2000 Reviews

[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
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.


‘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”.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?]

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.

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.

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.]

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
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…]

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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