber and cry.

[Note: Releasing films like this with new footage is never a great idea, but its especially bad for those of us who haven’t seen the film in question since we were among its target audience. I’m still a touch baffled as what’s new and what’s not – aside from the bathtub sequence (the  CGI image seen in the trailer) and the enhanced spaceship thrusters (see above). At the very least, Universal left the exceedingly dated opening titles alone (a mark in itself that E.T. played in a different time – no family film in recent years has unleashed its above the line credits over black with only music to guide them.]

(4/4)


The Happiness of the Katakuris
Directed by Takashi Miike
Written by Kikumi Yamagishi
Starring: Kiyoshiro Imawano, Keiko Matsuzaka, Naomi Nishida, Kenji Sawada, Shinji Takeda,
        Naoto Takenaka, Tetsuro Tamba
grade: D

Falls somewhere between a being a horrendous musical where every number is identical, a hypothetical television sitcom (where, I submit, the same thing would happen to the same characters every week) and a variety show (one which seems too unfocused and thin to warrant the label “sketch comedy”). To say The Happiness of the Katakuris is off the wall would simply seem too much like I was giving it a shy, backdoor credit (as “off the wall” tends to imply that, at the very least, the intriguing act of defying convention is taking place). Don’t read this as a plus, my friends. This film is so preposterously unwatchable, it barely fuses moment together with moment, often bungling moments that could’ve easily flowed into each other by slapping uninspired randomness between them (examples include: arbitrary, humorless claymation, dancing blue corpses, a volcano, cut rate slapstick and mock profundity). A great deal of the muddied visual landscape depends on how far Miike is willing to go in order to make sure we leave the theater with a sense of family togetherness. If only the Katakuris could engage in one activity that didn’t seem hopelessly staged to garner laughs – evident from the startling number of takes which feel more like outtakes (which, themselves, come in three flavors: scenes which end at what feels like the middle of a scene through endless laughter and face covering, unintentional pauses and dialogue that feels like it was meant to be improvised but, instead, was just plain rattled off, indifferent to things like meaning or interest). I assume I’ve conveyed the notion, by now, that The Happiness of the Katakuris is a terminally repetitive cinematic blah. I’m still not satisfied, though. Let me try to make it even more clear for you. Our audience was told, prior to the screening, that an audience sitting approximately where we were sitting, at roughly the same time the previous evening, knowing nearly as much as we did of the film (that is, zilch), had hooted and hollered through that screening, enjoying themselves a great deal and perhaps – – – all falling in love together (at any rate). Apparently accepting this notion as a challenge, my audience starting laughing – loudly – right off the bat, regardless of the incredible lack of anything remotely funny occurring on screen. This went on, I’m sad to say, for the rest of the screening. Certain gigglers made such outrageous sounds while laughing, that I began to hear other audience members chuckling at the gigglers (and their strange noises). I tell you this story not to share my pain or, in any way, validate my own self-pity (after all, I paid something like nine bucks to see this damn thing), but, instead, to share my disgust. It seems we as filmgoers are so starved for actual comedy, we can, in essence, simulate comedy at will. We know what’s supposed to funny; we simply decide whether or not to laugh. This ghastly display of controlled laughter caused the few slightly rousing moments in the film to quickly disappear from memory. By the end, Miike’s film was so agonizing, I had considered docking it a letter grade per shot. About the time I considered this abnormal and (admittedly) unprincipled maneuver, the film ended. See grade above.

(4/7)

Taking Sides
Directed by Istvan Szabo
Written by Ronald Harwood (based upon his play)
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgard, Birgit Minichmayr, Moritz Bleibtreu, Ulrich Tukur,
        Oleg Tabakov, Hanns Zischler, Armin Rohde and R. Lee Ermey
grade: B

Let me preface any and all comments made concerning Taking Sides with the knowledge that I openly find Ronald Harwood’s play to be mediocre at best. Most of its central themes, as I found them, were developed in such a hit-em’-over-the-head-then-drill-some-more manner, they left little room for what is, too often, a history lesson underlined with fictional punch, (or was that a good thing that they left little room for yet another history lesson?). The stage play seemed more like a couple of Punch and Judy puppets regaling us with WWII from first to last bullet fired – with a story stuck inside to bookend (it really ought to be vice versa, am I right? Stick with me, now). It was with a hefty restraint that I approached Istvan Szabo’s adaptation of said material.  Color me stupefied then, as I find that this film is quite possibly the most engrossing and fiercely passionate version of the play one could hope for. Harwood (who wrote the screenplay as well) leaves all the blunt, unnecessarily overused historical devices where they belong – in the background. Bringing the drama front and center, he doesn’t just cut the fat off of his baby; he takes the time to replace it with something of interest – better than its source work. Szabo, in turn, culls performances from his cast that are so forcefully animate (bordering on a nice sort of boorishness), he almost makes up for at least one of those grueling three hours of his inappropriately titled 2000 film, Sunshine. Keitel all but erases the main character, Major Steve Arnold, as written in the play, where he feels as if penned by a foreigner who only knows of Americans based only upon television stereotypes). Big bad Harv replaces Major Steve with a character who seems genuinely flawed from the get-go, becomes more and more ferocious and, eventually, argues himself into the inevitable favor of the audience (trust me, it’s a feat). Skarsgard matches him step by step, giving his first performance since 1996’s Breaking the Waves that is actually discernable from the myriad supporting roles in what seemed like every other American film released in the last five years. His absolute devastation is so patently visible on both the inside and outside, we’re left absolutely stunned when he begins to fight for this personal desolation, hoping to regain a portion of what is, essentially, a worthless, guilt-ridden existence. Semi fresh from Run Lola Run, Moritz Bleibtreu brings more maturity to Lt. David Wills, a character that was originally written as the figurehead for wet-behind-the-ears naivete. Harwood tacks on a light romance between Wills and secretary Emmi Straub (Birgit Minichmayr), which doesn’t stunt the film as I would have expected it to, (although, to its credit, the play was smart enough not to heap a love story on an already shaky juggling act). The romance doesn’t necessarily improve the main scenario, but it doesn’t call attention to itself in a distracting way, either (trust me, it’s another feat). Harwood doesn’t merely tack on the subplots, he moves a great deal of the action discussed in Arnold’s office into the visual realm, which works wonders (so often single setting stage plays are transplanted awkwardly into an unconvincing too few locales). Finally, an exclusion I hesitated to mention earlier (which is, in fact, not the omission of Arnold’s knack for total recall, which seems more like an acting choice than anything else): Helmut Rode’s nazi salute. The script gives so much weight to so many things the play was content to leave to interpretation, but it blows right past the powerhouse moment when the despicable second violinist stands up and does the salute – – – pitch perfectly. The suggestion of a sleeping beast, wrestling with chained pride and confused shame is all but lost in the character. He does the salute, but Szabo treats it as a low-key moment. What makes Taking Sides so skillful is that he chooses not to make quiet nearly every other moment in the film.

(4/7)


Warm Water Under a Red Bridge
Written by Shoehei Imamura, Daisuke Tengan and Motofumi Tomikawa
Directed by Shohei Imamura
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Misa Shimizu, Mitsuko Baisho, Manasaku Fuwa and Kazua Kitamura.
grade: C-

The hush with which Japanese auteurs address any sort of disarray or chaos is beautiful because it is often ironically deafening (at least, vis-à-vis the attempt at such an approach by any American film you can name). I can rattle off directors, modern and classic, whose films make short work of huge themes by banishing them to the silent treatment (examples would include Hirokazu Kore-eda, Takeshi Kitano, Yasujiro Ozu and even selected Kurosawa). With the disclaimer that I haven’t seen The Eel, Dr. Akagi or Black Rain, the most recognizable titles – in America – attributed to Shohei Imamura, I’ll still venture a guess that, in none of these films, does Imamura take as wrongheaded an approach to material so unnecessarily silly as in Warm Water Under a Red Bridge. The film concerns the ever handy Character Who Has Lost Everything (Imamura staple Koji Yakusho, spectacularly wasted in this film), who journeys to a small, seaside town in search of a golden Buddha left behind by a curmudgeon/philosopher he once knew (before he, um, died). Yakusho’s search leads him to the title viaduct, and to the house nearby occupied by a Woman With a Really Quirky (read: sexual) Condition (Misha Shimizu, so inert it hurts – which rhymes) and her senile mother who endlessly writes fortunes on little slips of paper. Shimizu’s idiosyncrasy is a baffling one – not my cup of tea, but maybe yours – wherein she endures a massive buildup of water in her system and can only let it out while practicing a vice (limited to either shoplifting or sport fucking). What gives the film a sense of disparate hopelessness is the way it instills such a anticipatory yearning in audience members and not only flat-out refuses to satisfy our longing for one single thing to connect, but it continues to introduce new subplots and characters with what seems like reckless abandon. Every one of the twists Imamura feeds us, even if he were to settle any of them, would undoubtedly still feel like exhausted randomness; the film pretends outright to be about Yakusho’s search and, instead of changing what its about for reasons of epiphany, it supplements actual direction with aimlessness. This senseless about face feels like a vain attempt to jump start the film. It doesn’t help that Imamura hasn’t given his characters enough substance to become anything more than pawns, swirling about in his vacuous narrative. I can’t think of a single one of these goofy dreamers who undergoes any kind of meaningful change by the last reel. Meaning, instead, is attempted through imagery (water appears in one form or another in nearly every shot), which is an enormous failure. Eventually, we’re left to wonder if water is really the necessary thematic keystone for this film (bridges would be more fitting) or if it were chosen merely because it is instrumental in so many of the film’s central elements (there is a difference, you know). Warm Water Under a Red Bridge appears to have been engineered to seem deeper than it actually is and, by the time these characters are trading (what are meant to be) genuinely tortured declarations of love, the film seems to be poking itself in the ribs, echoing my own sentiments (as in “Get a load of this, it’s so ridiculous it’s almost funny”). Then comes The Big Finish, steeped in terminally goofy magic realism, at which point I know for sure that the film was taking itself far too seriously. Sometimes a soft resonance doesn’t dignify what turns out to be complete and utter tedium.

(4/9)


Daughter From Danang
A Documentary by Gail Dolgin and Vincente Franco.
grade: B+

Daughter From Danang commences simply enough, dolling out the facts of Operation: Baby Lift, a government funded final attempt to vindicate and gain support for the already smoldered war in Vietnam. The details of this operation are grim – and almost unbelievable: two thousand Ameresian children (some orphans, some not) are to be taken from their homes in Vietnam for their own good, and transplanted to families here in the US of A. Before the story of one such child’s reunion and the subsequent emotional roller coaster associated with said reunion even begins to unfold, Daughter From Danang has already established an engaging binary quagmire: Will these kids have opportunities abroad or are they being ripped from their families under the pretense of democracy? When the protagonist, Heidi, does finally make it to her birthplace, the ensuing event is effortlessly beautiful for several extremely obvious reasons. What is not so obvious at this point, is just how much bottled pain is lurking and how strangely similar Heidi is to her birth mother – to a fault (in one scene, they both pretend to forgive each other with the same reserved smugness). The filmmakers are careful, never skulking about the frames, sticking their noses where they only kinda sorta belong. In fact, it may be one of the most objective documentaries I’ve ever seen (a hyperbolic statement I base on the strength of its ability to convince us to forget the presence of the camera and all the absurd baggage it tends to carry with it). Consequently, as the film presents both of Heidi’s worlds, the layers begin to peel so smoothly, we almost don’t feel the film shrinking our comfort zone, thrusting us into life at its most intense and becoming exponentially, emotionally complex. It is a testament to the film how johnny-on-the-spot the filmmakers are, transforming the mere luck of such a powerful familial confrontation into such a relevant revelation about culture and identity. Like other documentaries which boast a thoroughly impartial set of arguments (see also the superb 1996’s Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills), the filmmakers seem to be trapping us into creating a logical conclusion while simultaneously doubting ourselves to the last; (the point being that if we reflect long enough, we’re bound to realize that there is no real conclusion, merely a dominant majority of feelings). The last third of Daughter From Danang – the film’s anti-denouement if you will – is so completely absorbing, so intellectually challenging, so universal, so didactic and so overwhelming, we begin feeling thankful that it won’t affect us directly if we aren’t able to sort it all out.

(4/9)


Changing Lanes
Directed by Roger Michell
Written by Michael Tolkin and Chap Taylor (based upon a story by Taylor)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Samuel L. Jackson, Sydney Pollack, Toni Collette, William Hurt
        and Amanda Peet.
grade: C-

The events of this takes-place-in-one-day film (already highly suspect) all surround an incident whose catalyst (a significant red folder), when not being overextended by process of extreme emphasis (“This File is important! Get The File! If it’s not found – jail time! You’re fired if That File isn’t at the right place at the right time! That File is my life! We could all get in trouble if That File isn’t recovered!” And so forth), acts as what seems, at times, like the sole piece of evidence that Ben Affleck’s terminally confidant lawyer character ever did anything remotely wrong since birth. Portrayed as a victimized saint (all he ever did was That One Bad Thing Involving A Red File), the film seems more interested in the possibility that Affleck’s heinous actions can be erased simply if
he is proved to be a Nice Guy (i.e., but telling off everybody who isn’t expressly portrayed as a Nice Guy, including, at first, Samuel L. Jackson). The other trick director Roger Michell (of Notting Hill fame) attempts to pull off, is making the source of Affleck’s wrongdoing affect the admittedly jaded Samuel L. Jackson (a recently sober/separated father or two) in a similar way, all but forcing him to turn his right to might and back again in order to screw Affleck for a traffic accident both were involved in; a traffic accident which made Jackson late for his custody hearing and therefore, cost him said custody (it’s more complicated than this, but you get the picture). As the day goes on, a number of gotcha! incidents occur – all of which are believable at best, but, marginally, uninteresting and usually uninspired (particularly the one where Affleck’s front tire doesn’t become dislodged until Jackson passes him in a cab, twirling the tire iron he used to loosen the bolts). It seems as if both parties repeatedly decide not to taunt each other – then completely abandon their do-good ways for a more sporting, more vicious series of revenge moves (and so on and so forth.) By the time we come around full circle, the subtext of doing the “right thing” has been thoroughly nudged below what plays like a series of grave practical jokes; a back-and-forth, more specific version of Michael Douglas’ vigilance in Falling Down. That Changing Lanes aspires to ply a positive message is admirable. That the resolution and clarity of the film’s message is wrapped up with a bow and served at the end with almost no connection to the day’s events is contemptible; instead of learning a lesson from their childish shenanigans, Affleck and Jackson seem to find their solace through pure exhaustion. (And by that, I mean that they are worn out – tired; not that they’ve exhausted every mean-spirited option and if you can’t beat em’ join em’ and all you need is love or something like that. Not what I was saying at all.) Affleck, who seems to be playing an annoyingly similar character to the one he played in Bounce (same character arc and everything), doesn’t offer us anything new from his less than substantial range. Instead, he flits around in the same anybody-with-half-a-lick-of-talent-could’ve-played-this-role enthusiasm. Samuel L. Jackson, an actor, seems his usually stranded self – offering what amounts to, as usual, a superb performance in a moderately bad film. The massive supply of supporting characters, none of whom seem to play a properly vital role in the proceedings, come at us like cameos: Sydney Pollack as Affleck’s semi-oily boss, Amanda Peet as Affleck’s semi-oily wife, Dylan Baker as a semi-oily “fix-it” guy (he erases your credit and so forth), William Hurt as Jackson’s speech-prone sponsor and Matt Malloy as Jackson’s mousy loan officer. Then I go back to the title, which has about eight meanings – all of them smirk-worthy, none of them worth thinking about for more than a second or two. As the film finds the main characters in the same lane they’ve likely occupied for the last several years, only veering into new territory mid third act, a better title may have been Cut Off (or Last Second Merge). Either way, they’ve taken the wrong exit.

(4/13)


Human Nature
Directed by Michael Gondry
Written by Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Patricia Arquette, Tim Robbins, Rhys Ifans, Miranda Otto and Rosie Perez.
grade: C

Odd to sidestep my reasoning for even seeing this film in the theater (I must admit, it was Charlie Kaufman’s name on the script) so early as the first sentence in this review, but…here goes. Tim Robbins, I’ve noticed, watching him for the first time since his candid, indulgent (and forgivably over-the-top) performance in High Fidelity, that this great, great actor has left me, dare I say, cold. The lack of sincerity in his performances (which I may or may not be inventing) – stems from his rabidly vocal acceptance of the one-for-them, one-for-me program Hollywood is currently offering nearly everyone, it seems – has become borderline ribald; here, I’m not even sure into which category this film would fit (though I’ll divulge my opinion if you indulge me this review). Robbins, of course, isn’t the only thing I found irritating about Michael Gondry’s vacillating, decidedly one-note film, (that I’d almost categorize as a film essay, if not for the incessant narrative, which pushed even myself to the limits of realistic tolerance). The principle characters add up like so: Robbins playing a neurotic scientist, obsessed with table manners; Arquette “playing” (I still don’t actually consider her an actress) a novelist with a body hair problem to rival the Sasquatch; and Ifans, perhaps the most interesting of the bunch, playing a man who thinks he’s an ape. The scenario adds up thus: Robbins, dating Arquette (but ignorant to her little quirk), is trying to reprogram Ifans into a society man while simultaneously teaching little white mice table manners (to compensate for the table manners he was forced to obey as a child). Sounds like a doozy. Unfortunately, where Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich and the forthcoming Adaptation allow their wacky premises to unfold with an uncharacteristic straight face, Human Nature, instead, plays everything up as if it were the sensational material it appears to be, which, miraculously, renders everything intensely ordinary. Gondry clearly isn’t as concise a director as Spike Jonze (take a look at the bands they chose to outline: Gondry did Bjork videos, which are all visually ecstatic but rarely coherent while Jonze did Beastie Boys videos, which don’t just play like mini movies, they all seem to have a complementary style that fits like a glove). There are some truly great moments in the film: Tim Robbins dinner table bouts with his parents’ adopted son all ring quite hilarious and Rhys Ifans deadpan Senate hearing is first rate. Arquette seems to be stuck in a world where she thinks she’s terminally cute, but in fact, looks as if she’s tapping some strange little girl’s ghost via some sort of cinematic séance. In this film, Robbins seems so decidedly interested in playing the part but never actually interesting in the part and, inevitably, tips the scales in the wrong direction (alright, I believe it to be a first for him: an unprofitable throwaway he probably assumed would sport quality of the top drawer variety). Instead an easy laugh, which would likely amount to a forgive-and-forget matter, Human Nature turns into a good idea gone horribly, spectacularly mediocre. What could possibly be worse than that?

(4/13)


How To Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog
Directed by Michael Kalesniko
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Suzi Hofricheter, Robin Wright-Penn, Jared Harris, Jonathan Schaech,
        Peter Riegert, Peri Gilpin, David Krumholtz and Lynn Redgrave.
grade: C

A playwright, successful in the past, is simultaneously attempting to survive his wife’s loudly ticking biological clock, an identity crisis and a bout of writer’s block complete with late night walks, a visit to the proctologist and a disastrous party sequence. Oh, and he finds himself, gradually (by which I mean, through a single montage) embracing his role as a father figure to his single neighbor’s handicapped daughter, and… let me guess, you’ve heard something similar before?

[Still, nice to see Branagh in a somewhat down-to-earth role, not stuck in an antiquated period or straining an obviously far fetched accent (as in Wild Wild West or The Gingerbread Man), but credibly living in the present, delightfully acid-tongued, actually choosing to participate in a film which contains a scene where he’s required to be on all fours, screaming lines like, “God, you made me ejaculate, you bastard!”. But then I think of the L.A. traffic jokes (groan), a Petula Clark sing-along (wretch) and, dear God, that agonizingly predictable, sappy to the last, “conclusion”….]

(4/14)

Frailty
Directed by Bill Paxton
With: Matthew McGonaughey, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Matthew O’Leary, et al.
grade: B

A slow, moody, bloated episode of The X-Files (when it was good, that is); an American horror film/thriller taking exciting risks. A heap of twists in the third act, inexplicably (they don’t come smooth exactly), give the movie a sense of logic sorely needed to leave an audience wondering if they should be rooting for lunkhead single father Bill Paxton, who kills cruel people based upon strange angelic visions, or, if we should be damning him for the way he warps the minds of his two boys. Truth be told, an American audience (at this stage in the recent Cinematic Morality Undercurrent anyhow) is likely to ignore the nagging feeling that Paxton may stand for the last angry man or a precursor to the horrors of the Book of Revelations simply because he spends so much of the movie snapping people’s heads open with an axe as his children look on in awe. Nevertheless, the film’s center, when Paxton is methodically killing people (little else occurs onscreen for these twenty minutes) is so unbearable, I began to wonder if perhaps I was reacting to the grimness of Paxton’s violent campaign, or, if I were really growing tired of having it drilled into my head that this guy is going to be interested in going all the way with this. What a revelation when he decides to betray the angelic orders, instead (and here’s the risky part), forcing his son (O’Leary) to build a dungeon Paxton plans to keep him the boy in until he has his own vision – or dies trying. This is a draining, often extremely unsettling motion picture we often forget is being told in retrospect by a significantly less interesting perspective that we’d hoped (the present day scenes with McGonaughey and Boothe don’t play nearly as potently as the flashbacks do – which tones the immediacy down, selling short the weighty shocks it has in store). But never mind that. Paxton the director has a magnificent eye for detail and keeps the horrific, ‘coming-of-age in 1979’ religious fanatic tone properly depleted with a underdeveloped looking coat of brown paint (everything rests under what looks like a decade of dust). The actor’s performance is, more or less, him, continually flipping back and forth the recognizable Bill Paxton switch from pleasant, helpful father to axe wielding psychopath until he starts to look like a human strobe light (he’s mad, he’s happy, he’s mad, he’s happy, he’s insane, he’s gleeful, and so on…). But for his effort, he creates an unbelievably unpredictable, extremely edgy character we never feel quite comfortable with, which turns out to be an understatement as the film progresses and we start to hope he’ll be in less scenes because we can’t tolerate his menacing presence (that description alone sounds like an achievement, doesn’t it?). If nothing else, Frailty calls to mind The Night of the Hunter (religious nut bothering already disturbed children).

(4/27)


Happenstance
Written and Directed by Laurent Firode
Starring: Audrey Tautou, Faudel, Eric Savin, Irene Ismailoff and Eric Feldman.
grade: C

I hate to make Happenstance the scapegoat for being one exploration of fate too many, but …I can’t think of another way to end that sentence. Sure to elicit constant comparison with another, vastly superior, thematically similar Audrey Tatou movie, I never felt as if Happenstance was taking me any place interesting – just complicated. There’s too much visible legwork – emphasis and reemphasis – in its constructed connection for it to flow smoothly (i.e. – every character does some tiny, seemingly insignificant thing that winds up changing something comparatively larger for another character). These denizens of a relatively less beatific Paris seem to be occupying far too much time on screen sometimes and far too little at other times (read: there couldn’t possibly be symmetry or structural consistency, as it wouldn’t serve the many simple coils of chance). I was never exactly sure who was supposed to be a main character and who was supposed to be an out-and-out device (a question I promptly abandoned upon realization that most of the stories were rather arid and lackluster anyway). Meant to act as catalyst for the weaving plot strings, writer director Firode submits characters as familiar as they are uninspired: the cheating husband, the disappointed room mate, the down on her luck sales girl and the owner of a failing restaurant. They all occupy tales which are nothing but mild, snooze inducing misadventures that end abruptly, resolve themselves obviously, and remain unsatisfying. Happenstance isn’t bad, per se. It is, however, infuriatingly bland.

(5/1)


Spider-Man
Written by David Koepp
Directed by Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst,  J.K. Simmons, James Franco, Cliff Robertson,
        Rosemary Harris and Willem DeFoe.
grade: B+

From the yellowing, back pocket, canned comic dialogue to the whizzing pace and exaggerated character quirks, to the comic book art inspired cinematography/CGI, to the superlative ensemble characterization, the alternately sugar sweet and surprisingly intelligent Spider-Man comes the closest to being that adaptation that holds the previous medium front and center rather than just out of reach. Even the story construction, which is your classic first-in-a-series, never feels stale or familiar. The central success is the loyalty it poses to its source material (that is, the comic books themselves, not “The Amazing Spider-Man”). Instead of being a departure, instead of declaring itself a new version of the existing phenomenon (and all of the contending and maintaining that goes along with that route), Spider-Man primarily shuns what others have done. For its effort, it doesn’t feel like any of the recent, mediocre shots at Superherodom (the obvious example being X-Men, the not-so-obvious being Spawn). Peter Parker consistently elicits laughter and sympathy, frequently at the same time. As played by a spot-on Tobey Maguire, always terrific (helped by being cast so well so often), you scarcely question him. He’s the rare hero we root for without thought. (And perhaps one of the first that I consciously wanted to be). The villain is Green Goblin (formerly Norman Osbourne), played by Willem DeFoe, an actor whom my wife promptly took the liberty of pointing out, looks a great deal like a goblin anyway (his metal-plated tiki-mask costume is getting a great deal of much deserved backlash from many nerdy – as well as non-nerdy – sources). Here, DeFoe gets to slink around a stained-wood mansion talking to his alter ego in mirrors, laughing maniacally, and, in some great, weighty scenes, duplicitous back and forths with the unsuspecting Parker, whom he fancies a surrogate son, unbeknownest that Parker’s alter ego is Osbourne’s greatest foe). DeFoe is absolutely ideal here, as if the casting agents had used C. Montgomery Burns’ machine, which, after an Ether delirium, retrieves possible matches for humans and hallucinated cartoon characters. Also superbly on the nail are Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris as Uncle Ben and Aunt May, who spout comic book-esque expository dialogue replete with beautiful strings of homespun wisdom (pun intended) and fragmented observations from a nearly converse generation vis a vis that of the troubled Parker. James Franco (as the brooding Harry) and Kirsten Dunst (as the perpetually jovial Mary Jane), are each marvelously sculpted to complement Maguire, both surprisingly divergent of past performances (Dunst’s bubblieness seems to be a pleasant extension of her do-no-wrong girl next door; Franco simply plays a character that doesn’t remind you that he’s the spitting image of James Dean). Lest I forget the character actor J.K. Simmons, whose J. Jonah Jameson, though it may remind you of Seinfeld’s send-up of George Steinbrenner, is so hilariously set to cool o’clock (His Girl Friday-standard time), he masterfully steals the three scenes he’s in. Easily Sam Raimi’s best film (and, as a sidenote, the best Summer Blockbuster Koepp has penned – #6 if you count Snake Eyes, which I do – since 1993’s Jurassic Park); Spider-man is a hoot from start to finish with action setpieces (save the inevitably plain Final Confrontation) as entertaining as Parker’s quieter exploits – from the pubescent note as he experiments with his new powers to an unflappable two-places-at-once schtick. Rivals 1990’s Dick Tracy as the best comic book film brought to screen intact with respect to its origins. This one was a big surprise.

(5/4)


Y Tu Mama Tambien
Written and Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Starring: Maribel Verdu, Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, Diana Bracho, Emilio Echevarria,
        Ana Lopez Mercado, Maria Aura and Andres Almeida
grade: B-

In Y Tu Mama Tambien (a title which sounds like it should be followed by “comma, motherfucker” – or Spanish equivalent), Alfonso Cuaron* invests such an air of universality in a tale of two miscreant adolescents traveling with the attractive, outgoing wife of one of their cousins. It answers for me, to a significant level of satisfaction, what exactly went on as the rich, cool kids I used to know grew up (though, to be fair to myself, I was just as content having forgotten the question and, therefore, that it craved an answer). Turns out, according to Cuaron, these hip lotharios went through pretty much the same thing I did – without the sex-filled road trip from Mexico City to a paradisiacal beach called “Heaven’s Mouth”, that is. Nevertheless, a great deal of wonder and majesty (commandeered primarily through cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s daydream photography – DV-esque graininess notwithstanding), quashes the notion that the world we’re watching is at times too much of a fantasy to suggest that these characters are having any kind of valuable learning experience. Lubezki gives Y Tu Mama Tambien a handheld rhythm like the rocking of a boat on a calm day, making it startlingly easy to swallow – despite all the turmoil of sexual longing, looming sorrow and artsy potty mouthin’.  The two teenage boys seem hell bent – almost too hell bent – on becoming men, despite the fact that they really oughta be experiencing this self-journey of the birds (and subsequently, the bees) unconsciously. The last ringing bell comes in the closing ten minutes, when, like I mentioned to my friend Ed, the film becomes almost terminally, overbearingly elegiac; I mean, it was a terrific piece of art and all – but damn it if I didn’t feel so fucking downtrodden after viewing it that I wanted to go home and sleep. Still haven’t decided whether or not I’m blaming or praising the film for that effectively blunt mood swing. Til then, the minus stays.

[* – Turns out, even though Cuaron is back in his native land, I actually find him more appealing in Hollywood – at least the green sheen of the two films he made there (the atrocious Great Expectations and the superb A Little Princess) seems to survive the journey from conception to execution. Don’t know who made Y Tu Mama Tambien look so darn grainy (albeit, the actual framing survives and how). If it were Lubezki – who can even make horribly substandard fare like Hearts in Atlantis and Meet Joe Black look gorgeous – it would be his first misstep to date (My two faves of his, case you were or weren’t curious, are Sleepy Hollow and Ali). Up next: he’ll be shooting Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat for former art director/production designer turned director Bo Welch. ]

(5/11)


Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
Written and Directed by George Lucas
Starring: Hayden Christensen, Ewan MacGregor, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid,
        Christopher Lee, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Pernilla August, Jimmy Smits, et al.
grade: A

A staggeringly clear vision, the kind of imaginative consistency that comes only from Lucas and remains perhaps the only vision unclouded by the interest of his audience. Not exactly a coincidence – some of the big dogs at Studios A-Z might want to perk up their ears at this technique. Is it just me or does this movie actually resonate more deeply in your memory than when you’re actually experiencing it (and that’s a wild feat because I was giddily thrilled from the first moment to the last).
 

(5/16)


Snow Dogs
Directed by Brian Levant
Starring: Cuba Gooding, Jr., James Coburn, Brian Doyle Murray, Graham Greene, et al.
grade: C

A little less Disney, a little more movie might be nice. Can’t exactly champion a film that, had it ended at the one hour mark would have bourne almost certainly the same lackluster result as it does with the subsequent thirty minutes tacked the fuck on. Nevertheless, it is harmless and, in this milieu, harmless feels obviously appropriate. (This is not to say that Cuba Gooding, Jr. isn’t still carrying on like he’s lost in those blistering thirty seconds of “King of the World” time he was terribly fortunate to find bestowed upon him at the Academy Awards in March of 1997). And, is it just me, or was this movie advertisted with the pretense that the title K-9’s would be yapping throughout the whole film? Can’t decide if it’s actually a blessing or a tragedy that they only speak during a brief dream sequence. Should I even have to make decisions like that?

(5/19)


Metropolis
Written by Katsuhiro Otomo (based upon the manga by Osamu Tezuka)
Directed by Rintaro
grade: B-

Not once in its suprisingly scant but sluggish running time does an imaginative collage like Metropolis seem to live up to its surroundings; the story is too miniscule (in the face of its scope) to warrant attention; the entire thing searching desperately for the context a twenty minute newsreel could have easily provided at the beginning (of course, it probably wasn’t taken into consideration that most American viewers don’t know Osamu Tezuka’s sprawling graphic novels by heart); both of the main characters – a naïve flaneur called Kenichi and an organic robot Timi – seem to have a connection they’re not willing to share with the viewer (which is, in essence, one less thing to distract us from the beauty of the world everyone inhabits); the score is a masterstroke, a shady jazz riff (sometimes accompanied by Ray Charles’ voice – especially in a suspiciously Dr. Strangelove-esque moment of swirling destruction and sultry singing) that seems to give this techno-future a sense of classicism rooted in our (2002) present rather than our past (the music, I mean). Almost certainly the first foreign language film I’ve actually contemplated switching from subtitles to dubbed English in order not to miss anything that’s happening onscreen. Best bet is to simply ignore the subtitles or, better yet, to not even bother turning them on. The visual splendor of every speck of Metropolis makes it more than worth seeing which, sadly, makes it more like nearly every other act of anime I’ve seen to date. The equivalent of a Summer blockbuster with rousing, eye-melting visual effects masking a painfully generic narrative.

(5/27)


Insomnia
Written by Hillary Seitz
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring: Al Pacino, Martin Donovan, Hillary Swank, Nicky Katt, Maura Tierney
        and Robin Williams.
grade: C+

Though the murder mystery at the center of the film isn’t all that interesting, Pacino seems extremely distracted even before he begins losing sleep. In fact, most of what happens to him in the film creates a rather good argument that his actually having insomnia is almost too glaring a detail not to be integral to his plight. The guy can’t sleep. Right. And…? What does that have to do with the price of salmon in Alaska? Though it may not be all that much about its title, Insomnia, among other things, is a technically well-conceived but horribly generic film about whether or not Al Pacino is a good cop. Nearly every scene in the film seems like building evidence in the case of the audience vs. Al Pacino, as we watch, judging him as he himself unravels while unraveling a crime novel style killing. Then, the restatement; late in the film, a grizzled and rambling Pacino delivers one of those ridiculous turning point speeches to Maura Tierney (a minor character) in a hotel room. He once planted evidence to ensure the conviction of a man he instinctually knew was guilty. (The story of this situation is played hard for shock value, much like the one Vince Vaughn tells to establish his sincerity in The Cell). So, had you not been paying attention for the last one hundred minutes, allow Insomnia to summate: AL PACINO IS A GOOD COP. Everybody got it? As he is divested of his equanimity, enduring six days with no sleep in Northern Alaska, we get those quick flashes director Christopher Nolan practically rigs the film with (to his credit, they work quite well, just as they did in Memento). Unfortunately, Nolan appears to be using the tactic to prove to us that, somewhere behind all the commonplace cop situations stranded in this remake of Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s 1997 thriller, his voice is screaming to be heard (they feel like his solitary personal stamp on the film, as if he were only allowed, contractually, one trademark). Nolan is placated; doomed to riff on someone else’s gimmick; locked into a departure from his standard (so much for auteur theory). There are good things going on in the film. Much like Sean Penn’s The Pledge, there are scraps of genius left withering among a hamhanded and often tediously obvious procedural. The relationship between
Pacino and Robin Williams, (clearly proud to be playing against type, though he’s neither memorable nor excruciating), as they play off each other’s confidence, works beautifully in a scene where Williams submits (in the know) to informal questioning after he and Pacino agree on what he’ll say earlier (until Williams changes the game plan suddenly, leaving Pacino to play unpredictably off of Williams’ new strategy). That they’re both angling to escape the situation scot-free, leaving Pacino to sin for the first time (it seems) and Williams to escape with nothing more than a guilty conscience, is one of several improvements to the Skjoldbjaerg’s film (which I liked, but, you know, didn’t love or anything). That it’s done with far too much nausea inducing, wisdom-imparting dialogue – is maddening (I’d give you a sample, but I kept tuning out; it’s not quite the electrifying build-up and release of big name actors whose schedules just managed to not clash so they could appear in this film together – like, for instance, what Pacino and DeNiro demonstrated in Heat). Hilary Swank, plays a rookie who idolizes Pacino, and, later, finds herself in a wonderfully foggy ethical dilemma. Despite my routine counter-Oscar snubbing, I find she is, in fact, quite talented. (spoiler alert, skip to the next sentence to preserve the element of surprise) There’s a great scene where Pacino has to call the wife of his partner and tell her that he’s been killed – without letting on that he’s the one who accidentally killed him (Martin Donovan, looking as out of place as he usually does with anyone who isn’t Hal Hartley behind the camera). (welcome back) Unfortunately, though it is a great collection of nuances – none of them, in their miniscule brilliance, aid Insomnia in being a better, more unique experience. The sense of déjà vu is terminal as scene after scene finds Pacino desperately wrestling with, but honorably deflecting goofball dialogue: (a plane experiences turbulence): “There goes my lunch”; an Internal Affairs agent pisses him off: “You don’t have the balls to be a real cop” (hangs up on him). Christopher Nolan has a certain flare – one that he doesn’t flag completely throughout Insomnia – but the mood isn’t moody, the atmosphere isn’t thick and the tone rarely exceeds curiosity. In short: Instead of a grown-up thriller, Insomnia plays, instead, like a slick Hollywood remake of a foreign…..oh, right.

[Nicky Katt. In another great supporting turn. Smarmy delivery of line after line that makes him seem condescending, even though he’s occupying the same low spot on the totem pole he warms in The Limey, The Way of the Gun, Boiler Room and countless others. Can someone please get this dude a career?]

(5/30)


Slackers
Written by David H. Steinberg
Directed by Dewey Nicks
Starring: Devon Sawa, James King, Jason Schwartzman, Laura Prepon.
grade: D

This extended episode of Undeclared (sans the funny, little actualities of college) starts with what sounds like an Aaron Copeland arranged version of The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” (it sounds procured from some second rate royalties store for fetishistic songs), which is only topped by a hopelessly goony choral version of Ace of Base’s “The Sign” (a la Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet), which underscores an unconscionably blatant turning point montage which pretty much summates the film: Slackers feels like its aching for a sincere moment but instead, is (properly) trapped inside a parody’s body. Jason Schwartzman is Cool Ethan, a nerd so grating, he feels comparable to any of the overplayed to death SNL characters who may have wandered into a psuedo-Rushmore knock off (in fact, if you think about it, Slackers is a testament to the skill of director Wes Anderson, who clearly directed Schwartzman into creating the brilliant Max Fisher, a character Cool Ethan feels like the polar opposite of – in the nerd world, that is). To get Angela, or The Girl (James King, a model-posing-as-actress performance from top to bottom), Ethan is blackmailing the three principles (the older redhead from Nickelodeon’s Pete & Pete, the obsessive boyfriend from Undeclared and the lead death evader from Final Destination), who are cheating their way through college with elaborate schemes described with dignity as “cons”. Imagine if all of Mamet’s twisty manipulations felt implausible and laughably forced. As is the norm when Hollywood casts its lot into the world of adolescence, none of the actors look old enough to be in college (an ironic flip-side to high school films, which always seem populated with characters who look too old and act too mature for their surroundings). As is also usual, peeking its head into the proceedings is an enrapturing sex scene where both characters stop, momentarily, being their characters. Taken alone, it’s the only scene in the movie that feels remotely genuine. While it strives ambitiously to be something artier (note the use of Wes Anderson’s defining font in the opening and closing titles), Slackers is still a film that purports to fill its running time with talking dick puppetry, pee in the shower jokes, fantastical masturbation gags, antiquated S & M riffs and rampant flatulence humor. Now imagine that film trying to milk a moment of sincere tenderness at the very end with these words: “It’s strange, you think you’ve got life all figured out, it just keeps surprising you. And to think, I learned how to be a better man from being blackmailed by that little freak”. At long last, it dips under the surface from Rushmore knock-off to American Pie knock-off. If you can possibly fathom such a thing.

(6/2)


The Mothman Prophecies
Written by Richard Hatem (based upon the book by John A. Keel)
Directed by Mark Pellington
Starring: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Will Patton, Debra Messing, Lucinda Jenney
        and Alan Bates.
grade: B-

Remember in Arlington Road when, coasting on style, a former music video director delivered quality both cold and chilling? Apparently trying to see just how long he can cruise on this arrangement, Mark Pellington delivers one of the eeriest freakin’ movies I’ve seen in a long while, again using flashy filmmaking in lieu of actual storytelling or directing – which, in this case, turns out to work quite well. He does indeed get caught with his hand in the rampantly far-fetched plot device jar (from the implausible “no one should be alone on Christmas” phone call to the omission of the “incidentally, I was headed to regular Virginia, not West Virginia” explanation – each passed off as predestination, to which I reply, “yeahrightsure”). These fallacies may appear to, sadly, water down the expertly ambiguous second and third acts until you realize that they aren’t really acts, though, so much as they’re a free floating spaces of time where Richard Gere’s head comes apart in a really exciting way. (Gere, incidentally, is so good at playing a forlorn, paranoia-driven guy, stuck like a pin with a tear jerker romantic life; my guess is that this script was pretty much written for him). Also could’ve done without Alan Bates’ commonplace Slumming Older Actor Divulges All sequences, (I believe they’re called pointer scenes – and there’s two of them, unfortunately). But these aren’t gigantic quibbles; more than anything, The Mothman Prophecies is an exercise in the same kind of fear The Blair Witch Project was: the mechanical internalization of the unknown and the iota of residue it leaves (as if it’s plugged a tap into your general anxieties, forcing you to reanalyze each of them reintern them into your subconscious). (end of rant). Like Arlington Road, the milieu is visually superior, complete with everything from (the welcome) abundance of street/traffic/head light imagery, to the way we can practically see Pellington nodding to his cinematographer as he blots out obvious light sources (nearly every interior feels like it was sponged with darkness after it had been lit), to the sense of everyday suspense being multiplied exponentially (particularly a ringing phone, which left me scared to pick up my phone all last evening). The final scene – or, as it was probably called on set, “ninety percent of our budget” – is wonderfully terrifying, mostly because it is allowed to go on for so long, yet, inexplicably, retains a believable air (a mixture of top drawer foley editing and invisible digital effects). It’s nothing, however, in comparison to the nil amount of comfort offered by the film’s decidedly irresolute conclusion. Of course, this wouldn’t be so disturbing had the film not put on display, both in it’s opening credits and in the equally chilling production notes, that this film is, in fact, Based Upon Actual Events. The warehouse of conjecture both in the film and in real life apropos Mothman sightings is left to flit around in your head like a cinematic aneurysm, (but, you know, non-death inducing).

(6/2)


Orange County
Written by Mike White
Directed by Jake Kasden
Starring: Colin Hanks, Jack Black, Catherine O’Hara, John Lithgow, Harold Ramis
        and Kevin Kline.
grade: C

Starts out a mildly entertaining high-brow teen comedy and almost precisely as the first act concludes, Orange County becomes distractingly over-the-top. Foreshadowing itself until it’s almost too dark to make anything of value out, it ends up wanting to be Wonder Boys, but instead, turns into one of the most unbelievably thorough loose-end tying contests I think I’ve ever seen (and it ties ’em in using a nausea inducing variety of wholesome, on-your-own-terms-but-heartwarming-too manners). Hanks is terrifically likeable, which is a painful tease; one of the movies biggest mistakes is not milking the fresh-faced son of Tom. Instead, it tends to lean on a scenery chewing, charmlessly inconsistent Jack Black performance which feels suspiciously like a moral shock safety net (rather than its likely guise – a failed attempt at comic relief; too bad Black is easily one of the top five most overexposed folks in the limelight of late and culls an appallingly reduced amount of laughs, considering). I find it hard to believe that the two heads responsible for (respectively) the engaging, clever Zero Effect and the dark, equally clever Chuck & Buck came up with this film. Better than one, my ass.

(6/18)

Minority Report
Written by Scott Frank & Jon Cohen
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Cruise, Samantha Morton, Max Von Sydow, Colin Ferrell, Tim Blake Nelson
        and William Mapother.
grade: C-

It’s a film about a character that bags criminals for a living (and he’s good at it) until he becomes the wrongly accused man (Hitchcock territory) and, eventually, gets chased around while perpetually repeating the title (as if, should he say it enough times, he’ll be exonerated all wrong). Indeed, these are some patently boring ironies that are all but an afterthought in the face of a director whose idea of filmmaking is balancing a slim intellect with the mammoth commercial sensibility he once thrived on. Here, he’s utilizing so many talented people – special effects wizards, proven writers, Tom Cruise – that’s he’s spoiled the pot. With the exception of the car chase early in the second act, the film never feels more interesting or original than it has to be, instead, overloading on exposition to the point of distraction, often sacrificing style for clarity (even when clarity has already been established two or three times over). There is a scene at the outset that feels like Spielberg trying to do Kubrick: soft, tinkling classical music over a hurried investigation where Cruise shifts frames of information across a glass screen. Spielberg obviously wants to render balletic a routine; the way Kubrick was often able to do. What’s missing is the slow portraiture of Kubrick’s rhythm. Spielberg tried to nail it with A.I., but was a little too quick, a little too self-conscious and cut away a little too much. Here, it’s much worse. He seems to be trying to ape Kubrick on speed; hoping Tom Cruise can bring a smidgen of the humanity he displayed in Eyes Wide Shut with him into Minority Report (unfortunately, none of the film feels remotely intimate, even – I should say, especially – when it’s trying to be). In the end, Spielberg has lost his sense of adventure, content, rather, in deploying set-pieces and long, ranting pointer scenes at a monotonous pace and developing Cruise’s character simply by stating and restating that he’s lost a child (as if that excuses just about any malfeasance he could possibly conjure). Unfolding in a banausic version of the dystopia revered in Blade Runner (also based upon a Philip K. Dick story),Minority Report has an ugly, colorless visual landscape that produces one absolutely stunning frame: a crossroads medium shot of Samantha Morton slung over Cruise’s shoulder, each party looking in opposite directions. And though it’s frugal about the reverberations of its concept on society, the film is constantly finding goofy ways to segue into its many cute little futuristic contraptions, causing the future to appear dangerously like Demolition Man played straight (except for Colin Ferrell repeatedly slamming his fist into his hand like a bare-knuckle boxer – that’s actually a sub-Demolition Man quirk). The supremely talented Samantha Morton gets points for tolerating a role that requires her to be bald, mostly silent and to lie around in a tank and stare at the ceiling for two-thirds of the running time (she’s still remarkable). I fielded the argument that science-fiction pieces that feature hypothetical advances in science are almost always problematic and, in ways we’re expected to ignore, often seem wildly implausible. My response to this: if you’re going to tell the audience a character will become blind when he unwraps his bandages and you’re going to tell an audience that he has new eyes underneath anyway, it would probably be a good idea for him to either: a) not unwrap the bandages (or, if he does, you know, have him go blind like you said he would), or, b) not worry about spiders mistaking his new eyes for his old ones (isn’t that why he had the procedure done in the first place?). Once the audience is betrayed like that, you open yourself up to a force of nit-pickiness the likes of which few have seen. (And if you’re planning to discuss the third act with me, for quick recognition as well as preservation of time, let’s call it the Painfully Obvious Red Herring Act.)

