2002 Reviews

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

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 The Middle Passage, a borderline documentary film originally made in France in 1999, appears to have been redressed by HBO Films as a narrative, with the inner voice of the so-called protagonist written by prominent black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

(3/1)


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

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

(3/16)


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

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

(3/23)

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

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

(3/27)


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

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

(3/30)


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

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

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

(4/4)


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

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

(4/7)

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

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

(4/7)


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

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

(4/9)


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

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

(4/9)


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

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

(4/13)


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

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

(4/13)


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

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

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

(4/14)

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

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

(4/27)


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

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

(5/1)


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

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

(5/4)


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

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

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

(5/11)


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

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

(5/16)


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

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

(5/19)


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

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

(5/27)


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

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

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

(5/30)


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

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

(6/2)


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

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

(6/2)


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

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

(6/18)

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

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

(6/23)

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

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

(6/24)


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

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

(7/3)


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

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

(7/3)

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

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

(7/21)

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Reign of Fire

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

(7/21)

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Kung Pow: Enter the Fist 

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

(7/28)

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A Walk to Remember

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

(7/29)

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John Q

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

(7/31)

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Hart’s War

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

(8/2)

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No Such Thing

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

(8/3)

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Signs

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

(8/8)

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Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams

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

(8/17)

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We Were Soldiers

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

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

(8/18)

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Birthday Girl

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

(8/22)

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Storytelling

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

(8/25)

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Dragonfly

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

(8/25)

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The Rookie

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

(8/25)

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High Crimes

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

(8/25)

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Dogtown and Z-Boys

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

(8/27)

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Blade 2

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

(8/30)

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The Time Machine

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

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

(8/31)

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Resident Evil

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

(9/1)

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Possession

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

 

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The New Guy

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

[ * – “and other cliches…” ]>

(9/3)

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Impostor

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

(9/4)

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Crossroads

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

(9/5)

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

(9/6)

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

(9/15)

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

(9/20)

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

(9/21)

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

(9/21)

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

(9/21)

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

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

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

(9/22)

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

(9/27)

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

(9/27)

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

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

(9/29)

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

(10/3)

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

(10/4)

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

(10/6)

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

(10/6)

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

(10/6)

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

(10/9)

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

(10/10)

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

(10/11)

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

(10/13)

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

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

(10/13)

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

(10/13)

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

(10/14)

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

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

(10/19)

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

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

(10/20)


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

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

(10/21)


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

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

(10/24)


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

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

(10/27)


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

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

(10/28)


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

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

(10/30)

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

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

(11/01)


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

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

(11/04)

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

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

(11/06)


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

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

(11/11)


Italian For Beginners
Directed by
Starring:
grade: C+

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

(11/13)


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

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

(11/15)


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

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

(11/16)


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

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

(11/17)


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

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

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

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

(11/19)


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

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

(11/20)

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

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

(11/22)


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

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

(11/22)


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

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

(11/24)


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

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


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

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


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

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

(12/1)


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

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

(12/2)


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

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

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

(12/6)


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

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

(12/7)


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

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

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

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

(12/7)


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

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

(12/9)


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

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

(12/10)


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

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

(12/11)


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


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

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

(12/15)


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

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

(12/18)

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

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

(12/18)


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

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

(12/19)


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

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

(12/20)


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

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

(12/22)


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

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

(12/23)


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

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

(12/23)

Hell House
A documentary film by George Ratliff
grade: B

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

(12/26)


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

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

(12/27)


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

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

(1/09)


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

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

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

(1/11)


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

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

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

(1/12)


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

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

(1/12)

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

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

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

(1/12)


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

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

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

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

(1/16)


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

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

(1/19)


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


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

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

(1/20)


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

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

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

(1/20)


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

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

(1/31)


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

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

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

(2/2)


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

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

(2/8)


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

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

(2/9)

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

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

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

(2/10)


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

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

(2/16)


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

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

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

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

(2/23)


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

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

(2/25)


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

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

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

(2/26)


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

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

(2/27)


Time Out
Directed by Laurent Cantent
grade: C

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

(3/1)


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

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

(3/4)


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

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

(3/5)


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

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

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

(3/9)


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

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

(3/10)


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

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

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

(3/16)


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

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

(3/16)


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

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

(3/19)


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

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

(3/20)


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

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

(3/21)


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

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

(3/24)


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

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

(3/25)


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

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

(3/26)


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

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

(3/28)

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


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

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

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

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

(3/29)


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

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

(3/29)


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

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

(3/31)


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

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

(4/7)


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

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

(4/15)


Bloody Sunday
Directed by Paul Greengrass
grade: A

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

(4/22)


The Believer
Directed by Henry Bean
grade: D

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

(4/25)

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