(6/23)

Rollerball
Directed by John McTiernan
Starring: LL Cool J, Jean Reno, Chris Klein, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and Naveen Andrews.
grade: D

The film might have worked as a grotesque caricature of the kind of people professional sports breed and the nearsighted real life decisions they entertain us by making as badly as possible. Instead, it feels like a bunch of unmotivated cretins with a blind ambition, striving to find something other than money to drive them – and failing (Wait a minute…) Where the more successful 1975 film stood as a precursor, its content simply about individuality struggling to stand within a faceless, corporate world, Rollerball is about trying to score an American Cable Deal by putting people at risk of injury and death – a chilling scenario indeed if it hadn’t already been blundgeoned with it  in real life (especially in any one of the more coherently played matches in the wide, wide world of sports). Instead of murder being a common occurrence in the half roller derby, half hockey hybrid of scoring and mayhem, its seen as an remote possibility, the kind of thing that shouldn’t – and, until late in the film doesn’t – happen (this does, by the way,  inadvertently remove any ballast the game itself may have held); nothing in the film feels meaty enough to satisfy, and instead, the whole ordeal feels like a string of subplots that add up to something less than a story – all shot and staged by what looks like a second unit director (i.e. – the extensive delays in release of McTiernan’s update don’t feel like they were utilized in order to improve the film). Rollerball feels like it was done entirely on one-takes and held back for more self-conscious reasons (at one point, talks ensued about whether it should be banned to Cable TV rather than released in theaters – fitting for a number of reasons, I assure you, not the least of which would’ve been that I’d never have had to endure it). The characters are as indistinguishable from one another as the shots which make up the Rollerball sequences (everything moving too fast, each shot looking far too similar to the last, the cuts coming too fast and too oblong to get a sense of what’s going on; consequently it feels like it was shot, cropped and then letterboxed for release). The casting is dead-on (I misappropriate, this is not a compliment) as far as B-movies go: I assume Chris Klein, LL Cool J, Romijn-Stamos and Jean Reno (why are critics standing up for him like as if he hadn’t appeared in Godzilla and ten movies just like it?) had a film like this pretty much written into their respective contracts (though I suspect Naveen Andrews is here for the paycheck). I wonder if the dialogue was re-written and re-dubbed (little of it matches the lips of the actors) inexplicably bad to match the company involved and their penchant for stunted, goofball delivery I wonder if a good thirty minutes of the first act was left on the cutting room floor (in a single minute, we cut from Chris Klein turning down LL Cool J’s Rollerball Sales Pitch to Klein raised, in four short years, to God status). I wonder if when remaking films, one might examine the shortcomings of the original (some certainly did exist) and expound on them. I wonder if its possible that McTiernan, having actually made a film worse than The 13th Warrior, could actually make a film worse than Rollerball. (Not that I’m posing the challenge).

(6/24)


Lilo & Stitch
Directed by Dean Deblois, Chris Sanders
Featuring the voices of : Tia Carrere, Kevin McDonald, Ving Rhames.
grade: B-

Got mondo despondent when this pleasantly uneven subsequent voyage into uncharted Disney waters began; the outer space set-up preceding the first act is absolutely charmless, never landing anywhere close to being funny or interesting, but does feature a few characters who will carry over into the main leg of the story (in which they miraculously become funny). Little Lilo is positively magnetic, a cross between Charlie Brown’s sister Lucy and his would be girlfriend Peppermint Patty; alternately raising hell and fluttering her eyelashes all cutesy like. Her older sister (Carrere) is a classic mother figure – rarely more than a wall for Lilo to bounce off of; which is what makes the introduction of Stitch – an alien posing as a dog – so unbelievably rewarding: if his personality lacks dynamic, it makes up for it by being so furiously and unpredictably hostile (often, by making the abstraction of unpredictability almost a unavoidable trait, you’ll have to remind yourself you’re watching a movie that you know is going to end with hugs and kisses and love and tenderness). As the story progresses, most of the trouble the title characters find themselves in is terrifically entertaining, especially a subplot wherein Lilo is persued by a tall, dark Child Services Caseworker voiced by Ving Rhames. Animation feels like a Miyazaki knock-off, but, since it takes place in Hawaii and seems to incorporate the mood of Elvis Presley, it actually seems to work. Stopping the film to sing a song while surfing would usually present me with the opportunity to pretend I’m not groaning audibly; here, I’m practically joining my daughter (on her second viewing, mind) when she dances in the aisle). I’m still reeling at how neatly it ends (despite the conflicts being all but larger than life), but Lilo & Stitch is easily forgivable. It’s good at what it is – even if sometimes ‘it’ is just what you’re expecting ‘it’ to be.

(7/3)


The Importance of Being Earnest
Adapted for the Screen and Directed by Oliver Parker
Based upon the play by Oscar Wilde
Starring: Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Frances O’Connor, Reese Witherspoon, Judi Dench
        and Tom Wilkinson.
grade: D+

How hard do you have to try to fuck up Oscar Wilde?  Parker, on his second try (I actually sorta dug An Ideal Husband, but that’s miles from memory now) at this, manages to add just enough that wasn’t there (Everett running from two collectors like he’s Buster Keaton, tattoos on characters’ asses – don’t ask), and reduce just enough of what was there (where’s the guy running in and actually claiming to be Ernest?), to create a far too coherent, absolutely dull version of a really, really funny play. And who told Rupert Everett to abandon the perpetually dry, young bloke he was building a rather solid career on and instantly start mimicking Hank Azaria (actually, he comes off more like Jim Carrey in his slapstick days or Adam Sandler). Watching him trapse through an already wounded film almost makes this affair too much to swallow entirely. Dench is fine; someday I’d love to see Firth smile; Witherspoon is hopelessly out of place (sorry, but I’ve got to call a blonde a blonde); O’Connor is completely wasted as is Tom Wilkinson. The whole movie is an appalling bore. Feels like every joke is pinpointed and put on such a pedastal that it fails to live up to the momentary expectation Parker gives it; he’s obviously so in love with the play that he wants to represent it as operatically as possible. Doesn’t realize, the poor schmuck, this play works its own magic.

(7/3)

Road to Perdition
Written by David Self
Based upon the Graphic Novel by Max Allan Collins (illustrated by Richard Piers Rayner).
Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Paul Newman, Daniel Craig, Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh
        and Stanley Tucci.
grade: B
Road to Perdition is big, and square (I just realized that this description was once used, almost verbatim, by Owen Gleiberman to describe Perdition writer David Self’s last effort, Thirteen Days); like an old-fashioned mob epic with a new fangled speed-style (by which I mean, it never actually stops to take in the air of its brown-polish atmosphere, it seems to be telling its story as BARELY as possible). Tom Hanks, playing just over the invisible against-type line, isn’t exactly as exciting as I’d hoped he’d be – the fault of both my expectations and, I think, the actor himself; He’s so terminally dour and inexpressive in the role of kindly hitman Michael Sullivan, that it’s almost as if his numb, muffled intensity, in itself, is meant to act as his character, who is, in a sense, only humbled by the weight of his profession (and, incidentally, at rare moments, can show emotion). None of these moments feel particularly believable per se, especially when Hanks discovers his slain wife and son, (and no, the melted ice around the coffin isn’t allowed to stand-in as a symbol of his thawing – a change which, I’ll submit, never actually arrives). His performance feels more connected to the simple fact that Sullivan isn’t reminiscent of anything Hanks has played before – its no radical transformation and certainly nothing as uncommonly admirable as any of his recent, better turns. Jude Law’s Harlen Maguire, on the other hand, an intensely amoral photographer of the dead, brings pure electricity to every scene he’s in; his inclusion a much stronger, more implicit vision of the seedy underbelly that’s all but ignored in the artfully minimal use of both sex and violence in a time defined by both. The sniveling, weasel-like shutterbug-cum-hitman is easily the film’s most interesting creation – and yet another reason why Law is easily one the best actors of his generation. I’m not discounting, either, the negative space of Daniel Craig (playing Newman’s son, Conner), whose scenes are so foreboding, his crinkly face repeatedly evincing evils to come – yet another reason why stage actors have more fun (tacky beach T-shirt phrase #21 out of 356). As Hanks’ arrogant, pre-pubescent son Michael Jr., Tyler Huerich is excellent, despite having his simplicities stricken from the final cut in what was, in all probability, an effort to make him more mature (lines like “The world. There’s something wrong. (beat) It’s like it’s sick, isn’t it”); nevertheless, frame that praise appropriately because, as a rule, I abhor child actors. Mendes creates a dark, lived-in world from a host of snazzy locations from 30’s era Chicago to the wide open dust bowl of the Midwest . As in American Beauty, he displays a knack for connecting people to their habitats almost immediately; there isn’t a moment in the film where characters feel remotely anachronistic (another side effect, I suppose, of having a uniformly stunning cast). Because he has so much ground to cover in the film, Mendes rarely lets an atmosphere tingle and resonate as thoroughly as in Beauty; he seems to be lost in a project whose ambition can’t possibly match its surprisingly scant running time and whose epic-ness feels stunted for a Summer crowd. Thomas Newman’s score is properly haunting though, and eventually, Perdition plays, for me, like more dignified side glance of the The Untouchables, rather than a film cut to look like The Godfather. Seems to me comparing Perdition to Coppola’s sprawling, spilt-over-the-sides-and-then-some masterpiece just brings clarity to the problem here:
Perdition is too neat.

[Alright, I did actually *enjoy* Road to Perdition, but don’t think I missed the fact that it joins the ranks of countless acts of cinema enamored with Truffaut’s The 400 Blows to the point where voice-over and ennui-driven gazes across a silvery ocean stand-in as the compulsory before-and-after framing device for movies (coincidentally) which boast Tom Hanks. And I certainly didn’t miss the fact that the tortured boy character tells us the story in retrospect, though his present-day state of mind is casually omitted.]

(7/21)

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Reign of Fire

Directed by Rob Bowman
Starring: Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey and Izabella Scorupco.
grade: D
Much like a video game (on which its based), Reign of Fire carries with it a huge, promising premise (presented in the form of a newsreel, mind) that leads straight down the tubes and into ninety minutes of absolutely immeasurable boredom, the capper of which is a flabbergasting conclusion where not only is everything explained to death before it goes down, but is later executed in confusion, finally, leaving one to wonder why the whole movie centered around this uneventful “climax”. Clouded by a bunch of fancy talk, the scene seems meant to look much more explosive than it is: an exceedingly simplistic resolution to a problem that’s the focus of the whole film. But, since there’s so little of interest or significance leading up to the big third act confrontation, we presume the filmmakers were really only interested in outcome as opposed to journey. McGonaughey is all hardass speeches and tattoo-clad muscle flexing (with no human qualities to speak of) while Bale is the sensitive, sympathetic main character whose wishy-washy good nature kinda really clashes with his shaggy beard and random outbursts. The flying digi-dragons seem foreboding until contrasted with the grounded dragon models which are so campy, you can’t possibly curb your giggling while characters sulk and shiver and trade dragon-tooth necklaces in hushed tones. The movie doesn’t take itself as seriously as it could, but Reign of Fire isn’t the fun, forgettable Summer entertainment its being sold as, either. It doesn’t move, exactly; instead it’s content on treading in a chunk of time which plays more like an extended slump, as Bale and his followers pretty much cower in the depths of a basement, repeatedly establishing their place as the inferiors in a dragon-infested future by restating their problems and re-enacting popular science fiction films for a bevy of orphans. And it isn’t to its credit, either, that it takes almost forty minutes for McGonaughey’s badass Marine squad to show up and, when they do, their actions are dull and their action scenes confusing and rushed. Worst of all, they do nothing to revive the film’s wilted energy.

(7/21)

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Kung Pow: Enter the Fist 

Written, Directed, Voiced by and Starring Steve Oedekerk
grade: C-
Oedekerk’s is an intriguing idea, however terribly executed. Placing himself into the 1975 kung fu movie Tiger and Crane Fists through the tragedy of digital technology actually turns out to be an ironic flaw, given that the whole thing is built around careful planning (to coincide with reshoots of reaction shots, etc.), but the dubbed dialogue (all done by Oedekerk) sounds as if it were rushed, done only once or, included without a smidgen of editing. Oedekerk’s approach seems to tap “MST3K” by taking it to the next level: actually entering the movie one is mocking. Unfortunately he relies too heavily on his own performance (as “The Chosen One”), as well as the use of the popular, oft-used representative icons of the kung fu genre: the dancing baby from “Ally McBeal”, a kung-fu fighting cow, a Mufasa-esque sage in the sky (whose jokes all hail from “The Simpsons”) and several pyramid-shaped flying saucers (worn martial arts archetypes, the lot of them). Kung Pow’s very ambition is to ape the atrocity of dubbed kung fu movies – which gives it the distinctive air that any wrong it may do will somehow be assimilated into it’s pre-justified sense of satire. If Oedekerk’s gags had been something more than surface puns, he could have turned that around and made it work for him. Unfortunately, it it plays more like “Mad TV” than, you know, comedy.

(7/28)

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A Walk to Remember

Directed by Adam Shankman
Starring: Shane West, Mandy Moore, Peter Coyote and Daryl Hannah.
grade: D+
Especially disappointing given my expectations  – it’s a positive film (a dying breed) — was the revelation demostrated here: positivity is nothing when you don’t believe it. The mushy Christian love dialogue was more than enough to keep me howling, but the unbelievably antiquated-feeling characters, curiously obtuse situations (who looks through telescopes, I mean, really?) and borderline propoganda message set me wrong from the opening bad-kids-drunken-prank right up to the life-lesson-with-sappy-hope finale.  (read on, the spoilers actually make my writing slightly interesting) I find it bizarre that we as a culture get off on movies where characters fall hopelessly in love, and then one of them is tragically killed off. What must other countries think of a society which craves such a macabre emotional rollercoaster? And beyond its place in the romantic tragedy section (at your local video store), the bizzare nature West’s cronies as they come to their senses and change their ways when West marries Moore weeks before her death. Moore is given a number of strangely opportune moments to sing (she may have promise as an actress, but choosing roles that don’t advertise her role as a goody-two shoes pop star really ought to be the next hurdle she clears; she should also consider making other, better films with West, with whom good chemistry is, as is often the case, wasted). I also found that the subtext of sex between Moore and West – that’s not spoken about, not once – to loom heavy over most of the film. That it seems to be considered taboo here merely underlines how old-fashioned the film’s intended lessons are (and therefore, how difficult it might be to take them seriously in a modern context). Most after-school specials aired on Disney are more racy, more accurate and more effective. Most of them tend to take place on Earth, as well.
 

(7/29)

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John Q

Directed by Nick Cassavettes
Starring: Denzel Washington, Kimberly Elise, James Woods, Robert Duvall, Ray Liotta
        and Eddie Griffin.
grade: C+
First act beautifully corners Washington (playing against type with a bad job for a change) in a battle with “the system” (Healthcare providers, in this instance) blockading every avenue a la Gridlock’d; movie successfully gets Washington to his destination (namely, an ER with the most generic cross-section of potboiler archetypes) and promptly falls apart; Duvall as a hostage negotiator is about as believable as a horse on stilts, his power volleying with Liotta is so stale and familiar, I wondered if both actors were secretly laughing really hard at the material (on the other hand, Anne Heche seems right at home playing an icy bitch, though it doesn’t feel like much of a stretch); The bottom two acts are utterly proposterous, but they do produce some great moments: a terrific set of tete-a-tete’s between veteran scenery chewers Woods and Washington, a really BIG second act speech Washington delivers to his son, Washington selflessly attempting to kill himself in order to donate his heart to his dying son, Washington lending the necessary weight to the preceedings, Washington stepping up to the plate and transcending something nearly out of soap opera range, Washington stepping into his oft-played role as the reason to see a film, etc. Trouble is, every positive includes Washington; most of what’s worth salvaging here. John Q is fueled by Washington’s searing performance (Denny must be kicking himself for signing on here: “Be a good guy – the movie tanks. Be absolutely evil – get an Oscar”). There’s the sense that the picture emulates much better films like Dog Day Afternoon (in particular) and Twelve Angry Men. It’s too silly to warrant comparison to either film, but Washington, as ever, is able to make such goofiness, at the very least, tolerant.

(7/31)

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Hart’s War

Directed by Gregory Hoblit
Starring: Colin Ferrell, Terence Howard, Bruce Willis, Cole Hauser, Rory Cochrane, et al.
grade: C
Its twists are rusty, and the film, ultimately, is not satisfying. Too much emphasis ends up falling on the wrong character(s) in the end. We’re given a series of honorable self-sacrifice moments by three soldiers who act as if attempting to one-up each other with said moments (which leaves an audience somewhat flabbergasted by the lousy, upbeat compromises at conlusion). The scenery apes The Great Escape and Stalag 17 and, so convincing is the setting, we imagine that, if only the film had a worthwhile yarn to spin, it could have worked as well as those two P.O.W. masterpieces. In the end, though, the best parts of the movie are the quiet moments where characters discuss things in especially anachronistic dialogue (things that are relevant only to the moment, to be negated by the foreknowledge of Hoblit’s trademark surprise endings and the doubtful second guessing we already expect they’ll cause). Regardless, the principles are terrific, particularly Willis, who gives his Captain McNamara a flippant, statuesque quality that somehow transposes his usual dryly sensitive routine into a geniunely intimidating authority. Ferrell plays a real louse disguised as a hero (who, as it is made obnoxiously clear, Learns a Valuable Lesson). Ferrell ought to seek out roles where he’s encouraged to be more human and less metaphor. But, bottom line: the film has its share of theatrics, especially the trial at the end (which is so irrelevant – its racial politics so compulsory – you’ll probably figure out the purpose of each – the legal banter and the casual bigotry – long before the characters do).>

(8/2)

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No Such Thing

Written and Directed by Hal Hartley
Starring: Robert Burke, Sarah Polley, Helen Mirren and James Urbaniak.
grade: C+
The first act is pure Hartley: long periods of silent action, dialogue a twitching, pretentious poetry of self-mockery and music set to the Sunday Morning Hypnotism station. Burke’s monster is a more lovable, (inexplicably) uglier version of Tim Curry in Legend and Sam Kinison on stage. Sarah Polley’ variation of tarty innocence is pleasant; it makes most American actresses who attempt it seem incompetent by comparison. Unfortunately, Mirren’s character doesn’t work, it’s too obviously a device, and its use as a cheap catalyst causes the whole thing  to devolve into something too conventional and too commercial for Hartley, who works best when it doesn’t look as if he’s procured a cent to work with. Here, we can feel the twist on the Beauty and the Beast as well as a dash of his millenia doom play, The Book of Life, never reaching the uniqueness of either work. No Such Thing starts out arty and becomes a series of rugged-mountain car commercial shots and surprisingly (for Hartley) obvious epiphanies, then collapses for good when Burke enters the real world and has become laughable by the time we come to the movie monster-esque conclusion. A ambiguous transcendence that flows through the very weak solution almost negates the film’s good intentions and Hartley appearance. American Zoetrope was partly responsible for production. Coppola’s name doesn’t help matters.

(8/3)

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Signs

Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin, Cherry Jones
        and M. Night Shyamalan.
grade: B+
As a massive skeptic (and frequent badmouther of popular idols), I hate to step on my tongue and admit that Shyamalan is actually a talented filmmaker. Sure, in interviews, his ego swells to Peter Greenaway proportions, constantly denying his cockiness while pretending to have the formula for a blockbuster. But Shyamalan’s reputation has nothing to do with Signs, which is eons less repetitious than his previous two outings: It’s sure footed, tighter, scarier, more fun, and, surprisingly – hilarious. Shot in a dream-like blur oof browns and yellows, the story begins without so much as a hint of conventional character design; he sketches these characters out as he goes along, as if their entire being was made up of a series of secrets. A quieted Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a former reverend, so angered by the death of his wife, that he has given up the frock and refused to believe in God – except to tell the almighty how much he hates Him. (Shyamalan hired Gibson for the scene in Lethal Weapon where he contemplates suicide and, his entire performance in Signs evokes the dourness of that brief scene). Joaquin Phoenix plays his brother Merrill (all pitch perfect snide delivery), a former minor league record holder. Hess’s children are both disturbed ragamuffins: the older (Culkin) a mature and curiously wise protector of the younger (Breslin), who is a perpetually ironic cutie pie with a sensitivity to water. Checking in on their plight (a crop circle appears in one of Hess’s cornfields, as well as all over India, triggering world-wide hysteria) is Cherry Jones, a cop who’s always saying the right thing, but rarely looks as if she can grasp the meaning of her own words. (She’s a device – but, in a good, sorta goofy way). Boasting an eerie soundscape (a la Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and viewed through a War of the Worlds-esque filter, Shyamalan casts a very real, very mellow dread. Through his photography, through the frequent use of TV newscasts, through his beaten-and-then-some characters, through his sobering extraterrestrial perspective, Shyamalan brings to mind the post-rapture tone of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Signs is a reductive answer to films which rely on special effects (his use of effects is decidedly minimal and never flashy). Surprisingly, Shyamalan defies the usual gripe I have with directors who make cross-genre pieces: he nails funny and scary – and mixes them – with equally impressive gusto.  There isn’t a hint of pretension or unnecessary depth. There’s nothing offensively highbrow about it. It’s the kind of film you end up really wanting to see again as soon as its over. And you can freakin’ eat popcorn to it.

(8/8)

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Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams

Written, Directed, Edited, Co-Scored, Produced, Co-Shot (+ that song he wrote)
        by Robert Rodriguez.
Starring: Daryl Sabara, Alexa Vega, Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Mike Judge,
        Steve Buscemi, Alan Cumming, Cheech Marin and Tony Shaloub.
grade: C
No doubt you’ve seen my obvious attempt to garner your attention with the above list of Rodriguez’s numerous credits on this film. And for wearing six plus hats – the film isn’t a disaster, exactly. It is, however, incredibly repetitious, far too reliant on unveiling complex gadgetry (like 007 visiting Q in every other scene), and, above all, Spy Kids 2 is lacking in good, solid characters. The only interesting new addition is Steve Buscemi’s nerdy scientist (the very picture of a guy who has lived under a rock for several decades – he’s confused by just about everything). The film becomes difficult to watch – the new, rather boring characters keep getting in the way of the already established ones (and, sorry to say, Cumming, Shaloub and Marin only appear in cameos). There’s some great gags (the OSS dinner is full of em’, Junie and Carmen falling for four hours in a small tunnel springs to mind). For every joke, though, there’s a truckload of painfully flat situation humor in the rivalry subplot featuring Gary and Girdy, an annoyingly WASP-ish pair who hone in on Junie and Carmen’s action, and whose father steals the OSS head position from Banderas. Gugino’s visiting parents provide an equally stale series of jokes (most of them antiquated in-law behavior). It’s a sequel, alright.

(8/17)

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We Were Soldiers

Written and Directed by Randall Wallace
Starring: Mel Gibson, Sam Elliot, Barry Pepper, Chris Klein, Keri Russell and Madeline Stowe.
grade: C-
And now a word from our sponsor.

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If you answered YES to any of these questions, than come down to Icon Productions, where Randall Wallace (and, if you like, Mel Gibson), will take your dry-by-comparison, seemingly lifelike story and juice it up a notch with flashy camerawork, operatic art-violence, sappy visions of crying widows cut to look like commercials and musical montage after musical montage. We’ll turn your Rob Roy into Braveheart; your Saving Private Ryan into Pearl Harbor and so on and so on and so on.

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[Gibson is about the only thing holding this mess together: Elliot is on autogrump; Pepper’s contract requires him to participate in all war movies; Stowe dresses up like Angelina Jolie for some reason; and Russell and Klein pretty much just sit there on the screen, like a pair of child-bearing mannequins. The actual siege lasts so long we’re exhausted, but not because of it’s length – because it appears to be edited without thought of coherence, as if haphazard placement and quick shot splicing could sidestep clarity and look gritty and realistic. Not so, I’m afraid. Since the bar was set, I’ve been unable to wrap my head around the logic in films about combat which so obviously slide in miles below said bar, but clearly want to attack the subject using a generic version of the techniques in more successful films. We Were Soldiers is just a string of military clichés, rendered with confusion and restraint. There is no place for convention in a proficient war film.]

(8/18)

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Birthday Girl

Co-Written and Directed by Jez Butterworth
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Ben Chaplin, Vincent Cassell and Mathieu Kassovitz.
grade: C
Butterworth tries to juice up this frankenstein concoction (familiar bits all stitched together, posing as a story) of thrillers-lite by making its premise concern a Russian mail order bride (who is English impaired, by the way). Trouble is, the most interesting thing about the film (after the first groaning hour) is Chaplin’s deadpan delivery once he’s been had by the sexually radiant Kidman and Co. (Kassovitz and Cassell, chewing the scenery like mad); Butterworth could have had a much more interesting picture if he’d given it a touch of momentum (course, that wouldn’t really remedy the heap of unbelievably tired material it’s bogged down with). It’s obvious that the actors are bringing any and all of the spark to the film (subsequently I’m assuming Kidman signed on for some sort of indie cred – though I’m not sure appearing all but mute in a film where the dialogue is the best part really qualifies).

(8/22)

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Storytelling

Written and Directed by Todd Solondz
Starring: John Goodman, Julie Haggery, Leo Fitzpatrick, Brendon Sexton, Paul Giamatti.
grade: C
Storytelling is divided into two equally flawed parts. While “Fiction” tells the story of perception versus reality by playing the race card in a demented mentor/student relationship, “Non-Fiction” purports to sell us a reality that is all perception via a documentation who exploits the idiosyncrasies of a wealthy Jewish family to compensate for his own shortcomings. Solondz, using absolutely no  universal observation (of Welcome to the Dollhouse) or sympathy (of Happiness), instead gives us a rather forced complexity in both sections, a complexity, I’ll submit, that he’s more interested in explaining to death through a series of hollow characters than fleshing out. “Fiction” (with a graphic rape) and “Non-Fiction” (with a devastating twist) each equate to jumbled short films, both of which contain too many different shades of comedy and drama to fully realize upon which end of the satire spectrum they might fall. The editing feels excessive, as if long passages or large chunks of both story and character were excised in a cruel experiment to see if a finished film will retain coherence when butchered. It works – the film is coherent – but it also feels blurry, as if the center of Solondz’s messager were sacrificed. I didn’t find myself laughing as much at Solondz’s bizarro everybody’s-a-pervert-at-heart social landscape, nor did I find myself laughing all that much at his little touches (save the youngest member of the Jewish family, who hypnotizes his father into, among other things, firing the family maid). The performances are so perfunctory, that it’s almost a chore to watch solids like Goodman and Giamatti try (usually in vain) to push beyond their roles as Solondz’s puppets. For issues such as racism, professional manipulation and artistic license, more humanity is necessary. Even the brilliant score, by Belle & Sebastian, seems like it’s missing by a half.

(8/25)

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Dragonfly

Directed by Tom Shadyac
Starring: Kevin Costner, Ron Rifkin, Joe Morton and Kathy Bates.
grade: D-
A rolling absurdity gathers much camp. A wiggly cross saved is a wiggly cross earned. Never look a parakeet in the mouth. Don’t snicker at miracles. (Alright, I made that last one up). Costner’s performance in Dragonfly suits the absolutely laughable, narrow misadventures which befall him, including, but not limited to: corpses grabbing his arm, children’s eyes popping open like headlights, gifts which unwrap themselves, and, putting up with Kathy Bates’ insincerity (which is, by the way, kinda out of place). I was willing to laugh through most of it: it’s never more than expensive TV Drama with no attempt made to disguise how outlandish and goopy it’s being. But when you see what happens in the last five minutes, you’ll agree – this is no laughing matter. This is a warn everybody you know matter.

(8/25)

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The Rookie

Directed by John Lee Hancock
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Rachel Griffiths, Jay Hernandez, Chad Lindberg and Brian Cox.
grade: B-
Conservatively not stinking of any particular charm, as Disney tends to, The Rookie is also more personal and genuinely moving than any Disney movie really ought to have the right to be (save for any that feature a disadvantaged boy fighting a life-threatening illness, that is). Quaid, is stony-faced Jim Morris, who overcomes insurmountable odds to reach personal highs he never thought…alright, there’s still a fair amount of grandstanding, but the manageable kind; uncontrollable smiling that makes you happy – not angry. It’s also, in a lot of ways, a quieter, less agenda-driven family film than we’ve been privy to of late. We assume Disney can recruit any actor they want (with their reputation and pocketbook), but Quaid is a particularly good choice, putting his own, confidant and tortured spin on the preceedings. He alone seems to guide The Rookie (on a number of occasions) from manipulative to interesting – and, in the end, he sells us his storyy; which has little or no distraction (this is a simple, kid-friendly interpretation). The whole thing smacks of an earnestness it flat-out earns, and a lack of style that, refreshingly, puts the focus on a rather pleasing trajectory.

(8/25)

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High Crimes

Directed by Carl Franklin
Starring: Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, Jim Caveziel, Amanda Peet and Bruce Davison.
grade: D-
Not a shred of this is believable – or suspenseful; the mechanized prowess of the dialogue betrays any attempt the actors may (Freeman) or may not (Judd) be making to transcend its hokiness. The entire movie is pretty much a montage of people trading sensitive information for, among other things, a lot of bruises. Without sounding coy, any audience member who has seen a film in the last three years will be able to see High Crimes’ twist coming even before we’re shown a Rashomon-esque memory of the driving event in the film: the murder of nine innocents in El Salvador. Dozens of films are starting to look and feel like a thin riff on this haphazard, cinematic rug pulling. The only thing worth checking out in the film is Jim Caveziel’s polygraph test (and the subsequent documentary on beating a polygraph test that’s featured on the DVD). Even Morgan Freeman’s excessive use of the term “wild card” and his heroic, third act leap from the wagon add to the annoyance of this two hour cliche. Had I paid to see this third-rate straight-to-video quality thriller in the theater, it would easily have received an F.

(8/25)

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Dogtown and Z-Boys

A documentary film by Stacy Peralta
Featuring most of the Zephyrs Surf/Skateboarding Team
grade: B-
Almost succeeds in the impossible, namely, making skateboarding seem like an art form (as opposed to an attitudinal monotony posing as a sport). The key is linking it to surfing, which Peralta does before playing up the ego of his Zephyrs, a street gang posing as a skateboarding/surf team. The multi-media technique attempted isn’t effective or worthwhile until far too late in the film; initially, the filmmakers appear to be attempting to three-card-monte their three or four sources in an effort to make them appear to look like dozens. The spinning swirls and quick zooms on photographs are kinda idiotic at first (if you have 16 mm footage, why not use it?), but later, when the home movies begin devolving in agonizing similarity, the goofy photo camerawork begins to jive with the badass verve of the whole scene (much like all the scattershot weirdness of the clip choices and editing in Julien Temple’s The Filth and the Fury). Dogtown and Z-Boys isn’t as endlessly fascinating as its mojo would suggest, and, at one point, emerges from nowhere with a supposedly haunting dissolve to black that flat out doesn’t work (former champion Jay Adams divulges some regrets – leaving out the fact that he’s in jail – and then does that quiet head turn you frequently see documentary subjects do). The structure may feel accidental, but, in its own way, by spotlighting this one, tiny movement, Dogtown and Z-Boys creates a metonymy that’s worth exploring (especially if you’ve always wondered why so many people engage in this “sport”). Sean Penn’s narration adds nothing more than a cool voice in the background (virtually everything he says feels unnecessary and (or) redundant). It’s a sixty minute film trapped in a ninety minute running time, but also, it’s Longhair Jr.’s wearing Vans, scraping up and down the sides of paint-chipped backyard pools; it’s infectious because it’s kids having a blast.

(8/27)

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Blade 2

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro
Written by David S. Goyer
Starring: Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristofferson, Leanora Valera, Ron Perlman and Norman Reedus.
grade: D
Opening as few sequels do these days, Blade 2 re-iterates all the facts pertaining to its characters and other necessary elements of the previous film.. Examining this, one might assume this information essential to enjoying the second film. Not so. In point of fact, this information seems to be presented in order that we, as an audience, may become horribly confused. In fact, it’s the only sequence in the film that makes perfect sense – others ranging from muddled to absolutely nonsensical (Vampires starting a virus to create a super-race of …vampires – – – or something). Rarely do the factss enacted in the original Blade jive with what goes on here. Those moments of clarity when I could understand what was going on, seemed to serve only as contradiction to what makes Blade (Snipes) tick. Snipes seems to dip in and out of character, most shamelessly when half-romancing the wooden Leanor Valera. Kristofferson climbs back aboard via a dimwitted and simple rescue mission (we wonder why he wasn’t rescued this easily any other time in the three years he was the Vampires’ prisoner). He seems to exist only to dispense foul-mouthed insults at Blade’s stand-in mechanic. Unable to conform to any sort of consistency, Goyer seems to have written an unofficial sequel, the kind that’s usually released decades later and takes the sort of liberties with the characters which are taken here. Unfortunately, these liberties serve only as excuse to, sadly (as usual), give Blade and Co. cause to fight with Vampires and a new strain, called Reapers (bald and pale like the Tuners in Dark City with an unfolding mouth and long tongue, which seem suspiciously, as ever, like the ones in the Alien films). The action sequences are heavily digitized – but for no particular purpose, it seems. Mostly, the martial arts move too fast and look too run-of-the-mill to raise a pulse (as per the Action Film Act #14593 (void where prohibited), there is the requisite bumpin’ techno music).  There are some sharp, beautiful contrasts between oranges and blues. An aged vampire descends, coat lapels trailing behind him, into a blood-filled jacuzzi. Rain pummels a smoky, cramped van. Images. As in his previous Hollywood venture (Mimic) Guillermo Del Toro seems hell-bent on creating as many dark, underground settings as possible and doing absolutely nothing interesting in them.

(8/30)

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The Time Machine

Directed by Simon Wells and Gore Verbinski (uncredited)
Written by John Logan
Starring: Guy Pearce, Mark Addy, Jeremy Irons, et al.
grade: C
It’s entertaining, sure – but what a mess. From the opening frames of this great-grandson of H.G. Wells-directed mini-epic, director Wells (or, whomever: Verbinski finished the film, from what I’ve heard) stages everything as if he’s George Lucas: beginnings and endings are the only thing that are important, nothing needs progression beyond a passing glance and everything should be played for ba-ba-boom! It’s Pearce who ends up suffering the consequences, never sure if he’s involved in a science fiction movie (where he’d be required to camp it up), a moving existentialist drama (where he’d have to get all stern and tortured) or an action movie (where he’d yell and be his usual cocky self). His performance, a rambling one, isn’t all his fault. The trouble here is how short the movie feels; ninety minutes feels like an awful rush; every act feels incomplete. The movie should’ve been three hours or equivalent in order to flesh its admittedly lofty themes out. The effects are competent (Orlando Jones as a visual aid is interesting, the time machine itself looks like it was ordered out of a Time Machine Catalog and the sets and props have an interesting clean and stagy look). The makeup, on the other hand, is laughable: The Morlocks look like Halloween costumes or WB action series leftovers (you choose) and Jeremy Irons looks like Count Dracula with a long brain for a ponytail and exposed Alien-esque spinal column. Movie is a often a gas because it’s so ramrod and gung-ho, but, ultimately, after Irons delivers his big third act speech, everything becomes so clumsy and empty, it’s impossible to turn it off without feeling unsatisfied. It’s less about time travel and man’s place in time than about ba-ba-boom!

(I’m legally bound to use the phrase ba-ba-boom at least three times in this review. Contact my lawyer at…)

(8/31)

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Resident Evil

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson
Starring: Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Eric Mobius, et al.
grade: C+
Lot of curiously wide open spaces, brazen lack of character development that feels purposeful, a snappy opening – and the structure still feels stunted by the repetition of walk-battle-conflict-kill (the video game curse). Jovovich looks more like a video game character come to life than Angelina Jolie did in Tomb Raider (Unlike that film’s director, Simon West, Anderson sees more horror than action in the idea of video games as mass murder). Points are muddled and mired in the slew of cliched action set pieces, which hold the horror at bay far too long and far too often. Still, this film has certain tinges that recall the techniques of Anderson’s ultra-scary Event Horizon and, as one of four of that film’s fans – that excites me a little bit. A little British girl, who acts as voice to the mega-computer which runs the Underground research facility “The Hive”, deals out fate, on more than one occasion, with such a disturbing sincerity; she’s scarier than the inside-out dog or the barrage of bloodsoaked zombies. And the touch of camp, the tightened settings and number of unsettling images, make Resident Evil (whose dialogue and storyline are preposterous to a failing) a tolerable curiosity piece.

(9/1)

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Possession

Directed by Neil LaBute
Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle.
grade: B
Why is Aaron Eckhart not yet a star? Seen here wooing Gwyneth Paltrow, he drags his half-shaven lack of confidence to a spotlight and makes it come alive with charm. LaBute keeps the intertwined stories twisting naturally into one another (rather than being regimented, equal allotments); the film never feels like two stories, but rather, works more competently as one, wherein the 1859 affair is, in fact, merely a flashback that holds an enormous resonance in the modern day courtship. Refreshing as well is the way studying such a dry and sexually repressed (at least on paper) has left both Eckhart – who hints at his sordid past as if he believes he is one of a poet from the 1850’s – and Paltrow – who carries on like the ice princess of the parlor, whose hostility towards men is acknowledged, but seen right through. Alternately, the story of Randolph Ash (Northam) and Kristina La Motte (Ehle) is full of adultery, bisexuality and suicide. (Though, according to one critic, apparently this is the case in nearly every dusty costume epic since The French Lieutenant’s Woman – which is a weak, arguably unfounded alllegation). By playing up the ironic reversal of these to polar-opposite time periods and keeping the focus on the modern-day, LaBute creates a much more fathomable romance in the present, which Eckhart and Paltrow model after their own aggrandized version of the classical affair. The politics – behind the discovery of the letters which these poets wrote to each other – are run by a varied menagerie of greedy research assistants, greedier teaching assistants, careless secretaries and, both ruthless and has-been professors. Chasing after the letters, the intrigue is unique – though too often played for light comedy. Paltrow starts out in ice mode, which is rarely believable (you have to warm to how little she resembles an aggressively presumptious feminist AND how questionable her British accent is, all at the same time). Nevertheless, Possession is inherently satisfying; a remarkably successful turn of tameness for LaBute, who is an elegant filmmaker, but more profound as a writer. That Labute did not adapt A.S. Byatt’s Possession is felt in the sourmouth inducing Harlequin fluffiness that sneaks into the tone far too often.

 

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The New Guy

Written by Dave Kendall
Directed by Ed Decter
Starring: DJ Qualls, Zooey Deschannel, Eliza Dushku, Lyle Lovett and Eddie Griffin.
grade: C-
Impossibly forgettable image reversal fantasy. Never consistently funny, but badly directed; from the pat, music-guided storytelling to little things like how ridiculously insulting it is when an audience is asked to believe that the hero’s good fortune isn’t betrayed by his nerdish asides, which happen after every freak occurence of cool, always in front of the unaware, and never to any effect. It’s as if every actor carries the script in their hands, reading it aloud, and we’re supposed to buy their respective characters. The casual appearances of cheerleaders leads to a rather obvious series of compromised positions (one date consists of Dushku modeling swimwear for Qualls, another finds her wearing a bandana as a shirt to work – you get the idea). And that brings us to our lead player. You’ll remember that in Road Trip, DJ Qualls played a skinny weakling who had his waffles dipped in a vindictive cook’s underwear and later exposes a fetish for heavy set African-American women. His eerie, raised in the backwoods look fits perfectly with all-out wackiness. In The New Guy, his goal is to be an ordinary guy. In other words, it requires acting. Which is probably why they chose the no-talent Lyle Lovett as his pop. Like father, like son.*

[ * – “and other cliches…” ]>

(9/3)

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Impostor

Directed by Gary Fleder
Starring: Gary Sinise, Madeline Stowe, Vincent D’Onfrio, Tony Shaloub, Mehki Phifer
        and Lindsay Crouse.
grade: C
So, anyway, there’s these replicants which can retain all human qualities – even emotional relationships – and don’t know they’re a bomb until they….? And this is where I’m a little fuzzy. No problem, though, the filmmakers made Impostor in the Battlefield Earth film making workshop, keeping the story’s important facts concealed (even at the end), using a laughably obvious character development stage (which is far too short and far too uneven to actually develop a character) and above all, dozens and dozens of diagonal shots. It’s played as The Fugitive meets Gattaca, but ends up looking more like The Sixth Day (or, if you like, a slightly better version of Minority Report). I know they keep using Philip K. Dick as source material – I’m just not sure why. All of his films seem to float around the boring-as-a-dog’s-butt idea of beings which pretend to be us, but are really just technologically advanced copies of us. Sinise and Stowe are fine, but rarely display much more than a paper intensity. D’Onfrio, on the other hand, bored with his being typecast as the borderline pscyhotic guy (in this case, a cop) appears to be channeling John Malkovich. Again. Impostor (which was originally set to be released 12/25/00, but was pushed back for a number of reasons – one of which was probably how bad it was), lacks the meat to make its premise interesting – and I think I know why – and I’m still unsure why the producers would include, on the DVD, a tighter, much less goofy version of the film (it contains no references to an underground network of surgeons, Mehki Phifer’s token black thug characters is no longer in the film and a rather large chunk of the long, boring chases through a fallen city seen through a tilted glance have been removed). It’s listed as “The Original Short Film”. Sixty-six minutes shorter, it no longer has a bunch of scenes that look like obvious re-shoots – but it’s still about as successful as directing one’s gaze by mispelling the title (anyone with a genuine explanation may step forward, all else, join me on the platform for cocktails and snubbing).

(9/4)

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Crossroads

Directed by Tamra Davis
Starring: Britney Spears, Dan Ackroyd, et al.
grade: C+
I’m tempted to grant a higher mark to this film, and most of the review itself acts as a confessional: past the eye candy veneer, what’s remarkable about a film like Crossroads is that it can defy my expectations so wildly  and still have a scene where characters say “Of Course! We’ll enter that Karaoke contest to fund the rest of our sordid road trip!”. Impressive also is how tirelessly the film works to keep the three friends in the foreground and avoid peppering the film with assorted wackos met across the country (which absolves you, the reader, from hearing yet another long diatribe about road movies. Read on, though, I’m considering adding a long rant about how silly Dan Ackroyd looks trying to play Britney Spears’ father). Lucy is an electric presence, and gloriously ordinary at times – playing a character almost without the paradoxically slutty virgin persona her alter ego Britney peddles. Most of the actual substance of the film works out pretty much how you’d expect it to (come to think of it, there isn’t a surprising moment to speak of in the film – save Britney almost (sic) sleeping witth her nerdy lab partner inside ten minutes). The Girl Power! is infecting; long, constant scenes of the girls singing and laughing ensue, especially in the car, (but, especially when a male vocalist jumps in on a Melissa Etheridge tune you pretty much expect to be played before film’s end). Britney’s love affair with Ben, the older guy who did some time in jail, isn’t understated exactly and their relationship has its ridiculous spots. There are no genuinely tender moments in the film. Crossroads echoes Britney’s music: annoyingly simple, long periods of repetition and reverse Oedipal complex dressed up as raw sexuality (alright, that last one is a major stretch). Amazingly, her acting just manages to set her apart from it; Britney escapes unscathed. (And yes, there are plenty of opportunities for her to sing – this was clearly a vehicle for someone with a voice. Too bad LeAnne Rimes didn’t demand Piper Perabo’s role in Coyote Ugly. I might have hated it less.)

(9/5)

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The Count of Monte Cristo
Directed by Kevin Reynolds
Starring: Jim Caveziel, Guy Pearce, James Frain, Michael Wincott, Richard Harris, et al.
grade: B-
Indeed, given the truly heroic (and seemingly endless) liberties taken and amendments made, one pictures Alexander Dumas spinning around in his tomb rotisserie style (but faster). But the savagely modern, somewhat melodramatic changes can’t compete with the grainy cinematography, which, along with its conservative British framing, makes this version of The Count of Monte Cristo feel like one of the most ambitious and exciting episodes of masterpiece theater ever created. Yes, there are now illegitimate children, once deadly guns which don’t go off, consolidated characters; anachronism isn’t reached – barely, at times – but, to be sure, this is obvious, shifty eyed tinkering. The film does, however, convey beautifully (with help from Caveziel’s victimized Boy Scout eyes), that a hopeless, torturous prison sentence can be turned around (or, possibly, dismissed) if one is lucky enough to be tunneled into by Altemus Dumbledore. I mean Richard Harris. The cornerstones, as it were – Michael Wincott and Luis Guzman – each share a particularly rare thing (weighing company involved): clunker turns as, respectively, an abusive, one-dimensional prison warden and a foreign, too jolly fool cum servant; Neither actor seems quite right as their respectable character (compounding on which is the writer’s decision to downplay their supposedly integral roles in Caveziel’s prison term and subsequent vengeance). I’ve heard people say Pearce should have, in fact, played Caveziel’s part. It’s a bad idea. Though Pearce’s downfall in the latter part of the film is upstaged by what looks like the single most shocking dental tragedy to take place in all of the Napoleanic Era, his plastered grimaces and truly pungent one-liners never grow tiring; we could easily watch his smug mugging go on until the revenge has been drawn out far longer than could ever be truly satisfying. The corker, among so many ridiculously unnecessary detractors, is thus: The Count of Monte Cristo is packed with oodles of revelatory, guilty pleasure Golly – No!’s and I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Way It Used to Be (Two Scenes Ago)’s – each served in decidedly accessible fflavors.

(9/6)

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40 Days and 40 Nights
Directed by
Starring: Josh Hartnett and Shanyn Sossamon.
grade: D+
It’s hacky – and kind of amateurish; and rarely as funny as it wants us to believe. Premise pumping like a life-force, the story of a boy who lays down the play for the requisite Lenten duration turns into a sort of sub American Pie string of eye-bulgingly forced sex jokes. Sossamon, zombie boy Hartnett’s love interest, is the only one who appears to be investing herself in it; the rest of the cast recycled from way too many teen farces. When Hartnett’s friends and co-workers set up an internet site advertising a bet that he’ll give in to temptation, though, a devastatingly dumb plot twist (yeah, the one with the flower) turns the movie into a ripped sack – precious plausibility billowing out. The kind of movie where no one realizes that comedy has to be taken seriously or the movie’s not so much funny as it is sad.

(9/15)

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Kissing Jessica Stein
Directed by
Written by
Starring:
grade: B-
A great deal of Stein’s un-PC edges are left properly raw (the film doesn’t lose sight of the fact that, at heart, it’s about a girl experimenting with her sexuality). The Matchmaker Matchmaker (Make Me a Match) stereotypes, which garishly outline the title character’s family members, are a touch on the excessive side of satire, which firmly establishes, for me, how the film would work best. The Yentas rushing their daughters to wedlock didn’t appeal to me, exactly, but it did get me thinking about the nature of Stein’s decidedly overwrought premise. I mean, a girl gets sick of the disappointment of dating males and decides to take a crack at females only to realize she has really high standards – – – it’s a stretch. This kookyy compatibility tale’s intended target is left a mystery (Is it Sex and the City? Woody Allen films? Dating in general?). It’s tendency, however, to veer toward Indie-land clichés remains perfectly visible. (It takes place in New York City, for Chrissakes!)

(9/20)

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Death to Smoochy
Directed by Danny Devito
Starring: Edward Norton, Catherine Keener, Robin Williams, Danny DeVito and Jon Stewart.
grade: D
Bad idea to include excessive outtakes, by the way (it becomes obvious from the first shot of Ed Norton cracking a joke on camera that the movie was much more fun to make than to watch). The fractured story of dueling Kid’s show hosts and the underworld heavies that control them (huh?) plays like one of those great premises that is absolutely inexecutable. Norton’s character is the only one that seems invested with anything less than out-and-out scenery chewing; Williams plays a character who takes a really big fall career wise (who was, I’m sure, easy enough to play); Devito and Keener harness their usual personas (I still say, as good an actress as Keener is, she can’t pull off pleasant); and Jon Stewart flat-out can’t act (though he’s the best part of the outtakes). The story is so unbelievably over-the-top, things happening left and right that seem almost laughable in any context that isn’t out-and-out fantasy. Both the History of Smoochy Past/Present Ice Show and the Rainbow Randolph/Smoochy theme songs are way too clever to share screen time with the mechanical twists of the narrative or the randomness that depletes Death to Smoochy’s momentum. In the end, the relative brilliance of those songs standing against the lackadaisical ramblings of the revenge yarn seem to denote quite clearly that the film isn’t living up to the promise of it’s premise.

(9/21)

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Spirited Away
Written and Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
grade: B+
Miyazaki’s film is an imagination machine, so full of inimitable wonder, you almost miss how aimless and gruelingly episodical it is. Another young female protagonist strolls into an endlessly ambitious museum of animation. I sound cynical, but Miyazaki’s movies tend to elicit more of my honor than my open enjoyment of them (read: they’re too long). Spirited Away has plenty of jaw droppers: human Sen’s proving herself to her spirit employers by expertly accommodating a stink spirit leaps to mind; Sen’s dealings with tiny pieces of coal dust (reminiscent of the dust bunnies in Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro) and the eight legged man who commandeers them (and runs the spirit city); and even the scene that feels like it’s own short film, when Sen, a witch’s pet heads (don’t ask) and her gigantic baby (who has been turned into what looks like a miniature Totoro, himself) set out to return a stolen stamp and rescue a boy who has been turned into a…..and it goes on like this. These brief descriptions of the characters – without so much as context – paint thhe picture. Everything that happens in the movie is out-and-out clever. That none of the mini movies really need each other to stand on their own, makes it less a movie than a collection of Miyazaki doodles.

(9/21)

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Murder By Numbers
Directed by Barbet Schroeder
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Ryan Gosling, Michael Pitt, Chris Penn and Ben Chaplin.
grade: C
Like a young Leopold and Loeb, Gosling and Pitt plan and execute the perfect murder. Trouble is, their consciences kick in so mechanically when detectives Bullock and Chaplin start grilling them, we cease to care which one of them performed the actual killing. (And am I the only one who wondered, is that really the point, anyway?). Stranglehold of tired notions never lets up, instead, we watch in horror as the obsessive (and forced into sabbatical) cop with the mysterious past who has gut instinct instead of problem solving skills (and rattles off secret facts of the murder case as if she’s read the script herself) dissolves the interesting part of the film: namely, the killers’ A-Z knowledge of crime scene procedure. Pitt rattles off technical jargon with the same cold indifference he shows to the murder itself throughout the first half of the movie. As soon as Gosling starts his Max Cady-ish flirtation with Bullock – and the film’s energy shifts questions from how they did it to which one of them did it – Murder By Numbers becomes too much a meditation on these genre typical characters than on beating the flatfoots at their own games. At the very least, it nicely mutes the briefly introduced credo of being set free through the ability to kill. Whether subduing  this theme was a by-product of Lieberman’s violence mis-marketing protest or a realization of a too serious idea being introduced amidst all the relative fluff of Numbers flare-less crime drama execution – the world may never know.

(9/21)

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Enigma
Directed by Michael Apted
Starring: Dougray Scott, Kate Winslet, Jeremy Northam and Saffron Burrows.
grade: C
How did this ever become a cliché?

An unshaven, sloppily dressed, unapproachably dense mathematician ponders, finger tapping, eyes darting, a drop of sweat slowly weaving down the countenance to pool in the chin  – and then – a close up of  letter sequences arranged as gibberish. Then, to befuddled faces, the unshaven guy looks up, adrenalized: “Chaps! Oy’ve Ker-acked’it!”

Never about less than five things at once, it’s one of those fashionable British War Dramas that boasts repeatedly to realize the turning point in the war, but proceeds instead to make this a minute detail, easily overshadowed by half realized characterizations (Dougray Scott is particularly sluggish as a tortured romantic mathematician), historical recreations that do little else but call attention to themselves and an absolutely indolent pace. Can’t figure out if it’s a companion piece to the regrettable U-571 or proposed competition for A Beautiful Mind. Either way, it’s about as exciting as the scarce bit of code breaking we see. (Which is to say, not all that exciting at all, people).
 

(9/22)

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The Cat’s Meow
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
Starring: Edward Hermann, Eddie Izzard, Cary Elwes, Kirsten Dunst and Jennifer Tilly.
grade: B-
My friend Randy recently told me that he hates Meets comparisons (You know, it’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman, stuff like that). The Cat’s Meow is Gosford Park meets RKO 281. I make the point only as the film seems bogged down with the same trouble of the latter of those two films: the historical re-creation and portrayal of famous faces (William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, Charlie Chaplin) doesn’t seem immediate or contextualized, and, therefore, the characters could have been called by any names – and no one would have noticed. It’s a lighter version of the former film, not because it’s a murder mystery – it’s not – but because of it’s themes of manipulation in close quarters (one better, the movie industry trying to infringe on other reputable businesses, IN close quarters). But, in a lot of ways, The Cat’s Meow is itself, an original – of late, anyhow – piece of ensemble filmmaking: the cast is uniformly terrific, thanks in part, we assume, of Bogdanovich’s mature direction (is there any other word for it, his style is so slight, it’s barely there, let alone how to describe it). Hermann is a particular standout as Hearst, creating a character so clearly and effortlessly, he almost defies the anonymity of the piece’s roaring twenties’ celebrities. It’s never more than a diversion, anyhow, all of it’s swooning romance and Charleston dancing contains about  the same amount of significance and depth as, I’m sure, the stage play upon which it’s based.

(9/27)

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I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
A Documentary by Sam Jones
With: Wilco (Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, Leroy Bach, Glenn Kotche and Jay Bennett),
        Tony Margherita, Jim O’Rourke, Joseph Grier.
grade: B
It’s two films, really; the first is a raw gander towards the grind of recording an album, and, the second is a circular damning of the music industry’s artless practices. Watching Wilco perform is, without a doubt, as exciting as watching The Band or Talking Heads perform (in their respective music documentaries) – and this is a rare feat. Also uncommon is how effectively it acts as lubrication of forgiveness for what turns into a good twenty minute segment where the camera seems to rotate between the same four faces making almost identical comments: “Here we have This Record and This Record is to become THE RECORD and then…..Something Happened: the record label dropped us. Pardon us while we dilly-dally to the bottom of this”. The story is bittersweet (despite that bit), with two members of Wilco departing, an absolutely magnificent collection of songs – and the feeling that it may all have been for nothing. Sam Jones’ 16 mm photography is gorgeous from start to finish (he is a famed photographer). The most successful moments, apart from it’s obvious hook (the music), are the casual character sketches of front man Jeff Tweedy and multi- instrumentalist (and dead ringer for Philip Seymour Hoffman) Jay Bennett.

(9/27)

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Igby Goes Down
Written and Directed by Burr Steers
Starring: Kieran Culkin, Ryan Phillipe, Susan Sarandon, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum,
        Claire Danes, Amanda Peet and Jared Harris.
grade: B
Okay, watching the title character fall instantly into the role everyone’s favorite, funny friend made me enjoy the film a great deal, but, honestly, what’s all this stuff here at the end, with the weeping and the rude interruption of cynicism and the sudden shift from a Holden Caulfield-esque classically revered every man to the lead in corn ball production of “The Summer that Changed My Life”? Culkin spits out Steers dialogue like a youthful Mamet wise guy, smirking about in the most adorable way, but his role is pivotal only because of a rare, absolutely flawless supporting cast. (See Almost Any Movie as an example of the ever constant stream of uneven casting that’s commonplace nowadays). Phillipe is suitably arrogant, a role he’s been building up lo’ these last few years; Sarandon refreshing her Bette Davis routine; Pullman in a short but zinger bit part as a pressure cooked invalid (a younger Culkin, Rory, looks even more like Pullman than Kieran – and that they both look like him is a sharp attribute); Goldblum looks like he’s been forced to watch his own commercials and can’t stop acting successful; Danes taps Gwyneth Paltrow’s patented superiority complex which always appears to be melting post-haste; Harris is eccentric rather than rational (in other words, he plays his good twin). The film is greased – it moves so competently and so easily through Culkin’s anti transformation period (which makes it all the more idiotic for the film to suggest him to be so darn changed at the end). It does lapse, often times, into a string of clever observatory wit, spliced with predictably sympathetic minor tragedies. That it’s cast visibly transcends its frank, just about bothersome familiarity as a coming-of-age tale – this is what sells Igby Goes Down to you. If you think it’s that wretched cover of The Band’s “The Weight” playing of the last couple of Igby’s “powerful” gestures – I have news for you: the Igby from the beginning is the same Igby at close. That’s part of what’s cool about the movie.

That Steers tries to make his audience believe anything but is nothing short of mystifying.

(9/29)

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My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Directed by
Starring:
grade: C
So harmless you might puke; so mediocre you might wonder why people love it; so sick of wedding movies. It’s kind of a bad sign when a writer uses Greek culture as a derogatory stereotype left on repeat to such an extent that even a “They’ll be there no matter what” revelation feels disturbingly false. It’s nothing more than a bunch of conflicts that are resolved as soon as the husband-to-be stares into the wife-to-be’s eyes. (Which is usually less than a fiver after said conflict is introduced). Too many scenes where the predictably whiny score takes over. The title tells us the ending. If watching everything up to (and including) that point isn’t stimulating – why not just watch another episode of A Wedding Story on TLC?

(10/3)

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Hollywood Ending
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Tea Leoni, Treat Williams, George Hamilton, Debra Messing
        and Tiffani Thiessen.
grade: C+
A half-assed collection of ironic jabs – some of them so searing you can almost feel the Wood-man poised to punish us for seeing their obvious relevance to his current situation. By overusing his second act blind spell, a smart gag beaten like a dead horse in the ground, he completely undermines what could’ve been a much smarter, much angrier self deprecating film-as-stunt. His characters have yet to live and breath as they once did (even his seventies slapstick flicks had more interesting characters with much more depth). The cast lists are starting to reflect his rapid slide downward. Treat Williams? George Hamilton? Tiffani Thiessen? C’mon. You don’t have to be blind to figure out what’s happening here.

(10/4)

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Enough
Directed by Michael Apted
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Billy Campbell, Juliette Lewis and Noah Wyle.
grade: C+
Joins I am Sam in the category ear-marked for Social Issue movies which are too plot specific to achieve the rank of Message Movie, too reputable (read: there’s reputable talent attached) to be MOW’s and too full of characters and situations that don’t connect to the social issue at hand (in this case, spousal abuse) because they inevitably become “entertainment”. I mean, Enough is preposterous to the last (with foreshadowing I would recommend only because it must be seen to be believed) – but it is oh so cool. If only Apted put as much energy into his 007 entries – with whose intrigue of hide and seek and identity swapping Enough has in spades. There is so much to get a kick out of – I’m tempted to make a list (but, c’mon, I’m not going to make a list). Reminds me of the admiration laced with massive reservations that I had for Joy Ride. Enough takes itself so seriously – even though it acknowledges our need of a crane to suspend our disbelief (as in, How exactly does Billy Campbell manage to run a business and keep up to three lovers when he spends so damn much time controlling his wife? How does Campbell manage to walk up to a door, make an offer on a man’s house (which was not for sale) and then subtly threaten the man by suggesting that he, Campbell (and his wife J. Lo), will continue to pester the man about the house until the man has sold it to them?) J.Lo has almost no chemistry with her child – her maternal instinct is nil – but manages, just the same, to create a rather sympathetic case for herself to learn the ancient art of Health Club Kung-Fu (complete with wisdom-spewing Billy Blanks-ish mentor). It’s easily the best guilty pleasure I’ve seen this year. So much so that, I’ll admit, I spent some of the running time pausing the film to yell sarcastically peppered updates to the wife as she productively chipped away at her housework in the other room.

(10/6)

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Big Trouble
Directed by Barry Sonnefeld
Starring: Tim Allen, Rene Russo, Dennis Farina, Jason Lee, Tom Sizemore, Johnny Knoxville,
        Janeane Garofulo, Heavy D, Omar Epps, et al.
grade: B-
Feels like a notebook being emptied. The self parodying remark Farina makes to his concurring partner (“I haven’t seen that done before”) is oh so fitting. Nearly everything in the film feels staged to live up to that very promise. It’s almost a perfect encapsulation. The movie works because it produces, without mincing words, laughs. Out loud. Tons of em’. Typically palm tree and sun soaked street Miami locations are far too reminiscent of the Elmore Leanord world of wise-cracking gangster-lite. Dave Barry – upon whose book the film is based – actually makes Leanord’s world seem dark by comparison and the movie has an irritating air of weightlessness that almost handicaps it to death. It doesn’t help that Big Trouble is populated by what appear to be Leanord-character parodies (whom it actively refuses to flesh out) . It’s a nice idea, but it’s too vague and, on top of that, it’s just too easy: a bunch of crazy situations created for a bunch of flamboyant character quirks and – watch the sparks fly! (Read: I’ve been tempted to write the very same sort of crap).  Is it just a cruel coincidence that Dennis Farina spends so much time ragging on Miami? It’s as if his character was added based upon the assumption that Snatch was successful primarily due to Farina’s vocal disdain for the England in that film. Or he’s parodying his brutal lunkhead in Get Shorty, who also wastes a good chunk of breath bitching about Miami. More theories.

(10/6)

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About a Boy
Co-Written and Directed by Paul and Chris Weitz
Co-Written by Peter Hedges
Starring: Hugh Grant, Toni Collette and Rachel Weisz.
grade: B
Cuts through the anticlimactic, epiphany happy treadle of the book, presenting the film as if the second in a series of American funded, American minded, American style British films (the first would, of course, be last year’s Bridget Jones’ Diary). These films – though this one is quite funny and offten, quite skillfully and effortlessly reverent – may be set to replace the Britcoms. (‘Bout fuckin’ time, right?) It is bar none Hugh Grant’s best performance to date and he plays the hell out of another thankless, morally inept bloke who finds humanity (or pretends to for our benefit, anyhow). Collette and Weisz bounce him back and forth beautifully (the Collette/Grant confrontation “scene” in the restaurant is a shade of nightmarish hilarity one couldn’t possibly foresee the Weitz Bros. – of American Pie fame – conceiving, not in their wildest dreams). By the end, the pat, almost contrived good guy arc beaming from Grant’s character (the book ended with a sly smile) gives us the feeling we’ve been wronged. The character actually learns from a mistake (pretending to have a kid) and makes it again almost without meaning to (as if the accidental denotation “I have a kid” was a horribly timed coincidence) – and we’re still subjected to lovey-duuvey “guess what I learned” moments. It’s forgivable – as the ending is the same as the one in the book – but irritating just the same. If the film had completely re-engineered the ending, we’d be talking about much higher marks. As is, the ending rings the same revelation on the way out of the confession box that both High Fidelity and Hornby’s latest novel, How To Be Good do. How can such a clever and scathing (and clever again) author be so interested in the happy ending fantasy? End of rant. See the movie. Dread the conclusion.

(10/6)

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Brotherhood of the Wolf
Co-written and Directed by Christopher Gans
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Monica Belluci and Mark Dacascos.
grade: C
Probably wouldn’t do me any good to harp on the rather obvious fact that Brotherhood of the Wolf doesn’t have a focal point until about the ninety minute mark. The most astonishing reason that I was so kind to a movie so goofy is how professional it makes hipster filmmaking look. Motion is sped up, tacky digital effects are brazenly woven into complicated photography, Hong Kong brand fight sequences are beautifully conceived and executed, time lapses and dream sequences benefit (rather than suffer) from technology, and so on and so on. The movie itself is a scattershot reflection on several hunting expeditions for a wolf-like beast (which, it is repeatedly made clear, terrorizes the countryside without end) and to the revolutionary attitudes in Paris during the French Revolution, as told in flashback by an aristocrat who recounts, among other things, a great chunk of a narrative he never actually witnessed. But his retrospective blunders aren’t really all that important since the film is merely expensive trash, released here in America as an art film merely because it happens to be French. Interesting to see straight-to-video kingpin Dacascos playing the most interesting role here (and he’s short on dialogue – which is a big plus). It’s the perfect comment on how low-grade Brotherhood of the Wolf really is: a video shelf riding action hunk like big Mark Dacascos is a slave in heaven (America), but a star in hell (France). Of course, my hyperbole rich references to the American and French movie industries with ultimately finite terms such as “heaven” and “hell” creates the perfect comment on how pretentious I really am. (But not, I’ll submit, pretentious enough to pretend I admire a film this cracked simply because it has words running just below the painstakingly framed … frame).

(10/9)

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The Salton Sea
Directed by DJ Walsh
Starring: Val Kilmer, Peter Saarsgard, Anthony LaPaglia, Vincent D’Onfrio, Deborah Kara Unger,
        B.D. Wong, Adam Goldberg, R. Lee Ermey and Luis Guzman.
grade: B-
It’s cool; a juvenile way to sum up a film, granted – but a proper one. Film never gels beyyond its cool, though, always opting to loudly and flamboyantly suggest that it’s not what it seems, rather than actually working towards such an end. Kilmer’s character has a far-too-obvious defining trait that miraculously manages to transcend itself (changing his name and his lifestyle are meant to clumsily stand as a metaphor for constantly questioning his own identity – via voice over, no less). It’s not uncommon to see a film about a down-and-out bloke with a Big Secret on his mind, never mind one who is constantly reassessing which life as pretense – and it’s all far too complicated for the tone that director Walsh employs. That’s really the blinking compliment here, though – the tone: The Salton Sea is rock n’ roll style (read: they use a good number of unnecessary titles on the screen), random asides (a plot to steal Bob Hope’s stool sample that goes horribly wrong) and mood altering cool (read: tons of montages set to druggy rhythms). Kilmer radiates badass fever (even though his character is a enigma wrapped in not very much at all), but his turn never really feels like a departure for the decidedly commercial actor. (For a glimpse at this, see his magnificent performance as an abusive, drunken, overweight stepfather in the magnificently god awful Joe the King). Supporting cast is like a mediocre mix tape: usual solids like Guzman, Unger and Goldberg are flat-out wasted in underwhelming roles while Saarsgard and Wong (who usually disappear into the landscape), actually seem to find a loophole into a saving grace. Saarsgard plays Kilmer’s “tweaker” best friend (whose shtick is, he’s unabashedly dim), and Wong plays an Asian federal agent posing as a Mexican posing as a cowboy who we actually believe (here’s the magic) would be interested in a quarter million dollar’s worth of speed. Most of the ink spilled on The Salton Sea headlines D’Onfrio’s frequently hilarious, but rarely menacing turn as Pooh Bear, a drug dealer/user whose meth weary nose has been replaced by what looks to be one of those plastic eyeglass, mustache and schnoz items (minus the specs and the soup strainer). Pooh Bear turns out to be too small time for his own good and the rather convoluted revenge plot concerning Kilmer’s dead wife – sub headed by an undercooked subplot involving a Columbian drug dealer we never actually see – sadly, can’t compete with the nose less Texan twang of D’Onfrio narrating his own re-enactment of the JFK assassination with pigeons and BB guns. Arcane goofiness like that (peppered with random drug facts) manage to suffice in what amounts to a shoelace narrative: pulling one string pretty much unravels the whole thing.

(10/10)

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The Lady and the Duke
Directed by Eric Rohmer
Starring: Lucy Russell, et al.
grade: B+
Like a gift from above – a historical document that feels like it’s taking place in the eighteenth century; Appropriately stylized (and the digital photography isn’t detracting, not one bit) like Rohmer’s Perceval, only amazing rather than uneven. More to come…

(10/11)

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Scooby Doo
Directed by Raja Gosnell
Starring: Freddie Prinze, Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar, Linda Cardinelli, Matthew Lillard
        and Rowan Atkinson.
grade: C-
So corporate infused, so ready-to-break-$100-million that it’s barely reminiscent – save Lillard’s Shaggy – of the seventies’ TV program. I’d waste time bitching about characterizations if I thought it were the real issue here, but alas, it’s not. The most challenging thing about Scooby Doo is how absolutely braindead the film makes unraveling a mystery feel. Granted, the cartoon series on which it is allegedly based was often half-baked to hell (which was the fun of it). This film, however, couldn’t draw the parallel between its own thoroughly uninteresting plotline and the camp genius of Hanna Barbera if it were given a million scooby snacks as incentive. Gosnell, directly in opposition of the show’s miraculoulsy non-threatening atmosphere, casts the tonal pall of modern sarcasm over the “adventure” (doesn’t help that the screenwriters start the film off with the gang in the throes of jealousy over Fred’s growing popularity before going their own separate ways). The blunt, blockheaded personalities bestowed on the characters certainly evince why we should stop making these cartoon cross-overs: Prinze, Jr. is arrogant, self-centered Fred (not the fun-loving, all-in-jest wisecracker of the series); Gellar is vocally dog-tired of being the damsel in distress (a talent that isn’t openly discussed on the series – but then – TV Daphne got the short end of the character stick, too); Velma is now permanently deadpan (unlike before, when she was timely, pedantic and adorably clumbsy). Shaggy and Scooby remain the same stick-figure creatures, suggesting another great point: perhaps the movie should’ve been about them. I’m a little bitter about the whole thing: how hard would using one’s imagination be, as opposed to grafting old cartoons into new contexts? Either way, by the time it’s relatively short running time comes to a close, I had been actively anticipating freedom from its flat little world for at least thirty minutes (if not more). (Spoiler alert – stop reading!) The conclusion holds its own characterization betrayal: would Scrappy be diabolical enough to create a robot to hide himself in, disciplined enough to not reveal his own self-centered ass to everyone before the time is right, and clever enough to hatch the teenage zombie scheme whose particulars are left largely unanswered? I’m not the one to ask – I couldn’t get past two minutes of the little pain in the ass on the television show – but I’d suspect he’s a whole new character, too.

(10/13)

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The Sum of All Fears
Directed by Phil Alden Robinson
Written by Daniel Pyne and Paul Attanasio
Starring: Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman, James Cromwell, Liev Shrieber, Colm Feore, Ron Rifkin,
        Phillip Baker Hall, Alan Bates, et al.
grade: D+
Like a mixed bag of problems, the biggest being that Affleck still can’t carry a movie and be believable as intelligent, the least being how much it feels like television – right down to the camerawork and especially the often ham fisted dialogue. A textbook example of a bad political thriller. Films that include everything but the kitchen sink in their dissection of America’s enemies seem kinda redundant (especially the neo-nazis, who have so little to do with the film, I actually tinkered with the idea of finding Cliffs Notes to Clancy’s novel in order to satisfy my curiosity). Remarking on the nuclear blast that decimates Baltimore, my younger brother praised the special effects (which, to the film’s credit, aren’t shoddy). What annoys me, though, is how that sequence seems to lose any gravitas it may have formerly possessed before losing perspective to the 9/11 attacks. Yes, the whole shebang was coincidental, but, unfortunately, having seen a version of the real thing repeatedly aired on television last fall – the plot point feels tirelessly moot, it’s execution honestly unbelievable. Watching these heavy-dangling world events play out amidst one-liners and
– let’s call them horribly forced action sequences – never hits home a sense of harmoniouss context to marry together the quips or the docudrama. In fact, it reminded me of just how well the three previous Jack Ryan films had melded serious, realistic political intrigue with popcorn entertainment. I’m thinking it was partially in the casting (Ford as Ryan, Connery and Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October), but probably a good bit of gratitude is due to directors John McTiernan and Phillip Noyce. Director Phil Alden Robinson populates The Sum of All Fears with pretty boy Affleck and a handful of character and television staples. It feels like it were programmed with “to be continued” and commerical elipses. No wonder it movie feels herky-jerky.

[Also like to call attention to the fact that this is the Third D+ to D- rated film involving Freeman in about a year (Along Came a Spider and High Crimes being the other two). Hopefully playing Nelson Mandela (in an upcoming bio-pic) will break that streak.]

(10/13)

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Last Orders
Directed by Fred Schepisi
Starring: Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, David Hemmings, Helen Mirren and Michael Caine.
grade: C+
Shifting between four or five time periods at once – with an absolutely A-list cast – seems like a good idea until you realize that all of these people’s lives and problems are rarely more than tirelessly ordinary. Framing it around four men driving their friend Jack’s (Caine) ashes to be scattered from Malgate Pier gives the film most of its structure and appeal. (Course, I had to put the closed- captioning on a couple of times to brave through the thick accents). Everyone is marvelous, especially Caine – whose is the only character seen entirely in flashback and, ironically, is the only really interesting one.

(10/13)

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Windtalkers
Directed by John Woo
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Christian Slater, Peter Stormare, Mark Ruffalo,
        Noah Emmerich and Frances O’Connor.
grade: C+
Woo’s stretching himself thinner and thinner (I’d defy viewers to tell me this were his film were his name not emblazoned on the credits); Cage brings back the dark and disturbed (he’s actually the most noteworthy asset here – despite what you may have read); Didn’t care for how the war footage kind of took over after awhile, setting the need to look deeper into the characters on the back-burner. (Though, to its credit, the movie pretty much nails the idea of fear in every soldier, not just those whose fear defines them almost completely – as in other war films); closest cousins are, sadly, Pearl Harbor and We Were Soldiers: starting with an overbearing score (by James Horner to boot), moving to the patriotism-or-bust attitude (always at the expense of the Japanese) and landing sideways on war clichés that get more and more noticeable as the film proceeds. I hate to sound usual, but, why not give some of these characters more to do? They pretty much stand around either defending or taunting the Navajo codebreakers (especially Emmerich, the obligatory uber-racist). Never really cooks up a narrative either; it’s a rambling motion picture from start to finish; this meander, though, depending on placement, feels like both a cushion – and hinderance. Though I know it to be a film whose release date was dramatically pushed back (before, presumably, it was taken to the chop shop). It feels like a film in limbo: Was it focused before it got hacked-to-pieces (watch the trailers on the DVD – at least a third of what’s in them doesn’t make it into the final film) or was it on the verge of being a tight, concise flick before finally being purged to the screen (where it made much less than half its budget back)? It’s almost a moot point.

(10/14)

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Mr. Deeds
Directed by Steven Brill
Starring: Adam Sandler, Winona Ryder, Peter Gallagher, John Turturro and Jared Harris.
grade: C-

First thirty minutes is actually kind of good, in that Sandler and co. almost achieve a modern day Capraesque verve; as soon as the sinister plotting begins, though, the many turgid characters fluctuating wildly,  and other random, plot alienating events occurring almost on top of one another – Mr. Deeds becomes almost unbearable. (I honestly was going to write more, but have decided not to waste my time. The movie, despite it’s more upstanding and revered source material, is still an Adam Sandler Movie and all of the simplistic formula cues and look-at-me sight gags that go with that declanation, as ever, bog down any momentum it might have possessed. It just isn’t very funny).
 

(10/19)

Punch-Drunk Love
Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Luis Guzman.
grade: A-

So unbelievably exhilarating and full of surprise – that’s the word here, by the way; Anderson’s film is almost categorically avant-garde (which is a good thing, were Sandler’s character introduced into any of Anderson’s previous films – which were confidant and assured, but not nearly this beautifully off-the-wall – it would’ve been repetitious and conventional). As it is, it’s an experience; a film that you should treasure upon first viewing – because everything that happens is neither predictable nor tired.  What fuels Punch-Drunk Love and keeps it – barely, at times – from becoming a reoccuring is-he-a-savant or is this a lost angry-man-loses-it-repeatedly sketch from SNL, is something I’ll call Fluorescent Honesty. You’ll remember (or, more accurately, I’ll remember) what George Carlin said about fluorescent light in a bathroom and how you could see every nick and scrape and scratch and pimple you’ve ever had since birth? Even if you don’t, perhaps you’ll recognize it by extension in the film. Adam Sandler’s character, Barry Egan, who seems to be running a company – sort of – surrounds himself with an ugly, bright fluorescent world. From the opening sequence where Egan calls Healthy Choice to verify what he believes to be a glitch in a Frequent Flyer giveaway, to the sequences in the tackily decorated interiors of the San Fernando Valley, to the buzzing light of a mattress store Phillip Seymour Hoffman uses as a mask for credit card billing statements that will no longer reflect the phone sex operation he runs – the movie is full of harsh and revealing white luminescence. Egan, we’ll find, is so unlike the world he inhabits and so unlike the society human beings are familiar with. Instead of playing along with underlying hostilities, sarcastic attacks and unexplained phenomenon, Egan is brutally honest and often, blunt to the point where he appears rude. In his fluorescent world, where everything is laid out – why lie? Instead of misappropriating his anger management, he lets it out (albeit, in one of the film’s suspiciously indulgent reoccuring statements, violently). Sometimes he cries, sometimes he breaks plate glass windows, but he’s always honest with the world – even when the world stabs him in the back. How does the film escape the fate of lowbrow physical comedy? Easy: Egan’s honesty reacting against the cold surface of a fraudulent world becomes a dissection seen through the powerful perception of amour. What better showcase for this than the vulnerability of falling in love? Anderson stages dating and romance – like he did with John C. Reilly (who played a similarly innocent character) and Melora Walters in Magnolia. He celebrates the awkward rush and, with Egan’s quirk in tow, cranks it up to ten. Biggest gripe is that it only runs half as long as Anderson’s previous opus. At ninety minutes, I was wholeheartedly disappointed when the film ended. The giddy, intoxicating thrill of seeing greatness for the first time – and recognizing it – though, wasn’t missing.
 

(10/20)


The Scorpion King
Directed by Charles Russell
Starring: The Rock, Kelly Hu, Michael Clarke Duncan, Peter Facinelli, et al.
grade: C

It’s so bare bones, you can almost see act breaks sticking out between it’s action setpiece joints. The fighting is even more video-game influenced than in The Mummy Returns (but, at the very least, The Scorpion King has the good sense not to spill over two hours – keeping its running time a compact and ideal ninety-one minutes). Some of it is good-hearted fun; it’s pretty much all action hero observatory wit and more openly anachronistic – and therefore more forgivable – modern sensibilities (i.e. – no one’s ever going to accuse it of being a period piece). So devoid of ambition, I’m not sure I can call it a B movie and comfortably sleep at night (the dialogue is so campy, it’s almost too much even for an actor of The Rock’s caliber; see also, the opening sequence wherein said former wrestling icon bursts into room, kills multiple dudes and scares everone else away by whispering: “Boo”). Whomever instructed him to make his eyes bulge as reaction to anything and everything, and to read his lines as if he were Putty (Elaine’s boyfriend on Seinfeld), did him a huge service: as it is, he belongs here, in this silly, borderline Indiana Jones spoof; (Enrich your viewing tip #349 of 500: For fun, take out a pad and pen and write down every instance you feel like Raiders of the Lost Ark is being unofficially referenced – or stolen from). Kelly Hu wears so little clothing throughout the film, we almost wonder if the camera crew worked for free; Facinelli reprises his usual role as a random, prepubescent adult male angry at the world because his daddy wanted to rebel against the friggin’ King of Egypt instead of bouncing him on his knee (or some such reason – if I were interested, or though it would have affected the outcome, I might have pondered it for more than a few nanoseconds); Duncan honestly never says anything devoid of hostile, competitive machismo; and the actors who play the king and the horse thief, respectively, were born to play roles just like those in subsequent films (Ben makes predictions!). I’ll have to be honest about things, though: The best part is that it never, in any way, remotely resembles any of the sequel-by-numbers pandering of the eye-lid challenging The Mummy Returns. I can’t stress this enough, people.
 

(10/21)


The Son’s Room
Directed by Nanni Moretti
Starring: Nanni Moretti, et al.
grade: B

The contrast between life before a child’s death and life after a child’s death is anything but fragile here, but, you know, when characters wander around their landscape underlining moments right before the title character drowns in a diving accident, you’re gonna have this. What’s so unbelievably entrancing about The Son’s Room is Nanni Moretti’s performance in front of the camera. Effortlessly belying an almost unearthly calmness (and still channeling a personable sense of stability), he moves in and out of his role as therapist, parent, husband and observer with a versatility that’s totally and completely believable. When he heaps his two big arms around his wife and daughter, moments after they’ve received the news, it’s one of the film’s many skillfully crushing moments – and it’s also the last time we’ll see Moretti before the pieces become unglued. The subject matter in the first two acts is bland. It’s been done to (pun intended) death. I found myself crying at some of the more original bits: the coffin being sealed in front of the family, the mother’s loud sobs as she registers closure after the funeral (why do we never see this in other films?) and the constant replaying of the last few events of the boy’s life before he left his family to go diving. At that point – when the film has exhausted pretty much all the healing motifs – the secret girlfriend shows up. The spry, out-of-nowhere third act wherein the family chauffers the girl and her new boyfriend to the French border, peppered with a Brian Eno song (that defines passion via teenage ears and won’t be leaving your head anytime soon) – this is the piece of The Son’s Room that really makes it special. The girlfriend shows them pictures of her and the boy. They are taken with a timer. Learning of an event in the boy’s life after he has died allows them to stop time. It’s goopy sounding – but the last act is a masterful new twist on grieving.
 

(10/24)


Eight Legged Freaks
Directed by EE
Starring: David Arquette, Kari Wuhrer, Scarlett Johannsen and Doug E. Doug
grade: C

Looks like its going to be fun and then – straight away – becomes pretty darn typical. My biggest qualm is that it really never lives up to the homage it pretends to be (to films like 1954’s Them!). If anything, it’s more of a modern day B movie – which is a whole other sport than the B movies of the 1950s. Arquette’s far less goofy performance is, inexplicably, a hinderance rather than an asset (but then, Kari Wuhrer is supposed to be the town’s single mom sheriff with two kids – so, there’s not a whole lot of reality floating around here). Moments of interest include the hilarious expository get-up posing as a scene wherein the owner of all these spiders divulges their strengths (and no weaknesses) to a young boy, who will later be able to stop them – because he paid attention; Doug E. Doug as a conspiracy-mad radio DJ (who broadcasts what seems to be the only radio signal in town from his van); and a dandy of a scene involving an old man and a tent (I won’t spoil it for you – it’s one of the only scenes employing the expensive and semi-real looking digi-spiders that isn’t terminally monotonous).
 

(10/27)


What Time Is It There?
Directed by Tsai Ming-Liang
Starring: Lee Kang-Sheng, Chen Shiang-Chyi, Lu Y-Ching and Miao Tien
grade: B-

A series of master shots (the camera never moves) so gorgeously framed and so apt at giving life to offscreen space – that you might almost miss the fact that absolutely nothing is fucking happening (at all) (ever).
 

(10/28)


Scotland, PA
Written and Directed by Billy Morrissette
Starring: James LeGros, Maura Tierney, James Rebhorn, Kevin Corrigan, Christopher Walken,
           Andy Dick and Timothy “Speed” Levitch.
grade: C+

Never expected Scotland, PA to employ prediction humor (it’s a revolutionary idea – it’s called a “drive through window”!) as carefully and sparingly as it does and, miraculously, to make terrific use of a its premise – and still manage to turn itself into a generic indie whodunnit. Though lacking in subtlety, Morrissette seems fervent in his passion to translate Macbeth like special sauce (with just the right ingredients and tons of overkill), but, in fact, I began to wish, mid second act, that he’d ease the hell up. The bitch of it is, his movie looks great – the cracked perception in clothing and interior decorating of the seventies with photography that benefits from what looks like a lack of funding and, you know, a lack of lighting; he seems a little insecure about the time period (most of the first act – which is still the most entertaining bit of the film – is a series of musical montges set to a variety of seventies’ tunes, some recognizable, most not). Morrissette has a gift with dialogue, but the movie is unevenly cast. We like Christopher Walken in his role as the vegetarian Lieutenant MacDuff – but he’s far too interesting an actor to fit in with everyone else (especially Tierney, who is usually competent, but terribly tiresome here). Dick and Levitch are used as sparingly as the references to “little pieces of chicken with…dipping sauce?”, but it is Corrigan (as Banquo) who ends up walking off with the movie. Among all of these actors – some at home, others pretty far out to lunch – he seems like the only one who can truly feel the pulse of an independent film. Scotland, PA may devolve into a scheme far too complicated for its tone but, it’s still a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” set in a small town (which, somehow, manages to make the ever-changing owners of a fast-food restaurant rich) called Scotland, PA in the mid-seventies. That alone, is almost worth remarking about.
 

(10/30)

Auto Focus
Written by Michael Gerbosi
Directed by Paul Schrader
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Willem Defoe, Maria Bello, Rita Wilson and Ron Leibman.
grade: C

You know that scene in all cautionary drug addict tales, in the early morning light of some run down urban apartment where a junkie – who’s on the verge of seeking help – divulges to a non-junkie the absolute thrill of the narcotic high. He describes it in those vague, vulgar similes (“it was like I was fucking a cloud, man”) and stares up at the camera as if Jesus were reaching down to him. Now pretend, instead, you’re Bob Crane, star of Hogan’s Heroes and, instead of a flurried, redemptive revelation, you were describing an encounter with a dominatrix to your video surveillance expert (if you had one, that is) as if it were a new drug. The line between the two dissections of addiction lies in culture: we don’t quite know what to make of a tale that outwardly proposes that a character  is addicted to sex in the same way, more commonly, people are addicted to smack or booze (and frankly, it just feels silly). Greg Kinnear plays Crane with a goofy high-on-life sensibility that’s a lot of fun to watch. Unfortunately, it doesn’t spill over into the rest of the movie – and it doesn’t last long – in what turns out to be an absolute downer and, worse, a grueling excercise in trying to fit a fascinating sex addict skin over the old cautionary tale bones. Paul Schrader, the writer (and sometimes director) of some of the most depressing studies of the bruised male ego of the last thirty years, paints such an obvious-headed picture from start to finish. Crane is given the Norman Rockwell of perfect lives: He’s married (to Rita Wilson) with three children, attends church regularly, works as a good-hearted DJ, and his hobbies include drums and photography. Until he meets John Carpenter, of course… (who is played by the sly let-me-convince-you-i’m-human weasel Defoe, also, of course). Though the film unofficially implies that Carpenter is almost the sole reason for Crane’s fall from grace, the more pressing flaw is how pushy the film is about making sure each and every paying audience member learn the big lesson. As Auto Focus wanes on, inane voice-over  keeping us up to date (coupled with indulgent montages like “I like breasts”), the happy-go-lucky skip in Crane’s step mixes horribly with scene after scene of Kinnear registering his losses with an exaggerated gut and dark glasses: wife and kids (check), dignity (check), popularity (check), money (check), other wife (check). Schrader certainly sympathizes with Crane (even going so far as to intimate his death was the result of a too-late shot at beating his sex habit), painting his indulgences (ever-growing video technology as a means to both justify and aggrandize one’s male-ness) and his impulsive excess (you should see some of the dogs he ends up as his popularity plummets and he’s forced to tour the west in a dinner theater sex farce). In the end, though, Schrader simply ignores the fact that Crane was pretty much a loser from the start (who happened to be good-looking and lucky – hardly a new combination), and that his partner in crime, Carpenter, was a self-conscious swinger who hopelessly confused his envy of Crane with his own inadequacies. The whole over-kill of a moral whammy is obtrusive, but it’s not half as limiting as the fact that I could have cared less whether Crane’s life went to pot – or not.
 

(11/01)


The Powerpuff Girls Movie
Directed by Craig McCracken
Voices: E.G. Daily, Tom Kenny, Tom Kane, etc.
grade: C-

PPGM does everything you don’t do when trying to hide the fact that your concept works for ten minutes tops. Not only do I resent having to sit through an elongated, re-staged version of how The Powerpuff Girls came to be, but I resent having to watch such narrow, flat situations with none of the off-the-wall humor and sophisticated nonsense of the show, (and I also resent the humorless, almost uncharacteristically dull Dexter’s Laboratory short – called “Chicken Scratch” –  which plays before the film). In the history of bad ideas, this one is pre-packaged with its own date stamp and amnesia pills. (As in, “Yawn, this is a forgettable un-vision of a truly inspired toon”).
 

(11/04)

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
Directed by Callie Khouri
Written by Mark Andrus
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Sandra Bullock, Alison Bernilo, James Garner, Ashley Judd,
        Angus McFayden and Maggie Smith.
grade: C+

Purports to pinpoint, repeatedly, Where It All Went Wrong, but fails to realize that it can’t be done with a series of miniature climaxes. Principles are all likable enough, however dull; it’s a hot button flurry of casual Southern excess (alcoholism isn’t an ailment, it’s a merit badge) driven by characters who are constantly and consistently outrageous – without actually being interesting. Bullock and Burstyn aren’t nearly as interesting as Judd and Bernilo. Most of the exploits in female togetherness, mental instability and healing wounds aren’t exactly taking place on new territory. Ya-Ya‘s time shifting structure pays off big time, though, dividing modern and ancient quibbles as if they were separate narratives. Khouri seems to be aware that if you move a commonplace story along fast enough, and break it up small enough – it may actually resemble an interesting one. It’s a feat – because it almost works.
 

(11/06)


The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
Directed by Peter Care
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Kieran Culkin, Jena Malone, Jodie Foster and Vincent D’Onfrio.
grade: C

We never get under the surface of Jodie Foster’s Nun-Zilla, which seems like a pretty big deal (every scene she’s in, we’re leaning forward, expecting to get a glimpse of some shade of her character), except that the rest of the movie – a retread of the Lost Boys theme that feels oh so tired – never actually connects with the spotlighted Catholic School blues. It’s fodder for a comic book Hirsch writes – which explodes into Todd McFarland-produced animated sequences, perhaps the mere saving grace of the film – that becomes a source of trouble when it falls into the hands of Foster and D’Onfrio in a scene that could so easily have been great (I’d beg them to sympathize or feel, but it might knock the 2-D wind out of their cardboard shells), but seems hopelessly grounded by the disease that cripples the rest of the film: The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is full of resentful characters, but the cause of their umbrage is left terribly unfocused: Is it there home lives? Is it their boredom? Is it the authority figures at school? Culkin is extraordinary, as is Hirsch, both of them almost winking at the audience, as if they know they’re locked into a predictable, flat landscape of precise, television series proportions. (A subplot about a brother and sister copulating should seal the deal on that theory). And, though the symbolic excess of the animated sequences doesn’t quite find its way into a harmonious side by side with the rest of the film, somehow it doesn’t discredit the crossing of mediums. (As in, “Yeah, it’s still a good idea.”) Instead of using it’s hook to downplay its paint-by-numbers story, though, the void left in place of humanity and characterization ends up slighting the exciting cartoon battle sequences. Pity, that.
 

(11/11)


Italian For Beginners
Directed by
Starring:
grade: C+

I like Dogme 95. I like romantic comedies. This is more of a cinema verite soap opera with various unconventional situations, each compelling, however useless against the power of melodrama. (Or, as it’s more commonly known, schmaltz). There’s a number of really great idiosyncratic tics in these characters, which produce a terrific amount of really challenging scenes where strange, unconventional human observation is competing with a tiresome malaise of the painfully reminiscent. For instance, there’s Halvfinn, a great character who is recklessly abusive with reasonable customer requests in the Hotel Sports Bar he manages. His plight sets up three big off-shoots: Funny scenes wherein he rips into the customers or zings pleasantly with his mates, the terror of the man who must fire him (and happens to be his impotent best friend – here’s where it starts to dip into the shallow cauldron of American TV plot points) and finally, the love of a woman whose idea of romance is immediately jumping in the sack with Halvfinn everytime she sees him (except one time, where she heard him ragging on her recently deceased, alcoholic mother – which is kind of the point I’m trying to make: this is fodder for convention again, as we know Halvfinn will have to change in order to keep his lady and Halvfinn, changed or not changed, isn’t a civil human being.) In the end, the idea of introducing strict – almost paint by numbers – genre constrictions, besides being entirely in opposition to the Dogme 95 rules (and ultimate transcendent final product), serves to corrupt the natural-ness from the technique, leaving it as limp as Halfvinn’s aforementioned best friend.
 

(11/13)


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Directed by Chris Columbus
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Tom Felton, Robbie Coltrane,
        Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, Alan Rickman, Kenneth Branagh and John Cleese
grade: B

Everybody’s a lot more comfortable in their world – especially Chris Columbus, who lets the film flow rather to the point of absorption instead of the painstaking set-up and recreation of the first film – which never really sucked me in. He sort of eases off, kicks back, and let’s the endlessly fascinating (though its dialogue still sounds simpleton) Harry Potter adventure rev its engines until it’s coasting on autopilot (the only catch is that, at two and a half hours plus, you do eventually begin to feel the length of the ride). Hogwarts feels more like a dank castle, the villains feel more threatening, the quidditch match is exhilarating and much less clumsy, Kenneth Branagh is hilarious as a narcissistic professor, there’s a rather annoying digi-character called Dobby who exists to piss and moan, the kids (save Harry, who is still in high school production mode) are more resourceful and cruel to each other, there’s a dash of social strain (blossoming romantic awkwardness that comes abruptly) and another dash of social issue (Kids are criticized for their parent’s lack of,  in Ron’s case, money and, in Hermoine’s case, for their non-wizard blood. And also, a character is carted off to prison). It’s funny – I actually think scarier, more dangerous kids movies make for better kids movies than the conservative, safe ones.
 

(11/15)


Sprit: Stallion of the Cimarron
Directed by
Featuring the voices of: Matt Damon, James Cromwell, et al.
grade: B-

Hard not to gawk at the soft, bare narrative. Equally hard not to wonder why Dreamworks insists on hiring dorky mush-rock staples to write songs for their films (in The Road to El Dorado, it was Elton John, in Spirit, it’s Bryan Adams). The inner voice of the horse is represented by this gentle, soulful incarnation of Matt Damon – but when he rocks out, we’re back in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, realizing that everything that we do … we do it for you. (How did Floyd ever end up involving this guy in their The Wall: Live at Berlin, anyway?) I hate to disapprove on the tiresomely male grounds of “goopiness of music in animated films”, but as a Dreamworks’ reoccurring motif, I’m starting to wonder if we’re going to go back to the whininess of Disney in the1980s – and why we might want to relive that horror (The Fox and the Hound, anyone?) Nevertheless, a mute protagonist makes for a much more mise-en-scene driven (therefore, easy to follow) film, and, as animal-acted live-action films go, they rarely match the power of the easily manipulated cartoon movie. And it’s damn short.
 

(11/16)


Sunshine State
Written, Directed and Edited by John Sayles
Starring: Edie Falco, Timothy Hutton, Angela Bassett, Bill Cobbs, Miguel Ferrer,
        Mary Steenburgen and Alan King.
grade: B-

People don’t move to Florida, so much as they land there (which is the operative word, as everyone in John Sayles’ anti development epic seems to be hell-bent on what they call their own – emotionally and physically, as we’re never to forget). This idea is introduced and re-iterated in the metaphor-laden – however well written – dialogue exchanges between several old golfers, who yammer back and forth about the way things are and the way they used to be. They sound like Mamet characters, until you realize that these characters are mere commentary – demonstrating that older people tend to flock towards Florida in order to cut loose of their stressful lives – only to, when they get there, go looking for any other sorts of stress so, for the love of God, there’s still something to bitch about. Falco is properly world-worn and poetic; there’s a great performance here from Bill Cobbs as the intellectual pillar of a small African-American beach community; there’s a dandy from Tom Wright (most memorable as Mr. Willhelm, George’s NY Yankee boss on Seinfeld), as Flash, a college football would-have-been with a taste for investing. Trouble is, for all of Sayles symmetrical Altman rotations (several sets of characters, we cut back and forth as their lives casually intersect), he still comes up with a rather generic emotional center. Little remains of the progressively brilliant last three John Sayles pictures (in order, Lone Star, Men With Guns, and Limbo). Sunshine State has a structure and a social consciousness that could be recognizable as Sayles-land, but rarely does Sayles’ construction or critique come to prove why it would be so deserving. The relationships, I think, are the root of the problem: Everyone is numb to everyone else, it seems, and the lot of them communicate in mechanized novelspeak (every line is a small metaphor in the large pool of metonymy). Instead of earthy, lived-in characters, the ones Sayles tends to stress as a rule, these characters only connect with each other on theoretical terms as if, tomorrow, they’ll be going back to their real lives. There’s a temporary-ness, too, in the feel of a beach town trying to preserve culture in a time when land changes hands at an alarming rate. The conflict here, of changing versus static, doesn’t really seem vivid enough, exactly. With people passing through and the few that live there, and their fickle-ness, I never really bought that the impending world of high-rises and golf courses was the real problem with some of the members of this community. And their real problems couldn’t be more run-of-the-mill. It’s a testament to Sayles’ ability with characterization (save Steenburgen, all are fleshed out and quite remarkably so), that these characters are so damned interesting for the entire duration of the near two and half hour running time. In this case, perhaps the scope of the project is more valuable. There’s way too many characters running around for Sayles’ to keep track of but, somehow, he uses this to make a rather good point about this beach town: See what is spoiled when there are too many cooks you know where.
 

(11/17)


Bad Company
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Chris Rock, Peter Stormare, et al.
grade: D+

“My twin brother was CIA?” says Chris Rock, clarifying Anthony Hopkins’ proposition of said information. Though the preposterous implications within the quotes pretty much sum up the spirit of the movie, more interesting, one would think, is the confirmation that both of these usually typical actors, in fact, appear anywhere near train wreck like this one – much less together in said disaster. However unfortunate though it may be, it sure sounds like one of the penultimate experiments to go down in the Hollywood laboratories: A modern, wildly unlikely pairing a la the 1980s. It’s so base, though; Hopkins rarely does anything interesting in the role – much less the teaming – so much so that we have trouble believing he’s got any interest at all in any outcome that doesn’t have the words “pay to the order of” looming in the foreground. He snakes about sedately, acting as if he’s on painkillers, and blurts out, repeatedly, through the first act, “this is going to be interesting” or “this is going to be a disaster” as if he honestly believes all this hullabaloo with the CIA tapping Rock to pretend to be his twin brother (pause for guffaw) isn’t going to pan out. Hopkins brings to life, almost verbatim, the stereotype of his role – which is a uniquely disturbing display  for a performer of his gift. Rock, on the other hand, isn’t bad at all (at playing a terminally misunderstood small time hustler). He belongs in a world this strained for reality – pretending to be part of the upper crust while never pausing his rambling, PG-13-safe commentary. He’s so handsome, mannered and intelligent, in fact, that I bet he could almost be programmed as a role model, (which is where I chirp in with disgust: Is the film supposed to be making the point that poor black people would be better off if they’d just dress up in suits and speak better?) As Rock begins to assume his brother’s identity, the film becomes hypothetical again: What if a heavyset James Bond had this little street tough black guy as his side-kick – and all these technically realistic world-at-risk terrorism set-ups were reduced, frequently, to goofy, appetizing quips? As it is, Schumacher doesn’t seem preoccupied at all with the foreknowledge that the cold war is over, instead making his biggest concern a rampantly obvious digi-tour of Prague, using any and every possible remote, voluptuous location he can squeeze into his running time and delineate with subtitles that look like a mock computer read-out. (At the very least, there doesn’t seem to be a heavy agenda, really: The bad guys are stock 007-rejects, eastern bloc megalomaniacs and do-rag rebels rather than headline friendly baddies – most notably, an indulgent Russian arms dealer played by Peter Stormare, who busts off lines like: “Welcome to my church – where we worship money!”) All this terrorist stuff is so goofy, so by-the-numbers, it barely registers as impending or even remotely reminiscent of our country’s own, very real attacks. Couple of questions, though: 1) Rock tries to fend off his twin brother’s beautiful girlfriend and not blow his cover in the kind of aside usually engineered as comic relief. Everything here obviously lacks a a strong, serious edge, so what is the purpose of comic relief? Relief from what, exactly? 2) A number of times, Hopkins and his CIA surveillance team will be watching Rock on a computer screen a few rooms away – and then they’ll be communicating with him, as if there is some strange intercom system in every room Rock walks into. If we never see them wire him, how are they hearing him? And more importantly, how is he hearing them? I don’t have the answers to these questions. There are no answers to these questions. To clear up why Bad Company doesn’t earn a much lower grade (not that there are too many branches left to fall through, mind) – besides the one-liners – it turns out that Bruckheimer can still command a rather flashy, somewhat exciting car chase through the forests near Prague (as a bonus, we get to hear Rock screaming “I wanna watch Oprah” as his Hopkins is wrestling to get his head inside of a smashup BMW before pursuers can crush his skull with their ratty terrorist van). Scenes like this, which glimpse a fun, anachronistic version of Anthony Hopkins, are far too rare. The experiment, I’m thinking, has gone awry; even the filmmakers know they’ve got nothing, covering their bases in expectation that filmgoers will tell their friends: “It’s worth it to hear Anthony Hopkins tell Chris Rock to, ‘Get in the car, bitch.’” That scene, of course, is safely placed thirty seconds from the closing credits.

[Schumacher seems to have a bit of a track record – or perhaps a mere stockpile of bad luck. This film was pushed back after it’s plot, involving terrorist activity on the homeland, supposedly hit too close to home. (In fact, an isolated moment – wherein a terrorist tells Rock and Hopkins that Americans are fat and lazy and watch other countries spill blood on television before dictating how said countries should live after the fact – is a valuable, chilling fact, and  would almost certainly be better served in a movie that didn’t have the name Bruckheimer or the name Schumacher attached to it). Then, originally scheduled for a November 2002 release, Schumacher’s Phone Booth met with a three month delay thanks to the Beltway Sniper.

Not to be distasteful, but, could this be the break we’ve been waiting for? Will Schumacher finally pack it in for good? Wouldn’t that just be too perfect?]
 

(11/19)


Pumpkin
Written by Adam Larson Broder
Directed by Adam Larson Broder and Tony R. Abrams
Starring: Christina Ricci, Hank Harris, Sam Ball, Dominique Swain, Marisa Coughlan,
        Harry Lennix and Brenda Blethyn.
grade: B+

Or, Character Arc: The Movie. (Okay, the smugness is out of the way). Joking aside, Pumpkin defies something that obvious. It’s like an after school special played as satire. It’s like a teen flick bathed in the attention to detail and sensibility usually reserved for Merchant and Ivory. It’s like Beauty and the Beast with no agenda. It’s like a movie Todd Solondz might make if he’d grow the hell up. It’s like, surprisingly remarkable. What sets Pumpkin so daringly apart from the rest of the drivel starring young adults these days is its tone: Blunt sincerity that only comes out corn ball. People are exaggerated – or are these characters enacting their usual roles, evinced as ridiculous because they’ve been put on display? Here lies the story of Carolyn (played with a handsome steam of veteran indie cred by Christina Ricci), a sorority girl, complete with a shallow rich-girl’s life (so callous even, she attempts to opt out of the house charity on the grounds that helping different people only underlines how different they are – she’s a more realistic version of Election‘s Tracey Flick). Unsuccessful at begging off from the required service of helping these challenged kids train for their version of the Special Olympics, Carolyn smiles, acts awkward and promptly becomes tortured over the experience (At one point we’re actually watching the sisters help the crippled stars of track and field to Belle & Sebastian’s “Stars of Track and Field”). Instead of quitting, she begins to fall for the title boy (yes, the title boy), which ends up melting her upbeat bubble of security, exposing to her – for what appears the first time, literally – a painful, cold reality. Worse, is what happens to poor, chained-to-mama Pumpkin. As she inspires him, he falls head over heels and, it seems, in the process, crawls out of his shell and behaves more and more like a functional adult. He gets out of his wheelchair, which he really didn’t need. He starts talking because there’s someone who will listen. And his mother begins to realize she’ll have to give him up if he sustains a predominant reversal. What happens next is brilliant, and very Solondzian (I call coin!) – the mother begins attempts to drive away the root of – and therefore the whole of – her son’s improvement. She wants him dependent and helpless. Ouch. Also interesting is the way this picture perfect setting, the organized prim-and-proper of Ricci’s home and sorority lives begins to look ugly – it begins to grate on us. We can almost taste the horrible plastic of her world. In that respect, the so-called “arc” is transferred to us. And it’s oddly haunting. It’s like a propaganda film for those of us who turned our noses full-on up at Fraternities and Sororities in college. Propaganda for those of us who didn’t feel the necessity to buy our friends. Propaganda for those of us who are big enough to admit that handicapped people make us a little bit nervous. Pumpkin is an achievement. It’s Solondz with epiphany.

(11/20)

Far From Heaven
Written and Directed by Todd Haynes
Starring: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson and James Rebhorn.
grade: B+

The principles are each uniquely up to their performances: Moore, subservient yet uncharacteristically interesting; Quaid, reticent and tortured (and hot and heavy in his gay love scenes, let’s not forget); Haysbert, kind but real, probably the best character Far From Heaven has to offer us (his grace feels almost physically soothing). Most remarkable is the stunning re-creation, including the sharp technicolor and constant, unnecessary crane shots which bring the 1950s melodrama easily screaming back. The film never feels quite modern – which is perhaps the most important achievement of all – and, quite often, we actually forget the inference of it’s brand, namely, a period piece. (Haynes seems to be doing everything shy of buying up billboard space to ensure we know this is an homage). The multi-thematic verve of underlying passions suppressed by social constraint, which is genuinely unnerving at times, often goes even further – because the time period is so vivid – it’s satisfying like a Sirk movie. It’s refreshing to see Moore break racial taboos and to see Quaid, eventually, face up to his homosexuality. Difference here is that Sirk and Ophuls (the directors named in Haynes’ director’s statement), were filmmakers who populated their films with taboos of the time. Here, we’re watching a flashback about things no longer considered brow furrowing taboo, exactly. It doesn’t really decrease the gravitas, but it’s less a homage, methinks, than a precise recreation. For example, Sirk’s playful, mise-en-scene driven filmmaking is supplanted by a kind of anti-naturalism – a look of perfection to a fault, such as the Whitakers’ house, which looks like a museum Haynes put together praising the accessories of a 1950s family (it’s obvious that he’s quite taken with the whole spread). Striking that Far From Heaven is so powerful – but  it would have been more relevant had it been about a subject still considered taboo today. Minor quibbles, though. The Leave It to Beaver-style pleasantries and mannerisms are a gas to watch, which makes viewing this family’s unraveling, perhaps, far more entertaining that one could possibly hope to expect.  Perhaps a nod to one of it’s seven working titles, the film is bathed in fall – a time of change – which, maybe, would have been more suitable had the film actually been called Fall From Splendor. Nevertheless, we’re not taking any points away for gushing – melodrama’s what it’s all about, after all.
 

(11/22)


Bowling For Columbine
A documentary film by Michael Moore
grade: B+

First of all, objectivity goes, I’m afraid, straight out the window, for two reasons: My own rabidly anti-gun views (as well as my anti-TV news views) are supremely tapped and fulfilled here and, also, the unrelenting, unabashed emotional response (I wept openly, sobbing even, through at least two segments) the film elicited, sorta takes me out of the running for Least Partial Audience Member ’02. Nevertheless, as Dogme-style confessions go, this one falls closer to the tree adorned by Randall Good’s perpetually sound theorem that praising films with a message you tend to agree with will undoubtedly betray those who trust an unbiased opinion – but, to distill his long, semi coherent rant (which he coined after viewing, of all films, The Big Kahuna): You pretty much have no choice but to go along with your own feelings. And there it is. Admittedly, Bowling For Columbine is propaganda to the last, but, in fact, it’s the kind of fact driven, for-all-our-benefit propaganda that’s (forgivably) more in the style of Moore’s personality than, say, that of other lopsided docs I’ve seen (Grass comes to mind, maybe [sic] Triumph of the Will…) The lightness of this crusade to probe anyone and everyone, militiamen and banks with free gun promotions alike, stops dead in its tracks as a short montage, detailing some absolutely shocking U.S. hypocrisies, conveys a very sobering reality: Moore wants the whole damn pie this time. (This is also where, I suspect, a number of viewers may begin to take him with a grain of salt – no judgment handed down, just an observation).  The film continues on, examining why Canada has just as many guns as we do, but nearly 10,500 less gun related deaths per year. When it gets to the title dissection – including a haunting sequence wherein the screen is drawn and quartered to reveal 4 separate views of the closed-circuit security surveillance in assorted rooms at Columbine high school during the massacre – the film just about overpowered me. What’s so exciting about Moore’s films are how personable and easy he is to believe, and to trust; he’s a credibly quintessential everyman who skillfully and successfully weaves tangents into a broad, solid scope, while carefully monitoring the pace, never forgetting that he’s making a film. It’s a factual, extremely intelligent take on an indescribably convoluted issue: And Moore makes it seem palpable that he may attain the old stand-by – “If I reach just one person, it will all have been worth it” (of course, he’s aiming high when he hopes that person will be Charlton Heston) – and that one of his pro-gun audience members may actual be moved to stop raising firearms to God status. Intimating that the government wants to keep us in check by making us fear anything and everything, Moore’s tactics include admitting his own faults (he’s an NRA member, by the way) and playing up his relative lack of shyness; As in Roger & Me and The Big One, his disdain for corporations is present – but he takes it a step further (with Kmart, this time) and receives an unexpected surprise. I’m keeping the vagaries relatively vague (some of the sharpest moments in the film are the ones you don’t see coming) and acknowledging forthright that Bowling for Columbine presents no definitive answers as to why our culture is so gun crazy – but rather invests its energy in suggesting a handful of possible explanations. At one point, Moore interviews the Nichols brother who was once charged in the Oklahoma City bombing – but never convicted (in fact, it seems a rather believable fact that he had nothing to do said heinous act). When Moore suggests the methods of Ghandi after Nichols finishes a rant about how to deal with a conniving government, Nichols seems befuddled: “I’m not familiar with that method”, he sputters. Anybody else need clarification? This is a brilliant film.
 

(11/22)


8 Women
Adapted for the screen and Directed by Francois Ozon
Starring: Virginie Ledoyen, Catherine Denueve, Danielle Derrieux, Emmanuelle Beart
        and Isabelle Huppert
grade: B-

Something about having eight protagonists – none of which possess any admirable qualities whatsoever – that just saps the fun out a murder mystery meant to show the catty, bitchy effect on one man we never actually see. But, you know, there’s some musical numbers, so, I guess it’s light. Anyway.

(11/24)


Treasure Planet
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
Featuring the voices of: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brian Murray, Emma Thompson,
        David Hyde Pierce, Michael Wincott,  and Martin Short.
grade: B-

You’re welcome to a go at convincing yourself that transplanting Treasure Island into a space motif isn’t an almost laughable stretch – but you’ll have to contend, rightly, with the gusto and excitement of this swift-paced rebound off of a painfully obvious “twist-by-necessity”, probably Disney-enacted, a mighty blow upon whomever was idealistic enough to be interested animating the novel for modern crowds. The film is equal parts forget-yourself and forget-able, working best when plot points from the novel are in motion  – some of the new twists bring little side-stories, most of which are as ugly as barnacles on a hull. The role model thing is a particularly large step overboard – Must be the effects of inhaling the drab, orange-cat color schematic that delude us just long enough not to harp on the fact that Jim actually finds a father figure in Long John Silver – who is very bad, and Jim, subsequently, pardons Silver on the basis that Silverknew when he was licked.. I’m sorry to be the one to break it to the big Mouse, but those sorts of villains are reserved for films with a looming, lesson-learning agenda. Leave it to them to find something of interest and value, productive in the cultural scheme (for kids, especially), and to find the need to draw a beaming moral from it. And the clunky, irritating-on-purpose (is that redundant on purpose) robot voiced by the annoying-on-purpose Martin Short, I need to be notified when those decisions are being made. (Good calls on Emma Thompson, Michael Wincott and, indeed, David Hyde Pierce – on one of his third or fourth vocal outings).


Thirteen Conversations About One Thing
Directed by Jill Sprechter.
Starring: Matthew McGonaughey, Alan Arkin, John Turturro, et al.
grade: B-

From the greeting card separator headings, to the fact that it’s about routines and fate, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing is so distant that it’s almost abstract – and then so forward that it’s almost confusing. And it’s a movie where characters kill accidentally, meditate on the finality of their actions, and then, in the next scene, a completely unrelated, philandering physics professor, teaching a lesson in said most exact of sciences, scrawls the word ‘irreversible’ across his blackboard, as if his place in the wacky cross-section of the middle class was such that he was required to summise the themes of the film. Acts of cinema such as this, are just too indie-mechanical (right down to the inclusion of John Turturro) to prove to me that people really enjoy watching these films, which occupy a strange niche that’s similar to one-hour television dramas, but could more easily pass in the arena of made-for-cable pictures (ironically, though, it feels most like a film begging to be adapted for the stage). Entertaining enough to be mildly interest me, the storytelling method feels like an amplifier: An incongruous dissection of the power of routine, underlining reoccurence by interrupting the sequential flow. I’ve heard, in some quarters, outrageously compared to Magnolia, a film that playfully marries its own ponderance on fate to something of worth, (or, at the very least, has the courage to include a single creschendo of ephiphany or more.) And, you know, if you’re not sure what to get out of it, there’s dozens of shots of characters looking into mirrors, reflecting, if you will, to subconsciously force you to reflect on the delicacy of incidents and their order in your life.


Austin Powers in Goldmember
Directed by Jay Roach
Starring Mike Myers, Beyonce Knowles, Seth Green and Michael Caine.
grade: C+

Booming with self-reference, used to a degree that feels like an out-of-control ferris wheel; Every once in a while a convoluted plot string, so lacking in parody, makes these characters all the more their own entity, all the less stand-in’s for decades of British spies; Is there no mercy when we stack franchise upon franchise? (On the plus side, I laughed…okay?!…I laughed.)

(12/1)


Men in Black II
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
Starring: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Lara Flynn Boyle, Rip Torn and Tony Shaloub.
grade: C-

The movie is bad. The special effects are worse. Feels like an big, empty payday; a big-budget sci-fi popcorn movie acted out by cardboard standees. (I’m aware that this bitterness just sounds far too right coming out of my mouth.)

(12/2)


Undisputed
Directed by Walter Hill
Starring: Ving Rhames, Wesley Snipes, Michael Rooker, Wes Studi and Peter Falk.
grade: B-

….big time sports bookies on the outside of Sweetwater prison are betting on a boxing match that is set to take place inside between the recently incarcerated world-heavyweight champion of the world/convicted-rapist/Tyson-esque egomaniac Rhames, and Snipes, the toothpick-house building, man-of-few words type who just happens to have been the champion inside the prison for ten years. There’s gonna be friction….

(It’s as ridiculous as it sounds and more (and, taking a cue from Last House on the Left, all the songs used in the film seem to describe the action as it is happening), but it’s so much fun you’ll probably forget all the empty calories.)

(12/6)


Frida
Directed by Julie Taymor
Starring: Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Geoffrey Rush, Ed Norton and Ashley Judd.
grade: B

So gushingly arty, beautifully free-spirited, it’s Salma Hayek’s most visible and memorable performance to date; But….no wonder you’ve never heard of her – no one involved seems interested creating a coherent spectrum of Frida Cahlo, instead content in ignoring her as an icon, creating an interesting human being and generally stating and re-stating that there was no line between the two, (the makers of Pollock should have pitched in, that film was nothing but Pollack-as-icon.) Taymor is a major talent, though; Frida isn’t quite as rapturous or ambitious (or as entertaining) as Taymor’s 1999 opus, Titus, but the two aren’t really comprable enough to judge against one another; Frida is a free-flowing vision of a woman’s struggle to make good and bad choices and define herself as an independent artist who can love. That’s just plain rare.

(12/7)


One Hour Photo
Directed by Mark Romanek
Starring: Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, Michael Vartan and Dylan Smith.
grade: B

I probably could have done without the voice-over; if anything, it serves to diminish the mystery of Sy, the troubled photo guy, a character Robin Williams dissolves into (finally). We rarely see an actor try so hard to prove he’s more than silly (see his dark turns in Insomnia and Death to Smoochy, both released this year, for further proof). He probably won’t net any attention from the important quarters – too few people could possibly be willing to invest themselves in reflecting on his perpetually leering mind-fuck of vagary, the kind of display of demons we would really rather look away from as it gets underway. There’s some tricky sequences, though, most notably when Sy wanders into a family’s house, and worries they’ll catch him. He’s relieved when it turns out to be a fantasy. The very next scene has him attempting to spoil their child – for real. He’s being extra nice, and since the subtext of threat and stalking is almost too delectable not to have strings attached, it turns out he’s been left a tortured soul too long to come back around without some sort of outburst and, the biggest shock of the film is that, indeed, there are some pretty major strings attached. Not that it takes away from the film’s crowning glory: A sleazy, unbelievably nerve-racking forced photo session, the kind of revisitation of one’s skeletons in one’s closet via a channel of supreme moral justice you rarely see in a film that turns up at a multiplex, let alone with a family-friendly star doing both the forcing and the revisiting. Movie is obviously directed by a former commercial/music video maker (I’m assuming – I’ll look it up eventually*, I’m sure) – and it looks terrific. The most effective moments are the scenes with no dialogue – the ones where Romanek captures, in all it’s universally disturbing glory, the awkwardness of someone trying so hard to be your best friend – – – and failing miserably. (Does the hook, a wall of photos, seem to anyone else kind of overkill? Isn’t the movie supposed to be about the inside of this guy’s pain, not the external projection? And wasn’t there a similar scene in the film’s obvious pattern, The King of Comedy?) The family whose “happiness” Sy lusts after is kind of assembly line: They look so happy – but there’s a dark secret, and they’re unraveling. Hard to say that Williams drives the piece entirely, but he certainly comes close enough to leave a valid impression. The ending betrays the character; it’s an unfathomably angering move that feels like a nervous studio ploy to avoid backlash for presenting such a character and never expounding on his motivation. This simple error in the mechanism is the movie’s only really unpardonable flaw: it lets Sy off the hook far too easily. The point of movies, folks, isn’t that – despite their sins – we like all the damn characters at the end of the film.

(Certainly, though, this is the best use of The Simpsons in a feature film to date. And for that – I tip my massive happy hat).

* Romanek directed Madonna’s “Bedtime Story” and Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer”.

(12/7)


K-19: The Widowmaker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Saarsgard, et al.
grade: C+

First hour’s a dull, thoroughly serviceable submarine genre entry, looking as if has fallen square out of the template. It picks up, though, as soon as it becomes more personal: A story about radiation poisoning that is unflapped when fire is introduced into Ford’s and Neeson’s eyes, the two of them squaring off – as so many Captains and XO’s have done before them – with a star powered steam that finally raises the film’s pulse. The two principles, who spend a great deal of time angry at each other – which is, of course, what we pay to see – don’t disappoint. They’re stuck in one submarine movie – but they’re good sports about it, as is Peter Saarsgard (Boys Don’t Cry, The Salton Sea), who is fast becoming one of the better young actors in the business, and who, stuck in another submarine movie, turns in the film’s most emotionally challenging performance as a wet-behind-the-ears comrade in charge of the atoms. Set in 1961, it’s almost alarming how the sense of irony is lost on the filmmakers: The switcheroo, wherein American actors portray Russians who are, essentially, in contempt of the Americans at this, the height of the cold war, doesn’t seem at all important; Instead, when the Americans show up, taking pictures and offering to help the crew of K-19, the film inadvertently creates a rather skillful duality: Soviet pride is kept, the Americans don’t look like cretins and there is no subtext of anti Russian sentiment to be found. The summer thriller that walks on political eggshells is, as it turns out, the one that suffers at the box office – but it’s admirable just the same that punches aren’t pulled. Shame about that first sixty minutes, though. It’s all set-up – but Bigelow, the director of several unbelievably entertaining summer throwaways, among them Point Break and Strange Days – seems hell-bent on getting all of that out of the way in order to fully enunciate what’s left over – most of which is rather good.

(12/9)


8 Mile
Directed by Curtis Hanson
Starring: Eminem, Mekhi Phifer, Brittany Murphy, Kim Basinger, et al.
grade: C

So hyper indulgent; 8 Mile is a character study posing as a clownish, mock gangster epic wherein the thugs are thick with egos not from traditional hustling but, instead, from spontaneous rap competitions that seem to occur most anywhere two or three are gathered (lunch truck lines, parking lots, etc.). Based upon rap star Eminem’s little journey to the top (with what feels like very little artistic license taken), his alter ego Rabbit starts out as the ultimate odd man out challenger, an obnoxious white kid out to gain the title of honorary black man. 8 Mile plays like a sort of Rudolph the Red tale – with all the other reindeer beating the living shit out of the soon-to-be dubbed Slim Shady (in addition to laughing at him) and, for his trouble, instead of Santa’s respect, Rabbit will eventually score a record deal with Dr. Dre, (doesn’t help much, by the way, that we know 8 Mile‘s main character emerged successful, after all, does it?). Eminem’s strong presence is the sole reason to trudge through this thankless exercise in big ball dangling, (most of the other characters are horrifically underdeveloped – even the usually competent Mekhi Phifer can’t save the promoter he plays from sounding shallow and convenient). Non-stop, profanity laced hanging out replaces any trace of narrative trajectory at all costs, which makes it even harder to displace the feeling that everything that takes place rarely amounts to much more than undercooked silliness; The climax, for Christ’s sakes, is a freestyle battle between two guys who hate each other’s guts and, while the glide of rhyme, so built up from frame one, is ear candy – it represents a mere ten minutes of screen time, tops. The rest of the thing builds to a head, ducking and undercutting interesting plot lines left and right (an ambiguously accented Basinger plays Rabbit’s down-and-out trailer trash mother, poor Rabbit has to take the bus to work and he almost gets fired, oh no, and he has a fling with a girl (Murphy) everyone (including we, the audience) knows is a tramp – but Rabbit, whose hard core attitude is a facade, trusts his boyish naiveté – he so wants her, as he wants the rest of his world, to be pure). His employed, housed “struggle” rarely amounts to much more than a fairly small hill of beans, all of it much too flat to be played up as any sort of affecting drama, which is probably where Curtis Hanson’s name came up: Somebody saw the gravity he commanded in L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys and took heed: “Hey, let’s offer that guy who crawled up from the gutters of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle a bunch of money to slide back down there, give a false sense of seriousness to the story of a dufus who dreams of earning respect”. Even the characters in Hanson’s movie would probably call him really, really nasty names.

(12/10)


Undercover Brother
Directed by
Starring: Eddie Griffin, Chris Kattan, David Chapelle, Neil Patrick Harris, Billy Dee Williams,
        Denise Richards, et al.
grade: B-

It’s so free with its racial joke telling, ignoring taboo to the last. Following its first act, though, the film isn’t problematic, exactly, but too many jokes fall flat after awhile, a number of bits getting progressively tiresome. Griffin is particularly good (especially when undercover), as is Chapelle, as Conspiracy Brother, who voices suspicions left and right, of the wrong doings against black culture. Most of all, the film is unlike other SNL-patterned flicks in its seamless knowledge of the in’s and out’s of blaxploitation to the point where sight gags feel natural enough that we don’t question their validity or source (would remind you of the smart, Lorne Michaels-ish laughs in Josie and the Pussycats and pre franchise obsessed Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, i.e. the first one). There are smart performances from Kattan, tortured by black culture, and Harris, assimilating himself as the affirmative action forced intern of “The Brotherhood”, a black organization used to counter “The Man”, a pro white propaganda machine. It’s the kind of cheaply made film that teeters between being absolutely brilliant satire, and shamelessly simplistic entertainment. Very close to earning a ‘B’, though.

(12/11)


I was unsuccessful in following through with ‘Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course’. It was just too unbelievable to me that the space-thingey, CIA plot would ever join in any coherent or interesting way with the sequences of Steve Irwin teasing vicious creatures in the Outback. In the history of bad ideas, this here should be duly noted.


Unfaithful
Directed by Adrian Lyne
Starring: Diane Lane, Richard Gere, Oliver Martinez, Erik Per Sullivan and Chad Lowe.
grade: B+

The whole of it bathed in a certain quality and texture of shadow, not unlike that which doubles as romantic and hidden, every one of it’s simple gestures on careful and warranted display, Unfaithful teases the sensuality out of its collection of sins with the power of a stiff drink. The basis of which is that both Lane and Gere are so fashionably ordinary, yet so casually – seemingly – happy until a slam-banging affair (a strikingly palpable fantasy which takes place in a variety of public and private places) cuts into the middle of this (categorically speaking) fable, whose only real crime is that it’s pursuit of perfection often feels too over-the-top to be taken seriously. Lane and Martinez are terrific together – as are Lane and Gere – and, to my great surprise, it turns out to be Lane that runs the movie. Her presence, something she just never seemed to be interested in displaying in other films, could be driving hers, the best female performance I’ve seen all year. It’s practical actions and reactions, a deceptively interested general restraint on the homefront contrasted with a sexy, uninhibited bedroom fury (not to mention her good sportsmanship in competently handling yet another ridiculous “you know Mommy and Daddy love you no matter what happens, right honey” moment), all of it inserted into a film populated by yet another privelidged, (categorically speaking) inadmirably shiny marriage which includes as it’s members, people who readily indulge their animalistic sexual desires in order to work out their entitlement issues. Gere plays betrayed with a sympathetic charm that makes it easier to watch him pour on the over-emotion in big confrontation scenes. Come to think of it, it’s so much a great movie, the little pieces cut out to play metaphor nicely on the screen with a social training film (as we’ll call Unfaithful since we’ve already used the word “fable” once in this review), you barely realize that: a) it’s feels A-list (like In the Bedroom, whose tone theme and feasibility it most closely mirrors); b) the subject matter is a sale-ready commodity for its target audience; c) Adrian Lyne’s films are like counterculture porn for people who love to gossip about broken marriages (that one’s a stretch). (Also, it contains a piano rendition of a Radiohead song which, by default, is kinda cool in itself.)

(12/15)


Big Bad Love
Directed by Arliss Howard
Starring: Arliss Howard, Debra Winger, et al.
grade: C+

Transitioning with the ill clarity of a lost lifetime (as opposed to a lost weekend), Big Bad Love could feasibly be considered, in some quarters, a masterwork. That it constantly lurches forward, inching ever so close to something of real, psychotropic power – only to step back – makes it play more like what it is at heart: A series of short stories that overlap and meld with each other, never quite coming up with anything that transcends their own briefness. Arliss Howard’s film is best when he’s doing the steering – most of the supporting characters feel somehow intrusive to his rhythm. “Some dreams ruin being awake if you know the difference. Better not to know.” And it’s too damn long for what it is.

(12/18)

Lovely and Amazing
Written and Directed by Nicole Holofcener
Starring: Brenda Blethyn, Catherine Keener, Emily Mortimer, Clark Gregg, James LeGros
    and Dermot Mulroney.
grade: B-

The cast list gives a pretty accurate picture of what to expect. Fashioned in watchable, easy to swallow vignettes, Lovely and Amazing is less a film than a series of sequences that end with punchlines rather than, you know, resolutions. The film was written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, who made 1995’s Walking and Talking, a film I was unable to discern from Kicking and Screaming until just this year when I actually sat down and watched the latter film and realized that comparing it to the former wasn’t really something I ought to admit to have done. In the same fashion, Holofcener seems more incisive, almost hell-bent on rendering the psychobabble commentary between disparate sisters (Keener, Mortimer), each the more singed by their mother’s (Blethyn) acerbic personality quirks. It’s first hour or so is somewhat compelling (and admirably devoid of conventional, emotional infrastructure) until that last thirty minutes – – – when it suddenly resorts to a long duet played by heart and strings, side by side on my piano, etc. Almost custom tailored for Keener’s faux-sexy “fuck you” attitude – Lovely and Amazing made me realize what the fantasy of watching her bitch her way through countless, similar performances is: We want so desperately for her to just, you know, be nice to someone for ten minutes without stabbing them headlong in the back (and wouldn’t it be the ultimate if she could be nice to, you know, us?). Also on display are the following: Emily Mortimer in the nude, Dylan McDermott as a jerk and James LeGros as a soft-spoken nice guy. And Jake Gyllenthal reprising his role as Tobey McGuire. Men are portrayed as particularly thin beings and, even more resentful, the adopted step-sister coming to terms with her skin color subplot feels more and more out-of-place as the film progresses. If this is meant to be anything more than entertainment, I regret so say I missed the boat.

(12/18)


The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellan, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler,
        Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee and Ian Holm.
grade: A-

Unlike The Fellowship of the Ring, which was decidedly about exposition and mood, The Two Towers is pretty much pure, unadulterated, exciting fun. It throws us right back into the narrative, not necessarily rewarding those of us who have seen the first film, and not necessarily punishing those who haven’t. Jackson keeps the balance of interlocking story lines charged with an effortless momentum, an intimacy, and, without ignoring the thundering roar of battle, a general keenness in observation and cementing of the characters: Frodo’s decided deterioration, Sam’s supporting strength, Aragon’s defined heroism, Gandalf’s reckless loss of neutrality, Sauroman’s helplessness and, of course, Gollum’s foulness (incidentally, he’s probably the most believable digital character yet attempted onscreen). While juggling three story lines, the film manages to still make the important points within its fantasy world: Small deeds have their rippling effect, politics are most certainly still politics, and, the quite timely ethical quagmire over intervention at the risk of one’s personal safety (as demonstrated by the digitally astounding, slow speaking Ents). But it’s all nuts and bolts until the film bumps Oracai head with man and elf head in the hour-long battle of Helms Deep, an unending barrage of surprises and spectacle that is so full to the brim with old-fashioned bravado, it will leave you exhausted – and will challenged one of Gandalf’s final statements (which I’ll not reveal): Dear God, how in the hell could Jackson and Co. possibly top this? It’s beginning to really look a great deal the most ambitious set of films ever attempted.

(12/19)


Gangs of New York
Directed by Martin Scorcese
Written by Jay Cocks, Kenneth Lonegran and Steven Zaillian.
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson, Henry Thomas,
        John C. Reilly, Liam Neeson and Cameron Diaz.
grade: A

It is a brazen policy to weave such a large, competent cast into a story that practically demands they they be dwarfed by their own surroundings. What makes Gangs of New York such an achievement is Scorcese’s absolute belief in the power of his characters – despite the sense they are slowly losing control over their own respective places in history. Pause. Reflect. Sounds suspiciously in the vein of a classical Western scenario, no? You called it – right down to the Five Points, a central setting in both the film and, in its own general physicality: It’s the dirty square where the five principal corridors of commerce dump into, the High Noon-ish Main Street where the duels take place, and a stunning set that radiates equal parts the consistent, looming peril of Ripper-era White chapel and the bustling den of Dickens’ quick thieves in Oliver Twist. Genre swapping and set design aside, the most exciting rhythm in Gangs of New York is the re-creation, the Scorcese trademark to worship every last little trinket and signpost in his fetishistic appreciation of detail. But it’s more here than merely items and music of the time period: It’s the dinge, the dive, the hollow dustiness of even the upper crust. The pitfall of re-staging a period is always its commonality (the striking sense that you’ve been there before in another film), which Gangs of New York sidesteps almost completely, looking so at home in Civil War-era NYC – a place we’ve seen so rarely put on film and, for the occasion, a place that never feels anything more than a carnage driven version of actual history. This massive world creates, in itself, yet another feat: It’s populants actually transcend their use as expository Western stereotypes. Besides giving every last line of dialogue its proper historical and character specific edge, Scorcese makes a plea that his players carry on like their ornamental nicknames: Bill “The Butcher”, Amsterdam Vallon, Jenny Everdeane, Happy Jack, Tammaney, et al.  Day-Lewis, in his first performance since 1997’s The Boxer, angles his ferocity so potently, so unflinchingly, that his very presence is a breath of scalding doom. As William Cutting, he demonstrates oh-so-easily why he can pick and choose his roles and, every last time come up with a disturbingly memorable performance (in this case, the best one I’ve seen all year). Therein, of course, lies this quandary: How to keep a hero, his romantic interest and a collection of hoodlums, politicians and other assorted New Yorkers even remotely in focus in the massive shadow of such scenery chewing mayhem? As ever, Scorcese simply hires the right people (or, failing your belief that Cameron Diaz could even be considered for a role in such a charged, uncompromising scenario of sorts, Marty has merely worked his magic as with otherwise flighty actresses – Sharon Stone and Cybil Shephard come to mind). DiCaprio is terrific, all violent maturity with a careful sense of patience – but what makes his inclusion here, among other things, so necessary, is his visionary self-image of a smaller-than-life, shrugging matinee idol. It’s vastness in tow, rarely do I remember being quite so consumed by a film’s blatant mixture of incidental prowess and, at the other end of the spectrum, the epic set pieces staged with a rough-edged calibration, a genuine interest in their own lack of symmetry – in the magic of a balanced imperfection that doesn’t call attention to itself. (Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the film: This attention to realism’s clumsiness is never more prevalent than in the film’s opening sequence, which turns out, quite rightly, to be the film’s climax, and, in the closing sequence which, in a rare display of what must’ve been studio leniency, is an ambiguously anti-climactic showdown which turns strangely complex – and at the same time, cuts through the treadle.) And, Continue. And for all it’s power (not to mention a year and a half of delays), Gangs of New York retains its sense of worth. Nary a disappointing moment steps forth, everything a tight balance of montage and homage; a Spaghetti Western set in urban decay; a historical note tinged with a bitter revenge saga and modern social parallels; all told a film of uniqueness and of substance.
 

(12/20)


About Schmidt
Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Kathy Bates and June Squibb.
grade: B-

Something about its sarcastic undertone that leaves it cold after about thirty minutes of grade-A hysterical nonsense. Pretty much after Warren Schmidt (Nicholson) leaves his home in the RV, the movie begins to collapse into the most unpleasant, utterly depressing journey of self you could imagine. Told through the ol’ unreliable narrator, Payne uses a clever exposition trick, bending our vision of Schmidt’s world through Nicholson’s letters to his World Children’s Crusade-sponsored Tanzanian, Ngudu. (And yes, every time his voice-over starts with “Dear Ngudu…”, the audience breaks into unruly giggling). That Schmidt boldly boasts no character arc isn’t a problem, exactly. It’s an admirable addition to the sad frankness of this world Payne creates – but it rarely makes for anything more than a few dots of punishing epiphany along the way (the most noteworthy is that Schmidt – and we, the audience – have to see Kathy Bates in the nude). The film never really answers its own call for something more transcendent that what it’s worth, never gives its characters anything deeper than their own flaws – and how funny they can be when their being so cruel and hurtful. How bleak. Nicholson is flat-out terrific (though I doubt I’m alone in wishing I didn’t have to watch him – Nicholson, of all people play a senior citizen). I never actually buckled down to sympathize with Schmidt – or his stressed daughter (Davis), his nit picky wife (Squibb), or his gooney son-in-law-to-be (Mulroney) – in fact, I spent a good portion of the second and third acts wishing they’d just go away. What’s really alarming is how realistic the movie feels – and how disturbing the comedy starts to feel after awhile. Can’t say I had a good time, though.

(12/22)


Adaptation
Directed by Spike Jonze
Written by Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman (based upon ‘The Orchid Thief’ by Susan Orlean)
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Maggie Gyllenthal, Ron Livingston,
        Curtis Hanson and Tilda Swinton.
grade: A-

Where others have failed, Adaptation truly brings the vice of indulgence into correct form, establishing it as something that’s brilliant and funny – but never transparent. It’s quite something because its ballsy, which is really something because it works. The don’t-even-try-to-figure-it-out trappings of meshing art’s silly imitation of life and, a rather potent vice versa, find a note of pleasing, labyrinthine madness not unlike the zany energy of Jonze’s debut. All of the actors not only seem to get it – but seem deliciously at home in this strange, unique world; especially the ones you’d peg for instant turncoats (like Cage, for instance, and, perhaps, Streep). Cooper, devoid of front teeth and repeatedly assuring us that he’s “the smartest guy he knows” nearly walks away with the film, but it’s Cage’s complete reversal as twin brothers Donald and (especially) Charlie (who is just about everything Cage is not), that makes Adaptation feel so darn fresh. Alternately funny and haunting, and supremely “taut” (to use Mrs. Kaufman’s word), the threat of hyperbole dangles, even now, four days after I’ve screened the film, to give me away. But – – – I dare not raise quarrel with the slow, justified-joke sequences towards the end of the film.  I did that after just one viewing of Malkovich and the regret still hangs heavy in the air (Multiple viewing alert!). For certain, though, Jonze is a master filmmaker who has somehow crafted a film in entirely the same vein as Malkovich, but has managed to give it the complexity and straightforward presentation to allow the Kaufman’s (I’ll play along here) wicked send-up of Hollywood’s screen writing nightmares to bite just that much harder on the film going public. What a brilliant scheme: Let’s put the damn thing in a theater right between pictures whose scripts were, in fact, private ruses, worked over to obtain a committee’s  marketability ‘thumbs up’. Isn’t Tinseltown fun when it’s breaking its own balls?

(12/23)


The Piano Teacher
Directed by Michael Haneke
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, et al.
grade: C+

It’s all endless indexing to start, feeling to precede something and, indeed, it does. Sexual deviance. And MORE sexual deviance. The title character lives by her own rules and she’s mesmerizing, because she’s played by Isabelle Huppert, an actress who could easily teach an uber-specific acting course called Facial Expressions and Their Subliminal Link to Brave Acting Choices (101). It’s such a skillful build that by the time you’re left with Haneke’s trademark rug pull on your personal space, The Piano Teacher has encroached itself inside your head, wriggling painfully, and it then occurs to you that our faithful director hasn’t really got anything of substance to say, except, “Look, I’ve pulled the rug on your personal space. How masterful of me”. Huppert’s heroine (of her own dysfunction) has obvious issues, at one point admitting that she has no feelings and, that if she were to develop them (God forbid), her intellectual prowess could easily find a way to dispose of said feelings. (She says other, sunnier things, but I’ve forgotten most of them on general principle). Of course, this line about those pesky feelings must be spoken as if it were a weapon, its’ victim the unfortunate recipient of Huppert’s cool, double life masochism. (In fact, it’s one of her students and, in a turn of events that’s starting to feel less like a turn than a required turn, it becomes an error in judgment on her part, leading to a scene where Haneke tries to elicit our sympathy for her, as if to say, “Look, you may hate her, but here’s a guy you should really hate. How masterful of me”). Unfortunately, beyond staging sexual self torture in a way meant to disturb us (and, in another more disturbing way, repeating some of the same admittedly brilliant stunts he displayed in Funny Games), Haneke’s ultimate, visceral pushiness goes nowhere. Disconnect if you don’t care to read about the final shot, in which Huppert plunges a knife into her chest before skipping out on a rehearsal. It is especially telling in the same way most of the underground elements of the film are, repeatedly, candidly, begging the wrong questions, (such as, “What in the holy hell just happened here? And, for God’s sake, why did this strange event happen?”) You’re welcome to return as I close in saying, somehow Haneke was deft enough to escape being dubbed a mindless shock artist with the aforementioned Funny Games, but here, it’s as if he’s demonstrating, step by step, exactly how he could re-tap that film’s glorious summation of moral quickness in such a way that it blends, almost indiscernibly, with every other art house squirm-fest we’ve been subjected to in recent years. There’s a great bit of style and technique, and some really, really swell mood elevation but, once he’s inside you’re head, it’s all too clear that he’s forgotten his map. (Not that I don’t await his next film with open arms, bated breath and a full erection.)

(12/23)

Hell House
A documentary film by George Ratliff
grade: B

Hell House, by the way, is a Halloween alternative to a haunted house where the congregation of Trinity Church put on skits depicting such hell bound moments as suicides, drunk driving accidents and graphic abortions, all in the name of educating non or lapsed Christians in the final destination of their eternal soul. Part of it feels like a backfire, as if Ratliff was desperately trying to be objective in the hopes that Hell House itself would portray this tradition seriously, thereby providing viewers with something to laugh at. After viewing it as a whole, though, what you take away is how fervent and uninhibited these Christians are and, an almost warm and fuzzy exoneration of all the weird and ambiguously sinful portrayals they’ve subjected themselves to – in the name of our souls. As a hard-core cynic, who is deeply suspicious of the Christian faith, I found myself oddly annoyed that the film constantly threatened to betray its own objectivity. A film making fun of Christians wouldn’t be all that interesting. There’s some terrifically odd stops along the way, including a father whose daughter wins the most coveted of roles (the rave rape skit), the teacher who believes there are such a thing as dumb questions, the girl who muses about Christian dating and the police officer who is so articulate and so patient, you’ll wonder why he’s not negotiating hostage situations instead of walking a beat. The genuineness of these people, in fact, is what drives the piece and, in the end, the surprise that they’re a whole lot more level-headed than the premise might lead you to believe, gives the whole experience a sense of gravity: There’s a reason they’re up to their tenth straight year doing this thing.

(12/26)


Gangster No. 1
Directed by Paul McGuigan
Starring: Paul Bettany, David Thewlis, Malcolm McDowell and Saffron Burrows.
grade: B

Probably conceived and even filmed simultaneously with Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, this film, nevertheless, feels like a heady answer to Guy Ritchie’s mid-60’s-styled Brit gangster updates. Alternately horrific and dry, something about how attractive it feels to use these actors in these roles is kind of thrilling; Bettany is pure evil – almost always conjuring McDowell’s Alex from A Clockwork Orange; Thewlis is remarkably good as a boss man (watch it after Naked and you’ll spend hours convincing yourself that the two characters are, in fact, played by the same actor). The final confrontation, when the two men are old and gray (Thewlis, bald cap and made-up – not good), is so hard to watch, so full of the kind of jealous rage and teeth-gritting male-ness, you may end up merely writing it off as silly. I was able to stave that off until the grande finale – which is just that – silly.

(12/27)


The Good Girl
Directed by Miguel Arteta
Written by Mike White
Starring: Jennifer Aniston, John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenthal and Tim Blake Nelson.
grade: C+

The observation-comma-observation-comma-revelation pandering of the thick, goopy voice over seems to be subjecting the terrific, throwaway comedy to a horrible and unnecessary dose of genuineness and philosophical rambling. The cheating wife, the stoner husband (and his crazy buddy), the young, brooding writer – these all feel more like suggestions of characters; White has written, as he did in Orange County, a whole bunch of really funny situations (and I did laugh a great deal, especially at Blake Nelson), but he has given these laughs a flat, passable context and several marginally boring characters to create them. Aniston isn’t anything spectacular, exactly; in her defense, she’s playing a character who has been beaten so hard into the ground, even our predictions of her future decisions and actions feel like masturbation. Arteta isn’t a bad director (see Chuck & Buck), but he seems hell-bent, here, on suggesting that he’s erected a fresh take on tired material. And, as you can imagine, I’ve got news for him.

(1/09)


25th Hour
Directed by Spike Lee
Starring: Edward Norton, Rosario Dawson, Brian Cox, Barry Pepper, Philip Seymour Hoffman
        and Anna Paquin.
grade: B+

How to spin a yarn of redemption without warranting comparison to a blunt object? The entire film bathed in sobriety; it’s like a two hour funeral – or, more specifically, a two hour eulogy for a fate everybody keeps trying to beat, but which has already been decided (which is strange, but really intriguing, in a way). 25th Hour contains what is perhaps the most vivid simulacrum of pure self pity I’ve seen (short of the collected racial epithets montage in Do the Right Thing, the joint in Lee’s repertoire this film is most comparable to), in a scene where Norton’s inner voice as glimpsed in a men’s room mirror, rattling hither and thither with all of American’s favorite stereotypes and simple gripes, a shocking sequence that gives the movie a social jolt: there’s no question from that point on that the film is making a broader point than that of the masterfully intimate tale of Monty’s last day without fear of forced sodomy. And with that in mind, Norton gives what may be his best performance to date. His range and the competent control thereof are on display – but most prevalent is his silent intensity, his power, his command, the total security he has gleaned from his character’s career choice (drug dealer), a near-erupting sense of self-control, the irony of which is his sentence, the thing he cannot change, to which he seems to be quietly challenging by mid-film, meeting it with a drunken grimace that’s desperately failing to mask some rather serious pain. The movie’s power lies in a clever suspense tactic wherein, as a byproduct of the simplicity of the premise, we are constantly positioning ourselves a few feet ahead of Monty, breathlessly anticipating some sort of miraculous escape from his destiny. Our faith in the cinema serves us these predictions and, with a splash of low-key cold water, the film cries to sing a capella without the bells and whistles – at face value. Lee’s filmmaking is patient, talky and character-driven – and, without sounding like I’m merely comparing it to other films –  it’s a supreme jewel because it’s so straightforward and, (dare I say) conservative. Then comes Benioff’s finale, a physiologically fitting, lingering just short of haunting, a rambling piece of fantasy matching only the tone of the aforementioned montage – it’s a winking eye warning shrewdly, like a clear-headed elder, against taking the easy way out. Lee also arms himself with patriotism and post 9-11 WTC rations, making these relevant as a scourge of the American Dream and the paradoxical pinhole that is NY City. He positions his characters in the same state of shocked alertness, equating the process of accepting responsibility for one’s actions with the realization that a city’s (and nation’s) security has been, and most definitely could be breached in the future. One of the many sequences between Frank and Jacob finds them sitting at Frank’s window, gazing at the wreckage and clean-up of ground zero, just below them. Frank sums up the place Monty keeps hoping to get himself to, mentally, in regards to accommodating his own consequence: (paraphrasing) “Bin Laden can drop another one next door, I’m not moving”. It’s especially exciting as a filmgoer to see plot pieces acting out of turn and assuming their own identity. They may fit into a bigger puzzle, but the set of scenes where Frank delights in intimidating Jacob lead to a terrific set of turns that are their own entities, and of little connection to Monty’s plight – outside the fact that the men are both in the same building (yes, I’m referring to Jacob’s moral wake-up call and its ill-timed connection to Monty’s praise: “You’ve always been smart enough to stay away from things like that”. All the rationalizing in the world can’t shake up the reverse psychology fueling that comment). In addition to the stellar cast, Rosario Dawson, as Monty’s girlfriend Naturelle, usually backed into tiny parts or silly films (The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Sidewalks of New York, Josie & the Pussycats), gives a sharply conflicted, mature sense of self with a touch of naughty (a perfect mirror to “jailbait” Mary’s (Paquin) out-and-out naughtiness with a touch of maturity). It takes a round set of interests to evince Monty’s world – Jacob, Frank, Naturelle, and Monty’s dad (Brian Cox), are all so carefully in their element, in a guilty state of concern, and fully aware that their surreal existence justifies and, essentially, defines Monty. The ending may smack of a metaphoric splash of cold water, but watch the last night toasts: Each man gets an eyeful of sincerity before promptly blinking it away. These guys may have written their own ticket – but they’ve been caught scalping it one too many times. And somebody’s got to pay. Only real quibble, and there’s just no escaping the irony, is that watching a film about a busted drug dealer where the drug dealing – and everything associated with said crime (the scummy Russian bosses, the double crosses) – are the least exciting thing, seems just about right. Unfortunately, the business’s unusual lack of gravitas is, in fact, one of the film’s few flaws – Monty’s uppers in the biz are, inexplicably, commonplace heavies, thankfully confined to a single scene.

[Opening sequence between Norton and his Russian Cohort, where they rescue a beaten dog (note the symmetry by the end of the picture), made me wonder (almost aloud) if Spike hired Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros) for his talent with shooting bloodied pups.]

(1/11)


Blue Crush
Directed by John Stockwell
Starring: Kate Bosworth, Michelle Rodriguez, et al.
grade: C+ (by the skin of it’s teeth, I might add)

God help you, really, if you don’t take charge and watch the film with your finger on the fast forward button, careful to precisely turn your head and zip through any scene without a surfboard and a wave.

[I’m really tempted to dock it the plus, after having read that Bosworth, who is just a horrible actress, didn’t even do her own stunts! Why hire her then, if you don’t mind my asking? She’s as vacuous – if not moreso – than Paul Walker in The Fast and the Furious, the film this one is clearly modeled after. If that film’s surprise success means a cineplex full of xeroxes for years to come, I’m getting the fuck out of this wicked game. Now.]

(1/12)


The Pianist
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Ronald Harwood
Starring: Adrien Brody, et al.
grade: A

Of all directors, the one we’d least accuse of hunting us down only to manipulate us is certainly Roman Polanski. He has given me one of the few honest and truly compelling reactions to a film this year. Inside his protagonist, a jew on the run from the nazis, Polanski finds such an intimacy, such a singular point-of-view that he is able to, without missing a beat, completely surround us with this character’s ordeal. He soaks our tiny world up with the one on his screen. Brody, in what (for the last time), I will call the performance of the year, assumes a deterioration that must be seen to be believed. A human rat, he tirelessly survives, using mostly luck. Told with a variety of technique: first, the immediacy – personal, familial reactions to the trademarks we’ve casually taken as Holocaust historical components (the armbands, the amount of money jews were allowed to keep inside their home, the ‘no jews allowed’ decrees, the relocation to the ghettos); later, overwhelming gap between past, present and future told using carefully placed ellipses (this is a masterstroke that Polanski uses with full force); and, finally, the visual emptiness, a mass world of crumbled brick and stone that aches with loneliness – but also the empty detention area, the lonely piano and the quiet, the constant quiet, self enforced in the many underground controlled flats, Brody’s sometime hiding place, itself stressing just how lonely it can be in a world you can’t connect with. No flim-flam. No goop. No silly excesses of irony or valiant metonymies. Polanski, in a stark and shatteringly real canvas, paints his best picture in years, using his own personal demons to mix the paint.

(1/12)

Blood Work
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Jeff Daniels, Anjelica Huston, Paul Rodriguez, et al.
grade: C

There’s great little maneuvers happening throughout, embodying the kind of detective twists you might stay up all night watching in order to satisfy your curiosity – but unfortunately, it has little or nada to do with the characters or the filmmaking; everything takes place in such a bland, the-out-come-will-be-televised vacuum, the kind Clint seems hell bent on using his massive pull at Warner Bros. to command (isn’t that just devastating). Too many moments that feel like geriatric, embarrassing throwbacks to better times for the man with no name – particularly the moment where he has to clarify, for a criminal, just how many bullets his gun holds (not even a touch of obscurity in that reference). For a man who has spent his life being such a hardass, It’s just pretty much pure hell watching him repeat lines like “I’ll use her heart to guide me” (the plot stems from a favor he feels he owes a dead woman he donated her heart to him – pause for loud, uncontrolled guffaw). More disturbing still is Clint’s apparent belief as a director that his performance as an actor isn’t in need of about a dozen more takes. As with his last four pictures, everything comes up so obviously short that we wonder why anyone in their right mind wouldn’t have offered him double his current asking price just to bite the retirement bullet.

[Notice that I refrained from using the term “mortality” – as every other critic has. That makes me an original! (“Ouch!”, think I may have thrown my back out while patting it.)]

(1/12)


XXX
Directed by Rob Cohen
Starring: Vin Diesel, Asia Argento and Samuel L. Jackson.
grade: D+

As a character, Xander Cage feels more like one of 007’s spontaneous sidekicks – the extra muscle that ends up being sadly martyred at the end of the second act, driving Bond’s anger and, I suppose, upping the stakes. Diesel has this strange intellectual quality about him that communicates his brawny, Schwarzenneger qualities to us in such a way that we always think he’s got everything figured out. In XXX, there is such an illogical use of his star potential, such a waste of his bad boy persona (I defy anyone to prove to me that he comes off even a smidgen as intimidating here than he did, when used properly in – albeit, an equally henpecked motion picture – The Fast and the Furious). Here, he’s a quip machine – nothing more; used mostly to show off his muscles, and lend plausibility to the barrage of X-games brand stunts enacted by a double who looks far too pale to be a plausible Vin Diesel. Instead of giving him a presence to step into, Cohen and writer have conspired to use the tattoo on the back of his neck to fuel their marketing campaign, before banishing him to a muted background, taking second fiddle to expensive Summer booms-and-vrooms. The curious thing about said booms (and vrooms), besides the waste of Diesel in a role he’s likely to be wasted in more than a few times in the coming years, is the promise of these exhilarating action set pieces which, save the opening bridge stunt, are all too carefully constructed to look and feel dangerous. But they don’t. They’re like sex without the romance – we know it’s supposed to be good for us, but there’s no suspension of disbelief. We believe it, and, without getting excited, we move on. Take the snow board sequence, or the motorcycle sequence, or the GTO sequence – or any of the precisely timed and entirely too neat sequences: Every time danger seems to be close at hand, the movie seems to remember its roots, and act as the Bond pictures have, for too long: Lazily. Xander gets in a bind – a last second savior arrives. It looks like he’s a goner – he pops up elsewhere, with a clever line on his lips. The boldness of Diesel never seems to create the defiance Jackson, Diesel’s programmer and NSA boss, seems to be reacting to. They play off of each other as if they’re in separate movies, chatting via digital insertion. In the end, Jackson isn’t to blame. He’s merely channeling director Rob Cohen, who appears to have programmed this film to appeal to such a concise demographic, including every possible minute equivalent of cinematic junk food (the perfect combination: PG-13 safe language, sexual suggestion and cartoon violence – with throwaway jokes scattered throughout and cool explosions to boot). Unfortunately, if you don’t slide into that perfect age specific cross-section, it all looks like a big, expensive, loud, goofy facade.

And the villain, meant to look like a Russian Russell Crowe – he’s just low-key enough to match Diesel’s deflated persona. And that’s not a good thing.

[Beth – I took it as easy as I could without sacrificing my objective integrity.]

(1/16)


Tadpole
Directed by Gary Winick
Starring: Aaron Bradford, John Ritter, Sigourney Weaver, Ron Rifkin and Bebe Neuwirth.
grade: D

Unless you’re willing to buy that it’s a 78 minute send-up of modern student films (which I’m not), then I’m not sure how in the fuck this economy-budget version of an adapted-for-sitcom The Graduate made it past security.

(1/19)


Watched about twenty minutes of S1M0NE (wanted to indulge the kitschy spelling just once) and decided, after turning it off out of boredom, not to bother returning to it. Doubt it would have warranted as vehement and panicked a reaction as Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, but I also doubt it ever would have developed a sense of humor that wasn’t grounded somewhere in the early eighties. I kept picturing myself on my death bed (having finished the film), wishing I had the running time back. Instead of finishing, I merely copped out. Sue me. (As it was, the photography was surprisingly rapturous, both earthy and painterly – at the same time. Pacino seemed to be struggling to make the material any more than what it was; Keener seemed lost in a role that required her only to be a warmed over bitch instead of a full blown, testicles-in-a-vice she-bitch; Ryder seemed just perfect in a walk-on as the overpampered, undertalented actress; and Jay Mohr, as ever, was getting on my damn nerves.) Anybody who cares to, please let me know if my prediction holds water: This movie was going to be underwhelming until the last obvious Hollywood joke was upstaged by playful (therefore goofy) digital effects.


The Bourne Identity
Directed by Doug Liman
Starring: Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Chris Cooper, Brian Cox and Clive Owen.
grade: B-

Competent – but not much else, and that includes entertaining. Damon’s so charming – but also so boyish, and occasionally, the former betrays the latter: we just don’t buy a guy this young having these experiences. It’s almost silly miscasting, except that Liman’s camera seems to have some sort of odd chemistry with Damon. He’s a robot – as are most of the monosyllabic, underperforming actors here – but he’s our robot; the only character with a chance for humanity. The neat thing is, I’ve read reviews where critics pan the film, citing that it got less interesting as we found out more about the title character. They’re all one-hundred percent wrong. The only time the film feels like it has vaguely lifted its head, almost attaining the believability it stives for, is when Damon starts to realize what a blessing it was that he had amnesia, and forgot the monster the CIA made him into (that, in itself – the CIA making him into some sort of assassination machine – felt like your standard subplot, the first thing to go when the movie gets too long; always a source of unending incoherence because serving short attention spans somehow supercedes sustaining a constant and steady flow of that indelible thing called sense). Bit of rant, please forgive.

(1/20)


Catch Me If You Can
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Nathalie Baye and Martin Sheen.
grade: B

Could’ve retired itself in the opening moments as a genre piece – but doesn’t; Even with Spielberg at the helm, he could have reached for the autopilot button. Instead, he seems to have put out of his mind the level of gravity with which he’s working (budget vs. box office, length vs. number of screenings per day, DiCaprio picture vs. decidedly better DiCaprio picture, etc) and indulged himself in a pop filmmaking fiesta. It’s con-artist light – a mano a mano for the baby boomers and the teenie boppers. That said, its rarely electrifying, exactly; instead floundering in more of a status-quo groove with some homage-heavy mise-en-scene trickery thrown in to flip the pulse every now and again. I was absorbed, but more from the standpoint that I was experiencing the story as a movie, as the scientifically engineered product – all of its painstaking sixties’ recreation merely window dressing for Catch Me If You Can to moonlight as Spielberg’s Summer Project. Often feels like an abrupt change in tone whenever Spielberg tries to get all sensitive and reflective: Take if for what it is, folks – Self-conscious fun!

[Speaking of self-conscious, this is the part where I share my curiosity: Why has this movie received a universal B/*** rating from critics? Isn’t there one rogue critic to pan it? One rogue critic to hold it on high? And one rogue critic to find that it’s a deep allegory of our lost youth and therefore one of the best ten films of all time?]

(1/20)


Barbershop
Directed by Tim Story
Starring: Ice Cube, Sean Patrick Thomas, Cedric the Entertainer, Eve, et al.
grade: B

If you can overlook the subplot involving an ATM machine, and you can forgive that said subplot is meant only to come around full circle in aid of the primary plot (it’s a quick fix of resolution that takes the long way around), then you can probably enjoy just how rare and how genuinely tender the framework of Barbershop is. The epiphany – wherein Ice Cube realizes the value of his little barbershop as a pillar of the community – is so well-realized, and so pure in its idealization of the warm and fuzzy feeling, Barbershop could have easily carried a Christmastime theme. In fact, it feels almost jarring in scenes, because it’s so casual to its immunity to the “hood movie” stigma. Ice Cube offers words of support to an Indian storeowner, who later acknowledges this support in a marvelous little scene where the working class finally feels like it inhabits a level playing field with reality. It’s a little scene – and probably the best one in the film – but it, and the whole aura surrounding Ice Cube’s struggle to hold onto his shop, moved me more than most of the programmed vanguard pictures I’ve seen this year. There’s some humor (not as much as you’d be led to believe) and some glaring, embarrassing plot points ; but Barbershop is such a celebration of community in a cynical, predetermined market – it’s almost enough that it even bothered.

(1/31)


Chicago
Directed by Rob Marshall
Written by Bill Condon
Starring: Renee Zelwegger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, John C. Reilly, Queen Latifah,
        Colm Feore and Christine Baranski.
grade: C+

I know, isn’t it borderline shocking that I, Ben Trout, am giving a movie a B-?* Staggeringly competent choreography abounds – and I know I’m floundering in the minority in praising Zelwegger’s performance – her best since her last (topping herself yet again) – but the film itself, given its instinctual supression of a developed, satisfying storyline is only sustaining as a fleeting entertainment (most musicals seem to rely on a dreamlike versatility; the ability to swing in and out of moods/moments and exposition) It’s one of the most empty and short-winded of the depressing musicals. From start to finish, it’s one sexy flapper’s dance after another, each one coming dangerously close to impressing us. I’d spend less time complaining if the movie seemed less interested in accolades from the Broadway crowd; Chicago is barely a movie. For some reason, too, Chicago is set in the same barely lit, browntone world of Road to Perdition. The flashy colors seem drabbed down and rarely contrasted, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how that serves the film’s mileau. As it turns out, we’re actually working to leave the theater humming (Gere’s singing voice and his actual face – which don’t match – doesn’t help matters). It’s musical numbers are consistently clever (as songs go), and the story is properly melodramatic. But it feels like Rob Marshall was willing to do the bare minimum with this vision. It feels understylized. It’s competent – but musicals need to have bells, whistles and glitz. It’s too fogettable, I think, even to be called a musical.

*(Upon further ponderance, it was shocking – too shocking, it turned out…)
 

(2/2)


The Hours
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Stephen Dillane, Ed Harris,
        Miranda Richardson, John C. Reilly, Jeff Daniels, Claire Danes and Alison Janney.
grade: C+

There’s a sheer pleasure to the way The Hours is told that mixes wildly with Philip Glass’s tinkling, swoony orchestrations in effort to convince you that what you’re watching isn’t utterly ridiculous. The sequences with Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf and Stephen Dillane as her husband Leonard are absolutely terrific, Kidman snatching Woolf’s intellectual, acid tongue while stareing into a void of madness, daintily smoking a cigarette – all of it marvelous. The parallels, wherein Julianne Moore is reading Woolf’s last novel, Mrs. Dalloway while contemplating suicide, and her son’s grown-up struggles as a dying poet, kept alive by a guilt-ridden Classic Literary Maternal Figure (Streep), all of these plot points divided, visited and revisited, like chapters in a novel, somehow dividing a story that’s linked, and toward close, unveiling it’s many intracate connections. It’s an entirely wonderful way to tell a story, but it’s never quite enough of a distraction from how overbaked and full of it’s own Oscar formula shading The Hours is. The cast is uniformely good – as good as they can be, trapped in such sentimentally sure material; Moore plays a little peppier than her withdrawn turn in Cookie’s Fortune (both of which are not her usual forte, and both of which are eerily compelling); Streep is her stuttery, on-edge self, the one that’s teeters more towards frumpiness than beauty; Harris is marvelous as the dying poet (less cocksure than, well…); but it’s Kidman that walks off with the movie as Dalloway. Had Stephen “theatrical fits” Daldry (the best attribute is that I don’t shudder at the thought of this film, as I did with his first entry, Billy Elliot) been a bit more ambitious (doesn’t that sound odd, more ambitious by toning the whole affair down?), he could have mined the Dalloway sequences and released a feature about her.

(2/8)


Full Frontal
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Mary McCormack, Catherine Keener, David Hyde-Pierce, Blair Underwood,
        Julia Roberts, David Duchovny, the guy from Just Shoot Me and Nicky Katt.
grade: B+

The use of such diverse layers of reality as a medium for mocking the film industry seems like a much better idea, if compared to something like, say, Simone – where a digital actress is the host victim (or is she) of a billion dated Hollywood jokes. I still think mocking the film industry is just too easy, but Soderbergh should really be nominated for another Oscar for the assorted levels of naturalism he culls from this premise – and the excitement he unfolds each layer with. I mean, every single actor felt absolutely right pulling off an admittedly difficult little stunt (improvisation levels are high – and for once it’s a good thing).

(2/9)

24 Hour Party People
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Steve Coogan, et al.
grade: B+

There’s something cool happening on such a large scale in Michael Winterbottom’s film, and though never consciously acknowledged, it’s one of the most exciting things happening onscreen (a feat in itself, as the title pretty much sets up the tempo of the piece – it’s a party even when it’s serious): Tony Wilson, the main character, has a disposable income from selling out (on television) and, at the end of the film, he is still spending his money on venues and perks for recording artists, in attempt to capture and catapult bands he likes – but never actually owning any of the musicians’ contracts (“I protected myself from the dilemma of selling out by having nothing to sell,” he cheerfully declares after showing a big wig record executive a blood penned contract stating just that very thing). This redemption, thankfully, has no potential for weighing the film down – which is why it flies in under the radar. Tony repeatedly experiences little, musical glimpses of the future (like the first Sex Pistols’ show: pop. 42), and acts on them without worrying about whether or not he could be mistaken. Who doesn’t love characters like this: Wilson shimmers, knowing he’s onto something, and smiles as the smoke clears to reveal whether or not this is the commencement of one of his many successes – or failures. We truly believe he could care less either way. Tony loves the music. 24 Hour Party People is a film that suggests to us from the start that it’s highly fictionalized, but nevertheless gives conductor privileges to the very character whose life it is embellishing, allowing him one of the most vividly successful and wildly entertaining incidences of direct address I’ve ever seen. In between, Winterbottom splashes titles across the screen whenever he feels like it and indulges – however bizarre – any turn Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script chooses to take. In short, it’s as much of a film about Manchester’s post-punk period (mid-1970s – mid-1990s) as it seems forged in that era’s image; It’s ribald, but mature – it’s the difference between a) what comes after you’ve examined a
musical movement’s place in your culture and acted upon it – and, b) when you’re just busting things out shaggy dog style. The story turns out to be worth telling – despite how indulgent it may have appeared upon first glance. Steve Coogan’s wondrous performance as Wilson (so dry he’s peeling) is all the more fun because he doesn’t call attention to himself – even when he’s calling attention to himself (keep that thought in your head through the whole movie – I dare you). A movie with this much truly reasonable confidence in itself is worth recommending from rooftops on general principle.
Unfortunately, its relatively obscure subject matter and lack of familiar actors will only allow it enough exposure to gather mass amounts of dust on some shelf somewhere (i.e. – it’s too cohesive and smart to attain late night video store run cult status). Pity, that.

Please exonerate me from using forms of the word ‘indulge’ twice in this review. (Because I would do the same for you, that’s why)

(2/10)


The Rules of Attraction
Written (for the screen) and Directed by Roger Avary
Starring: James Van Der Beek, Shanyn Sossamen, Jessica Biel, Kate Bosworth, et al.
grade: C+

The simplistic nod of the title to actions carried out in the film, like most of my argument, is nothing more than a capsulated display of its (sadly) empty nature. You almost have to pity the honking sincerity in the confidence with which director Roger Avary invests Lauren and Sean’s final scene: He really believes he’s come to the (surprise!) hollow-as-a-reed center of their souls. He (Avary) also seems reluctant to render the “self” in “selfishness” in these characters – and will be chasing the energy and effortless lack of a conventional narrative of Pulp Fiction through his whole career (another “mark my words” segment brought to you by the makers of “I Call Coin!”). (He’ll also probably always be about ten steps behind his former co-writer/contemporary who has bothered to go to the trouble of becoming an artist). Avary’s technical prowess flirts with greatness in the fifteen minute pre-title sequence where he uses backwards motion and time shifting techniques to great success. The whirlwind vacation taken by the film student Victor is the best part of the movie – and, in truth, is an absolutely perfect amalgam of the tiresome whole of the film: (“Went here, did this – scored drugs, got laid – oh, and then I did something else, maybe. I don’t know. I got laid and did drugs though, boy howdy!”) The seventies’ split screen works too. It’s just that – and perk up your ears, people – the film is one hundred five minutes of Avary trying to distract the audience from Bret Easton Ellis’s shallow celebration of excess and sadness posing as a deep dissection of foggy youth. Drug fueled subplots rule every emotional exchange, and I’m talking about all the subplots (I haven’t seen such a universal acceptance (and interest) in drugs in a film by nearly every character since…well, since Killing Zoe, Avary’s first film). Ellis’ and Avary’s shared world view: We’re all on drugs all the time whether we care to admit it or not – and the drugs just enhance our self-centered desire to fuck anything that moves. Huh? (Wait! Wait! Wait! One more summing-it-all-up-in-one-line shot: “I really did try to kill myself – just before I faked it”. You’re so right James. You’re so right. We all try to be real, but fake just works better. Nobody really understands us. Let’s go be misunderstood all alone together. Oh, James, I-) Double Huh?
 

(2/16)


Knockaround Guys
Written and Directed by David Koppelman and Brian Leavin
Starring: Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, Seth Green, John Malkovich, Tom Noonan, Kevin Gage,
    and practically no women (oh, and Dennis Hopper).
grade: D+

[I hereby exonerate Barry Pepper from being blackballed by this film when his “carry a movie” time comes (and it will). And yes, I do possess that power.]

It’s ripe with interesting themes: The head mobster’s kid, unable to go straight, wants a chance at organized crime because he’s driven to succeed; the ever ready abstraction of “owning a town”; unfolding layers of ever more suspicious loyalty, and blah, blah, blah. All of it straddling the line between being an original spin and being a tired retread, all of it ruined from the get-go by David Koppelman and Brian Leavin’s state-and-restate-the-obvious dialogue. What’s particularly depressing about the whole fiasco is that it was salvaged at all, and worse, that it was salvaged as a vehicle for Vin Diesel, which means the gentle strongman’s long, rambling philosophies on the art of being a hoodlum are left, it seems, relatively untouched – even though they often contain little offshoots which make glaring, disorienting reference to scenes that were clearly excised from the finished film. (We used to salvage films like this for the heavies like Hopper and Malkovich, before they started choosing roles with their bank books as high priority). Knockaround Guys is the kind of film that is steaming with machismo – and even the kind of film that sometimes knows what to do with that machismo (in a near great scene, Vin Diesel forces a local tough to do his dirty work with a beating he describes as “worse than anything he [the guy] has ever given”) – but never a film that seems to be confidant that the audience will swallow it’s excuse for the machismo (And here I am, holding yet another self created record for “Most Instances of Machismo in a Single Sentence”). An insecure film about completely secure guys. The perfect note for me to advance to a self-indulgent rant about “scene missing” films. Read on.

[From the now erected ‘I Call Coin’ vault, it’s time to address the films we’ve half labeled as: Unfinished something or other; Scrapped together something or other; Films deemed regrettable far too late (or upon completion) to not finish and release (even if the editing room becomes like an operating room, performing a tricky surgery that often leaves the patient horribly disfigured and more than a little off); Films that make it a point to showcase their deleted scenes as if said scenes existence alone supersedes any notions you may presuppose with regards to said film; Or, finally, films  released on video and DVD in mandatory catchall altered versions, (i.e. – This film couldn’t be sold in theaters as PG-13, here’s some nudity and gore to up the ante). There is one good instance, and it is Gangs of New York. Here’s a small sampling of truly unfortunate instances: Rollerball, Soul Survivors, Town and Country, Impostor, Storytelling, Windtalkers, All the Pretty Horses, Eye of the Beholder, Lost Souls, Supernova. You sort out which film might fall under which descriptive umbrella (time permitting). Oh, and I left out, films that aren’t as cool if they make sense (Which, I believe covers the whole list of unfortunates).]

(2/23)


All or Nothing
Written and Directed by Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall, et al.
grade: B+

Feel like I’m in a mode of utter disservice by dismissing this as our semi-annual exercise in seamless character study a la Mike Leigh, especially because it returns to the more humble magnifying glass which bore the likes of Life is Sweet and Secrets and Lies. The nod of my reaction to what some critics seemed to view as a competent rut, always wallowing in the miseries of life, always looking on the bright side at close – this seems particularly unfounded given how multifaceted and consistent Leigh’s improvisational techniques can be. All or Nothing is abysmal – to be sure; But it’s also powerful, uncommonly observant, and tirelessly objective, even when its wielding a score that’s heavy on the cello. The always spot-on Spall is out of happiness, and the housing project he lives in seems to constrict with this very notion of joyless existence (perhaps the deciding factor in abandoning the film, for some critics, is the exploration of Spall’s neighbors as catalysts for contrast; It’s certainly not a new trick, but a potent one to say the least). In fact, the events in the film – though the climax isn’t an everyday occurrence – seem to have a pace and a bloodline of such low volume, of such unobtrusive docudrama, you barely feel the whole thing creeping up on you – – – but you do still feel it. One thing Leigh is never in short supply of is emotion, and All or Nothing has a dandy of an epiphany/confrontation/release scene (the one I usually refer to as “the big second act speech”, a  cynical phrase that feels all too inappropriate in this instance). The whole nature of underrating something this brilliant – even as an exercise – is preposterous. The little specks of character alone, the idiosyncrasies shared by Spall, his wife, and their two children, these perfectly slight details are much like the filmmaking itself, which just seems to unfold – as ever – without feeling mechanical or stylized in the least. That we barely realize most movies don’t come within miles of this intimacy, of this level of penetration, of this absolutely thorough development is why we can never take Leigh for granted. An exercise? Who said that was bad for you, anyway?

(2/25)


Late Marriage
Written and Directed by Dover Kosashvili
grade: A-

[Yes, I realize I made a top ten list way too early]

Jewish culture, at face value, with stereotypes not played up, and not milked for laughs; Progressively fascinating – storytelling unfolds surprise layer after surprise layer; Opening scene is a bizarre match even for a die-hard culture (we assume), a tradition played straight, which makes itself look goofy and awkward without a push; The confusion of disapproval and tradition into one cultural experience, contrasted, in a later scene where the family meets the divorcee, to unleash its tradition of disapproval to no confusion; Late Marriage is a terrific expression of the old and the new worlds colliding, with great characters whose honesty feels like authenticity (especially in the rare glimpse at sex as it really is – foibles and all; A struggle of the old versus the young that feels almost quintessential, like the perfect amalgam of the absurdity of these trials we label “traditions”; Makes great observations about the baggage people come with and the debt of privilege (and the shallow price we pay for both); At times, the movie actually seems to be out to disprove the imperfect nature of love (in its initial portrayal of Zaza as easygoing and unworried – about everything), but later, it also seems to champion a celebration of that same imperfect nature of love; At once he says lines like (sarcastic) “As long as you’re happy” to his parents while also secretly treasuring and steeling himself inside his family’s control; The movie is very casual about how disturbing it is being; When it seems to be turning the tables to examine every viewpoint simultaneously, appearing to carefully and ruthlessly entertain each one, Kosashvili throws us a curve ball: As soon as we’ve accepted the movie’s first act as an objective expose, he dispenses a potent commentary. The images of Zaza, entranced in his mother’s spell as they watch the dancing at his wedding evince a bitter viewpoint, made all the more brilliant by its universal abilities: It may translate differently to different cultures, but it is united by age; He has learned the fallacy of a world controlled by men, who are actually controlled by women. A movie sure to generate more questions than answers; Late Marriage is one of the most original spins on a common conflict choice I’ve seen in forever. On a video shelf, I’d stack it closer to In the Company of Men than My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It’s just might severely wound the latter.

(2/26)


Talk to Her
Written and Directed by Pedro Almodovar
grade: B

Wonderfully convoluted; Doesn’t feel at all like a cheat when fate is this outlandish, probably because Almodovar’s style is so quietly devil-may-care; Third act is, as ever, too dark to be supported by the rest of the movie – even with the structure being jumbled by flashbacks and flash-forwards that should be used a little more carefully (i.e. – they don’t refresh, so you forget major pieces of the story while you watch) – although they give events a more jarring appeal; Often balances between quirky and genuinely reflective; Most of it is just really, really, really, really entertaining without ever convincing us that it’s much more than that; The silent film is the piece de resistance (if ever there were one), but the ballet sequences are marvelous, too; Almodovar seems to be working up to making his masterpiece – but he’s just really taking his time; I take him more and more seriously the more distance he puts between himself and films like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! or Kika (albeit, I’m missed Live Flesh); Talk to Her seems to flow much better than All About My Mother, mostly because we not only care about the characters (which Almodovar does effortlessly), but we care about the situations (as we should, you know?); And, was it just me, or was the shot of Michael Cunningham’s book “The Hours” an in-joke proving Almodovar can see the future and know to use the over-nominated book’s film as a precursor to a major plot point? It just seemed too coincidental. Who’s going to win the pennant, Pedro? (Okay, that didn’t sound the least bit convincing as I have about nil interest in sports – and everybody knows it).

(2/27)


Time Out
Directed by Laurent Cantent
grade: C

If man’s job is his identity, main character Vincent is truly a stranger – and the film makes no neverminds about repeatedly issuing itself liscence to overuse that point. The biggest trouble is how little humanity Cantent seems to invest in his characters. Early on, he chooses to make everything nice and slow, nice and dry, (and nice and boring), in order to establish his objective viewpoint. That each character feels more and more like they came off the same assembly line that produced David, the robot boy in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, is all the more limiting. Cantent has a perfect opportunity – I should say, several perfect opportunities – to suggest how idiotic it is to live at the whims of the Corporate World and how wonderful it could be to have an opportunity to not be part of it – but instead, frames his picture around a man’s search for his missing dignity through a series of elaborate lies, (if you need me to tell you the ending to save you the suspense, feel free to e-mail me). It’s awfully grim stuff and there rarely seems to be much more justification than the obvious: This is what is happening in the world. (eyes roll) Thanks for the wake-up call there, bud.

(3/1)


The Ring
Directed by Gore Verbinski
Starring: Naomi Watts, David Dorman, Brian Cox, et al.
grade: C-

Everybody’s pretty serious about pretty much everything in The Ring, somehow hoping to compensate for the hopelessly dopey plot mechanism that fuels the first half of the film: That people are afraid of a video tape and its eerie images (and the fact that many characteristically stupid high school kids perished exactly a week after viewing it – just like somebody said they would!) Underneath the dime store mise en scene that Gore Verbinski uses all of his zero creativity to speak through, an endlessly disturbing plot about a murdered little girl whose mother killed herself and freaked out some horses (and so on, I suppose) manages to peak its head through. It isn’t until we’ve given up all hope as a false ending brings closure in a rather pussy, rather pre-Kobayashi (“Kobayashi, Kobayashi…”) fashion, that the film seems to sprout wings and actually begin using the limitless landscape of its supernatural substance (and it might have been a surprise if I hadn’t been watching the time on the DVD player in anticipation of the end). Verbinski spends so much time building and building, setting up an inconclusive logic, hoping to duplicate the success gleaned from the average American audience member’s common confusion between being impressed by a surprise ending and being duped by a product that barely seems to care about its first ninety minutes. Naomi Watts is awkward and often far too emotional about everything that isn’t her son – counting her yet another actress incapable of communicating maternal fear without turning it into a dry hump version of an emoting exercise better left in high school drama clubs. Dorfman (whose work in Panic deserves to seen at least by a third of this film’s audience) conveys his little grown up philosopher in a kid’s body to us with the best of his ability, almost winking, as if, at eight or nine (or however old he is), he realizes you have to do “one for them, one for yourself”. The Ring is so one for them.

(3/4)


The Trials of Henry Kissinger
A documentary film by
grade: B-

I Wonder what our government is doing now that will come out warts-and-all in thirty years? Kissinger may have been an enigmatic man, but we rarely catch a glimpse of him, or I should say, we never get a sense of him as a person. Maybe that’s not the point – but I think it’s still somehow necessary. The film is oddly structured: At first stating his accomplishments, then a garden variety bio, and finally a scathing rapid-fire of accusation and “irrefutable” evidence against him on the matters of sending troops into neutral Cambodia, staging a counterproductive coup in Chile and idly allowing Indonesia to enact genocide upon neighboring Timor during a violent annex. I wondered if the director was attempting to create an objective dialogue with the audience. If so, perhaps he need not have taken to heart quite so feverishly the concept mentioned by Brian Cox (as Robert McKee in Adaptation) wherin the third act is what affects your audience on their way out. (That could’ve been confusing, I know, as Brian Cox also narrated this film). The film is to anti-Kissinger to be called The Trials of Henry Kissinger;  I’m not sure I can suggest another title without being too vicious. I both love and hate films like this. I love to watch edgy exposes on the dark side of politics. Trouble is, my suspicion and disbelief spoils any pleasure I may derive from these little history lessons.

(3/5)


Below
Directed by David Twohy
Starring: Bruce Greenwood, Holt McCallany, Olivia Williams, Jason Flemying, et al.
grade: B-

Has a distinct The X-Files quality to it (relative lack of theatrical urgency, i.e. – small screen suits) right down to the relative simplicity of its resolution – and the genuine attention to sustaining suspense that’s cranked up from the word go. The twist itself isn’t so much a twist as a confirmation of our outright suspicions; the details don’t really add much depth (forgive the pun) to the characters’ guilt or lack thereof, which remains unchanging despite the emerging Big Dark Secret. Great scene where supernatural happenings trigger characters to hypothesize that they might be dead and not know it yet. The quickness with which this twist is abandoned – an almost cinematic laugh at how ludicrous the very suggestion of such an in-between existence is – suggests a deliberate comment on this oft-mimicked theme. Easily the best submarine movie in years and a decided break from the tedious, consistently derivative genre entries of late (U-571 and K-19: The Widowmaker spring clumsily to mind); Perhaps simply leaving numbers out of the title does the trick? Dialogue is of particular
rata-tat-tat note, most of it ostensibly clever, often witty and rarely dull. (There’s a great scene where a message is passed through the submarine and before we know it, the message’s words and nuances change just slightly enough to flavor supporting characters, moving just fast enough for us to completely ignore this as the standard expository introduction to the length and population of the boat, as found in nearly every sub flick). Script was authored by Twohy, Lucas Sussman and Darren Aronofsky, who was planning to direct but made Requiem for a Dream instead (thank God). Solid cast, too, proving that Twohy has no trouble with actors or craft, but only lacks the drive to commit
substance to his films (which makes me wonder how he penned something as brilliant as The Fugitive). Bruce Greenwood, as I’ve said before, has the makings of a star; bit actor Holt McCallany needs more exposure, too; Olivia Williams manages to radiate sex appeal from the moment she steps on the boat. Supernatural element is kept suggestive and hallucinatory, a careful tactic to suggest personal and group delusion. One better, it allows Williams to utter a phrase we so rarely hear in films of this sort: “Let’s say what we’re all thinking”.

[One final note: Twohy seems to have a massive hard-on for the Alien series (see: Pitch Black, a film I lovingly branded thus: “Take one part Alien, one part Aliens and one part Alien 3 – mix them together among a druggy set of (sometimes) visually independent images and season with a commanding – if over-the-top – performance by Vin Diesel and you’ve got an action movie that’s so bad its almost good.” Good bit of Below, in imagery and technique, recalls the editing and sound scheme of the first film in that series. The long, cluttered, creaking vessel that contains a host of evil – but, alternately [the vessel] is the only thing protecting its human passengers from the outer elements.)]

(3/9)


Moonlight Mile
Written and Directed by Brad Siberling
Starring: Jake Gyllenhal, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, Dabney Coleman, et al.
grade: B

What struck me most, in the film, was how easily and clearly the director’s (Brad Silberling) voice – on whose personal experience the film was VERY loosely based – was communicated [by all reports, he gleaned the aesthetic of loss, dealings with in-laws and moving on from his girlfriend’s murder in 1982]. Dustin Hoffman publicly complained that the film was under-marketed, but I feel like that makes logical sense: How do you market a film like this – a) without giving away what the film is really about, namely, the predicament of being honest at the very worst time; and b) without making it a romance, which is certainly is not; and c) on general principle, how do you sell such a unique tone? Previously, Silberling directed City of Angels, (that highly suspicious re-make of Wings of Desire) about an angel who can hear everyone’s thoughts – but yearns to feel human love. That film was obviously all about making money, but the dour – almost elegiac – tone he invested in it, made the goopy excesses almost bearable. Here, Sarandon and Hoffman play characters who propel the actors’ usual personas into carefully thought out, deeply lived-in parents. Watching Hoffman grow exceedingly more manipulative as he pushes back his own need to confront loss and, instead, focuses his energies on business, couldn’t have ended more beautifully than his crying session on the couch with Gyllenhal (who, as a main character, finally seems to be awake enough to exist – see: Donnie Darko, The Good Girl for a glimpse of what he looks like as a sleepwalker). As both parents seem to suspend themselves on a tightrope, balancing between flat-out using Gyllenhal as a temporary stand-in for their daughter and, in resenting his individuality, Silberling delights in watching these parents realize the profound – if mechanically obvious – truth that accepting their deceased daughter as such, and by making plans to move on (Sarandon’s list, Hoffman’s window repair) can rally them closer to resolution. The film seems to hold to that very notion, as Gyllenhal takes to the road with Alexia Landau (who is particularly terrific, a less intimidating version of Clair Forlani, I think), and everyone lives happily every after. In a film with this many overlapping tones (and, as is par for the course with cross-genre films), everything feels symmetrically engineered to the very last plot point. Moonlight Mile is still rather charming, and inherantly watchable that even supremely outrageous courtroom scenes – where characters run wild with long, epiphany-laden soliloquies – feel almost right. Easily one of the best Hollywood dramas I’ve seen in ages. It’s a shame it didn’t make more money. It reminds of me of something Harvey Weinstein said: (on Chicago‘s success) “If you can get it to gross $150 million, that means people don’t have to make blockbusters that are idiotic.” I felt like I was reaching when I compared Unfaithful to In the Bedroom in its depiction of families who commit murder and get away with it. Moonlight Mile reminded me of In the Bedroom too, but for a much more pleasant reason – because both films seem to present families in a way much closer to how they really tend to be.

(3/10)


In addition to being a very primitive people, the Innuits clearly aren’t born filmmakers, as I found out when I attempted (unsuccessfully) to trudge through the bafflingly acclaimed Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, a film whose digital mise-en-scene is strikingly familiar to that of porn, and whose narrative I found confusing to the point of frustration. What annoyed me most, though, was the betrayal of universal praise – similar to last year’s Himalaya – not for the film itself, but for the world it seems to be peering in on. Folks, if you want a documentary, bloody well help yourselves to one. Atanarjuat isn’t really a fiction film so much as it’s a rambling cornucopia of everyday life with a story of jealously and exile that’s so forced (it doesn’t help that the actors are defined by the prefix non-), and a world that’s so foreign – it’s almost insulting that the film is

Roger Dodger
Written and Directed by Dylan Kidd
Starring: Campbell Scott, Jennifer Beals, Elizabeth Berkeley, Isabella Rossellini
        and Jesse Eisenberg.
grade: C+

The film, much like the title character (sorta) Roger’s approach, is all about manipulation. Point B is left to rot and boil while point A joyfully skips over its carcass, eyes fixed on point C’s sexy ass. Roger Dodger takes one bracing, illogical turn – and then another. Writer-director Dylan Kidd sets up the Scott character as a talker – a bluntly hateful one – and follows this up with a series of exchanges between himself, his nephew (Eisenberg) and two nymphets. These exchanges – which we’ll politely dub the second act – still feel as if they’re in the midst of setting this character up (but, in actuality, its no more than stuck tires spinning in the mud). When we finally understand that the character actually yearns to accept something similar to love (maybe) – and has botched it by sleeping with a married woman – the second illogical turn comes: Instead of Roger facing up to the failure of his actions – by seeing the value in his nephew’s idealistic, love-conquers-all world view – there’s this goofy scene, at close, where Roger visits his sister After All These Years and helps his nephew and his high school cronies with their lady problems. Roger is a pretty major character (savoring the efficiently engineered surprises delivered in the dialogue – and watching Scott deliver it – almost makes a first viewing worthwhile). Kidd, however, wastes a perfect opportunity to look closer at Roger (we keep getting distracted by the familial skeletons/jealous rage/alcoholism subplots that never seem to materialize into anything), and another to look closer at the full edge to his corruption of his nephew, and yet another to dissect whether Roger’s career as a copy writer for an advertising agency is in any way responsible for his coolly wretched state. Trying to float by on dialogue alone, its never more than a terribly amateurish film, shot in completely unnecessary you-are-there, semi glossy Dogme 95 shakicam, and banged out without thought of structure or thematic consistency.

(3/16)


Welcome to Collinwood
Adapted for the screen and Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Michael Jeter, William H. Macy, Isaiah Washington, Patricia Clarkson,
        Luis Guzman, Jennifer Esposito, Andrew Davoli and George Clooney.
grade: B-

It’s indie fluff – and the whole affair smacks of an excuse for everyone involved to get some serious overacting out of their respective systems. Using staggering poverty and old-fashioned slapstick, though, was as good an idea as hiring a cast of this caliber (it pays to be a well respected producer like Steven Soderbergh) to bump the low rent theatricality of the piece up a notch. Eventually, it all adds up to something just south of anti-climactic, but the attention to how little pressure appears to be on the viewer complements it as a remake of the 1958 Marcello Mastroianni vehicle, Big Deal on Madonna Street. Calling it anything more than a diversion, though, is pure delusion.

(3/16)


The Quiet American
Directed by Philip Noyce
Starring: Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen and Tzi Ma.
grade: B

The strong air of Graham Greene (one of the best reasons I know of to get voice-over out of the closet) permeates The Quiet American like a druggy haze, giving Caine unspoken license to ploy his volatile boost of world wearied cynicism mixed with a master’s edge of adaptive bliss and the quietly dispensed pleasantries that give way to a casual existence of pure and utter security of self. In short: Caine is still the big reason Noyce’s film is so successful. Not to discount Fraser, or Do Thi Hai Yen or even Tzi Ma, but the film is a character’s centerpiece, a memorable tread of the same depths of self-pity which plagued Joseph Cotten in The Third Man and Ralph Fiennes in The End of the Affair. As love triangles go, this one is a little too abstract to work with such a weak female counterpoint (or, more truthfully, female-as-metaphor counterpoint); The triangle seems forgotten quite often – which is sometimes more of a blessing than at other times – but the constant white-washing and redefinition of Fraser and Caine’s relationship has a much more vivid and interesting visage to it, tending towards periods of genuine old-timey intrigue. The political swirl of anti-Communist paranoia, greedy American intervention and journalistic neutrality is totally revitalized here. Sequences of war violence are terrifically human – something I remember Noyce demonstrating in the criminally underrated Clear and Present Danger.

(3/19)


Personal Velocity
Written and Directed by Rebecca Miller (based upon her short stories)
Starring: Kyra Sedgewick, Parker Posey, Fairuza Balk, Leo Fitzpatrick, et al.
grade: B-

Another traumatic grouping of stories of personal trauma that would ordinarily – almost certainly – feel like it were lost somewhere in the translation between Lifetime and IFC. Luckily, Rebecca Miller is quite good at giving the film a uniquely literary feel (though her prose ain’t bad, the constant third person narration sounds more and more like that of a Noah Baumbach film and Personal Velocity elapses). She sculpts her actresses to perform halfway between slumming and being cast – beautifully – against type. An emotionally (and, to a degree, physically) unrecognizable Sedgewick – playing a part usually reserved for Jennifer Jason Leigh – easily gets the most mileage of the three, playing a woman who stops just short of icy, defying all sympathy we might have for her; Posey plays what amounts to a career hypocrite (a more mature spin on her usual shtick) – with daddy issues to boot (this segment also plays like Hal Hartley devoid of dark comedy); and Balk, the only one of the three who has already begun a career of debasing her image (see The Craft and American History X), realizes the duality of independence by pondering fate and the precious nature of life. (Sarcasm alert! That sentence reads like it fell out of a disease-of-the-week movie trailer.) Through excessively cathartic piano tinkling in a digital, typically indie frame, Miller has managed to  prove herself an incredibly skillful director. Unfortunately, once its over, it relies far too much on metonymy to make a ripple as a piece of cinema.

(3/20)


The Four Feathers
Directed by Shekhar Kapur
Starring: Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Djimon Hinsou and Kate Hudson.
grade: C

On a shelf just below the soapy ethical strong holdings of Legends of the Fall, gaze directed squarely – and enviously – at The English Patient, Kapur’s film contains a barrage of terrific performances, a number of well staged desert action sequences, and enough filler and hokum to foolishly spoil it all. Ledger and Bentley, disappearing into period roles with a gusto and success I couldn’t have begun to expect, are the crowning achievements of what director Kapur seems, quite honestly, to find depth in. The film’s love triangle is so weak, and so unsupported by the relative fury and proportion of its wartime sketching, one almost wonders why a filmmaker would subject his audience to such a banal subplot in the face of such a towering, often exciting set of showdowns between the Brits and the Mardis (however broadly painted – I still don’t understand a wit of the political machinations, but can vaguely coalesce through previous exposure to the oft hammered concept of English Colonialism as it appears in motion pictures). Hinsou is right on the money – playing his well treaded, fire eyed slave role, and Hudson doesn’t embarrass herself. What makes the film – often too silly for words – bearable, is the sense that Kapur has grounded everything in Robert Richardson’s cinematography. The film looks beautiful, framed as most epics are, with a sense that the DP is allowed to experiment heavily with transition and establishing shots, and can inflict a good dose of his style into the rest of the film. (Albeit, not enough to lift some of the more heavy-handed themes – the church confrontation between Ledger and Hudson has the workings of deliberate comedy). There is certainly enough to look at that we are, at the very least, lulled by the imagery, and given an opportunity to tune out the whining sound of these nutty British folk and their feelings.
 

(3/21)


Comedian
Directed by
Featuring: Jerry Seinfeld, Orney Adams, Colin Quinn, George Shapiro, et al.
grade: C-

There’s nothing to watch. Our fearless documentation has clearly fashioned a compare and contrast piece, but it backfires, revealing not the young comedian’s break into the business vs. the established comic’s return to the stage, but revealing instead a funny man (Seinfeld) and another deeply self conscious – frankly – unfunny man. (Too often, it also feels like a vindication for Jerry, as if getting back into comedy required him to personally commission his feelings about closeting his ego for a short while. The executive producer credit doesn’t help matters). Also, in the spirit of drawing attention towards the film as a documentary and not as a segue to Jerry’s routine, we see very little actual stand-up, making the interesting but largely ignored inter workings of perfecting a routine seem like a build-up without a release. And what’s worse, among Seinfeld’s endless entourage of famous friends is Bill Cosby – whose routine so awes Jerry that he just has to tell Cosby that “…it’s an honor to even know you”. Yeah, too bad the rest of us aren’t privy to the two and a half hour set Cosby was doing that everyone in the film can’t stop talking about (most notably, Chris Rock). To watch these comedians revere, briefly, their idol is appropriate – and gives a certainly fleeting insight into the progression of the craft. Too bad there’s nothing to watch for the rest of the seemingly endless ninety-six minute running time.

(3/24)


Femme Fatale
Starring: Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Antonio Banderas, Gregg Henry and Peter Coyote.
Written and Directed by Brian De Palma
grade: B+

If you’ve never thought of dialogue as a crutch before (why do you think so many foreign films are so much more hypnotic than English films), perhaps you should take a look at how stuffy and purposefully minimal De Palma’s use of it is in Femme Fatale. It’s one of a rather bountiful variety of tricks in the director’s most recent throwaway – and easily his best work to date (hyperbole alert!). To call the film trash is understating – and mis-stating – its relatively unique nature. De Palma has crafted the suspense tactic into an entire movie, a cinematic taffy: ever spinning, and growing thicker and thinner, alternately, on coherence. Occasionally using split screen to illustrate two viewpoints, occasionally substituting one of the viewpoints for an entirely unseen character, sometimes pulling the rug out from this chinese box only to do a changeover into a surprise twist that’s carefully plotted to almost look like face value, until it isn’t – and then it is. Confused? Very. Entertained? Moreso than nearly any film I’ve seen this year. Not only is there never a dull – or sexy – moment, there is never so much as a rest or a breather. The plot dimensions feel stupid, then smart, then stupid, then smart again (the dialogue feels like it betrays it – it doesn’t, really, though). Romijn-Stamos and Banderas are terrific fun together, the former playing a double-crossing nymphet to the latter’s double-crossed paparazzi photographer – each of them certainly in on the joke.

(3/25)


The Grey Zone
Written and Directed by Tim Blake Nelson
(Based upon his play)
Starring: David Arquette, Harvey Keitel, Allen Corduner, Mira Sorvino, et al.
grade: B-

Tim Blake Nelson’s film dallies in a British-TV style world (It’s objective, too, retaining no particular character as a definitive focal point), announcing itself as a historical account with lengthy pre- and post- film titles of explanation, and consistently muting its historical description with cement-heavy thematic weight and Mamet-esque speech rhythms (leftover, no doubt, from Nelson’s play, on which the film is based). It’s the “story” of the Sonderkomando, Jews who helped the Nazis gas, process and dispose of their own people in exchange for a few months more to live, extra food and bed linens. Nelson seems somehow torn between exposing this corner of history to the light as an unprejudiced statement of what has happened and dissecting the savage self-hatred that went into these people’s daily lives (a dividing line between many is the idea of escape vs. suicide in the act of destroying the ovens; Many state that they don’t want to live with what they’ve done – a abysmal concept, to be sure). As a holocaust film, it’s a sobering, obsessively composed vision of unsparing paradox: What meaning is there in lives that have, for all intensive purposes, already ended? (He doesn’t make this as clear as he could, though – hinting through unsure oven workers that no group of Sonderkomando has lived past four months – and slowly the idea dawns on you that the Nazis have been up front with these men, and told they have no intention of letting them live). The film eventually culls a narrative that includes the duty-weary, equally self-loathing (not to mention constantly drunk) commandant Muhsfeldt (a fitting Keitel, who also executive produced), several tortured workers (including David Arquette whose performance seems to coast on the phrase “by comparison”, i.e. – it’s like nothing he’s done to date), a strong-willed doctor (the always-effective Allan Corduner) and several women who are sneaking gunpowder into the ovens, developing a plan to destroy the devices. There’s a nagging feeling that none of the characters seem to be grounded in any sort of humanity (this was, after all, an emotional event), and one can’t help wondering if Nelson’s intention is to serve the less effective, significantly darker and more abstract sense of the broad, hypothetical nature of his film. He’s thinking, perhaps, that these characters inhabit a world  constructed of shocking credos and philosophies than the hell they’re truly inhabiting. He also never seems comfortable painting them as the antiheroic “traitors” they seem fashion themselves. He follows the heavy, crushing O with the heavier, crushed The Grey Zone. Inappropriate pun time: I’m just going to start calling him Tim Bleak Nelson.
 

(3/26)


Abandon
Adapted and Directed by Stephen Gaghan
With: Katie Holmes, Benjamin Bratt, Charlie Hunnam, Zooey Deschanell, Tony Goldwyn
        and Gabrielle Union.
grade: C+

A variation on The Talented Mr. Ripley for people who don’t like their movies to resemble literature – in any way, shape or form. It’s more like a heady A&E series, gurgling with a Katie Holmes performance where she tries not to act like a grown-up teenager. Rarely does the film decide – with any commitment – that exploring the psychology of its main character is more valuable than exploring the disappearing and reappearing Heath Ledger look-a-like (Charlie Hunnam). It is, however, quite obvious from the get-go that Stephen Gaghan is straining as hard as he can muster to transform this tale into something of worth. He is certainly due for the effort, but the final product is still convoluted to nary a purpose, (except perhaps to give Zooey Deschanell – Holmes’ deadpan hornball of a roommate – yet another instance to prove why she’s one of the best character actresses you almost recognize).

(3/28)

Gave SwimFan 33 minutes of my time, deciding first that there was no way a guy would choose Erika Christensen over, uh, anyone really, and, second, that there was little else this low-riding, packaged-to-be-sold teen Harlequin romance film could do to surprise me.


The Truth About Charlie
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Starring: Thandie Newton, Mark Wahlberg, Tim Robbins, et al.
grade: C+

It’s not that Wahlberg spoils the show, exactly – it’s that Newton is so perfect, that pretty much anyone they cast alongside ends up whiling in transparency. Robbins has some great oddball quips, brilliant in the purposefully forced (and hilariously awkward) delivery he employs as he plays shady is as shady does (briefly). As my wife said, “That takes some balls to remake Charade“: A crudely put piece of honesty that almost completely overshadows Jonathan Demme’s quasi-French New Wave homage. He can’t seem to make the twists of Charade as palpable or as fun, only appearing to enjoy the chaos he creates rather than celebrating the actual unfolding or, more importantly, its effect on poor Regina (Newton). He’s only having fun, though, and the Paris atmosphere is mighty easy to succomb to, even when the film appears to be breaking a sweat running in place on the plot treadmill. Had The Truth About Charlie‘s progression been a bit less airy (it doesn’t feel like much is happening and it feels like it takes a long time for it to not happen), its mysteries a bit more engrossing (by the time all is revealed, there’s no more weight or depth to it than our original suspicions suggested), and its male lead not Wahlberg but, instead, his reoccuring co-star (the oft-proclaimed risen Cary Grant) George Clooney – – – The Truth About Charlie might not sit on the losing side of my wife’s bold proclamation regarding Demme’s cajones.

[Wow! I reviewed Charade in May of 2000! How masterful of me!]

[On second thought, don’t read that review. It’s written by the less masterful me, nearly three years my junior.]
 

(3/29)


Red Dragon
Directed by Brett Ratner
Written by Ted Tally
Starring: Edward Norton, Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson, Mary-Louise Parker,
        Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Harvey Keitel.
grade: B-

A real page-turner of a movie – full of unnecessarily high profile stars in small parts. Easily Ratner’s only complete success behind the lens (I assume it was intimidation that steered him from pointing out to Keitel that his performance blows); Helps that Norton is so deft at carrying a movie in weighty company like Hopkins (he nails the early tottering of an un-hunted killer in a free world) and Fiennes (whose mere presence is so terrifying, his screen time never allows the viewer to look away from him). It’s the story that eventually wins the day. Manhunter or no Manhunter (and this is no Manhunter), Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon is a chilling procedural, not necessarily because we already fear Lecter but, rather, because of the long, bizarre stretches where we’re just flat-out immersed in the dark, rancorous world of multiple homicide and tortured obsession. Though it doesn’t swim in the entertainment-happy, operatic dimensions last year’s Hannibal was content to, Red Dragon clunks like a studio picture tends to – whiling in the status quo on just about every level – and never comes anywhere close to the hushed, ceaselessly brilliant grey of Silence of the Lambs. But everyone was much more interested in making comparisons between Michael Mann’s Manhunter and this film. To be sure – Ratner goes neither the stylistic or minimalistic route Mann chose, instead, he gives us the much less profound (and so much more profitable) slick-thriller-as-a-beach-paperback. And I’m just can’t argue with it.

(3/29)


The Wild Thornberrys Movie
Directed by Jeff McGrath and Cathy Malkasian
grade: B-

Innate goodness is a hard quality to ignore, but the film is so thoroughly shut before it opens, it’s almost hard to let the simplicity be anything more than a bag on my hip as I sprint towards the end credits. I’d blame it on the annoying cuteness of these characters if they weren’t so human and flawed. Maybe that’s why I find it easy to believe that communicating with animals on our terms is a more stable candidate for the theme of the film than, say, children can talk to animals because all animals have the mind capacity of children. You can stop me whenever you think I’ve past the overanalyzed point of no return.

(3/31)


Secretary
Directed by Steven Shainberg
Starring: Maggie Gyllenhal, James Spader, Lesley Ann Warren and Jeremy Davies.
grade: B+

The writer whose story this film is based upon worked as a hooker in Times Square for twenty-five years. Her stories tend to deal with sexually bizarre themes, as in Steven Shainberg’s Secretary, a film that keeps the themes of dominance and submission so proactively in the forefront of the film, its almost a surprise when you get a sense of where the whole thing is headed. This use of taboo lifestyles without subjectivity (or batting an eye) is obviously not a usual trend, and I was reminded quite often of Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas, with its envelope-pushing insistance on being, first and foremost, a love story. Shainberg’s world is so immodest, and his actors so succinct, (dare I say, driven) that even when he dives into visually playful and character breaking fantasies, they seem somehow less obtuse than the sobriety taking place on the main stage. Gyllenhal took most of the kudos (and, indeed, this year’s Oscar snub, a seeming nod – along Emily Mortimer in Lovely & Amazing – by the Academy, beaming the message actresses who debase themselves would only be rewarded if they appeared in accepted, tasteful (elongated nose) sorts of films) and, indeed, Miss Maggie is absolutely stunning in the film, giving the sort of performance that recalls her many recent turns as a background prop, tinged with the same sort of credibility-proving accomplishment we’re glad to see her wear (the same way we envision Adrien Brody never having to slave away in the bit parts he’s collected over the last few years). Spader, too, echoes some of his best work, particularly that of the desperately honest Graham in sex, lies and videotape. There are some rough spots: Davies is terrific, but Shainberg doesn’t seem to know what to do with him most of the time, and a subplot involving Gyllenhal’s drunken father flirts with its participation in explaining her state but falls flat because of how early Shainberg forces us to accept the fact that the movie is in no way, shape or form about examining (or forgiving/apologizing for) her state. Most of all, though, Secretary, in all its twisted brilliance, tells a terrific love story, neck in neck with PT Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (in more ways than one) for the best one I’ve seen this year (or last year – it’s friggin’ April, man).

(4/7)


Rabbit-Proof Fence
Directed by Philip Noyce
grade: B-

“Over-heated TV movie with sumptous cinematography” oughta cover it. Hard not to get caught up in what’s going on when the director is standing behind you, pushing your nose into it full-force, whispering little tidbits of garish historical generalization into your ear as the whole thing elapses. Perhaps it never occured to anyone that the journey of these three little girls, pursued in such a nazi-esque context, probably shouldn’t be framed in the wise of an action-adventure movie. (Nevertheless, it does function above and beyond its parameters, to quite thrilling results, as long as you’re willing to separate your emotion from your adrenaline which, as you can tell from the grade, I had no trouble doing.) Kept waiting for the Peter Gabriel score to grab hold of me the way it was advertised to – but it doesn’t seem to kick in until the end credits standing as it does, just outside of the action for the duration of the film, as if reduced to background noise. Branagh is no better or worse than he needs to be, but the three female leads – you’ll forgive a young man for plum misplacing their names – are astounding, never missing a beat or landing lame.

(4/15)


Bloody Sunday
Directed by Paul Greengrass
grade: A

Besides being a staggering work of cinema verite – you’re instantly lost in this remarkably real-feeling world – Bloody Sunday is one of the most prolific examples of the value of non-violent demonstration, and the savage habit man has of contradicting himself. I can see where people may find cause to criticize the film on the basis that it appears to be lopsided in favor of the Irish. In fact, it’s a rather objective account of aggressor vs. repressed, staged in a go-for-broke re-creation that, when viewed against black and white photographs/eyewitness accounts from that day, is all the more admirable because there aren’t scores of inconsistencies and rows of fingers being pointed in contradiction. Greengrass uses just the right dose of warts-and-all sloshing around with terrifically realized cross cutting between the Brits and the Irish marchers.

(4/22)


The Believer
Directed by Henry Bean
grade: D

This movie’s silly – and what’s more, it’s silly for bothering. Bean’s idea seems courageous; Not so much because of what it entails – a self-hating Jew who also happens to be a neo-nazi/white supremacist/budding fascist at heart – but because it sounds like a right whopping challenge. “Really”, I thought. “How is he going to pull that off?” In a word, he: “Doesn’t”. Instead, Bean seems to rely, (as Romper Stomper director Goeffrey Wright did) on his lead performers’ scenery-scorching, evilly magnetic turn to guide everything from narrative thrust to (in this case) narrative existence. Ryan Gosling’s sadistic nazi who turns into niceboy Jew when his sometimes girlfriend (a way out there Summer Phoenix) needs Torah lessons (to expand her “understanding of western texts”) is mostly smoke and mirrors; he’s a good actor drowning in a goofy, underbaked premise. That Bean can’t seem to flesh out this main character – his prime (scatch that, only) concern – with any conclusive coherence, is hardly as much of a problem as his horribly confused worldview in which every character has as much trouble sticking to a single, viable belief as they do keeping a straight face amdist a clutter of indie-movie cliches. The home video effects-lookin’ slow motion combined with the downright sloppy mise-en-scene (there’s a bunch of em’, but my favorite is the shot of Gosling listening to barely audible opera music on his headphones, a shot which is interrupted by a louder voice-over – that takes forever to lead into the next scene – of Gosling as a young boy arguing with the teacher in a Hebrew school; I thought: “Is he listening to an old tape of his argument with soothing opera music over it like some people mix Pachabel’s “Canon” with ocean sounds?”). A number of people have said they liked this film better when it was called American History X. (That, believe it or not, sounds much like an insult to that film).

(4/25)

2003 Reviews

November 13, 2009

Willard
Directed by Glen Morgan
grade: B-

A perfect vehicle for Glover, an actor I’ve sorely missed. The opening ten minutes or so are almost Lynchian (with Glover being called without introduction by his aging – to put it lightly – mother to the duty of the basement rats), and they open into a story line that’s unfortunately not milked hard enough for its flights of fancy, instead grounding the film in the same cinematic transcendence of television that we came to expect from The X-Files (Glen Morgan was a former writer on the show). Simplistic to a fault – most notably leaving Harring with nothing to do but stand around and look gorgeous – Willard could have done with more Tim Burton/Matilda (read: arty) shocks than the obvious leaning it has towards complete and utter camp. There are genuinely disturbing moments (Glover instructing the rats to “Tear it!”, “Tear it!” in several scene is particularly chilling), and a solid, thankless performance by Ermey – whose role is closer to his role as a DI in Full Metal Jacket than he’s been in forever (or at least since he reprised it in The Frighteners). All in all, a superb choice for a Friday night at the run-down local theater, where unforgiving packs of teenagers roam free. Loudly.

(3/21)


The Core
Directed by Jon Amiel
grade: B

Best popcorn movie since Signs. Every character does pretty much one variation on their idiosyncracy before they predictably overcome their faults – no matter how villainous. The beauty lies in the cast – hiring Eckhart, Swank, Tucci, Lindo, Woodard, Karyo, Qualls, Greenwood and Jenkins pays off big time, allowing these actors, a number of them somewhat distinguished, to look like they’re having a good time. The feeling rubs off on the audience in ways I couldn’t have begun to expect and, in this context, can’t begin to explain. Everything scientific is so hypothetical, the special effects play as if found in a Cracker Jack box (alongside their Christian Apocalypse Thriller prototypes), and all the excitement feels so purposefully disposable, so undeniably fun, you can’t help but cheer as things get dumber and dumber as this “team” gets closer and closer to the center of the earth. If Bruckheimer’s disaster film was a Mercedes, surely Amiel’s is a Kia.

Dude. I’ll take the Kia.

(4/1)


Winged Migration
Directed by Jacques Perrin
grade: B

Hypnotic, often photographically superior to National Geographic by a country mile, but rarely structured with any coherence. More like a wondrous festival of raw birdy footage; Albeit, the scenario of Perrin’s filmed world is taken from the rods and cones of childrens eyes; His thrilling cinematography bears the same youngsters’ wonder felt flowing out of his 1996 masterwork Microcosmos. Here, the drama of the bird world feels a little more like a reach, with the music, though pretty, relied on to do most of the stretching. Eventually, what stays with us is the curiousity of the level shots that seem to stay parallel with the birds, and the sheer vastness, in one scene, of penguins. Too often, the photography seems to be numbing us with similarities and repetitions, as if either showing off the chops of these frames or, worse, lumping too much of the material together to discern (which results in an eventual zone out, as if your mind is sending an auto-response to the film that’s trying to interact with it).

(4/5)


Spellbound
Directed by Jeff Blitz
grade: B

So suspenseful, so funny, so full of little bits of luck, but it never taps into the spelling bee subculture it seems to be feeling around for. The xylophone/synthesizer music mix is somehow obviously beneath the film and telling these American Heartland Stories is rarely more than a mask for out-and-out hilarity at the expense (?) of the trusting subject. Still, it’s just plain gripping. It looks like mud, for some reason [explained by producer as amateur-itis], which just further enunciates the sentiment that the raw, natural drama of watching as someone scramble – in their mind – to make the pieces fit and choose the right letters is not as ho-hum as you’d expect and, Jesus, quite the contrary: Like most great documentaries, the art of it isn’t in the filmmaking or even the editing, but instead, is in the choice of subject and participants.

(4/6)


Dark Blue
Directed by Ron Shelton
grade: C-

I’d say it were an intriguing idea, perhaps even launch into a tyrade wherein I accuse the studio of dressing up and beating to death a terrific premise (originally penned by the almighty James Ellroy) – if only the whole thing didn’t feel like it were melded together using successful characters, themes and incidents from other, better films. (Kind of like the subplot in L.A. Confidential – the novel, mind – where the guy builds a sort of Frankenstein from little bits of dead people). Doesn’t help that Kurt Russell (every casting agent’s 5th choice after B-actors and unknowns) leads an almost universally miscast set of actors (Rhames is off the hook) and, for some reason, is directed by Ron Shelton. (I kept waiting for the L.A. Riots to become a sporty metaphor for a long dormant love, and for someone to win the big game, or burn down the biggest store, or, you know, something that would warrant the necessity of Shelton’s presence here). Patience turns out to be our primary reaction to most of this cold, cartoonish film; It continually drag its feet in cornering the actual Event and drawing from it a tangible parallel to the personal story of police corruption on the force. Mostly, though, its Russell playing Corrupt Cop/Wet Behind the Ears Cop with Dash Minock (acting as aptly as he’s named), a parlor trick that echoes far too specifically co-writer David Ayer’s previous success with Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in Training Day (This is so blatantly obvious, it’s likely even that folks who haven’t seen that film will be having L.A. deja vu). Plot pieces/themes range from spot-on concurrent with L.A. Confidential, to somewhere in the pool of The Corruptor and Snake Eyes (obsession over a massacre that’s merely the last in a string of cover-ups leading to a marginally larger conspiracy; older cop being set up and choosing redemption; the good cop being punished even after doing the right thing, respectively). When we finally get to the riots, they’re merely a wash of scattershot looting and video game-looking crooks banging on Kurt Russell’s car – which is fitting: Dark Blue is so stale that it leaves a disturbed, sick feeling in you without actually making any clear points about corruption, racism or any of the umpteen other modern, social troubles it bites off without chewing . If they were going to take such a loss on this one, perhaps MGM/UA (in association with Intermedia, the same lunkheads who brought us the vastly superior, similarly over-the-top 15 Minutes) could’ve just let Ellroy pen the script and direct the damn thing himself. At least his characters would’ve sounded somewhat cool.

(4/18)


Bulletproof Monk
Directed by Paul Hunter
grade: C

It’s a Jackie Chan movie without Jackie Chan (pause to let sink in); Ultimately, the American star (Sean William Scott) is leaps and bounds more charming than his Asian sensai-of-sorts (Chow Yun-Fat, whose broken English gives him a dud charge that’s – for sure – not his fault); And – sweet Jesus – it’s one of the definitive examples of why models really oughta stick to lookin’ pretty (though you gotta admit, the chick fight between sleepy-faced James King and sexy-for-pushing-forty Allison Doody doesn’t exactly require a Master’s in method acting from Juliard on either count). Still reeling that the villain had a device that could extrapolate and – via computer – analyze his prisoners’ minds. It’s something I’ve come to expect, though, in this off-shoot genre of the buddy comedy and the kung fu larf – – – though I didn’t expect that there would still be room to make the villain a Nazi whose fake secret-service henchman are scouring the earth for a scroll which has the power to grant ever lasting life. If this weren’t based upon a comic book – and if it weren’t halfway entertaining – I’d certainly begin the preceedings on an inquiry of my own: Is this an aborted script for Indiana Jones IV that somebody desperately didn’t want to see go to waste?

(4/19)


The Good Thief
Directed by Neil Jordan
grade: B+

A rather good heist film (prime feature is how successful it is, much like Ocean’s Eleven, at distracting the audience with sleight-of-hand); Nolte is absolutely smashing, rattling off the philosophy of gambling with smooth, world-weary charm – the kind we go to the movies to see; Supporting cast is particularly good, and Jordan’s clearly having a ball; Only complaint is that the whole thing seems to dispose of itself – a side effect, I think, of how wonderfully overboard Jordan goes to ensure that we see Nolte’s thief as good at heart (which is sabotaged by the watchful eye of morality, one that doesn’t exactly keep in the company of an assorted gallery of rogues – some cartoonish (a trans-sexual body builder), some just wierd (twin security guards), none given nearly as much judgement as Nolte, who seems to be proving his worth in every other scene (that it is disguised, mostly, with wit and vigor, is a terrific lemonade-from-life’s-lemons portrait); Ralph Fiennes’ uncredited cameo as a vicious art dealer almost exempts him from “the list” he found himself on, here in my head, after appearing in Maid in Manhattan (which – damn it – I’m going to end up seeing, if my wife has her way).

(4/25)


X2: X-Men United
Directed by Bryan Singer
grade: B

Characters feel more fun – the cleverness of each and every unique move or talent squeezed guiltily – yet satisfyingly – for a very quick-paced romp in Hollywood’s “safe blockbuster” garden. Film delivers its twisty formulas with the kind of crackling energy that was missing in much of the first film (on the other hand, this one never reaches the surprisingly dignified/subtle drama of the first film’s opening act). It turns out, these movies should probably have Ian McKellan’s Magneto as their main character instead of Hugh Jackman’s moody Wolverine (just to – if you’ll pardon the irony – lighten things the fuck up). Still, valiantly exasperating time at the movie house.

(5/2)


The Matrix Reloaded
Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski
grade: D

Remember in the first film when you could follow what was going on? Wasn’t that something? That courtesy is anything but extended here in the current installment of mega-mainstream dystopia. Set largely in the Battlefield Earth-approved caves and corroded sewers of the (machine run?!) city of Zion , The Matrix Reloaded devotes a lot of wasted time trying (in earnest) to ground the emotional connections of its popular characters, but ultimately presents the formerly badass heroes and villains as a group of clones actively failing Human Attributes 101 (Man that was corn-y; Mercy!). While it flounders in the techno-Prehistoria of the not-too-distant-future, we sit in nerve-wracking suspense, waiting with bated breath for those terrific jolts of techno-kung-fu-slow-mo-Ka-Blooey! (To little avail, alas, as endless scenes of reiteration and bewildering references to plot points both foreign and arcane are a flat-out chore to sit through, and almost entirely dominate the first couple of reels). Any true delight in these Pyrotechnical bruise sessions is fleeting; A more fitting example of the action genre’s assimilation of the video game culture into itself would be hard to find; So thoroughly does the film’s heavily digitized aggression choreography leave the viewer feeling impatient, we almost get the sensation that we’re waiting for a controller-dominant buddy to pass the joystick so we can have a go at it. To make matters worse, the filmmakers have also burrowed rather deeply into another popular cinematic parallel: The music video. Obviously, I could draw a corresponding line from the slow-motion sex/fight/dream/extended dance sequences’ snappy editing to the more fitting equivalent, i.e. the (M)TV-esque lack of direction given to the actors. The stilted, dissatisfying flavor in most of the performances is just one in an exceedingly long list of liabilities that can be written off to the twin directors, who’ve never been all that interested in their thespians – Bound included (And for the record, I said thespians). The greater issue at hand is how tedious the already established characters appear as written, constantly spewing lines of dialogue that sound nearly identical (in word and form) to those in the first film; Worse still are the characterizations which ride the same all-quippy-all-declarative-(all-laughable) vociferousness that defined Morpheous, Trinity, Neo and Agent Smith four years (and some change) ago. (The new free-minders (and mind controllers), of which there are a boatload, all seem to ape the woodenness of the principles, as if climbing on the don’t-upstage-the-expensive-slash-precious-slash-did I mention expensive?-backgrounds bandwagon). What’s unnerving about these derivative automatons is how their matched by the replacement of the formerly awe aspiring world – in classic sequel form – with a completely new environment that would qualify as anachronistic (to the first film, that is) if it weren’t so consistently bloated with alternating drab and posh settings, each with its own, independent context. So, instead of grounding itself, it becomes horribly episodic; With each sequence, you’ll grow increasingly eager for the climactic (and ironically rejuvenating) fourteen minute highway chase which provides the film’s sole fresh morsel. (I’m including the exhausting dry hump of both the “Neo vs. 100 Agent Smiths’ fight” and the “Stairwell/mixed weapons battle”, which fall under the aforementioned Playstation Burnout category). But these rather small observations are tiny, drop-in-the-bucket quibbles which barely begin to think of registering in the shadow of the film’s primary, driving defect, namely, its casual, progressively looming incoherence. Clearly structured as an epic (but released as barely half of one), The Matrix Reloaded moves very…very…slowly (to…say…the…least.) Even more discomforting is the way the Wachowski’s have arranged most of the scenes in the film in an almost arbitrary manner (I make comparison to BS Johnson’s experimental novel The Unfortunates, which comes complete with bound sections of printed material which are meant to be read in random order). By the end, I was so confused with the rambling, seemingly rule less universe that is The Matrix (and had, with such tenacity, given up trying to sort it out) that, in the end, I couldn’t help but voice an in-a-nutshell retort to the a whining audience, who were confoundingly tortured by the inevitably preposterous cliffhanger. How did they comprehend its wobbly chain of events? How could they have possibly understood enough of this film to cull even a smidgen of trepidation? I didn’t forget to study! I watched the first film just the day before!

[Ad note: It is now official. A film is no longer needed, only a marketing campaign. The Matrix Reloaded proves, without question, that a studio need not have a stellar hand as long as its poker face is intact. As ever: Over saturate, Create awareness, Saturate further, Open on a billion screens and Commence saturation. A quality experience is not necessary. Warner Bro$. in association with Village Road$how and Joel $ilver thank you for playing.]

(5/14)


Down With Love
Directed by Peyton Reed
grade: B

Occasionally mega-satisfying, always giddily bawdified battle-of-the-sexes type fluff; It’s often more send-up than recreation of Doris Day-recognized period larfs. Both principles utilize their maximum charm range – McGregor on an ever improving slant as far as the obligatory comparison with achingly similar roles-to-date, while Zelwegger seems to be treading just below progression; It’s Hyde Pierce who steals the show, though, creating a joltingly fresh riff on the neurotically bumbling-square-as-best-friend role, subsequently leaving the bare minimum in breathing room when he and McGregor begin volleying the rapid fire quips at one another. Big second act “revelation” notwithstanding (it seems to sit there, dead on the screen, even if you know there’s a great deal of running time remaining), Reed’s film is ultimately a triumph of clever plotting, too, alternately evoking the grand old tradition of the screwball comedy (though Down With Love‘s flat slapstick and blunt period reference sometimes ring clumbsily modern), and the ludicrously simple resolution of the most complicated of muddles which we associate with the guilty snack of the forthcoming sitcom boom. A perfect antidote to the loud, bloated zilch that’s no doubt playing in the auditoriums on both sides – and directly across – from it.

(5/17)


Stone Reader
Directed by Mark Moskowitz
grade: B

Effortlessly charming, if occasionally minus a speck of artistry (both aspects courtesy of Moskowitz, himself an extremely outgoing political ad director); Moskowitz’s incidental participation – unlike the forced necessity of showmen like Nick Broomfield and Michael Moore – reminded me of the casual Ross McElwee, the director of 1993’s Time Indefinite, a movie about a slightly more profound search.What I liked more than its occasionally fudged, carefully exhaustive long lost tome hunt, was the feeling that Moskowitz and his unending parade of literary critics, authors and creative writing teachers were equal to something more than their sum or their parts – that is, the genuine passion for the specific books they exhibit and their unselfish interest in promoting the fetish they so deliciously indulge themselves. Case in point (and big relief for the guy who was struggling to remember title after title, hoping to retain even one or two): The end credits contain a list of all the books discussed and (or) pictured in the film. Stone Reader never blossoms into anything more than a (sometimes too long) commercial for the benefits of a healthy reading habit, but it’s open dialogue with us – the audience – makes it far too engaging to feel condescended by (though you’ll feel poorly read to say the least); I won’t comment on the central force of the film – namely, the search for The Stones of Summer scribe Dow Mossman – because the actual journey is much like a good novel and ruining the ending is something I’ve found gets your punched in the face sometimes.

(5/23)


Bruce Almighty
Directed by Tom Shadyac
grade: C

When will Tom Shadyac stop the hurting? Inherently forgettable from the first frame to the last, with funny bits occasionally fudged for “momentum”. It’s an even more shamelessly crafted delivery device for Carrey’s one-man laugh-in than Liar, Liar. Bruce Almighty has the same paltry fixings at center (precious little attention or care is given to the central story line), probably wrought in an (admittedly founded) expectation that any sort of narrative would take a back seat to the movie’s obvious (and usually worthwhile) selling point: Namely, Jim Carrey’s explosive diarrhea of creative jokesterism. Because of our secure confidence that sappiness is on the way – and boy howdy it is – we are distracted from the comedy, thereby tainting the film’s sole pleasure. Even when Carrey is so unbelievably, irrevocably on (and it happens big time in his flip-out-on-live-TV scene), the movie is still never more than paradox: How are decent, hardworking cynics like ourselves supposed to howl with laughter at a film that mixes gross out humor with not-so-subtle Christian undertones? Burping and farting in church aren’t among the least funny things I’ve encountered – but they don’t rank very high if you’re over fourteen.

(5/25)


The Recruit
Directed by Roger Donaldson
grade: C-

While The Great Al Pacino quick pimps his grizzled bark, it’s all the steel wool eyed Farrell can do to not look embarrassed for him. Twists itself dizzy without ever leaving the ground. I think my biggest problem with it was how much effort went in to displaying the filmmakers’ research on the CIA and how little time was spent cooking up a story we’d ever – in a million years – believe. Our suspicion makes the CIA of the film seem ankle deep, leaving plenty of room for the focus to shift to a cat and mouse/tag-you’re-it/red herring/tete-a-tete/thrill-a-minute/is-it-or-isn’t-it?/con game that’s not worth the secret files its constantly sorta-but-not-really following. (So, it’s wishy-washy.) Another entry in the recent rise of CIA-themed “thrillers” (The Bourne Identity, Bad Company), all films with good meaning “dumb entertainment” value, the best of which is Spy Game (which is not a good sign). I think we had more luck with the FBI, movie dudes.

(5/26)


Love Liza
Directed by Todd Luiso
grade: D+

Love Liza is quintessentially idie – which is another way to say that it’s really rather bad. Laughing at a film that fails so miserably to blend its corroded bleakness-as-healing with off-the-wall, black “humor” is practically a no-brainer. An unwavering good sport, Philip Seymour Hoffman looks like he regrets being cast in this film, as if it were part of some sort of plea bargained community service. And given that, it’s a miracle that he’s actually quite good in it, too; The same cannot be said for his counterpart, Kathy Bates, who comes off of her superb turn in About Schmidt with what appears to be a heavy dose of non-direction (she’s playing what appears to be a borderline non-character, at that). Luiso doesn’t seem to know where he’s steering the film – and its a safe bet that if we asked him about that, he would tell us “that [it’s] the characters steer the film” (bad idea). But, if you were in the market for a film that, for a stretch of thirty minutes (at least), contains nothing more than Hoffman moping around his house, huffing gasoline – you’re found your match. I’m going to go back to the hunt for substance.

(5/31)


Finding Nemo
Directed by Andrew Stanton
grade: B

Finding Nemo opens with another Bambi-esque death which provides the foundation for a brilliant sense of self-parody, in which it appears to be mocking the very idea of grafting suburban culture onto an underwater world. Unfortunately, the long odyssey which follows gives way to a disappointingl, Pixar-for-the-course sorta vibe: No shrill surprises, no hoops of fire, just the mere presence of consistent – if monotonously unceremonious – quality. It dawns on you, as the startlingly familiar journey of two fish (on a rescue mission to boot) unfolds, that the smoothly elapsing narrative is starting – after four films – to play  more like a bunch of empty boxes carefully being filled with check marks; It retainins the recognizable elements which were successful in the past. Neither the spring-loaded, neverending charm of the Toy Story movies or the out-and-out inventiveness of Monsters, Inc. lingers on Finding Nemo, whose place in the categorically impressive features from the Disney-based animation studio stands closer to the safe, child-friendly (not child-at-heart) perkiness of A Bug’s Life – itself the weakest entry in the running. Brooks’ and Degeneres’ banter keeps the spark snapping in the sagging love-handles of about the same ten bloated minutes that should’ve been trimmed, mid-movie, from Monsters, Inc (somewhere between one too many similar bumps in the road – and the inevitable impossibility we cherish as the heroes put their strife safely behind them. Inevitably, then, we abandon hope that a new spin on the genre could be in the cards, and we start looking for the bizarre. Lo and behold, then, the best sequences take place in a dentist’s office, where the title character has been transplanted to a soothing, exotic fish aquarium, which turns out to be a segue for his real purpose: The rough gripped plastic bag, held (and shaken) by the dentist’s niece, who is known to Nemo’s tank buddies as “a fish killer”. Not bad, exactly – but you can see the wheels spinning in place far too often.

(5/31)


The Man Without a Past
Written and Directed by Aki Kaurismaki
grade: B

The quietest farce you may ever see; Kaurismaki’s direction is spot-on, and the film feels like a vision heavily influenced by Yasushiro Ozu, while Markku Peltola’s performance feels like a funnier, more tobacco-obsessed Takeshi Kitano. Looks more Technicolor than even Far From Heaven did, but the old-fashioned flavor doesn’t end there. We giddily watch as the main character pursues a romance with a Salvation Army worker, turns a religious band on to rockability and rediscovers his career as a welder. There’s a very relaxed simplicity to every event in the film, which we notice right away, as scenes that would ordinarily – in other films – take long set-ups and extra lines, are often cranked out through one, wordless camera angle. The Man Without a Past is clever – but mostly, it’s snare drum tight: It’s a film that eschews filler. Kaurismaki is clearly dedicated to the power of mise-en-scene – which makes it an added bonus that his dryly funny dialogue, even as subjugated by subtitles, works terrifically – better than any foreign film in recent memory.

(6/12)


Spider
Written and Directed by David Cronenberg
grade: B-

A Butcher Boy retread, purported to be scraped from the inside of a deranged mind but which, instead, finds its methodic schizophrenia profile usurped by its own structure, and blasted by irritatingly slight lift-the-veil storytelling. This leaves the film to play as if weighted by substance pre-packaged to be dismissed merely as a nutsy fever dream. The vastness Cronenberg and Fiennes invest in Mr. Cleg make the so-called crescendo of the piece unattainable practically by definition. I love the nuts and bolts of the potent central performance, but the exhilaration and transforming quality of it make it so overbearing, it eventually undermines its own end. (However – I defy audiences not to carry out of the theater with them the urgent need to behave with a fabricated, nervous tic). Fiennes is never anything less than completely and utterly stunning, always just south of unbearably bizarre, effortlessly eliciting pity for the most mundane of actions. It’s probably Cronenberg’s biggest success to date with an ensemble of actors; The entire cast, thick with lip smacking, cockney east end brogues – Gabriel Byrne, Miranda Richardson, Lynn Redgrave and John Neville (among others) – demonstrate the exact energy of the director’s usual peculiarities, sometimes in ways that (thank God) surmount the material (“Brilliant. It couldn’t have gone anywhere else. Just brilliant,” Neville says as Fiennes carefully fits a piece into a jigsaw puzzle.) Performances recommend it, to be sure, as long as you don’t inflate your expectations with Amy Taubin’s “ten best ever” hot air.


The Life of David Gale
Directed by Alan Parker
grade: C

I take hard objection to the film’s celebration of characters whose actions are just absolutely reprehensible and completely in contempt of what I perceive to be a reasonable understanding of capital punishment, but on the other hand, few movies have the right to be this entertaining (in a slick, political thriller context, mind), and I’d be lying if I didn’t plead absolute guilt to having been thinking about the damn movie since I watched it. Guilt.

[I’ll just come right out and say it: Laura Linney killing herself to help Kevin Spacey get executed (for her murder) so he can prove to the Governor of Texas that he knows at least one innocent person who was executed could play better if it were a sick joke. Instead, the film is absolutely nothing if not entirely grave. Once more, to support abolishing the death penalty (where people are killed) by killing oneself and allowing oneself to be executed (respectively), these two down-on-their-luck, liberal whiners achieve little more than the ultimate prank: Killing themselves in the name of ceasing to kill people. This doesn’t make a lick of sense. The twisty mechanics of the storyline may keep us interested (and the strangely brutal nature to nearly every event in the film certainly keeps the film feeling like a edgy, politically charged crime drama) – – – but, honestly, we’re talking some shrill hokum, here, gang.]

[And in case you’re wondering – Yes – I’m completely and utterly against the death penalty (as the mixed-up genius who wrote this film blatantly pretends to be). I hold with Nick Broomfield: “The violence of taking a life remains the same whether it is legally sanctioned or not. It introduces murder into our vocabulary of behavior”.]


Intacto
Directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
grade: B

The most un-self conscious Intacto gets is when, as it begins to divulge its own unique rules, it squarely, brilliantly, eschews batting it’s eye (In other words, the exposition is all story – but its up to you to spot just how in the hell any of it could possibly (under any circumstances whatsoever) make logical sense). I feel dirty writing anything that might betray its particulars; Relishing in this exotic world’s masterful weave is pretty much all the fun – and my gosh, what fun it is (what’s especially refreshing is that this world seems ripe for a supremely dumb metaphor that it never offends us by stating). Yeah, the not-so-great idea to include the cop subplot never really washes off – but it also never sells the concept (as a whole) out. (Which is not to say that Intacto – a film of varying intellectual rigor – is merely an art project; On the contrary – the film actually seems more grounded (if we separate it into film and exercise) in the style and pace of a studio picture. But I could scarcely add insult to injury if I were to point out that none of this really matters as you’re viewing it – as long as you steel yourself to: a) read nothing about the film’s premise; b) watch it in one viewing; and c) (for the love of God) pay attention.

[Don’t read this until you’ve seen the film: Or, if you were Charles Odell, you’d put it thusly: “Pretty much coasts on its terrific premise — luck actually behaves like an RPG stat, and can be transferred between people — but fails to realize the material’s emotional potential. Screams ‘remake me’.”]

(7/1)


Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas
Directed by Tim Johnson and Patrick Gilmore
grade: C-

Instead of attempting to upstage Ray Harryhausen’s work on the three existing Sinbad pictures (with our new and improved regime of computer enhanced digital effects), Dreamworks has, instead, worked up a lame vision wherein an anachronistic, cliché spewing Sinbad is made to prove that he is good at heart, while falling for a shrill, strong willed heroine who is about as likable as the (surprisingly few) snarling beasts the title character finds himself battling. Embracing one of the true failings of Jason and the Argonauts (another Harryhausen work), Sinbad is framed around Eris, the Goddess of Chaos, whose job, seemingly, is to meddle in the affairs of mortals. In Jason and the Argonauts, the Gods and Goddesses were goofy and seemed in violation of the brazen adventuring spirit of the rest of the picture. The trouble here is that Eris’s powers are relatively inconsistent and largely undefined, as are her motives (or, more clearly, lack thereof), which remain surprisingly abstract for a movie aimed at the youth. It’s as if Eris is, for lack of a better description, following a script. Nevertheless, she can’t possibly distract us from the lack of chemistry – or interest – the two stars (Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones) bring to the film. Both seem to be hammering the same note over and over: Pitt, in a permanent state of aborted boasting; Zeta-Jones, stuck in a stubborn diva fit so befitting her, I can only doubt sheer coincidence is dictating her animated form’s similarity to her physical one. Selected set pieces retain purpose (the alluring Sirens, made of water, are nifty), and Pfeiffer’s voice work as Eris is better than anything she’s done on screen since One Fine Day (which is more of a comparative victory than anything else). A certain air of deflated energy and adventure permeates throughout. Sinbad is at least time-consuming, which does not – to state the obvious – infer that it’s by any means entertaining.

(7/5)

Pistol Opera
Directed by Seijun Suzuki
grade: C

Remember folks, Suzuki’s Branded to Kill was once a lowly studio script before he transformed it into a crazed, stylistic fever dream (by all accounts). A heroic accomplishment to say the least – – even if you haven’t seen that film (which I haven’t). Pistol Opera, a loose remake of Suzuki’s aforementioned first landing on the map, is the same sort of jumbled mash note, only this time it seems to be striving to be that lowly studio picture. In a move that’s no large feat, Suzuki suddenly changes gears in the third act, turning the whole mediocre fantasy into a shaky delivery device for spectacularly outlandish visual stylization. Gorgeous compositions replete with terrifically vibrant color schemes and more-complicated-than-your-first-glance-might-lead-you-to-believe staging beg a certain amount of deserved attention, if not recognition (pieces of it look fuckin’ cool). But, alas, the whole thing isn’t much more than what it seems, felt especially in the actors – who can’t seem to bring any sort of jolt to their dull characters (pawns, all of them), and who rain on Suzuki’s peripheral battle between camp and moral depth. At its center, the celluloid representation of this mental struggle is, at the very least, good for a rather long head scratch – – if that’s your thing, of course. (It isn’t.)

[And was I the only one wondering if the main character’s younger sister was, perhaps, a bit too young to be entirely naked?]

(7/6)


Lost in La Mancha
Directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe
grade: B-

The good news is that Fulton and Pepe dispense with the sub-Monty Python animated hi-jinks approximately twenty minutes into the film. The bad news is that their film is a frustrating effort that captures a great number of people getting frustrated. Artistically, like many documentaries about other films, Lost in La Mancha itself is little more than a DVD extra – a feature length gag reel for a film called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote; It might do right by itself if it were to switch titles and, in doing so, be a touch more forthright about its motives: Namely, to raise funding to finish the film that Gilliam himself  – a rabid perfectionist at one moment, an efficient do-or-die man the next – is prevented from completing by one horrible stroke of luck after another (among them weather and the health of a key player). Certainly not (by a long shot) in the same sport as films like Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse or Burden of Dreams, Lost in La Mancha is, all the same, shamelessly entertaining; Watching the nuts and bolts of a film production begins to take on a reality show flavor that occupies one end of a spectrum whose converse is some gorgeous, undeniably Gilliam footage sure to make your salivate for Quixote. Unfortunately, Lost in La Mancha‘s tale of mad genius is too much the front loaded cart: Not only do we know that Quixote won’t leave the ground, but we watch in horror as Gilliam’s First Assistant Director misses key signs such as a warning that a location may be shared with NATO jets (whose noise ruins at least two days of shooting), and training the extras in rehearsal (one more day). As the project spirals further and further from reach, Gilliam refuses to fire him – – even as the AD repeatedly takes up his cross and plays the martyr like a rejected middle school-er. (I’d almost like to see the AD’s reaction to the sequence where Gilliam and his producers discuss, quite casually, letting him go). As I watched, I felt almost completely consumed by hindsight, suggesting that the film was not made for me, or an audience, but rather for future investors, who could go on to become part of film lore.

(7/7)


Hulk
Directed by Ang Lee
grade: C+

Much like its title pissant, the fairly modest open-and-shut tale of Bruce Banner’s transformation from repressed weenie to gimungous jade super-weenie is elongated to seemingly no end; Hulk is often too much the epic, ever-full of its own twisted humanity and constantly promising greatness while rarely delivering a fraction of such. Bana’s performance as the likeably scarred Bruce seems strangled by pretense (everyone tiptoes on glass far too long about the obvious as if it were some Big Secret) – and also by Ang Lee’s befuddling insistence on cranking up the wait-for-it suspense of the green one’s first visit (Too bad the ads already prepped us to be thoroughly disappointed). Connelly is a terrifically blank heroine, spending a great deal of her screen time being the dainty yin to military gruff papa Sam Elliot’s raging yang. Nolte is just plain creepy (but he still seems way out of place here). So while the story is of little interest and the effects are of less interest still, Digi-Hulk (who looks like a big green baby and was mockingly referred to as Shrek 2 at family gatherings) seems forever incompatible with Bruce Banner, making it difficult to swallow the two-are-one hook – which seems strange given the continual effort by the screenwriters to paint them as peas in a pod. They may have missed the boat almost entirely, but Lee still manages to provide the sole, untainted triumph of the film, telling the story using moving panels, some of which can be seen in the background when he cuts from one to the other – a masterful visual element that seems to breath with the style of a comic book like no other Marvel-approved film (Spider-Man included). Wasted revelation – the editing, I mean – and sad that it doesn’t eventually take over and, you know, make this film even remotely electrifying.

(7/8)


Phone Booth
Directed by Joel Schumacher
grade: B

Gives the giddy thrill of being caught up in a film stunt without actually stooping to the level a film stunt about a guy trapped in a phone booth probably would. A teenage girl-ready, pop-Dog Day Afternoon with none of the depth but twice the head games. Sutherland’s obviously separately recorded voice-over is often too book-on-tape to be believable in the same context as the kinetic shock-therapy fueling Ferrell’s mind-blowing performance. But the more plausibility issues arise, the more devil-may-care Phone Booth becomes, desperately losing its footing – trying to stay one move ahead of itself. It’s easy enough to spot exactly where the progression will lead to (hint: the film doesn’t turn into an anti-phone tirade), but harder to shake the feeling that somehow its headed there without a net. For better or worse (and there’s a fair amount of both), you’re strapped in with nearly the same intensity I recall from the singular, unbroken thrills of The Blair Witch Project. In that way – I suppose it is a stunt, after all. But it sure doesn’t feel like one.

(7/9)


Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
Directed by Gore Verbinski
grade: C+

It sure seems like all poor Johnny Depp can do not to announce that he, himself, is pretty much the only thing keeping a late evening audience from drifting into a comparatively more realistic world placed squarely in the dreams they’ll have as they doze through perhaps the longest movie ever (alright – I’m exaggerating – but it sure feels like forever and a day when you’re watching it). No one has yet heeded my progressively loudening call to arms – obviously – as Gore Verbinski seems to still be making movies for people who fancy breaking down weekend box office results in order to find their place within the cycle that is commerce-as-art. Pirates of the Caribbean is good-hearted enough, but it seems to be jabbing us in the ribs the whole time it’s playing, as if to say, “You don’t really buy this world, do you?” (It doesn’t help that it feels as if initially birthed as a family film and, instead, awkwardly flipped into a PG-13 template; Wasn’t there a time, long ago, when a family film had the better chance of scoring at the box office?) Set ostensibly in an animatronic-sprited Disneyland version of the Caribbean, the few lighthearted nudges to the ride that inspired the title (Depp telling fellow inmates, at one point, “You can wave that bone at him forever – the dog is never going to move”) seem like precious few in the face of the henpecked story of a cursed rabble of undead pirates who seek the last of a treasure that will supposedly turn them back to mortals. Opening as every other film this summer has (with a flashback), Pirates makes a major chore of mapping out each main characters’ place in the curse; Sad to report, when he’s not on screen with Jonathan Pryce (playing the serious guy who seems perpetually apologetic for his state), Orlando Bloom is pretty much the most embarrassing, saddening thing about the film. It’s reasonably clear from the moment he steps up as a watered down Aladdin-type, that he’s not up to being the leading man, the romantic hero or, uh, anyone who’s not an elf. In his favor, Verbinski seems to take a sick pleasure in looking the other way as Bloom is constantly used him as a stepping stone for Depp’s hilarious, unruly antics – which is a good thing for all of us. Johnny Depp is one of a very few American actors who can still upstage just about everyone in the cast without making it look as if he’s doing so. Case in point: Geoffrey Rush’s failed, scenery-chewing as Barbossa, the old salt,  who just keeps – inexplicably – giving Depp chance after chance to make the character – and the actor – look significantly more hollow each time around.

[Why the C+ and not the straight C (for a movie that’s certainly deserving of the pungent odor of the latter)? Probably because, try as you may, try as you might, you can’t separate Depp’s hammy showboating from the proceedings and, gee gosh golly, he’s in it enough to make Pirates at least half entertaining. Bruckheimer theatrics aside – and a complete score that I think Bruckheimer himself has pounded out – Pirates is a hell of a throwaway, never burdening you with its memory for more than a few minutes once you’re streetside.]

(7/12)


Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Directed by Jonathan Mostow
grade: B

Mostow returns to the successful formula previously honed in Breakdown (and inexplicably abandoned in U-571); Here, resources like the well-known characters and an obvious-headed storyline are nicely cast aside in the spirit of priming the momentum – and scrapping any and all exposition surplus, allowing it to leak out in as few lines as possible. It’s a classical model of great action filmmaking and from start to finish it never stops being, in the best way possible, utterly preposterous. It’s an incredibly expensive-looking, yet sparely written film (the narrative, as it connects to the previous installments, is as simply put and uncharacteristically unimportant as it could possibly be yet it allows for the maximum in action sequences that seem to have a new energy; Mostow was obviously born to construct death-defying thrills). And somehow all the characters – Stahl, Schwarzenegger, Danes – seem contained by the reverence Mostow and his writers have invested in the film; The Terminator films assimilated into the culture and here, it feels as if everyone involved took great pains not to leave this second sequel looking like a stray black sheep.

(7/21)


Laurel Canyon
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko
grade: C+

Though the lifestyle and world of the title gulch is entertaining (and the film contains a whopper of a cool performance by Alessandro Nivola) – Laurel Canyon eventually starts alternating slick revelations with trashy soap-opera payoffs, giving a muddy, disappointing feel to an otherwise perfect opportunity to make with the chortle. Cholodenko is trying way too hard to make a profound mountain from a basic indie-style molehill (there seems to be a dismissively light, Lisa Holofcener touch to rather strong material). The paparazzi fanclub actors who populate this romp of thirtysomethings being tortured to death by their fidelity woes – Nivola, Kate Beckinsale, Christian Bale and Natascha McElone – all have a strange, against-type fire in their eyes, as they play, respectively, naughty, naughty, naughty and, uh, naughty. And unless you were among the rather, ahem, small but decidedly brilliant minority who held High Art out to be one of the great, modern love stories – as I did – you’ll probably have no trouble warming to Laurel Canyon‘s immediately digestible contents.

(7/22)


Seabiscuit
Directed by Gary Ross
grade: C

Manipulative at every turn (and holy horseshoes are there a ton of turns), I couldn’t help wondering: Is it really the right thing to do, finish the story and start another one ‘stead of rolling the end credits like you’re supposed to? Wasn’t the story of the horse’s rise from nothing to something therapeutic enough for his owner, trainer and jockey? Do we really need to watch the jockey, and the horse (each clipped at the knee) struggle, ascending back to par? Even before he becomes the stepping stone to a lump-in-the-throat (thank you, Mr. Ansen), there is something distractingly hollow about Maguire’s fiestiness, but it’s not really to do with him – the character, as written, occupies roughly half a dimension (though he’s not alone – and it’s the level of talent in the film that eventually makes it bearable in spots).The thrill of the races is exciting – but Seabiscuit seems so much more preoccupied by it’s own, ailing variation on The Hours structure (dear god don’t let this become a trend) wherein three people all have similar experiences (okay, three people and one horse) – – – only to learn from the experiences and each other and so on and so forth until the strings and horns usher us all, eight bucks lighter, into a weepy chorus of tissue puppets. (Oh wait, did I mention William H. Macy’s zany-ass cameo? Bang-up stuff, that).

(7/26)


xx/xy
Directed by Austin Chick
grade: B-

Alright, I’d watch Mark Ruffalo read the dictionary (and at one point in, in desperate search for the definition of “rife”, he does) – but this sloppy moral tale of a bare midriff magazine ad posing as a “relationship study” caters just a bit too much to the audience’s hunger for hot, fantasy sex on film to be anything close to the honesty it seems to believe it has re-discovered. The confrontation on the pier between Ruffalo and his present day girlfriend – Claire (it’s a family name) – is just about the silliest fucking thing I’ve seen on film this year. (Still, hot fantasy sex is hot fantasy sex, after all).

(8/1)


Bend it like Beckham
Directed by Gurinder Chadha
grade: B-

[I don’t mean to be the worst reviewer of all time, but from now on, all culture clash films not named Late Marriage are prevented from earning anything higher than a B.]

Charming enough, I suppose – and the lead actresses are both, in their own right, balls of fire – but, please, it’s just hard not to acknowledge that you’re watching the billioneth spin on an already rather rote theme.

(8/2)


Irreversible
Directed by Gaspar Noe
grade: A

Let’s start it off totally wrong here: By now, you’ve heard to-death of Irreversible‘s notorious violence (and rightfully so, as I’m sure Noe certainly guards his claim as one of the most sadistic and, uh, brilliant filmmakers of our time – or any time for that matter). Never meant to be a shock-fest merely for its content (or should I say, not merely content to be a shock-fest), instead Noe uses the camerawork and a variety of other audience-pummeling visual snares to create unapologetic extremes of suspense, and of character. He also tells the story backwards, spiraling from degradation to innocence, channeling a purity from the most compelete and utter of tragic inevitabilities. He also deconstructs these characters, showing flaws of their own – and flaws they cannot help – drawing the conclusion that there is no conclusion (time sees everything die in the end is its worldview; the more cerebral version being that of the slender thread we hang our happiness on, often completely unaware that we aren’t really in control). In the process, what emerges is an unmistakably cold, but deft and artful, attack by a director on the viewer’s natural instinct followed by an even more sinister splash of water. Cassel and Bellucci are absolutely terrific in the film (they were married when it was made); They make the casual erupt with such vitality, improvising so well that, at one point, Cassel actually covers a blunder – which is, in itself, a dazzling save. Nonchalance is a strange thing to find in such a calculating motion picture, easily the rudest, most stinging – puzzle, or otherwise – movie I’ve seen. If this one doesn’t garner a physical reaction, check your pulse. (Note: I’ve never seen Salo).

[Also, I really, really, really, really want to watch Irreversible again – but, seriously, I don’t ever want to watch Irreversible again.]

(8/7)


Daredevil
Directed by Mark Steven Johnson
grade: D+

Probably not a great idea to watch Spider-Man a night later. If anything, having seen Daredevil only made me appreciate the web slinger’s comic fluff all the more; Mark Steven Johnson removes none of the goopiness from his Simon Birch heavy-hand, giving us a bunch of characters who babble on in soap operatic tones, barely able to navigate through the half-story he’s cooked up. Only Colin Farrell’s performance seems to make a ripple (big shock there, right?), with Michael Clarke Duncan’s Kingpin far too overwrought, Ben Affleck’s Daredevil ridiculously wimpy and Jennifer Garner’s Elektra defined (sorry) by her cleavage. Throw in the homogenized likes of cred-diminishing Joe Pantaliano and Jon Favreau and you’ve got yourself a half-assed attempt at something that really, as ever, would be much less painful if it had used its whole ass.

(8/11)


Old School
Directed by Todd Phillips
grade: B

Powered by hyper-hilarious, improvisatory performances by Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell, let me just point out that this film is actually even a little bit better than Phillips previous gross-out opus Road Trip, mostly due to the unending thrill we get watching these two idiots’ delivery. And here’s my applause for keeping the fucker under 90 minutes.

(8/14)


The Hunted
Directed by William Friedkin
grade: B-

The chances it takes make it worthwhile – but its sad to be faced with a movie that, if it had gone even further with these chances, could have been something truly special. The clipped, rare dialogue is certainly of great benefit – but everytime an action scene crops up that doesn’t feature knife-happy Del Toro going  mano-a-mano with Jones, the film loses its great charm: The clumsy, strangely paced rumble of Friedkin relishing his actors, as they get into each other’s personal space. Most of it feels oddly abstract – probably because of what is left unstated. Good for it. Whenever it’s divulging its information, it seems to be firing it out as quickly as possible, as not to embarrass itself. If it had been a quiet fever dream of sorts, who knows – it might have even attained the rank of suspenseful. Alright, let’s not start saying shit we can’t exactly take back.)

[By the way, who made Tommy Lee Jones into a 97 year old man? Why did someone steal this confused old man’s bus pass? Who was behind the denial of a senior citizen’s discount?]
 

(8/17)


Spun
Directed by Jonas Åkerlund
grade: B-

Spun, with it’s 70s-emulatin’, overexposed film stock and folksy soundtrack, is at times sweepingly happy, though it’s never long before being permeated with heavy doses of melancholy (and infinite sadness). It eventually falls on its side, heavy with a vision that purports to – yes, for the thousandeth time – duplicate the mixed up world of drug addicts (this time speed freaks); Instead, Spun seems to be exploiting drug addiction as a means for all sorts of cinematic whirligigs and eye poppers. That it is never boring means that – not in vain – it actually seems to carry on with the attitude that it is somehow proud to be using a social issue as a stepping stone to excite an audience. Liked all the crazy, tripped-out imagery, the scattershot editing, the use of the opening chords of Donovan’s “Hurdy-Gurdy Man” as the film’s theme in two scenes. Like that it turns out to have been based upon three days in the life of its’ creator (who chauffered a Methamphetamine cook around in 1995). Not sure I like how it is flat-out incapable of sustaining a solid tone for more than thirty seconds; It’s scarcely able to fuse the goofy laughs with the emotional baggage its dragging along. You just have to laugh when it begs you to take it seriously – but while it’s in its’ kill-two-birds-and-get-stoned groove, Spun kicks itself into some interesting spots, and makes the past tense of its’ title seem almost foolhardy.

(8/18)


All the Real Girls
Directed by David Gordon Green
grade: A-

More direct in scaring up its honest tidbits, most of them found dropping from characters’ mouths as they philosophize in fits of utterly terrific improvisation; It’s often therapeutic – and uniquely universal in its own little way. Green seems to have tightened his focal point since George Washington, which is both good and (very rarely) bad. Whereas his debut was a circumnavigated homage to Terence Malick’s hazy, tone poem storytelling, All the Real Girls is far more concerned with its characters and how they communicate the emotional tumbles of their existence without the shackles of convention. The film makes marvelous use of its free flowing narrative, itself an exercise in fantastic, vital writing; Green teases information so thoroughly and so vibrantly, he astoundingly makes the film’s off-the-cuff dialogue bouts meld with its cohesive sketches of personality. Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel are both rapturous – but so is the rest of the supporting cast – from Schneider’s goofy, hollow headed cronies to Deschanel’s towheaded little brother to Schneider’s mom and uncle to the various supporting players that seem to breath and snarl with the restless aches of small-town life (like George Washington, Green and his cinematographer have no trouble finding the utmost beauty in some of the most dilapidated of vistas; I can’t remember the last time a film evoked the Autumn weather with an earthy radiance so overpowering that I could practically taste it in my nostrils). Sadly, the wondrous dialogue that all appears to have been simultaneously made up and carefully considered for inclusion, sometimes seems to leak out moments of oddly sour sap; Green so deftly handles the huge hurdle he creates for himself in the final thirty minutes, it’s almost hard not to feel a touch cheated by Schneider and Deschanel’s use of lines that feel forever hatched from the wrap-up on any given sitcom (“I can’t even talk to you anymore!” belongs nowhere near a great film like this one – – or does it?) What I’ve neglected to mention is that All the Real Girls has a ton of genuine laughs in it as well. Schneider’s friend Mustache, an over friendly, under mannered dork practically steals at least half a dozen scenes. (Watch the deleted scenes on the DVD – – this ham had a good number of his most gut busting – if entirely superfluous – scenes axed).

(8/20)


He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not
Directed by Laetitia Colombani
grade: B-

Not to get painfully mathematical but, honestly, without a warning one might, quite rightfully in fact, slam one’s thumb into the stop button just about anywhere in the vibrant crayola-thon of this film’s inimitably cute first act. Here’s a tip: Don’t. While the first act appears to wear a sagging label bearing the generic brand of garden variety obsessive love, the film actually turns out to be a terrific bout of filmmaking, a painstakingly mounted exercise in perspective askew and, sadly, a botched whole whose third act becomes the greedy spoil sport of its parts. Observe. Audrey Tatou plays a girl in love with a cardiologist; The part must have read to the actress as an obvious chance to keep her dimple-cheeked adorableness intact while indulging a borderline spoofy dark side. The whole twisted affair is written off to a disorder called erotomania, which I won’t bother describing (you’ll get it – – and if you don’t, there’s a pair of steel rimmed glasses with a psychologist attached to them explaining it over swoony music in the last ten). The most satisfying thing about the film is the way the second act complements the first – even when you know what’s going on, it’s still a joy to watch the film deceive your assumptions. The criticism has been enacted that the film considers the audience to be rife with dimwittedness (else how could we miss clue after clue in that simplistic shake of a first act). What’s really obvious, though, is the way it all wraps up; He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not goes way overboard with itself in the last act, giving the drive back over a severe case of the deeply implausible. If you thought ignoring your instincts was hard when they’re right, wait until you start second guessing their quite valid cry of “yeahrightsure” as the cardiologist has his “Kobayashi” moment.

(8/24)


The Secret Lives of Dentists
Directed by Alan Rudolph
grade: B-

The outright statement of metaphor between care of teeth and care of marriage gets it out of the way. Not having to think about it while you ingest the daily grind of a husband (Campbell Scott, in typically top form) who knows his wife (Hope Davis, also in typically top form) is cheating on him is a plus, (though trying to figure out just why these characters do what they do is impossibly overcomplicated for something so simple and, eventually, so carefully laid out: Scott doesn’t want the “hassle” of divorce). The extended sequence wherein the flu goes through this family of five is probably the least exciting part of the film, but it’s also the only set of moments that seem to flow with the rhythm of actual family life, and therefore prove a point beyond the collection of familiar “marriage” moments (I kept thinking, this movie probably works best for cinephiles who aren’t married either as a deterrent or simply because the only experience they have is with their parents or their friends marriage; This should key you in to which group you belong and, accordingly, how the film may affect you). The Secret Lives of Dentists is a better film when its not making any serious observations but is, instead, merely being funny (Denis Leary’s declaration of “The World’s Greatest Dentist” to a roomful of theater patrons is the film’s high point). Rudolph doesn’t necessarily blow it – the whole thing is proficient at worst – but he never really exceeds the original voice-over’s goal: To prove that, like good dental hygiene, marriage requires constant attention. Is it just me, or am I incapable of accepting a movie that wears its non-epiphany status on its sleeve like Dorothy Parker’s broken heart?

[Am I the only one who thought dressing the fake alter-ego Denis Leary up exactly like Tyler Durden couldn’t have been a worse idea?]

(8/30)


The Italian Job
Directed by F. Gary Gray
grade: B

In washing the practically grim taste of The Secret Lives of Dentists out of my mouth, I readily submit that I enjoyed The Italian Job, for the most part, as an escape from the somber weight of that film. On the opposing face of that coin, you have to admire a film that’s practically without a discernable style of its own, but nevertheless manages to stay completely straight-faced as it proceeds to pile the unreal upon the undoable, neatly stacking them among rows and rows of the absolutely impossible. Never, I mean not once during its unfolding, does The Italian Job even consider stopping long enough to examine how intricate it’s not – and how beautifully convenient it is. Edward Norton stomps around, thoroughly annoyed to have been given birth to (and, by all reports, for having to lower himself to do this contractually-bound summer throwaway) and, for once, doesn’t walk away with the film. That alone has to be worth, uh, something.. Everyone on the “team” seems to be having a grand old time – albeit, they’re not exactly larger-than-life. The heist has a simulated overkill feel to it. That pretty much defines the film’s attitude: There isn’t a spontaneous moment to be found, but you can barely see the ground from your supremely over-the-top vantage point. (Oh, and I liked that feeling, by the way.)

[Two notes of interest: Special Oscar goes to: Mark Bridges, who designed the costumes that Charlize Theron wears; Though I don’t exactly agree, I like the Imdb’s User Comment post on the front page for this film: “Ouch! The Mark Wahlberg’s acting is hurting my head!”]

(8/30)


The Shape of Things
Directed by Neil LaBute
grade: B-

LaBute fashioned this film (first a play with the identical cast in London) as an answer to the vile reception that befell his first film, In the Company of Men. And unlike its model, when The Shape of Things is over, you’re not suddenly overcome with disgust or prompted to think really deeply. What it fills you with – besides a great joy that LaBute has re-embraced his inner nihilist – is the sense that an issue like Our Social Preoccupation with Vanity and How The Media Doesn’t Exactly Help Matters is almost too broad and too unconquerable to be pigeonholed into this sly tale of boy-meets-grad-student, grad-student-molds-boy, audience-goes-through-the-motions-of-being-shocked. Don’t get me wrong – LaBute’s is a fine film (not far from filmed theater but fine), and one worth allowing yourself to be provoked by, noteworthy on a far more actor-oriented level than its predecessors, or than its overbearing scheme would suggest – but there’s something untimely about it, something that feels dated in the commentary on pretension among post-college aged kids, something cushioned about its coldness. I’ve said it to far too many people to count, but I stand by it: Paul Rudd deserves the praise. He’s been in the grey zone know as pre-phone book territory far too long (which gets its name from my frequent, orgasmic chant of submission that I (yes, I) would watch said actor rattle off page after page of my local yellow pages if that were the only way to see them perform).  He is hereby upgraded. Rachel Weisz, whom I neglect to mention below in my Confidence review (she’s actually got a presence here, rather than a persona cobbled together with various pieces of various femmes fatale in that film, but I digress), matches him step for step; The film’s central storyline is offset by one that’s slightly more comedic and often, much easier to believe, wherein Gretchen Mol is having second thoughts about her upcoming marriage (the kind of nuptual that could easily save time in skipping the actual ceremony and getting to the ugly divorce already) to Frederick Weller, whose uncanny reaction to a petty sculpture vandalism (standing as an act of artistic freedom or, more accurately, freeing the art) turns into the most vividly uncomfortable scene in a film that is pretty much all about escalating to a wrenching climax. This squabble over the validity in defacing a statue turns ferocious, and speaks volumes more than anything the central focus manages to cook up.

(8/31)


Confidence
Directed by James Foley
grade: C+

I was planning on saddling up my high horse to venture out (into uncharted waters, mind) in search of an ear that could stand a long justification of Edward Burns’ seemingly lone shade of character. I don’t like the guy – but at least he’s not directing. Here, his commanding way, rendered persistent either consciously or by sheer sleepwalking automation is, for my money, right on the money. He never stops professionalizing the con game, barely able to sneak a few breaths in between scamming. Most of the rest of the cast is a blur; Too many c(r)ooks syndrome is in full force. The big deal here would obviously be if one were to consider Dustin Hoffman’s three scenes equal to a character (hint: they’re not), but there’s no cause to fret – dude’s so uncommonly bizarre (even for a guy who seems to be aiming in that general direction with each and every role of late), it’s almost fun to watch what unnecessary, “out there” thing he’ll blather on about next. The con is completely irrelevant as far as I’m concerned, and the film makes that clear from the first moment, when it begins with a thoroughly antiquated voice-over narration explaining what a con is, followed by your standard red herring wherein the hero appears to be precious seconds from being done in, only to make with the long and involved flashback detailing his route to said “done in” point. Certainly not of the fresh quality it obviously fashions itself worth brandishing. Feeling all the threads come together isn’t as satisfying as it should be because it’s entirely based upon two really obvious things. If you haven’t figured them out by the time the film “reveals” them, I feel a deep sense of pity in my heart for me if I should ever have to discuss movies with you ever again.

(9/1)

28 Days Later
Directed by Danny Boyle
grade: BWhat works best about 28 Days Later, a film about post apocalyptic London that you flat-out believe, is how snap tight it feels. Boyle – seemingly scarred for life by the tightrope of his Hollywood two-fer – seems to have found the trick to shooting a film on DV that most directors who tinker with it out of poverty or [sic] art’s sake have missed: Low ambition. (Nothing remotely complex going on here, old fashioned filmmaking prevailing, please send viewers). Watching a virus cleansed no man’s land that doubles as Britain’s countryside makes for a deeply simplistic on the outside, ooey-gooey moralistic what-not on the inside film; Rage infected “zombies” lunge, barely as scary as a reality on the fringe and the biggest success in 28 Days Later is Boyle’s return to a genre that’s not altogether horror – but masquerades as such. Both Shallow Grave and Trainspotting (his best films) unfolded an unchangeable reality that had suddenly turned on its inhabitants. Here, this idea of acceptance and the violence that comes with a clean slate – – the military gents, headed by Christopher Eccleston, are ready to start the human race up again – with the only two female survivors – – is at the forefront of the film, dread looming and oozing from every frame. It turns out to be less a zombie movie than a cautionary for cautionary’s sake film with the skin of a modern, low budget horror film. It’s entirely enthralling and simultaneously full of a strange sense of wonder, the kind that’s usually reserved for science fiction films. Just how would our future look like as a deserted train wreck of civilization gone empty, only a few mad stragglers bouncing around?

(10/24)


Mystic River
Directed by Clint Eastwood
grade: C-No better than Blood Work (stop screeching with the “year’s best” crap already), Mystic River is a particularly transparent brand of sweeping (usually the result of Eastwood’s fetish with shooting banal police procedural – 4 of ’em now – in scope) and also a ridiculously distant brand of intimate. But what irks me more about the film is that, for some reason, Eastwood equates realism with everyone looking perpetually hung over. No more spiky or cunning than anything you could tune your box to any night of the week, with banter is painfully forced and blatantly charged with important clues to file in our memory banks for later in the film, Mystic River doesn’t lack for interest, but it has the sort of heavy subject matter that consistently whines that we take all of this more seriously than could come naturally. Should I have to be working not to find the friends-since-childhood, that-was-when-everything-changed-for-Davey Boyle set-up a little preposterous? It seems to work best when it’s a police procedural, with Penn’s Jimmy (who could qualify as a split personality) under the thumb of dorky sad sack/childhood pal and his partner (Messrs.. Bacon and Fishburne, respectively). Luckily, no matter how divided the two sides of Jimmy are, Sean Penn plays both with equally cool calculation and numbness, often just short convincing us that we’ve confused devastation for villainy (and vice versa); He wouldn’t look out of place in his own The Crossing Guard, another film that expects more that it deserves in the sober gravity department (Here, the last fifteen minutes gives that films’ communal gravestone weeping a run for its money in the unofficial “silliest fucking thing I’ve ever seen” contest; At least that film didn’t occasionally employ a bafflingly unnecessary subplot wherein Kevin Bacon’s silent wife calls him and doesn’t speak). Once solved, the murder mystery seems to have baited us with the idea that it everything might add up to something of interest of value – or even surprise – when, all it really does is cast light on larger, less believable issues (Yes, issues like the far-fetched full circle wherein Sean Penn’s daughter was really killed because Penn killed the killer’s father years ago and, oh yeah, CRIME DOESN’T PAY). After spilling all its beans, Mystic River begins a period of fifteen final moments where it becomes so completely out of line, so goofy, and so unbelievably off-the-wall that it’s impossible not to wonder why anyone would wreck a highly serviceable rubix cube of morality with a left field Lady Macbeth speech, when the film suddenly – for no real reason – turns into a gangster epic (My reaction to Laura Linney’s “You could rule this town” monologue was a purposefully audible “What?”). This is followed by a sequence where the main characters all trade glances (through a noisy parade) for about five minutes. Then the obligatory shot of the names in the cement sidewalk, frozen in time, uh, and amen.

[Full disclosure: I’ve hated the film a little bit more every time I think about it. I originally gave it a C+, but my word of mouth has been more like a D-].

(10/25)

The School of Rock
Directed by Richard Linklater
grade: B+Probably the only movie I’ve ever seen that was as pre-conceived, obvious headed and lacking in surprise as is possible, but remained nevertheless fresh, funny and consistently pleasing. Imagine High Fidelity as a kids movie/live action cartoon with Black in the forefront and Cusack in the background and you’re close…

(10/27)


Whale Rider
Directed by Niki Caro
grade: B-Largely lacking in substance; Good enough film – didn’t seem to warrant a narrative; Often felt like a legend that would have been passed from person to person – but wouldn’t have been a 101 minute motion picture, you know? (I spent a good bit of it at odds with myself: If I’m going to watch this old man be a prick to this little girl there better be a towering catharsis to foot the bill; It’s a decent one – but by no means an equal on the scales…)

(10/28)


Alien: The Director’s Cut
Directed by Ridley Scott
grade: AAs with nearly every other reissue in existence, it’s the sound that’s king. Unfortunately, I made the dumbass mistake of seeing it blown up on 70mm which, however all-inclusive, went out of focus (big time) off and on throughout the bottom three reels. Nevertheless, I continue to scoff at you lunkheads who consider the second film to be superior. (What are you people, insane?)

(11/1)


Brother Bear
Directed by Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker
grade: C+Wildly random, almost painfully inconsistent songs mix with a sudden lack of political correctness, all on a canvas meant to look like the paintings of Albert Bierstadt. And Brother Bear still feels like second tier Disney aping its more successful cousins (especially The Lion King and Tarzan). The very human first act is largely exciting – – – second and third animals-talk-as-they-trek acts are not as successful. There’s something hollow about Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas pimping their MacKenzie Bros. routine through dunderheaded moose, set up as background comic relief to a story whose moral pretty much tramples its intentions under foot until they’re barely visible through a schmaltzy, ham handed slopping-on of familiar elements (the lost youth with a dead mother is a particular forehead smacker). But, then, there’s been something rather alarming about the way Disney seems more in tune with eyeing the market than churning out great films lo’ these last dozen or so quarters, er – I mean – years. After awhile, its pretty hard to pretend you haven’t already been sick to death of learning the same boring lessons over and over. Luckily, the kids are now learning these lessons from a much more terrific set of animators. (Rhymes with Mixar) I’m starting to tire of the giddy thrill I get at being disappointed with Disney.

(11/3)


Cinemania
Directed by Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak
grade: BEssentially a valentine to mild cinephiles (encrypted with the message: “There are many worse than you”), though the only real centerpiece of the filmmaking is how thankfully short it is. Never a towering piece of work, it’s one of those fun documentaries that only lasts 80 minutes and tells you something entertaining as opposed to extraordinary. Film seems distracted, often, by the relative smallness of its subjects (I mean, how much can you possibly say after “These people go to the movies…all the time“), almost embarrassingly at one point (was there really a shot of a unrelated man in the front row zipping up his fly after a screening? Did I dream that?) Still, the specific personalities of each of the five – – two look like homeless people, the other three could double as nerdy drop-outs from philosophy grad programs – – are what keep the film from getting too terribly repetitive (Bravo, again, to the editor: The DVD boasts a spread of deleted scenes that runs almost as long as the feature). It gives you a shudder when you realize that, yes, I’ve thought about changing my bathroom habits to suit my film going obsession – and yes – seeing a print of a Godard film would take precedent over a loved one.

(11/6)


Blue Car
Directed by Karen Moncrieff
grade: C-Finally delivered: This year’s blueprint for generic indie filmmaking. (“But Ben, the blue car in the title means so much more than you’re giving it credit for…”)

Look – shut up; I don’t endorse films where little girls dress up like angels and collapse on alters in churches. Films where people throw their now meaningless poetry into the ocean and watch it sink below the waves. Films where people substitute a spur-of-the-moment anger doctrine for a long prepared piece of work at a Big Contest. Films where teenage daughters say to their mothers: “You had her, you raise her”. Films where the blue car has a double meaning – and both meanings are meant to make me so sad I want to curl up with a bottle of Jack Daniels in a Motel 8 whimpering for my mother. Fuck this movie, in my opinion.

(11/10)


Owning Mahowny
Directed by Richard Kwietniowski
grade: B+It’s a cautionary tale – but with all the annoying facets usually associated with that tag left, safely, outside the frame (In other words, it’s less a film about the addiction to gambling than it is about a gambler addicted to a double life full of such cheap irony: Trusted banker secretly rides wave of fraud into nosedive of debt. That he seems to openly realize and feed off of this – that is what makes Owning Mahowny a great film). Philip Seymour Hoffman continues to make it difficult to articulate anything remotely original sounding about him. Here, there’s a drowning feel as he quietly – and repeatedly – acknowledges to the camera how aware he is of the reality of his situation (that’s he, for all intensive purposes, only addicted to losing); Withdrawn to the point of invisibility, I’m carefully picking over his profile on the imdb as I write this, attempting not to upstage several previous hyperboles. (So, in other words, I’d like to say this is his best performance to date – but somehow I doubt anyone would find any real meaning in those words.) Kwietniowski previously helmed 1997’s Love and Death on Long Island – a film I quite liked – and invests the same incredibly rare talent for genuine understatement here. Eschewing any sort of loud, stylistic volume, he has a terrific ear for tiny, incidental dialogue and snags a wonderful set of characters (the ensemble cast – even in a film that’s as centered around a single protagonist as this one is – is magnificent) in a milieu that feels like a series of  doomed guilt vacations, experienced through advanced sleeplessness; Mahowny’s world is a self-fulfilling prophecy that skips like a broken record. Hoffman’s performance is – sorry, I just couldn’t let it go – nothing short of dazzling.

(11/10)


Gerry
Directed by Gus Van Sant
grade: B+I’ll probably end up spilling an electronic pen’s worth of ink on this one when I watch it again (dust is presently gathering in its netflix queue spot; I’ve withheld it from my usual watch-mail-drool routine to re-experience it in one sitting, without interruption). Needless to say, the aching emptiness and almost overwhelming beauty in the landscape gave me enough pause to want to re-evaluate my initial response, which was one that pretty much glanced over the characters. Their situation, indeed, was potent and somehow almost transcendent of something much, much larger, but them, they, the Gerrys never really sold the connection between themselves and this unbelievable, unending barrage of moody imagery and reflection. But I kept feeling annoyed that I’d have to stop it (three or four times, ugh) for various reasons throughout. I’m becoming less and less bend able when it comes to inhaling these puppies in one viewing.

(11/13)


Friday Night
Directed by Claire Denis
grade: BMostly a workspace for moody cinematography (and an absolutely rapturous score – and you know it’s good if I stoop to using a pretentious descriptor like rapturous); The main characters meet in a traffic jam and proceed to bounce about, sometimes gazing, sometimes screwing, mostly just posing. It’s all very, very pretty for the eye – but rarely does it stay engaging long enough to sustain a sequence. Denis without gravity, though, still pretty much blows anything else that’s playing in the romance scene right off the damn table. This is marvelous visual storytelling (there are about 20 or 30 lines of dialogue in the film), and wonderfully evocative (somehow Paris looks different in every film and it looks awesome here), but it remains just shy of terrific.

(11/16)


Elf
Directed by Jon Favreau
grade: B-Elf starts out sharp (the North Pole is a bizarre, almost TV-Rudolph bizarre place), but degenerates right quick into character after character confronting, being annoyed by and, finally, being unconvincingly won over by Ferrell’s lovey-dovey Christmas antics. Comedy ranges from absolute genius (the vain children’s book writer Miles Finch played with maximum restraint by Peter Dinklage is a brilliant creation) to Dear God Please (you’ll kindly roll you eyes for charity in lew of watching ONE MORE GODDAMN fish-out-water set-up). It’s often very sad, as we realize that control with the cookie cutter is clearly preferred to letting Ferrell stray from what’s already set in script-stone (so successful in Old School). Big ol’ extra points to Favreau for casting himself in an absolutely meaningless role, nudging us with a possible commentary on his own participation: “Hey guys, I don’t mind letting the big bosses push me around. At least they’re not still mad about Made. Also, you’ll note that there are zero plugs for my pretentious Dinner for Five half hour.” Get ready to be right about how it ends.

(11/19)


Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Directed by Peter Weir
grade: B+Pure genre pleasure. Probably wouldn’t have been a peck as successful if the elements weren’t so fresh and terrific. Weir is obviously borderline obsessed with period detail (at times, to a fault, as the action sequences veer – occasionally – into some Aussie version of Tony Scott’s blur-is-better technique); Crowe is, as ever, absolutely brilliant/charming/loveably gruff; Bettany is humanity and dry wit (and the one you walk away really having enjoyed). You expect, from the first moment, that the film is far too expensive to turn a profit, which makes the whole thing seem all that more important and thrilling (because, unless it wins an Oscar, I doubt Weir, Crowe and the two studios who footed the bill are going to churn out another one). So, along with the immediacy of it, and the impossibly brilliant timing (it’s as far removed from the coming Pirate trend as it is desperately alone in a definite moment of period action doldrums), and the classical look (it’s lit like Amistad and Quills, with the lack of light and flares predominant almost to excess) – – – Master and Commander is pretty much impossible to dislike or resist. It’s entertainment from a vein that is at once recalling the past and reveling in the megabucks of the present. It’s the sort of film you want to go out and re-experience.

(11/20)


House of 1000 Corpses
Directed by Rob Zombie
grade: B-Not much of a movie, per se. As a funhouse of horror artistry, creepy mileaus and frightening superfluity, though – it’s a gas. Zombie obviously isn’t much of a director, but he’s clearly very passionate about horror movies themselves (it’s a B-rendering of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre teens-lost-abducted-and-butchered filmsin the same way Kill Bill is an homage to kung fu and spaghetti westerns). The debacle with the production and the release probably forbids – – and, likely, turned off – – Zombie from future productions (and the promise of his eye for freaky shit makes that a bit teary). The obvious cuts and errors in continuity that mark the film as a hacked-to-pieces studio casualty don’t make its brevity any less welcome (I whined almost to a ban, initially, about not seeing the one hundred fifty minute version; i’m glad I ended up taking the less-than-stubborn route of actually watching this version). I think if it had been clips and bits from old horror films weaved with video and scratchy 16 mm footage, we’d be talking modern horror classic.

(11/28)


Man on the Train
Directed by Patrice Leconte
grade: C+The inevitability of any man’s death is not measured by his occupation, what kind of life he has lead or what kind of person he is. We all simply die. In Man on the Train, Patrice Leconte foolishly attempts to make this point the central focus of the film about twenty minutes before it ends (That it’s built so steadily on a foundation of quirk transcending sincerity only makes matters worse). Rochefort is a retired French teacher who lives in a giant mansion and Hallyday is in town to rob a bank. With hotels closed in the off season, Hallyday shacks up in the aged professor’s mansion. On Saturday, the octagenarian will go for a triple bypass and the sparingly spoken Charles Bronson look-alike will knock off a bank.  Their conversations, wherein they seem to find a comfort and intimacy in the other’s identity, are completely absorbing and often, downright literary. The embarrasing finale, however, betrays this tightrope of cameraderie that makes the first two acts so carefree. Though the somewhat forced thematic weight of Man on the Train – the self-tallied bill staring one down at one’s death – practically begs a humbled subtlety, everything becomes blatant and syrupy when the time comes to pay said bill. Whereas in Leconte’s The Widow of St. Pierre, sybolism and melodrama diluted the film’s moral complexity, here everything is visualized and stated with shockingly unmistakable and self-conscious purpose; It’s the sort of boisterous and distracting conclusion that’s usually drowning in its own irony and violin strings.(For example: Is there any curiosity or confusion of motive when a car full of the hoods pressuing Hallyday to rob the bank passes a car driven by the doctor who will perform the next day’s surgery?)  The first hour is wrought with a sort of familiar smirk of opposing hierarchies of lifestyle, a pleasant meeting of worlds unknown. Rochefort and Hallyday have a terrific chemistry. There are wonderful and quiet moments shared. The ending is messy.

(11/29)


Love Actually
Directed by Richard Curtis
grade: B+Remember the hilariously stupid trailer where Miramax dredged up footage from Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’ Diary? The poster that read: “The Ultimate Romantic Comedy”? The cast that seemed too jaw-dropping to be true (i.e. – Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy, Laura Linney, Martine McCutcheon, Keira Knightley, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton and Rowan Atkinson)? Grand set-ups for a blinding misdirection, all. Instead of it being a rotating pick-n-snatch of nine different romantic comedies at once, Love Actually turns out to be one of the most darkly self-deprecating anti-romantic comedies ever made. Instead of lifting our spirits – which, artificially, it does, just to show you it can (and because it was probably contractually bound to) – Curtis’ film seems to scoff at the very idea that these romantic interludes are anything more than pandering fantasies meant to cater to a roundtable demographic. It’s obvious in the way that, a) Curtis chooses the kitchen sink route of including nine (rather than, uh, one) semi-connecting loves gained and lost riffs (they’re more like songs on a greatest hits album that’s meant to be a joke); b) the level of sugar never stops rising even long after it has hit an unusually high level (if you were thinking “Hugh Grant is the Prime Minister? Do I really buy that?” – wait until you see where it goes from there); c) The whole thing has a lovely abandon to it, as if its a locomotive that’s been set off at top speed sans attention to destination or, in fact fuel (eventually it runs out and the credits roll). I am convinced that it’s one big, long yank at the audience’s expense (an, probably, the actors).  In other words, it’s THE ULTIMATE ROMANTIC COMEDY!

[Also, I’m convinced that Rowan Atkinson could comfortably steal a movie from nearly any actor living today.]

(12/6)


Bad Boys II
Directed by Michael Bay
grade: DThere’s a rather tiring list of things in this film that really annoy me, but what I’m going to do, I’m going to just assume that you’ll assume that you know what’s on that list (here’s an abridged version for the unimaginative: Bay’s music video theatrics constantly overstylizing, perhaps tolerated soley to complement the film’s pre-packaged toe-tag of “fun”; Lawrence and Smith having one extended (unfunny, for the most part) conversation that’s broken up evenly between loud, rarely anything but loud, action sequences (while we’re on the subject – Lawrence’s eternal new-age healing played over a whine on top of a whine on top of a whine about the stress of his life is nauseating at best, while Smith’s now preposterously implausible hyper-cursing “bad boy” attitude slams headfirst against the image he’s spent, oh, the last several very profitable years (excepting Ali) of his life boring us with); the very moment when Bay appears in the film (as crappy car driver #1) is like a chapter heading, as seconds later, he’ll be pilphering his own film – this film – with a watered down car chase in which things fall from the back of a truck and threaten to stop our “heroes” dead in their tracks (similar to a moment thirty or so odd minutes prior when slightly larger things fell from the back of a slightly larger truck “threatening” to stop our heroes dead in their, ahem, tracks); yet another action film that uses the patriotic symbol of the US of A as its coda, in this case the backseat message that since Sept. 11 of 2001, drug smuggling has been impacted by heightened security: Apparently, that means Bruckheimer should cough up an action “epic” wherein a dinky drug Lord from Cuba (he’s bad, you see, because he chopped a man up in his mother’s house) is pummelled at the expense of taxpayers to the tune of (cough) million in damaged this and that, culminating in a sequence where – that’s right – the good Americans blow up his house and fight a Communist army that was protecting him. Veiled? No – stupid.)

(12/13)


How to Deal
Directed by Clare Kilner
grade: DI refuse to take seriously any film wherein a girl gets pregnant with her dead boyfriend’s baby during the summer and doesn’t realize she’s pregnant until several months into Autumn (we’re told time is passing and things are changing (and blech!) in one of those lovely, wholeheartedly embarrasing montages where leaves start to gather on a pool). I refuse to take seriously movies where characters go to the big New Year’s Eve party and I’m right (and so would you be) when I predict that a car crash will follow, changing things forever. I refuse to acknowledge Peter Gallagher’s career from this moment forward. I refuse to buy Mandy Moore as a tortured rebel who just wants to encompass the title over and over (I suspect we’re supposed to flip our eyebrows when she continually doesn’t want to fall in love because her parents are divorced.) She calls her new male “friend” and they kiss and stuff. Jedi Mind Trick references ensue (not homages, mind, but mockery). Like Serendipity, it is a romantic comedy where the actual romance is cordended off – in this case, to a musical montage – and treated as if it is taboo and uninteresting. Apparently, life issues can be solved with a wacky wedding and the wisdom of a dope smoking grandma. Also, by the way, FUCK this movie for using both “Do You Realize??” by the Flaming Lips and (gulp) “Wild World” by Cat Stevens. Let’s save the good songs for the films with a chance, shall we?

(12/13)


Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Directed by Peter Jackson
grade: A-It’s an odd grade to give a film that’s pretty much a bloated framework singularly reminiscent of Fellowship‘s expository urgency, but sometimes painfully herky-jerky motion. However – and this is a big however – instead of walking out of of Return of the King in blatant anticipation of relief (that is, new answers to old questions), this film, in fact, is that relief. There are places where it clearly suffers from a syndrome forced on it by two preceeding works – a terminal syndrome, unfairly laid at its feet in the form of a technicality: (What I mean is), there’s no film to catch the overflow. Luckily for us – in its tremendous battle sequences, its fateful immensity, its teary finale – Return of the King is one of the most thorough films in existence. Forget for a second that, occasionally, it feels as if it is merely listing its desperately important information; when was the last time a film with just around six hours’ worth of explanation bothered to secure precious symmetry by including a sequence wherein we see the transformation of Smiegel – decades before he would be known as Gollum – for a sole purpose: To show you the depth of his capabilities – and to confirm the wickeness of his intentions (as paraded in The Two Towers). This film is two hundred minutes long and has taken serious flack for its exclusion of Christopher Lee’s ten minute Sauroman sequence – and yet it takes the time to make sure that one of the most complex characters in the film (and, digitally, still the most exciting, by far) has a working psyche to match that of his companions (Wood and Astin, still amazing as ever). Battle scenes are excellent (not Helm’s Deep-excellent – but potent, nonetheless), seething with passion and inventive little bits (the Olyphants presence is breathtaking); Return of the King is as good as the former two films – and yet, for all its hugeness and closure and what not, it leaves us quiet. At first, I thought it was the film itself, but I realized that it was the sad void left over after the credits: Coming December ’03, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. And that’s it. (Full disclosure: Dear Hollywood: “Make The Hobbit or stop making films altogether, please”).

(12/18)


Gigli
Directed by Martin Brest
grade: FNope, everyone was right, or, come see that which is tantamount to a car wreck as a circus attraction, with no amount of exploitation or pandering sacrificed in its inimitable quest to really just, um, be one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. Affleck kidnaps a retarded fellow and J. Lo is sent in to make sure he can handle the job. The extended monologues about nothing interesting whatsoever (delivered by two actors who make the retarded fellow seem deeply intelligent by comparison), the constant long takes of yoga posturing and mirror admiration, the constant flow of dated, unfunny jokesterism, Affleck’s strange mock-Sopranos accent, J. Lo’s inability to pull off playing a lesbian (you don’t even believe it through the next statement after “You’re not my type…because you have a penis”), the hamming cameos by Walken and Pacino, the slap-happy joyous ending – – – there’s simply nothing to make fun of that isn’t already fairly obvious. It’s like mocking a guy who just got his arm cut off and can’t seem to tie his shoes properly: Yeah, it’s kinda funny, but the guy’s in pain.

(12/19)


Bad Santa
Directed by Terry Zwigoff
grade: B-It almost feels like an achievement that Bad Santa can keep a consistently anti-sentimentality rule in place from start to finish, but once you’re past how awesome that is, you have no trouble recognizing the second rate repetition and half-baked plot line that are in place to sustain this remarkably cruel tone. It’s a dirty cartoon – from start to finish and I laughed an awful lot, but I did get around to asking someone if they thought it might turn out to be a yearly cult tradition and, as soon as I said it, I realized how tiresome it would be to watch it every year. Thornton is absolutely spot-on and, for awhile, the film seems almost to bridge the gap between the standard gross-out fare and a singular, sly mockery of family holiday traditions. But eventually, the framework betrays it, begging for some level of plausibility in order to go forward (i.e. – this drunk can open safes? The “kid”, he doesn’t attend school? Lauren Graham – hot as hot gets – is interested in Thornton?) Again, it is a cartoon, to some level, but eventually, it seems to ask the audience to buy into more realism-based details in order to make gags work (since anything is possible in a cartoon and this is merely a feeling I got, I have no evidence to back it up. Sorry.) I dug it. It was hilarious in spots and well-worth a viewing. The critic, however, who delegated a comparison to The Simpsons – is severely misguided.

(12/22)

Melvin Goes to Dinner
Directed by Bob Odenkirk
grade: CThe thirtysomethings have gathered for an idie film! And they’re going to sit at dinner and talk! Seriously, though, when Alex – the career-driven female character who sits closest to the door – starts on about how she killed a little boy by accident with her car one summer and now his ghost appears to her to apologize for all the trouble he caused – – – any semblance of entertaining fluff that existed before became like lead and my eyes, my beautiful eyes, went straight to the DVD counter to see just how much longer I was going to have to muster patience with this film and it’s “wacky”, “real-life” “characters”. It reminds me of a mid-life Breakfast Club, everyone meeting almost without meaning to and revealing every single last dirty detail they’ve had under they’re hat since the beginning of time. Unfortunately, the characters never reach a level that’s even remotely comparable to that film – or most of the other dodgy sundance-paid flicks I’ve seen of late. My reason for viewing it, sadly, was a mirage (see Director credit).

(12/23)

Anything Else
Directed by Woody Allen
grade: C-Is it possible that senility has come crashing in on Woody, allowing him to forget that he once made Annie Hall? (I won’t even comment on said senility affecting his casting decisions in such a way that they suddenly include Jason Biggs – although, actually, I will comment on it a bit later). Anything Else opens with Woody Allen and Jason Biggs – both comedy writers for nightclub acts – walking the streets and talking of the things that Woody Allen characters tend to talk about (philosophy/art/film/sex/sex/more sex). You see, Biggs has this girlfriend who is mega-charming (it’s not Diane Keaton) and she’s always late and takes pills and can’t seem to hop out of the neurotic turnstile (but, I’m telling you, it’s not Diane Keaton) and, get this, Biggs talks to the screen (you’ll remember a little film (rhymes with “Trannie Mall”) starring Diane Keaton where this is done). I immediately tried to put out this raging fire, suggesting that it was an homage. My wife, who tends to see through all things clouded, suggested that, if it were a legitimate genuflection at the altar of that film, it was certainly a “blasphemous” one. The film further complicates matters with intermittently funny humor and a performance by Christina Ricci that’s easily her best work since Buffalo ’66 (lost forever inside this film). Which brings me to Mr. Biggs. He’s bad anyway, but Allen’s latent obsession with finding actors to mimic him has become more of a gamble than anything (see the payoff in films like Bullets over Broadway and Sweet and Lowdown), but Biggs is perhaps just as embarrassingly obvious about aping the Wood-man as Branagh was (in Celebrity) achingly excessive. Biggs has the stuttering down, but none of the mannerisms, giving my previous comment (“Wood-man”) the sexy double meaning I never intended. I remember my older brother telling me that, after seeing this film, that if it had been released in the 1970s, it would have been loved by all and, that Allen is held to a far higher standard than other directors. Blasphemy.

(12/29)

Northfork
Directed by Michael Polish
grade: CIn grand, terrific moments of David Lynch style oddity, Northfork zooms in on six men assigned to evacuate the remaining denizens of the title town before it is flooded, and becomes lakefront property for sale. Hanging around them is a gloom the film never quite moved me with. And this downtrodden sensibility permeates the conflicts of a wayward priest (Nick Nolte, in high grizzly mode) who finds himself watching over the final moments of an unwanted boy who, in a dreamy landscape of practical hallucination, negotiates an escape for himself and four fairy tale-esque symbol people (including the eight optic wielding Anthony Edwards, apparently exhausted by taunts of “four eyes”). Trouble is, in Northfork, every ambition is met with intimacy, every chance at sweeping fantasy met with silly designations of theme (the town, much like the lonely boy, is dying, but the lake, as well as the boy’s new surrogate family, is just a rebirth into “better” things – or something). Directed with everyone hamming in a different direction, the only bits that don’t seem completely washed out by good intentions are the exchanges of James Woods (deadpan drawl) and Michael Polish (flimsy maturity with a constant catch phrase: “It’s wrong. It’s just wrong on every level”).

(12/30)

Out of Time
Directed by Carl Franklin
grade: C+Washington’s mad crack-and-scramble as the slipknot second act (eventually) gets underway may have a lovely B-12 effect on the film, but it rolls back asleep with a big [sic] veil lifting ending, followed by a wacky dénouement that feels more like a dare than an epilogue. When it isn’t whored up like a third generation copy of the (near) decade-in-it’s-grave resurgence of B-noir sassafras (like The Last Seduction, Franklin’s own Devil in a Blue Dress), there’s a good thirty or forty minutes there, right smack in the middle, when Out of Time is a goofy, fun framed-cop version of the mini suspense favorite “Mom will be home any minute and the house is a great big mess!” Washington edits phone records and faxes them to himself, makes phony calls of inquiry to “if you’d like to make a call” recordings and, best of all, hangs from the side of a hotel while bitch smacking a baddie only to emerge cool and calm as he is interrogated by a homicide detective, who also happens to be his ex-wife (Whoo-whee, what a predicament that must be! How inconvenient for him!), the DEA (from whom he has recently stolen $485K) and a cheating wife (who – get this – is married to an ex-football player-turned-security guard played by – are you ready – Dean Cain!) There’s also a toady sidekick who (in three instances) shows up at the right place and exactly at the right time. (Boy, this guy must have a really good watch!) It feels like a movie whose time has past and will probably show up again twenty years down the road – when it will continue to feel as rabidly generic as it does now (I’m certain).

(1/1)


Freaky Friday
Directed by Mark Waters
grade: C+Freaky Friday – a film whose very framework (two characters change bodies for a day) is a constant pillar for disaster – is written with an unwelcome verve of explicitness. In a film where subtly is not on your side to begin with, its hard to imagine two more terrific performances wasted in a film wrought, for some reason, in the same patronizingly duh fashion Disney still has yet to abandon when pandering to the family market. A film about a teenager and her mother is practically geared towards (for lack of a better analogy) the baby-sat, not the baby-sitter. In the interest of draining any confusion, there is a stale artlessness to it which makes the focus of the film – the two women’s exchanged bodies – often so independent of anything else that’s going on, that dumbfounded tolerance of their babbling by other characters feels awfully played until, eventually, it just feels implausible. Again, at great expense are the actresses who really are the lifeblood of the few lighter stunts of pep, which satisfy the film’s zany, seemingly insatiable appetite for putting both mother and daughter into “interesting” situations. Intermittently, though, it is wicked entertaining.

(1/2)


S.W.A.T.
Directed by Clark Johnson
grade: CThe constant references to the TV program will likely be lost on the generation of moviegoers it is meant to appeal to – – but S.W.A.T. feeling like your typical big budget homage to a seventies’ show (right down to its vacuum sealed crusty ol’ Police Captain) probably won’t be lost on many. That odd ring of how-to echoing in its ears, the first half of S.W.A.T. looks very much like The Recruit, another film starring Colin Farrell in the hero/together guy role (clearly, there’s no coincidence – or irony – there). Unfortunately, the rest of it looks a great deal like that film, too; Foreshadowed red herrings and turncoats – – every movie is a guessing game, you’ll remember – – take over any semblance of narrative interest that might occur. Johnson’s direction isn’t exactly mind-blowing, either; The movie moves along at a clip, but so often spins its gears with mindless, boring chatter (or, worse – – using big personalities like LL Cool J, Samuel L. Jackson and  Josh Lucas to throw around not-so-shocking outbursts of machismo and, in the case of Rodriguez, testosterone.) Pace aside, no amount of excitement or star power can distract from how uneven it feels: Why mix a bunch of far-fetched action set pieces with long researched regurgitation of method speeches by police consultants; Why make part of your movie factual to a fault and still consider airplanes landing on bridges, people being allowed to come through customs knives on them (and customs officials telling them, “It’s okay as long as you mail it home“) and detailed footage of the many entrances to a plane during a hi-jacking simulation? Why sabotage your own shit? Doesn’t matter. Best part of the movie is – as it was in the trailers (and ever shall be, world without end) – Eurotrash gangsta Oliver Martinez fuckin’ shit up old school and screaming up and down about OO-WUN UN-DRED MEE-LL-YUN DOLL-UHS!

(1/2)


Cold Mountain
Directed by Anthony Minghella
grade: BEngrossing – and terrifically satisfying – but is it true that Civil War-era North Carolina women had perfect teeth and wore makeup on every occasion? The endless internal debate of whether to forgive the film’s obvious vanity clause (taken advantage of by both Nicole Kidman and – inexplicably (because she plays a hillbilly) – Renee Zelwegger) is kept at bay long enough during the cut aways to Jude Law’s long journey, that the story begins to take place in a wonderful movie landscape, one we’re often rather comfortable in. It’s also the rare film that is a parade of high profile, recognizable cameos – but doesn’t make that a fault (this includes Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Giovanni Ribisi and Melora Walters, all stellar – Brendan Gleeson and Jack White feel more pivotal). Jude Law proves, once again, why he’s worth employing: He upstages everyone (except a painfully out-of-place Donald Sutherland – who can’t seem to Stop…talking…like…this). Civil War scenes are as vicious and disturbing as any war footage put on screen in the last ten years. Certainly not the Miramax-tailored Oscar vehicle that it may appear – but a worthwhile melodrama for sure.

(1/4)


Underworld
Directed by Len Wiseman
grade: C-Gap stud vampires versus dive rocker werewolves – or is it? Wiseman’s film is convoluted to the point where you begin to feel pummeled with the overelaborateness of the story, and the simplistic exposition used to hammer it home. Rarely has an actress seemed so lost in a world of comic book lore as Kate Beckinsale, whose character remains impenetrable. That drained blue look (along with a number of interesting setpieces) manages to be completely wasted, as does the stultifying setting: Why does it feel like a British movie that takes place on an American film set?

(1/6)


Rugrats Go Wild
Directed by John Eng and Norton Virgien
grade: D+For some reason, nearly all the characters are either completely different than usual or, worse, merely in existence to restate plot points from earlier Rugrats or Wild Thornberrys adventures. The songs sound as if written on a casio minutes before being put in the film (or, Land Before Time quality) and nearly everything that happens pretty much defies the formula that worked so far for the Rugrats gang: Nothing happens in their imagination and, therefore, carries with it a completely different sort of vibe, one that isn’t nearly thrilling enough to sustain an eighty minute movie, let alone suspend a cartoon crossover. In short: It stinks.

(1/11)


Big Fish
Directed by Tim Burton
grade: B-Hardly a blip – but not exactly a wash of out-and-out delight, either. The Burton touches are few and far between (Not to say that the film is required (by law) to stink of His Weirdness, but he’s obviously straining the fanciful swoops of imagination into a less playful, somehow more adult (for lack of a better term) context; toiling in the Oscar Bait mines, you might remark). When showcasing these larger-than-life tales, he never seems content to allow the characters just to be – – they all have attached an explicit modus operandi (to be fair – if it had been directed by pretty much anyone else, I probably would have found it to be much more trite, so, uh, forget nearly everything I just said.). Bottom line: Big Fish is a very eventful movie with precious little variation between said events, leaving them to stand for themselves and to, time after time, serve the same exact purpose. (Also, though we enjoy the actors in it, we are overwhelmed by their volume; an ensemble piece weighted by far too many like/gigantic personalities that can’t seem to get itself airborne). The strange Gump echo is unsettling, too, as everything is told from the bouncing knee perspective (as in, to a child on said appendage), and ends up either feeling too simple or too colorful/wholesome (“Filmed in Pleasantville-vision!”, you might say, in spots) – – or, worse, it’s the bad-things-lead-to-good-things/it-was-meant-to-be mentality over-ruling the fun out of each story.

Then, after all my nitpicking, it goes and scores the big points among films this year by (practically) erupting with the most surprisingly genuine ending. (Bastard!) Terrific: Finally, a seed of sentimentality that doesn’t feel artificially fertilized.

(1/11)


Monster
Directed by Patty Jenkins
grade: B-Obvious of me to state that it’s a film structured, angled and marketed around a single performance, and that this performance, on its own (as with other staggering displays in mediocre films), makes the film (grumble) worth seeing; Not so obvious of me (or not) to tell you that Monster shows up hopelessly dumbed down all over, constant rib jabbing in tow, carefully leaving nothing for the audience to glean from but Theron’s performance-as-a-train-wreck (Why the train analogies all the time, Ben? What’s that about, anyway?). For example: I’m sure Wuornos didn’t explicitly spell out, each time she was offing a john, the exact demon she was exorcising; Here, it’s as if she’s toting a list around, informing each of her victims, one-by-one, that she was: Raped at 8 (check), beaten at home (check), hates, distrusts, and loathes all men (check) and, uh, that she’s having a wee bit of trouble getting her life together (double check). Patty Jenkins – whose direction is more often merely proficient rather than interesting – seems to stop the creative train (there we go again!) at using Journey to spearhead the spirit of Wuornos (Don’t Stop Believin’ plays so prominently, there’s almost a title card that reads: Take literally). “There’s good in her” and “wounded animal” are phrases that have been kicked around in most notices – – and it’s Theron who communicates that, not the filmmaking or [sic] the script. It’s a numbing experience, just the same, watching this horrible set of circumstances unravel. It left me feeling very much as I felt watching Bully – horrible murders in Florida, unrepentant characters, white static techno booming over the conclusion – but I didn’t leave with a sense that Wuornos was a real life character or that anything that occurred in the film could have taken place on a plane outside a filmic context. It’s all raw, and extremely unpleasant – especially the moments where things seem to be going okay for the characters (because the bottom can always be seen collapsing) – but aside from the ridiculous voice-over narration (cut the line about that explains the duality of the title, I’m beggin’ ya), Monster never really plays both sides with any card but the Theron ace. In the end, we completely empathize with a main character who decided to quit hooking and start murdering instead. It’s not a question of morality so much as it is a question of painting the portrait without a whole hell of a lot of objectivity. Didn’t help that I had already seen Broomfield’s first Wuornos documentary. (Quick: Who would play Nick Broomfield if the movie went past the courtroom verdict sequence?)
 

(1/20)


House of Sand and Fog
Directed by Vadim Perelman
grade: BPeople comparing it to In the Bedroom are a bit off base, as that film would likely have picked up where this one leaves off; Also, less literary than the former, deeply naturalistic Todd Field film – House of Sand and Fog makes no bones about its essential tie to the source medium: Parallels upon unified themes upon impossibly two sided complications, underlined to invoke a sense of chaos within the viewer (or, to divide the viewers down the center; picture that car ride home for the older couple sitting next to you, one who agreed Connelly deserved her house back no matter what the cost to others, the other believing that Kingsley was the supreme victim here, and shouldn’t be penalized for the County’s wrongdoing). My biggest problem is with Ron Eldard’s character – almost too carefully placed as the foil for nearly everything that happens to everyone (which we could chalk up, partially, to the author, Andre Dubus, III, if only Eldard wasn’t so clumsy and impossibly forceful as the philandering cop). It’s being touted as Connelly’s attempt to battle the Supporting Actress Oscar curse, but the film so belongs to Kingsley from minute one. Always better when he is playing the hell out of the ambiguous side of unscrupulous, never better than when he’s playing a foreigner – – – and, par for the course, brilliant at playing a paean of unbending will (Don Logan, ten years later – – – and Iranian?). Watching it unfold is probably its strong point, as it seems to be endlessly floating towards complete and utter disaster (sometimes quite literally), but finds stock in the old adage of twisting: An audience never tires of a moving target. (Well, almost never; I’m sure there was plenty of snoring on opening day [in 1989], when Moving Targets, starring Ernest Borgnine and Linda Blair opened.)

(1/20)


21 Grams
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
grade: BHoly shit, for about thirty minutes, this thing was definitely the best thing I saw all year. Then, much to my dismay, everything exciting and cubist about it quickly devolves into an impossibly before-and-after structure – – – the scenes get longer, leaving the focus on the somewhat strained plot line about man consoling woman about dead family with a complex “thank you” that, then, turns completely around, offering her the chance to do the same. (The focus, I think, would have better served this viewer, were it purely on putting this whole mess of emotions together in my head as the film pretty much collage’d the story). But that heart, oh, that heart…there’s so much that depends on that heart. And so much that just seems too careful and perfect to be true. Luckily, all three performers – the consoler (Penn), the woman (Watts) with the dead family  and the ex-con (Del Toro) who accidentally killed them – are in terrific, giving performances that complement Inarritu’s (now?) trademark use of reality in a box (read: hand-held) on a surface of pure, unadulterated grain. In short – it hints at how powerful the storytelling could have been (were it fragmented) and supplements this tease-and-lack with heavy gravy. (And just for the record, I think Songs: Ohia’s “Translation” would have made a much better end credits tune than anything bellowed through Dave Matthews’ pop-gash of a throat).

(1/24)


Cabin Fever
Directed by Eli Roth
grade: C+Originally – in my head, at least – I graded Cabin Fever much higher but, upon recollection, I’ve realized that, uh, I…have…no…recollection. Movie is expressly divided from other teenage horror films because it appears, immediately, to be unable to take itself seriously and (dare I say) almost feels like the stuff of a great lampoon. Unfortunately, very little of it is memorable (however entertaining); Roth almost seems to be having a good time keeping his film within the current horror film-packaging laws (gore, sex, constant use of the f-word, partying, etc.), almost too good a time – which keeps everything coasting somewhere between too dumb to possibly be intentional and too bland to actually be interesting. Not nearly as bad as suggested by the long, almost thirty minute rant a co-worker of mine went on after seeing it one weekend. (Though not nearly as good as my older brother inferred – the firm believer that it’s one of the best send-ups of horror films ever made, and is truly a masterwork. Well, maybe he didn’t say masterwork…)

(1/25)


Buffalo Soldiers
Directed by Gregor Jordan
grade: B-Phoenix plays Elwood, who is meant to fit the mold of total badass, but never seems to spend enough time reveling in his prankster deeds – especially when they veer on terroristic during the rivalry with Glenn. It seems almost redundant, then, to make him into a rebel without a cause, and constantly observe the character cooking (sometimes with heroin) and scheming, but never, essentially, owning his destiny by the end of the day. Luckily, Buffalo Soldiers is mostly a comedy – with dark elements occasionally overstaying their already thin welcome – that wrangles an hilarious performance out of Elwood and his boss (Ed Harris, a sad sack colonel hell bent on promotion and subsequent vineyard purchase). Dimestore Dr. Strangelove with political innuendo of the same vein as Wag the Dog or The Contender, deftness falling somewhere in between the levels of those films. I can see where the U.S. military might take offense but, you know, the film doesn’t feel absurdist or over-the-top in any fashion – – – could it be that Jordan & Co. touch a nerve? (Oh, and it’s no M*A*S*H, people. Come on, now).

(1/26)


Capturing the Friedmans
Directed by Andrew Jarecki
grade: AThe rare documentary that is told with objectivity as a goal, but still demands that we take a side almost from the opening moments. Using home movies (whose existence can only be called miraculous), the contrast between painterly, familial bliss (on film) and the outbursts and last nights (on video) – all of it shot before any sort of documentary was conceived – makes the genuine quality of the family’s long road from happy to chaotic the most precious. Jarecki’s use of present day interviews adds another dimension to the contrast, giving us the principles, refining their words, sometimes clearly erecting a completely different picture than the video footage would bely. Patriarch Arnold and youngest son Jesse’s possible involvement in mass child molestation fronted as a computer class is uniquely disturbing, but so are the methods of the police and the seeming mass hysteria that uprooted the upper class neighborhoods of Great Neck, New York. Like the best seemingly unbiased documentaries (it reminded me of both Paradise Lost and Daughter from Danang), Capturing the Friedmans is not only compelling, but mentally pressing: You really feel like you have to choose sides to avoid getting a migraine in attempts to decipher the complexity of its actual – however illogical – outcome. Like Irreversible, it’s not really all that pleasant to watch, but you have to admire the way it confronts you.

(1/27)


Freddy vs. Jason
Directed by Ronny Yu
grade: D-Upgraded from an F because the chick from Ginger Snaps is topless (albeit, from an overhead angle). The rest is a complete failure of crossover and self-deprecation (it feels like its merely pretending to poke fun at itself). Watch this and Rugrats Go Wild on a double bill for a lovely evening of completely marring the originality of characters by herding them into a detention area with other somewhat original characters and, subsequently, poking them with the money stick.

(1/28)


Sylvia
Directed by Christine Jeffs
grade: C-Some of Paltrow’s most dubious sequences (particularly the lamp-staring session at close) are often merely hilarious distraction from this wholly dull reading from the book of the dummies’ guide to intellectualist highs and lows. Patently idiotic title shouldn’t allow you to believe that one second of Sylvia penetrates the character of Sylvia; Miss Plath could have gone by pretty much any name. It is a great feat watching Daniel Craig (unconvincingly) attempt to reconcile a relationship whose very inclusion seems like the very thinnest attempt at lightening up her life story. The very moment when Paltrow’s shit-sulk face catches up to her daffiness (pre-suicide lamp gazing alert!) should be the moment where the film begins. Instead of being buried in the last three minutes, I mean.

(2/3)


Girl With a Pearl Earring
Directed by Peter Webber
grade: C+Sets and period milieau are often exactly as I’d hoped: Dark, unclean and humble. When it abandons the inexplicably obvious digi-exteriors, Girl With a Pearl Earring is just the 17th- century world I wanted to experience. Unfortunately, it has been reached through a host story that makes the one in Gangs of New York look practically competent by comparison: Girl is maid, she maids around with a painter, he has strife, they maid without maiding, he paints her, unnecessary gasping and scandal ensue; Dialogue written, often, to cause uncontrollable mass wincing. The performances are too often diluted by contrasting attitudes (prudish and sleazy ones),  but somehow the indelible joy of seeing the wallflower blossom is still owned lock, stock and so forth by Scarlet Johanssen (a character wisely kept, often, silent). Somewhere in the background an underdeveloped raised eyebrow at both class and religious discord is completely wasted. Humming in the foreground is Alexandre Deplat’s dreamy, Oscar-nominated music – – – also one of the most obtrusive scores of this past year (a year that saw a whopping 4 James Horner credits!) Ultimately, its still a made up story about a painting: dimensionless and, uh, made up.

(2/4)


City of God
Directed by Fernando Meirelles
grade: A-Gets the film student in me partially excited. Sustains that part while making valid, screaming social message. Still manages to keep me excited even though, down in my heart, I know that Meirelles has studied a number of other films that most film students were (or still are) excited about (Goodfellas, Boogie Nights, etc.) It’s the rare (rather badass) trick to glean from films you know people will know you gleaned from and still make your own film every bit as good and as now as those films were in their times without looking like an out and out thief.

(2/11)


Swimming Pool
Directed by Francois Ozon
grade: CIt starts out promising and continues to promise – practically right up to the last five minutes. There’s some eerie bits of twist scattered throughout (Rampling’s old lady bitch demeanor as a front for a more vicious fantasy, for one), but for any moment charged with suspense, there’s about ten more that fizzle horribly (the Charles Dance character, it is barely inferred, is slimy – why exactly? If the whole thing is a commentary – on what I couldn’t really say, exactly – then why does it seem to wink as if it has pulled off some sort of artful feat? It’s kind of like Adaptation. but instead of it being a joke, it seems sort of preachy: Something in the “entertainment must be trashy or no one will like it” vein). If, underneath, it is commentary, then Swimming Pool is a sort of pretentious blunder, as I don’t feel the least bit guilty about enjoying it solely for the nudity.

(2/14)


The Triplets of Belleville
Directed by Sylvain Chomet
grade: A-This year’s most original work (even for animation). Lean, witty and exceptionally drawn, The Triplets of Belleville is easily the best animated film I’ve seen since Spirited Away. Its throwaway cartoon-isms and utterly bizarre Yellow Submarine edge make it feel like something so special, so unique as to be worshipped rather than seen. I’m going to stop right here before I have to clean off the keyboard.

(2/18)


In the Cut
Directed by Jane Campion
grade: C+So, Jane Campion is making elongated music videos, now? (As The Piano gets further and further from memory, I reflect: Let the blur technique go already, lady). In the Cut, despite itself, is recommendable on the strength of Mark Ruffalo’s mind blowing performance, his first shot at leading man-dom since You Can Count on Me. I love this guy. It’s no secret. Now, if he could just resist the temptation to hang out in films that make him the male foil to a “go-girl” vibe, reached only through strange sexual encounters (see also: xx/xy). I still enjoy the way characters in Campion’s films seem to interact as if they’re actually people, a talent she fumbles (but doesn’t drop) here, putting it – predominantly – in the hands of Meg Ryan, whose performance can only be called “brave” from the standpoint that she actually allowed them to sell this film on her full nude body (um, really, who cares?) As Ryan navigates around her slinking half sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh playing the Jennifer Jason Leigh character), a completely untrustworthy male character (Ruffalo, so aptly making lemons out of a lemonade-ish character, if I ever saw one) and the tic-y Kevin Bacon “obsessive” character (three out of every four movies, now, for Bacon). In other words, everyone but Ruffalo seems to be floating on their usual routines, which makes it such a crime that this film even exists; What a tease: A great performances constantly obstructed by a bunch of mediocre ones. And serial killer plots where characters are all calm and normal around savage murder circumstances should be retired. Seriously.

 (2/19)


Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over [2-D version]
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
grade: C+Just like Island of Lost Dreams, the first Spy Kids sequel, Game Over starts out incredibly strong, with goofy cracks and imaginative landscapes that seem to echo the fun, hallucinatory success of the first film. And just like Island of Lost Dreams, Game Over plummets minutes into its second act. It isn’t that I mind the dimestore effects – quite the opposite, in fact: Pieces of the video game world looked uncommonly well transplanted from the video game consciousness to a virtual reality space, as if the hybrid couldn’t be envisioned as anything but a 2-D video game system where 3-D players have carte blanche; As a bonus, it looks a great deal like Attack of the Clones on acid. Unfortunately, it devolves into a series of dumb sight gags (Sly Stallone talking to his alter egos) and the inevitable teen beat Carmen trotting out the tough girl one-liners (the ones that make you wince with embarrassment for you and her). Also, don’t get me started on Ricardo Maltaban learning the true meaning of humility from his wheelchair and the usual sappy pro family message that Rodriguez seems to slap onto the ending without actually incorporating anything that came before it. Though I liked this film better than Island of Lost Dreams, they both lack the momentum to see their characteristically formula driven save-the-world narrative work as well as it did in the first film. (Salma Hayek’s in it though. That’s worth a smidgen of forgiveness, no?)

(2/25)


The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara
Directed by Errol Morris
grade: BIt is a great big whopping deal that we hear certain “truths” from the horse’s mouth. However, as we watch McNamara spill his beans, refuse to apologize and  illustrate the terrifying quality of his character (that is, he still stands by his former role as the manager of a corporation – the USA – hell bent on murder and domination), it’s almost the very tack of self importance that seems to deflate the film; It’s obvious that Morris has something very special here, but it’s all he can do not to insert the same brilliant sense of objectivity that makes him the foremost creator of documentary films in the very same USA. This is easily Morris’ most homogenized, mainstream film; a seemingly genuine portrayal of a man whose very life is dotted with his experiences behind the scenes of  some of the most notoriously heinous acts in our history (The firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities, the Cuban missile crisis and the debacle in Vietnam and, hell, he even picked out the spot where JFK was to be buried). Stylistically, The Fog of War is most easily Morris’ sole Oscar contender for a very palpable reason: It is his least wiry, least harebrained, least eccentric – and most accessible film to date. The eleven lessons are a moderate framing device (they seem to come from and extend through McNamara as a whole, but also feel like about ten too many overall). The film doesn’t have the power of Morris’ earlier films, the sort of hazy big picture at close wherein Fred Leuchter or Stephen Hawking represent some sort of terrifically unanswerable question about humanity, (or a mind-blowing catharsis like Randall Dale Adams going, uh, free). The 88 year old McNamara, a huge personality with a scratch-tastic voice that sounds as if it is speaking from beyond the grave is an easy read. And he tells us at the end what some (me included) consider him: A sunavabitch.

(2/28)


Masked and Anonymous
Directed by Larry Charles
grade: D+“Sometimes its not enough to know what things mean, but to know what they don’t mean as well”. How apropos. When Masked and Anonymous isn’t trotting out useless cameo after useless cameo, or setting up the ambiguity of a “civil war” taking place in the background, it’s carefully betraying itself with its star: Dylan couldn’t look more annoyed to be part of the film and, surprisingly, he couldn’t look cooler, either. Rants and raves from meatier players like Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange seem to play like endless loops of mentally unsound movie character blather, building their “characters” from their madness (to boot, every woman in the film is, ultimately, victimized). John Goodman, as Uncle Sweetheart (sloppy double takes as every other character calls him “sweetheart” may give you neck trouble), splits his time between praising the Dylan character (who seems neither mythic nor recognizable to anyone in the film), abusing Luke Wilson (who abuses himself with a porno mustache that’s constantly distracting) and drinking JD (you’ll love the scene where he tries to get devout non-drinker Penelope Cruz – yes, Penelope Cruz is in this debacle, too – to guzzle from his bottle). Dylan performs a bunch of tunes from “Time Out of Mind” (preferable to his most recent album, “Love and Theft”), while others – including a pitch perfect little girl – perform some of his older songs. When it follows the bitter, mumbling Dylan’s internalized casualness, and keeps from wedging him into the context of the film (these are rare moments, btw), Masked and Anonymous is a nifty double image of the singer-songwriter and his reclusive aura. Unfortunately, most of the film is about how much cleverspeak can be volleyed about among the celebs, and how the minuscule budget can appear more bloated by having twice as many cheap looking interior sets as are necessary or – worse – by having everyone act as if they showed up for the script and not to work with Dylan (you’ll see right through that inside five minutes).

(2/29)

2004 Reviews

November 13, 2009

Spartan
Directed by David Mamet
grade: B+

No one is as skillful at authoring lean misdirection with seamless flow as Mamet, here proving himself capable of turning on its ear even the most cringe worthy of premises – the kidnapping of the President’s bitchy daughter. Kilmer warms to the lingo and the lack of wasted space –  – – or, maybe warm isn’t the term, exactly; He seems to fill the emotional vacuum required of him without particular matinee idol allure or evidence of foggy naiveté (I guess Mamet broke him down or was able to explain just why the pauses are there and how to follow the plot points). Previous mention of zero fat policy should not go unnoticed: It surfaces quite potently on several occasions as I felt myself effortlessly floating in the master’s hands, giddy smile forming on my face. Most stellar are the crop of red herring tricks, narrative forward momentum with the snapback of a car crash (i.e. – no one is safe from whatever just happened, even if they happen to be a main character) and the unwavering sense of necessity Mamet seems to allow his characters whenever they smell a side glanced detail. (That is, when they’re not looking badass.) Could all (or, more, anyhow) thrillers be this smart, please?

(3/13)


The Passion of the Christ
Directed by Mel Gibson
grade: C

Forget the life-imitates-art irony that Icon Productions cooked up to market this film (pitting two religions against each other, just as in The Passion of the Christ). Forget the murmurs among your peers that the violence in the most widely seen subtitled movie ever is overwhelming (it’s nothing if not numbing, in my opinion – “We get it, we get it, the dude got beaten up“). And whether it happened, didn’t happen, it’s historically accurate, or less so – all of it is completely irrelevant; The suspected anti-Semitism is a gray area at best – or, more articulately, it’s a kind of risky hazard. The film is obviously meant to be the unfurled narrative of one faith’s intolerance of another faith. That the persecutors are Jewish doesn’t seem to be highlighted or used maliciously. The quote at the beginning obviously means us to appreciate what Jesus has done – if you believe in that sort of thing – which sets up two more irks: 1) it marks a target audience (believers) making this a borderline exclusive prize for pop culture Christians, and 2) it gives the appearance that Gibson wants to push – I’ll just come out and say it – guilt (as, say, a Catholic might). I’m not particularly intimidated by the movie’s secular politics, but it stands to reason that perhaps Christians deserve a better film for their controversy (The Last Temptation of Christ, maybe?). But anyhow. The story has been told to tatters and it’s a decidedly open-and-shut case (the only surprises are the silly deviations or reimaginings). The Passion of the Christ gets plugged up in literal translation – even when it’s being boring, as in the long, sagging “road to calvary” sequence wherein the same thing seems to be happening over and over again (for thirty minutes of screen time). The violence is used in the same way hand-held photography is used: To express an asymmetrical, scruffy realism. If the result is meant to be one where suffering transcends love, why did I feel like I’d been pummeled by the film rather than enlightened by it? Caveziel’s is an interesting Jesus – as was Willem DeFoe’s; I think there’s probably only bad or interesting. I’m not sure I could call the portrayal of perhaps the most widely interpreted character in the world’s history good or, you know, accurate. The use of a bald, pale satan – on the other hand – is clumsy at best; His presence seems to be the catalyst for most of the Nine Inch Nails’ video images [maggots crawling from noses, ghoul-spirits jumping out suddenly and, oh yes, that baby satan that turns out to be a mini-me-esque satan midget instead (I’m not kidding).] Gibson’s mise-en-scene for dummies suits the melodrama of this tale (rudimentary overuse of slow-motion and Mel’s trademark figure moving among a muted crowd shot seem almost insultingly lazy, though). The last shots (I’m really not spoiling anything, you know what happens) of the boulder being moved and a squeaky clean JC moving into the frame, displaying the holes in his hands – – these shots are probably the goofiest thing about the movie: At once new age-y and characteristic of an ajar sequel door, they were the only thing that topped the slow motion bag of coins being tossed to Judas as moments where I stifled a deviously inappropriate laugh. A less profound movie riding a crest of loud word-of-mouth (where ever I go, I have to hear about this movie, you see) I couldn’t imagine; A better title might have been The Beating of the Christ.

[And was it just me, or is “We don’t have all day” a more modern saying? It’s uttered in the film twice, by different Roman guards who, incidentally, are not wearing wristwatches.]

(3/14)


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Directed by Michael Gondry
grade: A-

Presumably, Gondry’s film is a cinematic simulation of Alzheimer’s as seen through the brightly colored filter of a cartoon fable; Kaufman’s is a (natch) labyrinthine allegory, channeling the cruelly fluctuating perspective of a newly broken-up couple through the radical procedure of mental erasure – – as envisioned through the shamelessly irresponsible practice that is Lacuna, Inc. (whose role is assumed, not advertised – a wise move clearly meant to distance it from Being John Malkovich‘s JM, Inc.); Winslet’s film is clearly a re-launching of her talent, easily her best performance to date; Carrey’s is essentially a role usurped by the narrative – which makes it all the more stunning that we are so easily made vulnerable to his suffering (This is his most satisfying balance of straight and funny yet attempted; the mind fuck and manipulation he receives recalls a worst version of the one in Memento or, even the con in Matchstick Men). I feel like I’m accepting an award: Everything about the movie is amazing. Ruffalo, Dunst, Wood and Wilkinson – all playing Lacuna’s crack staff – seem to revel in their tawdry work; The performances are fine, but the characters are exceptionally twisted – each one a more strangely casual monster than the next. (They’re also quite funny.) Love the way the concept is displayed, find it ever more intimidating (by which I mean mind blowing) that Kaufman is able to conjure these premises and, still, wiggle around in them – using his own rules. There’s a moment of realization in the film that, I’ll admit, made me really want to turn to the wife and say, “Did you see that? Can you believe that?” (And you know me – I’m not easy or anything.) I’m pants-pissing excited for a second viewing and doubtful I’ll see anything that absorbed me quite as amiably as Eternal Sunshine did this year.

(3/27)


Kill Bill: Vol. 2
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
grade: B+

It’s hard to nail a grade to this film as an independent piece; The bulk of what’s great about it is the promise that, tacked to the first film, an epic of unimaginable interest and excitement will be born. This one foots the real transition of character for both The Bride and the title character (here, we first meet Bill, get acquainted, then follow his trajectory to an obligatory comeuppance). It’s real clear, for instance, that the movie was divided in two for marketing – and possible comfort – reasons (though some of use don’t mind being exhausted by a film – and despise being pandered to by a studio). There’s a falsely stilted flavor (i.e. – we’re watching the second half of a film and it feels like the second half of a feature) that is almost distracting sometimes. But enough of the rant. What’s actually encased in the deux moniker is awesome: The Bride’s training with smart ass kung-fu master Pei Me, her brutal confrontations with the remaining DiVAS (a down-and-out Michael Madsen and spunky, nearsighted – literally and figuratively – Daryl Hannah), and her eventual return for the big finale all contain blood hopping set pieces and long, dialogue heavy sequences of Tarantinospeak that (thankfully) drips with his own brand of super cool. And above all, it’s the final confirmation that this is, in every sense, Uma’s movie. While tirelessly single-minded and brutally successful at her one woman revenge streak in Vol. 1, more dimensional melted shades abound in this outing: Sensitive, vulnerable, and incredibly self-contained, Vol. 2‘s most wonderful surprise is how full figured the full figured Thurman’s full circle really is. Even though the film itself seems undermined by existing in quasimodo form – &#